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Quote of the Week: "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within." - Will Durant, American historian (1885-1981)


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 Post subject: Against Improbable Odds (Original) PostPosted: 2007-05-12 05:55pm
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Joined: 2002-07-29 06:14pm
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Location: Somewhere on Earth.
The following is a story I've been kicking around and working on for many years. It is still very much a work in progress. I've sent it in bits and pieces to selected pre-readers, and I've decided it's now in a form that I can blast it out to the general public, at least the general public encompassing SDN. So, without further ado, the prologue and first chapter for your perusal:

~~~

Prologue: An Extension of Politics.

Admiral Ben Lewinger leaned back in the courier ship's spartan command chair. He glanced around the tiny starship's equally spartan, and claustrophobic command center, and then down at the large display at the center of the small horseshoe of consoles which surrounded him. On it, bright points burned like stars on a background of deep-space-black. At the center was the courier ship on its desperate errand of mercy. At the top right, were the stricken star-liner Federal Two, and her precious cargo.

"Deceleration holding at neg-fifty s-t-gees, we'll be at zero r-v with Federal Two at 100,000 klicks in about 360 seconds," the auburn-haired young petty officer at the helm said.

"Officer of the Deck acknowledges," a silver-haired, dark-skinned woman, Commander Agnes Delgado, said. It was her boat Ben had appropriated, and she seemed as magnanimous about it as it was possible to be, given the circumstances.

"How much farther to the wall, Lance?"

"It'll be another half an hour at emergency acceleration, ma'am," Lieutenant Lance Van Graf, the courier's engineer, replied.

Ben forced himself to ignore the rest of the conversation. He ran a hand through his wavy blonde-brown, gray-streaked hair, gazing at his plot. There were other stars on it. Somewhere far to the right were four starships of the Commonwealth Royal Navy, their icons a bright green. At the far bottom edge of his display, two stars glowing bright Federation blue had appeared. In a moment, names appeared by them "USS AGAMEMNON" and "USS STARLA." He smiled ruefully, if anyone was going to challenge the Commonwealth blockade and defy Ben's orders, it would be Kristin and Justin.

It looked like they had good reason to violate his orders, though, Ben reflected. Between them and his courier, was a red, flashing icon. It looked like a freighter.

It wasn't supposed to be there, though. For that matter, it was headed the wrong way . . . burning directly towards Federal Two, like he was.

"You're a crafty bastard, John Wright," he said, staring hard at the icon, wondering what unpleasant surprise it would have in store for him. He shook his head, looking up, trying to look composed. Everything had gone so well; but it didn't look like this story was going to have much of a happy ending. He wondered how it could've gone so wrong in the end.

He looked down at the burn clock. Just over five minutes remained. A long time to reflect, that, he thought: Especially for a man with a datajack. He looked down at his main display again, and with a thought, he changed it. There were now violet lines emanating from each icon. They marked the headings and accelerations of each ship. The Starla, the Agamemnon, and the Commonwealth ships were all converging on the icon that represented the freighter.

Worse still, the courier was receiving radar pings from the freighter now. They weren't the long-interval pulses of navigational radar, but they weren't quite the fast, high-intensity pulses of fire-control radar either. It was both vexing, and increasingly worrisome to Ben. He shook his head; there wasn't much he could do about it now.

"Commander," he said. The weary, resigned exhaustion in his voice surprised him.

"Yes sir?" The courier's commander replied.

"I don't like the look of our situation. Prepare a log-buoy. I'll have my own log to add in a few minutes, so eject it only on my orders."

"Sir?" Commander Delgado replied, frowning. After a moment, she nodded. "Yes, sir."

Ben leaned back in his chair. He now had a log to write. He thought back, searching his memory for the best place to begin . . .

~~~

Chapter One: Full Circle.

Dateline: 25200505.2000 (5 May 4932 A.D. at 2000 hours,) 172 McCormick System. Eighteen months before: Admiral Ben Lewinger, Commander in Chief, Sixteenth Battlecluster of the First Fleet of the United Federation of the Known Worlds swept onto the expansive command center of his flagship, the USS Federation. He slipped his old-fashioned glasses onto the bridge of his nose and looked around. The enormous transparent holo-tank that was the Federation's tactical plot sat at the center of the command deck, and was ringed by consoles, and men and women in the blue-and-black uniforms of the Federal Fleet.

"Admiral on deck," one of the Marines guarding the doorway shouted, his voice sounding tinny through the speaker in his helmet. They were fully suited up in their dark-gray armor. All the officers and crew Ben saw wore red-ringed emergency helmet canisters clipped to their belts. Some also wore first-aid kits, as the Federation was a ship about to head into battle.

"At ease," he said, taking his place at the head of the plotting table that was next to the tactical holo-tank. He pushed back his wavy, gray-streaked blonde-brown hair and leaned forward to get a better view of the ghostly icons, which shimmered above the table. There were a lot of them. A hundred and twenty bright blue sparks representing the 160th Advance Battlegroup and the 161st Primary Battlegroup, a full third of the Sixteenth's strength was committed to the coming fight.

"Admiral," Captain Suzanne Herod, the willowy brunette who was the CO of the Federation and Ben's Flag Captain said, her green eyes meeting his. "Looks like you were right, our friends are sitting tight," she said, motioning towards the swarm of baleful red icons at the far end of the table. They were arrayed around a single bright-red star. That was their target, and the forces evidently detailed to protect it from them.

"Can't take all the credit, Suzanne," Ben replied, gazing thoughtfully into the display, tuning out the frenetic buzz around him. "This is Jenni's op," he said, focusing on the bright blue icon at the head of the Federal formation. "And she deserves this day as much as I do."

Commodore Jenni Zelthig stood in the command center of her flagship, the USS Valley Forge. It was every bit as impressively expansive as the one aboard the Federation, though Valley Forge was just over a quarter the line-flagship's size and less than five percent her mass. It was busier on her flag deck than it was Ben's. Her ship was down ‘in the trenches' coordinating both the movements of her battlegroup, and those of Rear Admiral Norogahl's 161st.

"Commodore, Captain Phillips reports that the cruiser flanking wing is in position," a young woman said.

"Thank you, yeoman," Jenni replied, watching the yeoman push a lock of red hair from her face. Jenni was grateful she kept her own blonde hair close-cropped. "Comms, order our skirmishing squadron to engage our target's covering forces."

She barely heard the acknowledgement, gazing at the bright red star representing their target, a large asteroid converted into a base. It belonged to a species, that a civilization older and wiser than any produced by Humanity, called the Diyashi Martino. As Humans tended to do, they bastardized a once-elegant name; and to many people, the Diyashi Martino was known simply as the Demonoids.

Jenni couldn't fault them, really. The Demonoids were as alien as any species Humans had ever met, and were easily the stuff of nightmares. She looked down, closing her eyes; they had given her more than her fair share of them:

Forty years earlier . . . . .

"Alright, everyone, into the shelter. Move, move!" The soldiers ordered, waving the group into the shelter. Some, they persuaded with deft strokes of their batons. Others refused to move, and were struck again, before the Imperials forced others in the group to drag them into the shelter. Jenni began to tear up again, as she backed away from Meghan. The Glorious One and his two Demonoid escorts moved to the side to let her pass. Two Imperial soldiers turned to take her, when suddenly she lunged back towards Meghan.

"Doc, I love you," she shouted. One of the Demonoids snapped towards her, its tentacle lashing out. Jenni's head whipped about as the tentacle slashed at her face. The young woman crumpled limply to the ground, with an enormous, gaping cut opened on her face, splitting her cheek from her lips to her ear. Blood began to stream down her face as the two Imperials rushed to her side . . . . .

Jenni opened her eyes again; her hand was on her face, the tip of her thumb tracing its way down the long, deep, jagged scar that ran down the side of her face. Her cold blue eyes glimmered with the pain of her memories. Resolutely, she continued the motion, looking as though she'd meant to thoughtfully stroke her chin. There would be time to let the pain show, later.

She watched approvingly as the tactical plot changed. The Federal formation, once a giant sphere of ships spread out over the volume of an Mars-sized planet, began to shift as ships began to pivot and accelerate. Quickly, the formation began to look more and more like a giant space-going mushroom, with its stalk comprised of the fleet's heaviest ships. They'd drilled on these maneuvers for weeks, and now the ships were coming together as she'd envisioned.

"Commodore," her Tactical officer said, prompting Jenni to look down the table at him. "We're one-hundred and twenty seconds from our primary point. All ships report their status as armed and ready."

Jenni nodded. "Do the line units have their targets?"

"Yes ma'am," the Tactical officer replied, the expression on her face one of intense concentration. "All torpedo and LRAM batteries have acquired targets."

"Very good. And what of the rest of the fleet?"

"They've got their target lists dialed in. All torpedo and LRAM batteries have been programmed down to their sixth and seventh-priority targets."

"Thank you, Tactical," Jenni replied. Theirs was a hardened target. Demonoids had a nasty habit of fighting out of their weight. As a result, the shell of starships guarding the base were, individually, vastly inferior to the Federal tidal-wave bearing down on them. The base, though, had a natural armor of kilometers of iron and rock. Energy weapons wouldn't do much against it, without a lot of patience, and exposing the fleet to the sort of massed firepower such a large installation could mount, even one built by the Demonoids. Even a typical multi-megaton missile warhead would do little more than crater the surface. However, Jenni knew that the number of missiles she was planning to throw at the base would have a different effect altogether.

"Ma'am, the skirmishing squadron and flanking units are firing their torpedoes," the yeoman next to Jenni said. Jenni nodded, watching as a swarm of smaller icons appeared on the display. Those ships were accelerating hard, and would have to break off to avoid spending too much time in the target's energy envelope. They would be so far out of position by the time the bulk of the fleet arrived that this was the only offensive action any of them would see today. But theirs was a vital role, the screen protecting the base needed to be softened up.

And being at the point, they weren't going to get off easy. A Federal ship would fire off a small number of torpedoes, and then race in and hit an enemy ship with its primary weapons while the enemy was still recovering from the torpedo attack. No combat starship was really designed to withstand more than a few minutes of combat. In some cases, the actual engagement lasted no more than thirty seconds.

Off in the distance, well ahead of the main fleet, brilliant pinpricks of light marked where Federal torpedoes detonated. Faced with the massed fire of the Demonoid fleets, most were detonated by point-defense weapons. Yet some slipped through the lethal screens and detonated, catching Demonoid ships in their devastating cones of destructive energy.

The fortunate Demonoid ships were surrounded in a spectacular cloud of harsh blue light as their shields absorbed the sudden influx of energy. The less fortunate Demonoid ships became clouds of metal vapor and glowing wreckage as lethal x-rays and gamma rays tore through their thick metal hulls like tissue paper. More deadly explosions blossomed in the space among the survivors. A rain of torpedoes lasting many minutes slashed at them. Yet the Demonoids held their fire, even as the Federal ships crossed into energy range.

Several more Demonoid ships died as their shields failed under the assault. Energy weapons powerful enough to weaken and disperse shields bored deep into enemy hulls, causing sprays of metal vapor and exploding atmosphere.

Then, the Federal ships broke off their attacks, arcing away from the Demonoid fleets. In those moments, they were vulnerable to counter-attack. Federal shields began to flicker and flare as Demonoid lasers slashed at them. The shields glowed a bright blue-violet as they absorbed countless watts of destructive energy and radiated it all harmlessly back into space. Yet some glowed brighter as they were placed under increasing stress. Some even failed, and a few Federal ships became broken, air-bleeding wrecks.

"Admiral, Starburst sensor arrays report that Phase One of Commodore Zelthig's attack plan is nearly complete," Admiral Lewinger heard an officer in the Tactical section report. His eyes immediately went to the main tactical display as the readouts were updated by the Federation's faster-than-light sensor arrays. He knew they ran the risk of detection by opening up so many micro-wormholes near the Demonoid base. However, Ben's flagship had to have as much real-time data as its sensors, as well as those of the fleet half a billion kilometers ahead, could feed it. Federation and her screening units weren't part of the main fleet, but they had a critical role to play, regardless.

Ben nodded slowly. "Soon, it will be our turn. Does Navigation have a suitable micro-jump plotted yet?"

"Yes sir, we'll be able to drop the Federation and her escorts around ten million kilometers inside the orbit of the enemy base, plus or minus a million," the ship's navigator called out from his station.

"Good," Ben replied, suppressing the shiver of terror that threatened to run up his spine. Twenty years ago, it would've been tantamount to suicide for a ship as large as the Federation to attempt to do what they were about to do, and as a man who had risen through Fleet's ranks as an engineer, he knew that better than many others.

There was just one way to travel faster than the speed of light. One had to get a ship to disappear from one place, and simultaneously show up at another. Subatomic particles did it spontaneously all the time. You could do it to a whole starship; via a Heim-Zikomo transit, but the caveat was that you couldn't know precisely where you were going and the bigger the transit, the greater the error . . . and full hyperdrive transits inside the cluttered depths of a star-system had to be big.

Federal ships twenty or forty years ago couldn't safely do it, not even military starships. Many enemy commanders had put that weakness to good use, including the Demonoids. Indeed, Ben had his own, very personal, reasons for being here on this day . . . . .

Forty years earlier . . .

Alarms wailed aboard the Denison Risinger, as crimson light flooded her corridors. Twisted, burned wreckage littered her decks, where her hull wasn't open to space . . . a mute testimony to the effects of hundreds of megatons of destructive energy that she had endured. Among the wreckage were broken and bloodied corpses. The ship's defenders, representing all three races of the Federation, lay in splashes and sprays of blood and gore. Among them were the broken corpses of the Demonoid invaders, as the defenders had given as good as they got.

Yet, it was almost all in vain. The alarms wailing aboard the ship weren't the strident, brassy alarms summoning the ship's crew to battle stations; they were the eerie, bone-chilling wail of the alarms signaling what was left of the Risinger's crew to abandon ship. And, Lieutenant Ben Lewinger reflected grimly, they started sounding with only fifteen minutes remaining before the ship blew her scuttling charges, and detonated all the remaining missiles in its inventory. Better to catch as many of the invaders aboard her as possible. The Demonoids would pay, and they would go on paying as long as Ben continued to draw breath . . .

"Approaching prime transit vector, Captain," he heard the ship's navigator say. "All screening units are slaved to our navigational computers.

"Thank you," Captain Herod replied, looking away from the tactical plot, and at the consoles at her fingertips. "You have control of the ship, Navigation."

Ben barely heard the back and forth between the navigator, his helmsmen, and the ship's engineer. His eyes were fixed on that Demonoid base, his memories overwhelming him . . . . .



Bullets from a Demonoid assault rifle slammed into the wall behind Ben, but he didn't flinch as he brought his blaster up with wooden, mechanical precision. With a bright flash, the Demonoid firing at him went down, tentacles flailing, the rich purple hue of its skin already fading in death. He stepped over his attacker, who was now as dead as Ben felt inside. He stepped over the bodies of two of the Risinger's crew, not even stopping to check if they were alive or not. It wouldn't really matter in the next few minutes. Nothing really mattered, not after Laura Risinger, his friend and lover, had been struck down.

Ben stepped into one of the ship's long escape pod launch bays. Two officers were standing in front of one of the last open loading hatches. He'd left them there with the Imperial colonel he had captured in the desperate fight to lock down the Risinger's systems and set her scuttling charges.

"Attention all personnel, all remaining escape pods will begin automatic deployment sequence in two minutes," the Risinger's computer reported serenely over the intercom.

"Are we ready to go?" Ben asked, holstering his blaster, next to the blood-splashed sword clipped to his belt.

"Yes sir, the prisoner is secure, and we have a full load of survivors," the man in front of him replied.

Ben took one last look around, at the ship which had given him so much promise only weeks before. Then he sighed, turning to follow the two officers into the pod . . .

"Transiting . . . now," the navigator said, pulling the lever back.

Ben felt sudden nausea gnawing at him, rudely jerking him back into the present. The only outward signs of the transit were a flicker of the lights and a deep tremor under his feet. Nothing at all to suggest that they'd traveled 500 million kilometers in an imperceptible instant.

"Shields radiating on a nominal power-curve," a woman at the ship's Engineering station reported. Ben knew that what the ship had done would be glaringly visible to all but the most myopic of observers. If the Demonoids hadn't suspected something was up before, the Federation's transit would hit them like a thunderbolt.

"What is the status of our transit interdictors?" Ben heard Captain Herod say. This had the effect of dispelling the last of his reverie. It was almost time to act.

"They're spooling off the last of their transit burden, ma'am. They'll be ready to go in just a few moments."

"Very good," Ben said, as the tactical display in the holo-tank came back up in an explosion of stars, as the ship's sensors adjusted. "As soon as our sensors are re-aligned we'll be ready to begin our part of the operation."

Minutes passed as the Tactical plot settled down. Ben gazed at the Demonoid formations. Initially, they didn't seem to notice the Federation's sudden appearance, still intent on their desperate bid to fill the hole punched in their formation by Jenni's skirmishers. And then, suddenly, the entire Demonoid fleet seemed to explode outward. They'd decided to do something, and it looked like they were doing exactly what Jenni thought they would.

"Jamming has increased exponentially!" Ben heard Federation's Tactical officer report. "CIC is starting to lose lock on our targets," he said, as the icons on the tactical display became balls of fuzz.

"Starburst Arrays to full," Captain Herod replied. "Keep them fixed."

"Yes ma'am."

"What are they doing," Ben asked. "The Demonoids, I mean?"

The Federation's Tactical officer looked up at him. "Sir, it looks like they're accelerating out to meet us. Accelerations are in the neighborhood of twenty or thirty gravities, but I think they'll be kicking in their sublight transit drives pretty soon."

Ben nodded. "That's what I wanted to hear. Are their heaviest ships programmed into our targeting computers?"

"Yes sir. Transit interdictors are ready to go at your command," the Tactical officer replied. Out of the corner of his eye, Ben saw the Demonoid icons on the display shift. Federation's Tactical officer consulted his displays, and then looked at Ben again. "Sir, it looks like they're doing it. Their heaviest units are now moving towards us at a hundred and twenty gravities. Estimated time to intercept is less than twenty-five minutes."

Ben smiled. "They've realized we're a lone wolf. Lone wolves have no place in a fleet battle, not even a wolf as nasty as we are. But they're worried, because we might be the anchoring point for a pincer move."

"Yes sir," the Tactical officer replied with a grin of his own. "They're hoping to preempt us. Shame though, that they seem to have misidentified us."

"Indeed it is, Commander, indeed it is," Ben replied, nodding slowly, the lights in the display glinting off his spectacles.

Ben took one last look around, at the ship which had given him so much promise only weeks before. Then he sighed, turning to follow the two officers into the pod. Strapping into one of the chairs, he closed his eyes, listening as the crewmen in charge of the pod quickly ran through the pre-launch checklist. Then, an invisible hand shoved him down into his seat as they simultaneously toggled the launch switches, ejecting the dumbbell-shaped pod. For thirty seconds, the g-forces held him down as the pod's escape rockets burned through their fuel, pulling it away from the Risinger.

In his mind's eye, he could envision the long, slender hull of the USS Denison Risinger falling away behind them. Escape pods had no windows, and no external cameras. Faint nausea tugged at Ben's gut as the last of the acceleration dropped off, leaving them weightless. But the nausea left him after a few moments, when the pod's radiation monitors flashed as they registered a massive spike of radiation passing the pod. That was all that marked the transformation of a once-mighty starship into a funeral pyre . . .

"Sir, the Demonoids are committed now," Ben's Tactical officer said, his voice taking on a note of anticipation. If he noticed the look on Ben's face, he didn't say anything. Yet, as he looked over at Suzanne, he found her looking at him, her green eyes intent. Ben smiled briefly at her, and then allowed a smile for himself. It was time for Phase Two of the operation.

"Very well then," he said, his voice crisp, "bring our transit interdictors to full-power."

"Aye sir, bringing up the interdictors, now!" The Tactical officer exclaimed.

Deep within the USS Federation, six giant spheres, each as wide as a football stadium, began to hum as their circuits pulled increasing amounts of power from the ship's system. In principle, they were identical to the ship's Starburst FTL sensor arrays. Like their lightweight cousins, they generated thousands of microscopic wormholes. However, unlike those produced by a sensor array, they weren't meant to gather information. Instead, guided by the ship's powerful sensors, they appeared and disappeared as close to the hyperdrives and sublight drives of their intended victims as possible, disrupting them, preventing them from functioning. Federation's own electronic warfare suite fell silent, and for the first time, the Demonoids were able to see her for what she truly was, and could see the trap they were about to fall into.

On the flag-bridge of the Valley Forge, Jenni watched the Demonoid formations fall apart. Sublight transit drives were hyperdrives writ small. With them starships could cover great distances very quickly, seemingly able to accelerate effortlessly at hundreds or thousands of gravities. Without them, they were little better than the pokey fusion or antimatter rockets of centuries past. The Federation laid down the interdiction patterns she and Ben had spent hours coming up with in the simulators. And they had just the devastating, diabolical effect she was hoping for: The Demonoid formations, previously moving with purpose to both close the ragged hole in their formation, and swarm the Federation, fell apart into a confused, chaotic cloud of ships. It was time for the final phase of her plan.

"They're exposed," she said, speaking into the fleet-wide comm, "All ships, launch your attacks. Repeat all ships; launch your attacks."

Momentarily, she settled into her seat as she watched her fleet start to move. Over the course of the next several minutes, her giant space-going mushroom began to shift. Her ships spread out, and then began to converge on the Demonoid base. Her heaviest ships, which had made up the mushroom's stalk, pushed out ahead of the main formation.

"Three hundred seconds to maximum torpedo range," her Tactical officer reported calmly.

Jenni watched as the fleet's lightest and fastest units surged ahead of the main fleet. Escort destroyers and frigates, as well as carrier-based assault craft streaked forward, their torpedoes and missiles cutting a broader hole in the already ragged Demonoid defenses. Brilliant pinpricks of light flared and died around the Demonoid base as the Federal light ships sought to confuse the Demonoid fire control.

The battle wasn't entirely one-sided, as the base was armed with hundreds of point defense weapons and short-range missile launchers. Assault craft flared and died, as the tiny ships and their ten man crews fell victim to the incredible volume of Demonoid fire. Even destroyers and frigates were overwhelmed, and the space surrounding the base became littered with twisted wreckage.

"Thirty seconds to range," Jenni's Tactical officer reported. "All tubes are open and loaded. All weapons are hot."

"All Damage Control parties stand by," her Operations officer said, tucked away in the ship's Combat Information Center.

Jenni watched the seconds tick away. With each passing second, her ships converged on the Demonoid base faster and faster. The actual time they would spend in optimal range would be less than a minute. Except in that time, each ship would be launching its entire missile complement at the base. She had more than fifty surviving ships, and each ship could fire six to sixteen torpedoes every one and a half seconds.

In the short time her ships were in contact with the base, they could ideally get off more than 3000 energy torpedoes. After which, the magazines of almost all her ships would be completely empty. Jenni's plan had one shot, and one shot only. However, it was a 75,000-megaton shot, close to four times the destructive power of the entire nuclear arsenal of pre-Interregnum Earth.

"We're in range," Forge's Tactical officer said. "All torpedo and missile tubes opening fire."

Jenni tapped a different icon on her display, sitting down and strapping herself in, adjusting the comforting weight of the emergency canister on her belt.

"Attention all hands, this is the Commodore," she said. "We are engaging the enemy, get ready for them to return the favor."

The rapidly diminishing space between Jenni's ships and the Demonoid forces was filled with wave upon wave of Federal missiles, each screaming down on the asteroid base. First, there were mere tens, then hundreds, and then thousands of warheads in the air, each tracing tortured paths towards their target. The Demonoid ships, as out of position as they were, couldn't hope to stop them, so they launched their own missiles back at the Federal formations. The base flushed its own missiles, in anticipation of the coming barrage.

The two storms of missiles flashed through each other, into the teeth of the opposing defenses. Interceptor missiles rocketed out from the base, as formerly empty space became alive with Demonoid laser fire. Federal ships belched decoys and interceptors of their own, guided by the collective efforts of all the tactical computers in the Federal formation, tied together into a ship-spanning network.

Bright flares marked the places where Federal missiles died against Demonoid defenses. Others were lured off by EW, to lose lock on the asteroid base. Some of those took aim at the starships covering the base. To their credit, the Demonoid defenses tried their best. Numerous bright flashes of light marked where Federal missiles and Demonoid lasers intersected. The Demonoids on the base did not panic, even as the full might of the Federal assault bore down on them. They worked feverishly, doing their best to help their overwhelmed defense computers cope. Yet, in the end, it was not enough. More than three quarters of the missiles launched broke through the final line of Demonoid defenses. Huge glowing craters were carved into the surface of the asteroid as the first warheads detonated.

The Demonoid storm broke over the Federal forces, which were too close, and coming in too fast to attempt evasion. Federal coordination and Federal technical superiority did much to draw off or kill the missiles bearing down on them, but there were more than enough of them that some would make it, and more of Jenni's ships would die.

Ben watched Federal icons flash, become outlined in red, and disappear as Jenni's forces took their licks. Federation and her escorts had been exchanging long-ranged missile salvoes with their own attackers for many minutes now. The frenzied buzz of conversation had given way to a tense silence, broken by the occasional shout, spoken order, and the ever-present hum of machinery.

"Their defensive fire is slacking," Federation's Tactical officer said. "Looks like we're finally hitting something important."

Ben looked at the ghostly image of the Demonoid base hovering above his display. Part of it was glowing brightly, the flashes of antimatter fire nearly lost in the glow. Jenni's fire-plans had concentrated everything on just a few critical points. More Federal icons began flashing as Jenni's wall slammed into the cloud of ships surrounding the base. Ben shuddered; he could almost hear the screams of their crews as their ships were battered to pieces.

"The base's power curve is spiking! I'm reading hits on the actual structure of the base!"

A ragged cheer broke out on the Federation's flag-deck.

"No," Suzanne said firmly. "We're not out of this yet."

"The USS Helena Maldonado has just lost shields," someone from the Tactical division reported. "They've been forced to eject their antimatter bottles!"

Ben looked at the man, and then at the Tactical display. He nodded once, seeing what he hoped to see.

"Pull her off the skirmish line! Order USS Agamemnon and USS Steadfast to evacuate her crew. We're not going to be able to stay here when the party's over," he said, even as new Demonoid icons appeared at the system's edge. The cavalry was here, but it had come too late.

"Aye sir," the man replied.

The lights flashed as a Demonoid missile slipped past the Federation's coordinated defenses and detonated, bomb-pumped x-rays clawing at her shields.

"Captain, we have to take the transit interdictors offline soon," the ship's engineer said. Suzanne looked at Ben, who looked at the tactical display, just in time to see the baleful red icon that was the Demonoid base wink out. The holographic representation of it vanished in an eye-searing flash.

"Admiral, message from Commodore Zelthig," a young woman at the Comms station shouted.

"Put it through," Ben replied. A moment later, Jenni's head shimmered to life above his console.

"Commodore, did I just see what I think I did?" Ben asked, casting a glance at Federation's Engineering schematic.

Jenni grinned at him, her scarred, yet beautiful face lighting up. "Yes Admiral, yes you did. I think it's safe to say that we've accomplished our mission here."

"Good to hear, Commodore," Ben replied, feeling himself relax. "Good to hear. Collect your survivors and fall back to the rendezvous point. I'll see you at 168 McCormick."

"Roger that, Admiral," Jenni replied. "And thank you," she said, before fading away.

Ben looked back at Suzanne. "Go ahead," he said. "Take the transit interdictors down."

Suzanne nodded. "Power down the interdictors," she said. "Navigation, do you have the micro-jump to the rendezvous point plotted yet?"

"Yes ma'am," Federation's navigator replied.

"Thank you," Suzanne said. "Engineering?"

"We've only taken a few hits; it's safe to reconfigure the shields."

"Admiral," the woman at Comms said. "Captain Epps reports that the Agamemnon and Steadfast have finished taking off Maldonado's survivors."

"Thank you," Ben replied, looking into the tactical plot once more. "Message to the fleet: Good work, everybody, scatter and fall back to the rendezvous point!"




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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2007-05-20 06:13pm
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117 views, and I know that, at most, six of them are mine. Anyway, I'm going to go ahead and post Chapter Two.

~~~

Chapter Two: Risinger's Star.

Dateline: 25200528.1400, USS Federation, stationed at Risinger’s Star (formerly the 168 McCormick System.)
The lights were off in Ben’s office. He had often found it helpful to turn them down when he had some thinking to do. It was a habit he had picked up from his old commanding officer, Laura Risinger, who was his friend from all those years before. She was the commander of the Denison Risinger, at the time it was destroyed in the Demonoid ambush. She was the one for whom, the system was named.

Ben shook his head, pushing away the sudden flood of memories that came to mind, still fresh after forty years. He chose, instead, to focus on the 160th Advance and 161st Primary Battlegroups’ recently completed mission. Save for the loss of a third of the 160th’s sixty-four, and a fifth of the 161st’s vessels, it was an unqualified success. The Demonoids lost a Star Depot-class military base, and close to three hundred starships. And, better still, he was informed by Admiralty that it would likely be the proverbial straw that broke the back of the equally proverbial camel. The Demonoid Regency was now less than a month from total defeat.

As a result, the group was ordered to remain at Risinger’s Star until Admiralty had something for them to do. It was a risky strategy, Ben thought, because Risinger’s Star wasn’t in Federal territory. It was a system belonging to the Star Commonwealth, which had an uneasy love-hate relationship with the Federation. The Commonwealth permitted
the Federation to launch its operation from Risinger’s Star, since they were involved in a very ruinous war of their own, and couldn’t deal with the Demonoids themselves. However, given the growing number of incidents between the two fleets, Ben sensed that the Federation was quickly wearing out its welcome here.

However, as long as Ben's ships were in the system, he could temporarily focus his attention to other efforts. An Admiral's day never really ended in the modern Federation. There was, for example, the fact that he had been tapped by none other than Fleet Admiral Garrett Whitney himself, to track down possible connections between the Demonoid Regency and the two other major Human powers. That was, namely, the Star Commonwealth, and the Empire of Ascension.

Ben frowned. It had long been suspected that the Empire of Ascension played a vital role in the ambush of the Denison Risinger; especially when he had been rescued with a man who was a known agent of the Empire of Ascension. Unfortunately, the Empire disavowed all knowledge of the man, and repeated mental scans of him could dig up nothing incriminating. If the Empire was responsible, then they had covered their tracks very well.

They certainly did have their motivations. At one time, all Humanity was united under the Empire. And it was a very long time too. From the time when Diane Murray lead the Al Jaraz Asteroid Mining Cooperative uniting post-Interregnum Earth and the rest of Sol System into the Solar Alliance in 317 PE, to the time when the Dissidents of the Epsilon Eridani system drove Emperor Androwski I from power in 1642 ARC. It had been a long-standing dream of the emperors since him, to one day come back to Earth and reestablish their rule. Using the Demonoids to weaken the Federation would certainly go a long way towards realizing those goals.

Of course, the Star Commonwealth also had probable cause to aid the Regency. Commonwealth and Federal relations had been tense from the day the Federation's founder, Prime Minister Christos al-Qua’rachi, allowed the Commonwealth to regain its independence from the Federation, after they'd lost it because they'd picked the wrong side to back in the Rebel War of the late 2100s.

Under its absolute monarch, King Benjamin IV, little had been done to stop the flow of pirates and privateers from the Commonwealth into the Federation. And now, the Commonwealth was about to get its collective ass handed to it by the ancient alliance of aliens known as the Star League. That fueled talk in the Federation of launching a war against the Commonwealth . . . all to ostensibly protect its citizens from the "inevitable" collapse that would be brought on by the undoubtedly ruinous terms the League would impose upon the Commonwealth.

Ben snorted derisively. The Commonwealth was the Federation's equal in terms of technology and economic power, in spite of having less than a fifth of the latter's planets and territory. The only real reason there would be in seizing the Commonwealth was pure greed. One reason the Commonwealth was so rich because it controlled the system of Gates, the ancient intra-galactic transportation network built by unknown aliens back when dinosaurs were all the rage on Earth.

However, no matter how greedy or paranoid his superiors were, all Ben could do was order his fleet to keep collecting data. Hopefully the data would eventually find its way into rational minds and cooler heads. As Admiral Whitney had pointed out to him, this was merely his secondary goal.

Ben's primary job was to follow up on the growing body of evidence that an unknown agency, or agencies, was tampering with Federal affairs. He was no stranger to intrigue. After all, it was a grief-stricken and guilt-ridden Lieutenant Ben Lewinger who had uncovered such meddling in the past. The Denison Risinger and its fleet had been sacrificed to further the agenda of the Imperialists, men and women who wanted to dismantle the Federation established by Christos al-Qua’rachi, and return Known Space to the supposedly glories of its past as the first incarnation of the Empire of Ascension.

Though their Imperialist networks had been dismantled forty years ago, it seemed that there was someone who was still interfering in Federal affairs. Fleet Admiral Whitney wanted them tracked down. And Ben had agreed with him wholeheartedly. He had his own, very personal, reasons for agreeing. Forty years before, Ben had met one such person. He had been on-hand to witness the destruction of the Denison Risinger, and had supplied him with the means to go after Commodore Wright. He had also taken his friend and captain with them.

The reason Ben was so eager to help, was because his commanding officer, longtime friend, and one-time lover, Captain Laura Risinger, did not die aboard the Denison Risinger, as had been recorded in the history books. Instead, she had been taken by a man who was supposed to be long-dead himself.

Ben shuddered, the memories clawing their way to the surface:

Dateline: 24810430.2215: USS Denison Risinger, Primary Computer Core.

"If you take her with you to that escape pod, she will not live long enough to be rescued, Lieutenant,” Steven Jacot said firmly, a hard expression finding its way to his face.

"How can you be so sure of that!" Ben exclaimed, cradling Laura in his lap. He didn't want to admit it, but she looked much paler now than she had just five minutes before. Her blood continued to seep from her body, soaking her uniform and his.

"It is a miracle that she survived all . . . survived all this,” Steven replied, not entirely unsympathetic. With a sweep of his hand, the tall man indicated the carnage in the room, from the unconscious form of Colonel Andrew Mihalik, the advisor to Meghan Salazar, the scientist who became the leader of the Demonoid force tasked with capturing the Risinger. Meghan's own broken and battered body lay some distance away, barely alive, in a pool of her own blood. And finally, the mostly headless form of Major Andrew Dohlman, the man whose job it had been to ensure that the Risinger's mission failed entirely.

"I know Laura,” Ben snarled. "She can pull through this."

Steven nodded. "Not with Federation, or Commonwealth technology, she isn't. She's dying, Lieutenant. I can save her, you can't. And the more time we waste arguing this, the more certain her fate becomes."

"Why her, why now?" Ben said, the desperation in his voice growing.

"Not just now. The only reason I was here was to bring her back with me,” Steven said, his tone almost guilty. His expression softened, "Look, Lieutenant. Perhaps it is time you knew. We've been courting her for a very long time. And she finally agreed to join us, in the hours before the attack."

"That's a lie!" Ben snapped, almost half-heartedly..

"It isn't, I'm afraid. Open your datajack to me, Lieutenant. It's time you learned how things really are in the Federation and the Galaxy,” Steven replied tersely. "Knowledge only hurts those who are too weak to embrace it."

For a moment, Ben relented, and the implant in his brain was open to Steven Jacot for a brief instant. Yet, that was all that was needed. Data flooded into Ben's neural implant and drove its way into his brain. The memories that shook themselves out were of discussions between Laura and the man before him. They had the fuzzy, not-entirely-there feel of human memories, a feeling that was impossible to counterfeit. Threaded in and between the memories was hard data.

Ben visibly sagged, "Why?" He asked slowly. Steven looked at him, not unsympathetically.

"You now have the means to find the answer, Lieutenant. Don't let them go to waste," he said, glancing down at Laura's still form. "And don't let Captain Risinger's life go to waste either."


Reluctantly, Ben released Laura, sitting dumbfounded as Steven effortlessly picked her up.

"You should be going," Steven said, looking at the readout on the computer display. There was less than ten minutes left until the ship self-destructed.

Ben nodded mutely. After a moment, he spoke: "Will I ever see her again?"

"No," Steven replied. "The price of being able to make a difference is that nobody must ever know that you're out there, making that difference. As far as anybody outside this room is concerned, Captain Laura Risinger went down with her ship. But, rest assured, we'll still be out there, Lieutenant."

Ben blinked, letting the surge of emotions fade. In spite of their warning, for forty years, he had tried to find them. He wanted to find out who could possibly be so well connected that they could slip in and out of the Federation, and probably the other Human powers, entirely at will. And most of all, he wanted to see Laura again. Though he could remember her conversations with Steven Jacot as if he'd been there, he wanted to ask her why she had decided to do what she had done, and why she never told anybody. Not him, not anybody else.

He sighed. There were times he had gotten close. But as a lone officer, Ben had few resources at his command. Alone, he knew he would never get close enough, but he didn’t know who he could trust. And then he had the support of Fleet Admiral Whitney, and the resources that the most senior officer of the Federal military could command. Ben made more progress in a single year than he made in the thirty previous years he had been trying. So much progress, in fact, that he felt confident enough to organize an expedition aimed at cornering his unknown opponents.

“Admiral Lewinger, Commodore Zelthig is here to see you,” the voice of his steward said over the comm. Ben quickly looked up, blinking away the glaze over his eyes. He tapped an icon on his screen.

“Send her in, Emilia,” he said, looking up at the door. After several moments, the door slid open, and Jenni Zelthig stepped into Ben’s office with cat-like grace. She squinted, briefly wrinkling her nose.

“I don’t think I’ll ever understand why some of you like it so dark,” Jenni remarked, making her way over to Ben’s desk.

Ben briefly smiled at her. “It isn’t dark in here at all, Commodore. There is a very bright and very obvious planet outside the window.”

“You’ve been sitting here so long; you’ve become used to it.”

“And you will become used to it as well, if given a few moments,” Ben said, motioning Jenni to a chair by his desk. “And besides, a bit of sensory deprivation does wonders for opening the mind.”

“Not if you trip over something you can’t see and wind up in a coma!” Jenni exclaimed, sitting down.

“You’ll notice that I’m not moving,” Ben said. “What news do you have for me,” he asked. Jenni Zelthig was Ben’s protégé for close to forty years. She had been so, ever since she had been orphaned by the Demonoids during their assault on her home colony.

“Most of our ships have completed their repairs,” Jenni replied. “Unfortunately, challenges by the local Commonwealth fleet have increased tenfold over the last week.”

“Is it that bad now,” Ben said, leaning back in his chair.

Jenni nodded. “I’m afraid so, Admiral. If we stay here too much longer, someone is going to issue more than just a challenge,” she said, fixing Ben in her gaze. “How much longer are we going to remain here?”

Ben pressed his lips together. “I was afraid you were going to ask me that, Commodore. And the answer is the same one I gave you the last time. At the moment, our orders are to hold position in this system.”

Jenni briefly furrowed her brows, that small gesture being the only outward sign of her frustration. “Can you at least tell me for how long? Our crews have been tense ever since we returned to Risinger’s Star. And it doesn’t help that they’ve had to stay on guard since the moment they returned.”

Ben nodded sympathetically. “It won’t be for much longer, Commodore. Our secondary assignment is almost finished,” he said.

Jenni sniffed, wrinkling her nose again. “I don’t understand it. You’re looking for threats outside the Federation, when it’s been proven time and time again that the only thing that it really has to worry about is itself,” she replied. Ben looked thoughtful for a moment. Jenni Zelthig knew the ins and outs of politics better than he did. She was married to J. Theodore Zelthig, the eccentric genius behind the most recent line of Fleet starships, and the most powerful man in the Shipwright’s Guild since Matt Andren ruled it with an iron fist more than a century before.

“I know, and probably better than anybody outside of this room,” Ben said slowly. Then, he fixed Jenni with a look of his own. “Only this time, things are different.”

Jenni blinked. "How?"

"I hoped you would ask that," Ben said, touching several icons on his screen. In moments, several brightly colored shapes materialized and hovered over Ben's desk. When Jenni waved her hand through a shape, a block of Standard script materialized in front of her. Written before her were corroborated accounts detailing where things occasionally didn't quite add up. And, moreover, these incidents were entirely unexplained . . . no known clerical errors, nothing related to other scandals in the Federation's lengthy history. Many of them would've had little apparent effect. Yet some of the incidents played a key role in influencing politics on several Federal worlds, including the Core Worlds.

Jenni furrowed her brow thoughtfully, leaning back in her chair. Absentmindedly, her hand went to her chin, her index finger tracing the bottom half of the jagged scar that cut across her cheek, near the corner of her lips to just below her ear.

"I don't know, Admiral," she finally said, looking up at him.

"What don't you know?" Ben asked.

"Just two things,” Jenni replied. "First, it looks good, but I don't know if there's really that much there."

"Now I wouldn't say that," Ben said firmly. "You've only given the data a cursory glance. I've given you a lot of it to look at. What was the second thing you didn't know about?"

Jenni nodded. "I'll look it over later. Speaking frankly, Admiral, I know this is something between you and Admiralty. Why show this to me?"

Ben smiled mirthlessly. "That, Commodore, was also something I were hoping you would ask me," he answered, briefly looking away from Jenni. "I need a favor of you."

Jenni's eyebrows shot up in response. "Admiral," she said, quickly wrinkling her nose. Her expression of puzzlement quickly turned into one of disgust. She exhaled sharply, bringing her eyes up to meet Ben's.

"You've pulled this on me before, sir," she said. When she addressed him as 'sir,' it usually meant that she was very unhappy. "I bet that if I had the time to fully go over what you've given me, I would notice that you think you've found enough to warrant firsthand investigation."

Ben started to open his mouth, but Jenni waved him off. "No, sir, let me finish. I also bet that what you are looking for is in this sector. That can only mean that you plan to launch an expedition in order to chase ghosts. And worse yet, you need my ships to do it. Am I right, sir?" She said, fixing Ben with her best glare.

Ben looked at his protégé for a moment. Then, he nodded slowly. "I'm afraid you're right, Commodore," he replied. Then he pursed his lips together and looked ahead thoughtfully. "Well, you're right, and you're wrong."

Jenni blinked. "This isn't a time to be cryptic sir. What do you need, and how can I get it to you without turning my fleet upside down?"

"No, I'm being as direct with you as I can afford to be,” Ben said reproachfully. "Yes, there's enough compelling evidence for me to mount an expedition. However, I don't need many ships. This will probably be a quiet little surveillance expedition. No more than four vessels, tops."

Jenni seemed mollified by this. "That's doable. Especially if the rest of the fleet is expected to sit here in Risinger's Star."

"And that's exactly what it's expected to do, Commodore,” Ben replied. "I'm not expecting serious trouble; a Federal squadron in the sector would go a long way towards keeping it that way."

"And who would lead this operation of yours?"

"I would,” Ben said with a nod. Jenni opened her own mouth, paused, then pressed her lips together and waited for Ben to go on. Ben let a ghost of a smile play across his face. "Admiralty's orders are very clear on this one. I can't be sure what would happen to any ships I send out, and I can't be sure if the data being reported back to me is accurate or not," he said, ignoring the momentary scowl on Jenni's face. "I need to be out there gathering intelligence firsthand."

Jenni nodded quietly. "Will you be taking the Federation?"

Ben quickly shook his head. "The Federation is too obvious. In fact, I think I’ll now plan to make her and most of the battlegroup available to join the rest of the Sixteenth Battlecluster at 143 McCormick to support Fleet’s assault on the Demonoid homeworld. That should ease tensions here in Risinger's Star, and provide a distraction to anybody who might be watching."

"Admiral, your paranoia impresses me,” Jenni said, smiling faintly. "That means you're going to need good officers backing you up."

"That's right," Ben replied. "I need you to give me a list of officers and ships. The officers should be experienced, and not afraid of thinking unconventionally."

"I'm way ahead of you, Admiral. I have a short list I could give you right now."

Ben nodded. Jenni had learned well the benefits of being one step ahead of her opponents, whether they were hostiles trying to kill her, or superior officers trying to make her life harder. "I'd appreciate that very much."

Jenni nodded. "Yes Admiral. I have four names: Captain Marcel Shipley of the USS Steadfast, Captain Duman Tureem of the USS Bern Rasmussen, Captain Kristin Epps of the USS Agamemnon, and Captain Justin Phillips of the USS Starla," she said, quickly spitting out the last name.

"Phillips?" Ben said, scowling. "I've heard of him. He's good at getting the job done, but he's a loose-cannon, infamous for having a very low tolerance of superior officers, especially those whom he thought were giving him bad orders."

"Of course Admiral, but you'll remember that you did your best to inspire in me a low level of faith in superior officers," Jenni replied with a momentary smirk.

"I suppose you're right, but why him?"

"If you've heard as much about him as the usual officer does, then you'd know that he was a frontier captain before the outbreak of hostilities. He led his command on several very daring raids into Zicharion territory. All of which were very successful."

Ben nodded, listening to Jenni while he touched another set of icons on his screen. He frowned, holding up his hand.

"I know that, I just pulled the files of all the commanders and ships you've given me," he said. "I'm not sure Captain Phillips and I would be a good fit. He's not going to appreciate me right there hovering over his shoulder, and I've got to be where the action is."

Jenni nodded. "Alright then," she said. "How many ships are you looking for? I'll try to scare up a few more names for you."

Ben looked thoughtful for a moment. "Half a squadron will do. I don't need that many ships. Your three remaining names will do just fine, so you just need to come up with some possibilities for that fourth slot."

"Yes Admiral,” Jenni replied. "Permission to speak freely?"

"As always,” Ben said, nodding once.

"I think you're making a mistake counting out Captain Phillips. In spite of what you may have heard about him, he is a good officer, and he's exactly what you need right now. He can pull together the other three for you and get the job done."

"But only if I stay out of the way and let him run the show,” Ben interrupted. "I'm sorry . . . Jenni, but this is something that I have to have the tightest control over. Find me five or six other names within the next three days," he said, his tone quickly growing cold.

"Yes sir,” Jenni replied, almost spitting out her words. "You'll hear from me then."


Dateline: 25200528.1600, Captain's Log: USS Starla, stationed at Risinger’s Star. Since we returned from our assault on the Demonoid base, we have been stationed in this system. Unfortunately, I feel that this may be a move that is fraught with increasing risk . . .

Captain Justin Phillips slipped his recorder under his chair and leaned back. He was completely unaware of the discussion about him that had taken place two hours before and ten million kilometers away. All he knew was that he and his ship were trapped in an increasingly hostile system. What was worse was that the man directing the fleet's operations in the system, Admiral Lewinger, was doing nothing to alleviate the situation.

"Sir, we've just finished downloading the latest set of logs from Recon Buoy Twenty-six," reported Lieutenant McFarland, the stocky young woman manning the Tactical station.

Justin nodded. "Thank you, Lieutenant. Navigation, take us to the next buoy."

"Aye sir, setting new course,” answered the young man at the Navigation station.

Justin stretched out, surveying his surroundings. The bridge of a Venture-class heavy cruiser was a study in simplicity. At the front, just behind the main viewscreen, were the Tactical and Navigation stations. The Tactical station managed weapons and tactical communications. Navigation plotted the ship's course, tracked it in space, and piloted the ship. Off to Justin's right was the Operations station; the person there had to keep track of what went on inside the ship and doubled as the bridge's quartermaster, as evidenced by the equipment locker next to the station. Directly behind Justin were the Engineering and Science stations. While Engineering's purpose was obvious, Science was responsible for all the data collected by the ship's sensors and computers, and handled everything not handled by the Tactical or Navigation stations.

At the very center of the bridge was the Captain's station. Surrounding the captain was a horseshoe of computer displays, which gave him instant access to everything he could ever want to know about his ship. And the man in the Starla's captain's chair looked every inch the proper commanding officer. Tall and solidly built with a well-kept brown beard and intelligent eyes, Justin Phillips radiated command and charisma.

"Captain, I've run a preliminary analysis on the data,” Commander Carol Westridge said, running a hand through her graying blonde hair.

"Something's up?" Justin said. Commander Westridge was the director of the ship's Science department. She knew better than to interrupt her captain unless something serious had come up.

"Yes, Captain. Do you remember the anomalies that we've been tracking over the last week?"

"Yes I do,” Justin answered, nodding to himself. Every sensor buoy the Starla visited over the last week recorded anomalous readings. And so far, nothing had been done, or said about it by the fleet's command staff.

"Buoy Twenty-Six also reported sensor anomalies."

"That makes . . . fifteen buoys so far, doesn't it?"

"That's right, sir."

"Do we have anything new on this one then?" Justin asked, not really expecting an answer. The fourteen other buoys didn't have anything really definite to report, other than something odd was going on.

"Actually, Captain, the buoy noted the energy signature of a ship passing by. The ship seemed to be under deep stealth, and the buoy happened to be looking right at it when they powered up their sublight drives for a course correction."

"That's interesting, Commander. Was it enough to ID it?"

Commander Westridge sighed. "No sir, but the energy curve suggested a vessel of possibly light cruiser tonnage."

"It's not enough,” Justin said with resignation. "We simply need more hard data here. Can you guess where it might've been going?"

"It looks like if you give me half an hour, I could tell you."

"Good," Justin said, "When you have a likely course, contact whichever ship is responsible for the buoys in that area. Maybe that will give us something we can follow."

"Aye Captain. I'll make that our highest priority."

"Got problems, Justin?" A man asked, stepping onto the bridge. Justin recognized him as Commander Westin Enderman, the ship's head of Security and Executive Officer. He was also one of Justin's best friends, having served with him for almost eight years.

Justin smiled. "Shouldn't you be down in First Command," he asked. First Command was an exact duplicate of the bridge Justin was on, formally known as Primary Command. In the event that one of the two bridges happened to catch a laser, the chain of command would remain uninterrupted. Though it only worked when the ship's senior command wasn't all concentrated in one bridge.

"We're on data harvesting duty," Wes replied with a grin. "Anything hostile is much further inside the system."

"That's true enough," Justin replied. "It's the principle of the thing, though. Either way, it's good that you came when you did. We found another sensor anomaly."

"Another one?" Wes said, raising his eyebrows. "Anything good?"

"I wouldn't say that just yet," Justin replied. "Better than usual would describe it. We got a solid hit, a very small one, mind you, but it might be enough to give us a clue."

"That's good," Wes said, coming to stand just behind Justin. He was tall and lanky, with slightly curled dark hair. "You want me to get Ryan in on this?"

"Science seems to have a good grip on it," Justin replied. Commander Ryan Zeiken was the ship's Operations Officer, and he also knew a lot about data analysis. Like Wes, he was also a close friend of Justin's. "We'll let them do their job."

"Captain," Commander Westridge interrupted. "I've got a cone of potential courses plotted for our bogey."

"Good work, Commander," Justin said, tapping on one of his panels. Instantly, a ghostly cone was superimposed on a map of the system. "Any buoys in that cone?"

"As it turns out, we're in luck, Captain,” Westridge replied, tapping on her own console. On Justin's display, a number of flashing red dots suddenly appeared. "Buoys Forty through Forty-Eight lie squarely inside the cone."

"Tactical, who is responsible for harvesting those buoys?" Wes asked, walking up behind Lieutenant McFarland's station.

"Umm, let's see," Lieutenant McFarland said, tapping at her own consoles. "According to TacNet, the Agamemnon and the Emperor Laganoski, are covering that series in tandem."

Wes nodded. "I wouldn't trust the Emperor Laganoski."

"Agreed,” Justin said. "Captain Janasaki is a definite political. She's only here because her aunt wants her to be here," he said, referring to Captain Eris Janasaki's famous relative, Third Minister Raen Janasaki. Raen Janasaki was the outspoken leader of the Opposition in the Federation Security Council. She was frequently at odds with Prime Minister Leroy Gonzales, a man Justin respected very deeply.

"We'll contact the Agamemnon then,” Justin said. "Commander, get in touch with Captain Epps. See if you can get her to share her data with us. It might give us what we're looking for."


Dateline: 25200528.2000, Imperial Navy Vessel Avenger, of the Empire of Ascension, deep within the Risinger’s Star system. Captain Abdul-Hakim al-Rashim watched the over the shoulder of his ship's Weapons officer. Unlike anyone else in the system, his ship, the Avenger, had no business in 168 McCormick. Though, as far as the Empire of Ascension was concerned, the rules set by the other Human powers only applied if one was caught. And al-Rashim had no intention of getting caught.

The Avenger had a two-pronged mission in the system. One was to get a detailed accounting of the Federal and Commonwealth forces in the system. With just eighty-one systems under its control, the Empire couldn't afford to take on either the Federation or the Commonwealth in a stand-up fight. However, keeping tabs on their enemies' ships would give the Empire a substantial advantage when the inevitable did come.

And the Emperors very much regarded war as an inevitability. In the nine centuries since a quarter-million Imperial loyalists agreed to take Earth's fleet of starships into exile, and founded the new Empire, careful plans had been drawn up to reunify all of Humanity under their control. And to that end, if the Empire couldn't do it directly, they weren't above doing it through deceit.

"We are ready to deploy the next drone," al-Rashim's Weapons officer reported calmly.

"Let it be done," he replied, his dark, fierce features remaining impassive. "Deploy the drone and head for the next waypoint."

"Yes sir," the other man replied tapping on the icon representing one of the Avenger's four cargo hatches. Al-Rashim knew that meant the ship had rolled another reconnaissance drone. The drone was the longest-duration, best-concealed drone the Empire could produce. It and its fellows were meant to study the movement of traffic in the system, and would do so in exhaustive detail.

The Empire had a long memory; it had been nearly forty years since ships commanded by Rear Admiral Avicenna dashed themselves against an unexpectedly strong Royal Navy presence in the system. The Empire still had strong interests in this region of space, and al-Rashim's masters wanted the best information they could get their hands on. He was only too happy to help them get their hands on it.

"We're receiving a message over hypercomm," the woman at Avenger's communications station said. After a few moments, she looked up. "The scramble codes match those of the Majestic."

"An update, then," al-Rashim replied.

"So it appears, sir. They report they've serviced the last of the Hassan-class drones and will be headed for rendezvous with the collier."

"Acknowledge our receipt," al-Rashim ordered, turning back in his chair. The best part of a group was operating in the system, though half the group was assigned to protecting the fleet re-supply ship Caravan. Drones, after all, were space-intensive, and space was at a premium aboard an Imperial warship.

"We're ready for our course correction," the man at Avenger's helm reported, his voice sounding metallic from the speaker grille of his helmet.

"If we have no company, carry it out,” al-Rashim replied. The Avenger was doing everything its crew could think of to reduce emissions. Her power signature was being held to the lowest levels possible. That meant his hyperdrives were as cold as they could be while still being capable of generating sublight transits. It also meant he couldn't run his fusion thrusters for long periods of time, since every second they spewed hot plasma and gamma rays was second someone might be able to get a read off him. If someone did get a read off him, it would be a very long and likely very fatal run for the system's transit limit.

"One potential contact found," Avenger's Sensors officer said.

"The light cruiser?"

"Yes sir," the man replied. Al-Rashim nodded. There was a Federal light cruiser that was in their immediate neighborhood. At least, that's what the Avenger's CIC thought she was. It was hard to say for sure with the Avenger limiting herself to the most basic of passive sensors. The light cruiser, like most of the other Federal ships in the system, was apparently following a standard patrol path. The Federal ships were fairly dispersed, by and large. That suited al-Rashim even better than it suited the jumpy Commonwealth naval commanders who had to temporarily share their domain with Federal units.

"Is the cruiser still behaving as she was the last time you tracked her?"

"Yes sir," al-Rashim's Sensors officer replied.

Al-Rashim looked thoughtful. He could let the ship continue along its current vector, but he would miss his next drop-off point by a considerable margin. He could risk maneuvering, and hope that the commander of the Federal ship wouldn't be watching his sensors too closely in the time it would take for al-Rashim's light to reach him. That, however, was risky. The Avenger wouldn't be quite ready for a fight if things went south . . . unlike the Federal ship.

"Sir, they're engaging in a course correction. They've lit off their fusion thrusters, and it looks like they might be spinning up their sublight drives."

Al-Rashim smiled humorlessly. "It looks like we've caught a break, Sensors. Helm, execute our next course change; far be it from us to reject fortune when she chooses to smile on us."


Dateline: 25200528.2012, USS Agamemnon, Risinger's Star.

"Captain, we've got a hit!" The Agamemnon's Tactical officer, a slender dark-skinned woman, shouted out.

"Hmmm," Captain Kristin Epps replied, sitting up in her chair. "What sort of hit?"

"Buoy Forty-Six just sent us an emergency transmission, ma'am," the Tactical officer replied. "A ship of cruiser tonnage powered up its sublight engines made several hops and vanished again."

"Is it anyone we know?" Kristin replied, bringing up the relevant information on her own console.

"The drive emission spike is too high-velocity to be a Commonwealth ship."

"What the hell," she swore, leaning forward. "Who is it then?"

"I'm trying to find that out now, Captain . . . hold on, Comms is getting a transmission from the Starla. They say it's very urgent."

Kristin momentarily gritted her teeth. "Put it through, but make locating that ship your first priority."

"Yes ma'am," the Tactical officer replied. On Kristin's console, the disembodied head of Captain Justin Phillips shimmered into existence.

"Sorry for the interruption, Captain, but we've got something we'd like you to take a look at," he said.

Kristin frowned. "What can we do for you?"

"We've been trying to track some anomalous readings from the buoys we're monitoring. Now we have reason to believe that what we're tracking may be in your area."

Kristin blinked. "Strange you should say that, Captain."

Justin paused. "I beg your pardon?"

"One of our own buoys has just found a ship we can't identify."

"When?" Justin asked with a puzzled frown.

"Just now, my Tactical officer is trying to sort it out."


Meanwhile, aboard the INV Avenger . . .

"Captain, we have a problem."

Al-Rashim scowled. This wasn't the best time for Avenger to suddenly encounter a problem. "Well, what is it?"

"Right as we made our course correction, we were lit up by a Federation reconnaissance buoy," the Avenger's Sensors officer reported grimly.

"Damn the Federation and their buoys. Why are they spying on their own allies?" Al-Rashim asked rhetorically. He hadn't counted on the Federation laying their own surveillance equipment in the system. The Commonwealth was unhappy enough with the Federal battlegroup in their system as it was. Why would the Federation go out of its way to potentially antagonize their allies? He smiled, after a few moments of thought. They had to be after the same thing he was. The Federation and the Commonwealth were allies, yes, but they were also rivals with a long, checkered history.

It didn't help al-Rashim's personal situation, though. The Federation's buoys were quiet, and small. They could saturate a system with them, and their opponents would never know. It said bad things about the comparative capabilities of the Empire and the Federation, as neither the Avenger, nor her sister ships had any idea the Federation was also laying buoys.

"I can't say, but I do know that it hit us with a full-power radar and LIDAR sweep and then began broadcasting."

"Damn!" Al-Rashim swore again, turning back to his own station. "Did they make us?"

"Our stealth systems were fully operational at the time, sir. They won't find much, and they don't know much about our ships to begin with."

"It won't take them long to realize that we're not supposed to be here," al-Rashim snapped. "We may not have a lot of time left. Get the hyperdrives warmed up. We may need full combat power shortly."


Major Gregor Kuznetzky was very much the stereotypical Commonwealth Sector Defense Fleet officer. He was hot-tempered, hard-drinking, and blessed with a great deal of ruthless brutality, and relatively meager amounts of restraint or civility. In his former life as a privateer working the frontiers between the Federation and the Commonwealth, and in his new life as a "legitimate" officer, often forced to work with Federal forces, Major Kuznetzky developed a deep loathing of the Federals.

He had little patience for them, as a result. And what little patience he had was again being tested. Within the last four hours, a Federal cruiser-destroyer had drifted within a hundred thousand kilometers of his ship, the RNV Capella. And that was simply too close for comfort when one was dealing with ships that beam ranges of better than a half million kilometers. Kuznetzky's commanding officers had mandated that Federal ships could get no closer than 250,000 kilometers of a Commonwealth ship in open space.

Yet, that was exactly what the Federal ship had done. And worse, those self-righteous pigs had the gall to challenge Kuznetzky in his own system. They informed him, very politely, of course, that the Capella was in the path of the Federal ship's patrol route, and if they could just back out of the 250,000-kilometer limit, it would just make life so much easier for all parties.

In a rage, Kuznetzky told the Federal ship that they were in Commonwealth space and that the Federal captain could take his request and do something obscene with it. As a result, he watched as the ship closed the distance between them. As much as he would've loved to take a shot at it, he knew that his ship, a seventy-two year old Viriditas-class destroyer, was completely outclassed by the Federal ship, a new Valiant-class cruiser-destroyer, in every meaningful way.


Captain Marcel Shipley watched as the minutes ticked away. In less than five, they would hit the predetermined turnover point, and could make their course change, away from the Commonwealth ship, and its stubborn skipper. He remembered the confrontation between himself and the Commonwealth officer. Shipley knew he had the right-of-way, and he acted accordingly.

So far, it seemed that the ship, the RNV Capella was behaving itself, even as the Steadfast slipped inside a hundred thousand kilometers of the other ship.

"Two hundred and forty seconds to checkpoint sir,” Shipley's Navigational officer reported crisply, her attention focused on her console. Shipley prided himself in running a very tight ship.

"Thank you, Navigation. Tactical, is the Capella still behaving herself?"

"For the moment, sir," Shipley's Tactical officer replied. "At least they've stopped hurling insults at us."

"Thank God for small mercies," Captain Shipley said. "I think, though, that we need to remind Capella to mind her manners. We don't need an interstellar incident, and being inside 100,000 kilometers of someone with Capella's obvious animosity to us is somewhere I'd rather not be."

"What do you propose, sir?" Shipley's Tactical officer asked.

"Get CIC to run a tracking exercise on the RNV Capella. Standard navigational radar at standard power only," he replied. Active navigational tracking of a ship that was getting too close for comfort was seen as a universal signal for the other ship to back off, without the provocation of, say, using fire-control radar. Captain Shipley hoped the RNV Capella would get the point. Having to endure Major Kuznetzky's invectives had robbed Shipley of much of his usual patient tolerance. If he'd known that Major Kuznetzky's patience had been worn even thinner than his, and that Capella's antiquated sensors were being fed to a CIC manned by officers not entirely up to doing their jobs, he might've just let the Commonwealth ship pass in silence. Unfortunately, that wasn't going to be the case.


"Major! The bastards are locking onto us!" Major Kuznetzky's Weapons Officer exclaimed, looking into his display with disbelief.

"Those Federal pigs are targeting us?" Kuznetzky asked incredulously.

"They're gonna lock us solid Major! We gotta do something!"

"Yes, if those pigs want to play with fire, we'll make it as hot as possible. Shields to full, all weapons to active targeting, safeties off!"


"Captain, the Capella had just gone shields and weapons hot," the ship's Tactical officer reported, the surprise clear in his voice. "We're being locked up by their targeting sensors."

Shipley scowled. "What the hell do they think they're pulling?"

"Uncertain, sir, but they're rotating into prime firing position."

Shipley's scowl slipped into a snarl. "If this is their idea of a joke, let's show them that we're not amused. Lock them up, begin pre-charging the shields for rapid deployment."


Alarms wailed aboard the Capella as its sensors reported that the Steadfast had acquired a firm targeting solution. Both ships were now inside prime range and getting even closer. Any shot fired from those distances could be placed accurately within a hundred meters. A firefight inside prime range never lasted very long, and Major Kuznetzky knew that. In a moment, he let himself get carried away. His predatory instincts took over.

"Broadside the pigs," he snarled.

The Capella already rotated to bear as many guns as possible to the Steadfast, let loose a punishing assault. Though it was an old, outdated ship, it could deliver a devastating amount of firepower . . . especially against a ship as unprepared as Steadfast was. In the first tenths of a second, the space between them was filled with questing laser beams. They smashed into Steadfast's shields, their impacts pumping tremendous amounts of energy into the charged particles contained in them. As they were only partially assembled, they were quickly dispersed; and the hail of relativistic projectiles in Capella's follow-up salvo smashed directly into unprotected hull.

Parts of the Steadfast's hull flashed into incandescence, shattered by the high-velocity impacts. Jets of material exploded from the ship as destructive energies slashed into the ship's interior. Within three seconds, Steadfast was a crippled wreck, and it began to dive away from the Capella, flailing about blindly, desperate to get out of her attacker's range.

However, Capella's guns had already fallen silent, as reports of the effectiveness of her attack registered with her crew. Against a fully-shielded Federal ship, such an attack shouldn't have had so devastating an effect. The effect was so devastating; in fact, that the savage hurricane of energy that had been visited upon Steadfast had penetrated deep enough that a shot had blown through her bridge, vaporizing Captain Shipley and his entire bridge crew. Command of the ship immediately switched to the Steadfast's Executive Officer, who was in CIC. And, to him, there could only be one response.


Alarms screamed around Major Kuznetzky as the crippled Federal starship slashed at his own. A Valiant had a broadside nearly as powerful as that of some cruisers. Kuznetzky's opening salvoes had robbed Steadfast of many of her sensors and weapons, but not enough of them to stop her from replying.

He gripped his armrests as a hail of high-energy lasers blasted through Capella's own semi-powered shields. The ship shuddered and shook as Federal beams shredded through his command. However, Commonwealth ships were designed to take a pounding. The Capella would be more than capable of following whatever command he gave next.

Major Kuznetzky yanked his communications handset from its cradle.

"All batteries to rapid-fire! Kill the fuckers!"

Capella's guns opened up in terrible vengeance, hammering the wreck of Steadfast further. Capella's gunners gave no quarter. In the end, they would never know which of their hits breached the armored silos containing the Steadfast's antimatter bottles. It didn't matter, for ultimately the Steadfast had taken one hit too many. In a final brief instant, the Steadfast died as ships in combat tended to do, the once majestic ship becoming a tumbling collection of glowing wreckage.


"Captain, central TacNet has just gone down!" Lieutenant McFarland exclaimed. Justin snapped his head up from his displays. "Down? How?"

"Sir, it looks like we're being jammed,” McFarland replied, with frustration in her voice. "But the last message that got through was that a Commonwealth destroyer has just killed the Steadfast."

"Impossible, a Viriditas is no match for a Valiant,” Justin said, frowning.

"They might've been ambushed,” Wes offered from behind him.

"True, but what does the Commonwealth have to gain from such a stupid ambush? And what's going on with the Agamemnon?"

"I don't know, I'll find out sir,” Lieutenant McFarland replied, working her console.

"I'd better get back to First Command,” Wes volunteered, already working his way off the bridge.

"Good idea,” Justin replied, tapping on his own console. "Attention all crew, we're going to General Quarters. Repeat, we are going to General Quarters."

Alarms began to sound aboard the Starla. In the next moment, Captain Epps' head appeared above Justin's console.

"You got your bogey made yet, Captain?" Justin asked quickly.

"No, Captain,” Kristin replied brusquely, "I need more time."

"You don't have it. I'm sure you know this already, but the central TacNet's just gone down and we've lost the Steadfast."

"Captain! We've reestablished connections with a couple ships from the fleet. The locals are blaming us for the attack!" Lieutenant McFarland said.

"What is going on here?" Justin asked rhetorically, turning his attention back to the hologram of Captain Epps. "What would you say the chances are that this all has something to do with that ship you picked up?"

Kristin frowned, consulting something outside of Justin's view. "They might, I'm not sure yet though."

"We'll help you out, Captain. The Starla will begin saturating the space ahead of you with our Starburst array."

"And we watch and see what gets flushed out. Very clever, Captain."

"We're going to start now,” Justin said, relaying the commands to his Science officer.

"Understood. We'll be waiting for them. Agamemnon out."

Justin looked up from his console. "What's going on, Lieutenant?"

"We keep losing contact with ships, sir. Nobody can get anything going long enough to reestablish TacNet. And we can't raise Admiral Lewinger or Commodore Zelthig,” Lieutenant McFarland replied, her voice clipped.

"Nobody ever expects Central Command to be there when you need them. What's going on with the Commonwealth?"

"Their local forces are jamming our central fleet, sir. They look like they're maneuvering against us, and the jamming's so bad I can't tell what their Royal Navy ships are doing!"

"It's going to get very ugly unless this all gets sorted out,” Justin said, looking back to his Science station. "Do we have anything at all, Commander?"

"Nothing yet, Justin. I'm working our sensors outward from the Agamemnon. If something is out there, I'll find . . . hold on I think I've got something!"

"Finally! Pass it along to Captain Epps,” Justin said.


"Starla's got a hit,” Kristin's Tactical officer reported.

"Confirm it."

"Yes ma'am. Confirming now. Ordering Starburst array to scan the region," the Tactical officer said. After several moments, she pursed her lips together. "We've got them. They're barely radiating, but we've got them."

Kristin nodded. "They're hiding in stealth," she said. A cold little smile crossed her face. "Lock the bastards up."


"Sir, we're being actively pinged by enemy sensors!" Al-Rashim's Sensors officer said.

"Damn!" Al-Rashim swore. "Source it!"

"Sir, it's that light cruiser! I've got wormhole traces all around us, and fire-control radar and LIDAR! They're locking us up."

Al-Rashim scowled. "It must've been responsible for watching that damned buoy that made us."

"Sir! Emergency transmission from the Ataturk! Something's happened deeper in the system. The Commonwealth and the Federation look like they're ready to shoot at each other and Ataturk's been spotted," al-Rashim's communication's officer said, her voice rising in panic.

Al-Rashim furrowed his brows, his eyes glinting dangerously. "They're undoubtedly going to blame us for this, regardless of what actually happened!"

"Sir, the light cruiser's dead astern, and she's just lit off her sublight drives. Range is seven point seven million kilometers and closing with an acceleration of two-hundred standard gravities."

"It never only rains, does it," al-Rashim snapped. "Engineering! How long until we can safely engage the hyperdrives?"

The answer served to deepen al-Rashim's scowl.

"Captain, we've got fifty-seven minutes. We can give you combat power in the meanwhile, but we won't be ready to make transit."

"Do the best you can," al-Rashim replied. "Clear the channel and get on it already! Helm, keep the distance open between us."

"Captain, the light cruiser has locked onto us with targeting sensors," Avenger's Weapons officer said. "From her emissions profile, CIC's identified her as the USS Agamemnon."

"We have to keep it together for another hour," Al-Rashim said to himself, inspecting the icon that was now labeled as the Agamemnon. "Tell me, is that cruiser alone?" He said to his Weapons officer, looking up at the other man.

"Yes sir, we've just confirmed a heavy cruiser accelerating towards her at eight hundred standard gravities, but she's too far out to help them," the Sensors officer replied.

"That will have to do," al-Rashim said. "Bring the Avenger out of stealth mode. Load all broadside and forward missile tubes. Arm the primary beams. Let that cruiser come to us."


"Ma'am, our target has just gone hot," Kristin's Tactical officer reported.

"No surprise there," Kristin replied. "Who are they?"

The Tactical officer's eyebrows shot up. "Ma'am, the energy signature and hull profile suggest an Empire of Ascension ship."

"The hell? What are they doing here?"

"I'm not sure, ma'am, but they're not getting away now. Shall I arm weapons?"

"Yes, load a torpedo salvo and fire when we reach maximum range. I think we'll want to disable them and take them intact."

Agamemnon closed rapidly on her target. Kristin could only watch as Avenger made no attempt to evade or maneuver as the final few kilometers ticked away. Their warhead launches were almost simultaneous, with both ships firing a brace of just four missiles. The missiles, each equipped with their own compact sublight drive, added an additional 490 kilometers per second to their apparent velocity for each second they were in flight. They would give up almost all their virtual acceleration and velocity when they entered terminal attack range, but they'd be close enough to their target that it wouldn't matter.

As the Agamemnon’s torpedoes closed in, Avenger rotated slightly, presenting the narrowest profile possible. From its broadside tubes, decoys streaked into space, racing ahead of the ship. Two of Kristin’s torpedoes were dazzled by the display, quickly streaking away from the Avenger. As the two remaining torpedoes closed in, they were met by streaks of defensive laser fire, which slashed at them as the Avenger’s fire-control computers attempted to predict where the missiles would be. With a silent flash, another one of Agamemnon’s torpedoes was destroyed. Then, the last one entered its terminal phase, corkscrewing wildly, seeking an optimal point to set off its deadly cargo. Federal torpedoes unleashed their fury in broad cones of bomb-pumped x-ray lasers. If they exploded at the right distance, almost all of their four megatons of destructive power would go into disintegrating an opponent’s shields.

Yet, al-Rashim was not yet out of tricks. At the last moment, he pushed his ship into a sharp starboard turn, rotating Avenger’s open and vulnerable stern away from the attack. The torpedo tried to follow, but overshot, and then detonated. Avenger’s port side became obscured in a nimbus of blinding light as the shield absorbed punishing energies.

Then it was his turn. Imperial ships were cigar shaped, with a long bulge in the center, which housed the broadside mounts, and a small hammerhead at either end. As a result, an Imperial ship tended to be much lighter and had much less internal volume than its Federal counterpart. It carried far fewer missiles, all of which lacked the miniaturization of Federal energy torpedoes. So, the Empire tried to make its missiles even more accurate, and packed them with more EW and ECCM than their Federal counterparts.

The space ahead of Agamemnon was filled with brilliant blue flashes as her own decoys detonated ahead of her, seeking to blind Avenger’s missiles. One missile corkscrewed off, its sensors rendered useless by a Federal decoy. The three survivors pressed the attack, even as the Agamemnon began its own maneuvers, diving and rolling to present as many weapons arrays as possible to the incoming missiles. Federal weapons streaked out at the incoming missiles, succeeding in picking off another warhead. And then, they ran out of time. Avenger’s missiles detonated, all their energies pumped into a much narrower cone of terrifying energy. The first one sliced across Agamemnon’s forward shields. Ahead of the beam, her shields flared, trying to absorb and dissipate the energy cutting into them. For an instant, they flared clear into the ultraviolet portion of the spectrum, as they were completely overwhelmed. Agamemnon trembled as her shield generators overloaded, and her shield strength sagged as her forward shield vanished. Then the second warhead detonated, almost instantly carving a smoldering gash completely along the length of the Agamemnon. Air and debris exploded into space where the ship’s armor was completely defeated. Across numerous compartments, alarms wailed, announcing the damage suffered by the ship.

“Operations, report!” Kristin said sharply, glaring at the red slash that had appeared across her ship.

“Ma’am, forward shields are completely overloaded. The entire system is down to seventy percent. Sensor arrays on the starboard bow are completely blind. We’ve got breaches in sections five through eight along the starboard side of the top hull. Damage control has a preliminary estimate of fifteen casualties.”

“I see,” Kristin replied grimly. “And our opponent?”

“Their port shields are radiating at two thirds of their peak capacity, but they’re still holding; otherwise, no damage.”

“Bastards!” Kristin swore. “Tactical, hit them again.”

“With pleasure ma’am.”


Al-Rashim watched as his target spat four more torpedoes towards the Avenger. He nodded grimly; he respected an opponent who didn’t blink after being given a bloody nose.

“Sensors, just how badly is she hurt?”

“The shield signatures would indicate that Agamemnon's shielding systems are damaged, but her overall power curve remains steady.”

Al-Rashim nodded with slight satisfaction. “Very well, hold our course, keep the range open!”

( . . . continued in next post . . . )





Last edited by GrandMasterTerwynn on 2007-05-25 11:45am, edited 1 time in total.
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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2007-05-25 11:42am
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Haha, whoops. I didn't notice that the rest of the second chapter had been truncated on posting. Here's the remainder of Chapter Two.

~~~

Justin watched as Agamemnon dogged her target. He frowned as he watched the scene unfold. His unhappy demeanor was reflected in the face of Wes, which floated above Justin’s console.

Agamemnon is in trouble,” Wes noted as Agamemnon’s four torpedoes were picked from the sky by the Imperial ship.

“That she is,” Justin replied. “The question is: What can we do about it?”

“There doesn’t seem to be much we can do about it,” Wes said unhappily.

“Unfortunately, unless Captain Epps can somehow saturate that Imperial cruiser’s defenses, that’s not going to be good enough. We need options, Wes,” Justin said fixing his display with an intense look.

“Our only option is to somehow get there faster. Nobody we can reach is close enough to help, and the rest are going to have their hands full in a few minutes.”

“If only we had hyperdrive micro-jump capability,” Justin said thoughtfully. He then tapped an icon on one of his display panels.

“Engineering here, Commander Nuanez speaking,” the Starla’s Chief of Engineering, Commander Zephyr Nuanez, replied.

“Have you been watching our tactical situation, Commander?”

“Afraid I’ve had my hands a bit full with the ship in General Quarters, Captain,” Commander Nuanez replied quickly.

“Fair enough,” Justin said. “I need to know if it is somehow possible for the Starla to engage in a micro-jump.”

“With the hyperdrives? Sir, you know as well as I do, that our drives lack the precision required to pull off something like that. Even if we were to try to kludge a solution, we’d just as likely wind up in the middle of the sun than we would our destination.”

Justin nodded. “That might not be good enough, Zephyr. “

“Justin, if I could interrupt for a moment,” Wes said, breaking in.

Justin nodded to his friend. “As always, Wes. What do you have?”

“Commander Nuanez,” Wes said, seeming to look at the other man’s face, “would it be possible to engage the hyperdrives at their final-approach speed?”

“And use them as high-powered sublight engines? I see what you’re getting at, Commander,” Nuanez replied. “This deep in the system, the drives would be placed under a great deal of stress.”

“But is it doable,” Justin asked impatiently.

“It is doable, Captain. We just wouldn’t want to do it for very long.”

Justin and Wes nodded quickly. “We don’t need to do it for that long. We just need to do it long enough to catch up with the Agamemnon. Get it done, Commander,” Justin ordered.


Al-Rashim frowned thoughtfully as his ship's Starburst array indicated that the heavy cruiser began powering up its hyperdrives.

“Sensors, what would you say they are doing?”

“I can’t say, sir. Unless our intelligence has been woefully wrong and the Federation has managed to procure the ability to micro-jump from the Commonwealth.”

“Unlikely, but we can’t discount it,” al-Rashim said. “Weapons, load our broadside missile tubes with close-range anti-ship warheads. If that cruiser micro-jumps, it will be blind for several critical moments.”

“Aye Captain. What of our current target?”

“Keep our primary beams locked on them. Even if Agamemnon can partially reassemble her forward shields, it won’t be enough to stop our primaries for very long.”

“Sir, the heavy cruiser has just increased its acceleration to close to ten times its nominal maximum!” The Avenger’s Sensors Officer shouted.

“How the hell did they do that,” Al-Rashim started to say, and then he snapped his mouth shut, thought for a moment, and then spoke again. “Never mind that, I can see how they did that. We’re up against a damned clever opponent here. We can’t take them both . . . change of plans. Helm, begin accelerating toward Agamemnon at maximum acceleration. Weapons, engage her when we reach the maximum energy envelope. This duel must end now!”


“Captain!
The Imperial cruiser is coming at us at flank speed!”
Kristin’s Tactical Officer said.


“I see,” Kristin replied. “He’s been spooked. Arm all forward arrays and lock on with plasma torpedoes,” she ordered crisply. Inwardly, she sighed with relief. Agamemnon’s forward shield was regenerating very slowly, and she had picked up too much real velocity to be able to dodge the Imperial cruiser. Now that he had chosen to go head-to-head with Kristin, he was limiting the amount of time he’d be in contact with her.

She nodded in approval at the dot representing the Starla. Somehow, Captain Phillips managed to make his ship accelerate at ten times his ship’s supposed maximum acceleration. That had spooked the Imperial into making what Kristin thought was a serious blunder. With the Starla’s help, she’d do her best to capitalize on that.


Justin watched as the Starla rapidly closed the distance between itself and the Agamemnon. Unfortunately, the Imperial cruiser was closing the distance as well. Clearly its captain planned to disable or kill Agamemnon before Starla could come to her assistance.

“Time to torpedo range?” He asked.

“About a hundred and eighty seconds, sir,” Lieutenant McFarland replied.

“Alright,” Justin said. “I want you to time it in such a way that our torpedoes arrive before the Imperial cruiser can get into range of the Agamemnon. We’ll force him to choose between attacking Agamemnon and fending off our torpedo assault.”

“Sir, you do know that means we’d have to launch a full spread against the target? There might not be enough of him left to disable if he chooses wrong,” Lieutenant McFarland said, looking up.

“I’m aware of that. Hopefully, he is too. Carry out my orders.”


“Captain, the Starla has launched torpedoes,” Kristin’s Tactical Officer reported.

“Right on schedule,” Kristin replied. “Hold our course. Hit that Imperial ship again as soon as you can.”


Al-Rashim watched his tactical plot with growing consternation. “Damn them all,” he swore. "Engineering, can we make transit?"

"We need a few minutes to bleed off the shields, but the hyperdrives are just about ready to go."

"Sir, the Ataturk has been forced to belly-up," al-Rashim's communications officer reported. Al-Rashim scowled, turning back to his own communications panel.

"Did you hear that, Engineering? We're out of time. We will simply have to risk transit and hope our shields hold!"


“They’re reconfiguring their shields!” Lieutenant McFarland reported.

“The Imperial cruiser,” Justin asked, trying to keep the surprise out of his voice.

“Yes sir! Sir, Starburst arrays indicate that she’s powering up her hyperdrives!” Lieutenant McFarland exclaimed, an incredulous expression on her face. “Her shields are now reconfigured. I'm detecting a hyperdrive ring forming, and her power curves have gone exponential,” she continued to report, her eyes fixed on her display. With no further fanfare, the dot that represented Avenger winked out.

“She’s gone, sir!”

Justin nodded. “Not entirely unexpected. Nothing more we can do about her, find out what’s going on everywhere else in the system.”

“Yes sir,” Lieutenant McFarland replied. “Captain Epps reports that Agamemnon will survive her encounter. She seems disappointed that she didn’t get to get her parting shot in.”

“What of the rest of the fleet?”

“TacNet is starting to come back up. And all the data we’re getting from the other ships indicates that the Commonwealth Royal Navy is getting a handle on their rogue ships.”

“About time,” Wes interjected. “They’re going to have a lot to answer for when we get everything sorted out.”

"Someone will have a lot to answer for," Justin replied. "We still don't know the entire situation yet."

"New data coming in on TacNet," Lieutenant McFarland said, looking up.

"Let's hear it," Justin replied.

"Yes sir," Lieutenant McFarland said, shortly before her eyes went wide. "Sir, the Commonwealth Royal Navy is reporting that they've engaged an Imperial starship. The Imperial ship was beaten up pretty bad . . . and has surrendered to the Royal Navy."

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we found that they had a helping hand in bringing whatever happened insystem about,” Wes said thoughtfully.

“They might've been waiting for just this sort of volatile situation to crop up," Justin replied. "But I don't think it was them."

"Why not, Justin?"

"Arranging for something like this to happen would be too sneaky to have a chance in hell of working," Justin replied. "It's too clever, it's got too many points where something can go wrong."

"I don't know," Wes said unhappily.

"It's going to take a while for anybody to, I think," Justin replied, before turning his attention back to Lieutenant McFarland. "Is CENTCOM back on TacNet yet?”

Lieutenant McFarland nodded grimly. “Yes sir. They're instructing all ships to report in. Apparently, the Federation has been sitting tight in planetary orbit."

"Prudent of them, Lieutenant," Justin replied. The USS Federation dwarfed the Federation's battleships or dreadnoughts. "Assuming our network with the Agamemnon is still up, forward both ships' data to CENTCOM."

"Yes sir," Lieutenant McFarland replied. Several minutes passed after that. A sense of normalcy began to return to the ship, as Starla's people began to take in Agamemnon's damages. Dealing with those helped limit the jumble of information coming from deeper in-system.

Suddenly, Lieutenant McFarland looked up with a start. “Captain! CENTCOM has acknowledged our tactical updates. Now Admiral Lewinger is demanding that you and Captain Epps report to the Federation as soon as possible!”




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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2007-05-28 02:28pm
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Just after 2^8th views, I present to you the first part of Chapter Three:

~~~

Chapter Three: The Old Guard.

Ben looked at the people assembled in his office. To his right was Commodore Jenni Zelthig, who had the barest hint of an “I told you so” smile on her face. Seated in front of him were Captain Justin Phillips, and Captain Kristin Epps. Without the action the two of them took, an apparent Imperial scheme might have gone off without a hitch. Whatever it was, he could only guess at, as his sources in the Commonwealth Royal Navy had told him that the INV Ataturk's survivors were still refusing to talk.

“I will be the first to admit that I was the first one to drop the ball here,” Ben started. “Were it not for the two of you, we would’ve lost a lot more than the twelve-hundred lives we lost this last week."

His guests nodded, absorbing the information. “Admiral, may I ask a question?” Captain Epps said, looking directly at Ben.

“Yes you may, Captain.”

“Any news of the Empire?”

“Unfortunately not. I've got it on good authority that the Imperials the Royal Navy captured have yet to talk. Anything they might've left undoubtedly went silent. And you know how hard it is to find something in the middle of empty space. But, we're sure they had nothing to do with the loss of Steadfast. That, sadly, is attributable to mundane human error and stupidity.”

“That’s right,” Jenni said. “Now, we will make sure a report is filed to Admiralty. And the Federation will lodge a complaint against the Empire, but they are going to demand some sort of hard physical evidence. And as frustrating as it is, we’re not going to have any to throw in their faces.”

“So where does this leave us, Admiral?” Justin asked.

“About where we started,” Ben replied earnestly. “Yet, where we are going will end up being much different now.”

“How so?” Kristin asked, pursing her lips together.

“Well, since the rest of the battlegroup will be hearing about this, you might as well be the first. I’ve decided to split the battlegroup. Part of it will join the final Federation assault on the Demonoid homeworld. The remainder will remain here in Risinger’s Star. As much as the Commonwealth might not like it, they did destroy a Federal ship. They’re going to be a lot more cooperative about our presence here, at least until the investigation is finished,” Ben said with a mirthless smile.

“And just who ends up going where, sir,” Justin asked, starting to lean forward in his chair.

“That too, is an excellent question,” Ben replied. “Right now, it is just too soon to say. However," he said, with a sudden twinkle in his eye, "I have plans for the two of you."

“I beg your pardon?” Justin said, forcing the look of stupid surprise from his face. Kristin narrowed her eyes and gave Ben a pointed look. Commodore Zelthig merely looked amused.

“That’s right, Captain,” Ben replied. “Shortly, we’re going to get the chance to further investigate some strange goings-on in the sector.”

“Strange goings-on, sir?”

“Yes, Captain. Admiralty has good reason to believe that there’s a reason things have come together so well here,” Ben said.

“It could just be a coincidence,” Kristin remarked with a frown.

Ben smiled coolly. “I would beg to differ. Consider this. That Demonoid base we just destroyed has been a thorn in the side of the Commonwealth and the Federation for close to forty years now. Yet, neither one of us took any real action to destroy it until just a few weeks ago. Also, why would the Empire choose to make its move here, of all places? Tensions have been growing between the Federation and the Commonwealth. Why not strike somewhere closer to the Federal core worlds and the Commonwealth home sectors?”

“Begging the Admiral’s pardon,” Justin interrupted. “I’m as skeptical as Captain Epps here. For one thing, I’d suspect that the only reason why the Empire struck here at is because it might not be able to strike anywhere else. I don’t think they have the resources to infiltrate so deeply into Federal or Commonwealth space.”

To Justin’s surprise, Ben nodded, seemingly in agreement. The Admiral looked at Commodore Zelthig, who nodded in turn.

“Very good,” Ben finally said. “I would’ve been disappointed if you’d bought that lousy bit of storytelling.”

“What the hell?” Kristin said quickly. “You made that up?”

“Only parts of it, Captain,” Ben replied. “I wanted to see if your skepticism was still intact. With what might be taking place in the next few weeks, I need officers who can think clearly.”

Kristin began to reply, then thought better of it, settling back into her chair. Justin, on the other hand, nodded once.

“Yet, you really do think something more is going on,” he remarked. “Otherwise we wouldn’t be here right now.”

“Perceptive, Captain Phillips,” Ben said. “In truth, there is something strange going on. There are too many little oddities that just don’t add up. I have reason to suspect that this area might have a role to play, which is why I’ve delayed pulling the group out of this system.”

“You’ve been using us as bait, sir?” Justin asked.

“In a word, yes,” Ben replied, realizing he was venturing into dangerous territory. “You must admit, it has yielded results. The Ascensionists exposed themselves trying to get at us. Yet, that isn’t all. I had hoped to get something more out of all the communications traffic that the group has been monitoring lately.”

“And did you come up with anything, Admiral?” Kristin asked her tone cold and crisp. Few Fleet officers appreciated being dangled as bait for hostile powers, especially when such actions got their own killed.

Ben pursed his lips. He felt the eyes of the three other officers in the room watching him intently. Quickly, he swallowed and cleared his throat.

“No, not quite yet,” he admitted.

“Then what is going on here?” Justin asked suddenly. “Why bring us in here at all?”

Ben fixed Justin in his best Admiral’s Glare, a not-so-subtle expression employed by high-ranking officers for centuries, that usually served to warn junior officers that, not only had they stepped over the line, but they were well on their way to charging off the cliff beyond the line.

“Captain,” he started, taking a breath. “You’ve been brought here because I have it on good authority that Captain Epps and yourself are the best this group has to offer. And I’m going to need the best officers with me if I’m to get to the bottom of this matter.”

“Bridge to Admiral Lewinger,” a woman’s voice said over the comm. Ben frowned, then looked down and tapped an icon on his deskcomp.

“Lewinger here, go ahead.”

“Admiral, we’ve got a yacht coming up from planetary orbit to rendezvous with us. Power readings suggest a Neopolitan commercial vessel. They claim to have an appointment with you.”

Ben nodded, flashing a look at Justin and the others. “That’s correct, Suzanne. Instruct them to land at the aft hangar bay. And seal the bay: I don’t want anyone other than me, and anyone I bring with me, to be admitted.”

“Yes sir, we should have them on final approach within the next fifteen minutes,” Captain Herod replied. If she was surprised at Ben’s orders, the tone of her voice did nothing to show it.

“Acknowledged,” Ben said, deactivating the comm.

For several moments, all was quiet in Ben’s office. Justin was the first to break the silence.

“If I may ask, sir, what was that about?”

Ben grinned. “Proof, Captain. Proof that I am not, as you seem to believe, a madman,” he said, standing quickly. “When we first arrived in this system, I contacted certain well-placed individuals on Neopolis. Their intelligence efforts have largely shadowed our own. Except, I’m sure you’re well aware of the resources they can bring to bear on a given problem,” he continued. Neopolitans were well-known throughout the galaxy for offering their substantial technical, scholastic, and intelligence skills to almost anyone willing to pay their very steep prices.

“And what did you have to pay for their services,” Justin asked, looking surprised.

“You’ve dealt with them before, I see,” Ben replied with a single nod. “The cost was quite affordable. Like I said before, I have connections. But,” Ben said with a sudden smile, “the price isn’t important. What will be important is what our guest will have to say. And all of you are going to be with me when he says it.”

---

Dateline: 25200529.1105, USS Federation, Hangar Bay Six. Five people watched the silent approach of the Neopolitan ship from the safety of the hangar’s observation deck. Ben and Jenni were closest to the windows, watching the ship come in. Further back was Justin and two Security officers. Closest to the door was Captain Epps, who leaned up against the doorframe and crossed her arms over her chest.

Justin frowned as he watched the sleek Neopolitan ship drift into the hangar. Its hull had the appearance of brightly polished steel, with gold-tinted chrome trim along the midline of the vessel. It was a stark contrast to the Federal ships already in the hangar, their hulls painted a matte off-white, where they weren’t discolored from the rigors of everyday use.

He had dealt with Neopolitans before. Yet, the ones he’d dealt with were from their military. They were professionals, who respected competence and commitment to duty above all else. They weren’t the same as the Neopolitans he suspected he was about to meet. The Neopolitans everybody else knew were the information brokers and spies. They sold information, and they sold it at steep prices. Justin shuddered at the thought of what Admiral Lewinger might have paid for occupant of the gold-trimmed yacht settling on the Federation’s hangar deck.

On in the hangar, spacesuited figures scurried toward the yacht, anchoring it down and checking the supply connections to the ship, even as air flooded back into the hangar.

“All personnel on the forward observation deck, the hangar will be re-pressurized shortly. All maintenance personnel should vacate the hangar upon completion of required post-flight checks,” a flat female voice announced over the intercom.

“That’s our cue,” Ben announced, stepping away from the window. Quickly, the six of them crowded onto the lift leading down to the hangar. They were blasted with a shot of hot air as the pressure between the hangar and the observation deck equalized. Then the lift stopped, depositing them in the hangar. As they stepped out, the last of the technicians cleared the hangar, leaving a single suited figure, who strode quickly up to Ben, its hand smartly coming up to touch the blue Federal badge over its left breast with two fingertips.

Ben returned the salute, with three fingers touching his badge, as was his right as an officer. “Report, Chief.”

“Aye sir,” the suited figure replied. “All umbilical connections were successfully established. The ship may debark passengers at your discretion,” it said, its voice sounding canned and metallic through the helmet’s speaker.

“Did you find anything unusual?”

“No sir. Passive scanning revealed nothing inside the ship’s hull.”

Ben nodded. “To be expected Chief. You’re dismissed.”

The suited figure saluted again. “Aye sir,” it said, turning to leave the hangar. As it did so, a hatch at the side of the Neopolitan ship recessed into the hull, seemingly appearing out of nowhere. Justin glanced at the two Security men that had accompanied them. They seemed less interested in the Neopolitan ship, and more concerned about watching Justin and the other Federal officers.

A noise drew his attention to the Neopolitan ship. A tall man had appeared at the platform connected to the side of the ship. He seemed to be dressed in all silk; his clothes were impeccably pressed and seemed to shimmer with every move. He was draped in a flowing royal purple cloak.

As the man made his way down the steps, it became clear that he wasn’t a Human. His vaguely pointed ears, his flattened nose, and the fine gray fur covering his face marked him as a Neopolitan. The vest embroidered in flowing Neopolitan script, and the katana-like sword he wore at his hip marked him as an Adept, one of the elite soldier-scholars of Neopolis.

“Welcome aboard, Master Adept,” Ben said, stepping forward. Justin frowned in surprise. He didn’t know that the Admiral could read Neopolitan. It was a skill very few Humans had to learn, and Justin only picked it up because of his work with their military.

“I thank you,” the Neopolitan replied in a melodious baritone. His Standard was completely unaccented. “I trust Master Gonzales is well?”

Ben nodded once. “He is well for a man of his age. I must apologize, for I don’t know your name.”

“Understandable,” the Neopolitan said. “I am Adept Master Salzer Tanzerian, Seventh Duke of the House Itaavi, and First Lord of the Clan Prometheus.”

Ben nodded. “It is good to have you aboard, Master Tanzerian. What news do you bring us?”

“I bring much news, sir Lewinger,” Tanzerian replied. “However, as you have apologized for not knowing of me, I must now apologize for not knowing of your companions.”

Ben frowned momentarily. “The fault is my own, Master Tanzerian. Allow me to introduce Commodore Jenni Zelthig, Captain Kristin Epps, and Captain Justin Phillips,” he said, pointing out each one in turn. “I am sure that they will be as interested in what you have to say as I am.”

“I am certain indeed,” Tanzerian replied dryly. “However, it is my pleasure to make these new acquaintances, especially yours, Captain Phillips,” Tanzerian said, looking at Justin. “I understand you once served with General Kersa Baldurr?”

Justin nodded his face a calm mask. “Yes sir. Though, he was a major when I last saw him. It surprises me that you know.”

“How could I not know the affairs of the First Lord of House Itaavi?” Tanzerian replied, adopting a very Human-like pose of having his sensibilities offended. “As much as I would wish to speak further on the matter, I am afraid my time is short,” he said, pulling a Federal data chip from a pouch on his belt.

“Sir Lewinger, this contains everything that you have requested. I shall admit my surprise in finding out that, indeed, you were correct. You are being watched, and your watchers are very clever. They covered their tracks well . . . even my Adepts had difficulty tracing them.”

Ben nodded, a momentary expression of pleasure flickering across his face. “Thank you, Master Tanzerian,” he said. “What else is on that chip?”

“That chip holds everything that we, and your own intelligence apparatus, gathered on their base of operations in this region. May you find a good use for it.”

“Thank you,” Ben said. “I’m sure we will.”

As Master Tanzerian returned to his ship, Ben led the others with him back toward the lift that would take them up to the observation deck.

“Sir, would you mind telling us what that was all about?” Justin said quickly.

“This chip contains exactly what I was hoping for,” Ben replied, seemingly distracted. He had already inserted the datachip into a reader he wore on his belt. The reader fed the data directly to the datajack hooked into Ben’s brain.

“That wasn’t quite an answer, Admiral. What was it you were hoping for?” Justin asked again, holding on to his patience with as tight a grip as he could manage.

“Forty years. Forty years I have been looking. And this may be the first real breakthrough I’ve had,” Ben said, not really replying to Justin. As they stepped into the lift, Ben blinked several times and looked at Justin and the others. He nodded at his two Security men, who nodded in return and stepped back off the lift.

“Now, I am ordering you not to share any of this with your crews or other officers you know,” Ben said, his tone icy. “With that being said, it will suffice to say that things aren’t always what they seem. It seems that we’ve picked up some watchers. These watchers don’t work for the Empire, nor do they work for the Commonwealth, the Federation, or any of the local alien powers. Since my first encounter with them, forty years ago, I’ve been searching for them. Not too long ago, I got unofficial endorsement from Fleet Admiral Whitney, and Prime Minister Gonzales. I was told to flush them out and, if possible, find out what they were up to,” he said looking pointedly at Justin and Kristin.

“With this information, I intend to do just that,” Ben finished.

“How so?” Kristin asked, biting her lip thoughtfully. “Do you plan to take the Federation, charge in there, and demand an audience?”

Ben chuckled. “No, Captain. They work through secrecy and misinformation. The Federation, as you clearly realize, is much too obvious. It would send them fleeing off into the shadows, and then I’d probably have to spend another forty years searching for them again. If we’re going to catch them, then we’re going to have to best them at their own game.”

Justin nodded slowly, interrupting Kristin before she could speak again. “And you intend to use the battlegroup to do that. By splitting our forces, you hope to make them think that our attention is leaving this sector.”

“That’s right, Captain,” Ben replied, briefly glancing at Jenni again. She smiled and nodded, but continued to remain silent.

“Then what do you intend to do with us?”

“Captain Epps is right. Sending the group’s CENTCOM on this expedition would be much too obvious. However, a pair of cruisers, dispatched to scout the area . . . ostensibly in anticipation of the Demonoid defeat, wouldn’t be.”

“You’re sending us out to find these watchers then?” Kristin remarked, her tone growing sharp.

“Not exactly,” Ben replied. “You see, though the Federation will depart to take part in the upcoming attack on the Demonoid homeworld, I intend to see my mission through to the end. I will be going with you,” he paused, taking a moment to gauge the reaction of the two captains.

“Now I understand that there is a lot here you don’t yet understand. I will let you both have full copies of everything I have. But, know that we will be doing this, and that the future of the Federation may be counting on what happens when we do.”




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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2007-05-28 02:54pm
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And this is Chapter Three, part II. One of these days, I'm gonna get feedback. One of these days . . .

~~~

Dateline: 25200529.1615, USS Starla, Bridge. Justin swept on to the Starla's bridge with all the subtlety of an approaching tornado.

"Captain on the bridge!" The person manning the Navigation console announced, jumping to her feet.

"At ease, at ease," Justin said, waving the bridge crew down impatiently. As he dropped into his chair, Wes quickly found his way over to Justin's side.

"I'm guessing that it didn't go well?"

"It went well, Wes. Unfortunately, what I meant by 'well' is that it went well for him, and not for anybody else. He's a clever son of a gun, I will give him that," Justin said through gritted teeth.

"Admiral Lewinger?"

Justin nodded. "The same, Wes."

"What happened?" Wes said, frowning.

"Two things. First, he kept the fleet in this system knowing that something was going to happen. Second, we are to prepare to have Admiral Lewinger transfer his flag over to the Starla before the end of the week."

"The Starla," Wes replied, furrowing his brow. "Why? And what was he hoping would happen?"

"To answer your second question, we were being used as bait. And he got what he wanted. Not only did the Empire have a bite, but someone else took a nibble. We're going to check out who that was, and he's coming with us."

"Who?"

"That part wasn't made clear," Justin replied. "However, I assume, we're going to find out. I'll let you in on everything I know."

Wes nodded. "Sounds good, Justin. Should I let Ryan get his hands on it too?"

Justin looked thoughtful for a moment. "Yes, that would be an excellent idea. He'd probably know more about this sort of thing."

---

Captain Eris Janasaki of the Federal light cruiser Ascendant Emperor Tupolev Laganoski the First wore two hats. On one hand, she was an officer of the Fleet. Competent enough, and politically reliable to a fault, she had slowly percolated her way up Fleet's chain of command. And not, she fancied, because of the power and prestige of the Janasaki family, although her aunt's influence certainly eased her passage through the Academy.

On the other hand, she was doggedly loyal to her family. The Janasakis were a middling political family in the modern Federation. In the past, Janasakis had sat atop the throne on old Imperial Earth. Eris could claim no fewer than four Ascendant Emperors of the old Empire in her bloodline. Unfortunately, the fortunes of the Janasaki family diminished significantly after the last emperor of Earth ended his reign in a hangman's noose.

The Janasakis, as well as a number of other old Imperial families took pride in the fact that they didn't flee Earth at the end of the old Empire . . . quite unlike First Minister Abdul-Hakam bin-Laati, who fled and founded the "reborn" Empire of Ascension. They spent the next eight-hundred plus years clawing their way back up to the top, though the rise of the Federation put a three-century long kink in their plans.

Now, they had gotten within a stone's throw of the top. Eris' aunt, Raen Janasaki, was the Third Minister of the Federation. She, a member of a renowned old-Imperial family, was just three steps away from the top position, that of the Prime Minister. And she'd added insult to injury by being the youngest individual ever to become one of the Twelve. People like Eris were part of the reason. Eris served as one of Raen Janasaki's numerous eyes and ears throughout the Federation. She always turned up wherever something of interest to the Janasaki family, or to the other old-guard families, was taking place.

And something interesting had definitely taken place at Risinger's Star. Not only were bin-Laati's pretenders up to their old tricks again, but something interesting had happened aboard the USS Federation immediately afterward. A Neopolitan yacht had briefly boarded her, and the commander of the Sixteenth Federal Battlecluster, Admiral Lewinger, his underling and protégé Commodore Jenni Zelthig, and two Fleet captains, met with whoever was aboard the yacht.

Eris smiled to herself. It had all been very "hush-hush." Admiral Lewinger ordered the entire hangar cleared, and immediately classified the whole visit under enough bureaucratic red tape to cover a small moon. Except he'd made the critical mistake of trusting one person too many. None of the old-guard families survived post-imperial Earth very long without having built centuries worth of connections. As a result, the fact that Admiral Lewinger planned to take a couple of cruisers and sneak off somewhere, was well-known to Eris.

What she didn't know, though, was where he was going. It was a piece of information she would've liked to know before she contacted her aunt. It would've been very useful in her aunt's quest to take down the current Prime Minister, Leroy Gonzales.

Gonzales was the closest thing to a successor that the Founder of the Federation, Christos Al-Qua'rachi, had. Although, after the death of his mentor, Gonzales was content to remain behind the scenes, firmly entrenched in the position of First Minister by decree of the late Prime Minister Qua'rachi. However, in 2481, he'd finally decided to take power for himself. And he turned out to be as ruthless a Federalist as Qua'rachi had been.

This was why Eris Janasaki was a part of Ben Lewinger's fleet. Leroy Gonzales was a patron of a great many of Fleet's top officers, including Ben Lewinger, and his boss, Fleet Admiral Whitney. One of the Fleet captains with Lewinger, Justin Phillips, also benefited from this patronage. His grandfather, the first Justin Phillips, fought side-by-side with Leroy Gonzales when the Gloobanoids attacked the Federation back in the early 2350s.

"Captain Janasaki," said the voice of a young man over her comm.

Eris brought her wristcomm up to her lips, squeezing it quickly. "Janasaki here. Go ahead, Comms."

"I've got a message from the Federation's Chief of Security. He's asking for you personally. Code level is Priority Four."

"Thank you, Comms," Eris replied. "I've been expecting it. Route it through to my office."

Within moments, the face of an olive-skinned man in the black Fleet Security uniform looked out at her.

"It's good to hear from you again, Commander al-Sharif. Have you learned any more?" Eris asked the man on her screen. Admiral Lewinger had brought along his head of Security to his earlier meeting. Unfortunately for him, al-Sharif owed Eris more than a few favors.

"Yes ma'am. Admiral Lewinger gave Captain Phillips and Captain Epps copies of a substantial amount of data."

Eris nodded. "I see. And how do you know of this?"

"I am Chief of Security, ma'am. Though Admiral Lewinger prevented me from being there personally, he had to interact with the Federation's computer network in order to give Phillips and Epps what he wanted to give them. I was able to procure his personal data, but not the data the Neopolitan gave him."

"Good work, Commander," Eris said, forcing a bright smile to her face. What she was really after was the data that Commander al-Sharif couldn't get his hands on. "However," she continued, "it is a matter of importance that I get the last bit of data."

The man on her screen frowned. "Ma'am, I have already pushed the bounds of my authority here. There may not be much more that I can do."

Eris nodded sympathetically. Internally, she groaned at her agent's sudden reticence. "You may be mistaken. You said he gave full copies to both Captain Phillips and Captain Epps, is that correct?"

"That is correct, ma'am."

"And you're the Chief of Security for the flagship of a Federation battlecluster, Commander. You would certainly have access to their personnel files."

"I see," al-Sharif said, his face seeming to light up. "You wish for me to inspect their records and see if there is a way to get them to turn over the data you want?"

Eris shook her head. "No, not quite, Commander. You may look through the Starla's records if you wish. However, Captain Phillips has the patronage of Fleet Admiral Whitney. Worse, his Security Chief is also his Exec and his best friend. I want you to focus on Kristin Epps and her crew aboard the Agamemnon."

"Very wise of you, ma'am. I shall do so immediately," Commander al-Sharif replied with a nod.

"Yes, please. And move quickly," Eris said, squeezing her wristcomm again. Obediently, her screen went dark.


Commander Wadi al-Sharif leaned back in his chair as Captain Janasaki's face vanished from the screen of his terminal. He let out a gusty sigh. Like Eris Janasaki, he was a political officer. Unlike Eris Janasaki, he had no influential aunt to pave his way to the top. Yet, he owed her, Eris Janasaki saved his career. He knew it shouldn't matter, but it did anyway.

Worse, he found himself agreeing with the old-guards who were working their way into all levels of Federal government. What they wanted seemed to make sense. They wanted nothing less than to abolish the dual-headed system of an Assembly and a President balanced by a Prime Minister, and all the ministers under him. They wanted a return to a strong central government which would hand down The Law to the Federation's 1700 member systems. As it was, by the logic of the old-guard, and in al-Sharif's opinion, thanks to the Assembly, the Federation was driven by the greedy short-sighted interests of those member planets, divided equally among the three species of the Federation: Human, Mourauthi, and Kerr.

Wadi looked up with a start as his door hissed open. His eyes met those of Admiral Lewinger, who nodded at him.

"Might I come in, Commander?"

"Y . . . yes sir," Wadi stammered. His eyes darted down to his console. Much to his relief, nothing on the screen betrayed the conversation that had just taken place.

Ben stepped into the Federation's Security office. "You seem preoccupied Commander," he said. "What's up?"

"Nothing at all, sir," Wadi replied. "I was just filing some reports for the day."

Ben nodded. "Sounds good, Commander. I remember filing reports. In fact, I still do. I think the Fleet runs off of paperwork."

Wadi cracked a slight smile. "Almost certainly the truth, sir. May I help you?"

"Actually, you might be able to. As you were with me, today, you have an idea of what I am planning."

"Yes sir," Wadi replied, not yet sure of where this was going.

"I am going to be transferring my flag over to the Starla before the end of the week. I am going to need some things, and what better place to get them than CENTCOM’s head of Security.”

Wadi nodded once. “Very well sir, you have come to the right place. Now what do you need?”

“Just a couple of things,” Ben replied. “First, I’m going to need you to assemble two Security teams for me. They will be in charge of carrying my codes and coordinating with the Security contingent aboard both the Starla and the Agamemnon, in order to best accomplish the assignment I have in mind.

“Yes sir,” Wadi said, trying to hide the surprise in his voice. If there was any proof that the gods of the old faiths had any sway in the universe, he was convinced he’d just seen it. “Is there anything else?”

Ben nodded. “Yes, Commander, as my Chief of Security, you undoubtedly have access to the Security files of both Captain Phillips, and Captain Epps.”

“You assume correctly, sir.”

Ben smiled at Wadi. “And would I be so bold to presume that you’ve already looked up their files the moment I ordered them aboard,” he said. “Unofficially, of course,” he then said, winking.

Wadi couldn’t stop the grin that crossed his face. “Yes sir. It is always prudent to be prepared.”

“Yes it is,” Ben replied, seemingly pleased. “Then tell me. What is your honest assessment of them? I’ve talked to Commodore Zelthig, and I’ve looked at their files, but I don’t have a Security man’s perspective. I’d very much like to have that.”

Wadi nodded, suddenly nervous. He had a prime opportunity, and he didn’t want to waste it. Unfortunately, he wasn’t sure what Admiral Lewinger did, or did not, already know. Then he realized that Lewinger was asking him only because he thought that Security might know something that even an ordinary admiral couldn’t.

“Very well sir. As you know, Captain Phillips is closely tied to Fleet Admiral Whitney. And, his First Officer is a career Security man. I would say that though his reputation precedes him, he can be trusted,” Wadi said.

Ben took a few moments to mull this over. “I see,” he said with a nod. “What about Captain Epps, what do you make of her?”

Wadi sensed his opportunity had come. “I would be careful,” he said slowly, “with Kristin Epps,” he said. There was something about her records that had stuck in his mind. He licked his lips as the memory bubbled up. “Yes, she is an outsider. She spent eight years after reaching citizen age as a wanderer. Finally, Admiral Yousef Anwar al-Bahir convinced her to take up a planetary citizenship and apply to the local Fleet Academy.”

Ben nodded, trying to place the name. “Admiral al-Bahir retired ten years ago, didn’t he?”

“That is correct, sir. He is also remarkably difficult to contact.”

“I see,” Ben said. For a moment, he looked down thoughtfully. “Are you saying that Captain Epps’ past is reason enough to not trust her?”

Wadi shook his head quickly. “Oh no, sir, I do apologize. I am a Security man. We are trained; from the moment we elect join the corps, to immediately pick up on oddities. All I am saying is that Captain Epps is such an oddity, and that may color my opinion on her,” he fell silent for a moment, stared at a point on his computer screen, then looked up at Ben again. “However, sir, if my presence isn’t required for the Federation’s participation in the assault on the Demonoid home world, I would be honored to lead your Security task-force myself. I would then be able to give you the most accurate picture possible.”

Ben looked thoughtful for a moment. For forty years, his instincts told him to distrust anyone from Security. Yet, Wadi al-Sharif had proven himself as a capable and insightful administrator during his tenure as the Sixteenth Battlecluster’s Chief of Security. At length, he relented.

“Alright, I’ll take your opinion of Captain Epps under advisement, provided that I can count on your services during my mission.”

---

Dateline: 25200603.1200, USS Starla, Bridge. Justin leaned back in his command chair, taking a moment to lose himself in the bustle of activity around him. Today was the day Admiral Lewinger would transfer his flag over to the Starla. It was also the day that the 160th Battlegroup was splitting up. Commodore Zelthig and Rear Admiral Norogahl would be taking two-thirds of the ships to join the rest of the 16th Battlecluster in its assault on the Demonoid home world. The remainder of the ships, minus the Starla and the Agamemnon, would remain at Risinger’s Star until the Fleet investigators, who arrived with Norogahl, finished their work.

“Captain, USS Federation is hailing us,” Lieutenant McFarland reported from her station.

“Put it through, Lieutenant,” Justin replied. A moment later Kahlar Norogahl’s distinctly bear-like face shimmered into existence above Justin’s console. Rear Admiral Norogahl was a Mourauthi, one of the three member species of the Federation. They resembled barrel-chested grizzly bears, and were generally found everywhere in the Federation.

“Captain Phillips,” Norogahl said. The tinny speaker in Justin’s console did no justice to the alien’s deep resonant bass.

“Sir,” Justin replied. Norogahl disliked most social niceties, though few complained, as he was well over two meters tall and comfortably massed over a hundred and fifty kilos.

“Expect Admiral Lewinger’s shuttle shortly. Expect his broadcast on Fleet-wide,” Norogahl said, flicking one of his parasol-like ears.

“Yes sir,” Justin replied. “Good luck on the assault. Wish I could be joining you.”

“Though the added margin of safety would be welcome, Captain, your responsibilities lie elsewhere. Protect the Admiral,” Norogahl ordered, rumbling.

“Yes sir. Good hunting, sir,” Justin replied, nodding to Norogahl as the connection terminated.

“Well, that does it for that,” Justin said, turning back to look at Ryan Zeiken, who was at the ship’s Operations station. He and Justin went just as far back as Justin and Wes.

“I’m surprised you got that many words out of Norogahl,” Ryan replied with a grin, his white teeth contrasting sharply with his dark skin.

Justin chuckled. “Believe me, Ryan; I’m just as surprised as you are. Just how far out is Admiral Lewinger’s shuttle anyway?”

Ryan took a moment to consult one of his screens. “They’re bringing him in hot. Looks like an ETA of about fifteen minutes at the most.”

“Ah yes,” Justin said. “Fifteen more minutes of relative freedom, Ryan. Enjoy it while it lasts.”

“I plan to, Justin,” Ryan replied with a chuckle of his own.

“Sir, transmission on Fleet-wide,” Lieutenant McFarland interrupted.

“Route it through,” Justin replied, turning to face the viewscreen.

“Attention all personnel, please stand by for an address by Admiral Lewinger,” Lieutenant McFarland said into the ship’s intercom. Within a minute, Admiral Lewinger appeared on the screen. He was standing on the Federation’s bridge, with Commodore Zelthig standing just behind him. What the rest of the fleet didn’t know was that he had pre-recorded his address, so he could sneak aboard the Starla without anyone being the wiser.

“Attention all Fleet personnel,” Lewinger said. “Forty eight hours ago, I received word from Admiralty that the go-ahead has been given to launch the assault on the Demonoid home world, located in the 108 McCormick system. Over the last several days, we have made preparations in anticipation of that announcement, and I am proud to say that the 160th has performed beyond expectations. For those of us going on to the assault, I wish you all good hunting. For those who must remain behind, remember that you too have a vital role to play.”

“Justin, Admiral Lewinger’s shuttle is on final approach now,” Ryan said, briefly drawing Justin’s attention away from Ben’s speech.

“I’ll assume that Wes has a firm grasp on things down in First Command,” Justin said, standing up. “Let’s go give the Admiral his welcome.”

---

Ben watched the Starla's Tactical display, ignoring the buzz of conversation around him. After he was brought aboard, Captain Phillips had installed him in the ship's Combat Information Center, buried deep inside the ship. While they were on the way up, Phillips had introduced Ben to his Operations Officer, Commander Ryan Zeiken. In exchange, Ben introduced Justin to his Chief of Security, Commander Wadi al-Sharif.

Though Commander al-Sharif had assured Ben that Captain Phillips could be trusted, Ben still couldn't find much reason to actually like the man. He had been decidedly reluctant to allow Ben's Security men free run of the ship, though, to be fair, Captain Epps had been only slightly less reluctant. Worse, Captain Phillips seemed to make it fairly clear that he didn't think much of Ben, or at least, not enough of him to fully commit to the sorts of risks Ben wanted to take on this operation.

“Admiral Lewinger, Rear Admiral Norogahl indicates that he is ready to move out,” he heard a woman’s voice say.

“Thank you,” Ben replied. “I think it's time we got moving ourselves,” he said, bringing his wrist to his lips and activating his wristcomm. "Admiral Lewinger to Lewinger taskforce."

"Bridge here," Justin replied.

"Agamemnon reporting in," Kristin said a few moments later.

"The rest of the 160th is beginning their departure," Ben said, watching as icons indicating Federal ships dimmed as they went off TacNet to prepare to transit. "I think now would be as good time to slip out as any."

"Of course," Kristin said. "Agamemnon is already approaching vector prime. You will meet us shortly?"

"That's what I'm hoping, Captain," Ben replied. "Captain Phillips, if you would be so kind as to start us toward our transit point?"

"We'll be underway in less than a minute, Admiral," Justin replied.

"Good, Admiral Lewinger out," Ben said, turning his attention back to the Tactical plot.

---

Rear Admiral Kahlar Norogahl watched with a certain sense of pride as the ships of the 160th assembled into precise textbook formations. It was something that was practically useless in combat, but it would give the Commonwealth watchers a good show. Though his pride was a bit put off by the unfamiliar odor of the bridge around him. Mourauthi had far more acute senses than either Humans or Kerrians.

"All ships are approaching their prime transit vectors sir," an officer reported. "Less than a minute to transit."

"Excellent," Norogahl replied. "How long until we transit," he asked as he felt a buzz in his ear. With a flick of an ear, he acknowledged the transmission coming into his datajack.

"Yes?"

"Admiral, there's a communiqué that just came off the hypercomm," Captain Suzanne Herod replied. "Straight from Admiral Gunther."

"Commander of First Fleet? Something important, I am presuming?"

"Yes sir. He says he has orders instructing the 1609th Light Cruiser Squadron to remain at Risinger's Star pending further orders."

"Captain Janasaki's squadron," Norogahl grumbled. "I should have known her aunt would eventually stick her nose where it is most unwelcome. Pass the orders along to the 1609th."

---

Captain Eris Janasaki got her orders five minutes after she had gotten her notice from the Federation. Her report, it seemed, succeeded in piquing the interest of her aunt and the other old-guards. They wanted her to tail the Starla and the Agamemnon and see what she could uncover. Also high on her list of priorities was the recovery of whatever the Neopolitans had given to Admiral Lewinger. As nobody among the old-guard would dare contact the Neopolitans themselves, not with Prime Minister Gonzales watching, so the task fell squarely on Eris.

She smiled a triumphant little smile, as she had managed to anticipate her aunt, for a change. She already had Commander al-Sharif working on the problem. Her smile broadened as she wondered what the old-guard had to do to keep the knowledge of her reassignment out of the hands of Admiral Lewinger. It wasn't that she disliked her aunt, it was just that her aunt and the rest of them occasionally seemed too dedicated to the 'cause' for their own good.

And there would be little good that would come if Prime Minister Leroy Gonzales caught wind before everything was in place. Eris had been made to understand that very well. Old Imperialist families made excellent scapegoats, especially to a man who was originally from Eos, the world that had helped bring about the collapse of the old Empire. It made Eris' job vitally important. Fleet's ranks were swollen with Federalists. Their support, though constitutionally mandated, couldn't realistically be relied on when the time finally came for the old-guard to move. Fortunately for them, they were vulnerable. Especially in the forty years after the Risinger's Star Massacre. Thanks to that incident, few people these days tolerated any hint of impropriety in Fleet officers. And if Eris could prove that there was even a hint of it in Admiral Lewinger, it would make his removal that much easier, and bring the old-guard that much closer to their inevitable victory.




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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2007-05-28 08:45pm
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Good stuff; you have a writing style very similar to someone else I know and from time to time, it's a little disconcerting. But interesting developments and story line nonetheless.

I just can't read "Neopolitan" without thinking about the ice cream, though. :)



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After reading through my original revision of Chapter Four, I realized there were some changes that had to be merged into that chapter to keep it consistent with all the backstory materials I'd written in the two or three years since I originally closed Chapter Four. Now that the merge is over with, I present to you Chapter Four, Part I:

~~~

Chapter Four: Surprises.

Dateline: 25200609.1500, Captain's Log: USS Starla, en-route to the Bancroft 324 System. It has been six days since we rendezvoused with the Agamemnon just outside of Risinger's Star. For that time, we have been in transit. Our destination, it appears, is a string of abandoned Federal and Commonwealth colonies at the extreme edge of Federal territory . . . close to the edges of Demonoid space. The Neopolitan data suggests that, somewhere in this area, some unknown party may have left clues vital to our expedition.

Our expedition goes as well as one can expect when one has an Admiral riding herd on just two ships. Fortunately for us, though, at least, the Admiral in question has opted to mostly stay out of the way. Admiral Lewinger spends his time down in the CIC, or in his quarters. Most of our instructions come through his formidable staff of assistants. Though I am not complaining, it doesn't all quite feel right somehow. However, I suspect that will change, as we are about to make our last transit into the system.

Justin turned off the recorder, slipping it back into its compartment under his seat. For six days, the ship pushed its hyperdrives to Factor Nine in order to get to 324 Bancroft as quickly as possible, without leaving the Agamemnon behind, or running her to the point her older, less-capable, hyperdrives overloaded and blew her into a cloud of incandescent vapor. For the last day, as the two ships slowed down for their final transit into the system, they'd been listening for any sort of radio traffic. And for that last day, they'd heard nothing at all. No stray radio traffic, no emissions from spacecraft engines, no backscattered communications lasers, nothing. This didn't really surprise Justin; after all, the colony had been abandoned by its parent company for forty years. It would've surprised him to see any activity in the system, at all.

"Captain, we're coming up on the final transit boundary," Zephyr Nuanez, the Starla's Chief of Engineering reported. "We're dialed down to Factor One."

"Very good," Justin said, turning his attention to Lieutenant McFarland. "Tactical, has the Agamemnon completed her separation maneuver?"

"Yes sir," Lieutenant McFarland replied, quickly looking down at her console. "Captain Epps reports that she has completed separation and will make her final transit shortly."

"Keep me posted," Justin said, leaning back into his chair. They were aiming for a sphere of empty space the size of Earth about three million kilometers away from 324 Bancroft's largest planet, a gas giant orbiting right in the middle of the system's habitable zone. However, they weren't interested in the giant planet. What they wanted was its largest moon, a world between Earth and Mars in size; it had once been home to a large MarsCorp research colony.

Before it was destroyed in 2480, it had four thousand people scattered in six settlements. Then, the Demonoids came. They wiped out the planet's defenses, and then, for some inexplicable reason, killed everybody but one hundred people in the main settlement, almost all of whom were under eighteen years of age. Prime Minister Gonzales sealed all the colony's records, after he took power in 2482. Furthermore, MarsCorp never reestablished the colony, though they still held the rights to the system.

And now, the Starla and the Agamemnon were about to make the first visit to the system in almost half a century, based on information Justin still wasn't sure he could trust. And worse, there was no guarantee that they would actually find anything. The 324 Bancroft system was one of six they had been given. The only thing they shared in common was the fact that the Demonoids had razed them forty years ago, and nobody had taken the time to resettle them.

"What's on your mind, Justin," Ryan asked looking at Justin from his station.

Justin looked up with a start; sometimes he had a tendency to drift. "About why we're here," he replied, not missing a beat. "You've had a chance to look over the Neopolitan data yet?"

"I have," Ryan said. "And already I'm seeing trends I don't like."

Justin frowned. "What sort of trends?"

"For example, the six systems we are supposed to survey, they are all linked by the fact that none of them have been resettled in the forty years since they've been destroyed. All of them are habitable, and all of them are rich in resources, so there's no reason why we shouldn't be visiting a viable colony right now, instead of a ghost planet."

Justin nodded. "That about sums up what I was thinking. Now," he said with a quick smile, "did you come up with anything useful?"

Ryan grinned. He was used to the friendly challenge in Justin's voice. "In fact I did," he replied, still grinning. "Now, one might figure that some action on the part of our quarry might've kept MarsCorp and the other super-corporations away from the systems." Ryan's grin faded quickly. "Yet, on the other hand, the colonies were well within the reach of the Demonoids even forty years ago."

"And they've been pretty much unchecked since then," Justin said. "I see what you're getting at," he said again, nodding slowly. "Looks like we may have to proceed with added caution."

"I agree," Ryan replied. "The Neopolitans didn't seem to put too much effort into this, relative to what they can do. That says they might've gotten traces of Demonoid activity and the activity of our friends mixed up. Of course, it also says that our 'mysterious watchers' might be the Demonoids themselves."

"And that possibility raises just as many disturbing questions," Justin said.

"Sir, we're approaching thirty seconds," Ensign Trevius, the young, curly-haired man at the ship's Navigation station called out.

"Alright," Justin said, looking down at his own console. He quickly tapped an icon. "Wes, you ready?"

"First Command is standing by. Normal operations will resume the moment we make transition," Wes replied. It was standard procedure, one that they'd gone through hundreds of times.

"Agamemnon has made final transit," Lieutenant McFarland reported.

"Alright," Justin replied. "If all stations are secure, we'll join them shortly. Navigation, the ship is ready."

"Stand by for transition," Ensign Trevius replied pulling back a lever on his console.


Three million kilometers away from the system's largest planet, one blazing blue orb appeared, seemingly from nowhere. The orb contracted into two blindingly bright bands of light, one above, and one below the wide octagon of the Starla's hull. Several thousand kilometers distant, the Agamemnon was similarly shrouded, as its hyperdrives strove to dissipate billions of watts of accumulated waste energy. It was a spectacle, which would be easily visible for millions of kilometers around.

A quarter of a million kilometers away, an automated sentinel silently orbited the planet. It was a crude thing, consisting of a number of solar panels, some basic sensors, and an FTL hypercomm. A Federal or Imperial designer would've found the design limited, as it only had a very narrow function. However, the sentinel's designers only needed it to do one thing, and they designed it to do that thing very well.

The sentinel woke up as it felt the initial shock from the arrival of the two Federal ships. It recorded two bright flashes, and two equally abrupt gravitational jolts as millions of tons of metal suddenly appeared where there used to be nothing at all. It quickly compared the signatures to those of friendly vessels. Finding that there was no match, it sent a single transmission. The transmission, sent by hypercomm, occupied no space between the sentinel, and a similar unit buried deep within a ship a hundred million kilometers away. It was logged, and very quickly, action was taken. Even as the Starla and the Agamemnon radiated away the last of their built-up transit energies, a scout had been dispatched to their location.


"Transit complete. Passive sensors are not picking up signs of anything artificial or technological," Lieutenant McFarland reported.

"No signals traffic, nothing at all?" Justin asked. So far, this was turning out to be as dull as he'd originally suspected, though his gut instinct insisted that wasn't the case.

"No sir, nothing at all."

"Get a tactical link established between us and the Agamemnon, Lieutenant," Justin ordered. "Since everybody in this system knows we're coming, I want active sensor surveys of the colony moon and the space around us. We don't need any unpleasant surprises."

"Yes sir," Lieutenant McFarland replied, looking down to her console.

Justin looked over to Ryan again. "Ryan, tell Admiral Lewinger that we've arrived, and we're commencing active scans on the colony."

"Will do, Justin," Ryan replied.



Interlude One: A Woman.

Dateline: 24800701.0340, MarsCorp Research Complex Sixteen, Bancroft 324 System. A young woman stepped out into the early morning sunlight, dressed in a plain gray jumpsuit, the MarsCorp logo emblazoned above her left breast pocket. Below it was the badge of the United Federation of the Known Worlds: A cobalt-blue disk with a map of the Galaxy etched across its face with three gold stars, symbolic of the Federation's three founding races arranged in a triangle around the Greek delta symbol in the center. Four golden compass points and a pair of stylized olive-branches curling up the bottom of the disk completed the design.

The young woman was Meghan Salazar, an employee of what was, undoubtedly, the single largest corporation Humans, or the Galaxy in general, had ever known. She was a research chemist, one of those bright young researchers looking for innovative new ways to make life better for the countless billions scattered across the Known Worlds.

At least, that was what the recruitment brochure and the pleasantly genial MarsCorp Sentient Resources person told her. The reality: She was out on the absolute tail-end of the Known Worlds, over 6000 light-years from Earth and the Core Worlds. She worked on a bunch of inconsequential projects on a colony world that had to call the local Fleet detachment every four to six weeks to chase off pirates, raiders, and other undesirables.

Meghan sighed, flipping back her long brown-blonde hair. At least it was a dependable source of income and a respectable living. It was better than overpopulated and over-polluted Earth. Even if it wasn't as exciting an existence as she would've liked, she couldn't really complain.

"Hey Doc!" Someone said behind her. Meghan turned around, immediately recognizing the girl who was catching up to her. In her off time, Meghan instructed some of the colony's teen population on the finer points of synthesizer chemistry. Of course, they all took to calling her "Doc," in spite of her best attempts otherwise.

"Good morning, Jenni," Meghan replied, nodding at the young woman as she hurried off to the classroom complex. School, like everything else at Research Complex Sixteen, revolved around Firefall, the gas giant they orbited.

The colony was located on a world slightly smaller than Earth. That world orbited the gas giant Firefall, whose bands of turbulent, creamy-yellow clouds lit their world at night. And every day, for the three hours surrounding what would ordinarily be noon, Firefall eclipsed the sun, plunging the colony into darkness. On other worlds like Firefall, the locals called the time siesta. However, plain old Spanish-flavored Standard wasn't spoken here. Many of the natives spoke the Portuguese-flavored stuff. As a result, everybody here called the time soneca.

Meghan smiled, watching Jenni disappear into the classroom complex. Everything stopped for soneca, even school. As a result, like Meghan's work-day, school for Jenni, and the 2500 others who had to attend it, started at dawn. Poor kids, Meghan thought, shaking her head.

She walked briskly past the classroom complex into the tree-lined Commons area. Pathways radiated from the central square like spokes on a wheel. To her left was a pond where Terran ducks picked their way between Earth lily pads and Firefall neofrogs darted energetically below the surface. Raised garden beds and benches filled in the areas between the walkways, and the fragrant scent of lilacs filled the air.

"Good morning Meg!" A young man said, jogging past her. Meghan grinned and waived back. On some mornings, she joined Ted Christiansen and several other people in jogging around the heart of the colony. Not today though, for Meghan had to nursemaid an experiment she had been working on for the last week. At a MarsCorp research complex, they expected their people to continually come up with new, and hopefully profitable, products and services. It was one of the reasons that MarsCorp was the biggest trans-planetary corporation in the Known Worlds.

Of course, being associated with such a large corporation had its drawbacks, Meghan noted, seeing the sirens mounted atop the streetlights. Having anything to do with MarsCorp was usually enough to draw pirates, privateers, and other undesirables out of the woodwork. MarsCorp materials tended to fetch decent prices on the black market and the company tended to pay excellent ransoms.

For that reason, the colony had an extensive network of underground tunnels and storage areas. Furthermore, the colony's spaceport, and most of its warehouse facilities were located fifteen kilometers away from the main colony, separated by a small mountain range. Usually the colonists were quite safe, as was evidenced by the growing numbers of children Meghan saw each year around her, and in her classroom.

As she crossed the Commons area and stepped aboard the community trolley, Meghan smiled wistfully. Today was looking like such a beautiful day. It would be a quite a shame to spend it locked in a lab, staring at a set of test-tubes. Yet, that was her lot in life. There were things in science that had changed little in the twenty-five centuries between her and more notable scientists such as Bohr, or Watson. The need to experiment in a lab, packed with equipment they probably would’ve recognized, was apparently one of them, Meghan thought, as the trolley started to pull out of the station . . . . .


Admiral Ben Lewinger was lost in thought. It had been forty years since his friend and his captain had been taken. And now, that he felt that he was finally on the right trail, he could afford to indulge himself. He could afford to let himself remember those days leading up to that fateful mission.

"You're late, Lieutenant," a woman's voice said. Ben looked across the desk and into the warm brown eyes of Captain Laura Risinger. She was seated behind a synth-wood desk, her desk-comp over to one side, and a data-pad just in front of her.

"I'm sorry, ma'am," Ben replied. "There was some sort of hacking at the terminal, and," he said as Captain Risinger raised her hand.

"I know," she said. "My Exec told me about it," she said, then smiling sheepishly. "If anyone should be apologizing, it's me. It'd totally slipped my mind that you'd be coming aboard today. I'd just come from Admiral Reher's office, and that's been on my mind."

"Ma'am?"

Captain Risinger stood up. "Ben . . . it's Laura," she said. She then smiled. "It's been a very long time, hasn't it?"

Ben nodded mutely, looking at Laura. The fresh-faced young woman who was once his student at the Academy looked back at him. Little had changed. She still had the same wavy strawberry-blonde hair, the same warm brown eyes set in a lightly freckled face. She had filled out a bit since the days of her youth, but in a very complimentary way.

"It has," he finally said, smiling nervously. "A very long time, and how things have changed," he added.

"Maybe," Laura replied, stepping around her desk. "That all can wait a minute," she said, throwing her arms around Ben. It was the quick, firm hug between two good friends, and it was over almost as soon as it had begun. Laura smiled up at Ben as they let go.

"You can sit down, if you'd like," she said, motioning to the chair.

"Thanks," Ben replied, sitting down as Laura sat down back behind her desk.

"It took a lot of work to pry you loose from Bureau of Ships," she said. "They were convinced they'd inherited you along with Admiral Reher. But, when I was alerted to your name entering the officer pool, I knew I had to do everything I could."

"Well, thank you," Ben replied with a nod. "There weren't . . . any problems, were there?"

Laura smiled. "No, of course not. The Admiral had nothing but words of praise for you. "Bureau of Ships was ready to put up a fight for you when he stepped in," she said, her smile broadening.

Ben frowned a tight-lipped frown. "I see," he said, the words of Admiral Amador rising up to sting him once more. He looked up to see Laura looking at him. Their eyes met and locked for a few brief moments.

"Ben, it's been almost a year and a half," she said. "People's views can change. You're still a restricted specialty officer, but Admiral Amador himself signed off on your transfer here. Even if it came after a bit of strong-arming on the part of Admiral Reher, it's a start."

Ben nodded, looking down again. "I'll never forget seeing Kate in front of me. I'll never forget that punch. There are days where I still feel like they should've stuck me planetside."

"Kate knew you didn't mean to hit her," Laura replied. "Everyone makes mistakes, Ben. People end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. It's sad, but it happens. Don't let it get you down. You're in a good place now," she said. "This is a good ship, lots of history, and lots of very good people. You're among friends now."

"Thank you," Ben said, after a few moments. "It's a big ship," he added after several moments.

Laura smiled. "It is that," she said. "And she needs a good team of engineers to take care of her. You come highly recommended, both from Kate, and Admiral Reher, and the Ben Lewinger I remember knew how to get things done. He was also quite the motivator," she said quietly. "I don't think I'd be here right now, if it wasn't for that." She looked up at him again. "Are you up to it? Can you be the officer I need?"

Ben's eyes widened at the change of Laura's tone. "Yes ma'am," he said, pausing a moment. "I think I can pull it off," he said, smiling a bit.

"It's a start," Laura said, suddenly grinning. "You might regret it after meeting our Chief of Engineering, though. I hear he's quite the taskmaster."


"Bridge to Admiral Lewinger," a voice said, intruding on Ben's thoughts. He leaned back with a start, blinking away the glaze over his eyes. Irritated, he stabbed the appropriate button on his desk.

"Lewinger here. Go ahead Bridge."

"The captain wants you to know that we've arrived safely in the 324 Bancroft system," Ryan replied.

"I see. Do you have anything to report?"

"No sir. So far, we've picked up absolutely nothing that would suggest an active technological presence on the colony moon."

Ben frowned. "I'm not too surprised, but we'll want to have a closer look. As soon as you've gotten good deep-radar on the colony sites, I want a perimeter established at the main complex."

"You intend us to go down there, sir?"

"Don't sound so surprised, Bridge," Ben replied with a scowl. "Any traces our quarry has left behind will likely be groundside, or in near space."

"As you wish, sir," Ryan said, trying not to clip his words. "Anything else?"

Ben sat thoughtfully for a moment. "Yes, there is one more thing. If it is at all possible, I would like to make a personal inspection of the sites myself. If the preliminary teams find nothing overtly dangerous, I would imagine there would be no problems?"

Ryan gritted his teeth, thankful that the communication was voice-only. "No sir, I'll relay your request to Captain Phillips."

"Thank you Bridge," Ben replied. "That will be all."




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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2007-06-16 10:54am
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And this is Chapter Four, Part II. I have to divide it up, because, as I learned the first time I tried posting a large chapter all in one go, there's apparently a limit to the amount of text one can post at one time.

~~~

Dateline: 25200609.1710, aboard one of USS Starla's planetary shuttles. Justin looked around, taking in the splendor of the space around him. Stretching out before him was the colony moon of 324 Bancroft's largest planet. The planet, he'd learned, was called Firefall. The moon was never named. The moon looked to be a rugged place, with weathered craters and rough terrain dominating the parts of the world that weren't covered in the deep blue of oceans. Off in the distance, easily taking up a third of the sky was Firefall itself. The planet looked much like Saturn did, a creamy yellowish orb bisected by the almost razor-thin line of its rings.

Justin looked down at the shuttle's controls, and immediately they snapped into clear focus as the displays in his flight helmet and the information streaming directly into his visual cortex from his datajack shifted focus. He nodded in satisfaction, his flight path was good and the belly of his shuttle would start catching the top of the moon's atmosphere.

Like his famous grandfather, Justin began his career in Fleet as a pilot. Unfortunately, he always found that he could never clear the long shadow of his grandfather, the savior of the Federation who almost single-handedly pulled off the most significant Federal victory against the Gloobanoid raiders in 2353, and saved the Federation from further depredation by the aggressive aliens. His grandfather's legacy ultimately drove Justin out of the small-craft corps, even though he still enjoyed flying, and knew his way around everything from assault craft command decks, to shuttle cockpits.

It was the only reason he had gone along with Admiral Lewinger's "request" to visit the colony personally. If he were any other Fleet officer, he knew he'd be well within his rights to refuse the Admiral's request. Two thousand years of military doctrine demanded that all good commanding officers rule from the rear, as far away from danger as possible. It was a practical rule: Few people wanted to deal with the potentially messy situation of losing the chain of command during, say, a critical moment of a battle.

As it was, Justin felt the crew needed a break from both the Admiral, and himself. And what better way to give the crew that break than to baby-sit the Admiral while he wandered around the surface of the planet. Though he didn't understand why Admiral Lewinger wanted to have a personal look around. Wes Enderman, and his equivalent aboard Agamemnon had briefed Security and Science teams nonstop while the ships were in transit. In fact, Justin was sure that they'd probably work better if the Admiral weren't on the surface.

"Transmission from Agamemnon," the shuttle's computer reported in a clipped masculine monotone.

Justin cleared his mind, and then nodded once, acknowledging the transmission. In seconds, Kristin hovered before him.

"My teams are in place, Captain."

"That's good, have they found anything?"

Kristin shook her head. "No, nothing dangerous. The perimeters were established without incident," she said. Then, with a smirk, she added: "It looks like you're not going to get out of holding the Admiral's hand that easily."

Justin scoffed. "That appears to be the case. You'll be heading out then?"

"Oh I won't be going far," Kristin replied. Together, they decided that the Starla should stay in low orbit and conduct the mapping of the planet. Though Starla was better equipped to watch the space around the planet for potential hostiles, it carried Admiral Lewinger's flag. And regulations insisted that an Admiral's flagship not be needlessly exposed to risk. As a result, Agamemnon had to be the ship to go on picket duty.

"Good hunting then, Captain," Justin said, nodding to Kristin.

"Of course," she replied as her image faded.


Dateline: 25200609.1736, on the site of the main Firefall colony. It was late afternoon in the ruins of the old MarsCorp colony. The sun hung low in the sky, casting a golden glow across the landscape. It was a desolate landscape. A sparse mixture of alien and Earthly shrubs dotted the landscape and pale green feathery-looking moss coated the rocks and the rubble of buildings, competing with aggressive lichens, and wild and unkempt patches of Earthly grasses. Time had not been kind to the remnants of what was once called MarsCorp Research Complex Sixteen. Of course, the Demonoids hadn't left much behind when they first razed the colony. Craters from weapons strikes dotted the landscape, barely softened by forty years of weathering. Burned out and wrecked vehicles lined what were once streets. Adding a touch of surrealism to the scene was a number of streetlights, which were still standing. Designed to operate on their own solar arrays for up to a century without maintenance, the surviving lights were starting to flicker to life.

However, there was life in the ruins. In what had once been the open expanse of the Commons area, three shuttles sat on the ground, ringed by a number of tents with black-uniformed Security personnel herding a number of Fleet technicians in ordinary Fleet blue uniforms from place to place. There were Marines too. Snipers were hidden in buildings and atop hills, and ordinary soldiers were at work, erecting defensive positions inside impact craters. Some of them looked up as twin sonic booms shook the valley as another Federal shuttle screamed overhead. It traced a broad S-shaped curve, rapidly shedding excess velocity, dropping in for a fast landing. Its pilot clearly knew what they were doing, though that fact was probably of no comfort for the shuttle’s passengers. A cloud of dust and debris was kicked up as the shuttle hovered over its intended landing site, lingering for only a few seconds before dropping onto the deck.

Commander Sengsai Montree watched the shuttle land. Behind him were three men, all wearing the black Security uniform. He was the Agamemnon’s Chief of Security, and it had fallen to him to secure the landing site in anticipation of Admiral Lewinger’s arrival. Commander Montree was odd, insofar as he was a Kerrian. Kerrians looked virtually identical to human beings, except for the frill of horn and bone that ringed the backs of their skulls and the presence of rectangular protrusions over their eyes.

Kerrians were the third founding species of the Federation and could be found almost everywhere that the Humans and the Mourauthi were . . . with a notable exception. Since the disbanding of the Dominion of Kerr, by the treaty forming the Federation, the Kerrians generally refused to serve in the Federation’s integrated military. It wasn’t that Kerrians were particularly averse to fighting. It had more to do with historical precedent. The Dominion once exercised absolute economic and military dominance over the Mourauthi and fought a protracted on-and-off war with Earth and her allied systems from the late 1700s to the early 2060s. It was an understatement to say that resentment and suspicion of the Kerrians was still deeply ingrained in the Federation’s military.

The shuttle’s main boarding ramp dropped down from the nose of the shuttle as Commander Montree watched. Quickly, a number of the Starla’s own Security officers made their exit, followed by a pair of Admiral Lewinger’s own Security staff. Montree gave them a very human frown. He was deeply suspicious of the extreme level of attention that the Admiral’s Security contingent had focused on the Agamemnon, her crew, and especially her captain.

“Captain on the deck,” one of the Starla’s Security officers exclaimed. Commander Montree looked up as a man in a pilot’s suit made his way down the ramp. He had a thick brown mustache and beard, and well-kept hair.

“Captain Phillips, I presume,” Commander Montree said, stepping forward. His right arm came up smartly, his three fingers touching the Federal badge on his chest.

Justin returned the salute. “That’s right. And you would be Commander Montree of Agamemnon’s Security department?”

“That would be correct, sir. I assume Captain Epps filled you in on the basics then?”

“That’s right,” Justin replied. “I have to say I’m impressed. You’ve already got a regular camp set up here.”

“Thank you, sir. We’ve also got snipers in the hills and Marines in the craters. I thought it wise to err on the side of caution as we have an Admiral on the surface,” Montree replied, frowning again. “Speaking of the Admiral, where is he?”

“I’m right here,” Ben said as he appeared at the top of the shuttle ramp. He blinked in the late afternoon sunlight, and then frowned at Justin. “I would appreciate some warning the next time you decide to do a hot landing.”

Justin nodded, looking suitably stung. “Sorry Admiral. I was under the impression that time was of the essence.”

Ben narrowed his eyes, and then gave a curt nod. “Of course, time is important,” he replied, turning his attention to Commander Montree. “I see that you’ve already established a perimeter. What scientific work have you done so far?”

“I have sent science teams out to investigate the areas around the colony. I would like to take one of our shuttles over to what’s left of the main spaceport facility this evening.”

Ben nodded quickly. “Yes, that’s fine. However, I don’t think we’re going to find anything topside. Most of the colony was underground; to better protect its inhabitants from raiders. Have you looked underground yet?”

“Ah, no sir,” Commander Montree replied. “I have Marines covering the entrances we’ve found, but nobody has gone inside yet.”

“Why not,” Ben asked.

“A couple of the entrances seem too well-maintained for a colony that has been abandoned for forty years. And I did read the briefing file, sir. The colony had few active CARLs or droids in its inventory at the time.”

Ben nodded a momentary smile on his face. CARL stood for Completely Autonomous self-Replicating Laborer. A CARL was a robot the size of a cat, that performed a specific set of tasks, and made little copies of itself. He knew that the colony had a mere handful on-planet when the Demonoids attacked. He also knew that none had been deposited on-site in the forty years since. This meant that someone had taken the trouble to clear the entrances to the underground parts of the colony, and they were busy maintaining them.

“Looks like we might be on to something here,” Ben said the look of illness suddenly gone. “I want to have a look down there as soon as possible.”

Justin and Montree frowned simultaneously. “How soon is ‘as soon as possible,’ Admiral,” Justin asked.

“We have full maps of the colony and a full-sized Security and science detachment,” Ben replied. “I don’t see why we can’t start tonight, or tomorrow morning.”

“I’m afraid I’m going to have to object, sir,” Commander Montree said carefully.

Ben frowned. “What do you see that I don’t?”

“You are an Admiral, sir. And even if that weren’t the case, we should perform remote scans before sending teams down there for safety’s sake. We have a number of spider remotes we can deploy tonight.”

“I’m going to agree with Commander Montree, Admiral,” Justin said. “We’re in unknown territory. Let’s err on the side of caution tonight.”

Ben gritted his teeth. For a moment, he felt that Captain Phillips and Commander Montree were, perhaps, ganging up on him. Then he forced himself to dismiss the thought. It wouldn’t do him much good to rush into things.

“Yes, of course,” he said. “Deploy your remotes. We’ll spend tonight planning our assault on the tunnels while they do their work.”



As the Federal scout droids were deployed into the labyrinth of passages under the ruined colony, the scout that had been dispatched to investigate the arrival of Starla and Agamemnon closed on gas giant and the two orbiting Federal ships. The ship rotated, aiming its main engines at the gas giant. It was a calculated risk. The habitable moon was on the far side of the gas giant, and presumably, so were the Federal ships. The scout needed to fire its main engines to drop to a velocity that would allow them to get good readings of the intruders. However, doing so would dramatically increase the scout’s profile, and that would increase the odds that it would be detected. Hopefully, with the gas giant and the moon between them and the intruders, nobody would spot the distinctive signature of the scout’s engines.


Dateline: 25200609.2110, USS Agamemnon. The ship swung out on a broad orbit, sweeping away from the colony moon. Kristin ordered the ship to move away from the gas giant, hoping to minimize the huge blind spot that the planet created. Fortunately, so far, there was nothing to punctuate the feeling of monotony that was settling over the ship. With the ship no longer in transit, she’d also ordered her engineering teams to begin applying less haphazard repairs to the damage inflicted on Agamemnon by the Imperial ship.

With that, Kristin’s shift came to an end, so she excused herself for a bath, and possibly some reading before lights-out. And it had all gone very well, leaving her at her desk with a datapad in her hand. A sudden movement at the corner of her vision made her look up with a start, blue eyes focusing on an orange and cream cat peeking at her from the inside of his specially designed shelter. Pets were permitted aboard Federal starships, as long as they were small and could either be kept in hardened habitats, or could be trained to seek emergency shelter. And the cat staring back at her knew very well what to do when the ship went to General Quarters.

"Silly cat, you gave me quite a scare there," she said. "You should know better than that, Dricket."

The cat gave her a dismissive flick of the ear and hopped off his perch, disappearing under the bed. Just then, Kristin was interrupted as her terminal chirped. She frowned, quickly running a hand through her long dark hair. Then she stabbed at the "acknowledge" icon on her display.

"Captain here, go ahead."

"Ma'am, we picked up something unusual on sensors," the young woman on the display replied.

"Wait a minute! Again?" Kristin said with a sudden scowl. She could do with a little less luck in finding potential enemy ships.

"I beg your pardon ma'am?"

"It's nothing, what did you pick up?"

"We got what looked like the start of a drive flare right at Firefall's limb."

"Drive flare?" Kristin replied, sitting up in her chair.

"Yes ma'am. Preliminary spectral analysis indicated high amounts of helium, carbon, and beryllium."

"That's a hot drive," Kristin said with a nod. The basics of nuclear fusion were well ingrained into the heads of all Fleet officers. Ordinary fusion thrusters fused hydrogen and deuterium into helium. The fuel was free and one didn't have to spend much energy forcing the reactants together. Yet, in order to boost exhaust energy, some species resorted to much hotter fusion engines, which fused helium into beryllium and carbon, or carbon and helium into oxygen. Beyond that, nobody in the known galaxy was insane enough to build a fusion reactor that would've been more dangerous than its ship's antimatter-fueled hyperdrives.

"Narrows down the field of suspects," the young woman continued.

"Yes it does," Kristin replied. "And they're trying to keep Firefall between themselves and the colony moon. We'll have to flush the bastards out. Order the ship to high acceleration on a course toward Firefall. The less space between them and us, the better the odds we can find them again."

"Yes ma'am. Will you be up here?"

Kristin shook her head. "No. There's nothing I can do right now that you can't handle yourselves. I will, however, let Captain Phillips and the Admiral know about our situation."



"And that's the situation," Kristin's ghostly image finished saying. Justin nodded grimly. Starla was on the wrong side of the moon to talk to the ground party, so the news had come straight from the Agamemnon.

"And you don't have any idea who they are?"

"Not yet, Captain. All we know is that we have someone using a helium engine, and they seem intent on keeping themselves out of your sight."

"Well, we can guess. Our friends are either Zicharion or Demonoid. And I'm in no mood to take on either one right now."

"Agreed," Kristin replied. "If they're hostile, though, we have to stop them from bringing in reinforcements."

"I was afraid of that," Justin said. "What's your plan?"

"We're going to come around Firefall and try to chase them down. If they're headed for the colony moon, we can pin them between us and the Starla. If not, we'll just have to lead them off," Kristin replied, not sounding happy about the prospect.

"We all draw the short straw sometimes, Captain. Coordinate your plans with Wes when your contact window opens up. We'll hunker down here and try to look inconspicuous."

"You do that. Good luck," Kristin replied, her image fading away.

"I sense we're in trouble," Ben said, stepping up behind Justin. Justin frowned and nodded.

"That's right, Admiral. We may have company. Undoubtedly somebody saw our spectacular entrance and decided to see what was up."

"You can always count on surprises to show up at the worst possible moment," Ben said. "What do you intend to do?"

"We pack up camp, get to the shuttles and disperse. When we get an all-clear, we head back and get the hell out of here."

Ben furrowed his brows. "I'm not willing to accept that, Captain. There is a better idea."

"If you've got it, I'd love to hear it, sir," Justin replied, certain he wasn't going to like where this was going.

"I say we go underground. If there's anything worth finding, it's underground. And the underground tunnels were built for trouble."

Justin tried not to wince. "Speaking frankly, Admiral, nobody has been down there in forty years. And, I might remind you that the tunnels did nobody a damn bit of good all those years ago."

"You and I both know somebody who'd say that isn't true, Captain," Ben replied, his tone frosty. "And we came here to investigate, so I'll be damned if we let some bogeymen chase us off."

"Sir, we'll be a sitting target if someone unfriendly drops in on us," Justin replied, looking directly at Ben.

"Not if nobody sees us, Captain. We move the camp into the underground parts of the colony. Then we scatter and hide the shuttles."

Justin looked thoughtful. "We'd still make a pretty juicy target. And we don't yet know who reopened the entrances."

"It's what we came here for, Captain," Ben replied. "And, you have to admit, our Security people would be much better suited to handling threats in close-quarters, rather than out in the open."

Justin sat quietly for a few moments. Then he looked at Ben again. "Alright Admiral. It goes against my best instincts, but you've got my backing. I only have one condition though."

Ben frowned, clearly caught off-guard. "And what condition is that, Captain," he said, putting emphasis on Justin's rank.

Justin tilted his head forward. "It isn't much, Admiral, but what I want to know from you is why. Why are we really here?"

"I don't understand what you mean, Captain."

Justin pressed his lips into a thin, straight line. "It's impolite to call an Admiral a liar to his face, but sir, you're a liar. There's more here than just secret organizations and bizarre conspiracy theories. And, for one, I don't like operating in the dark."

"And what makes you think there's more here?" Ben asked, his voice growing icy again.

"You've been brooding, sir. On the trip here, when you weren't buried in your quarters, you were hovering over my CIC like a storm cloud. And frankly, no man with an impersonal mission would spend so much time brooding about it. For you, it's personal, and I want to know why."

Ben stood abruptly, turning to leave the tent. "What may or may not be personal to me is none of your damned business, Captain. It won't do you any good to guess at it. If I think you need to know it, then you'll know it, but all in good time."

"That's fine, Admiral," Justin replied curtly. "If I may have permission to speak frankly and off the record?"

"Why ask permission now, you've been doing it since I showed up," Ben said.

"Frankly sir, whatever it is that's driving you, I do need to know about it. Because I, and Captain Epps, have to deal with whatever comes up because of it," Justin replied, even as he heard Ben stalk off into the night.


The scout finished its insertion burn, flipping end-over-end to point its nose toward the planet once again. They were firmly within the gas giant's grasp. Its gravity would pull the scout toward it, and then it would slingshot around the giant planet and would end up aimed in such a way that it would intercept the habitable moon and the intruding ships. The plan remained unchanged, they would attempt to positively identify the intruders and report their findings back to their mothership. The scout wasn't well armed enough to engage anything really threatening, but the mothership was another matter entirely.

Justin stood just inside a doorway that lead to the colony's numerous underground tunnels. Pale, creamy yellow light streamed into the passage as the massive bulk of Firefall hung overhead, its broad yellow face half-lit. He watched as the last shuttle blasted off in a cloud of dust and debris. For several moments, it was silhouetted against Firefall's broad expanse, and then it accelerated rapidly toward the horizon. A cool breeze wafted the earthy cinnamon aroma of the native plant life in his face for several moments, and then died away.

He drew the blaster at his hip, briefly checking the glowing power readout on its side. Satisfied, he slid his finger over the safety, feeling it slide into place. He then made his way down the stairway that lead underground. At the bottom, Commander Montree and Admiral Lewinger were waiting for him. Just in front of them, a scout spider glinted in the light of Commander Montree's flashlight. Six ruby lenses on the top of a stalk mounted on the spider's dome-shaped shell tracked Justin's descent.

"Everyone is situated?" Justin asked quickly, stepping up to Commander Montree.

"Yes sir, we will be the last three inside," Montree replied, his naturally pale skin seeming to glow in the semi-darkness.

"Have we found anything so far?"

"Not yet, sir," Montree replied. "The scout droids are continuing to update our maps of the underground tunnels. We've got several, such as this one here, covering the entrances," he said, bumping the spider with his boot. It skittered out of the way, the sensors on its back remaining fixed on the doorway above.

Justin looked over to Ben, then back to Commander Montree again. "Shall we get going then?"

"Yes sir, if you two will follow me," Montree replied, turning away from Justin and Ben.

"Actually," Ben said, "Commander, go on ahead. I need to talk with Captain Phillips for a minute."

"As you wish, sir," Montree replied, not looking over his shoulder. For several moments, Ben and Justin stood in silence. Finally, Ben spoke.

"Captain, I wish to talk about what took place earlier tonight."

Justin furrowed his brows. "Sir?"

"Look, Captain, we don't see eye-to-eye. Even so, I may have been a bit hasty in my refusal to tell you anything. So I think I'm offering a truce," Ben said.

Justin nodded. "What are you proposing, Admiral?"

Ben was silent for a moment. "I'll let you in on a few more of my motivations for ordering this operation. But, in return, I ask two things of you."

Justin frowned. "What are they, Admiral?"

"First, you keep what I tell you between you and me."

Justin nodded in the semi-darkness. "I can do that, sir. Captain Epps might not appreciate being kept out of the loop though."

"You're my flag captain, she's not. You need to know a few more things than she does," Ben replied.

Justin nodded his assent, not quite willing to point out that there were only two captains involved in the mission. "And the other thing?"

"Yes," Ben said, narrowing his eyes. "I want you to stop challenging me so much."

"I beg your pardon, Admiral?"

"You know exactly what I mean, Captain. You've questioned my authority and my decisions from the moment you first set foot aboard the Federation," Ben replied with a sudden glare.

"Speaking frankly sir," Justin said calmly. "There are only three senior officers on this trip. Chain of command is a lot more two-way here than it is on the group or cluster level."

Ben furrowed his brow. "Why does that sound familiar?"

Justin decided to take a gamble. "You've probably heard it before, if you know the same Commodore Zelthig that I do."

Ben stopped walking. For several long moments, he was silent. Then, he nodded slowly and spoke quietly. "Perhaps I have, Captain. And perhaps you have a point," he said slowly looking at Justin.

"Perhaps," Ben continued. "Perhaps we need to talk more. Did you know that Commodore Zelthig was born here?"

Justin raised his eyebrows and blinked. "No sir, I did not know that."

"Almost nobody does," Ben replied. "I only know about it because I took her under my wing when she was orphaned by the Demonoid attack here."

Justin nodded, a bemused expression on his face. "I beg your pardon sir, but may I ask why you're telling me this?"

"You might, Captain," Ben replied. "I mention that because I took another officer under my wing many years before that. I hope you've heard of Captain Laura Risinger."

"Yes Admiral," Justin replied. The name Laura Risinger was well known to most Fleet officers. It was the name associated with the Risinger Massacre, the ambush that marked the definitive end of the era of the so-called “Super-ships,” the behemoths that once formed the core of Fleet.

"Then you know that she died, correct?"

"Yes sir, that's what they say in the textbooks sir."

Ben nodded. "The thing is, she didn't die."

Justin frowned, taking a step away from Ben. "I'm afraid I'm not following you. You say she isn't dead, when all the historical accounts and her subsequent forty years of silence say otherwise."

Ben regarded Justin with a cold smile. "Yes, but think back to your history classes. Do you know who wrote those accounts? Do you know who the last man to see Laura alive was?"

"You, Admiral?" Justin said, almost at a loss for words.

"That's right," Ben replied quietly, fighting to control his voice. "Lieutenant Ben Lewinger, the USS Risinger's deputy chief of engineering, was the last man to see Laura Risinger alive. Except when he told the board that she was dead, he was lying. It's a lie he's been trying to set straight for forty years."

"Impossible," Justin said after a few moments. Then he looked at Ben again. The older man looked Justin in the eye and very slowly shook his head. Justin scowled, opening his mouth to speak again when he noticed a sudden movement out of the corner of his eye. He looked down in the direction of the spider droid standing guard at the bottom of the stairwell. As his eyes picked out the drone, he immediately saw that it was no longer alone, or functional.

Standing over the wreckage of the drone was an animal that looked very much like a Persian cat. Except it had fur the same off-gray color as the concrete it was standing on. And the fur looked metallic in the light of Firefall. The animal had just finished dispatching the spider droid and was settling over it. Already, it seemed as if the parts of the droid in direct contact with the animal's belly were starting to dissolve.

"Admiral! Out of the way!" Justin shouted, the previous moment's confusion forgotten. The animal turned its head to look at them. Where a normal animal would've had a face, it had an oval sapphire window, which glowed faintly. Quickly, the animal stood up, taking a step back toward the stairs. However, Justin's blaster was already clearing its holster.

The animal attempted to turn to run up the stairs, except a large part of the spider droid's shell was still firmly stuck to the animal's belly. Its burden gave Justin the time he needed, as his arm snapped up, bringing the blaster to bear. With two loud cracks, the blaster discharged, bolts of superheated metal burning through the animal. Electricity arced around its body as it thrashed violently for a moment, then was still.

Justin kept his weapon pointed at the smoldering ruin as he took a few careful steps toward it. He then looked back at Ben with a flash of anger.

"It's a CARL!" He snapped as Commander Montree and three other Security officers charged in, their blasters drawn.

"Impossible," Ben said, stepping closer. "It can't be."

"It is, Admiral, look at it. No animal can digest a metal and plastic droid like that. I'm telling you, it's a CARL."

Commander Montree put his blaster away and unclipped his handcomp from his belt. He quickly extended the computer's scanning antenna and waved it in the direction of the charred body, flipping up the screen to examine the results.

"Captain Phillips is right, Admiral, it looks like a very standard CARL. MarsCorp probably dropped it, or one of its ancestors, here some time ago."

"We've come down a dead end then?" Justin asked, finally holstering his blaster.

"It would seem that way, sir," Montree replied, not taking his eyes off his handcomp. That left Justin to look back at Ben, who stood silently, looking at the charred ruin of the CARL. Justin was lost in his own thoughts for a few moments after that.

"That's odd," Montree muttered, bringing both men out of their reveries.

"What's odd, Commander," Ben said first.

"It’s this CARL. My handcomp is telling me it isn't one of ours."

"Could it just be a copy made from native material?" Justin asked quickly.

"It is likely to be, sir. Except, like anything that relies on nanotechnology, the original CARL's descendents would all carry the same distinctive RF identification tag. And though I can't be sure until one of our technicians arrives with a proper scanner, I'd say that this CARL doesn't have an ID tag that matches any of the popular MarsCorp models."

Ben nodded, looking suddenly triumphant. "We may be back in business then. I want a sweep of the complex for these CARLs. With luck we can figure out who they belong to, and where they come from."





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And finally, Chapter Four, Part III.

~~~

Dateline: 25200610.1010, Executive Officer's Log: USS Starla. Captain Epps was unsuccessful in her attempt to find whoever is in the system with us. Fortunately, the Agamemnon is closing rapidly on the colony moon. In less than five minutes, both the Agamemnon and the Starla will begin scanning the space between them with scanners on full power. If we don't get a direct return on our guests, we might startle them into doing something stupid.

Wes Enderman stretched out in the captain’s chair, forcing himself to relax. He knew they would likely only get one shot at catching whoever was trying to get the drop on them. They had proven remarkably adept at evading the Agamemnon as Captain Epps had tried to chase them down. And, so far, they were doing an excellent job of staying off the Starla's passive sensors. Wes felt encouraged by that fact though, since it meant that their guests weren't doing things like using their engines, or flooding the space around them with targeting radar.

"Sir, Agamemnon reports that they're ready," Lieutenant McFarland reported from her station.

"How far out is Agamemnon?" Wes asked quickly, running a hand through his thick wavy brown hair.

"They are 379,000 kilometers out in the direction of Firefall. At their current velocity, they have an ETA of five hours."

"That's good. Plenty of room to triangulate," Ryan said, looking to Wes.

"I agree," Wes replied. "Do it, Lieutenant. Full power to all radar and LIDAR arrays. Start the ship on a slow barrel roll; I want the whole sky saturated in radiation."

"Yes sir," Lieutenant McFarland replied, her fingers flying over her console. "Starting sensor sweep."

"Rolling to port sir," the young man at Navigation reported. "Accelerating to peak rate of seven-point-two degrees per second.

Suddenly, the space around Starla was awash in radiation. In a fraction of a second, the first pulses reached Agamemnon. In response, she started her own scans. Data streamed between the two ships, their computers combining the incoming sensory information, giving the two ships vastly superior sensitivity than either one would've had alone. Very quickly, their combined eyes noticed something that didn't belong. Almost directly between them was a third ship.



In a fraction of a second, the scout found itself solidly locked up by the tracking radars of both the Starla and the Agamemnon. However, aboard the ship, there was no panic. The situation was unfortunate, but the scout's crew accepted it. They were surprised to discover that, somehow, the Agamemnon had gotten behind them. It was expected that both ships would remain close to the colony moon. It was hoped that it would've been the scout that lit up the intruders with its own sensor arrays. It didn't matter now; there was no more point to hiding.


"We have them!" Ryan and Lieutenant McFarland exclaimed, almost at the same time.

"What do we got?" Wes asked, looking to Ryan.

"One contact, about 111,000 kilometers off. We'll have identification in a moment," Ryan replied as Lieutenant McFarland continued to work.

"Sir, we're being scanned!" Lieutenant McFarland exclaimed. "The radio signature is identical to that of the standard Demonoid radar."

"Demonoid?" Wes said, lifting his eyebrows. "What are they doing here? Ryan, do we have a firm ID on that ship yet?"

"Ship's profile indicates an Ibarrak-Ziphial class frigate," Ryan replied. Immediately, the ship's specs materialized on the console in front of Wes. He quickly glanced over the summary; the Ibarrak-Ziphial was the Demonoid Regency's newest frigate. It had a simple layout, with a small crew compartment, two weapons modules, and some fuel tanks strapped to six giant engines. Though the technology of virtually all of its systems still lagged close to a century behind those of the Starla, or even the Agamemnon, it had shields that were competitive with those of its Federal frigate or corvette counterpart. That wasn't the ship's primary purpose though. It was a scout that was designed to get in and out of places very quickly. And it did that job very well. Though its primitive sublight drive only gave it a virtual acceleration of just over two hundred gravities, its fusion engines gave it a real acceleration of eighty gravities. And in places where one couldn't engage sublight engines, such as areas close to planets, the Ibarrak-Ziphial could accelerate in a way that made the Starla look like it was standing still.

"Looks like we've got problems then," Wes said. "Arm all energy weapons. That ship is in point-blank range. We can get them if they don't start accelerating."

"And they just started accelerating, sir," Lieutenant McFarland said, her tone dry. "They're coming right at us, shields and weapons hot."

"Bring 'em inside our forward arc," Wes replied. "Hit them as soon as we can get a shot off."

The Starla began to rotate, slowly bringing the broad brim of its main weapons arrays to bear on the Demonoid ship. However, the Demonoids, already in prime firing position, got the first shot. The Starla's shields flared brightly as Demonoid lasers and particle beams raked across them. The Starla replied, its first few shots missing the Demonoid ship entirely, its sensors dazzled by the storm playing across its own shields.

Then, it was the Agamemnon's turn. Sitting almost directly behind the Demonoid frigate, it had a clear view of the frigate's weakest shields. By necessity, a ship's shields were almost nonexistent directly behind its engines. Placing a shot through a ship's aft shields was generally called "shooting up the skirt." And Kristin meant to do exactly that.

Lethal energies flashed across the gap between Agamemnon and the Demonoid ship. With lethal precision, the Agamemnon's fire cut through the frigate's rear shields, cutting into one of its engines. With a flash and a burst of molten metal, the engine failed. Yet, the damage was contained to the single ruined engine. The frigate's heaviest armor was wrapped around its engines and formed a thick plate between them and the rest of the ship. However, it forced the scout to break off its attack against the Starla. The frigate rotated, rolling its vulnerable aft-aspect away from Agamemnon's weapons.



"Tactical, damage report!" Wes ordered, shouting above the wail of the alarms.

"Port shield at six percent of maximum capacity. All adjacent sectors are radiating normally. We'll be nominal in thirteen seconds," Lieutenant McFarland replied crisply.

"That's good," Wes said. "Navigation, keep the ship turning toward them. We'll catch them in the crossfire between us and the Agamemnon."

"Yes sir," the man at Navigation replied.

"Wes, CIC reports that the Demonoids are at 108,800 kilometers and closing at thirty-seven kilometers per second. Acceleration is estimated at sixty standard gravities," Ryan said, looking down at his console.

Wes thought for a moment. "How far are they going to miss us by now?"

"I'd say about 60,000 kilometers at closest approach."

"We'll start accelerating towards their projected point of closest approach," Wes said after another moment. "If we keep hounding them, they'll never build up enough velocity to escape."

"Sounds good to me," Ryan replied, standing up. "Since I'm currently the second in command here, I'm going to get down to First Command while we've got some time."

"Get to it," Wes replied. "Tactical, load first torpedo tube with a short-range torpedo. Get a solution for when the Demonoids hit their projected point of closest approach."

"Aye sir," Lieutenant McFarland replied. "Primary weapon arrays are fully charged and the Demonoids have entered our forward firing arc."

"All ships, open fire!" Wes ordered.


Almost as one, the Starla and the Agamemnon slashed at the Demonoid frigate. Within moments, the fiery nimbus of its shields surrounded it. The ship rotated, distributing the load among its shields, reducing the strain on each individual sector. Though the shields themselves were capable of radiating away tremendous amounts of energy, the equipment maintaining them would burn out from the sustained stress. Then, the ship did something unexpected. In one moment, it cut power to its engines as it flipped end-over-end. In less than fifteen seconds, its nose was pointed directly at the Starla.


"Missiles in the air! Seventy-five seconds to impact," Lieutenant McFarland yelled as the Starla's sensors noted the sudden appearance of eight missiles ahead of the Demonoid ship. The missiles, being much smaller than the ship launching them, could safely engage their own miniature sublight drives without fear of accidentally transiting into the middle of the planet. Though they each had less than ninety seconds of power, the Starla far enough inside their range that it didn’t matter.

Yet, the Starla wasn't completely defenseless against them. Even as it detected the missiles, it slowed its attack on the Demonoid frigate. Jammers and ECM arrays sprang to life, simultaneously seeking to dazzle and confuse the seeker heads of the Demonoid missiles. Two of the missiles lost their lock on the Starla and wandered off. As the missiles crossed the one-minute shell, compact arrays of point-defense weapons started saturating the space ahead of the Starla with low-power fire. In less than fifteen seconds, two of the missiles crossed the path of one of the Starla's weapons, vanishing in a silent flash.

The four survivors finished their arming process, and started to spread out, maneuvering wildly. The Starla's defensive fire spread out, trying to follow the missiles. Even as the seconds ticked away, doors on the top and bottom of the Starla's hull flipped open. Without any human intervention whatsoever, the ship deployed a set of decoys, which accelerated away in a starburst pattern. The decoys' motors burned out in less than a second, but now they were aimed in the direction of the incoming missiles, their siren song luring three of them into the waiting jaws of the decoys’ laser heads.

Then, there was no more time. The last missile rapidly closed the distance, aimed squarely at the center of Starla's forward shield. It reached the point where it could do the most damage and detonated. Like Federal torpedoes, short-range Demonoid missiles were bomb-pumped x-ray laser warheads, which focused the bulk of their ten-megaton yield into a narrow cone of raw destructive power.


Wes felt the ship shudder around him as the forward part of the hull was heated violently. The lights flickered as the Starla was engulfed in a storm of electromagnetic energy.

"Sir, all shields at seventy-eight percent of maximum capacity!" Lieutenant McFarland exclaimed. Suddenly, a sharp explosion rocked the ship. "Belay that, forward shields have just gone inoperative!"

Wes nodded grimly. The explosion he felt was the forward shield generator overloading. Undoubtedly, the forward hull was scoured by another hail of high-energy particles, as the fields containing the shield collapsed.

"Engineering," he shouted. "Damage report!"

"It's not good!" Commander Nuanez shouted back. The lights flickered and died as the ship shook again.

"Oh shit, belay that," Nuanez snapped. "The entire shield system just went down in a catastrophic cascade. Worse, the EM pulse wrecked our sensors and shut down the power grid."

"That is bad," Wes said through clenched teeth. "Navigation, start evading, or they're going to carve us up."

"Aye sir, sending the ship into a fast spin," the navigator replied as the lights flickered back on.

"Any good news, Tactical?"

"No sir," Lieutenant McFarland replied. "All primary weapons are unresponsive. There are power and environmental failures all throughout the first seven sections. Main forward active sensors are unresponsive, and the passives are overloaded."

Wes sighed. "What's on TacNet?"

"Not much," McFarland replied. "Sir, the Demonoids are breaking off. They are continuing to accelerate tangential to us at sixty standard gravities. They will hit the minimum sublight drive boundary in under an hour. Agamemnon is decelerating to render assistance."

Wes shook his head. "Tell Captain Epps to belay that. She needs to stop that scout from bringing backup. At the very least," he said, looking down at his console, "she needs to hang back and continue tracking them. That frigate doesn't have a hyperdrive. That means the Demonoids have a fleet presence somewhere in this system. We've gotta know what we're really up against."




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Well, I can say one thing. I want more.



Any job worth doing with a laser is worth doing with many, many lasers. -Khrima
There's just no arguing with some people once they've made their minds up about something, and I accept that. That's why I kill them. -Othar
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 Post subject: Chapter Five: Part I PostPosted: 2008-01-21 11:41pm
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I hereby cast raise on a dead, dead thread. But it's good necromancy, because I'm actually adding content. And it's my own fic, damn it. Anyway, sorry for the lengthy delay. Converting stuff from Word to BBCode is nothing short of a pain in the ass and my old method of doing it was ... very time intensive and excessively discouraging as a result. Hopefully this new method works better. Without further ado:

Chapter Five: Clues.

Dateline: 25200610.1200, from the personal log of Captain Justin Phillips. It has been a sleepless fifteen hours since we found our first CARL. A sweep of the tunnels revealed twenty more of the self-reproducing machines, as well as eight normal surveillance droids. We have also discovered that there are areas that have been newly sealed off. The mystery here continues to deepen.

Justin stepped into the broad expanse of what had once been an underground community center. Every time he went in, he could never shake the feeling that he was stepping into an old, abandoned slaughterhouse. From what he read, the Demonoids herded the colonists into the underground community centers in the last hours before the massacre. Though MarsCorp removed the bodies, they apparently had little stomach to thoroughly clean the place. All along the walls and floors were dark brown splashes of long-dried blood. Between them were burns where Demonoid weapons had missed their marks.

Justin shivered as he made his way to some long tables near the center of the room. The community centers were the only places large enough to allow his team’s technicians to do the work they needed to do. And, they had a lot of work ahead of them. Spread out on the tables was carnage of a different sort. The remains of CARLs and droids, in various states of disassembly, were spread out over the tables. Also spread out on the tables was the remains of a number of Federal spider droids, which had been unlucky enough to encounter one of the CARLs.

Sitting along the tables were technicians and Security officers, each surrounded by an array of scientific equipment: handcomps, scanning wands, and sampling tubes. They had gathered a lot of data, but making sense of it would take time.

Briefly, Justin wished that they could pack up the whole mess and ship it back up to the Starla. Unfortunately, he knew that would be impossible until the emergency situation up in orbit blew over. Disturbingly, there had been no communication from the Starla in over fifteen hours. Until there was some word, the surface teams had to make do with what they had . . . they couldn’t even risk bringing a shuttle over to the site, even though a shuttle’s more powerful computers would be better suited to the task of dissecting cell-sized machinery.

“Good morning, sir,” Commander Montree said, stepping up behind Justin.

“Likewise, Commander,” Justin replied. “Are they making any headway?”

“I wish I could say we were sir,” Montree said. “Unfortunately, none of the instruction codes we’ve managed to lift from the brains of our CARLs match what few codes we have stored in our handcomps. And the computers aboard the shuttles, if we had access to them, aren’t going to know any more than that. We need the Starla or the Agamemnon.

“And we can’t get our hands on either one just yet,” Justin replied unhappily. “How about the droids?”

“We’ve made a little more headway on them. Some of them have their processor cores intact, but I’m told they’re maybe two or three generations ahead of what we have now.”

“I see,” Justin said. “What about everything else? Are there any identifying marks at all?”

Montree nodded slowly. “We’ve found some, but there’s a problem.”

“That isn’t what I wanted to hear,” Justin replied.

“I know, and I wish I didn’t have to say it,” Montree said, rubbing the ridges over his brows. “The problem is: nobody here can read it. It definitely isn’t Imperial script or Eastern Imperial type. It bears a passing resemblance to Standard type, but nobody here can understand the words.”

“So everything we’ve found is Human made then?”

“Yes sir. The language is unfamiliar, but it is definitely Human.”

“Very curious,” Justin said. “Humans made these droids, and they made them more advanced than we can make them. Could they be Commonwealth?”

Montree shook his head quickly. “Can’t say for sure, but the architecture is all wrong. The Commonwealth doesn’t build them like we do . . . and if it were a Commonwealth operation; we would’ve encountered an android or two by now.”

Justin nodded. The Commonwealth had a well-established robotics and cybernetics industry. They built everything from electronic brains far surpassing anything simple biology had produced, to humanoid androids, which were difficult to distinguish from the real thing.

“Good morning, Captain, Commander,” Ben said, walking into the community center.

“Good morning Admiral,” Justin replied. Montree merely nodded. Ben took a moment to look over the work going on at the tables.

“Still working at the problem?” Ben asked.

“And they’ve got a ways to go, Admiral,” Justin replied. “What have you been doing this morning?”

“I’ve been with Sergeant Farouk’s team at the sealed parts of the complex,” Ben said. “Did you know that they’ve found an almost impenetrable shell that is covering a doorway a few hundred meters from here?”

Justin nodded. “I had heard that, yes. Do they know who put it there?”

“I wouldn’t think they would,” Montree interrupted. “However, I would say that the CARLs here have something to do with it,” he said, waving his hand over the tables.

“Go on,” Justin and Ben said, almost at once.



“Yes sir,” Montree replied. “These CARLs were evidently designed to absorb and process metals and inorganic materials. They can probably also produce them.”

“Of course,” Ben said. “And if whoever put them there wanted to keep certain parts of the complex sealed off, they’d just have the CARLs build a wall. And . . . if they wanted access, they could have the CARLs disassemble the wall,” he suddenly grinned. “Makes you wonder what they’re hiding.”

Montree nodded slowly. “It does indeed. But we don’t have anything that can get through those walls. Demolitions equipment isn’t standard issue for Security officers, and the heaviest weapons we’ve got are blaster carbines.”

“I don’t think our marines are out of ideas yet,” Ben said. Justin immediately looked over at him. “Sergeant Farouk thinks they can improvise a bomb from blaster cartridges.”

Justin shook his head. “If they’re thinking of something as insane as building bombs out of ammo, then they’ve run out of good ideas. And that’s putting it mildly.”

“What do you suggest then, Captain,” Ben asked, narrowing his eyes.

“We wait. It’s all we can do. Either we’ll have a breakthrough from our study of the droids, or the Starla will get around to calling in and we can bring down some proper demolitions equipment.”

“I see,” Ben said.

“Thank you, Admiral,” Justin replied. “I believe that we should investigate our other efforts here. Our techs are undoubtedly feeling some pressure with both of us in here.”

Ben looked thoughtful for a moment. “Perhaps you’re right, Captain. If you would excuse us, Commander Montree?”

“Of course sirs,” Montree replied. “I’ll be in touch if something comes up.”

As Justin and Ben left the room, Ben turned to Justin. “I’ve been alive just long enough to see a hint when I hear one. By now, you probably think I’m crazy, don’t you? And drop this ‘speaking frankly’ nonsense, when you say it, it means trouble.”

“Yes Admiral,” Justin replied. “I never got to hear the whole story since we were interrupted by that CARL. And since we’re in the same place, and nobody is bothering us, I would like to hear it now.”

“That sounds fair,” Ben said, nodding slowly.

Starla to Captain Phillips, please respond?” A tinny voice called out from Justin’s wristcomm. He looked down. Sure enough, there was a small red light flashing on its face. Justin brought his wrist up, pressing a button on his wristcomm.

“This is Captain Phillips. We’ve been waiting for you to call in!”

“And we’ve been waiting to contact you,” the voice changed. Justin immediately recognized the speaker. “We’ll only be in view of your relay for about ten minutes.”

“Let’s get to it then, Wes,” Justin replied. “What’s your status?”

There were a few moments of silence before Wes replied. “Not good, Justin.”

Justin frowned. “What do you mean?”

“We identified our interloper as a Demonoid frigate, I-Z class. We tried to catch them between the Agamemnon. Unfortunately, they dropped a party-pooper on us.”

Justin furrowed his brow. A ‘party-pooper’ was generally any nasty surprise a ship used to throw off pursuers. Generally it came in the form of a brace of missiles fired at insanely close ranges. “What happened?”

“It was a textbook missile strike. Perfect angle and perfect range at full power. Unfortunately, I’m talking about the Demonoids. Starla took a direct hit to the forward shield. That put the rest of the system out of commission very quickly.”

“What other damage did you sustain?”

“We lost a good fraction of our passive sensory capability, and a third of our forward weapons are either blinded or immobilized. No casualties though, and Engineering anticipates that we can get the shields up to half power before the top of the hour.”

Justin nodded. “My poor ship,” he said with a sigh. “Good thing it’s not as bad as it could’ve been. What about Agamemnon?”

“They’re undamaged and they’re currently pursuing the Demonoid frigate. It doesn’t have a hyperdrive, which means it’s got friends somewhere. Look, Justin, you need to pack up and come back as soon as possible.”

Justin nodded again. “I see that, Wes.” He looked over at Ben, then back at his wristcomm. “However, we’ve made a number of very fascinating discoveries here. We’re going to have to come back down and have a better look.”

“You found something?” Wes asked.

“That’s right,” Justin replied. “We’ll be bringing up some interesting material, so have a quarantine set up on the hangar deck.”

“Understood, is there anything else?”

Justin looked thoughtful for a moment. “Yes, I’ll have our teams uplink to you all the data gathered so far.”

“Got that too,” Wes replied. “I’ll pass everything along to Science as we get it. Look forward to seeing you again.”

“Roger that,” Justin replied. “Phillips out.”

Ben shook his head slowly at Justin. “You could’ve had them send down another team.”

“Another time, Admiral,” Justin replied. “We can’t stay down here with definite hostiles in the system. I assure you, though, we’ll be back.”





Last edited by GrandMasterTerwynn on 2008-01-22 03:32pm, edited 1 time in total.
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 Post subject: Chapter Five: Part II PostPosted: 2008-01-21 11:46pm
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And for part II of Chapter Five:

Kristin glanced at the Agamemnon's tactical plot, then up at the sensor readouts on the Demonoid ship she was pursuing. The Demonoids had pushed the advantage offered by their greater real acceleration to the limit. In twenty-five minutes they'd put enough distance between themselves and Firefall to bring up their sublight engines. It had been over thirteen minutes of hard acceleration before the Agamemnon could do the same. And in that time, the Demonoids managed to put over a million kilometers between themselves and the Agamemnon. And in the two hours Kristin had been chasing them, they put an additional eight million kilometers between themselves and her. However, there was something that still puzzled her.

“They still haven’t brought up their sublight engines?” Kristin asked her Tactical officer.

“No ma’am. They’re still on reaction thrusters only. Acceleration has remained steady at sixty standard gravities,” the dark-skinned young woman answered.

Kristin let a ghost of a smile cross her face. “Looks like we hit them harder than I thought. About time we caught a break.”

“Yes ma’am,” her Tactical officer, Commander Manjula Kumar, replied. “Shall I bring up our own sublight engines?”

“No,” Kristin replied. “Our first job is to find out where their friends are, and how many they have. It wouldn’t be good to run into an ambush at full speed.”

“Yes ma’am,” Commander Kumar replied. For a few moments, there was silence on the bridge. Then a flashing red light caught Kristin’s attention.

“I’m detecting drive flares!” She heard Kumar say. “Missiles in the air.”

“Bastards,” Kristin said. “They know that someone is still behind them. Estimated time to impact?”

“Unknown, ma’am, they’ve already gone dark.”

“I see,” Kristin replied. “What do you think they’re doing?”

“They might be trying to lay an ambush for us,” Commander Kumar said. “When we get close enough to those missiles, they’ll come back to life, and we’ll be going too fast to evade or intercept them.”

“I thought so,” Kristin replied grimly as four flashing icons appeared on the tactical plot.

“Belay that, ma’am, all Demonoid warheads have just detonated. Starburst sensors have just saturated!”

“The hell,” Kristin swore. “Sweep their path with the Starburst array now! They’re trying to give us the slip.”

“Increasing power to Starburst array, ma’am,” Commander Kumar replied. “Detectors are coming out of saturation,” she said, before dropping into several tense moments of silence. “Ma’am, we have them again. They’ve brought up sublight drives, and now have a virtual acceleration of 175 standard gravities.”

“And that means we can out-pace them now,” Kristin said. Though the Agamemnon couldn’t hope to match the Demonoid ship’s real acceleration, her superior sublight engines gave her an overwhelming advantage when she could use them.

“Yes ma’am, but I’m picking up new targets along their vector.”

Kristin frowned. “Can you identify them?”

“The Starburst array is picking up a number of active signatures that would be consistent of those of Demonoid ships, possibly cruiser class or better. However, the forward passive sensors are picking up on one big target, at least six-thousand meters in length.”

“An asteroid,” Kristin said hopefully. She didn’t care to think much about the alternative.

“No ma’am,” Commander Kumar replied. “The Starburst array is picking up an active signature from the large target too. It’s definitely a ship.”

“We’ve got a problem then,” Kristin said. “Can you identify it?”

“Not yet, ma’am. We’re still too far out for the Starburst array to effectively focus on them, nor can we extract much detail from our passive scans.”

“Understood,” Kristin replied. “Navigation, change our course slightly. I want to miss them by a safer distance, say five million kilometers. I hope that will bring us close enough to get a detailed reading.”

“Aye ma’am, calculating corrective burn,” the man at the Navigation station replied.

Kristin settled into her chair, glancing at the updated tactical plot. Again, their situation had become a waiting game.


Justin watched as the last of the shuttles crowded into the Starla’s hangar. There were four of them now, packed uncomfortably close together in the hangar. Though the ship could carry six shuttles in the storage bay below the hangar, the Starla already had its full complement of shuttles. That only left the hangar bay to store the four Agamemnon had deployed on the colony moon.

It was a very precarious situation. The four shuttles were now bombs, which could do a lot of damage if enemy fire penetrated the thinly armored hangar bay doors. The Agamemnon’s shuttles would have to be made completely inert, which involved draining their fuel tanks and removing their antimatter engine cores. And that would make them a distinct liability if the Starla had to launch any shuttles in a hurry. On some days, Justin reflected, there was simply no way to win.

“Captain Phillips, please report to the bridge,” a voice boomed out over the hangar’s loudspeakers.

Justin sighed, tapping his wristcomm twice; making sure it was set back to shipboard mode. As he stepped into the lift, he pressed the transmit button.

“Justin to the bridge,” he said.

“Justin, there you are!” Wes replied quickly.

“Yeah,” Justin said. “Fill me in, what’s our situation?”

“Not as good as it used to be,” Wes replied. “We just got the latest update on the Agamemnon’s situation over TacNet. They’re still tailing their quarry, but it seems we have move unwelcome company coming.”

“What sort of unwelcome company?” Justin asked, leaning against the lift wall.

“They spotted an incoming vessel at least six thousand meters in length. It was accompanied by possible Demonoid escorts, so they figure it’s a Demonoid ship.”

“And they’re liars, Wes,” Justin replied. “The Demonoids don’t have the technical ability to build a ship that big, at least not one that they can hope to move.”

“My thoughts exactly, Justin,” Wes said. “We know that the Zicharion Empire has been funneling technology and military assistance to the Demonoids. So, it’s really likely that ship is Zicharion.”

“Yes,” Justin replied, briefly contemplative. The Zicharion Empire was larger, older, and more aggressive than the Federation. There was great competition between the two powers for habitable worlds. However, a direct fight would prove ruinous to both powers; as a result, each side spent a lot of time attempting to manipulate the other into a position of disadvantage. “It is most likely to be a War-Fortress class super-dreadnought. The problem is: why would they have something that big here, and why trust the Demonoids to escort it?”

"That goes way beyond what I know right now, Justin," Wes said.

"Same here, Wes," Justin replied. "Has Science had a chance to look at the data we transmitted before taking off?"

"They're looking at it as we speak," Wes said. "Commander Westridge tells me that she plans to have her people perform an isotopic analysis on the stuff you collected from the surface."

"Nothing on the CARL programming or the text inscriptions?"

"Not yet. Ryan has our algorithms people looking through the code, but it's going to be a long, intensive effort. I did, however, send the data over to the Agamemnon. They might see something that we’re missing."

“Good work, Wes,” Justin said. “When I get to the bridge, I want to talk to Captain Epps. Have a channel standing by.”

"Wilco, Justin," Wes replied.



Kristin's disembodied head looked up at Justin and frowned, as it hovered above his console.

"And that's where we're at right now," she said.

"Thank you, Captain," Justin replied, nodding once. "Say, did your people get a chance to look at the data we sent you?"

"I think so," Kristin replied. She looked down for a moment. "Yes. I've got the Agamemnon's Science people looking at it now. Why do you ask?"

"We were hoping you'd have a different take on what we found," Justin said.

"Understood. We'll let you know what we find," Kristin replied. "Though there might be one thing."

Justin furrowed his brows. "What is it?"

"Did you get the script translated yet?"

"The script stamped on some of the equipment we found?" Justin replied, frowning. "Not yet, why?"

Kristin made a thoughtful noise. "I'll save you the trouble then. It's in English."

"English?" Justin said, almost stumbling on the unfamiliar word.

Kristin nodded. "Yes, Captain. English. It's a language as old as Spanish and Portuguese."

"Older than Standard or Imperial then," Justin replied. "I can't say that I've heard of it."

"Few people have," Kristin said. "It died more than two thousand years ago, during the Interregnum. I only recognize it because I spent time on a colony where it was still spoken. Though, there is something odd about the inscription."

Justin pursed his lips together. "I'm not sure what could be stranger than an inscription written in a dead language."

"It's the dialect it's written in. It's a sort of English called Belt English. Almost nobody alive speaks it, and only a few can read it well enough to even recognize it.”

“Then why is it stamped on these parts?” Justin asked, leaning back in his chair.

“I wouldn’t know,” Kristin replied. “I just thought it unusual.”

Justin nodded. “I understand, Captain. It does give us another avenue of investigation, though. And given how unusual it is, it might actually lead us somewhere."

"Hopefully," Kristin said, briefly looking down. "Forgive me, Captain, I have to cut this short."

Justin looked past Kristin's head at his own tactical display. It showed that the Agamemnon was getting to a range where she could properly image the Demonoid ships approaching them.

"Very well then," Justin replied. "We're right behind you, Captain."

"Thank you," Kristin said, her head vanishing.




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 Post subject: Chapter Five: Part III PostPosted: 2008-01-21 11:49pm
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And Chapter Five -- Part III

Kristin watched the same tactical readouts that Justin did. Except the Agamemnon was a lot closer to the Demonoid ships than he was. And it would be almost three hours before the Starla could get close enough to be of any help.

"Computed point of closest approach is coming up in a minute, ma'am," Petty Officer Torres, the young man at Navigation, reported.

"Tactical, gather as much data as you can," Kristin ordered, trying to settle into her chair. "And then get ready to run, the next missiles they launch at us will actually be able to get to us."

"Yes ma'am," Commander Kumar replied. "They won't get us easily."

"What are they doing," Kristin asked, continuing to watch her displays. The only Demonoid ship that was moving was the scout, which was standing on its tail, trying to shed enough velocity to rendezvous with the Zicharion super-dreadnought.

"I'm not sure ma'am," Commander Kumar said. "Something unusual though. The power curves on that super-dreadnought are way too low."

"Explain," Kristin replied, looking up.

"Well, all the sensor data I've gathered positively identifies the big ship as an older Zicharion War-Fortress class super-dreadnought. However, it almost looks as if they've barely got enough power to operate. They've seen us and they put their shields up, but the combat computers think they wouldn't even stand up very long to fire from just the Agamemnon."

"Interesting," Kristin said. "I don't think I want to test that though," she said, watching as the Agamemnon slipped in as close as they dared to the behemoth.

"Ma'am, Starburst arrays are showing a massive power spike from the super-dreadnought!"

Kristin sat up with a start. "What the hell are they doing?"

"It looks like they're running, ma'am," Commander Kumar replied after several moments, as she looked dumbfounded at her console. "Yes, they're ramping up their hyperdrives."

"Watch them carefully," Kristin replied, suddenly thankful that they were now moving away from the Demonoid ships at better than 44,000 kilometers per second.

"They're taking a big risk transiting something that big so far inside the system and so close to a giant planet," Petty Officer Torres remarked from his station.

"Why," Kristin asked. "Neither us, nor the Starla, can threaten them when they've got that much firepower on their side. Tactical, what's going on?"

"I wish I knew, ma'am," Commander Kumar replied, clenching her teeth a little.

"Let's shake them up a little then," Kristin said. "Full-powered sensor sweeps. They can't catch up to us, and if they're underpowered, they can't jam us."

"With pleasure, ma'am," Kumar replied quickly, her fingers dancing across her console. "All actives to full power, preparing to deploy sensor drones."

From the Agamemnon, radio waves, laser beams, and particle beams raced toward the Demonoid ships. Quickly, she was joined by a brace of four sensor drones, which spread out ahead of the ship, and began their own high-energy probing. The beams raced out across the millions of kilometers between Agamemnon and her quarry. They bounced and scattered off Demonoid hulls and were absorbed by Demonoid shields. The returning photons were heavily red-shifted, but the Agamemnon's computers teased out billions of bytes of data from the incoming sensor stream. It was all processed and stored, to be analyzed later.

And then, it was over. With barely a flicker, the super-dreadnought and her escorting ships were gone, transiting out of the system at an apparent speed approaching three-thousand times that of light. The only ship left behind was the Demonoid scout, which resumed its hard acceleration away from the Agamemnon.


"The Agamemnon reports that the super-dreadnought just transited out of the system," Lieutenant McFarland reported. Justin nodded slowly, the only indication that he'd heard. In fact, he could see the same tactical plot that his Tactical officer was watching. He knew what had happened several moments before Lieutenant McFarland reported it.

"Thank you, Lieutenant," he replied, tapping on his console. "This is the Bridge, the ship may now stand down from General Quarters."

As the alarm lights stopped flashing, Justin turned to look over at Ryan.

"This is all damned strange."

"Yes it is," Ryan replied. "Good thing the Agamemnon's scans are coming over the tactical link as we speak. My data analysis boys should be able to tell us more within hour."

"That sounds good," Justin said.

"Sir, what do we do about the Demonoid scout?" Lieutenant McFarland asked quickly.

"Nothing we can do, Lieutenant," Justin replied. "In fact, her crew is probably getting ready to scuttle her as we speak."

"Understood, sir," McFarland replied. "Should we be on the lookout for escape pods then?"

"No Lieutenant," Justin said, shaking his head slowly. "The moment they got left behind, they were marked as expendable. No Demonoid is going to abandon that ship."

"Yes sir," Lieutenant McFarland replied with a nod, turning back to her console.


Dateline: 25200612.0900. USS Starla: Conference Room One. Justin stood next to Ben at the head of the long oval table of the ship's main conference room. Standing a meter or two away from Justin was Kristin, who was standing with Commander Montree. As Justin looked back at Kristin, briefly her blue eyes held his own, before being drawn to the door.

Ryan stepped into the conference room, leading two young-faced technicians. One of them carried a twisted piece of metal that Justin instantly recognized as being part of one of the droids he and his men had shot up two days before.

"Morning, Justin," Ryan said with a nod, walking up to Justin.

"Likewise, Ryan," Justin replied, looking over those in the room with him again. "Are we all here? Good, I hear we have a lot of ground to cover," he said, pausing for a moment. "We need answers, folks, I hope you have them."

Ryan nodded. "As you know, my people, and the Agamemnon's people," he said, tilting his head to Kristin, "have been working almost nonstop for the last two days. And I think we've made good progress, given how little we got to work with. I could summarize it myself, but Lieutenant Halil and Petty Officer Vidonia have been working with the data directly, so I'll let them do most of the talking."

Lieutenant Javed Halil nodded to Petty Officer Vidonia, who placed the wreckage of the CARL in the middle of the conference table.

"Now as you all know, our landing parties collected a number of these from the colony moon," he said, his near-black eyes looking from person to person. "Most of them are replicated from native materials found on the colony. However, for a handful, the original CARLs dropped on the planet, the ratios of isotopes in the materials do not match anything in the system. And we know this because MarsCorp did very exhaustive mineralogical surveys of the system when the colony was founded a hundred years ago."

"So none of them are survivors from the original colony then?" Ben asked a thoughtful look on his face.

"No sir," Lieutenant Halil replied. "None of them match any of two-hundred patented designs available within twenty years of the colony's destruction. And given their behavior towards foreign machinery, it is unlikely that there are any original survivors remaining."

"Very good," Ben said. "So if it wasn't built by the Federation, then whom was it built by?"

"That we do not know yet," Halil replied. "They don't match any of the commercial Commonwealth or Imperial designs. And CARLs are beyond the Demonoids, and the other aliens don't use anything like them."

“So they were built by Humans then,” Justin asked.

“That’s right, sir,” Halil said.

“Is that all we know, Lieutenant?”

“I wouldn’t quite say that, Justin,” Ryan interjected. “We also have a pretty good guess about where they came from.”

"We do?" Justin replied with a frown. "Then by all means, spit it out!"

"With pleasure," Ryan said, tapping on the table. Within moments, a ghostly map of the galaxy flickered into existence above the center of the table, rotating serenely in the air. "Now as you know, any sizeable block of material has a unique ratio of isotopes that allows it to be traced back to handful of potential systems of origin."

As he said that, the map of the Galaxy slowly zoomed in as thirty stars began to flash brightly along a ragged arc. The rest of the image faded as names and numbers began to appear by the thirty stars.

“These are the thirty systems that have isotopic ratios matching the ones found in our CARLs,” Ryan said after a minute. “Fortunately for us, the systems are between one and three billion years old, and have largely dispersed as a result.”

“I see,” Ben said, leaning forward for a better look at the floating diagram. “And I would imagine that you could eliminate maybe two thirds of these stars by their distance from us.”

“That’s right,” Ryan replied, nodding at Ben. “A ship’s hyperdrive range is limited by how much antimatter fuel it can carry. The Starla, for example, has a total range of 26,000 light-years before refueling. The Agamemnon has an 11,000 light-year range,” he said, momentarily glancing at Kristin. “A commercial or civilian craft small enough to not be noticed would only have a range of perhaps one to four-thousand light-years.”

“So anything within two-thousand light-years would be fair game,” Justin said thoughtfully. “However, I’d think that if they had to go out to the edge of their range every time just to visit, they’d be more likely to establish an outpost in the system directly.”

“And we’re already pretty sure they don’t have one. That leaves us with just six systems to search,” Ryan replied, singling out six stars on his floating map. “And since they all show up in our surveys; that means someone back home ought to be keeping detailed records.”

“Such as the languages spoken there,” Kristin said, leaning back in her chair. All eyes in the room were immediately fixed on her. “I suppose you’re thinking that if you can find a system where the people speak old English, you might have what you’re looking for.”

“Very true, but not necessarily, Captain,” Ben said, cutting off Ryan and Justin. “Though it wouldn’t surprise me if they’d taken to hiding in plain sight, I think that, in the end, we’ll just end up uncovering yet another piece of the puzzle. Still, we’re getting closer ladies and gentlemen. The end is almost in sight.”

“Bridge to the Captain,” the voice of a young woman piped through the ship’s intercom.

Justin tapped a button on the computer terminal on the table in front of him.

“This is the Captain, what’s going on, Bridge?”

“Two hours ago, an early-warning and tracking relay picked up traces of the Zicharion super-dreadnought 140 light-years from here.”

Justin frowned, his attention immediately focused on the screen in front of him. “They’re not wasting much time. Was the relay station able to plot a projected course for our friends?”

“Aye sir,” the young woman responded. “There are a number of Federal systems and unaligned colonies in the threat zone. 291 Bancroft, 289 Bancroft, 4 Gallegos, 7 Gallegos, and 21 Gallegos, and my Tactical update says that the super-dreadnought could be at 289 Bancroft inside ten hours.”

“So they’re putting out the alert already,” Justin mused. “Who’s supposed to be covering this region?”

“The 1623rd Territorial Defense Squadron, sir. But they’ve got nothing that can handle a ship that big.”

“I see,” Justin replied. “We’ll make ready for departure in two hours then. There’s no way we’ll be there in time for the party, but we may get there in time to see what’s left.”

“Aye sir,” the young woman replied. “Bridge out.”

It was at that point Justin looked up again. The first faces he noticed were Ben and Ryan’s. Both men looked alarmed. Justin frowned again. “You two look as though you’ve seen a ghost.”

“We might’ve done just that, Justin,” Ryan replied. “The 4 Gallegos System happens to be one of those on our short list.”

Justin’s frown deepened. “Well, that shouldn’t be a problem . . . unless you two think that the dreadnought is really headed there, instead of 289 Bancroft.”

“That’s just the thing,” Ben replied. “That’s exactly what I think is going on. Think about it, what reason would the Demonoids or the Zicharions have for watching this system? I’d say that maybe they’re looking for the same things we are.”

“It’s possible,” Justin admitted. “But if it were true, then we would’ve run into them on the surface. And nothing on the surface would be as untouched as we found it.”

Ben frowned, Ryan nodded in agreement. Out of the corner of his eye, Justin saw Kristin nod briefly as well. “However, they may have another reason for attacking 4 Gallegos,” he added, looking down at his terminal again. “Computer, I need to run a library search.”

The screen blinked to life, and a pleasant androgynous baritone spoke. “Waiting for input, Captain,” the computer replied.

“What can you tell me about the 289 Bancroft and the 4 Gallegos systems?”

“Short summaries exist for both systems, Captain. Would you like to hear them both?”

“I think we all would, Computer. Switch to the conference room comm.”

“Affirmative,” the computer replied. A second later, the speakers in the conference room came to life with a faint pop. “The 289 Bancroft system has a colony founded by the Union Trans-Galactic Colonial Company on Dateline: 24040125.0000. It is an official member of the Federation with a population of 51,278. Would you like to hear more?”

Justin looked around the conference room, and then shook his head. “No, Computer. Give us the summary for 4 Gallegos.”

“Affirmative,” the computer replied. “The 4 Gallegos system has a colony founded by the Stevenson and Wolfe Colonial Company on Dateline: 23890307.0000. While it has a population of 79,800, it never formally applied for Federal membership. Though, as it is still a holding of its parent colonial company, it receives Federal protection. Would you like to hear more?”

Justin looked around again. “Not at the moment, Computer. But stand by,” he said, looking at Ryan, then at Kristin and Commander Montree.

“I’d like your opinion on this, folks,” he said. “We already know your view on this, Admiral,” he added.

“Understood,” Ben replied, looking lost in thought.

“If they’ve managed to smuggle a ship of that size into our territory, then they likely have intelligence at least as good as ours, sir,” Commander Montree said after a moment. “If they were here to launch an attack, they’d be better served going after one of the non-aligned worlds, rather than a full-fledged Federal member.”

“Would you agree with your head of Security, Captain,” Justin asked Kristin. She looked thoughtful for a moment.

“I would,” she replied. “It makes sense.”

“I thought so,” Justin said. “What do you say, Ryan?”

“I’d say I agree,” Ryan replied. “If you’ll excuse me, I think I need to get the ship ready to receive casualties.”

“Go Ryan,” Justin said, turning to look at Ben. “Looks like we’ll be going to 4 Gallegos after all.”

“Yes, it does,” Ben replied. “I’ll contact the commander of the 1623rd and order them to 4 Gallegos. They might’ve even figured it out themselves by now,” he said, falling silent for a few moments. “I’ll tell you something. Call me irrational, but I’m standing here hoping that what we’re looking for isn’t in 4 Gallegos. It’s the only thing I’m thinking about right now. We’re close, and I don’t want to start over again.”

Justin nodded, not unsympathetically. “Either way, we’ll find out in a few hours.”




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 Post subject: Chapter Six -- Part I PostPosted: 2008-01-24 10:14am
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Now serving . . . Chapter Six!

Chapter Six: The Organization.

Dateline: 25200612.2045, USS Eighteenth of April, outside the 4 Gallegos system. Captain Marisa Salvador watched her Tactical plot with mounting dread. The Eighteenth of April, named for the date of the Federation's formal founding, was one of four heavy destroyers operated by the 1623rd Territorial Defense Squadron. Those four destroyers, plus two cruisers, an escort carrier, and a command ship were the only things standing between 4 Gallegos and a Zicharion War Fortress-class super-dreadnought and twenty Demonoid Kilmona-Yismanal cruisers.

And they almost wouldn't have been there at all, were it not for a warning which came directly from Admiral Ben Lewinger himself. Though nobody quite knew what he was doing so far out on the periphery, his warning was still welcome, even if he was only bringing two ships to the battle. Not that it would've mattered, of course. The squadron was comfortably outgunned by the super-dreadnought bearing down on them. And they knew it too, for the Demonoid ships were sweeping out in two broad pincers that would serve to force the Federal ships directly into the field of view of the dreadnought's heaviest weapons.

"Time to torpedo range?" Marisa asked, making no effort to keep the resignation out of her voice.

"Thirty seconds, then we'll be waiting on the Hood's signal," her Tactical officer, a heavyset man with thin gray hair replied.

"That's good," Marisa replied. "Inform me when we get the go-ahead."

"Aye ma'am," the Tactical officer replied. The remaining seconds seemed to crawl by as the distance rapidly closed between them and the enemy fleet. They'd tried to warn the inhabitants of 4 Gallegos, and were alarmed to discover that the colonial authorities didn't take them very seriously. Certainly not seriously enough to take the sort of action that Marisa hoped that they would take.

"Ma'am, message from the Hood: We're clear to open fire," Marisa's Tactical officer reported.

"Execute as planned," Marisa ordered. "Two salvos then fall back."

Within seconds of each other, the Federal ships
fired all the torpedoes loaded into their forward missile tubes. Thirty-four torpedoes raced toward the super-dreadnought, followed by thirty-four more two seconds later. Then the squadron scattered, accelerating away from the dreadnought.


Ahead of the super-dreadnought, was a screen of
sixteen Demonoid Ibarrak-Ziphial frigates. They spread out, their target-acquisition radars seeking out the incoming torpedoes. Each ship only carried a handful of point-defense mounts, and those weren't very accurate. However, the Demonoids could still put a lot of lasers on those sixty-eight torpedoes. The space between the retreating Federal ships and the advancing Demonoid ships lit up as torpedoes were vaporized by Demonoid lasers. Eight torpedoes slipped through unscathed, only to be greeted by an unrelenting rain of laser fire from the dreadnought's own defensive weapons.


"No impact, Captain," Marisa's Tactical officer noted. "They were using their own emissions to hide their destroyer screen from us."

Marisa worriedly nibbled on her own lip. "That's not good then," she said. Excluding the Hood, the squadron only had enough torpedoes for nine salvos. And none of them would do any good if the torpedoes couldn't get close enough to seriously damage their opponent's shields.

"Ma'am, the Hood is ordering us to turn and fire again. No change in tactics."

Again, sixty-eight torpedoes were launched from the Federal ships. Demonoid sensors, still dazzled by the energies released by the destruction of the first torpedo salvo, couldn't target the new missiles as accurately. Twenty torpedoes slipped by the destroyer screen, and two of those managed to get close enough to attack the dreadnought directly.

"We're reading two direct hits on the dreadnought. Both affected shield sectors have been completely neutralized!"

"Huh?" Marisa said. From what she knew of Zicharion super-dreadnoughts, their shields should've comfortably absorbed both torpedoes with no ill effects whatsoever. "Oh, that's good then. Any change of plans from the Hood yet?"

"No ma'am . . . Ma'am! New reports indicate that the cruisers are sweeping forward to join the destroyer screen!"

Marisa frowned this time. Something wasn't adding up here, yet she couldn't yet put her finger on it.

"Ma'am, the Hood is ordering the squadron to make its third attack early. Captain Morretti wants to try to slip in a few more torpedoes before the Demonoid cruisers can join the screening force."

"Makes sense," Marisa replied, pushing her doubts to the back of her mind. "Come about, and fire then."

The eight ships of the squadron fired another brace of sixty-eight torpedoes at the super-dreadnought. However, the Demonoids were not yet out of surprises. The sixteen frigates started to drift out of their precise concave dish-shaped formation. Half the ships moved out ahead, while half the ships moved back. While it reduced the volume of fire the screen could bring to bear against the torpedoes, it would lengthen the amount of time they had to fire at them.

However, it brought added risk, especially to the ships out in front. Several torpedoes were intercepted by the ships in the rear as the missiles tried to slip by the ships ahead. Two frigates exploded silently in the cold dark of space. This time, more than half of the torpedoes managed to slip by the screen. Several more were picked of as the survivors out in front had time to turn around and attack the torpedoes from behind. Yet, even as they were closing in, their target engaged in a ponderous turn, bringing as many of its broadside weapons to bear as possible. No Federal torpedoes survived to attack the dreadnought's shields directly.

Then the Demonoids retaliated, as their cruisers slipped in close enough to unleash their own missiles. Forty Demonoid torpedoes bore down on the eight ships of the squadron as they broke formation and accelerated away from the Demonoid ships. The destroyers USS San Lorenzo de Ecuador, and the USS Coventry disappeared as Demonoid missiles shot up their unshielded aft blind spots and detonated. The cruiser USS Antietam fared little better, as did the squadron's command ship, the USS Hood.

Marisa coughed violently as smoke filled the Eighteenth of April's bridge. The ship had taken a torpedo hit to her bottom shield, which overloaded the shield and inflicted serious damage on her hull. She blinked back tears as she saw how few ships were left on her Tactical plot. Worse still, the Hood was now an unresponsive wreck, falling further and further behind.

"Tactical, what's our situation?"

"Not good, ma'am," her Tactical officer replied. "We've lost half our destroyers, a cruiser, and the Hood. Everybody else has sustained some sort of damage."

"All that because we let them have a nice long look up our skirts," Marisa said, coughing again. "Order all surviving ships to regroup and attack the Demonoid screening forces. We can't hurt that dreadnought, but those Demonoid ships protecting her are something else entirely.

~~~

Elsewhere in the 4 Gallegos system . . . Steven Jacot sat quietly in his cubicle, watching as data from across the galaxy drifted across his mental landscape like puffy clouds on a summer day. On the balance, it was a good day. Fifteen hundred years of carefully laid-out plans were progressing as they were supposed to. The Demonoid Regency was about to lose against the Federation, which meant that the Federation could finally take some time to address its shaky internal situation. Once they had done so, work could continue at pushing them in the direction they were supposed to go.

On the balance, he supposed, it had been a good hundred and sixty-seven years. Steven Jacot had risen through the ranks to become one of the Organization's top-ranked agents. He'd proven himself a capable recruiter and administrator, and even at 204 years of age, he never shied away from a field assignment, though this was something he couldn't keep up for too much longer . . . even the Organization's medical and cybernetic technologies had their limits.

"Good morning, Chris," he said, without turning around. His enhanced datajack was connected to a host of technological marvels that gave him a sort of sixth sense. He had noted the arrival of his longtime friend Chris Dempsey the moment the other man walked into the room.

"Likewise," Chris Dempsey replied. "Anything new on the galactic front?"

"Afraid not, old friend," Steven replied.

Chris laughed. "You say that like it's a bad thing. Our lives have been 'interesting' for well over a century and a half. A day where nothing happens ought to be treasured."

"Perhaps you're right," Steven said. "Though, perhaps, not during a time like this. The Federation is about to defeat the Demonoid Regency, and there's no way for us to see what's going on until after the dust settles."

"Such is war," Chris replied. "It's hard to sneak around when everybody has their eyes open and their fingers on the trigger."

Steven nodded in a conciliatory manner. "That's likely true enough. Though, we've certainly done it enough times to prove that particular truism wrong."

Chris laughed. "Ain't that the truth? Perhaps the Organization's been getting soft lately," he said, stepping into Steven's cubicle. "I've got some news you might be interested in though."

"I figured there was a reason you were in here," Steven replied dryly.

"There always is," Chris replied. "Our agents report that some strange things have been going on at Risinger's Star with the Federal fleet there."

"Ben Lewinger's fleet," Steven asked with a start. He respected Admiral Lewinger's tenacity. Few people outside the Organization would've kept at a problem for forty years straight, even in the face of overwhelming odds.

"Yes. Two of his officers, Justin Phillips and Kristin Epps foiled an apparent Imperial plot to embroil the Federation and the Commonwealth in open warfare."

"This doesn't surprise me," Steven replied. He had followed the lives of all three generations of the Phillips family. He personally knew Justin Phillips Sr. back when he was still Commander Steven Jacot of the Federal Fleet. And there was a time when Kristin Epps was almost invited into the Organization. At the time, she'd been a highly resourceful, but shiftless wanderer, with no planetary citizenship and few ties. She would've made an ideal initiate if that damned accountant's son from Riyadh, Admiral Yousef Anwar, hadn't beat Steven to the punch. "In fact, I already knew this," he went on.

"Of course you did," Chris replied with a snort. "What you don't know is that all three of them, Lewinger, Phillips, and Epps disappeared."

Steven frowned. He definitely didn't like the sound of that. He was about to say something when he noticed that Chris hadn't yet touched his coffee, which told him that his friend wasn't out of things to say.

"Their disappearance hasn't gone unnoticed either. It seems to have drawn the attention of the old-guard Imperialists on Earth."

Steven softly uttered a curse that had gone out of fashion almost two centuries before.

"After fifteen-hundred years of the Organization fighting their kind, you'd hope the Imperialists were done on Earth. Worse, if they've taken notice, then our friend is almost surely up to no good. Worse still, our friend is up to no good, and we have no clue where he is," he said, running a hand through his curled brown locks. "Old friend, you have spoiled the good mood I was in before you happened by."

Chris took a swallow from his mug of coffee, and then grinned. "Then I have done the job given to me by the Organization. After all, when you are in a good mood, you get no work done," he said, suddenly looking serious. "Yes, I know this is serious. We'll find Lewinger again . . . though we would not have to worry about him had you not allowed him to watch you take Laura with you."

Steven scowled. It was a rare sight to see, as 167 years of service to the Organization had given him a poker face that would not have cracked under even severe torture. "I believe I have said this many times in the last forty years. I suspect I shall continue to say it for the next hundred. I didn't have a choice, and I do not regret doing it," he fell silent for a moment. "Speaking of which, how is she?"

"Laura? She will be reporting in to us within the next sixteen hours," Chris replied. Steven nodded. It had been touch-and-go for a while, but Laura Risinger's life was ultimately saved by the miracle of Organization medicine. Since then, she'd turned out to be every bit the agent that Steven thought she would be.

This was in spite of the fact that she'd joined the arm of the Organization responsible strictly for watching over the Federation's affairs. Steven occasionally believed her to be too tied to her old life as Captain Laura Risinger, but she hadn't allowed nostalgia to ever get in the way of her work, so he'd let it slide.

"You know, I just had an idea," Chris said, suddenly speaking up.

"After a century without one," Steven replied, entirely deadpan. "I'm pleased to witness this momentous occasion. Do tell."

"We could use Laura to throw Lewinger off our trail. His obsession with finding us is rooted in his memories of her. I say we give her the assignment of putting an end to Lewinger's search. She knows him better than any of the field agents we have infiltrated aboard the USS Federation or in Admiralty. Let her use that knowledge against him and finally close that chapter of her life."

"Audacious," Steven replied, his expression hardening. "I don't like it. There's too much risk for her personal history interfering."

"I'd disagree," Chris said. "She's spent more than half of her adult life with the Organization. She's seen enough of the truth behind the Federation to override any personal feelings she might have left for Lewinger. This assignment would be right up the alley for a field agent of her experience."

Steven looked distracted for a few moments. "I'll think about it," he said. "The core of the Organization will have the final say, of course, but my say carries a lot of weight on Eos these days."

"Think about it hard," Chris replied. "Lewinger needs to be dealt with."

"I agree, old friend," Steven said. "However, you must excuse me. Several of our incoming external data feeds have mysteriously fallen silent. It's nothing, but I need to look into it."

~~~

The War Fortress fell toward the most heavily populated planet in 4 Gallegos. There were two habitable planets in the system. The innermost one held over four-fifths of the system's population. The attack had been timed in such a way that the two planets were on opposite sides of 4 Gallegos. And now that the communications relays had been destroyed, both planets were completely in the dark about the fate that was bearing down on them.

The 4 Gallegos system had been chosen for the fierce independence of its people. Strongly independent systems tended to be light in Federal ship tonnage to protect them, and the War Fortress wasn't ready for a full fleet engagement yet. The presence of the light Federal squadron in the system had come as an unpleasant surprise. The dreadnought lost more than half of its defensive screen of thirty-six ships dealing with the eight ships of the Federal squadron. It didn't matter, though. The 4 Gallegos system was now out of ships that could threaten the dreadnought. There had been setbacks, but there was nothing that could stop them now. Soon, the Demonoids would know the full power of their weapon.


The dreadnought crossed an invisible line in space. It was now within firing range of the planet. Across two million kilometers of space, deadly laser radiation leapt between the dreadnought and the planet in the distance. Facing the dreadnought was the colony's largest city, and its inhabitants were almost completely unaware of the threat that they were facing.

Inside seven seconds, the dreadnought's lasers raked the city. Everything the beams touched were boiled into their component atoms, exploding with violent force, demolishing everything that the beams didn't touch. In moments, it looked as though the city had been scrubbed from the surface of the planet by a direct nuclear strike. Little was spared, towns and villages the dreadnought could see were visited by its deadly energies in turn.

Then, as soon as it had begun, the destruction stopped. There were certainly still small villages remaining on the side of the planet facing the dreadnought, and there were settlements on the other side. However, the dreadnought's aim wasn't total annihilation. That would take more time then they really wanted to spend in the system. And, of course, there was still the system's second planet that they had to visit.





Last edited by GrandMasterTerwynn on 2008-01-25 12:25pm, edited 1 time in total.
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 Post subject: Chapter Six -- Part II PostPosted: 2008-01-24 10:44am
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Commander Altan Mira al-Meten watched as the second habitable planet of 4 Gallegos grew on his viewscreen. He and the rest of the nine-man crew of his Odysseus-class assault craft were the only survivors of the 1623rd who weren't in escape pods. Their mothership,
the escort carrier USS Minas Gerais, was among the last ships taken down by the Demonoid ships. It had given them just enough time to scramble al-Meten's ship.


Now the ship was racing toward the second habitable planet of the system. It hadn't taken them long to discover that the Demonoids had already demolished the colonials' antiquated relay satellite network. As a result, they would have to deliver their warning by
person. That would mean crashing the ship into the planet, as there was little time to decelerate until almost the last few minutes before hitting the atmosphere.


Commander al-Meten checked his viewscreen again. The planet was now visibly larger. Those on the planet would have few doubts about his imminent arrival, as his ship was standing on its tail, blasting hot exhaust directly at the planet.

"Cutting out main engines and reorienting for optimal atmospheric entry," the voice of al-Meten's engineer crackled in his helmet's speakers.

"Acknowledge that," Commander al-Meten replied. "Crew, hang on tight, I'm bringing us in hot," he said. Unlike most assault craft, an Odysseus was designed to operate in both the atmosphere and in deep space. If the ship had been a Thor or Zeus, an atmospheric reentry would've been invariably fatal, end of story. Of course, that wasn't to say that this particular entry wouldn't be fatal. Especially as the ship began to shudder violently as al-Meten sent it screaming into the atmosphere at speeds well in excess of its advertised design limits.

~~~

Few things could make Steven Jacot worried enough for it to show up on his normally impassive face. The fact that every byte of data coming in from the colonial communications network had abruptly stopped happened to be one of them. It wasn't unusual to lose the occasional chunk of data, as nasty things happened to satellites all the time. It was another thing entirely to make something sufficiently nasty happen to a satellite to shut it down completely, much less an entire network of them.

The Organization liked to place satellite offices out on remote colonies. This afforded them a level of insulation against overly inquisitive Federal, Commonwealth, or Imperial officials. Of course, that left them vulnerable to pirates, privateers, political raiders, and other undesirables . . . but the Organization could easily handle all of those. However, there wasn't a pirate alive with the resources to neutralize every satellite on even a communications network as crude as the one for 4 Gallegos. That took a more determined opponent.

"Steven!" Chris's shout jerked Steven from his reverie. He allowed himself a scowl for letting his guard down so completely. "You'd better get up here and look at this!"

Steven turned with a start. Chris was standing on the promenade on the level overlooking the cubicles on the ground floor. All along the promenade, broad windows allowed a panoramic view of the landscape outside. With almost superhuman speed and grace, Steven bounded up a set of stairs to join his friend on the promenade, slipping between a thick knot of people who were already there.

It was then that he noticed what they were staring at. High in the clear blue afternoon sky was a brilliant finger of fire. It was a finger that seemed to point directly at the Organization's compound.

"What is that?" A young man said somewhere nearby. Few meteors were bright enough to be seen in broad daylight, and none of the colonial ships ever passed by this part of the planet. Steven recognized it immediately though, and the danger that it represented.

"It's a ship, and it's coming in hot."

"How do you know, sir?"

"I was a pilot a lifetime ago," Steven replied. "I used to see things like that all the time," he said, unconsciously slipping into the mannerisms of the long-dead Commander Jacot.

"Where is that ship going?" A woman standing behind Steven asked.

"It's coming down right on top of us," Chris growled. He turned to face the crowd. "Everybody get off the promenade now! If that ship hits, instead of landing, even your augmented bodies aren't going to stop the kind of shrapnel that'll kick up!"

The crowd began to reluctantly disperse. Chris turned to Steven. "That means you too. The Organization isn't going to appreciate it if your overvalued hide gets blown to hell and back."

"Presumably so," Steven replied, again in control of his emotions. "And what will you be doing, old friend?"

"Damage containment," Chris replied. "We'll need to round up the survivors and figure out what the hell they think they're doing here. I'd assume you'd want a stab at questioning them?"

"You would assume correctly," Steven said. "In fact, as soon as you have them rounded up, bring them to me. I suspect this may be related to the sudden disruption in our connection to the outside world."

~~~

Dateline: 25200613.0421, Captain's Log: USS Starla, outside the 4 Gallegos system. Less than half an hour ago, the Starla arrived in this system. In order to get the best intelligence we could, we have spent the last nineteen hours with our hyperdrives at close to Factor Ten. While the Starla can keep up that speed for many days, the Agamemnon currently lags over twelve hours behind us. From our vantage point, the dreadnought may still be in the system. What disturbs me is that there is no comms traffic coming from the colony. It may be that we're too late.

Justin flipped his recorder closed and wearily dropped it into his lap. The Starla had made its final transit to a point high above the north pole of 4 Gallegos. From that vantage point, they could see both habitable planets in the system, on opposite sides of 4 Gallegos. They were still searching for the super-dreadnought. It was much too easy to lose a ship in the considerable volume of a solar system, especially if one wasn't sure where to look.

"There's still nothing on Federal tactical frequencies sir," the man at the Tactical station reported.

"Nothing on hypercomm either?"

"No sir. We're not picking up lifeboat signals either, but that might be because we're still too far to pick them up . . . especially if they were launched less than fifteen hours ago," the man at Tactical remarked, making reference to the fact that the Starla was fifteen light-hours outside the system.

"I see," Justin replied, taking the time to slip his data recorder under his seat. "Begin accelerating toward 4 Gallegos at fifty percent thrust."

"Sir, shouldn't we wait for Agamemnon?"

"Captain Epps can catch up to us when she arrives, Ensign," Justin said. "For now, we can gather information just fine without her. To do that, though, requires that we get closer."

~~~

Steven stood in a small glass-walled conference room. Floating above the table in front of him was an image taken of the broken wreckage of a Federal Odysseus-class assault craft. The once-sleek ship sat in the middle of an impact crater of its own making. Fortunately for the Organization, the pilot had the decency to put the ship down in the fields to the southwest of the complex, rather than on the airstrip or spaceport to the north.

He saw as Chris and two men walked into the conference room, the two men holding up a third man between them. He wore the blue and gray jacket of a Federal officer, the three gold stripes on his shoulders telling Steven that the man had the rank of Commander. Slender metal tentacles wound almost obscenely up the man's leg, helping to bear the man's weight. Steven quickly remembered that the man's leg had been broken in the crash. Broken bones had been common among the nine crew recovered from the ship.

The man began to say something in rapid-fire Standard. Steven frowned momentarily, for he hadn't really spoken the language in more than a century and a half. He didn't much feel like engaging his datajack either, though it would've made it easier to understand the man.

"I'm sorry, but I did not get that," Steven said slowly. "I have not had occasion to use the Lingua Antiquus for over a century. Slow down and speak the way they taught you in school."

The other man blinked in confusion. Then he cleared his throat. "Yes, I'm sorry," he said. "Is this better?"

"Very much so," Steven replied. "Who are you, and why are you here? The colonial spaceport is halfway across the planet."

"I am Commander Altan Mira al-Meten, formerly of the Federal escort carrier Minas Gerais. I need to talk to the planetary governor as soon as possible!"

"You could have landed at the spaceport at the capital," Steven remarked. "I assume that you were in serious trouble then?"

"We are all in trouble, sir," Commander al-Meten replied, fighting to keep his speech even and slow. "The planetary governor has to know, there isn't much time."

Steven let himself scowl with irritation. It wasn't something that he actually felt, but it would remind his guest who really held all the cards. "First, I must remind you that you've done a good deal of damage to our property. Second, if you are going to use our facilities, then we're going to hear what you have to say to the planetary governor, so I want to hear it first," he said, nodding very slightly toward one of the two agents holding the Federal commander up.

Commander al-Meten was silent for a few moments. Then he looked up with a start as his arm was given a firm squeeze by the agent. However, where a firm squeeze from an ordinary human would merely make someone mildly uncomfortable, the agent's grip sent a painful shock up the man's arm. He looked at Steven with an expression that was a mixture of surprise and fear.

"Yes, yes of course," Commander al-Meten replied. "There is a Zicharion War Fortress super-dreadnought bearing down on the planet as we speak. It will be here in the next four hours."

Steven nodded. That would go a long way to explaining the sudden communications blackout. Though, it struck him as odd, as the system should've been of no interest to the Zicharions whatsoever. The nearest Zicharion colonies were close to a thousand light-years away.

"Tell me, Commander, why are they here?"

"I don't know, sir," Commander al-Meten replied. "All I know is that they came from the direction of 324 Bancroft. The old man himself warned us that they were headed this way. We tried to slow them down, and my ship is the only one that got away."

"I see," Steven said. The 324 Bancroft system had been home to one of the Organization's data repositories since about ten years after the Demonoids burned the colony to its foundations. Then he frowned a very real frown.

"By 'old man,' do you happen to mean Admiral Ben Lewinger?"

Commander al-Meten hesitated. Then he sighed. "Yes sir, but that's all you're getting out of me."

"That's all right," Steven replied. "That's all I wanted to know. What else can you tell me about our attackers? I will assume that I'm not prying into any other Federal secrets."

"Well, there was one strange thing," al-Meten said slowly. "The dreadnought was escorted by Demonoid ships. Good ones too. Better shields and weapons, not like the junk they're throwing at us on the front."

"That is strange," Steven replied, meaning every word of it. "I believe we'll contact the colonial officials now. There's probably not much they can do, other than go to ground and hope they're not here to exterminate us."

"Thank you, sir," Commander al-Meten said. "May I ask something?"

"I don't see why not," Steven replied. "You have earned the privilege."

"What's going on here? Only five of you that I've seen so far speaks fluent Standard. This is a pretty nice town for something off the beaten path, you know who Admiral Lewinger is . . . and I've never seen one of these before in my life," he said, nodding to his braced leg.

"Call us an advanced think-tank and research company, Commander," Steven replied. "Cutting edge stuff . . . I'm sure you'll understand if I don't say more than that. Now, if you will excuse me, I have to put in a call to the planetary governor now."

~~~

Laura Risinger had been many things in her life. A lifetime ago, she'd been a starship captain, a captain who commanded the fastest vessel ever built by the Federation, the USS Denison Risinger, named for the engineer, whose team delivered the first functional modern hyperdrive over three-hundred years before. She'd also become a legend, the unfortunate officer for whom Risinger's Star had been named, and known for having been pointlessly sacrificed in the Risinger's Star Massacre. She was also a secret agent for the Organization, who called themselves the Magi. It was something she'd learned to do very well over the last forty years.

A strident beeping drew her attention to the baggage carousel in front of her. The carousel had delivered her baggage to the claim station she was standing at, and would sit there until she picked it up off the carousel. She nettled under the looks of irritation as she picked her leaned over to pick up her baggage. As she made her way into the spaceport's courtyard, she ducked into a restroom to unpack her baggage.

It wasn't much, really. In her bundle, she carried a four throwing knives, an L-shaped kukri dagger, and a telescoping stun baton that doubled as a scanning wand. The bundle also doubled as clothing, it was a loose-fitting tan abaya robe, traditionally worn by Arabic women . . . though it was really quite fashionable, since such body-covering, modest clothing was practical in the wide variety of climates one could find across the Known Worlds.

Laura slipped her weapons into her belt, wrapped the abaya around her body, and donned her shayla, which was an equally traditional Arabic headscarf. She stepped out of the restroom, now feeling securely armed, and safely anonymous. For the last ten years, she'd gone back to looking almost as she had the day she was supposed to have died, with shoulder-length wavy dark strawberry-blonde hair, brown eyes, and light skin.

She didn't worry much about being recognized. Being dead was a wonderful disguise, even if one died as infamously as she had . . . though in order to discourage undue curiosity, she did keep her hair dyed a shade darker than it would've been naturally, and one of her augmentations involved a very subtle darkening of her skin from head to toe.

She stopped at a public computer terminal and tapped in a few commands. The terminal flashed once, indicating that it'd sent her message. The message would be received by the Organization's public front office, and would let them know that she'd made it to 4 Gallegos in one piece. Though the Organization operated its own fleet of private spacecraft and starships, it tended to draw less attention if its people used commercial transportation.

"Attention all travelers," a voice boomed out over the spaceport's loudspeakers. "All outbound flights have been cancelled. All travelers are to report to one of the assembly areas designated on your travel maps. Port security representatives and Federal Peacekeepers will be along to fully brief you of the situation."

Laura stopped where she was. That sort of announcement usually meant that trouble was on its way into the system, especially if the Peacekeepers were being called in. The dour-faced armored men with blaster rifles and metallic blue cloaks were the most visible symbol of the authority the Federation wielded over its member worlds and protectorates. She began to make her way through the most crowded areas of the terminal. Organization agents tried to avoid Federal Peacekeepers wherever possible, as they were possessed of great competence and a deep-seated suspicion of anything that was alive and wasn't in a Peacekeeper uniform.

She slid up to a flyer rental counter, cutting off five people who apparently had the same idea that she did. She fixed the elderly man at the counter with her sunniest smile.

"May I help you, ma'am," the old man said, swallowing visibly.

"Yes, you might," Laura replied, her voice projecting wide-eyed innocence. "I'd like to rent a flyer to the Kharikov Township."

"I'm afraid you can't do that, ma'am," the old man said, biting his lip. "We're in an emergency lockdown. Raiders incoming, the usual nasty business. It would not be a good idea to be outside right now."

Laura put on a pouting expression. "Oh no! Raiders are bad," she said, affecting just a bit of a whine. Looking like she did when she was in her twenties carried definite advantages. Then she leaned a little closer, "but they're not here yet are they?"

"Well," the old man replied uncomfortably. "Err, not that I can see. But you really should stay here, it's much safer."

"But my family is in Kharikov Township," Laura said. "They'd feel so much safer if I was there with them. Please, I'm fully qualified, I promise to be careful."

"Err, well," the old man behind the counter replied. "The spaceport is being locked down by the Peacekeepers, so I don't think I can actually rent one to you." Laura bit back the urge to frown. Then the old man leaned forward and took her hand in his. She felt something cold and smooth in the palm of his hand. "But, if you have five credits, I'll let you borrow one and it'll never get into the system."

"Oh thank you," Laura exclaimed, sounding relieved. In a swift motion, she slid her thumb under the old man's palm, pressing it firmly against the reader he was concealing. Five credits was as close as one could get to highway robbery for a rental flyer, especially when one considered that things in the Federation were paid for in centi-credits, or in hundredths of a credit. However, it was Organization money she was spending, and the Organization's computers would make sure that five credits were all the old man would get.

"No, thank you," the old man replied brightly, sliding an access chip across the counter.




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 Post subject: Chapter Six -- Part III PostPosted: 2008-01-24 01:33pm
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(Continued from Chapter Six -- Part II)

Justin's expression was grim as data continued to flow into the Starla's computers. The ship was accelerating toward 4 Gallegos itself at just over four hundred standard gravities. They were now twenty-five million kilometers closer, but no closer to finding the answers they were looking for. He frowned, sitting up straight.

"Tactical, do you think we ought to expedite matters?"

The young man at Tactical turned to look at Justin. "Sir?"

"We haven't picked up anything at sixteen billion kilometers out. No signal traffic, nothing. I suspect that if we ever want to pick up anything, we ought to be moving insystem faster."

"Sir, we do have an Admiral aboard," the young man started to say.

"That doesn't matter, Ensign. The odds of us transiting in right on top of the super-dreadnought are next to zero. And even if we got too close, we can out-accelerate them by a factor of forty. We need to find out what's going on, and we can't do it if the news takes fifteen hours to reach us."

"What do you propose, sir?"

"Plot a series of transits into the system, Ensign," Justin said after a few moments. "Each one should get us ninety light-minutes closer to 4 Gallegos. At each point, we'll have a proper look around. We'll know when we've gotten close enough when we find something more significant."

"I see, sir," the man at Tactical replied. "I think we can do it."

"That's what I like to hear, Ensign," Justin said. "As soon as we've got the first set of transits calculated we'll get underway." Justin then tapped on his console several times. An alarm began to sound.

"Attention all personnel, this is the captain speaking," he said. "I am taking us to General Quarters. This is not a drill. Repeat: I am taking the ship to General Quarters. This is not a drill."

~~~

Commander Wadi al-Sharif sat hunched over his computer terminal. Shipboard time told him it was way too early in the morning to be up, and his body agreed. However, he knew that every hour he wasted would bring the Agamemnon that much closer to 4 Gallegos. He wanted the information that Admiral Lewinger had given Captain Epps, and he wanted a way to get to it before the Agamemnon joined the Starla at 4 Gallegos.

He had first tried every discreet way his training as a Security officer afforded him. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to see anything obvious in the public logs and files of Captain Epps, her XO, or her Chief of Security. Worse, his own Security key didn't have the level of access that he'd expected, so he was unable to look at their private files. That disturbed him, as he was usually supposed to have that sort of access as Admiral Lewinger's Head of Security and as the chief for the Sixteenth Battlecluster.

He would've tried more direct methods of accessing their files, but he lacked a team of cryptographers and computer data specialists. Cracking sensitive computer data wasn't something anybody could do these days, especially given the current state of the art of modern military computers. It was something that, Wadi reflected sadly, was beyond him.

He frowned to himself, the option he had left didn't appeal to him much at all. It involved him using the power of his position as the cluster's Security chief. Unfortunately, it wasn't the most discreet way he could go about getting at Captain Epps' files. The slightest misstep would undoubtedly have someone talking to Admiral Lewinger, and that would likely spell the end of Wadi's career. Since the Federation was still currently at war with the Demonoids, it would also likely put him on the fast track to an execution. Old Imperial penal codes were exceptionally harsh, and those who came after, such as the Federation, saw little reason to change them.

The beeping of his computer terminal brought Wadi out of his reverie. He tapped on a flashing icon.

"Go ahead," he said, irritated.

"Commander al-Sharif, Commander Montree is here to see you, as requested," Agamemnon's computer replied in the cheerfully pleasant baritone all Fleet computers had been programmed with.

"Let him in, Computer," Wadi replied. There were only a few people aboard the Agamemnon who could make sure that her command staff's files were hidden from someone with his access level. It was either the ship's Computer Data Officer, or the ship's Chief of Security, Commander Sengsai Montree. If Commander Montree did it, Wadi wanted to know why. And he wanted to remind him where his loyalties were supposed to lie as an officer in Fleet Security.

The door to Wadi's office slid open with a wet hiss, and Commander Montree stepped into his office. The alien's strikingly human-like face was an inscrutable mask, which Wadi knew was normal for Kerrians. Montree nodded to Wadi.

"I've come as you requested, Commander."

"Thank you," Wadi replied, motioning to one of the chairs in front of his desk. "Please, have a seat. While you do so, I'd like to apologize for the early hour of this meeting."

Commander Montree nodded again, slipping into the indicated seat. "Yes, I wondered why you wanted to talk to me so early in the morning."

"Well, Commander," Wadi replied. "The Agamemnon will likely be going into a combat situation in less than eleven hours. You know as well as I do that means any sense of normalcy is going to go down the chute before noon comes around."

"I assume that this is important then?"

"That's right, Commander. This is official Security business."

Commander Montree nodded again. "I see, sir," he replied, pausing momentarily before adding the 'sir.' When it came to Security matters, the fact that both of them had three stripes on the shoulders didn't matter one bit. "What is it you wish to discuss?"

"You're aware of the sorts of duties that come with wearing the Security uniform?" Wadi asked. Like himself, Commander Montree didn't wear the standard Fleet blue uniform. Instead, both of them wore bulky jet-black uniforms trimmed in gray. Embedded in the jackets was armor mesh, which gave them their bulk.

"I am. Very well aware, in fact," Montree replied crisply.

"That's good to hear," Wadi said with a nod. "Now, I suppose you might be asking yourself why Admiral Lewinger chose me to head his Security staff, and installed me on the Agamemnon, instead of someone else."

Montree looked thoughtful for a few moments. "Yes, I did think it a bit, shall we say, unusual."

Wadi nodded. "Unusual times call for unusual measures, Commander."

"And these are unusual times?"

"They may well be," Wadi replied. It was now, or never. "Admiral Lewinger had me brought aboard since, though Captain Phillips and Captain Epps are both capable officers, they are possibly not so . . . reliable."

"From the political standpoint, I presume," Montree replied carefully.

"Perhaps, Commander, perhaps," Wadi said. "It is our job as Security officers to pursue and identify all potential problems in a ship's officers and crew that might make them unable to fully carry out their responsibilities. We're drawn to the unusual and suspicious."

Montree let a human-looking frown flash across his face. "If I may be honest, Commander, the previous life history of Captain Epps has no bearing on her current performance as a Fleet officer. I believe I made this clear in my reports."

"You did, and I'm not questioning that," Wadi replied. "I agree that under her command, the Agamemnon has done exceptionally well. However, please understand that these are different circumstances. Nothing must be left out."

Montree nodded once. "I understand this, Commander."

"Very good," Wadi replied. "Then you may be interested to know about certain irregularities that I found while I was here."

Commander Montree's expression remained studiously impassive, even for a Kerrian. "Irregularities?"

"Yes," Wadi replied, suppressing the urge to frown. Originally he was in on the account of Eris Janasaki. Now the part of him that was a well-trained Security officer was getting irritated. "When I did a routine records check, I found that I was unable to gain access to Captain Epps' files, or those of her exec."

"If I am not mistaken," Montree replied slowly, "her public logs and records are available."

"Except that's not what I'm talking about and you know it," Wadi said, letting the anger into his voice. "You know it damned well too. Her personal files are locked. They're not supposed to be locked, and I want to know why!"

"Speaking honestly again, Commander al-Sharif, you are out of line," Commander Montree snapped. "All Federal officers have good reason to keep their private files locked. You need to launch a formal inquiry to get at them, even during wartime."

"That's where you're wrong," Wadi, replied evenly. "I am the Head of Security for the entire cluster. In Admiral Lewinger's absence, I can act on his behalf. Furthermore, only the Directorate is higher up than I am. Don't argue regulations with me, Commander Montree. I know them inside and out."

"Unless you have direct authorization from Admiral Lewinger or the Directorate," Montree started to reply as Wadi cut him off.

"I have been brought aboard the Agamemnon in my capacity as the cluster's Head of Security. That is direct authorization. You may not like it, but the wartime codes grant me full investigative powers. If you wish to object, you must take it up with the Directorate. Then you must be prepared to explain your refusal to cooperate in a legitimate Security matter."

Commander Montree stared at a random point on Wadi's desk for a while. Wadi hoped that he was ready to crack. He didn't mean to browbeat him as badly as he did. Then before Montree could speak, Wadi had an idea.

"Commander Montree, tell you what. Let's review Captain Epps' files together. You clearly know her better than I do. After which, we will both know what further action may need to be taken."

"Her private files?"

"Yes, her private files," Wadi, replied. "Just her private files too. Not her restricted files," he added. The last part was a lie, though. The Agamemnon's computers were already set up, once Wadi had access, to copy everything in the files of Captain Epps over into his account, and they would do so without anyone ever being the wiser.

Montree seemed to visibly deflate. Wadi did his best not to gloat, he had the Agamemnon's Chief of Security dead-to-rights.

"Very well then, we'll examine her files together, Commander," Montree said wearily. "We should move quickly, as Kristin will almost certainly be up with the daytime shift."

"We should," Wadi replied. "We should indeed."

~~~

The War Fortress-class super-dreadnought slipped silently into orbit around the second planet of 4 Gallegos. Civilians who got the warning about the impending attack tried desperately to retreat into the relative safety of deep space aboard a handful of transports and shuttles. As they rose above the atmosphere of the planet, they flared up and died, instantly boiled to vapor by the dreadnought's weapons. The same fate awaited the few anti-ship missiles the colony had at its disposal.

Then the dreadnought opened its attack on the planet. Quite unlike the complete devastation they visited on the first colony, the Demonoid attacks were directed with deadly precision. Power plants and other major infrastructure were reduced to cratered ruin. The buildings surrounding the planet's major spaceport were also destroyed, including the terminal that Laura Risinger had spent much of her afternoon in.

Finally, the attack ended. For fifteen minutes, all was deceptively calm. Then, high in the skies above, streaks like giant meteors, began to trace their way downward. At the head of each pillar of fire was a Demonoid troop transport, their polished raven-black hulls glowed a malevolent deep red with the heat of reentry. The Demonoids had business on the planet, and they aimed to deal with it personally.

~~~

Steven Jacot watched the contrails of Demonoid craft streak high overhead. It was a day he figured would come eventually. Operating on the periphery was more than just occasionally risky. He knew, though, that this wasn't an ordinary raid. The Regency itself could never have gotten its hands on a Zicharion super-dreadnought, not even the 150 year old one that was presently parked in orbit around the planet. True, the Zicharions were funneling assistance to the Demonoid Regency, but such technology transfers were unheard of, and could only take place under special circumstances.

"It's been a long time, hasn't it," Chris remarked, joining Steven out on the balcony.

"Yes it has, old friend," Steven replied. "Never thought they'd come up with another Glorious One after Ben Lewinger skewered Meghan Salazar aboard the Denison Risinger."

"That or they just brought back the one they had. We were never able to confirm her death," Chris said grimly.

Steven could only nod. The Organization had only a little more luck penetrating Demonoid society than the Federation did. Demonoid civilization was much, much older than Human civilization, and worse, Demonoids were generally xenophobic. Yet, the Organization discovered that the entity known outwardly as the Regency had the barest grip on all the factions of Demonoid society. Most of the power sat with a shadowy quasi-religious sect that possibly predated the species' long-lived spacefaring civilization.

What was especially strange about them, given the species-wide loathing of aliens, was that this sect of Demonoid society abducted or tempted members of alien species into their service, the most prominent being assigned the title of "Glorious One." And in the Organization's few encounters that didn't end in complete disaster, agents found that the Glorious One commanded an almost worshipful respect from the Demonoids.

Steven permitted himself another frown. "I'm almost certain they're after us," he said.

"I beg your pardon?" Chris replied, bemused.

"The Demonoids," Steven said, not flinching as previously-unseen bombs slammed into the roads leading into the compound, throwing up great fountains of dirt and fire.

"Perhaps," Chris replied.

"Old friend," Steven scoffed. "You know as well as I do that this isn't the Regency's work. They had a hard enough time picking up what few Zicharion light capital ships they did. And, as far as we know, all of them have been committed to defending the Demonoid homeworld."

"Well, perhaps they think it's better to use their new toy on a remote colony that technically isn't even Federal territory."

"Not much of a demonstration," Steven replied. "It isn't like the Regency to not immediately throw newly developed or acquired weapons at their opponents."

"I'm afraid you're right," Chris said, abandoning his role as the devil's advocate. Several more bombs went off around the compound. One of the outlying storage buildings disappeared in a terrific explosion; as the hydrogen tanks inside were blown open. "But what do they want from us? The last time we crossed paths with the Movement itself was forty years ago."

Steven nodded again. "Either we never killed the old Glorious One, or the new one is already showing the Demonoid propensity for bearing grudges. Either way, I suspect we'll find out soon enough."

A young man rushed out onto the balcony with as much dignity as he could muster. Slung on one shoulder was a belt and holster holding a massive, chromed revolver. On the other shoulder was the Organization's standard-issue Janus assault rifle. In his arms was a long, curved bundle that was wrapped in a cobalt-blue cloth that shimmered in the late afternoon sunlight.

"Sirs, the Demonoids are landing on the Velasquez delta ten kilometers from here. More bombers are inbound, it is not safe to remain outside," the young man said.

Steven nodded once, showing he understood. "You have something for me," he said. It wasn't a question.

"Yes sir," the young man replied, bowing his head and offering Steven the package in his arms. "Your weapons, sir, as you ordered."

"Thank you," Steven replied, setting the bundle on one of the benches on the balcony. He took the belt and pistol next, fluidly slipping the belt onto his hips. Then, he quickly and carefully unwrapped the bundle on the bench. It was a saber that, over three millennia ago, was used on the Indian sub-continent, a talwar they called it.

Steven hefted it before slipping it and its scabbard into his belt. The sword he carried was a far cry from those weapons of so long ago. Meticulously forged from the most sophisticated super-steels, the sword was much heavier than anything forged by the pre-industrial smiths. It was also perfectly balanced, and to Steven, it felt like nothing at all. Neither did the pistol on his belt, or the carbine, which he now slung over his shoulder.

He looked over at Chris, who carried an ordinary Federal blaster carbine, a solidly built MarsCorp Model Eighteen . . . that the Federation last issued in the time he and Steven were both still "alive." Chris looked back at him and nodded grimly, the Organization was going to lose a lot of good people today. The only question was, how many, and who.

~~~

Laura's flyer screamed in protest as she pushed it far beyond its design limits. Though she saw the bombs fall, she knew nothing of who was attacking the planet, or why. All she knew was that she had to get back to the Organization's headquarters, and soon. Once there, she knew she could get her hands on specific details. She'd also be in a position where she'd be able to do much more good.

Below her, a number of official-looking groundcars passed by in a momentary blur, headed back to the capital. They didn't matter much to her. At the moment, little did. Part of her was still dead inside after forty years. She'd lost her trust of the Federation and everything it stood for the day Commodore Wright chose to sacrifice her and her ships for his agenda, and the agenda of the Federation's war hawks. She had been put in a position where she could do nothing but watch helplessly as a Demonoid ambush tore apart her fleet.

Her collision-avoidance radar screamed, jerking her back to reality. She looked up ahead of her and saw an angular black shape speed ahead of her, buffeting her flyer in the turbulence of its passing. She got a long look at the ship as it raced off toward the horizon.

"Well speak of the devil," she swore, gritting her teeth. That was a Demonoid troopship she saw racing ahead of her. She shivered, forcing the growing feeling of dread back, and then pushed the throttle forward again. Her years as a Fleet officer of the line immediately told her that the Demonoids could only have one reason for wanting to land on the planet, instead of razing its towns from orbit.

She found herself leaning forward in her seat, trying to urge her flyer on faster and faster. She didn't want those she'd gotten to know in the Organization to go down in the same way as the people she knew aboard the Denison Risinger did forty years before.

~~~

"I have . . . good news," Commodore Jenni Zelthig said carefully. Justin frowned thoughtfully at his terminal, thankful that the distance between himself and Zelthig's command ship was enough to discourage video or holographic communication.

"Well, what is it, ma'am?" Justin asked after a moment.

"You'll be getting reinforcements at 4 Gallegos," Commodore Zelthig replied. "However, they won't arrive for the next week. They certainly won't be there in enough time to drive off the super-dreadnought, but they will be able to render assistance to the survivors," she added grimly. As the Starla transited further into the system, they discovered that the primary colony of 4 Gallegos was now a burning ruin.

"I see," Justin said. "Well, thank you, ma'am, anything will help. But who's coming? I thought the only other ships in the area came from the 1623rd."

"And normally, you'd be right," Commodore Zelthig replied. "However, I found out that the 1609th Light Cruiser Squadron was ordered to remain behind at Risinger's Star by the Commander in Chief of the First Fleet. Since we couldn't spare any of the other ships still at Risinger's Star, I had them directed your way."

Justin scowled, again thankful for the lack of a visual link. The 1609th was commanded by Captain Eris Janasaki of the Ascendant Emperor Tupolev Laganoski the First. Though the firepower and manpower of her four Expedience-class light cruisers and three Agamemnon-class fleet cruisers would be welcome, they were all commanded by political officers cut from the same cloth as Janasaki herself was.

"Strange," Justin said. "Why were they ordered to remain behind at Risinger's Star?"

"I don't know, Captain," Commodore Zelthig replied. From the tone of her voice, Justin knew she was telling the truth.

"Either way, we'll be glad to take them," Justin said, without much sincerity.

"I'm sure you will," Commodore Zelthig replied dryly. "You and the Admiral had better be careful though," she added. While Commodore Zelthig didn't harbor as much suspicion of political types as Justin did, she understood Justin's discomfort.

Justin nodded, even as the connection closed. He exhaled with a gusty sigh. "Looks like we're in trouble now," he remarked.

"Sir?" Lieutenant McFarland said, turning in her chair. "The computers recorded what they think are emergency beacons from Federal escape pods."

"Escape pods?" Justin asked. "Do we know what ships?"

"I think so, sir. I've got a tentative ID on one of the beacons as coming from a pod attached to the USS Hood."

Justin sighed. "That solves what happened to the 1623rd then. Plot where the escape pods are, then change course. Maybe the survivors will have a better idea of what's been going on in the system."

~~~

Steven held his breath; silently counting the seconds that had passed by since he heard the last explosion. Not too long after they arrived outside the compound's perimeter, the Demonoids began shelling the complex with light artillery. Very quickly, they had dropped a variety of shells, including brightly burning rounds meant to blind enemy soldiers as they exploded, riot-control shells containing hundreds of soft plastic beads, shells containing semi-lethal nerve agents, and old-fashioned high explosives.

He had cringed when he heard some of those shells go off. What the Organization referred to, as a 'complex' was very nearly a city in its own right. Complete with all the necessities required to sustain a population of agents, their families, and those unsuspecting colonists who found themselves serving the Organization. Some of those shells had gone off in and around the apartments. Among those the Organization had sworn to defend.

There would be time to mourn the innocent dead later, Steven thought. His mental count had now passed two worrisome minutes. Those in the office annex had little idea what was going on outside. Much of the defensive effort was a giant misdirection, aimed at encouraging the Demonoids to expend soldiers attacking things like the fuel storage depot and the motor pool . . . and not the annex office with the big, gaudy windows.

With the callous disregard they'd shown when shelling the apartments, the Demonoids had dropped shells on the annex. Nobody in the building returned fire, moved, or dared to even turn on their datajacks. The Demonoids could not be allowed to know that everything worth defending was under the annex. That meant that even radio signals were prohibited. A fact that was of cold comfort to those few agents who had died in the shelling.

The third minute slipped by as silently as the one before it. A rare twinge of sadness struck Steven, as that meant that the defense of the complex was now at an end. He looked around him. Many of those who had been tasked with defending the outside buildings had been the Organization's younger, less experienced agents. Many of those inside, with him, were among the Organization's best. Yes, there were junior agents among them, but Steven could count many personal friends among the remaining defenders. Some of those friendships had persisted for many, many decades. He wondered how many of them would be cut short when the day was done.

There was a dim flash in the darkened room. That meant that a spotter had seen Demonoids coming. Likely a mop-up squad sent to secure the building. Either way, it meant the last battle of the day was about to begin.

Everybody get ready, he thought. That one thought raced through his datajack, the signal being picked up and relayed by the datajacks of the agents closest to him, who relayed it to the agents closest to them in a near-instantaneous cascade reaction. Everyone was now networked to everyone else. In his mind's eye, Steven could see the entire battlespace, in real-time . . . Other agents, the building's security systems, everything. The Demonoids, he reflected, were about to receive quite a shock.

An electronic scream alerted Steven to the fact that the Demonoids were forcing their way into the building now. Charges were being planted. Clearly, they weren't about to take chances. Steven raised his rifle, and like any good orchestra, the whispers in Steven's datajack fell into tense, anticipatory silence.

There was a deep tremor and then a sudden flash and a terrible roar as every door exploded inward at once. Steven willed the defenders to remain silent. Let them come, he thought. In his mind's eye, he could see a myriad of dust-filled doorways. In those doorways, alien shapes gathered just outside. Suddenly, there was the skittering, crashing, rolling sound of grenades being thrown into the building. This particular symphony would begin with a crash, Steven thought, even as all hell broke loose within the building.

There were stunning, blinding explosions as the Demonoid grenades exploded in cascades of fiery destruction. Hurricanes of debris tore through thin cubicle walls. The mental voices of those closest to the doors cried out and were suddenly silenced, but it would take much more than grenades to kill the Organization's best.

The space around Steven exploded with movement. The Demonoids were charging into the building, it was time to fight back. He stood, his rifle snapping up. Even as he squeezed off his first couple rounds, the rest of the agents joined him, a lethal hail of metal raining on the Demonoid invaders. Blaster bolts burned brightly in the murky darkness, as Organization Janus carbines had both a bullet-fed submachine gun, and a blaster rifle to defeat armor that the bullets couldn't. Shapes moved convulsively in the smoke as Demonoid soldiers caught bullets and died.

Yet, the Demonoids weren't defenseless. They shot back, in short bursts of weapons fire. Their bullets ripped through the flimsy dividers that made up the cubicles near the wall. Organization agents cried out as bullets slammed into their armor, knocking them back. But the collective whole of the Organization adapted to the changing battlespace. In Steven's mind, he saw agents smoothly filling the gaps where their fallen brethren had opened chinks in the building's defenses. He urged them on, bringing every last decade of experience to bear, even as his body handled the task of firing into the oncoming hordes.

Some agents fell screaming in the darkness. Even augmented bodies had their limits, and the Demonoid invaders kept coming, shapes slipping over and around the bodies of their dead and dying, just barely glimpsed in the growing smoke and chaos.

Bullets slammed into the divider above Steven, rudely jerking him away from the collective space. A glint of something caught Steven's eye, and instincts took over, throwing his body flat to the floor as a thunderous roar flooded Steven's sensory world and a giant hand with claws of twisted shrapnel shoved him into the floor and snatched his rifle away.

Steven rolled on his back, ignoring the sudden agony of tortured flesh. His revolver was somehow already clear of its holster. His ears rang, and dark spots swam across his vision as he cleared the corner, scanning for a target, even as smoke filled the room. Suddenly, he saw a ghostly shape moving in the fog. Without thinking, he snapped his revolver up and pulled the trigger.

It jerked back with a sharp bang and a bright flash, but he was rewarded as the ghostly shape stopped moving and slumped over. He abandoned his cover as the first group of Demonoid soldiers poured into the room. With another loud roar, his revolver dealt death to the soldier closest to him. Two more took its place, but Steven was unconcerned. With a calm professionalism that came from years of training and conditioning, he swung his monster revolver at one soldier, then the other. With two loud bangs, both soldiers went down. Several bullets blew past his ear, focusing his attention on his next target.

For an instant, the soldier was outlined in the hazy light filtering into the room. Like others of its kind, the soldier stood on four flexible tentacles. Up from where the tentacles joined was a slender, muscular trunk that went up into a truncated shell that came partway down its chest and flared out in two broad shoulders. From under the 'shoulders' four more tentacles emerged, two on each side. Two were gripping a Demonoid rifle, its barrel pointed directly at Steven. An egg-shaped head with two baseball-sized eyes, and four tentacles where a man's mouth would've been, completed the nightmare before him. Then Steven pulled the trigger again, causing that head to disappear in a cloud of purple mist.

He fired off his sixth shell as he finished crossing the gap between his old position, and the position his surviving defenders had taken. As bullets thudded into the desk he was crouched down behind, he snapped open his revolver, dumping six empty cartridges on the floor. A speed-loader emerged from a pouch on his belt, and he jammed it home, six fresh cartridges being deposited neatly into his cylinder. He snapped it closed just in time, as a Demonoid soldier reared above the desk. Steven snapped off a shot, and the soldier tumbled backward.

In the darkness, Steven could hear shouting. The silky-smooth coordination that had once rode upon the datajack network was being shredded by both mounting losses, and the harsh electronic chatter of Demonoid signals jamming.

"Fall back," Steven, shouted at the agents closest to him, retreating deeper into the building, away from the cubicle area and into the core office area. He drilled a Demonoid solder that stuck its upper body too far out from the relative safety of the corner it had been behind. He whirled about, blasting another Demonoid that had come around from the other side.

A mental whisper of warning, brutally cut short as its broadcaster fell to the Demonoids, gave Steven an instant of pause. Suddenly, he realized where the danger was and wheeled to face it, but it was too late, as a red and purple blur slashed across his vision. He felt a sharp tug as a Demonoid tentacle wrapped around his revolver and pulled it out of his hand. Even as it disarmed him, it was bringing up a second tentacle to whip him across the side of his skull. With superhuman speed, Steven caught the tentacle in his hand, squeezing as hard as he could. He felt momentary satisfaction as he felt some of the thin rings of bone, which helped fill out the tentacle, snap. Then he pulled hard, yanking the soldier forward. His fist shattered the collar of the soldier's armored shell, driving fragments into the Demonoid's neck.

Steven sidestepped the spray of blood as the soldier went down. His attention focused on the bright gleam of his revolver, and he started for it, just as he became very suddenly aware that he was now an only man surrounded by a great number of tentacled shapes. He nodded once, the calm expression on his face never changing. His part in the plan was about to come to an end.

He spun around, his talwar clearing its scabbard with sibilant hiss. For an instant, he held the sword high above his head. Then he stepped forward into the waiting mass.

As an agent, one of Steven's first augmentations was having an army of miniature machines, nanotechnology, injected into his body. Over the next few decades of his life, they worked tirelessly, weaving titanium and steel filaments into a web of wires inside his bones and tendons. They also constructed artificial actuators and reinforcing wires in his muscles and enhanced the transmission speed of his nerves. All of this allowed Steven to move with superhuman speed and strike with superhuman strength and control.

He used all of it to his advantage in the next minute. He moved like a finely choreographed dancer, his saber cutting precise arcs through the air. His Demonoid opponents surged forward and fell away again, dead and dying. Tentacles whipped by him, but always seemed to just miss him. He slashed at one soldier with his sword, and then ducked to deliver a high kick to another, recovering just in time to drive the point of his saber into a third.

In the end, there were too many Demonoids, and too few agents. The Federation had learned, the hard way, just how formidable Demonoids could be when fighting on the ground and hand-to-hand. It was a lesson the Organization was learning now, as Steven's last stand was playing itself out over and over again as agents were reduced to their own superhuman strength and skill to fend off the increasing tide of Demonoid soldiers, all of whom were also inhumanly strong and fast.

The Organization's best fell like dominoes. Overwhelmed one, by one. And then, Steven was the only one left, and time was no longer on his side. There, there were too many Demonoids for even a man with superhuman speed and strength to take on. There were too many tentacles slashing at Steven, the chances of him catching a hit rapidly increased until a tentacle slashed across his leg. A Demonoid tentacle split into four smaller ones at the very tip, forming a hand of sorts. In that hand, the fortunate soldier carried a fighting razor.

With a hiss of pain, Steven lost his concentration and his balance. In the next moment, it was over. He felt himself being lifted off the ground as tentacles wrapped around his legs and his arms. He tried to keep a tight grip on his saber, but the solder holding his sword arm contracted its tentacle and Steven felt a sharp, agonizing, pain as his arm threatened to pop free from its socket. Reluctantly, he relaxed his grip on his saber, and it clattered to the ground. It was snatched away, even as Steven felt deft tentacles probing him. His belt and satchel came away, as did his armor. Very quickly, and very efficiently, the Demonoids had him completely disarmed. Tentacles wrapped around his arms and legs, lifting Steven free of the ground. He tried a kick, but the tentacles holding his leg held fast, and an instant later, the ones holding his arm pulled it nearly to the point of dislocation once more.

"I am most impressed," a voice called out. Steven tried to turn to look at the source, but his captors would have none of it. Another wrenching pull convinced him of it. "You people fight well. However, I advise you to lay down your weapons and surrender." The voice paused for effect. Then it picked up again.

"My friends may be under orders to take as many of you alive as possible, but I'm under no such compulsion, and I am likely as enhanced as you are."

Steven heard weapons being thrown down several moments later. The rustling that followed immediately after told him that the last of the Organization's resistance had been captured.

"Very good," the voice started again. It was definitely a man's voice. Steven caught a hint of movement in a large metal vase that was just in his field of view. Reflected in it was a human male. The man wore a uniform Steven had never seen before. He was plainly Latino, with brown skin and dark brown hair. His hair seemed to be meticulously slicked back.

"You may be wondering who I am, or why I am with my friends here," the man said. "I am Michael Paul Baca, and I represent the Glorious One. She has unfinished business with you. Now, I admit that I thought her a fool to risk everything we worked for by coming here. Yet, seeing what I have been able to see of this place so far, I see again that the Glorious One knows all and her judgment is unfailing!"

"What sort of business?" Steven heard Chris shout out from somewhere nearby.

"Aha, so you people can talk after all," Baca said with a nod. "Every one of our other prisoners has remained as silent as their fallen comrades. And believe me, you are all our prisoners. You were the last cell of resistance."

"That doesn't answer his question," Steven shouted out. The Demonoids holding him tightened their grip.

"Another one speaks! This may be more excitement than I can handle in one day," Baca replied. "But yes, we have had unfinished business with you for almost forty years now. The children of the Right, and their servants, have long memories for those who have wronged them," he continued, his voice growing chilly. "You helped deny the Glorious One the victory that rightfully belonged to her forty years ago. We are here to set things right."

"And why do you believe we had anything to do with it?" Chris shouted out.

"Surely you don't think us to be fools, do you?" Baca asked in return. "Or perhaps you do," he said, his tone intentionally casual.

"That doesn't answer our question," Steven shouted.

"But it does," Baca replied. "None of your denials will be of any use to you now. We know of your involvement because we know you have Laura Risinger. Really, she's the one the Glorious One wants, but the rest of you have a purpose to serve as well."

"What purpose?"

"Simple," Baca said, walking up to Steven. Unceremoniously, the Demonoids dropped his legs to the floor, tightening their grip on his arms. "You will help us find Laura Risinger. You will also tell us everything about who you are, and what useful purpose you might serve."

"You won't get much from us, if anything," Steven replied, looking up at Baca.

Baca sneered at him and clapped his hands several times. "Bravo," he said. "I've heard that line so many times in my career; I've come to expect it. It is so good of you not to disappoint me. This means that I shouldn't expect disappointment later. You see, we have yet not to break anybody. Even the most stubborn lose all will to resist when questioned by the Glorious One herself," he said, a certain amount of pride in his voice. Then, almost imperceptibly, his face sagged. "I was similarly defiant once. Now I serve."

Steven was left to ponder this as Baca walked away. Silently, the Demonoids jerked him to his feet and started pulling him in the direction of the building's cafeteria. As he was lead along, he saw other agents being lead in much the same way. Others were carried or dragged. He let his body go into autopilot and allowed his mind to wander. Either the Glorious One, whoever she was, was aboard the super-dreadnought now in orbit, or they would take a selection of prisoners to her. In an instant, he knew that he, or the other senior agents, had to be the ones to go. If the Glorious One was willing to expose herself, then Steven was willing to make her pay for the mistake.

~~~

Laura swept her binoculars across the width of the compound. As her eyes focused on specific objects, the datajack implanted at the base of her skull told her the ranges. As she finished her sweep, she slid back behind the outcropping of rocks high above the compound. Her rented flyer was long gone, flying back to the capital on autopilot. With luck, the Demonoids would waste time chasing it, or blowing it out of the sky.

She was forced to watch as the Demonoids cleared out the buildings in the compound. They had brought a large number of soldiers, and apparently, it had been more than enough to do the job they were trying to do, as she hadn't seen any signs of fighting for fifteen minutes now. What she did see were Organization agents being herded to any large, wide-open rooms the Demonoids could find.

She nodded to herself. They were doing it to make the job of watching their prisoners easier while they tore the complex apart, or conducted interrogations. It would make her plans much easier as well. She intended to mount a rescue operation, a jailbreak. If she could get a handful of agents out, it would become easier to get more of their kind out, or keep the Demonoids distracted until they were forced to withdraw.

She made her way around her rock outcropping and dropped into a brush-choked ravine. Quickly, she scrambled down a slope that a baseline human would've found extremely treacherous. Her boots sank into mud at the bank of a creek at the bottom of the ravine. She followed the creek down the ravine, relying on her superhuman coordination to avoid slipping on the smooth stones beneath the water's surface. She stopped only when the ravine widened into a small valley, and trees filtered the late afternoon sun. While she was screened from any Demonoid sentries, she mentally reviewed the path she would have to take down to the compound. Satisfied, she resumed her rapid descent.



(Continued in part IV)




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 Post subject: Chapter Six -- Part IV PostPosted: 2008-01-24 02:03pm
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(Continued from part III)

Dateline: 25200613.0932, Captain's Log: USS Starla, somewhere in the 4 Gallegos System. Almost half an hour ago, we found the escape pods from the 1623rd. Unfortunately, we didn't find many of them. All of those we recovered were from the squadron's flagship, the USS Hood, the destroyer USS Eighteenth of April, and the escort carrier USS Minas Gerais. A diligent search turned up no other survivors.

Justin leaned back in his chair and exhaled sharply. They picked up seven escape pods and eighty-three survivors. This was out of a total of 6756 crewmen aboard the eight ships of the squadron. All that remained to do was to find out whether or not any of the survivors were in the right place at the right time to tell Justin anything useful.

"Exec to the Bridge," Justin heard Wes say over the comm. Justin tapped twice on his console.

"Go ahead Wes."

"Justin, I just finished debriefing the last of the survivors we picked up."

"Funny, I was just thinking about that," Justin replied. "Did you learn anything we could use?"

"Yeah," Wes said. "A couple of things. First, we got lucky and managed to pick up the Eighteenth of April's bridge tactical officer on duty at the time they went into combat."

"Excellent! What did he have to say?"

"He has reason to believe the super-dreadnought may have been acquired by the Demonoids outright, since all of its escorting ships were Demonoid, and the ship's shields were nowhere near as strong as they should've been."

"That's not good news," Justin replied, frowning.

"Not at all," Wes agreed.

"Hmm, you said there were a couple of things, what was the other one?" Justin asked after a moment.

"The survivors of the Minas Gerais say that their ship had time to scramble one of its assault craft before they went up."

"I see," Justin replied. "I assume they went ahead to try to warn the colony of what was coming?"

"Yeah, that's right," Wes, said. "They were headed for the second habitable planet of the system."

"Wonder why we haven't heard anything from them then," Justin said thoughtfully. "We'll investigate the second planet first. Perhaps we'll pick up any signals they might be putting out, as we get closer.

"Sounds like a plan, Justin," Wes replied. "In the meantime, I'll get our guests settled in. I'll give them an hour, and then debrief them again. Might be able to scare up something we missed earlier."

"Alright," Justin said. "Keep me posted, Wes."

"Will do," Wes replied, as the channel went silent.

~~~

Commander Wadi al-Sharif floated in a virtual world of hazy lights and razor-sharp lines. His datajack was directly linked to the Agamemnon's computers, and they were giving him a tour of Captain Epps' files. His software servants did their job very well. Even as Commander Montree was showing him files that were of absolutely no importance whatsoever, Wadi's snippets of viral code were infiltrating deeper into Captain Epps' file networks, copying everything they found. From there, they spread into Montree's own networks, and from there, they launched off into the private nets of all the Agamemnon's senior officers.

He frowned thoughtfully as he watched the network branches fill out. Once he had access, pulling up the information Admiral Lewinger had given to Captain Epps had been trivial. While it made for interesting reading, it didn't interest him as much as the things he'd seen when inspecting the rest of Epps', and the other officers files.

It was nothing major, really. Mostly small things, here and there, inconsistencies that made the whole picture not quite add up. To a non Security person, everything would look perfectly normal. To Wadi's eye, however, it was all subtly wrong somehow. And now he was determined to find out how. It would have to wait, though. He didn't have the resources he needed aboard the Agamemnon, and he wouldn't put it past Commander Montree to try to watch what he was doing.

"Commander al-Sharif, Priority Three hyperlink for you," Agamemnon's computer interrupted.

Wadi frowned. Only one person routinely talked to him using a Priority Three link.

"Am I secure, Computer?"

"Affirmative," the computer replied. "As you requested, no history is being kept of your communications."

"Very good, patch the link into my virtual space then," Wadi said, leaning back as the short, slender form of Eris Janasaki materialized before him.

"Ma'am, this is quite a surprise," Wadi said to her, his face impassive.

"Don't worry, Commander," Eris replied with a dismissive wave. "This is official business, mostly. Our squadron has been dispatched to assist in 4 Gallegos."

"I see, ma'am," Wadi replied.

"It is good that you see," Eris said. "Though, as I see you've isolated yourself from Agamemnon's main comms net, I will ask if you've done what is needed."

Wadi nodded gravely. "I've done so, ma'am. You will find that the files I am sending you will make for refreshing reading."

Eris flashed a smile. "I do hope so, Commander." She then smiled again. "You are less reluctant than the last time we talked. I presume things are going well?"

Wadi nodded curtly. "Yes, ma'am," he replied. "I may have found things which could interest the Directorate. As a Security man, I am compelled to investigate."

"Good, good," Eris said. "The Directorate and the old-guard share many of the same ideals. Were I my aunt, I would undoubtedly suggest that we work together. As I am not, I can only ask that you keep me informed on anything you find that would be helpful to our cause."

"Yes ma'am, as always," Wadi replied with a nod. Though, outwardly, his expression was neutral, inwardly he had to hold back a flash of anger. If your aunt ever came to the Directorate with anything like that, then perhaps she is stupider than I thought, he thought caustically as Eris faded away.

~~~

Dateline: 25200613.1146, USS Starla, approaching the second planet of 4 Gallegos. Justin watched as the super-dreadnought swung behind the limb of the planet. Without its screen of escorting starships, it would be effectively blind to the Starla's final deceleration maneuvers for the next forty-five minutes. Everything his ship's passive sensors told him seemed to confirm what the survivors had said: The super-dreadnought wasn't operating at anything approaching full-strength. Now that wasn't to say that it wouldn't comfortably smash the Starla in a head-on, all-out engagement, but it did widen Justin's options.

"What exactly are you proposing, Justin," Wes asked, drawing him out of his reverie.

"Hmm," Justin replied, still thinking. "Unless anyone has a better idea, I say we go in hot. Close to point-blank range and unleash a full barrage of Fireball heavy missiles, followed up by a couple torpedo salvoes. If we can inflict enough damage, and if they show the same lack of appetite for a real fight that they have so far, then they'll run.

Wes frowned thoughtfully for a moment. Then he looked directly at Justin.

"It's crazy," he said. "I like it," he added with a quick grin. "We'll have the element of surprise on our side, so that'll work to our advantage. Should we have a ground assault team ready to go afterwards?"

Now, it was Justin's turn to look thoughtful.

"Perhaps," he replied at length. "There's no guarantee that we won't be the ones forced to turn and run. And we'd have to survey the planet first and find out where we might do the most good."

"Wouldn't hurt to be prepared," Wes, said.

"Yes," Justin replied. "Get Ryan to assemble a team then. We need to be ready to move quickly, and that is something he does well."

Wes nodded. "Consider it done, Justin. I'd better get back down to First Command and get things ready down there."

"Roger that, Wes," Justin said. Then he furrowed his brow, "Speaking of him, you should coordinate with our medical chief. I don't know how much damage the Demonoids have done down there, but we may be the next best thing to a working hospital this system has until Captain Janasaki's relief force shows up."

"Will do," Wes said as he made his way off the bridge.

"Navigation," Justin said to the young woman at the Navigation console. "I want us to be inside point-blank energy weapons of that dreadnought when she's projected to come back into our line of sight. Is that doable?"

Petty Officer Melissa Butler thought for a moment, and then tapped several things into her console. After several moments, she turned back to look at Justin, pushing a lock of shoulder-length blonde-brown hair out of her face.

"Yes sir, we can do it. We'll be coming in kinda fast though."

"That works out to our advantage then," Justin replied. "Lieutenant McFarland, I want all forward tubes loaded with heavy warheads with three salvoes of standard torpedoes ready to follow."

"Aye sir," Lieutenant McFarland replied. "I'd suggest unfocused proximity detonations," she added after a moment.

"Excellent suggestion, Lieutenant," Justin replied. "If we get the chance to call our shots, then we'll do so. For now, I think, the best thing to do will be to try to over-saturate our friends and blind them so they can't shoot back."

"Course plotted sir," Petty Officer Butler reported. "We'll have fifteen minutes until we reach their line of sight."

"Carry it out, Navigation," Justin replied. "Commander Nuanez, I want as much power to shields as you can spare. If this doesn't go well, we're going to be taking a lot of fire while we pass by that ship."

"We'll keep the shields up, Captain, have no doubt about that," Commander Nuanez replied. "If we can't, I don't think there'll be enough of me left to admit if I was wrong."

~~~

Laura slipped into a back alley, crouching behind a few empty boxes. For two hours, she had carefully worked her way down out of the countryside and around the perimeter of the compound. All of it so she could make her approach into the compound from the west . . . Demonoids had big, sensitive eyes, and Laura was willing to bet that none of them would be keen on watching the sunset.

She also knew that the Demonoids had all moved into the central buildings, leaving the outlying buildings completely unguarded. Unfortunately, their decision had nothing to do with arrogance. Laura had mentally tracked the prisoners they had with them as they moved from building to building. And the tally she had matched closely with the total number of people employed by the Organization on the planet. That meant that whatever she was going to do, she'd be doing it alone.

She abandoned the cover of the alleyway, moving quickly from building to building. She used the patchwork of long afternoon shadows to hide her movement, while staying close to walls, trees, and other obstacles that blocked the view from the four story central building and its broad windows. In one hand she held her kukri dagger, and in the other, she held a long stabbing knife. Her throwing knives stayed safely tucked away, even though they could give her an initial edge in range. Picking off the first few sentries from a distance would give the others time to get outside, where they could press the advantage of their vastly superior firepower.

Laura slid into an alcove behind a concrete planter and a row of trees as the sun slipped below the hills to the west. A cool evening breeze caressed her face, gently rustling the foliage of the plants around her. In the distance, there was the occasional noise from a native insect or animal. For a moment, Laura could almost believe that things were actually normal, were it not for the faint stink of death that the breeze carried.

A bright star, rising quickly over the western horizon, caught Laura's eye. As she followed it upward, another bright star, coming from the east, slipped into her field of view. She frowned as she watched them come closer together. She didn't quite think it was dark enough to see any of the artificial satellites that orbited the planet.

Suddenly, one of the two stars seemed to become almost intolerably bright. As she blinked the afterimage from her eyes, the part of her that had once been a starship captain immediately realized that what she'd just seen was starship combat. And if there was starship combat going on in orbit; that could mean only one thing . . . A ghost of a smile crossed her face as she abandoned her hiding place. It looked as though the Demonoids were getting a nasty surprise up in orbit. Now was the time to do the same for them on the ground.

~~~

Alarms screamed aboard the Starla, as red emergency lights flashed. The limb of the planet on the viewscreen seemed to tumble wildly as the ship threw itself into a spin to distribute any incoming fire evenly across its shields.

"Tactical, what's going on?" Justin snapped, finding himself gripping his console tightly.

"Sir, the dreadnought has suffered massive shield failures!" Lieutenant McFarland exclaimed. "They're not returning fire."

"What are they doing then?"

"They seem to be maneuvering away from the planet. Sir, we're taking sporadic return fire now, but none of it is targeted."

Justin nodded. "So they've been dazzled then. Return fire, Lieutenant. Hit every sensor or weapons emplacement you can see. I want them out of here, not crashing into the planet."

"Aye sir, I'll make it count," Lieutenant McFarland replied.

"Shields holding, Captain," Commander Nuanez reported. "We're getting hit with less energy than our shields can radiate away."

"That's the sort of news I like hearing, Commander," Justin replied. "I intend to keep it that way," he said as the lights momentarily flickered.

"Captain, starboard shield sector just took a big hit! Now at ten percent of maximum capacity," Nuanez said, his tone growing grim.

"Tactical," Justin snapped.

"Already taken care of," Lieutenant McFarland replied. "They're starting to roll the ship. I think they're trying to bring their undamaged side to bear."

"We don't want that to happen," Justin replied. "Navigation, do your best to keep us on their damaged side."

"We won't be able to do it for very long," Petty Officer Butler replied.

"We shouldn't need long," Justin said. "We should be leaving their line of sight inside ten minutes."

The lights flickered again as a harsh blue light momentarily filled the viewscreen.

"Major hit to the forward shield," Nuanez said. "We're going to find out real quick how good our repairs were."

"You fixed them, Commander, it's your hide if the shields go down again," Justin shot back, a cold edge behind his light tone.

"Sir, I'm picking up a signal on the short-range emergency band!" Lieutenant McFarland reported.

"A distress signal," Justin asked. "Source?"

"It's a Federal beacon coming from the planet. The ID tag says it belongs to an assault craft from the Minas Gerais," Lieutenant McFarland replied after several moments. "It's authentic," she added a moment later.

"I see," Justin replied. "Navigation, I'm assuming our tail is pointed away from that dreadnought?"

"Yes sir," Petty Officer Butler replied after a moment's hesitation.

"That's what I needed to know," Justin said. He thumbed his console. "Bridge to Commander Zeiken."

"I hear you, what's up, Justin?" Ryan's voice said after a moment.

"I hope you've got your ground assault team assembled."

"Yeah, they're ready to roll," Ryan replied.

"Excellent," Justin said brightly. "I want you to launch as soon as you're able. We've picked up a friendly distress beacon on the planet. I assume you know what to do."

"It's what I'm paid for," Ryan replied, closing the channel. "Just be sure you keep the Demonoids from shooting at us long enough for us to get away safely."

"Heh, don't worry, Ryan, I've got quite a diversion planned for them," Justin replied.

(End Chapter Six)




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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2008-01-25 10:45pm
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I'm pressing on and posting Chapter Seven.

Chapter Seven: The Encounter.

Steven tried not to groan as the Demonoids dumped him unceremoniously on the ground. Though his training as an agent meant being exposed and acclimated to most methods of torture employed where agents risked being captured, there was nothing quite like the real thing to make one thankful for the training. Worse still, the Demonoids managed to think of a few tricks that weren't in the manual, or possible for ordinary human torturers, for that matter.

"Got you too, did they?" Chris asked, not unsympathetically. He absentmindedly rubbed the back of his head.

"As it would appear," Steven replied dryly. "It would also appear they're just 'toying' with us. They don't actually mean to get anything useful."

"Well, it might look that way to us, but not to any of the newer agents," Chris said with a frown. "We've been through worse. They haven't."

"Truth," Steven replied. "I hope we manage to focus their attention away from the younger agents. Do you know if they've found anything of interest down below?"

Chris shook his head. "Locked the blast doors myself before they landed. They're not going to find anything interesting without a week of hard work and careful use of high explosives."

"That's good, at least. I presume you armed the locking sequences yourself?"

"Wouldn't trust any of the youngsters not to crack," Chris said. He fell silent as one of their jailers wandered by, moving silently and fluidly on its four walking tentacles. It paused to look at them, the skin on its face and head flashing a rapid sequence of reds, blues, and purples. Its silver and gold-flecked eyes then looked away as it shuffled off.

"They've been doing that more and more," Chris remarked after a few moments.

"I don't think I've had the opportunity to notice," Steven replied.

"I wouldn't think so, no," Chris said. "They've been edgy a lot in the last few minutes. Though it's hard to say what exactly they're feeling. They could be flirting with each other for all I know."

Steven wrinkled his nose. "One could only hope, old friend," he scoffed. Then he looked a little closer at the Demonoids wandering silently among the prisoners. They did seem to stop and hesitate a bit more than was normal for them. Demonoids usually moved with an oddly fluid sort of grace. Now, they were holding themselves stiffly, and they seemed to flash a pale shade of purple-tinted turquoise.

"You're right," he added after a minute. "Something's up. They're afraid."

Chris frowned. "How do you figure?"

"In one regard, they're very much like old Earth octopuses. They blanche when they're afraid. That turquoise flash that they're showing off is the Demonoid equivalent," Steven replied. Then he looked up. "Your datajack is still connected to the wireless net, is it not?"

"I think. Is yours?"

"No, I disconnected from the net earlier. But if you can, broadcast a note out to the wireless network. Something's about to happen and we'll need the others to be ready to move when it does."

~~~

Laura frowned as she saw an increasing number of things moving in the shadows around the central buildings. The Demonoids were starting to move some of their forces out towards the northeast, where their ships had landed. If she had to hazard a guess, she guessed that they ended up on the losing end of the space battle, and they were recalling their ground forces.

She frowned again. In theory, the fewer Demonoids she had to take on, the better. Unfortunately, if they were withdrawing out of fear, then that would make them unpredictable, and she didn't want them doing anything rash, such as killing their prisoners. Hopefully Steven, or another agent experienced in the Foreign Service arm of the Organization would pick up that something was wrong and start to warn the others. She could conceivably count on their help, if she got to them before the Demonoids started moving them out.

She made her way to the trees that lined the open courtyard facing the huge glass-faced atrium of the main building. As she'd observed earlier, the Demonoids brought all of their prisoners to the wide-open atrium, where it'd be easier to keep an eye on them. She exhaled sharply as she then noticed that the Demonoids had gone and set up a pair of heavy machine guns covering the atrium. Though the glass was made of some of the toughest material known to modern humankind, it would do little to stop high-velocity, high-mass bullets, and would be completely worthless against modest blaster fire . . . though fortunately, the two guns looked like standard Demonoid machine-guns.

She crept closer to one of the guns. She fervently hoped that they'd keep their attention fixed on the prisoners inside for just a bit longer. It wouldn't do her any good if they put on night vision and started scanning the skies for potential threats, especially since that would mean that they'd look away from the building and towards where she was hidden.

Laura saw the machine-gun crew silhouetted in the light from the building. She could count five Demonoids on the gun. One to fire the gun, one to keep it fed with ammunition, a third to help move the gun and un-jam it, and two guards. In the distance, she heard the roar of a spacecraft engine firing up. It was time for her to move.

She leaped forward into the middle of the machine-gun nest, landing next to one of the guards. The dim light glinted off her kukri as she brought the sharply curved blade down in a short arc. Her target's assault rifle whipped away as the Demonoid involuntarily shrunk back from the pain of suddenly losing one of its tentacles. That gave Laura the opening she needed to thrust her stabbing knife up under its armored chest. She used the body for leverage as she pivoted, bringing her kukri down the back of another Demonoid's head. Her next victim was the one responsible for aiming and firing the machine-gun. Now the nest would stay out of action long enough for her to finish her dirty work.

Laura ducked in the darkness as the next closest Demonoid slashed at her with a pair of tentacles. She deflected the Demonoid's next attack with her stabbing knife and slashed out with her dagger as she yanked it free from her previous victim's head. She felt hot blood splatter on her as she cut the third Demonoid's tentacle open. She almost lost her balance as her knife caught on one of the bony rings that supported the inside of the tentacle. The Demonoid yanked her toward it, another tentacle whipping around to try to disarm her. However, Laura lunged forward, driving her stabbing knife through her opponent's chest.

She swung around, swinging the dying Demonoid ahead of her like a living shield. She felt it jerk as it caught a strong tentacle attack from the fourth Demonoid. She felt the body jerk again as the Demonoid made the same mistake she did, its own knife getting stuck in the body of its former comrade. By now, though, Laura managed to yank her kukri free, just in time to sidestep the blow from the second guard's assault rifle. The blow glanced off her hip and Laura stumbled with a surprised grunt. In the inky darkness, she saw the guard raise the rifle to deliver the next blow, but she was ready. She slashed outward, cutting deep into its two forward walking tentacles. As the Demonoid toppled forward, she whirled, thrusting her stabbing knife into it.

Her last opponent abandoned its post, moving rapidly toward the other machine-gun. It was swinging its knives out in wide arcs, the blades sparking off the concrete and making a lot of noise. Laura bit back a curse as she realized what the Demonoid was trying to do. With the strength of three men, she grabbed the machine gun and swiveled it toward the escaping soldier and the other gun nest. She could just barely make out the second gun starting to swing toward her, but she was already in position. She fumbled for the two gun's two triggers, and then squeezed them hard.

The Demonoid gun bucked wildly in her hands and made a horrible ripping noise. But it had the desired effect as the Demonoid retreating toward the other gun vanished in a mist of blood and flailing tentacles. Some of Laura's bullets sparked harmlessly off the other gun's twin metal shields, but the Demonoids manning it didn't bring the gun around fast enough. They were caught unprotected as hundreds of high-velocity bullets ripped through and into them. For a moment, the second gun started to fire wildly, and Laura gritted her teeth as she heard the sharp crash of shattering glass.

Steven watched as the Demonoids guarding them seemed to grow increasingly nervous. Their movements lost the fluid grace they had displayed earlier, and there were more turquoise flashes between the guards. Though, it had the effect of bringing an end to the interrogations. Except now, all the human prisoners were crowded into the same room, and all of them were being affected by the unusual Demonoid behavior. The growing tension was even beginning to affect Steven.

As a result, it came as no surprise when the top tier of windows exploded into a shower of glass. As the human prisoners were already on the ground, it was a simple matter to turn and duck. The Demonoids weren’t so lucky, and some of them took lethal cuts from giant shards of glass.

A loud noise and a bright flash outside told Steven that one of the two machine-guns covering the atrium had exploded. Why it had done so didn’t really matter, not as much as it had the surviving Demonoid guards staring outside and not paying attention to their prisoners. A defiant yell filled the atrium as the uninjured prisoners seemed to move up, almost as one, against their captors. Steven grabbed out, his hands wrapping around a tentacle, squeezing as hard as he could. He felt a ring of bone bend, then snap in his hand as he yanked.

He felt a sharp stab of pain as the Demonoid drove its assault rifle between his shoulder blades. Yet, Steven expected something like this. He held on tight as he was knocked down. A moment later, he was rewarded as the Demonoid fell on top of him in a mess of writhing tentacles. He rolled under his opponent while it was still recovering from the fall. Steven got his hand on the Demonoid’s bayonet. Yanking it free, he drove it as deep as he could into the soldier, and pulled it down until it caught on the Demonoid’s armored mantle.

He grabbed the soldier’s assault rifle as he pushed its quivering corpse off him. The Demonoid rifle was built around the assumption that its user would have four prehensile tentacles and the strength of three men. It had no stock like a Human weapon would. Instead, it had a long spiral-carved pole that took up half the weapon for a tentacle to wrap around, and a handle sticking out the side of the gun. Its trigger was a lever as wide as a man’s hand, and would’ve been difficult, if not impossible, for ordinary Humans to work.

Yet, as Steven took great relish in reminding himself, he wasn’t so ordinary anymore. The assault rifle chattered in short, deadly bursts, cutting down Demonoid soldiers who dared to look into the atrium to see what was going on. Outside, the remaining machine-gun fired again, disintegrating a squad of soldiers who were trying to sneak around the outside. Steven heard another assault rifle chatter. Looking, he found Chris, an assault rifle in his hands, bleeding from a nasty-looking scalp wound. They both looked around, but they seemed to be out of things to kill. There wasn’t a Demonoid left standing in the atrium, and Steven could see none in the doorways.

The other agents looked around, similarly confused. Some lay on the ground, moaning with the pain of wounds suffered in the attempt. Others didn’t move at all, surrounded in growing haloes of blood. Suddenly, Steven whipped over to look at one of the doorways leading into the atrium. Standing in the doorway was a ghostly human shape.

“Laura!” Chris said first. Steven frowned as he looked closer. The form looked very much like that of Laura Risinger. Though, at the moment, Laura looked more like some macabre example of modern art than a proper human being. She was liberally splashed with the red-purple of Demonoid blood. Red human blood mingled with dark Demonoid blood where her robes had been torn by Demonoid tentacles. She still held her two knives, both of which were encrusted in dried blood and bits of Demonoids.

“Yes, it’s me,” she replied. “At least, I’m sure it’s me. It’s hard to tell when I still can’t hear myself think over the ringing in my ears,” she said with a ghost of a grin.

“What happened?” Steven asked. “The Demonoids have been tense since before you took out their big guns.”

Laura nodded, seemingly not surprised. “Their space forces came under attack earlier. I saw the others retreating back to their landing craft,” she paused, seeing the expressions on the faces of Steven and Chris. “What did I miss?”

Steven slowly shook his head. “Nothing at all, Laura,” he started. “This wasn’t an ordinary Demonoid attack force. They have a Zicharion super-dreadnought at their disposal, if our guests down below are to be believed.”

“Oh my,” Laura said, her eyes widening. “And they’re still running, even with that.”

“Yes,” Steven replied. “Either there were more Federal forces in this system than our guests admit to, or there’s a man or woman up there I’m going to be very much afraid of meeting.”

~~~

The Starla shook as a blast of energy punched through its forward shield, and burned a broad scar into its hull. The ship responded with a flurry of weapons fire, which scoured the already scarred flanks of the super-dreadnought.

“Forward shield losing cohesion,” Commander Nuanez reported unnecessarily.

“I could tell,” Justin replied. “This is the third direct hit we’ve sustained in as many minutes. Can we balance the shield loading again?”

Nuanez shook his head. “Afraid not, Captain. The other shield sectors are already radiating at close to maximum capacity. Dump any more energy on them, and they’re liable to lose cohesion as well.”

Justin nodded as his engineer confirmed what his own displays already told him. The Starla and the super-dreadnought traded sporadic fire as the latter ship retreated from the planet. Even in its marginally functional state, the dreadnought had managed to hit the Starla hard enough to bring her entire shield system close to the point of overload.

“Tactical, what’s our distance from the planet?”

“Passing 160,000 kilometers now, sir,” Lieutenant McFarland replied. The ship shook violently three more times. The last time, Justin heard a deep cracking sound reverberate about the bridge.

“Forward shields gone,” Commander Nuanez reported. “I’m attempting to expand port and starboard shields to compensate.”

“Direct hit reported to Decks one through five, from Sections fifteen to seventeen,” Lieutenant McFarland said. “Stand by for casualty reports.”

“I think we’ve occupied them long enough. No way can they hit our shuttles now,” Justin said. “Navigation, can we bring up sublight drives?”

“Not without dropping our shields,” Ensign Trevius replied, taking over from Petty Officer Butler.

“They’re barely up as it is,” Justin replied. “Get us out of here!”

~~~

The world surrounding Ryan Zeiken was one of fire. Streamers of superheated plasma burst by the Aegis assault shuttle’s windows. Below, he knew the ship’s belly was glowing as hot as the surface of a sun as it streaked through the planet’s atmosphere. The entire craft shook as it fought to shed velocity. A bead of sweat rolled down his dark brow and into his eye, causing him to blink in irritation. There wasn’t much more he could do about it, not while he was in full battle-armor.

Suddenly, the shuttle’s radar displays lit up as the shockwave of superheated air ahead of it dissipated. Ryan nodded in satisfaction as he saw that his formation remained intact. Another Aegis was a hundred kilometers off to his port side. Perhaps a hundred and fifty kilometers higher in altitude were two standard utility shuttles. Though they could function in atmosphere, they weren’t as streamlined as the two Aegis shuttles. As a result, they’d make up the difference in altitude quickly.

The Aegis corrected its own course, aligning itself onto the glide path that would take it to the Federal beacon beckoning on the surface. Though it was possible to make the entire descent under powered flight, it would be a tremendous waste of fuel to do so. Furthermore, their targets would be coming up from below . . . the Federation held the high ground in this fight.

“All ships, keep your eyes open,” Ryan said into his helmet microphone. “Squad Two, follow my lead and use conventional missiles only. Squad Three and Four, stay on your glide path, don’t attempt to engage any targets unless they pose a direct threat, or don’t require major course changes to attack.”

Ryan heard a chorus of metallic-sounding “Aye sir’s” echo in his helmet speakers. As the ship scanned for targets, he reflected on where he was. Normally, he was the Starla’s Operations Officer, who managed the day-to-day operations not normally handled by Wes, the ship’s Executive Officer. Yet, he was also trained in the sort of Special Operations work the Starla occasionally found itself involved. For that matter, so were Wes and Justin, but they were both command-track officers, and Wes was supposed to be the Directorate’s representative aboard the ship to boot, so Ryan found himself doing more of this work as a result.

The ship’s computer beeped impatiently at him, drawing his attention to a group of five targets rising rapidly above the horizon. He quickly confirmed them as Demonoid troop-transports. And they were boosting for space as fast as they could without shaking themselves apart.

“Look sharp squad, we’ve got targets coming up fast,” Ryan said as he flipped a bank of switches to his left, retracting the doors over the shuttle’s forward missile tubes. On his display, the computer traced lines of ionized air as the Demonoid ships passed the narrow engagement windows of the two utility shuttles. He allowed himself a grin as one of the Demonoid ships dropped out of formation as Federal lasers slashed at it.

“Good shot Squad Four,” one of Ryan’s pilots said. He let the utility pilots have their fun. It was better they get it out of their system now, while their thin-skinned ships still had some distance between themselves and the enemy.

Eight colored boxes materialized around the Demonoid transports. Four yellow ones representing his four missile tubes acquiring their targets, and four orange ones for the second Aegis. His boxes turned to flashing red X’s as his first four missiles acquired lock.

“Hits away,” Ryan said, squeezing the launch trigger. His ship shuddered as four missiles streaked toward their targets. A moment later, the second Aegis fired four of its own missiles. Eight pale contrails crossed the distance between the Federal and Demonoid ships. Some of the missiles vanished in puffs of black smoke as the Demonoids intercepted them with their own lasers.

There were two bright explosions in the distance as two Demonoid troop transports broke up in spectacular fireballs. A third transport began to trail a plume of thick smoke and started to slowly spiral back toward the ground. The last transport, escaped completely unscathed. It stood on its tail, the flare of its engines easily visible from Ryan’s ship. Two more transports rose up in the distance, boosting away from the Federal ships.

“Permission to engage the escaping transport sir?”

“Negative,” Ryan replied. “Stay on your glide path, Squad Two. Switch to Sparrowhawk missiles and engage the next two transports,” he said, turning his weapon selector switch to select the appropriate weapon. A Sparrowhawk missile was like the torpedoes carried by a starship, insofar as it had an antimatter warhead. It was a guaranteed one-hit, one-kill missile, unlike the conventional missiles Ryan’s ship also carried.

A missile leapt from the second Aegis shuttle and traced a beeline to the lead Demonoid transport. For an instant, the windows darkened as the Demonoid ship was vaporized by an explosion a tenth as powerful as the atom bombs developed so many millennia before. The second Demonoid transport, which stayed too close to the doomed ship, paid the price, exploding in turn.

“Squad Three to Squad One, we’ve got the wreckage of an Odysseus-class assault craft near a large complex of buildings. The wreckage is the confirmed source of the signal, and is near the likely launching point of the transports you dusted.”

Ryan flipped one of the switches on his control panel, bringing up the ship’s ground-imaging radar. Immediately, he could see the distinctive profile of an assault craft sitting in the fields just beyond the buildings.

"Squad, listen up, power up your engines, we'll put down around the wreckage. Then we'll see if the natives need our help."

~~~

Steven nodded appreciatively at the destruction wrought by the Demonoid assault earlier in the day. What had once been a respectable cubicle farm was now a wide-open field of debris. Gaping holes in the walls let in the sounds of the night, and puddles of dried blood and bits of tissue marked where someone or something had fallen. Half the lights were out, leaving them standing around in a dirty half-darkness.

He pursed his lips reflectively. He was going to miss this particular site office. The Organization's front company would undoubtedly clean the buildings up as best they could, then put them up for auction. Perhaps they'd just sell the land back to the colonial authorities and let them clean up the mess. Either way, the Organization was likely to abandon their office in 4 Gallegos.

Laura slid up next to him, peering out into the dark night beyond one of the holes in the wall. Thankfully, she'd changed her clothes, and was now wearing clean white robes trimmed in metallic blue. A fresh headscarf kept her hair out of the way and out of sight. She seemed more somber now. Steven and Chris filled her in on what the Demonoid representative had told them. She agreed with their belief that the Demonoids had somehow gotten their old Glorious One back, though she thought Meghan Salazar had died forty years before as well.

Steven frowned as new data trickled into his datajack over the wireless.

"We're going to have company," he remarked. Laura nodded silently. She too had a datajack.

"I think they're going to be disappointed," Laura said after a few moments.

"Why do you think that?" Steven asked, frowning.

"I think they're expecting the need to rescue someone. They're going to be surprised to learn that we've already taken care of it."

"Ah, yes, of course," Steven replied. "I suppose we should disabuse them of the notion that they're riding to the rescue then."

~~~

Ryan scanned the field around him and his shuttles. With the night vision built into his helmet, he could just barely pick up the men who had established a perimeter some distance out from their landing site. Federal armor was painted a light-absorbing matte black, and quickly radiated heat, making it almost invisible in night vision and infrared. What he did see was the wreckage of the Odysseus-class assault craft, illuminated by brilliant floodlights, surrounded by a swarm of black-suited men.

He made his way over to the impact site, stepping around a large chunk of debris and a freshly excavated boulder. In the dim moonlight, he could make out several small impact craters surrounding the site. They marked where Demonoid bombers had taken a few half-hearted shots before they’d moved off to hit more interesting targets. He slid into the crater where the wrecked assault craft made its final resting place.

“What did you find,” he asked one of the technicians near the wreckage.

“The crew survived, sir. The computers have been wiped, and most of the sensitive equipment has been deliberately disabled,” the technician replied. Ryan couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman, as the technician’s helmet speaker badly distorted its words.

“That’s good,” Ryan replied, nodding. And it was good if the crew survived in good enough condition to scuttle the ship as they were supposed to in situations like this. Then he frowned. “Most of the equipment you say?”

“Yes sir,” the technician replied. “Some of it has been removed. We’re still reviewing the ship’s schematics to find out what.”

“Keep it up,” Ryan said. “Any idea of what happened to the crew?”

“If they’re alive, then they’re probably in the custody of whoever owns the buildings to the northeast of us, sir.”

“Most likely,” Ryan replied. “I don’t like this,” he added after a few moments. “It’s too quiet.”

“Quiet is fine by me, sir,” the technician replied.

“Nasty things happen after too much quiet,” Ryan cautioned. “Keep me informed.”

“Yes sir,” the technician replied, turning away from him.

Ryan made his way back up out of the crater, and over toward the platoon of Marines that had assembled by the shuttles that had landed them on the planet. As he zoomed in on them with his helmet’s optics, he nodded in satisfaction. They seemed like they were ready to move out. Hopefully they also understood the nature of this operation. Their first imperative was to rescue the Minas Gerais survivors from whoever was holding them, be they Demonoids or local colonials. The second was to assess the damage the Demonoids had inflicted here, and more importantly, find out why they had landed here.

“Commander,” a Marine sergeant said to Ryan, quickly saluting. Unlike the Fleet salute, the Marine salute consisted of bringing a fist up over the heart. It was a traditional salute, millennia older than the Federation, but then again, so was the business of soldiering.

“Sergeant,” Ryan replied, returning the salute. “Are we ready to move out?”

“Of course sir,” the sergeant replied, his disdain managing to show, even over the distortion caused by his comm. Ryan nodded; he didn’t expect anything else from Marines. And he’d been working with them for close to a decade, ever since the first operation that brought him into the Special Forces.

“Very good,” Ryan replied. “We’ll do it by the numbers: A hard charge to the central buildings. We’ll set up defenses there, and one of the Aegis shuttles will provide close-air support for as long as we need it.”

“A good, basic plan, sir,” the Marine replied. “We’ll get it taken care of.”

Ryan grinned inside his helmet. The word “basic” from anybody but a Marine might’ve been meant as an insult. Marines had little appetite for elaborate, risky, and potentially expensive strategies. It was one of the reasons the two branches of the Federal military didn’t get along very well.

“Let’s do it then,” Ryan said. As he turned away from the Marine, he already heard the orders being issued over the Marine TacNet. The neatly arrayed ranks of soldiers split up, in a seemingly haphazard fashion, into squads and smaller groups of men. They moved off into the darkness, congregating around the small number of self-propelled guns Ryan had brought with him.

He jumped onto one of the spindly-looking self-propelled guns as it rolled by. Its electric motors whirred silently as it drove across the field; its suspension dampening out almost all the jolting and jarring the vehicle took. As it moved, he and the others on it warily looked out into the darkness. There was no telling how many soldiers the Demonoids had left behind in their headlong rush to evacuate the planet.

Somewhere behind him, he heard the roar of the second Aegis lifting off from the field. The support shuttle had a single laser turret that pointed at the ground, and its missile tubes also had a variety of anti-personnel and anti-armor munitions. It wasn’t as good a close-support vehicle as the Marine Cerberus, but it performed well enough for most of the ground operations Fleet conducted.

Suddenly, the gunner on Ryan’s self-propelled gun switched on the vehicle’s floodlights. Ryan jerked his head over to look at what the gunner had noticed, the barrel of his rifle already swinging up and out. He frowned in puzzlement as he saw three civilians making their way purposely toward his vehicle. One was a man who wore what appeared to be a sword at his hip. Next to him were another man, and someone Ryan guessed was a woman.

Steven stopped walking as the Federal vehicle rolling toward him ground to a halt. Chris and Laura stopped next to him, their faces projecting the same mask of calm his was. Steven didn’t feel as calm as he looked though. Not with the eight barrels of the vehicle’s auto-blaster aimed squarely at him. And especially not as the five soldiers who were riding along jumped off the vehicle and spread out in a half-circle to surround them.

He held up one hand, stepping forward. He was aware that the business ends of five blaster rifles tracked him as he moved. He cleared his throat.

“I am Steven,” he said. “I’m the General Manager of that complex off to the northeast.”

After a moment, one of the soldiers stepped forward, lowering his rifle. Steven was aware that none of the other soldiers had done so.

“I’m Commander Ryan Zeiken, Operations Officer of the USS Starla,” the soldier said, his deep voice managing to carry over his helmet’s speaker.

“Justin Phillips’ ship,” Steven said, failing to keep the surprise from his voice. Now the mystery of where Justin Phillips had gone off to was solved. All that was left was to figure out where Kristin Epps and, most importantly, Ben Lewinger were.

“You know of him,” Ryan replied, clearly surprised.

“Yes,” Steven said. “Few people on the frontier don’t. I assume you’re here to rescue us from the Demonoids and retrieve the crew of the assault craft that landed in our field?”

“Yes, that’s right,” Ryan said.

“Call off your Marines, Commander,” Steven replied gravely. “We’ve got a lot to discuss, and we can’t do that if your soldiers are tearing apart our complex looking for Demonoids that aren’t there.”

“Excuse me,” Ryan said, bemused. “We saw the Demonoids take off from this position. We put almost all of them back down again. And you mean to tell me that there aren’t any left behind?”

“I mean exactly that, Commander,” Steven replied. “Though, perhaps, I was lying. You will find that Demonoids have been left behind. However, we have dealt with them.”

“Dealt with them,” Ryan echoed.

“Yes,” Steven said. “My associates should be finished piling up the last of them, should you wish to see for yourself.”

“You mean to tell me that they’re all dead?”

“Again, I mean exactly that, Commander,” Steven replied. He partially drew his talwar, ignoring the sudden rustle of rifles. His sword was still encrusted with the blood of the Demonoids he’d killed.

“You’re serious,” Ryan replied, a little awed. “Yeah, I think we should have a talk. I assume you’ve got a better place to do it than in the middle of this field?”

“Some of our conference rooms are still useable, I believe,” Steven said. “Before we go, you said you didn’t bring down all the Demonoid ships?”

“Yeah, one managed to escape into space, and another dropped back to the ground.” Ryan replied. “Why do you ask?”

“Well, on one hand, I ought to be grateful,” Steven replied. “Some of my people were taken prisoner. They would’ve been on the ships you were shooting at. If they were fortunate, they were on the ships you didn’t bring down, and might yet be saved. If not,” he said, trailing off.

“Yeah, I understand that,” Ryan replied. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

Steven looked grave again. “No, don’t be. I take back what I said. Given who they’re being taken back to, it may be more fortunate that they died. However, their welfare is beyond our control Commander. Let’s get down to business, shall we?”

~~~

Justin nodded thoughtfully as his shuttle banked toward the colony’s main city somewhere in the darkness. He sat up as he heard Ryan speak again.

“Commander al-Meten assures me his crew wasn’t mistreated in any way, and they’re looking forward to getting back aboard a Federal ship.”

“That’s good to hear,” Justin replied. “And you say the Demonoids are all dead?”

“That’s right. I’m not sure I understand how they did it, but the people here managed to overwhelm the whole lot of them after one of them, Lana Denison, I think her name was, took out one of their machine-gun positions.”

“That’s an impressive feat,” Justin replied, whistling. “I very much look forward to reading your report,” he said. “I may even fly over there to get it from you myself before the local morning.”

“That’d be good,” Ryan said. “The General Manager here is very much looking forward to thanking you for pulling their bacon out of the fire.”

“They’ll have to get in line then,” Justin replied. “Only reason I’m coming down here is because the colonial governor thinks it’ll be a good idea for the people to see a Fleet presence.”

“It might end up doing ‘em a surprising amount of good, Justin.”

“I know,” he replied. “I’ll see you in several hours then.”

“We’ll look forward to it. Ryan out,” Ryan replied, just before the channel fell silent.

~~~

Ben stood in the Starla’s Combat Information Center, listening to the comms traffic within the ship, and between the ship and the ground. He nodded approvingly when he overheard Ryan and Justin talking. Especially when Ryan described what the people they met had done to the Demonoids. And especially after he heard that the complex’s General Manager was named “Steven.” He barely allowed himself the privilege of wondering whether the man’s full name was really “Steven Jacot,” and whether or not they had just stumbled on what Ben had spent forty years searching for.

He watched the large tactical plot in the center of the room. On it, the Demonoid super-dreadnought pulled further and further away from the planet. Trailing behind it was a lone assault craft that was burning through its fuel reserves in a desperate bid to catch up with its mothership before she could make transit. Both targets were building up enough real velocity that soon, stopping and coming back to the planet wouldn’t be viable option.

“Admiral Lewinger to the Bridge,” he said, suddenly squeezing his wristcomm.

“Bridge here Admiral,” he heard Wes Enderman reply. If the other man was surprised by the sudden contact, it didn’t show.

“Commander, would you say that we can officially give the all-clear up here in orbit?”

“Hmm,” Wes replied. For a moment, Ben heard silence. “Yes, I’d say we gave them a proper thrashing. They can’t sneak back anytime soon, and they can’t do it without us watching, especially not with the Agamemnon due any hour now. Why do you ask, Admiral?”

Ben grinned to himself. “Because I intend to pay a visit to the surface.”

“Did I hear correctly,” Wes said, his surprise now showing. “You want to go to the surface, sir?”

“I think that’s what I said,” Ben replied.

“If you want to show Fleet’s presence here, Justin’s already taking care of that. And the Demonoids may have left behind some nasty surprises for us.”

“I’m not worried about the Demonoids,” Ben said. “I intend to visit the site your Commander Zeiken put down at.”

“Begging the Admiral’s pardon, but why,” Wes asked. He tried to keep the irritation out of his voice. Admiral Lewinger had been quiet since they left for 4 Gallegos. Wes would’ve been quite happy if he’d stayed quiet until the crisis was over.

“I’m sure you’ve heard of how those people managed to defeat an entire platoon of Demonoid soldiers, apparently barehanded. I intend to find out why . . . this is the reason we’re out here, Commander.”

“I see,” Wes replied. “Well, all our shuttles our off-ship right now,” he said as carefully as possible, hoping the Admiral would get the hint.

“We don’t need to make any fast extractions, Commander,” Ben said. “In fact, I know that two of Starla’s shuttles are boosting towards orbit as we speak. By the time one of them has refueled, I can have a Security contingent together and ready to come with me. I’ll be quite safe.”

Wes gritted his teeth. He now understood why Admiral Lewinger spent so much of his time hovering around CIC. Now he was never going to hear the end of it from Justin and Ryan, about how a Security man couldn’t keep the ship’s operational information secure from an overly inquisitive admiral.

“You know that this goes against most of the regs that I know of and probably most of the ones that I don’t,” Wes said after a moment. “And, as a Security Officer, I don’t think there are too many that I don’t know,” he added, letting his voice harden. Sometimes even the merest mention of the possibility of having the Fleet’s Security Directorate come down on somebody was enough to discourage them.

“And you know that this entire operation violates most of those very same regs, Commander,” Ben replied, not the least bit discouraged.

“You’ve got me,” Wes said, defeated. “Shall I tell them to expect your arrival?”

“Not at all, Commander,” Ben replied. “This is going to be a surprise visit. Hopefully more for them, than for myself.”

~~~

Ryan watched as his men inventoried the gristly pile of Demonoid corpses and weapons. He’d been unwilling to believe a bunch of lightly armed civilians could’ve bested a hardened Demonoid assault squad, until he’d seen the pile of corpses for himself. Then he decided that something strange had taken place. Some of the corpses fell to conventional blaster or bullet fire, and he was okay with that.

Where it got strange was when a couple of the corpses turned up with wounds that could’ve only been inflicted with Demonoid assault weapons. Without a suit on, Ryan didn’t think he could’ve fired a Demonoid assault rifle, much less in a controlled manner. Though he could’ve put it down to “friendly” fire on the Demonoid end, the pattern of wounds on the corpses didn’t match the sort of loose firing pattern used by Demonoids.

And where it just got bizarre, were the surprising number of Demonoid corpses that appeared to have died from blunt-force trauma, slashing, or stab wounds . . . wounds inflicted by opponents the Demonoid soldiers could clearly see coming. Federal soldiers hated getting into melee fights with Demonoid soldiers. Demonoids could move in ways that humans couldn’t, and tended to be stronger and quicker to boot. Most Demonoids killed on the ground by Federal forces died by blaster fire, being blown up by bombs and artillery, or by lethal chemical or nano-tech agents. Fighting the Demonoids on the ground wasn’t as cut-and-dried as fighting them in space was. In space, Humans and their allies were the uncontested masters. The ground was a different story entirely.

Ryan shivered inside his suit. He’d seen enough of what Demonoid soldiers could do that he thoroughly respected them, and anybody crazy enough to fight them hand-to-tentacle and win. And he wasn’t a small man either. He was taller than Justin and could easily bench-press his friend as a warm-up exercise. His first love, though, was data and its organization and use. And the data was telling him strange things about these people he’d met tonight.

Now he understood why they seemed unhappy when Ryan ordered a full accounting of the Demonoid dead. Steven Guillarmod, the building manager, tried to tell him that such a thing was completely unnecessary. Fortunately, they seemed placated enough when Ryan offered to withdraw his complement of Marines, leaving only the Fleet officers working for him. It still didn’t stop the civilians from walking by occasionally, giving unnecessarily dirty looks to the Federal officers in their black armor.

Ryan?

Ryan frowned, focusing on the voice speaking to him from his datajack. Yeah, Wes? What’s up? He thought back. Instantly his datajack transmitted the thought back to the Starla. It was an unadvertised feature of military-grade datajacks. A sufficiently well-trained user could do things with it that the pre-Imperial primitives of over two-thousand years before would’ve dismissed as magical nonsense, such as ‘ESP’ or ‘telepathy.’

You’re gonna have trouble in about fifteen minutes.

Ryan frowned, stepping behind the shattered remains of a tree. He didn’t want the civilians picking up on his apparent distraction. I don’t like the sound of that, old buddy. Ryan leaned up against the trunk of the tree. What sort of trouble?

The sort of trouble that has a ponytail, wears glasses, and has four stars.

Four stars, Ryan thought. That means . . . Christ why is he off-ship? And why are you telling me like this? Ryan thought angrily at Wes.

It’s supposed to be a ‘surprise,’ Wes replied, his virtual voice heavy with resignation. The Admiral’s been putting his time in CIC to good use, apparently.

Yeah, apparently, Ryan thought dryly. Does Justin know?

Afraid not. His shuttle was the one that returned from the surface first. He’s also out of range of the short-range comms. He’ll find out soon enough though. He’s supposed to be taking a civilian flyer over to your position within the next hour.

Ryan exhaled sharply, drawing an odd glance from one of the technicians examining the Demonoid corpses. Thanks for the heads-up, Wes. I’ll try to act surprised, though I’m certain it won’t be an act for everyone else, and that worries me.

That doesn’t sound good.

Ryan shook his head. No it doesn’t. There’s something up with these civilians. They killed Demonoid soldiers with their own weapons and hand-to-hand. And they’re not happy that we’ve found out about it.

You’re right, that isn’t good, Wes thought unhappily. I’ll change the Starla’s orbit so we can spend more time watching over your position. Apart from that, you watch yourself.

Yeah, old buddy, Ryan thought, I’ll do that.

As Ryan stepped out from behind the tree, he saw Steven emerge from the building, stepping out into the courtyard. The other man started making his way over to a group of Federal technicians crouched over a Demonoid corpse. Ryan moved quickly, stepping between them and Steven.

“Manager Guillarmod, how good of you to grace us with your presence,” Ryan said, ignoring the hard look Steven gave him.

“Commander Zeiken,” Steven replied, nodding once. “Everything is in order, I assume?”

“Yes,” Ryan lied. He hadn’t shared any of his suspicions with any of the civilians here, Steven least of all. “We’re just finishing up our tally of the dead. When our relief squadron shows up in a week, they’ll dispatch a crew to help with the decontamination and cleanup.”

“That’s good, though we can handle it ourselves,” Steven replied. “And we’ll probably be leaving the planet after this. Few of our people will wish to stay after having survived such a devastating attack.”

Oh I bet you can, Ryan thought sharply. Dispose of the evidence, and then make sure you’re not around when we really start snooping around.

“As a Federal officer, I have to say I’m sorry to hear that,” Ryan said, meaning nothing of the sort. “Though as a man, I can understand. I do hope you’ll reconsider though.”

“Nothing is firmly decided yet,” Steven replied, noncommittal. “Why are your men scrutinizing the corpses and weapons so closely?”

“Standard procedure,” Ryan lied again. Standard procedure involved counting the bodies and weapons, and then sealing up the whole mess in a fireproof tent and incinerating it all. The Demonoids, on the other hand, tended to just leave human bodies around to rot away on the battlefield . . . when they weren’t booby-trapping them to make life miserable for the cleanup crews.

“Ah, I understand,” Steven said, again strangely noncommittal. “Very well then, will you walk back inside with me, Commander?”

“What for,” Ryan asked carefully.

“I wish to ask you questions about this Demonoid attack before the Federal authorities come in to lock it all down and classify everything.”

“Understood,” Ryan replied. “You do understand, of course, that any answer I give is strictly unofficial.”

“Yes, of course,” Steven replied.

“Let’s walk then,” Ryan said.

“Yes,” Steven replied, starting back toward the building. “Do you know why they attacked here, Commander?”

“I’m afraid I don’t,” Ryan replied. “If I were to guess, I’d say they were looking to pick something out of the way to exercise their new toy.”

“I see,” Steven said. Ryan frowned inwardly; the tone of the other man’s voice seemed to say that he didn’t buy into that reason as much as Ryan would like to hope. “I have another question,” he said after a few moments.

“By all means,” Ryan replied, “ask.”

“There is another shuttle on its way in,” Steven said. “It seems to be headed here directly, and it’s one of yours.” He paused as they stepped inside, and then looked directly at Ryan. "Do you know anything about it?"

"Afraid not," Ryan replied with yet another lie. "I haven't been in contact with the Starla lately. Our Exec might be deploying some Fleet Security people, and medical help to cover for Captain Phillips' arrival."

"He might," Steven asked. "I fail to understand, you already have Marines here. And the All Clear has already been given, I don't see the need for greater security."

"They're not much good for peacekeeping, Manager Guillarmod," Ryan replied earnestly. "Our Marines are a fast-response force, they're trained to hit hard and fast."

Steven nodded, seemingly mollified. "That I can accept," he said. "Come, we will await their arrival in the south courtyard."

~~~

Ben felt the shuttle settle to the ground, making contact with a gentle bump. As the ship settled, he closed his eyes, listening to the faint bustle of comms traffic between the Marines on the ground, as well as the Fleet men at the compound. In his mind's eye, his datajack obediently supplied a map of the surrounding area, and superimposed the locations of every officer, soldier, and technician. If he wanted to, he could ask the groundside TacNet to supply him snapshots of everything the others had seen. However, that sort of high-end usage of his datajack would leave him drained and weary, and he needed his wits about him.

"Admiral, we're ready to go," a young woman in a black Security uniform said to him. He opened his eyes, and she held out a weapon holster and an ammunition pouch. He took the holster and slipped it onto his belt. He drew the weapon, an MPEW (Multi-Purpose Energy Weapon.) It was smaller and much lower-powered, compared to an ordinary blaster, about the size of an old bullet-firing handgun.

Satisfied, he holstered his weapon. He then followed the Security officer down the ramp exiting the shuttle. With them came seven other Security people, all of them armed like Ben was. Almost absentmindedly, he adjusted the large gold ring on his right hand, so the Fleet Academy emblem, emblazoned into the surface of a large black opal, faced up. Together, they crossed the short distance across the field into the courtyard of the largest building at the south end of the compound.

He nodded in satisfaction as he saw Commander Zeiken and a tall, lanky man stepping out into the courtyard to greet them. Just behind them was a shorter, solidly built man. He suppressed a grin as he saw the flash of recognition from the tall man next to Commander Zeiken. Forty years had treated Steven Jacot very well, but Ben had expected that.

"Admiral! What an unexpected surprise!" Commander Zeiken exclaimed, his wide-eyed surprise evident. Ben nodded again; Commander Enderman had managed to keep a lid on Ben's intended visit.

"I thought I would, as the Federal representative here, tour the devastation brought by the Demonoid attacks," he said, more for the benefit of the civilians appearing in the courtyard.

"I understand sir," Ryan said. "I'm certain the complex manager here," he said, looking over at Steven, "Steven Guillarmod, would be more than happy to show you what happened here."

"I am Admiral Ben Lewinger, Commander in Chief of the Sixteenth Battlecluster. Manager Guillarmod, it's a pleasure to make your acquaintance," Ben said, immediately offering his hand. Almost reluctantly, Steven took it, shaking firmly.

"The pleasure is all mine, Admiral," he said. "Were it not for your intervention, we would most likely still be Demonoid hostages."

Ben shook his head vigorously, "No, no, I can't take the credit for this. Captain Justin Phillips was the man who came up with the daring attack that drove off the Demonoid ships."

"Captain Justin Phillips," Steven echoed. "He's well-known on the larger frontier colonies. If he's the one behind it, then we're glad to have him. I hear he's coming over here as well, as soon as he finishes his tour of the capital."

"That's right," Ben lied, the smile not leaving his face. He was expecting Justin to remain in the capital until at least morning. Though if he was going to be here, then Ben could find a use for him.

"Very good," Steven replied. "If you are here to tour the damage, then certainly you would wish to follow my associate here, Doctor Dempsey," he said, letting the shorter man come forward. "You will understand if I don't give the tour myself. There are a lot of things that need to be addressed because of this attack."

"I understand completely," Ben replied, reveling in the other man's apparent discomfort. He knew that Steven recognized him almost immediately. He wondered how Steven thought he knew, or didn't. "Let's not waste any time then," he said. "Now if you will just lead the way," he started to say, suddenly stopping. A young woman had stepped out into the courtyard. She was covered in very modest robes, and a scarf covered her hair. Her skin was darker, but Ben was certain he'd remember that face until the day he died. The woman then looked up at him, and stopped in her tracks. She opened her mouth to say something, and then snapped it shut again. Hesitantly, Ben took a few steps toward her.

"Laura?" He asked. "Laura is that you?"

"No, you have the wrong person," the woman replied, immediately turning and fleeing inside. For a moment, Ben stood, dumbstruck.

"What is the meaning of this?" Chris said, deliberately stepping between the doorway and Ben. "Are you all right, Admiral?"

"I, I think I am," Ben replied in a daze.

"Who is this 'Laura' you called out to," he asked, his tone harsher than it should've been.

"That young woman," Ben replied. "I mistook her for someone I knew. But that's not possible, because I last saw that person forty years ago."

"I beg your pardon," Steven said, stepping next to Ben. "That young woman has a proper name. Her name is Lana Denison."

"Lana Denison, you say," Ben said. Immediately, his composure returned to him. "I believe I shall have to find that Miss Denison and apologize for an old man's folly."

"I'd prefer that you didn't," Steven replied. "She's just as affected by the brutality of the Demonoid attack as the rest of us. Her behavior should've made that clear, Admiral. I hope you won't trouble her further, and I apologize for the trouble she seems to have cost you."

"Perhaps you're right," Ben replied. "Hopefully the rest of my tour here should not prove so momentous."

"Hopefully," Steven replied. "However, there has been a change of plans," he said. "I have just been informed that Captain Phillips' flyer is landing at the airport just north of here. He will be here in no more than half an hour. It would be a strain on us to have to give two identical tours."

"I can understand that," Ben said, nodding thoughtfully. "I do believe my tour can wait then. Not to mention seeing the hero of the frontier and a Federal Admiral together might show your people that we have the situation well in hand."

Steven shook his head. "Not likely, Admiral. Our people won't believe that, but they will welcome your presence either way."

(Continued in Chapter Seven -- Part II)





Last edited by GrandMasterTerwynn on 2008-01-25 10:56pm, edited 1 time in total.
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 Post subject: Chapter Seven -- Part II PostPosted: 2008-01-25 10:48pm
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(Continued from Part I)

Interlude Two: The Instructor.

"And by this chain of reactions, you can assemble a high-strength, polymer," Meghan said, standing next to the ghostly shape of a hydrocarbon chain, which rotated slowly in the air, projected by the compact holo-tank she stood next to. She took a moment to look out over her audience. The fresh faces of close to thirty students looked back at her. A smile spread across her face as she walked quickly over to her podium.

"At application drill today, you and your partner will be required to produce at least three polymer samples. When Doctor Lovelady checks your work, you must be ready to demonstrate . . . step-by-step . . . the reaction sequence," she said, trying not to laugh at the sudden involuntary groan of her students. She quirked her eyebrow, smiling again at her students.

"If you have any questions, I'll be happy to talk to you during the upcoming prep-period," Meghan said, switching off the holo-tank. Almost immediately, the noise level in the room increased almost three-fold as her students got up, almost as one. The lecture hall doubled as a laboratory, and Meghan wrinkled her nose as the lingering odors of the last drill session wafted past her.

Amid the rustling of students setting up their equipment, Meghan activated her own comp-pad, adjusting a string of reaction formulas. She planned to put in a good afternoon of work in the lab today. It may have been pretty dull, as work went, but it did have its moments. And it left time in her life to do things, such as her current stint as a high-school instructor. She taught during the very first block after soneca, when the local sun emerged from behind Firefall. She thought it helped get her mental juices flowing, and looked especially good on her civic-service record.

"Doc?" Someone said next to her, the word cutting its way through Meghan's thoughts.

She made a conscious effort to suppress the urge to jump. She turned to look at the source of the voice, finding herself looking into a pair of clear blue eyes, set in a pretty face framed by short blonde hair.

"Yes Jenni,” Meghan said with a smile.

Jenni smiled back, stepping a bit closer. "I was hoping you could give me a lil help here."

Meghan nodded a little. "Well, that's what I'm here for, what can I do for you?"

"Well, it has to do with this particular sequence you showed us today," Jenni replied, tapping at a specific set of equations. "I tried some of the suggested exercises, but I'm not getting these numbers to match up right."

Meghan nodded, tapping at Jenni's comp-pad. A scroll of hand-written notes appeared on the screen. After a few moments of examination, she spotted what she was looking for. She quickly circled them, and then looked back up at Jenni.

"You might want to check these coefficients," she said, leaning back to let her student think it over. After several moments, Jenni wrote some things on her comp-pad and looked up with a grin.

"I knew I was missing something!"

Meghan smiled quickly, "If you don't watch it, the little mistakes in balancing your equations will always come back and get you."

Jenni nodded. "Yup, I see that now. Though I'll tell you, I'm more of a computer person myself."

Meghan smiled again. "Alright, got anything else?" Jenni shook her head quickly and grinned. "I don't think so, Doc, thanks!" Meghan watched as she turned away and quickly returned to her station. As a brief smile crossed her lips, Meghan turned back to her work.



(End Chapter Seven!)




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Here's Chapter Eight. Comments and/or flames greatly appreciated...

Chapter Eight: The Deal.

The surviving troop transport slipped into one of the super-dreadnought’s capacious hangars. Like other transports of its class, it was a study of angular sleekness. Its ebony hull gleamed, as though the ship were carved from a giant piece of obsidian. Even as the ship was being locked down for transportation into the ship’s bowels, a hatch appeared on the transport’s belly, receding into the hull.

Michael Paul Baca dropped from the hatch, barely nodding at the two Human guards who stepped up to meet him. Baca wasn’t the only Human minion of the Glorious One. Though, in his own humble estimation, he was the most important to the effort.

“You are summoned by the Glorious One,” one of the guards said, his voice harsh through his helmet and mask.

“I would imagine that I am,” Baca replied. As important as he was in the overall scheme of things, it didn’t mean that he wasn’t replaceable, and incompetence in the Glorious One’s alien host was swiftly and brutally punished. “I have six of the Magi captured in my ship’s hold. You are to begin the process of breaking them, at once.”

“I will obey your order after it is clear the Glorious One has allowed you to live,” the guard replied.

“Yes, of course. Waste no more time then, take me to her,” Baca replied with a shrug.

With a flourish, both guards turned around at once, waiting for Baca to walk between them. They said nothing further as they escorted him deep inside the ship, leaving him in a broad circular room. At the center was a single chair on an elevated platform. Around that chair, hundreds of holographic images flitted in and out of existence as immense quantities of data flowed from the outside world into the datajack implanted in the Glorious One’s brain.

Baca immediately dropped to his knees, barely catching a glimpse of the robed and hooded figure sitting in the chair.

You have failed. A gentle voice whispered in his ear.

Though Baca knew the room was filled with hidden speakers and holographic projectors, the effect still made him shiver.

“Yes,” he replied. Excessive deference and flattery had no place when one was talking to a person who had spent forty years with a supercharged alien datajack older than most of the current civilizations in the galaxy.

In your opinion, why?

“Underestimation,” Baca replied. “I did not believe they were as strong as you said they were.”

And with that, they surprised you?

“Yes, they did,” Baca admitted. At that moment, he felt a wave of nausea wash over him. That too, was an effect of the hidden speakers scattered throughout the room. If the Glorious One wanted to, she could’ve created a powerful standing wave where Baca knelt, turning his brains into a lumpy slurry inside his skull.

We were all surprised today, the voice relented. Perhaps I was too ambitious in my plans. Much of the blame lies with the team who commanded this vessel. Their overconfidence and lack of planning permitted you to fail. We should have waited until the entire weapon system was online.

“Yet, time grows short for us,” Baca ventured. “When the Regency suffers its final defeat, the Federation’s frontier will become much harder to penetrate.”

No, I suspect the opposite is true, the voice replied. The Movement is closer to achieving its goals than it has been in millennia. Many of the needed pieces are now in place.

“Yes, of course,” Baca said.

This setback is of no consequence. And you brought me Magi. Have them sent here. I will begin their conditioning myself.

~~~

Ben and Justin stood together on the balcony overlooking the broad fields to the south. One of the planet’s three small moons was climbing above the eastern horizon, doing its absolute best to cast some light on the landscape. It wasn’t much light though, the distant floodlights illuminating the wreckage of the assault craft far outstripped anything the moon was able to do. The silhouette of a half-built Demonoid machine-gun post reminded them of what had taken place several hours earlier.

“You’re asking me to distract them,” Justin said, breaking the silence that hung between them.

“Yes,” Ben replied. “I need to have a proper look around, and I can’t do that with either Jacot or his friends hovering nearby.”

“Why do you need to look around anyway?” Justin asked with a frown.

“Because this is what we’ve been searching for,” Ben replied firmly. “I need one thing to confirm it for sure, and I need some time alone in order to find it.”

“Why not just order Ryan and our men to tear this place apart then? If they are who you say they are, and they want to stay hidden, they’re going to have to keep playing the part of abused civilians.”

Ben shook his head. “No, that would really tip them off. I’m not quite ready to do that yet. And this confirmation is partly for me as well.”

Justin furrowed his brow thoughtfully. “I’d be able to do a better job of throwing them off track if I knew what it was you were looking for. I could even help.”

Ben shook his head again. “No, Justin. This is something I have to do alone. Yes, I know we’ve talked about how short the chain of command is around here, and how you and Captain Epps have a right to stay in the loop . . . but if I’m wrong here, the blame has to fall squarely on my shoulders.”

“And if you’re right, Admiral, what then?”

“If I’m right, then I’ll tell you what it was I was looking for,” Ben replied. “With what I’m planning to do next, you and Captain Epps are going to need to know what’s up. If I have ‘em dead to rights, they’re probably going to try something rash. I’ll need backup then, but not before.”

Justin nodded slowly, relenting. “All right, Admiral. Just tell me what you want us to do, and we’ll try to keep these people off your back long enough for you to do what you need to do.”

Ben patted Justin on the back. “You’re a good man, Justin.”

Justin frowned and shook his head. “No, sir, it isn’t just a matter of decency, but of necessity. You hold all the cards here, and that bugs me. Anything that will get you to tip your hand would be better than that.”

Ben grinned in the semi-darkness. “You’re a practical man too. I can respect that. Believe it or not, so am I.”

“Speaking frankly sir, you’re a crafty son of a gun,” Justin said.

“I get that a lot,” Ben replied. “I’m going to slip off now. They’re going to miss us in another minute, and I want to be well on my way when they do.”

Justin nodded his acknowledgement. “For what it’s worth, good luck, sir.”

“I know what I have to do,” Ben replied from somewhere in the darkness. “You just do what you need to do.”

“Yes sir,” Justin replied dryly into the cool night air. For a minute, he stood alone in the darkness.

“He is a clever sonofabitch, I’ll give him that,” he said to the night. Much to his surprise, the night replied.

“Who is, Captain Phillips?”

“Oh, nobody in particular,” Justin replied, turning to face Steven.

~~~

Dateline: 24810420.2050, USS Risinger: Observation Lounge Fifteen. Ben stood quietly with Laura, leaning against the rails designed to keep him and other visitors at an ideal distance from the gigantic picture windows on the observation decks.

This particular lounge was located a little more than halfway along the Risinger's hull. As a result, they had a view of the front half of the ship stretching out before them, illuminated by the flickering and shifting light of the mottled space around them. The ship had entered hyperspace more than an hour before, and was now making its way toward its final destination. Around them, the other ships in the taskforce seemed to flicker in and out of existence as simple ghosts.

"Some say watching the ship in transit can drive people insane," Ben said quietly.

"Instant elsewhere," Laura replied offhandedly.

"Hmmmm?" Ben said, looking up, his reverie interrupted. "We're jumping in and out of realspace, thousands of times in a second," Laura replied. "Thousands of little snippets of light are coming our way, each having almost nothing to do with the others."

"It's chaos, the insanity of transit," Ben said in awe.

"Ahhh, but there's order beneath it all," Laura replied with a slight smile. "All those little snippets paints a little piece of the big picture. Like painting by just randomly flicking paint at the canvas. Do it long enough, and you start to see the whole picture."

"Oh?" Ben replied, looking at the mottled space around the ship.

"Just try it," Laura said, her smile broadening a little.

At first all Ben saw was the usual chaos. But, he found if he let his eyes unfocus, then he could just make out the flickering smudges of individual stars. Each little smudge was very slowly moving, though he knew that each small movement meant an astonishing leap forward for the Risinger. A slightly brighter swath of sky marked out the Milky Way, painted in dusky shades of twilight blue.

"Whoa, you're right," Ben said, leaning back. "It just leaps right out at you."

Laura laughed softly. "You never watched hyperspace much, did you?"

Ben shook his head slowly. "Not at all. I was always busy making sure that the engines did that thing they were supposed to do to make it possible for my captain to watch all this," he replied breaking out into a grin.

Laura laughed again. "We haven't done this since I was your student at the Academy, Ben."

"Except I was always on the giving end . . . I think this is the first time I'm officially on the receiving end," Ben replied, grinning again.

"I really have missed you," Laura said.

After a moment, she spoke again. "Really, I have. You were one of my most influential instructors, and one of my best friends at the Academy. I wouldn't have become an officer if it weren't for you."

"And look at me now," Ben replied quietly, looking out the window.

"Look at you, you've had a minor setback. Its okay now, Kate's forgiven you, and I've taken you under my wing. This isn't like you, Ben," Laura said, putting her hand on his shoulder. "Don't let your own doubt eat you up inside. You taught me that once!"

Ben nodded. "You're right," he replied. "I guess I've been taking it harder than is needed."

Laura smiled. "That's right Ben. You're among friends now. Start acting like it . . . and that is an order," she said with mock gravity.

"Aye captain!" Ben replied with a mock expression of shock on his face. For several moments, they both stood silently. Then Laura sighed and spoke again.

"Ben, I didn't only call you down here to reminisce about the old school days."

Ben shook his head, clearing the memories that surged to the surface. Was it really her, after all these years? Was Lana Denison really Laura Risinger? He prided himself in his memory for detail, and all the details seemed to fit. Perhaps, he reflected, a little too well, but he’d always known the shadow organization kept agents around for a very long time, and in very good condition. His recent encounter with Steven Jacot was ample proof of that.

Yet, Ben himself was not yet out of tricks. He moved through the shadows in a way that the civilians walking along the well-lit walkways couldn’t notice him. He also moved faster than any man his age, or any age should’ve had any business moving. What he never told Justin and Kristin was why information from the Neopolitans came so cheap to him.

Almost fifty years before, First Minister Gonzales selected him and a handful of other young officers to go to Neopolis in a sort of officer exchange program. Ten years later, after the destruction of the Risinger, he’d returned to Neopolis for a much longer time. They taught him things, and did things to his mind and body. Though he didn’t think he could take someone like Steven or Chris in a straight fight, hopefully he was crafty enough that it wouldn’t come to that.

Almost before he knew it, he was standing inside the central building. He moved quickly, for he had a map of every building in the complex stored in his datajack. The building crawled with Federal officers and civilians, but Ben didn’t care, if he was right, it wouldn’t matter. He found himself standing in front of a door marked ‘Fifth Floor Observation Lounge.’ As casually as he could, Ben opened the door and stepped inside.

The room was shrouded in velvety darkness. Huge arching windows lined one wall of the room offering a panoramic view of the night sky and the forested hills below. Silhouetted in the dim light was a female figure, shrouded in loose-fitting robes.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Ben said. “I’m a bit lost, you see.”

The figure turned around and Ben’s mouth went dry as he saw the woman who called herself Lana Denison.

“B . . . Admiral Lewinger,” she said, genuinely surprised. “What are you doing here?”

“Well, I am lost,” he replied, sounding sufficiently embarrassed.

“If you’ve lost your way, you could always contact one of your people,” the woman replied. “Or just talk to anyone here, I’m sure they’d let Steven, or Chris know where you are.”

Ben smiled and shook his head. “They’ve been through enough for one day. I wouldn’t want to burden them with a rambling old Federal Admiral.”

The woman smiled. “You don’t look that old to me, Admiral.”

“I feel old,” Ben replied. “It’s been a long, full life. Do you routinely come up here?”

“Yes,” the woman answered after a moment’s hesitation. “The view is nice. People usually don’t get lost this far up here,” she added, raising her eyebrow in the semidarkness.

“The surprising things people do sometimes,” Ben replied. “Since we’re both here, I wanted to apologize for any discomfort my earlier confusion might have caused you.”

“You don’t have to. Everyone has moments like that,” the woman replied. Ben stepped closer.

“I’d be remiss if I didn’t,” he replied, offering his hand. “No hard feelings?”

The woman took his hand in hers, shaking with a firm grip. “No hard feelings,” she said. She winced and frowned.

“What’s wrong?” Ben asked.

“It’s nothing,” the woman replied. “Your ring just felt a little sharp, that’s all.”

“My class ring?” Ben asked. “I’m so sorry about that!”

“It’s nothing really,” the woman started to say, looking down Ben’s hand again. “Your ring.”

“What about it,” Ben asked casually.

“It’s glowing,” the woman said, frowning. Only then did Ben look down. As she said, it was glowing. And, as he knew it would, it glowed green.

“It is, isn’t it?” Ben asked, not surprised at all. “Do you want to know why?”

“Yes,” the woman replied, her voice strangely quiet.

“The ring is a nano-scale DNA tester,” Ben replied in a conversational tone. “The edge is lined with thousands of microscopic stinger cells like those found on a jellyfish. Each one gathers up a few skin cells. If the DNA in them matches, then everything starts glowing. They react so fast these days; I can barely believe it myself.”

“Interesting,” the woman replied. “And who’s DNA is that tester keyed to match.”

Ben tilted his head a little to the side. “I think you know the answer to that question . . . Captain.”

The woman bit her lip. “You could never leave something well enough alone, could you?”

“Not in my personality,” Ben replied.

The woman, no, Ben knew she was Laura now, shook her head slowly. “They always warned me that you’d never let it go. You’d hang on till it was done to your satisfaction, the way you took down Commodore Wright for what he did to us, or how you took up the cause of the orphans from 324 Bancroft.”

“Obviously they were right,” Ben said.

“You should’ve let this one go, Ben,” Laura replied, looking down at the floor. “Forty years is a lot of time. Many things have changed.”

“It has been a long time, hasn’t it,” Ben said after a few moments.

Laura nodded. “Yes it has, Ben,” she replied. Then she smiled a faint smile. “I haven’t been promoted in all that time. I’m going to have to start calling you ‘sir’ now.”

“They awarded you the Crescent of the Founder’s Own after the incident,” Ben said, nodding slowly. “Posthumously, of course. And your Fleet commission expired the day you died, so we’re pretty much even.”

“I know,” Laura replied. “I’ve seen it.”

For a few moments, there was silence.

“It’s good to see you again, Captain Laura Risinger,” Ben said, his voice strangely hoarse.

Laura nodded. “It’s strange seeing you again, after all these years. You should’ve let this go, Ben. This is something bigger than even the Directorate conspiracy you put down all those years ago.” Her expression hardened, her eyes flashing with anger. “What are you going to do now, now that you’ve found us? What can you do?”

Ben started to answer when he heard a click behind him.

“He’s going to put his hands in the air and away from his body,” Steven said. “At this range, I won’t miss, and any bullet that strikes you will carry total lethality.”

Ben gritted his teeth, but put his hands into the air anyway. He felt a tug as Steven efficiently disarmed him. He looked at Laura, who refused to meet his gaze. Instead, she stepped around behind him as the lights came up. He heard rustling from behind him, and suddenly the room seemed very full. He quickly found Justin and Ryan standing next to him. They were already shackled in control collars and handcuffs.

“Sorry Admiral,” Justin said, apologetic. “As you can see, we seem to have encountered a bit of a snag.”

Ben risked a nod. “It’s all right, Captain, you kept them distracted long enough. I can tell you now that these are the people we’re looking for. This is the shadow-organization.”

“Yeah, we sort of figured that out on the way over,” Ryan remarked dryly. “They ambushed and disarmed every Fleet tech and Security man on-site.”

“And the compound is under RF blackout, you can’t use your wristcomms, or datajacks to signal your Marines or the Starla,” Steven said from behind them. Quickly, another Organization man took Ben’s arms behind him, slipping on the handcuffs. Then he slipped the control collar around Ben’s neck, chaining the back of it to his handcuffs. Any sudden movement of his arms and hands would not only serve to strangle him, but it would induce the collar to deliver a potent electric shock.

“I’m not in the habit of making decisions I regret,” Steven said. “This is an exception. We should’ve done more to throw you off our track, Ben. And I may end up regretting doing what I have to do to remedy that.”

“Before you do that,” Ben said, “how did you know?”

“Our datajacks are networked,” Steven replied. “As soon as Laura saw you, I was alerted. In seconds, I alerted everyone else who needed to be alerted.”

“So this was a trap then?” Justin asked.

“In a manner of speaking, yes,” Steven replied. “The Organization is able to exploit any opportunity presented to it. You presented the opportunity, and we capitalized on it.”

“So what do you intend to do now, Steven,” Ben asked. “Undoubtedly you know, by now, that the Agamemnon is hot on our heels. If we disappear, Captain Epps and Commander Enderman will tear apart the planet to find us again.”

“And perhaps your all-clear signal was given mistakenly,” Steven replied. “Perhaps a cell of Demonoid soldiers wiped you out to strike one last blow against the Federation.”

“If you’re going to kill us, do so already,” Ben said. “Don’t waste our time telling us what you’re going to do after the fact.”

Steven shook his head. “I don’t mean to kill you, Admiral. In my years of service, I often find myself playing my own devil’s advocate. And it is useful to remind you that, in spite of what you may think, you don’t hold the cards here.”

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” Justin said, “but if you don’t intend to dispose of us, what are you thinking of then?”

Steven ignored Justin. “Tell me, Admiral, is it true that we are now less than forty eight hours from a total Federal victory against the Demonoid Regency?”

“As you said, you hold the cards, not me,” Ben replied. “So you tell me.”

“Indulge me, Admiral,” Steven said patiently. “There is a point to all this and we’ll get there, in good time.”

“Yes, of course,” Ben replied. “Yes, in less than forty-eight hours we’ll launch our attack on the Demonoid home world from 143 McCormick. I don’t expect the war to continue for much longer than a week after that.”

“We have reason to expect the opposite,” Steven said. “In fact, if this is any indication, it may just be the beginning of something worse.”

“Except for that dreadnought, the Demonoids have virtually nothing left,” Ben scoffed. “They’re resourceful and clever, yes, but they’ll be committing suicide if they try anything with the First Fleet orbiting their capital worlds.”

“The Regency may have nothing left, yes. But I don’t think the dreadnought belongs to the Regency. Very little in Demonoid society does.”

Ben frowned, as did Justin. “What do you know that we don’t,” Justin asked.

“They know a lot, Captain,” Ben replied. “I’ve learned that much in my forty years of tracking them down.”

“That is true,” Steven said. “However, I disagree with the tone you said that in. You and I are ultimately on the same side, Admiral. Everything you’ve learned should have told you this. The fact that Laura is here now should tell you that as well. However, that isn’t the point of this particular exercise. Tell me, Admiral, do you remember Meghan Salazar?”

“How could I forget her,” Ben replied. “She was the one who lead the attack against the Risinger forty years ago,” he said, noticing Justin and Ryan’s puzzled expressions. “She and that Imperial colonel she had with her. Were it not for Laura and me, she would’ve captured the ship,” Ben said, and then frowned, “your help was timely though, Steven, I’ll never forget that either.”

“Your memory serves you well, Admiral,” Steven remarked.

“It’s a strong suit,” Ben replied. “What does Meghan Salazar have to do with any of this?”

“We suspect that she is still alive, and may have even directed the attack on this world.”

“Impossible,” Ben exclaimed. “Goddamnit, I killed her myself!”

Steven shook his head. “Neither of us ever confirmed that,” he said. “It may be another decision that I regret, more so than my reluctance to deal with you over these last four decades.”

“And what is your proof,” Ben asked. “I was there, and so were you.”

“They knew about us,” Steven replied. “The man who led the Demonoid attack here said, very specifically, that they were here by the order of their ‘Glorious One’ and that one of her priority targets was none other than Laura.”

“Wait a minute, a man led them,” Ryan said. “The Demonoid military is well-known for its xenophobia. They’ve never taken prisoners in the three years we’ve been fighting them, and they’ve never used proxy forces.”

“They did, once or twice,” Ben said. “Over forty years ago. They even managed to enlist the help of the Empire. Then they stopped and we never quite understood why.”

“As I said, the Regency holds very little real control over Demonoid civilization,” Steven said. “Our intelligence work has been a little more extensive than yours. We know that there are several factions of power within Demonoid society, all of whom are, maybe, under the umbrella of the Regency. The ones who lead those raids forty years ago did not represent the Regency.”

“We’ve never seen anything other than the Regency,” Justin interrupted. “Though I think we suspected that the power structure within Demonoid society was highly complex. I know I have.”

“Then you are a step ahead of the rest of your colleagues, Captain. Your grandfather was very much the same way,” Steven replied. “I fear they’re going to learn it when the Federation defeats the Regency and then has to contend with every element of Demonoid society that the Regency kept covered up,” he said, then turning to Ben. “I suspect you’re beginning to see the gravity of our situation?”

“Yes,” Ben replied thoughtfully. “If Meghan’s still alive, then she’s dangerous. She almost succeeded in capturing a Star-class super-ship. If she’s got a Zicharion super-dreadnought on her side, then it can only mean that her, or those above her, have gotten even more dangerous in the last forty years.”

“If it’s her, and if it’s the same bunch of Demonoids, “Justin said. “You still have nothing concrete. And as you claim, Manager Guillarmod, there are a lot of factions in Demonoid society. What if it’s one of the others?”

“All very good questions, Captain,” Steven, replied. “Your grandfather would’ve been proud of you.”

“Maybe,” Justin replied with a frown. “Do you have answers though?”

“No,” Steven said. “Admiral, Captain, Commander, what would you say if I proposed that we find out, together?”

“You’re proposing an alliance,” Ben asked.

“Yes,” Steven replied.

“What do we get, and what are you asking in return? Although I think I already know what you want,” Ben said.

“We will help you investigate what’s really going on with the Demonoids. You will have full access to what we find. What you choose to do with it will be entirely up to you, though if we need to act against the Demonoids, we’ll do so.”

Ben shook his head. “That’s not good enough, Steven. If this is going to be a proper collaboration, the Organization and the Federation are going to have to work together. And we’re going to have to convince the Federation that this needs doing.”

“Not quite the Organization,” Steven replied. “It will just be Chris, Laura, and me. We will come to Earth with you and convince the one man who needs it. I’m certain Prime Minister Gonzales will remember us.”

“And in exchange, I’m going to guess you want me to drop this whole matter and leave you alone,” Ben said.

Steven nodded. So did Chris, and even Laura, a moment later. “Given the seriousness of our situation, it is an equitable trade, I think. You’re a good man, Admiral Ben Lewinger. There aren’t many of those left in the Federation, and I fear it’s going to need as many as it can get.”

After a few moments, Ben nodded. “It’s a deal then. And really, my search is over. I think I’ve found what I’m looking for . . . I’m starting to catch up with the present now. You have my word,” he said, “You’ll have no more trouble from me after this is all done.”




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