Book: The Clones of Mawcett

The Clones of Mawcett

The Clones of Mawcett

The Clones of Mawcett

Copyright ©2001, 2010 by Thomas J. DePrima

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or any other means without the permission of the copyright holder is illegal, and punishable by law.

No part of this novel may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the copyright holder, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.

This version of the printed novel has been formatted for presentation on Amazon Kindle devices and various other electronic media. The requirement that the text flow freely to accommodate different mediums may at times result in unusual display arrangements.

Cover art by Martin J. Cannon

To contact the author, or see additional information about this and his other novels, visit:

An appendix containing technical data pertinent to this series is included at the back of this book.

Many thanks to Ted King for his technical expertise and encouragement, and to Michael A. Norcutt for his suggestions, proofreading, and for acting as my military protocol advisor.

This series of Jenetta Carver novels include:

A Galaxy Unknown

Valor at Vauzlee

The Clones of Mawcett

Trader Vyx


Vroman Castle

Against All Odds

Other novels by this author include:

When The Spirit Moves You

When The Spirit Calls

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25


  Product Description

Chapter One

~ June 12th, 2269 ~

A recalcitrant clump of wiry salt and pepper hair flopped about ingenuously as the septuagenarian head beneath it twisted this way and that in the glare from an excessively bright overhead lamp. The unlit stump of the offensive cigar that had fouled the air inside the hot and unventilated tent until it was no longer fit for man or beast, hung precariously from aged lips. It was difficult to tell if the occasional sound that escaped past the cigar stump was excitement, wonder, or simple approval.

Pushed together to form an ad hoc table, a collection of large, injection-molded packing cases supported an oversized tray filled with corroded relics of the past. The aggregation represented just one day of laborious digging. A collapsible canvas chair, a clothing trunk, and a bed constituted the only other furnishings in the shelter.

The single tribute to modern science was the gel-comfort bed, whose simple controls can increase or decrease the gel pressure in the mattress or adjust its temperature to immediately suit the owner. The thin, gravity-shielding cloth used to cover the bottom of the mattress allowed the bed's occupant to reduce the effects of gravity above the bed and thus suspend the sleeper so lightly on the surface that it felt as if one were sleeping on a cloud.

A young head, eyes bright with excitement, suddenly obtruded between sun-bleached canvas flaps at the entrance of the shelter and shouted, "Doctor Peterson, come quickly!" After coughing twice when it unwisely paused to breathe in a lungful of polluted air, it managed to choke out, "We've found something!  Please come at once!"

Doctor Edward Peterson lowered the ancient artifact he was examining and slowly turned a weatherworn face towards the eager graduate student. He sighed quietly. He'd seen that selfsame look on Bruce Priestley's face many times before, and it might, or might not, be anything significant, but as expedition leader he was perforce obligated to take a look. Removing his eyeglasses unhurriedly, he rubbed his nose gently where the frame had rested and left slight indentations in the flesh. Then he carefully folded the eyeglasses before placing them into their hard protective case.

Virtually everyone had been having their eyes corrected surgically since the process had become as routine as cleaning your teeth with a sonic toothbrush, but Doctor Peterson was a bit of an anachronism. It was almost impossible to get new eyeglasses these days, and he guarded the several pair he owned with a controlled fanaticism. He'd sworn an oath to himself to use eyeglasses to correct the vision in his light-grey, senesced eyes until he could no longer replace the spectacles.

Peterson's career in the field of archeology kept him living in the past, and he frowned upon modern technology, yet— he never hesitated to use it wherever it proved to be an invaluable tool for advancing his work; or when it allowed him to get a good night's sleep. He insisted upon living in a tent, while everyone else lived in temperature and humidity controlled portable shelters, but he allowed special digger droids to assist in earth removal efforts because they greatly facilitated access to his obsession— the magnificent relics from the past.

The Doctor cleared his throat noisily, put his enormous, gnarled hands on the arms of his chair and pushed down as he rose to his feet. As he reached the entrance, his young assistant eagerly swept the tent flap aside, instantly bathing Peterson in the summer afternoon's harsh sunlight while allowing fresh air to revivify the smoke saturated milieu inside the tent. Peterson squinted, ducked his head, and propelled his sinewy six-foot four-inch frame through the opening, just as an early afternoon zephyr drifted leisurely through the camp.

Pausing for just a few seconds to allow his eyes to adjust to the bright light, he scanned the horizon and again marveled to himself just how much the gently rolling landscape on this part of Mawcett always reminded him of his hometown in western Pennsylvania. If not for the purple and black leaves of the trees, and the tree trunks covered by a slippery, fibrous surface that constantly oozed a mucous-like substance, he could almost forget that he was light years from the town where he'd spent his youth. The varieties of fragrant wildflowers that grew in great abundance around the camp, even made it smell like home. Perhaps that was why he'd selected this area for the dig site from among the innumerous locations available on the uninhabited planet.

The weather on this June day also compared favorably to what he would have expected back home at this time of year. And each evening, everyone on the planet was treated to the most magnificent light show in the known universe. As the sun dipped gently below the horizon, the sky virtually exploded into brilliant spectacles of reds, yellows, oranges, and purples. It was almost worthwhile taking the long trip to Mawcett just to enjoy its panoramic sunsets.

Turning his craggy face with its hawk-like features and two days of salt and pepper beard stubble towards Priestly, Dr. Peterson said sternly, "I hope this is better than yesterday's spectacular find, Bruce."

Bruce Priestly grinned crookedly as they resumed the trek. Twenty-six years young, with short brown hair, pallid skin, and a thin frame, Priestly looked more like an accountant than a field researcher. Standing barely five-foot seven-inches, he was shorter than the Doctor by more than half a foot. He lowered his medium brown eyes and put on his most apologetic face before saying, "It is, sir. I'm sorry about yesterday. I really thought that we were onto something when we found that concrete tunnel."

"Bruce, since we know that this planet was home to an advanced civilization twenty thousand years ago, before some great, unknown disaster appears to have wiped out all sentient life, it's logical to assume that we would find a sewer pipe or two. You have to investigate further before proclaiming to the entire camp that you've discovered a secret underground burial chamber. You have a fine mind and a brilliant future in Archeology, but you have to avoid getting carried away by exuberance before determining if your discovery has scientific validity."

"Yes sir. That's why I didn't come get you hours ago."

Doctor Peterson slowed his pace dramatically and cast an appraising eye towards Priestly. "Hours ago? What is it, another underground tunnel?"

"Not exactly. It's more like a ramp that leads downward- but it does move horizontally underground after it descends about nine meters."

"Nine meters?" Doctor Peterson said sharply. "That's rather deep! But— I suppose it could lead to a sewerage treatment line."

"I don't believe that it is a sewer tunnel this time. Uh— while excavating the tunnel we encountered a door."

"A door? Made of concrete?"

"No sir. It appears to be some sort of metal or composite material. My laborers are vacuuming up the last of the dirt now, and I felt that you should be there when we opened it, even if it's just a sewer connection point or pumping station."

"If it's been protected from erosion and corrosion, even a sewer plant can yield valuable information and artifacts."

"Yes sir. That was my thinking as well."

To save time, the pair crossed an active excavation area. They were forced to pick their way carefully along narrow paths that wound through a checkerboard grid layout of five-meter-square excavation areas marked with wooden stakes and string. All other dig sites on the planet used laser stakes positioned along two axis of the dig area's perimeter. When activated they constantly drew and redrew a grid in light beams and presented no chance of anyone becoming tangled in string. But Doctor Peterson intractably insisted on the ancient system. Each time someone tripped on a stake or string, they would just sigh, shake their heads, and mumble a brief and unintelligible expletive.

 As the two scientists at last reached the entrance of a two-meter wide tunnel that descended slowly below ground, Doctor Peterson halted and took out his eyeglasses. Bending, he closely examined the shiny black walls that bordered the entrance ramp, and slid a rough, calloused hand over the smooth, lustrous surface to feel the texture. Tendril-like streaks of white in the solid wall gave the appearance of fractures.

"This is no sewer plant, Bruce. These walls were constructed with a highly-polished, metamorphic rock such as marble. I can't see this sort of expensive construction material being used for the entrance to a utility plant. And this ramp has to be at least two meters wide."

"When I saw the marble surface, I didn't really think it was a sewer plant, Doctor," Priestly admitted candidly, "which is why I'm so excited. I, uh, was trying not to get carried away by exuberance."

Doctor Peterson scowled mildly at the impertinence of the comment, an obvious reference to his very recent chastisement, as he straightened up and rejoined the younger man who stood eagerly waiting, several feet ahead.

With each step into the tunnel, the sunlight diminished, but dim work lights, previously attached to the walls by the laborers, provided adequate illumination for the pair to find their way. Their eyes, accustomed to the bright light outside, slowly adjusted to the gloom. The pungent odor of damp soil and mold spores lingering in the passageway, assailed their nostrils, but Dr. Peterson was able to see well enough to know that all dirt had been thoroughly vacuumed from the tunnel.

The downward ramp turned back on itself twice as they descended. When at last they reached the bottom of the ramp, and the passageway had leveled out, it widened significantly from two-meters to four. Doctor Peterson halted suddenly, his eyes opening wide, as he got his first look at an ominous-looking wall, five-meters ahead, that blocked their passage. Black as midnight, it gleamed menacingly in the harsh light of portable Chembrite Light panels.

A full thirty-seconds passed before Dr. Peterson again moved forward. Laborers, cleaning up the last of the soil, parted to let the two scientists through as they approached.

"This is phenomenal!" Doctor Peterson said, his voice quaking with excitement and awe as he stared at the wide door in the center of a wall seemingly made of the same substance. "There isn't a speck of corrosion on the wall or door. It looks brand new. I wonder what it's made of. Do you see a handle, or a way of opening it?"

"No sir," Priestly said shaking his head. "I gave it a quick check before I came to get you. There doesn't seem to be any easy way of opening it from this side."

Doctor Peterson's excitement had risen to rival that of Priestly, who was having great difficulty standing still and looking even marginally calm. Although Priestly's arms were held rigidly at his side, his fingers were twitching spasmodically, and his breathing was as ragged as if he had just run a hundred meter sprint.

"Let's get our portable X ray, sonar, radiation, and air quality measuring equipment down here right away!" Doctor Peterson said obstreperously.

"It should be here any minute, Doctor." Priestly said. "I sent for it when I came to get you."

Peterson nodded absently as he began a close examination of the door and wall.

When several laborers finally arrived with the equipment they'd been sent to retrieve, a coterie of curious dig site team members with anxious faces trailed close behind. The rumor of a possible major discovery was already spreading through the camp like wildfire. Doctors Anthony Ramilo, Barbara Huften, and Dakshiku Vlashsku had dropped whatever they'd been doing and hurried along behind. As they crowded around the door for a closer look, their young assistants brusquely yanked aside the laborers who were trying to set up the equipment.

Doctor Huften slid her petite, five-foot two-inch body next to Doctor Peterson, fixed her pale-blue eyes intently on the door, and said in her surprisingly husky voice, "What is it, Edward?"

"We don't know anything yet, Barbara, except that young Priestly has found a marble-lined tunnel that leads to this most extraordinary wall and door."

"Any markings on the door?" Doctor Ramilo asked, as he tried to maneuver his own five-foot eight-inch body closer. His curly ebony hair and sable skin, features from his Moroccan heritage, seemed to give him an odd sort of kinship with the wall.

"No, Anthony, it's just a plain black surface with no markings of any kind. Its only unusual feature is its size! Lord, it must be two-hundred centimeters wide! But more importantly— there's not a single micron of corrosion or deterioration in evidence." Straightening up, he turned and brusquely flourished his arms as he said, "Everyone stand back now so that we can get the equipment operating."

The archeologists moved aside and watched as Doctor Peterson directed the setup and use of the testing equipment.

"Most unusual," Doctor Peterson mumbled when the initial examination was complete and he'd reviewed the findings. Raising his voice, he said, "The sonar won't penetrate the door or wall, there's no measurable radiation, and the X ray radiography shows absolutely nothing."

"Then it would seem there's little left to do except force open the door slightly and take new readings," Doctor Huften said.

Nodding or affirmative mumbling by each of the other scientific members communicated their concurrence that it was the only sensible action. The laborers were beckoned forward to force open the door using simple pry bars. As a precaution against possible security safeguards left by the planet's former inhabitants, everyone not participating in the labor intensive effort moved well back.

Failing to make any headway, the laborers advanced to a two-meter long wrecking bar that allowed several to push or pull together. And when the simple methods proved unsuccessful, they set up a hydraulic unit that exerted up to a hundred-sixty tons of pressure on the door. To everyone's amazement, the door still refused to budge a millimeter. As the hydraulic device reached its rated capacity, it automatically shut down. The laborers stood back and looked to Doctor Peterson in confusion.

Peterson scowled and threw up his hands. "Okay, okay, use the laser torch," he said resignedly. "But only along the edge so as to minimize damage to the door and frame," he added quickly.

After an hour of unsuccessfully trying to cut their way through the door, the laborers surrendered to its seeming invulnerability and turned off their equipment. When the laser had proven itself inadequate for the task, a plasma torch had been brought down into the tunnel. Although guaranteed to cut through thirty centimeters of solid steel, it too failed to make the slightest progress. The archeologists, who had all moved even further back when the plasma torch was ignited, now moved in from their positions of safety to examine the door.

"Amazing," Doctor Huften said with obvious awe in her voice as she shook her head gently and slowly moved her hand towards the door until her palm rested against it. "Not a mark on the surface, and it's barely warm to the touch from the cutting efforts. The door seems to have just soaked up the energy and heat from the laser and plasma torches like a sponge sops up water, and then— dissipated it somehow.

"In my fifty-three years, I've never heard of a metal that's totally impervious to a plasma torch," Doctor Ramilo said. "This is absolutely unprecedented."

"It's fairly obvious," Doctor Peterson observed, "that we're dealing with something incredibly unique here. We know that this planet has been devoid of sentient life for almost twenty-thousand years, but all previous discoveries have indicated the former inhabitants were considerably less technologically evolved than ourselves or any of the other species with whom we've made contact. Now we encounter a door that defies opening, and which is made of an unknown material that we can't cut, or even mar, with our most powerful, commercially available, cutting implements. There must be something of immeasurable value behind this door for the former inhabitants to have zealously guarded it so. If we remember our Earth history, the wealth of a pharaoh was placed in the burial vault with him. When the tomb was sealed, it was as impregnable as they could make it, to protect it from grave robbers. I can only imagine what magnificent treasures await us behind this door."

"Then again, it might be just an empty vault," Doctor Vlashsku offered. He was one of only two Nordakians in the scientific party, the other being his assistant, Glawth Djetch. The two men were the only ones in the camp taller than Peterson, owing to the natural size of their species. Where Nordakian women are seldom less than six feet tall, the males normally vary between seven and eight-feet in height. "Perhaps it was merely a place being prepared for some purpose, such as storage of hazardous materials. Or maybe it was a military installation, and contains weapons of incredible power; perchance the very weapons that destroyed the former inhabitants of this planet. Or maybe it was a shelter to be used in the event of an enemy attack."

"Perhaps, Dakshiku, perhaps," Doctor Peterson mumbled thoughtfully. Then more clearly, "Does anyone have a suggestion for our next course of action?"

"We should notify all the other teams on the planet immediately," Bruce Priestly offered excitedly. "With so many brilliant minds, someone will surely know of a way to open it."

"Not just yet, Bruce," Doctor Huften said. "Let's try to find out what we have first, and then we'll announce it to the others. I'm not as young as you, and I have no desire to fight a hundred other archeologists to get a first look at whatever's inside."

"But we're stonewalled, Doctor. We can't get the door open with the equipment that we have. We need their help."

"I agree with Barbara," Doctor Ramilo said. "Let's keep this to ourselves for now. It's already past dinnertime, so let's go eat. We can discuss the problem further over our meal. Perhaps even sleeping on it will provide some new insight. We can always inform the other dig sites in a couple of days. The vault, or shelter, or whatever it is, has been here for twenty-thousand years. It certainly isn't going anywhere."

After carefully covering the expensive analytical equipment, everyone plodded wearily back to the campsite, where workers from the other on-site excavations were already finished with their evening meal. Most of the laborers preferred to eat outside and enjoy the sunset. Electronic bug traps that kept the campsite relatively free of flying insects did a much better job overall than the sticky mucous coating on indigenous trees that was always alive with tiny, recently-trapped arthropods struggling uselessly to get free.

The rest of the labor force immediately surrounded their fellows who had been working in the tunnel with the archeologists and began to ply them with questions as the scientists entered the mess shelter to eat.

Once they had selected their food and taken their seats at their usual table inside the mess shelter, the senior archeologists again began discussing ways to open the door, but nothing really new was offered. The junior members ate quietly, respectfully listening, as always.

* * *

Doctor Peterson felt someone shaking him roughly and came partly awake. "What? What is it? Who's there?"

"Edward, wake up! It's Dakshiku. The door is open!"

"Then close it, man, and let me get back to sleep," Dr. Peterson said grumpily. "Your shelter's auto-sprayer will kill all the insects before they have a chance to bite you."

"Edward, wake up. The door is open!"

"What? What door?" Dr. Peterson asked, a little more awake now. "What are you talking about, man?"

"The door to the vault! It's open!"

Doctor Peterson came fully awake as the information sank in. "How? Who? When?" he rattled off in quick succession as he tried to focus on Doctor Vlashsku's face in the darkness of the tent. The Nordakian was so excited that his skin was flashing different colors faster than a nightclub strobe. During times of emotional agitation, Nordakians lose partial control of their skin coloration. In extreme situations, control deserts them completely and they appear like spinning rainbows gone amuck.

"I couldn't sleep so I went down to the tunnel," Doctor Vlashsku said. "I reexamined every square centimeter of the door and frame, but I couldn't find a thing that offered a clue for opening it. After a couple of hours, I just started yelling at it out of frustration. Then it suddenly creaked, and opened of its own volition."

"On its own? You just yelled at it?"


"What did you yell?"

"I don't know. I was weary and lost my temper. I screamed out of anger and frustration. The important thing is that it's open!"

"Okay. Okay. You're right. Wake everybody up while I get dressed."

"The entire camp?"

"No, just the main staff— and the laborers that worked with us in the tunnel. Let the others sleep. They have their own work to do in the morning."

"Right, I'll tell everyone to meet outside the door in fifteen minutes."

Some fifteen minutes later, a stimulated group of scientists in various states of dress and undress, and armed with light torches and an assortment of recording and measuring devices, was gathered outside the doorway.

"I still want to know, before we go in," Doctor Ramilo said, "just what Dakshiku said to open the door."

"I've already told you several times, Anthony, I don't remember," Vlashsku said, with a touch of irritation in his voice. "I was tired and frustrated, and I just screamed at it. It creaked for a second, then opened noiselessly. That's all I can tell you."

"You should have had the vid cams running, Dakshiku," Doctor Ramilo said, his voice angry and accusing. "That's what they're for."

"I was only examining the door; I never expected to actually find the key that would open it. You're right, I should have turned them on before I started. But— I didn't. And reminding me— over and over and over— that I made a mistake, will not alter the situation, Anthony."

"What if Dakshiku isn't responsible for opening the door at all?" Doctor Huften asked calmly."

"What are you suggesting, Barbara," Doctor Peterson asked, "that the door was opened by some life form inside?"

"In a word, yes!" she said emphatically.

"Impossible," Doctor Ramilo said. "The life form would have to be twenty-thousand years old. That's the most recent date that evidence of planetary habitation will support."

"Or possibly just asleep for twenty-thousand years," Doctor Huften countered. "Perhaps we awoke it with our earlier attempts to gain entry."

"Asleep for twenty-thousand years? Barbara, be practical," Doctor Ramilo said. "Our most brilliant scientists say that a person in prime physical condition can only be suspended in stasis sleep for forty-two years. Then he'd have to be awakened and made completely healthy again before being put back in stasis. That's why no expeditions to other galaxies have ever been seriously contemplated."

"That only applies to Terrans, Anthony. As an example of my hypothesis, let's use Alyysians. Their unique physiology, similar to that of a Terran frog, has allowed them to be frozen solid, and then revived centuries later. Our first contact with them was when a pre-FTL ship containing Alyysians was discovered by Space Command as it crossed our outer border. The occupants had all been asleep for more than seven hundred years. Think of it, Anthony. They were already underway when Galileo was still working to perfect a refracting telescope for astronomical observation. All were revived successfully."

"What if this is a cryogenic prison facility?" Doctor Vlashsku asked. "Perhaps our tampering has begun an awakening process? We might be responsible for releasing the worst criminals in the galaxy. Look how strongly the facility is constructed."

"Now everyone calm down," Doctor Peterson said. "The door is open, and whether it's an invitation to enter, or simply a response to something that Dakshiku said, we'll never know unless we go in. Dakshiku, can you and Glawth please stop flashing. You're giving me a severe headache."

"I'm sorry, Edward. We'll try. But you know that we can't completely control our chromatophoric cellular distensions when we get excited like this."

"What happens if we all go in and the door closes behind us?" Doctor Ramilo asked. "We'll be trapped inside without anyone out here being able to rescue us. One of us should remain outside."

"Good thought, Anthony," Doctor Peterson said. "You remain out here and guard against that eventuality."

"Wait a minute!" Dr. Ramilo said loudly. He wasn't about to remain outside when everyone else entered the— whatever it was. "Why me? I want to see what's inside as much as everyone else."

"You can't have it both ways, Anthony," Doctor Huften said, grinning slightly at Dr. Peterson's mischievous taunt.

"Okay, let's all go in— but leave a pry bar in the doorway so the door can't close completely."

"From what we saw yesterday," Doctor Peterson said, "I doubt that a simple pry bar could stop this door from closing, but we'll try that as an attempted safeguard to prevent becoming completely sealed inside. Is everyone ready?"

Doctor Peterson led the way in slowly and carefully, taking radiation measurements and checking the air quality as he went. The others crowded close to him and pointed their lights ahead, looking for any signs of life or danger.

After passing through the entrance doorway, the scientists found themselves at one end of a broad corridor. A high, arched ceiling capped a hallway with a floor comprised of large square tiles of polished metamorphic rock. Four more doorways, with doors of a size similar to that of the entrance, disrupted the smooth lines of the corridor walls. Only one, on the immediate left, was open. They nervously moved that way in a tight cluster.

The large open doorway was revealed to be an entrance to an impressive rotunda, at least fifteen meters in diameter. Standing just inside the entrance, the scientists shone their light torches around the room and played the beams across the high vaulted ceiling. Half the room had what appeared to be tall cabinet doors built into the walls, while much of the remaining wall space was dedicated to peculiar looking instrument panels. Roughly three-meters from the entrance sat a solitary table. The floor of the rotunda, like that of the corridor, was surfaced with highly-polished marble slabs with mottled green streaks in a slightly off-white background.

"We need more light," Doctor Peterson pronounced. "Let's get some of the Chembrite Light panels in here."

Without waiting for further instructions, the laborers retreated quickly through the doorway and returned promptly with some of the work lights from the tunnel. Once aimed at the highly-reflective domed ceiling, the entire room became brightly illuminated. Now able to see clearly, the scientists ventured further, moving to more closely examine the instrument panels mounted on the walls.

"I shouldn't need to remind anyone not to touch anything," Doctor Peterson said. "The fact that the outside door opened, clearly indicates that there's at least a small amount of residual power in here."

"Edward, look at those markings in the floor!" Doctor Ramilo said excitedly as he unnecessarily aimed his powerful light torch towards the polished stone floor in the center of the room. "They're like the symbols that the team at site three found!"

The scientists chattered enthusiastically as they moved to the center of the room to examine the strange gold symbols inscribed into the floor while the laborers continued to carry more portable lights into the room to provide even better illumination.

Mounted on tripod stands, the thin, flat, meter-square Chembrite panels were arranged primarily around the walls of the room, and aimed up at the ceiling, but one was placed on the solitary table and pointed down at the floor to brilliantly illuminate the etched symbols. Suddenly, the entire center of the room, where the archeologists were still congregated, was bathed in amber light, and each of the eleven scientists was paralyzed where he or she stood. A ten-centimeter-thick circular wall, made of a transparent polymer-like substance, rose soundlessly from the floor to enclose the immobilized group. The speed with which the encircling wall rose was phenomenal. One of the laborers, rushing to help the scientists, was carried aloft straddling the wall, a leg on either side. As the wall reached the ceiling, the enclosed area inside began to fill with a dense ocher gas that smelled of persimmons. In seconds it was impossible to see into the walled area.

The laborers who had witnessed the event with terror-filled eyes, ran screaming from the room.

Chapter Two

~ June 12th, 2269 ~

The two Space Marines posted at the entrance to the battleship, and the officer of the deck, Lieutenant Elton Chevers, snapped to attention and saluted Lt. Commander Jenetta Carver crisply as she boarded the Prometheus through the forward hold airlock. Chevers was newly posted to the ship, but he didn't have to ask who the tall blonde was or what business she had aboard the ship. Everyone in Space Command, and probably everyone on Earth, would recognize her on sight. There had been few weeks during the past year when her face hadn't appeared on newspapers, magazines, and the vid news. At times, her image appeared on all three media forms at the same time. For that handful of uninformed recluses that perhaps wouldn't immediately recognize her, the medal ribbons, campaign ribbons, and insignia that she wore on her uniform should certainly alert them to her identity. No other Lt. Commander in Space Command had the honor of wearing a gold pip on his or her collar. A gold pip announces that the wearer previously commanded a Space Command warship of destroyer or larger class. Carver wore two pips, having commanded both a Heavy Cruiser and a Battleship. She was also the only serving Space Command officer who wore a Medal of Honor ribbon. She had finally become accustomed to the stares, but she was looking forward to again being cloistered aboard ship for a few months. She took a minute to speak with the new officer before continuing through the airlock.

New crewmen had begun to join the enormous battleship soon after it entered the Mars Shipbuilding Yard for repairs. The yard had done wonders. Battered unbelievably at the Battle for Higgins, just a month after being severely pummeled at the Battle of Vauzlee, the appearance of the restored Prometheus rivaled that of any new ship coming out of the yard. Jenetta had asked the shuttle pilot bringing her from Earth to perform several slow passes before docking. The Lieutenant(jg) pilot couldn't refuse such a simple request from a Medal of Honor recipient. The docking piers on either side of the massive ship were presently unoccupied, so with approval from the station's docking controller, the pilot was able to continue a shallow helical orbit around the massive vessel from stern to bow and back again until she was satisfied.  The docking controller further cooperated by turning on all exterior lights in the dock. Jenetta found it impossible to tell that the ship had fought two life or death battles, which had left it near ruin.

As she walked to her quarters now, it felt almost like coming home. The dull, recycled, and odorless air of the forward cargo bay was like a tonic. But before heading to the bridge to report in, she wanted to take a little time to put her things away. As captain of the GSC Heavy Cruiser Song, her last ship, she'd had a steward to take care of such things, but as a mere second officer again, she would have to oversee her own care. She especially wanted to unpack the spacechest and cases that had been in storage since she ceded command of the Song to its new commanding officer, Captain Charles Yung.

After unpacking the two cases she'd brought from her parent's home, she carried the first of the other small cases to the bed, not realizing until then that the pile contained too many cases, by two. A visual check of the ID tags revealed that all contained her name. Opening the first case, she found only things that her steward had packed on the Song, so she placed it on the floor and picked up a second. That case also contained only things Woodrow had packed before she left the ship. Setting it on the floor next to the first, she opened a third. It contained women's civilian clothes, but they weren't hers. Looking closely at the ID tag again, she confirmed that it not only contained her name, but was apparently written in her handwriting. Leaving that case opened and on the bed, she lifted the final case to the bed and opened it. This one contained lingerie, gloves, shoes, and boots, but what really drew Jenetta's attention was the sexiness of the lingerie and the height of the heels on the shoes and boots. Returning to the previous case, she pulled out the dresses, skirts and blouses.

Suddenly, it was as if she was back in the detention cell of Raider-One. Each piece of clothing appeared to be a match for one left behind when she escaped. In a side compartment of the case, she discovered waist, wrist, and ankle restraints, plus a red electronic controller that would lock or unlock them. She examined the case itself closely, but couldn't find any markings other than the nametag, so she inspected the other case. Like the first, and like her own cases, it was Space Command standard issue. There was nothing to indicate where the cases had come from, but as she was refolding the clothes, she spotted a piece of paper protruding slightly from one of the black corsets. It turned out to be a note. Her eyes widened and she sucked in her breath sharply as she read:

Hi Angel,

Congratulations, you're five and 0 now. You saved the Vordoth, saved the Nordakians, escaped from our detention center, saved the convoy of artifacts, and even destroyed our largest battleship, saving Higgins in the process. I can't tell you how much I look forward to our next encounter. The return of escaped slaves is a top priority and we've reserved your place at the resort.


P.S. - I've taken the liberty of sending along a few things to replace the ones that you probably didn't have a chance to pack when you left Raider-One. They've been tailored to accommodate your new body measurements. Enjoy.

"Mikel Arneu", she hissed, as she expelled the breath that she had been holding since opening the note. "So you didn't perish when Raider-One blew up. You must have been away. That's why no one had seen you for days."

Picking up the black corset that been folded around the note, Jenetta stared at it. Her expression grew angry as she thought about the weeks of pain and starvation that she'd endured in the detention center, and she drew her arm back to throw the garment against the wall. But something inside her made her stop. Just holding the corset made her feel warm and tingly, and her rate of respiration increased. She wanted to toss everything down the nearest waste disposal chute, but instead found herself carefully repacking the items back into the two cases. She placed them in the bottom of her closet, before properly unpacking her large spacechest and the two smaller cases that had genuinely followed her from the Song.

After spending fifteen seconds in the InstaPress cabinet, her unpacked uniforms were again crisp and wrinkle free. Jenetta straightened her tunic and prepared to leave for the bridge to report in officially, but she stopped at the door, lingering for a few seconds as she glanced at the closet that contained the Raider clothing. Every luggage case was progressively smaller then the spacechest so that they would fit one inside the other when emptied, leaving only the spacechest visible. The two full cases would be immediately apparent to anyone who looked in her closet. At least she didn't have to worry about a steward finding the exotic clothing in the cases.

Jenetta knew that she would have to report having received the clothing. Gifts of any nature have to be reported anyway, but when received from an enemy representative, it made it doubly important that she report it to Space Command Intelligence ASAP. She hated to reopen an issue that she wished could remain closed. An enigmatic expression came over her face, remained for a few moments, then was gone just as quickly as she turned to head for the bridge.

* * *

Seven and a half months had passed since the small, thoroughly battered protection force from Higgins SCB had silently glided up to their assigned docking piers at Earth Station Two. The crippling wounds were obvious to anyone who had access to a surveillance monitor or a viewing port along the docking ring. Jenetta, placed in command of the heavy cruiser Song following the demise of the ship's entire senior staff during the Battle of Vauzlee, had expected to immediately turn her ship over to the newly appointed commanding officer and return to her permanent post as second officer aboard the battleship Prometheus. But Captain Yung's frigate, The Roosevelt, had been on patrol out in Section 8667-1844, and the destroyer Tokyo, bringing him back to Earth, where he would accept his new command, wouldn't arrive for another seven or more months. Jenetta was required to remain on as captain of the Song, and oversee repairs to the ship while she waited. Being captain of a heavy cruiser was a prestigious and highly enviable posting for a young Lt. Commander, but Jenetta anxiously looked forward to returning to the battleship Prometheus.

When the Song's repairs were completed after four months in a space dock, the ship was temporarily detailed to Earth Defense forces. Jenetta spent her days patrolling outside the solar system. Every approaching ship had to be met and scanned before it was permitted to enter the system. She was elated when Captain Yung finally arrived to relive her. She spent a couple of days working with him to bring him up to speed, and then cheerfully relinquished command.

In the seven and a half months since arriving at Earth, Jenetta had been able to arrange little free time dirt-side. Most of her trips to the surface had been to attend functions promoted by overeager military PR and recruitment people anxious to trade on her current fame. Her brothers had all rejoined their ships long ago, but just before reporting back aboard the Prometheus, she delighted in spending two uninterrupted weeks of shore leave at home with her parents. Her father, a retired frigate captain, dragged her over to the base a couple of times, to show off his famous daughter, and she was glad to go, but she especially enjoyed the time she had with her mother.

As her father fell back into his normal routine of playing golf each day, Jenetta had a chance to be alone with her mom. She began to talk about the things that she'd been through and finally showed her mother the 'slave' imprint that she still bore. She'd kept it hidden until then, even though it was a matter of court record and been openly discussed during her court-martial. She'd been cleared of all charges in connection with the deaths of over 18,000 Raiders when she destroyed their base. She also talked of the two men that she'd killed in unarmed combat. Jenetta knew that both deaths had been necessary, and didn't regret her actions, but unburdening herself that way was a catharsis. Her mother wasn't unused to such confessions. She'd heard them from her father, brothers, husband, and sons, but hearing one from her daughter touched her soul as none had before. It had been twelve years since they'd shared one another's company, and each cherished every minute of their time together.

* * *

As she entered the enormous bridge of the Prometheus, Jenetta paused for only a fraction of a second to look around. The helm and navigator consoles were presently unattended, but the other stations were manned, and several junior officers were having a discussion at the tactical station. The captain was standing near his command chair, engaged in conversation with a tall female officer whom Jenetta judged to be forty plus years of age. After moving to a point just a meter away, Jenetta waited patiently until her presence was formally acknowledged.

"Reporting back for duty, Captain," she said when he turned towards her.

Captain Gavin's strong face broke into a wide friendly smile. "Welcome back, Jen. I hope you had an enjoyable shore leave, what little you were able to arrange."

Although astonished to hear the captain use her given name, since he'd only addressed her by title and surname previously, she didn't allow surprise at this new familiarity to show on her face as she returned the genuine smile. His knowledge of her activity while she'd been on detached duty, indicated that he'd been inquiring after her.

"Yes sir," she said. "Thank you. It was wonderful to see my family again."

"I'm sure it was for them as well, especially after such an extended absence." Gesturing slightly to the female officer next to him, Gavin said, "This is Commander Genevieve LaSalle. She's assumed her post as first officer so you'll have an easier duty schedule on this trip. Commander, this is Lt. Commander Jenetta Carver, our second officer."

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Commander," Jenetta said to the new first officer.

Commander LaSalle, at five-foot ten-inches, was just millimeters taller than Jenetta. She tore her jade-green eyes away from the medal and campaign ribbons on the younger officer's chest and stared into Jenetta's smiling eyes. "Likewise, Commander. I've seen your face in the news so often that I feel like I know you already. Congratulations on receiving the Medal of Honor; and the other medal honors."

"Thank you, ma'am. I'm happy that all the attention will be dying down now."

"Not for awhile yet. This trip to Nordakia is so you can be honored at another medal ceremony, after all."

"Yes, but it's not a Space Command medal award, so I've been hoping that it won't draw as much attention."

"I think you're mistaken there, Jen," Gavin said. "You're the first Terran military officer ever to be honored by the Nordakian government. And since you're being awarded their highest military honor, it's no small matter. I suspect that every news agency in the GA will be represented there, or they'll be getting a feed from a news service on the planet."

Jenetta sighed. "Yes sir; that's probably true."

"Is your wound completely healed?" LaSalle asked.

At first mention of the injury, Jenetta's left hand moved involuntarily to her abdomen, fell again to her side. "Yes ma'am; I'm completely fit for duty. There's not even a scar to show where I was shot."

"Following the official launching ceremony tomorrow, a Galactic Alliance delegation will be coming aboard ship," Gavin said. "They'll accompany us to Nordakia for the medal ceremony. As one of our senior officers, you'll be required to have dinner with the delegates some evenings. Since this trip is being made to honor you, better plan on at least four nights a week."

Jenetta grimaced, only slightly, but Gavin noticed the almost imperceptible change in her expression.

"I know," he said. "The thought of entertaining a group of politicians for five months doesn't appeal to me either, but it's part of the duty of a senior officer. Better get used to it, Jen, because entertaining dignitaries gets worse as you move up in rank. I'll probably be dining with them every single night. Commander LaSalle is fortunate because she has the second watch, but she'll have more than her fair share of luncheons."

"Yes sir," Jenetta said. "It's just that I've been attending PR and recruitment events for months. I'd hoped that I could stand down for a while. Don't worry, sir, I'll bear up.

Gavin grinned. "Good. You'll have the third watch from now on. Dismissed, Commander."

"Yes sir. Thank you, sir." Turning to Commander LaSalle, she said, "See you at 2400 hours, Commander." After LaSalle nodded, Jenetta turned and left the bridge.

After changing into her sweats, Jenetta hurried to the gym to work out for a couple of hours, then returned to her quarters to take a shower and get some sleep since she'd be up all night while on watch. Regulations required that the bridge be fully manned 24/7, even when the ship was docked at an Earth spaceport.

* * *

Jenetta dressed, quickly brushed her collar-length blond hair, and was on her way to the amidship officer's mess within twenty minutes of waking. The wonderful food aromas wafting about the room almost completely overcame the lingering odors of paint, adhesives, and new materials used in the recent reconstruction work in this area. Since almost ninety percent of the present crew had come aboard the Prometheus after Jenetta left to take command of the Song, there were few faces that she recognized as she entered and quickly scanned the dozen and a half tables in the spotlessly-clean dining room. She'd been the acting first officer for only one month during the new ship's voyage to Earth for the commissioning ceremony, so she'd had little time or opportunity to develop close, personal relationships with the few officers she did recognize.

As she moved through the brightly-lit mess hall towards the serving counters, Jenetta nodded and smiled at the officers with whom she made eye contact. Taking two trays from the rack, she walked along the food line, selecting items that appealed to her from the variety available on the gleaming stainless steel counters and clear polycarbonate shelves. As she carried the two overflowing trays to an empty table, a few people stared openly. It had been some time since she'd had to consider what others might think of her out of control appetite. As captain on the Song, she'd had a private dining room, so she could eat her normal three full helpings of food without curious minds wondering where she put it all and how she remained so fit.

Just as she dipped a spoon into her first bowl of soup, she heard, "Is this seat available, Commander?"

The grinning face of Lieutenant Donald Kerrey greeted Jenetta as she looked up. At five-foot eight-inches, with dark, curly hair and chestnut colored eyes, Kerrey was a familiar figure. He'd served as acting second officer under Jenetta during her brief former posting aboard the Prometheus.

"Hello, Lieutenant. Please, sit down. I'm not expecting anyone."

Kerrey placed his tray on the table and sat down across from her. Looking directly into her bright, azure eyes, he said, "I wasn't entirely sure it was you when I first spotted you, Commander. You look so different. But those two pips on your collar told me it had to be you."

"My body is still changing as a result of the DNA modifications that the Raiders performed on me while I was their prisoner. When I entered the Academy, my appearance was extremely similar to that of my five-foot one-inch mother, even though I was three inches taller. Our faces are still somewhat similar, and you can see the genetic relationship, but my appearance has definitely changed, and I've grown almost six inches in height. I'm a couple of inches taller than you now."

"Those aren't the only things different about you," Kerrey said, flicking his eyes downward for only a millisecond.

Jenetta sighed, grimaced, and said, "Yes, my chest has grown quite a bit also. It's a lot more uncomfortable when I exercise, and some people tend to be rather distracted by it.

"You can always have them reduced through surgery," Kerrey offered.

"The doctors tell me that I shouldn't attempt that until my body stops changing, but it'll be eight to ten years before all the cells in my body are completely rewritten. It's also been suggested that perhaps my body won't allow it to remain altered. My altered DNA immediately begins to 'repair' any changes to the new genetic 'blueprint'. I guess time will tell. I just wish I wasn't so darn hungry all the time. Perhaps once I finish growing…"

 Kerrey glanced down at the two food trays and nodded in understanding if not total sympathy. Many adults would love to be able to eat everything they desired without worrying about packing on extra pounds. "I missed you following our battle with the Raiders at Vauzlee. The Captain brought a Commander over from the destroyer Asuncion to replace you here as acting first officer after he appointed you captain of the Song."

"Really? How long after I departed?"

"Almost right away. Commander Ashe arrived on the afternoon following the battle, just several hours after you reported that you had the situation under control over there, and that the Song would be able to travel to Earth under its own power. At first, the guy was pleased as could be at being appointed acting first on the Prometheus. That was entirely understandable. But once he learned that you, a mere Lieutenant Commander, and a recently promoted one at that, had been posted as captain of a GSC heavy cruiser, he never stopped grousing about it. He kept offering to take over for you." Kerrey chuckled. "The Captain finally came right out and told Ashe, on the bridge— in front of the entire watch— that if he wasn't happy onboard the Prometheus, the Captain would arrange for his immediate return to the Asuncion. I don't think he ever again suggested that he replace you on the Song, but he never stopped grumbling about it. I believe the Captain missed you all the more because of it, and I'm sure that he was really glad to see that guy return to his own ship after we reached Mars. I know I was. Ya know, I'd use John for a first name instead of Jack, if I had his last name. I'm sure I don't have to tell you the nickname the crew had for him. I'd love to see the captain's evaluation of his performance while he was aboard. I'd bet anything that 'pestiferous' is in there somewhere. I'll give ten to one odds that he retires still a commander."

Including the word 'pestiferous' anywhere in a performance evaluation, even in a seemly innocuous sentence that appears to praise the officer, could be the kiss-of-death to a career in Space Command. Every bureaucratic and military organization has certain 'code words' to warn others about a problem without really saying something directly. The officer's present commanding officer would have to write an especially glowing recommendation to erase the stigma if Gavin had really used the word in a performance evaluation.

Jenetta grinned. "It's funny. He was desperately trying to get to the Song, and I was wishing I was on the Prometheus."

"Seriously? Were things that bad on the Song?"

"No, no, it wasn't bad at all. The crew was fantastic and things really came together once I made the temporary appointments to replace the bridge crew killed during the battle. It's just that I think of the Prometheus as my ship. I know every square meter of him and I've been in love with him since I first laid eyes on him. I think that I'd rather be the second officer of this ship than the captain of most others. That's certainly not a reflection on their crews."

Kerrey, looking relieved, smiled. "I'm glad that's all it was. I have a couple of friends on the Song and they've told me how delighted they were to have a chance to serve under you."

"I was really touched that most of the officers turned out to say goodbye when Captain Yung relieved me and I left the ship."

"My friends say they were genuinely sorry to see you go, but they knew all along that you wouldn't be appointed as permanent captain of a heavy cruiser since you only hold the rank of Lt. Commander. They were happy to serve under you for as long as they did."

"How have things been going for you, Don?"

"Fine, ma'am. It was great being the acting second officer for a while, but it felt almost like a demotion when I had to resume my duties as helmsman once we'd reached Mars and the new crew reported aboard. Now that we're fully staffed, I don't expect to have an opportunity to be a watch commander again for a while." Lowering his voice to communicate a confidence, he said, "And there are so many new faces on board that I feel a little out of place. I was delighted to spot you here when I came in. We old timers have to stick together."

Jenetta smiled at being called an 'old timer.' While true that she was chronologically thirty-four-years-old, the DNA recombinant and Age Prolongation processes performed on her while a prisoner of the Raiders had kept her looking like a academy cadet. Kerrey, at just thirty, didn't look much like an old-timer either.

"I'm delighted that you joined me for dinner," Jenetta said. "I was feeling a little detached myself among this sea of new faces. What watch have you drawn?"

"Third watch, with you."

Jenetta let her face register the surprise she felt at hearing this news. "Based on your seniority I would have expected you to get the first watch, or the second watch at the very least."

"I was assigned to the second watch, but I requested a change to the third."

"Why? Third watch is generally avoided whenever possible."

"Because of you, Commander. I've felt much more, uh, comfortable under your command than with Commander LaSalle on second watch."

"Have you had a run-in with her, Don?" Jenetta asked, trying to keep any hint of accusation out of her voice.

"No ma'am, honest; I haven't had a direct problem with her. She just, I don't know, makes me feel— uneasy. I guess it might be the way she always talks down to everyone when the Captain isn't around. I've worked for you in the past and I've always felt honored to be under your command. Also, you've had several ship commands, so I know that you know what you're doing."

Kerrey hadn't directly said that he felt Commander LaSalle didn't know what she was doing, but it seemed the implication was there. Jenetta would never ask him to clarify the ambiguity because it might put both of them on the spot; him for criticizing a superior officer, if that's what he intended, and her for hearing it and not reporting him for insubordination. He'd been careful while relating the situation with Commander Ashe not to make any direct, personal observations about the Commander's abilities.

"Okay, Don," Jenetta said smiling, "welcome to my watch. I guess that we'll be spending a lot of nights together. Just you— and me— and ten other crewmembers."

As was her habit, Jenetta arrived on the bridge ten minutes before her watch was due to start. She immediately noticed how deathly quiet it appeared. The dozen crewmembers there were performing their duties in absolute silence. Near the very end of the watch, whether in port or when traveling FTL, crewmembers frequently talk openly, albeit in lowered tone, as they discuss plans for their off duty time. LaSalle, sitting in the command chair, motioned Jenetta over to her side. She approached and came to attention.

"At ease, Commander. Take a seat," LaSalle said indicating the first officer's chair.

"Thank you, ma'am," Jenetta said as she climbed into the chair.

"I expected you to be early, based on what I read in your file," LaSalle said, as she leaned over towards Jenetta and lowered her voice so that only Jenetta could hear. "You've impressed a great many people in a very short period of time, and you've already earned more medals than most officers will earn during an entire lifetime of military service; and the right medals at that."

Jenetta grinned and replied equally sotto voce, "I guess that it's just been a matter of always being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or something like that."

LaSalle didn't smile or even grin. "I've also been told by the Captain that we have you to thank for setting up such a well organized command and reporting infrastructure on this ship."

"I just got people doing what they were trained to do anyway."

"Yes, I know that, even if the captain doesn't. You may have been the commanding officer of a heavy cruiser for the past year, but I want you to know that you're just the second officer here. Those two pips on your collar and a chest full of ribbons don't entitle you to any special privileges."

Jenetta was completely taken aback by the statement, but didn't let the surprise she was feeling show on her face. "I realize that, ma'am," she responded, now acutely aware that the affable attitude displayed by LaSalle earlier, in front of the Captain, had completely evaporated.

"Make sure that you remember it. I'm the executive officer here and you no longer report directly to the Captain. Observe the proper chain of command at all times and we'll get along."

"Yes ma'am."

LaSalle straightened back up and raised her voice to a normal level, then briefed Jenetta on the status of the ship, before saying, "I'm sure that you'll be anxious to get some rest after your duty shift, but the Captain wants all command officers not on watch to be at the forward cargo bay at 0930 hours, in full military dress, for the launching ceremony."

"Yes ma'am."

"Is there anything else that you need to know before assuming command of the bridge for your first duty shift?"

"No ma'am. I know what's required of me."

"Then you have the bridge, Commander. Goodnight."

"I have the bridge, ma'am. Goodnight."

As LaSalle climbed down from the command chair, Jenetta recalled the words of Lieutenant Kerrey in the mess hall earlier. LaSalle's statement of the obvious, presented in a manner that seemed antagonistic and even threatening, had made her feel extremely uncomfortable. She hoped that things would be less strained once they got to know each other, but in her heart she knew different. LaSalle seemed like the sort of senior officer that you occasionally encounter in the service; one who is insecure in their position and greatly fears that a subordinate might outshine them.

Lieutenant Kerrey and half a dozen other crewmembers arrived a few minutes before the watch began. As chronometers throughout the ship faintly rang eight times to signal the end of the watch, third watch crewmembers relieved their counterparts, and assumed their duties. Jenetta knew all but two of the third watch bridge crew, and suspected that the other eight must also have requested third watch duty because, like Kerrey, most had sufficient seniority to get an earlier watch. Since there was little to do while docked in spaceport, Jenetta permitted light conversation on the bridge. As long as crewmembers stayed fully alert to their duties and responsibilities, she would allow the blithe discussions and light banter that helped pass the night while the ship was in a safe port.

* * *

Jenetta hurried to the officer's mess after her watch so that she'd have adequate time to enjoy her full breakfast and still have time to wash and change into her dress uniform before she had to leave for the forward cargo bay.

Her stomach sated temporarily, she frowned at the reflection in her bedroom mirror as she finished dressing. She disliked wearing the peaked cap that was a required part of the officer's official dress uniform. She would normally carry it under her arm or in her hand until she absolutely had to put it on. She also disliked wearing her medals. They seemed a bit too ostentatious to suit her, especially the Medal of Honor. She would have much preferred just to wear the medal ribbons, but the regs required her to wear the medals on this occasion.

The Captain, looking resplendent in his dress uniform, was already at the bay when she arrived. The handsome, almost six-foot tall, officer had a fit body that showed he was dedicated to a strong regimen of exercise. His hair was still a dark brown, with just a touch of grey at the temples, and his dark-grey eyes were clear and strong. Now in his early sixties, Gavin was approaching the mandatory retirement age for space duty. In a few years he would either have to accept a posting on shore or retire from the service, as Jenetta's father had done two years earlier.

They talked as they waited, with most of the discussion centering on Jenetta's experiences as captain of the Song. But they also talked about the launching ceremony and keeping the Galactic Alliance delegation occupied and entertained while they were on board, a chore that Jenetta wished with all her heart she could avoid. Politics and diplomacy were subjects that she preferred to keep firmly at arm's length.

LaSalle arrived after Gavin had engaged Jenetta in conversation so she couldn't accuse Jenetta of seeking the captain's ear, and she couldn't think of a valid excuse for interrupting the discussion.

At 0950, Jenetta disembarked with the captain and most of the senior officers, to attend a ceremony that would take place in the docking ring between the two adjacent docking piers where the Prometheus and Chiron were currently moored. A red ribbon was stretched across the entrance to the pier that led out to each ship's forward airlock once the ship's command officers had passed through.

For an hour, Galactic Alliance politicians and Space Command Admirals made speeches about the two new ships and how important they were to the safety and security of the citizenry. Jenetta was praised repeatedly in the speeches for having brought them back after they had been stolen from the Mars shipyard by Raiders just hours before the first Space Command personnel were to report aboard. Jenetta saw LaSalle grimace each time Jenetta's name was mentioned. It was with great relief that Jenetta watched Admiral Moore's wife finally cut the wide red ribbon at the Prometheus' docking pier entrance, while the wife of Dennis Santora, the new Galactic Alliance Council chairman, simultaneously cut the ribbon at the entrance to Chiron's docking pier.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, the Space Command officers moved back inside their respective ships. While most of the officers immediately left to pursue whatever interests or duties awaited them, Jenetta stood by at the airlock entrance with Gavin and LaSalle, ready to greet the Galactic Alliance delegation that would travel aboard the Prometheus to Nordakia. Senators Oliver Krott, Justine Gordal, Alan Phalle, Regina Nieto, and Cari Rawald would represent their planets and the Galactic Alliance Council at the unprecedented awards ceremony. The GA was still more than three-quarters composed of member planets with Terran ancestry, and the delegation had been selected from the most senior members, so all the delegates were human.

With their large retinue of reporters trailing, the committee officials finally boarded. In the forward cargo bay, Jenetta was posed for pictures with the Captain and the delegates. Reporters were then permitted to ask Jenetta questions for fifteen minutes before being herded gently from the ship by an SC PR person, ably assisted by a squad of Space Marines. As Gavin and LaSalle escorted the delegates to their assigned quarters on the VIP deck, Jenetta breathed a silent sigh of relief.

Jenetta had just taken her first steps to leave the cargo bay when an SC officer standing outside the ship requested to come aboard. Although she couldn't see the officer from where she was standing, Jenetta immediately nodded to the officer of the deck. She'd recognized the voice as belonging to Commander Kanes of Space Command Intelligence. As she moved to greet the five-foot eleven-inch SCI officer, she saw that each shoulder now sported four wide gold bars, instead of the three he had worn previously.

"Welcome aboard, Captain Kanes. Congratulations on your promotion, sir. I hadn't heard."

"Thank you, Jen," he said, fixing his piercing steel-grey eyes on her. "It only became official at the beginning of the month."

"Will you be accompanying us to Nordakia, sir?"

"Yes, and then on to Higgins Space Port at Vinnia."

"To clean out your desk, sir?"

"No, I'll be staying on at Higgins."

"Oh, I would have thought that the promotion would bring you back to SCI on Earth."

"I've been appointed Head of Intelligence for that entire deca-sector now. My position gives me certain latitudes and I've decided to make Higgins my base of operations. It will be easier to control things if I'm out where the action is."

"I see."

"There's still a job open for you if you want it. I need all the good people that I can get."

Jenetta smiled. "Thank you, sir, but I'm happy just being the second officer aboard the Prometheus."

"Okay, Jen, but the offer remains open."

"Thank you, sir. Shall I escort you to your quarters, or would you prefer to see the Captain first."

"Captain Gavin has been notified that I'm coming aboard. I'll go to my quarters now and see him later."

"Very good, Captain."

Jenetta escorted Kanes to the deck reserved for special visitors, and, after arranging for a VIP suite, took a few minutes to inform him of the gift she'd received from the Raider commandant, Mikel Arneu. After promising to bring the cases to his suite when a time could be arranged, so that he might examine them, she walked to her own quarters and prepared for bed. Kanes' offer of a job was probably the sixth time that he had asked her to join his unit. He'd been after her ever since she'd been court-martialed for detonating the bomb that destroyed a Raider base and killed more than eighteen thousand Raiders. When she later killed an armed assassin with a single kick to the head, he stepped up his efforts to recruit her, but her heart still belonged to Prometheus. In her mind, he was the best ship in the fleet, and she couldn't imagine leaving to accept a post anywhere else.

The nearly two-kilometer long battleship backed silently away from the spaceport dock and departed for Nordakia while Jenetta was still deeply cocooned in slumber. They were already trillions of kilometers away from Earth by the time she awoke, showered, and prepared herself to attend dinner on the VIP deck with the delegation. Captains Gavin and Kanes were regaling the delegates with stories from their years in the service, when she arrived. Gavin interrupted his current tale to greet Jenetta and again introduce her to the Council members. She smiled and shook each representative's hand once more.

The delegation of three male and two female Galactic Alliance Senators seemed intent on hearing every detail of the adventure for which Jenetta was being awarded the medal by the Nordakian government, so she was the center of conversation on this first night out. She was kept busy answering questions until it was time for her to leave for her 2400 duty shift. One of the delegates, Justine Gordal, even asked the Captain if she might be allowed to stay longer, but Gavin responded that they had months to hear about her adventures and that Jenetta was needed on the bridge to command the watch for the next eight hours. Jenetta was grateful that she could finally get away from the questions for a while.

The ship would be underway for four months during this trip to Nordakia, although it could arrive sooner if necessary. Jenetta would learn, in a senior level staff meeting the next day, that the ship's temporal field generator had been modified while the ship was in spacedock at Mars. It was now capable of achieving Light-412, although Light-375 remained the officially listed top speed. At Light-375, it was already one of the two fastest ships in the fleet, and the known galaxy. Only Prometheus' brother ship, the Chiron, would be able to match his speed once the current retrofit work was complete. Most of the engineers at the shipyard didn't yet know that the generator could be enhanced to get ten percent more speed than its rating. All of this was top secret and the officers would be instructed to keep it that way.

Chapter Three

~ June 13th, 2269 ~

On Mawcett, the eleven archeologists paralyzed by the beam in the newly discovered underground facility, had fully recovered. Keewatin, the site's chief laborer supervisor, had cautiously entered the facility after a general alarm was raised in the camp by the laborers who'd witnessed the event. He'd found the eleven scientists on the floor, unconscious, in the center of the circular chamber. There was no sign of the reported transparent wall, nor any indication of lingering gas, but the crushed body of the laborer who'd rushed to aid the scientists was there. He'd tried to leap off, back the way he'd come, but the wall rose too swiftly. He was dead.

'Oh-gee' stretchers were sent for, so that the bodies of the comatose victims and the dead laborer could be brought to the surface. The scientists were conveyed to the first aid shelter, where eleven cots had been hastily erected in the too-small space, while the body of the laborer was temporarily interred in a quickly emptied food freezer.

No medical doctors were in residence at the camp, but a woman trained in emergency medical treatment monitored the condition of the scientists carefully. Their vital signs slowly returned to normal. After several hours they simply appeared to be sleeping. One by one, they awoke, claiming to have no memory of the event. By lunchtime all averred to feel fine, with no apparent residual effects from the experience. They were escorted to their usual tables in the mess shelter so their bodies could be provided with the sustenance they had missed while unconscious.

"I have absolutely no memory of being paralyzed, or anything else," Doctor Peterson announced to the others.

"Nor I," Doctor Ramilo responded, "but we must accept that it happened, since everyone in the camp was witness to our being removed from the underground complex. I'd remember coming up here if I'd been conscious."

"It must have happened as Keewatin says," Doctor Huften said. "We certainly can't deny that one of our laborers was killed trying to help us; poor man. But what was the purpose of the paralyzing beam? And perhaps even more importantly, what was in the gas that reportedly filled the enclosure? Did we inhale it, or was the purpose of the paralyzing beam to insure that we didn't inhale? If so, was it merely intended to coat our bodies?"

"The beam may have been intended to prevent exactly what happened to our laborer," Doctor Vlashsku said. "By paralyzing victims at the onset, they're prevented from panicking and trying to get out while the wall is rising. It's unfortunate that our man was outside the wall's perimeter when the process began. We must go back down there as soon as possible, but this time we'll avoid the center of the room. We must determine the purpose of the complex, and what has been done to us."

Mixed feeling regarding a next visit underground kept the scientists on the surface until the following day. They spent most of the afternoon speculating on possibilities, but in the absence of empirical information, no conclusions could be reached.

As before, Doctor Peterson led the way into the below-ground complex. The air quality measurement instruments provided better readings below surface than on the pollution-free planet above, owing mostly to the almost complete absence of plant pollens in the facility. An unseen air filtration system had to be hard at work.

Before entering the circular chamber, Doctor Peterson forewarned the others by saying, "We now know, for a fact, that this complex has a functioning energy source and is able to respond to some kind of stimuli. I caution you against touching anything. We are down here to observe only, until we know what we're up against. Touch nothing! Nor should you wave your light torches around, as Anthony did yesterday, because the light may trigger sensors in the room. Also, do not congregate in groups like before. Don't even lean against the walls. And above all, don't stand where the wall is reputed to have risen up from the floor."

"I resent your implication that my light torch caused the problem," Doctor Ramilo said furiously. "There's absolutely no proof that I am responsible for what happened to us."

"Oh, Anthony," Doctor Huften said, "calm down. It was only speculation that your torch may have activated a light sensor. You're not being indicted. Edward is only warning us to be careful, and not take the chance that a torch could have caused the problem."

"Quite right, Barbara," Doctor Peterson said. "Quite right. Now if everyone is ready, let's enter."

Despite his warning about congregating, the others stayed close to Doctor Peterson at first, as if they feared to stray very far from his dominant personality. But upon entering the chamber, they were immediately drawn to the wall of gauges, and spread out to stare at the banks of flickering lights and fluctuating symbols.

"What's happened here?" Doctor Vlashsku said, his skin color slowly alternating between dull red and orange. Another Nordakian would know that the display meant he was experiencing fear.

"Something quite significant, apparently," Doctor Huften replied.

"Could this be related to what happened to us?" Doctor Ramilo asked nobody in particular.

"It must be," Doctor Peterson said. "Nothing was registering on these instruments yesterday."

"Whatever can it mean?" Doctor Vlashsku asked, his skin color flashing ever faster.

"I have no idea, Dakshiku," Doctor Peterson said. "Just remain calm. Everybody remain calm. We'll monitor this wall around the clock and try to determine what's being measured by noting any changes."

"Around the clock?" Doctor Huften questioned in surprise.

"Yes. I feel sure that this is important. We'll all take turns, throughout the day, monitoring the gauges. Keewatin, and one of his more reliable dig supervisors, will be responsible for the nighttime monitoring."

"There is something dangerously wrong here, Edward," Doctor Vlashsku said. "We must call in the authorities."

"No," Doctor Peterson said quickly, "No authorities. I called in the authorities twenty-five years ago at a dig in eastern Syria near the Iraq border when we started receiving unusual radiation readings. They weren't high enough to be dangerous, but I did as required by our permits and reported the readings. Within two days our excavation permits were rescinded and we were physically removed from the area. When we were allowed back in, we found the site had been practically demolished. They had moved in with bulldozers and heavy earth moving equipment, totally destroying the ancient burial ground that we were attempting to uncover."

"Why? What had you found?" Doctor Huften asked.

"They told us that we had found the remnants of a small, radioactive meteor. They said that it was removed for our own safety."

"A meteor?"

"That's what they said, Barbara, but I believe it was something else because they'd never let me or any member of my team see it. Anyway, since then I don't call the authorities unless I know for a fact that there's serious danger."

"And you don't believe that there's serious danger now?" Doctor Vlashsku asked. "Look what this facility did to us."

"What did it do, Dakshiku? Other than a terribly tragic accident that led to the death of one of our laborers, we were rendered harmlessly unconscious for a few hours by a fragrant gas. It might have even been our fault. We might have activated some medical process. Perhaps this was an operating room, and we experienced their form of patient anesthesia. It wasn't painful, and we suffered no ill effects."

"We can't know that yet!" Doctor Huften said. "And what about these instruments?! What are they measuring?"

"That's what we need to determine, Barbara," Doctor Ramilo said. "And like Edward said, the only way to do that is to monitor them and record all variations." Although he was twenty years junior to Doctor Peterson, he usually sided with the older man on most issues.

"And what about that?" Doctor Huften asked, gesturing towards the other side of the room.

All eyes turned in the direction she was pointing. The others immediately saw what only Doctor Huften had noticed until then. A miniature green lamp over each of eleven tall cabinet doors built into the wall was shining brightly.

"What does that do to your theory that nothing is amiss, Edward?" Doctor Huften asked.

"It doesn't change a thing, Barbara," he said, without apparent concern, "except that we have something additional to monitor."

"Edward, I find your position unsupportable," Doctor Huften said. "My sixth sense tells me that we have triggered something here that will have serious repercussions for all of us. I pray that you are right, but feel in my heart that you are wrong. And by the time we know for sure, it might be too late to save any of us."

* * *

In the days following their departure from Earth, most of the Prometheus' crew drifted into normal shipboard routines. Jenetta worked out in the gym after her duty shift ended each morning, usually running or practicing her kickboxing before retiring to her quarters to sleep. Rising in time to eat dinner with the delegation most evenings, she would excuse herself as soon as possible after the meal to work in her quarters until it was time to report to the bridge for her watch. She had begun to spend what little free time she had studying the history of Nordakia and teaching herself Dakis, the only language used on the planet.

 At the beginning of the fifth week out from Earth, Jenetta's month long intensive study of conversational Dakis had progressed to the point where she could carry on a limited, albeit stilted, conversation. She instructed the computer interface in her quarters to only converse with her in Dakis, to correct her grammar and pronunciations, and offer suggestions when words didn't immediately come to her. Complete immersion in a culture is the quickest way to learn a language, so a holographic projector system, borrowed from the ship's educational center and linked to the computer, provided an image of a Nordakian female. Thereafter she would spend much of her free time in her quarters, conversing with the computer, via the hologram, in an effort to master the basic skills necessary for normal conversation.

As in the past when they were both aboard the same ship, Jenetta kept running into Captain Kanes during her waking hours. He would be in the gym during her two-hour workout each morning and usually fell in beside her as she ran around the track. Conversation was naturally limited during the brisk run. He also tried to keep up with her during her kickboxing practice, but while he had greater upper-body strength, her skill level was clearly higher than his own, so she usually practiced with other work-out opponents. Her position as second officer provided greater opportunities to become friendly with most of the officers on the ship, especially the senior officers and bridge personnel on all shifts, than she'd had as acting XO.

By the time the Prometheus reached Nordakia, Jenetta's months of daily work with the hologram in her quarters had given her a solid conversational fluency in Dakis, and she felt that she had acquired an acceptable knowledge of their history and culture, at least to the extent of the information contained in the ship's computer. As the ship entered orbit around the planet on October 10th, LaSalle made a ship-wide announcement that a delegation representing the royal family would be coming aboard the following day. When Jenetta arrived for her duty shift, LaSalle motioned to her to take the seat next to her. An image of the bright blue, green, and tan planet below them filled the enormous monitor at the front of the Bridge. Very Earth-like in appearance, the planet even circled a G2 Yellow dwarf like Earth's Sun. Two notable differences were that Nordakia was the closest planet to its star and had three small moons.

After briefing Jenetta on the status of the ship, LaSalle said. "Lt. Commander, this will be your last duty watch until after the medal ceremony. You're relieved of all shipboard duties for the duration."

"But Commander, the medal ceremony isn't scheduled for more than thirty days from now. What am I supposed to do between now and then?"

"I'm sure there are plans for your time; probably tours, state dinners and such. You'll find out soon enough. I'm just passing on the orders that I've received from the Captain."

"Yes ma'am. Who will be taking over my duties here?"

"That's really none of your concern, is it? Carry on, Commander. The bridge is yours."

"Aye, Commander," Jenetta said to LaSalle's back. She had a childish urge to stick her tongue out but restrained herself.

Jenetta was only able to get a couple of hours sleep before the delegation from Nordakia was due to arrive. She had the option of wearing either trousers or skirt as part of her dress uniform, and during the past year she had usually worn a skirt for such formal occasions, but today she opted for trousers. As this was considered an 'official state visit', she was required to wear her medals. She grimaced as she affixed the ostentatious and weighty decorations that stretched the fabric of her tunic.

So as not to risk being absent when the delegation from Nordakia arrived, Jenetta reported extra early to the flight bay airlock entrance. She was soon joined by the Galactic Alliance delegation, the Captain, and all command officers not on duty.

At the scheduled time, three large shuttles arrived and entered the ship. Once the ship's outer doors were closed, the space around the shuttles was pressurized and the transparent walls that formed adjustable airlocks around each of the small ships folded back up to the overhead. The shuttles then moved to their assigned parking locations, engaged their magnetic skids, and cut their power.

The welcoming party entered the bay just in time to see the Nordakians disembark from their ships. Everyone knew that Nordakians were humanlike, but those who had never seen one in person were amazed at their height.

Like the males, female Nordakians don't have external ear parts, but unlike the glabrous pates of the males, females have hirsute scalps. Black, indigo, magenta, or red hair covers their head just as densely as on their Terran counterparts.  While Nordakian females can alter their skin color just as rapidly as the males, their natural hair color can only be altered by standard dying or bleaching techniques. Narrow, delicate noses are the rule for females, as opposed to the wide flat proboscises of the males.

As the Nordakian delegation assembled in the flight bay, Jenetta noticed that the only three women present walked in single file, a discrete distance behind the last of the men. Each was carrying a suitcase and garment bag. Jenetta knew that the Nordakian culture was strongly male dominated, but she wasn't quite prepared for such a formal separation of the sexes. Then again, maybe she was reading too much into this initial contact. Perhaps simple rank and tenure accounted for the grouping and the burden carrying roles.

Each of the women was fairly young, and stunningly beautiful by Terran standards. They seemed to be in their early twenties, separated by no more than a year or two, and could be sisters if their like features were any indication. Most noticeable among their similarities was that each wore her magenta hair quite long, extending precisely to the back of her knees. Jenetta's own blond hair barely reached her shoulders when she let it down.

As the ship's commanding officer, it was Gavin's province to step forward and welcome the delegates aboard the Prometheus. He then introduced Jenetta and watched as the Nordakian delegates immediately turned to her as a group and put their closed hand against their chests. As they bowed their heads once, very slowly, their skin color changed rapidly from Nordakian Aqua to the light color of Jenetta's flesh. It was a tough act to follow and Jenetta was unsure of how to respond. She hadn't found any references to Nordakian protocol in the computer files, so she simulated the actions of the delegation, minus the color change naturally. From the wide-eyed looks that she received from some members, she immediately knew that she had done something wrong. She was greatly relieved when Gavin stepped in to complete the introductions of the Alliance Senators and the rest of the ship's officers. The Nordakian delegation shook hands in a standard Terran greeting with the rest of the assemblage. Gavin then moved to lead the way to the conference room where the dinner party was to be held, but the Nordakian delegation refused to follow until Jenetta preceded them.

Once in the conference room, things became a little more relaxed. The leader of the Nordakian delegation approached Jenetta and introduced himself once again.

"I am Minister Dtaple Gkibuke, the delegation leader and chief of protocol for their Royal Majesties King Tpalsh and Queen Ckuhah."

"I'm pleased to make your acquaintance, Minister."

"And I yours, My Lady." The minister again put his closed hand against his chest and bowed his head slowly.

"I'm unsure how to respond to your greeting. I felt that I did something wrong in the flight bay. Our ship's computer is sadly lacking in instructional information on Nordakian protocol."

"I understand completely, My Lady, and you must not be dismayed. Some members of our delegation may have shown surprise, but I assure you we felt no insult. I have often been at a loss when meeting Terrans and other species, and have made my share of mistakes. It will take time for our cultures to learn each other's customs and protocols. On Nordakia, military personnel greet formally or salute by touching their right hand to their chest. The hand should be open flat, with fingers together, palm facing downward, and touched to the chest with only the thumb. That is the form that all of our military people use, even when out of uniform, unless they are engaged in undercover operations. In such situations, their response would be appropriate for whatever cover they're maintaining. Your other solecism was to bow your head to us. A Lady of the Royal House bows her head to none but the immediate members of the ruling Royal Family. We must bow to your venerated status and rank, but you should not return the gesture."

"But I'm not a Lady of the Royal House."

"But you are, My Lady! The King has bestowed your status by royal proclamation, although confirmation by your presence at a special ceremony is still required to make it permanent. Following this dinner party, you will accompany us back to the palace, where over the next few weeks you will be instructed in protocol, language, religion, and the history of our planet by the finest tutors on Nordakia. It is all arranged."

Jenetta took a breath and said, "Ute ptuil stnibtes ki Dakis." (I've been studying Dakis.)

"Whutuks e kithwras hasque?" (You speak our language?)

"Iho. Ystaklis ah wriblats quespti geptfuma qee." (Yes. Enough to get by I believe.)

"This is marvelous, My Lady! Your Dakis is excellent. You even have the slight accent noticeable in the speech of our nobles and scholars."

"I've been studying conversational Dakis for the past four months. I imagine the translation materials were prepared by scholars in both languages so I must have adopted their pronunciations."

"This is going to make things so much easier. I should have anticipated your preparedness, My Lady. I admit that I  feared that we would not be able to teach you enough of our language in time for all the ceremonies. They are highly ritualized and will require much verbal participation on your part."

"So there's no need for me to stay at the palace," Jenetta said tentatively. "If you'll just give me what books you have, I can prepare for the ceremony from here."

"My Lady, there is much too much to pick up on your own in so short a time. That's why Space Command Headquarters approved our request that you live in the palace. Your hand maidens will help you prepare for the trip."

"Uh— hand maidens?" Jenetta asked, uncertain if she heard correctly.

"Yes, the three young women who accompanied the delegation. They're standing just over there," he said, pointing.

Still holding the suitcases and garment bags, the girls that Jenetta had observed earlier were now standing unobtrusively against the wall inside the entrance to the conference room,. Intently watching Jenetta for any sign that she required them to attend her, they lowered their heads briefly as she turned in their direction.

"They are awaiting your pleasure, My Lady. They have brought suitable attire for you and will help you change prior to our trip."

"Suitable attire? What's wrong with my uniform?"

"My Lady, females are not permitted to wear trousers on Nordakia. Your handmaidens have brought several gowns from which you can choose.  Would it perhaps be possible for them to wait for you somewhere else? I'm sure that they are most uncomfortable standing here."

'They aren't the only ones that are uncomfortable,' Jenetta thought to herself as she touched her left forefinger to the face of the Space Command ring on her right hand and said, "Security, this is Commander Carver, please send someone to 12-136-4-Quebec to escort several guests to my quarters. Carver out." In her left ear she heard a soft chime and then a message that a security person was being dispatched to her location.

Normally referred to as a CT, a miniscule cranial transducer is subcutaneously implanted against the skull just behind the left ear of every cadet when they enter the Academy. Powered by a minute electrical charge produced by the host body, the CT lacks sufficient power to transmit, so messages can only be conveyed or received while aboard ship or on a base properly equipped to handle the communications. When the face of the officer's Space Command ring is depressed by a thumb or forefinger of the owner, the central computer generates a carrier wave to pick up whatever vibrations the vocal cords generate in the skull. Since every officer is assigned a unique frequency, no one else in the room can hear a received message, but it sounds to the officer as if someone is whispering directly into their ear. To insure that the person receiving the message knows that it's not a vocalization by someone standing behind them, a brief electronic tone precedes the message. The carrier is discontinued when the officer speaks their last name and immediately follows it with the word 'out.'

The CT also functions as a transponder, and the security office can immediately locate an officer if he or she is within range by sending a special signal and using ship sensors to listen for echoes on the right frequency. Since the frequency used for that purpose is well above the range of human hearing, the officer is never aware of the special locator signal.

On Space Command vessels, Space Marines provide all security duties. When the requested Marine arrived, Jenetta instructed him to escort the three women to her quarters and allow them entry. He would then station himself outside her door, a standard practice when non-military visitors were in secure areas of the ship. In this case the Marine would be within sight of the sentry at the Captain's door and the sentry posted at the entrance to the bridge corridor where the quarters of the senior officers are located. The three Nordakian women put their hand to their chest and bowed their heads to Jenetta before following the security man out into the corridor.

"Should I send some food to my quarters?" Jenetta asked of the minister.

"That would be appropriate. I would suggest a bowl of fresh fruit, if you have any aboard."

"I'm sure that we do." Jenetta activated her ring again and gave instructions to the officer's mess to send a bowl of fresh fruit to her quarters, enough for three female visitors.

Over the next few hours, Jenetta visited with each of the Nordakian delegation members, either singly or in a group, using Dakis with several who were not well versed in Amer, the defacto standard language in Galactic Alliance space, and acting as an interpreter in some cases between the Nordakians and the GA delegation members when the proper word wouldn't come. It was considered inappropriate to use mechanical translators at the diplomatic level, although they were commonly available and used on most other occasions. A mechanical device might be oblivious to certain language nuances which would be accurately conveyed by a live translator, and would definitely be unaware of subtle body language.

When the affair was winding down, Jenetta finally had a chance to speak privately with Gavin.

"Sir," Jenetta said, her apprehension clearly noticeable in her voice, "the minister expects me to go down to the planet surface tonight and to stay in the royal palace until the ceremony. That's more than thirty days from now."

"Yes, I know," Gavin replied, as if it were common knowledge. "Space Command Headquarters has agreed to everything that Nordakia has requested. The Galactic Alliance Council desires to use this opportunity to help further cement our friendship with the ruling class of a member planet. They've given their blessings to everything that the Nordakians have requested."

If Jenetta had been hoping that the Captain would intercede on her behalf, it was now clear that wouldn't happen. She would have to go down to the planet and stay in the palace.

Chapter Four

~ October 11th, 2269 ~

Following the incident in the underground complex on Mawcett, heretofore quiescent gauges in the chamber were roused to activity without further deed or action by the scientists. The wall-mounted instrument panels provided an ever expanding notification of inexplicable activity. Most dig site workers had from the start been restricted from entering the underground facility, and even the assistants weren't permitted down there except when one of the four doctors was carefully monitoring the gauges. Keewatin and his deputy dig supervisor, Vendian, took turns monitoring the gauges throughout the night.

"We must tell someone, Edward," Doctor Barbara Huften said forcefully at dinner on this occasion. "We have no idea what's going on down there. It may be a countdown for some kind of doomsday weapon. As Dakshiku suggested, perhaps it's what killed the original inhabitants of this planet. We can't continue to keep this a secret. I get more nervous with each passing day. I can't even concentrate on my work anymore; I'm too frightened by what we might have unleashed."

"Barbara," Doctor Peterson responded calmly, "we've seen no evidence that this equipment poses any danger to us or anyone else on the planet. If we call in Space Command, there's no telling how much damage they might do to this facility with one of their typical, clumsy, heavy-fisted investigations."

"I agree with Barbara," Doctor Dakshiku Vlashsku said, his skin color flashing uncontrollably in shades of red and orange. "We have no idea what's going on down there. The equipment is obviously doing something. It could be manufacturing a biological weapon of mass destruction, or building momentum to launch existing, buried weapons all over the planet. What if we're responsible for the destruction of another dig site staff? Or all of them?"

"Dakshiku," Doctor Anthony Ramilo said, "calm yourself. As Edward has said, there's no evidence of anything dangerous going on. We've found no indications of power generation or use outside of this facility, nor evidence of anything like missiles."

"Then why did this facility attack us?!" Doctor Vlashsku asked. "What happened to us inside that chamber after we were paralyzed? What was the purpose of the green gas that was released into the chamber? I don't believe for a second that it was an anesthesia procedure for patients being prepped for surgery."

"And we haven't been able to get the other doors open in this facility," Doctor Huften said. "For all we know, they could be missile silos. Dakshiku doesn't know how he got the first one opened, and we've all stood in front of the doors for hours, shouting commands at them until we're hoarse. There could be something very sinister happening behind those doors. I vote that we call in Space Command."

"The vote has already been taken a dozen times. It's evenly split, and as site director I choose not to call them in just yet. If something happens to change the situation, I'll send the message immediately. Until then let's continue to monitor the gauges and carry on the work of trying to translate the symbols in the floor. If we can determine what this equipment does, it could be the most significant archeological discovery in the past five hundred years."

"But will any of us be left alive to tell the tale?" Doctor Vlashsku asked morbidly.

* * *

When the time arrived for the Nordakian delegation to return to their planet, Jenetta and the Galactic Alliance senators accompanied them to the flight bay. One shuttle remained behind to take Jenetta and the three handmaidens to the surface once she had been properly prepared. As the senators returned to their VIP accommodations, Jenetta walked somberly back to her quarters on A deck.

The Marine sentry, still posted outside her door when Jenetta arrived, came to attention as she approached and entered her quarters. The unmistakable sounds of laughter and giggling could be heard coming from her bedroom so she crossed her sitting room in silence and listened for a moment at the open door. The three Nordakian women were sitting on the bed as they examined the clothes from the suitcases that Jenetta kept on the floor of her closet. Sent to her by the Raider commandant, Mikel Arneu, the clothes reflected the lifestyle she'd been expected to follow as a mindless nympho in a kinky sex palace among the stars. Captain Kanes had examined the contents of the suitcases and filed a report with his Intelligence Section. He told Jenetta that since the sender was certainly not expecting favorable treatment for the 'gift', and since they had little monetary value, she could keep or dispose of them as she wished. Kanes kept the note that came with them. Following Jenetta's escape from the Raiders, she'd received hypnotherapy to reverse the earlier attempts at brainwashing, but something made her keep the clothes instead of disposing of them. What probably tickled the three Nordakian women was that the clothes were so tight that Jenetta could barely walk in them, and the shoes and boots all had heels that were almost thirteen centimeters tall.

Feeling a little guilty about eavesdropping, Jenetta faked a light cough. Her presence was immediately acknowledged by the three Nordakian women, who stopped what they were doing and nervously jumped to their feet. Each placed her closed right hand against her chest and bowed her head. They appeared to be apprehensive over having been caught laughing about the clothes.

Jenetta walked to the women and said, smiling, "It's alright. I guess they do look pretty funny. That's why I keep them in the suitcases. People might not understand if they were to see them."

"Only mine speak tiny Amer," one of the handmaidens said. "Them no unnerstan her."

Switching to Dakis, Jenetta said, "What I said was, it's okay to laugh at the clothes."

The three women relaxed, smiled, and all started to talk effusively at once. Jenetta put up her hand to stop them. "Tell me your names first."

"I'm Vronnesa," said the one who spoke a bit of Amer, "and this is my younger sister Znanna, and that's my youngest sister Tkusa. We weren't laughing at your clothes, My Lady, only that the dressmaker sewed the arms together on one of the dresses. She must have had too much wine to drink at lunch that day." The three handmaidens giggled again.

Jenetta smiled. "I think that it was done intentionally. The dresses were intended to restrict movement as much as possible."

"Then the dressmaker must have been Nordakian," Tkusa said grinning, and the other girls giggled. "But the clothes all look so new."

"I've never worn them. I was enslaved by Raiders and they intended to make me a whore in one of their brothels. These were the type of clothes they intended me to wear there."

Instead of the shocked expressions that Jenetta expected, the girls seemed to accept that as if they heard it every day.

"Where are all your gowns, My Lady? We looked to see if there was something appropriate for the palace, but these dresses were all that we could find."

"I never wear gowns or dresses, only trousers. But I have a skirt that I can wear as part of my dress uniform."

"We saw that in your closet, but you can't wear that on Nordakia," Znanna said shaking her head. "It's much too short."

"Too short? It extends to the center of my knees."

"On Nordakia," Vronnesa said, "your skirts and dresses may be no higher than the width of two fingers above the floor. Only women in the military are allowed to wear shorter skirts, and then only as part of their uniform."

"Is that fashion, or law?" Jenetta asked curiously.

"It's written in the holy words of the Almuth."

"So it's religious doctrine," Jenetta said. "That makes it inviolable on Nordakia. I guess there's nothing of mine that's suitable then."

"We brought several gowns with us, in case you didn't have something appropriate," Vronnesa said. "We should be able to make something fit. At least until the palace dressmakers can prepare something for you. I'm glad that you're taller than we were led to believe. Men are so bad at judging sizes. But you'll be able to use your own underwear from the cases." All three of the Nordakian women giggled.

"I can just use my regular issue military underwear."

"You'd wear that, when you have such beautiful things hidden away in your suitcases? We can't let you do that, My Lady. Now just put yourself in our hands and we'll have you ready in no time."

Three pairs of hands darted out and started removing Jenetta's clothes. Despite her mild protestations, they stripped her down to nothing in less than a minute. They must have noticed the large 'slave' imprint and serial number on her chest, but they totally ignored it. Jenetta wondered if they had seen such permanent imprints before, or simply believed that all Terran women were so marked if they didn't understand the meaning. She finally ceased resisting and allowed herself to be dressed in sexy underwear from one of the Raider suitcases.

Vronnesa opened one of the tall garment bags that they'd brought, and laid a lovely gown on the bed, while Tkusa and Znanna finished attaching her stockings to the garter belt. From one of the Raider suitcases, they selected a pair of black, single strap heels. They had her sit on the bed so that they could put the shoes onto her feet, adding thirteen centimeters to her height. As a result of the DNA recombinant procedure performed on Jenetta while she was a prisoner of the Raiders, she had grown six inches over her original height of five-feet four. While wearing shoes from the Raider case, she would stand six-feet three-inches, making her almost as tall as the Nordakian handmaidens, who wore only eight-centimeter heels.

As Jenetta balanced on the very high heels, Tkusa lowered a full-length slip over her head. Then Vronnesa and Znanna helped her to step into the gown they'd selected. But when attempting to zip it, they found the waist was too small. The three handmaidens discussed the situation and arrived at the only possible solution, a corset from the Raider clothes case. Made of a special material that actually constricted or expanded when a control device was used, the corset could squeeze a person's waist to whatever size was required, or at least whatever size could be endured. Znanna picked up the white controller from the case, and touched it to Jenetta's waist while depressing the button that would shrink the corset horizontally wherever the controller came into contact with it.

 As the corset tightened, Jenetta was reminded of her days in the Raider detention center where women were forced to wear corsets and impossibly tight clothing every day. Although facing a lifetime of such strict fashion at a brothel back then, she knew that her current discomfit would only last for a day or two until proper clothing could be made. The corset would have been much less uncomfortable if Jenetta wasn't so physically fit, because rather than compressing body fat, it was attempting to compress muscle mass.

With Jenetta's waist reduced by almost seven centimeters, Tkusa was able to close the gown. The three women then shortened the hem so it reached precisely two centimeters from the floor. The skirt portion of the restrictive gown wasn't as tight as the dresses from the Raider suitcase but it wasn't very far removed. Jenetta found she could only advance her leg about twenty centimeters with each step, and it would take three steps to equal a single, normal stride.

"Vronnesa, do all women on Nordakia have to wear clothing with such physical limitations?" Jenetta asked the handmaiden who seemed to be the spokesperson for the girls.

"No, not at all, My Lady. The lower your station, the more mobility you have. The lowest classes can wear wide skirts that don't restrict movement at all, while Her Majesty the Queen can barely walk."

"Then you're telling me that any clothes I wear while on Nordakia will be as restrictive as this gown?"

"Yes, My Lady. This gown was prepared especially for you."

Jenetta groaned inwardly, knowing that she would have to put up with this kind of apparel for an entire month. She wondered, if only for the briefest of moments, if it was still possible to refuse the medal award. But she already knew that would convey the gravest of insults to the Nordakian people, and to the government who had gone to great lengths to arrange this tribute to her.

Once she was dressed, the three girls had Jenetta sit on the bed so they could affix an elaborate headdress with long streamers of material.

"What's this for?"

"It's necessary, My Lady," Znanna said. "We need to hide the fact that you have such terribly short hair. Even the lower classes don't wear their hair this short. It would be cause for great embarrassment in the palace."

"Oh, I won't be embarrassed."

"Not your embarrassment, My Lady, the Queen's. She would be greatly embarrassed to have a guest with such short hair."

"Don't women on your planet ever loose their hair from illness or something?"

"Yes, but they wear a wig. Would you prefer to wear a wig, My Lady? They're rather hot, heavy, and uncomfortable compared to this headdress, but we brought one along.  It's in the shuttle."

Jenetta sighed silently, knowing that she must acquiesce to the customs of this planet. "No, a hot wig would not be preferable to a light headdress."

When the three women had finished costuming Jenetta, they repacked the suitcases and organized the room. Standing in front of her, Tkusa said, "We can leave whenever you're ready, My Lady."

Jenetta turned and walked towards the door, with the three women following in single file, as befit their station and ranks. As the door to the corridor opened, the Marine sentry did a double take.

"Commander?" he said, his eyes wide as he stared at her clothing.

"Yes, and no cracks about what I'm wearing, Dubeski."

"No ma'am. Uh, can I help you, uh— walk, or anything?"

"No, thank you," she said with a scowl. "We're leaving for the planet now."

"Aye, Commander."

Jenetta walked slowly down the corridor and past the sentry at the end of the corridor, the opacity of the headdress fabric hiding the fact that her hair didn't extend down her back. As she moved, the light cloth wafted behind her, just two centimeters off the deck.  The three handmaidens and the Space Marine, following close behind, were careful not to step on the undulating material. Progress was painfully slow, owing to the restrictive nature of the gown and extremely high heels but they finally made it to a lift that would take them to the flight bay deck. With the headdress, Jenetta needed a full seven-foot of clearance, so she had to duck her head slightly to get into the lift. To say that she drew stares would be the grossest of understatements. She left a wake of staring, open-mouthed crew along her path.

The Nordakian shuttle pilot placed his flattened hand to his chest and bowed his head as Jenetta entered the flight bay. She returned his salute and he extended his hand to help her climb into the shuttle. At two-hundred-fifty centimeters, the shuttle doorway was high enough that she didn't have to duck, but she needed help climbing the steep ramp in the tight gown and towering heels. The three handmaidens had to practically carry her into the shuttle. As she settled into her seat and fastened her seat belt, the three girls fussed with the streaming headdress.  The material was gently lifted around her body and allowed to flow down her front near her left arm.

The uneventful flight down to the surface of Nordakia took thirty minutes, and the small craft settled onto a shuttle pad within the grounds of an expansive palace complex that had served Nordakian monarchs for millennia. Just to get Jenetta up from the shuttle seat and standing erect on the unfamiliar heels took two of the three handmaidens.

As she disembarked, Jenetta was overwhelmed by the incredible beauty and magnificence of the palace. Decorative patios with fountains, aviaries, and small garden areas could be found at every level of the vast, six-story pyramidal shaped structure that completely surrounded a four-hectare central garden. Large Greek-style columns supported numerous elaborate roofs with hanging greenery, while unembellished cantilevered roofs seemed frozen in space and time. Still others were supported by highly crafted architectural masterpieces in the shape of Roman arches. The mixture of architectural styles had been blended perfectly, and overall worked well together. Stone, most often marble because of its durability and rich lustrous surface when polished, has been the choice for government buildings for millennia. Nordakian architects had used it almost to excess when building the palace. It was difficult to identify a surface made of anything else.

The minister that had led the Nordakian delegation to the Prometheus was waiting near the edge of the landing pad to greet Jenetta.

"Welcome, My Lady," Minister Gkibuke said warmly, as Jenetta reached his position. "You look exceedingly lovely in that gown. I hope your handmaidens were helpful."

"Thank you, Minister. I can honestly say that I wouldn't look like this without their assistance. I had no idea of the customs on your planet concerning clothing and hair length."

"Our society is considerably different from what you're probably familiar with. May I be allowed to escort you to your rooms?"

As they began moving towards the palace, Jenetta said, "It even appears to vary considerably from what I observed on your Obotymot colony."

"The colonists on Obotymot have been away from the home planet long enough to have forgotten some of our oldest traditions. And since most of the colonists came from the lower classes, the traditions they follow are quite different from those held sacred by our upper classes."

"Vronnesa informed me that the dress codes are written in the holy words of the Almuth."

"That's true, but the colonists have strayed somewhat from its strict teachings."

"I'm glad to see that you haven't punished them for that."

Minister Gkibuke shrugged his shoulders. "They are our people, My Lady. When enough people agree that change is required, it would be less difficult to hold back the ocean's tides then change their minds and hearts. One day, change may occur here as well, but for now we continue to strictly observe the True Word, as it was written."

As they neared the suite of rooms reserved for Jenetta's stay, the minister explained how Peers must act when confronted by a member of the Royal Family. "Males must stop, stand aside, bow their heads, and hold it down while being passed by a Royal. If the Royal stops to address them, they must drop to one knee unless told to remain standing. Women are simply required to bow their heads and hold it down until the Royal passes, or they are told that they may look up. Their clothing would normally preclude them from showing any other sign of respect, so none is expected."

"And for other nobility; those not a member of the Royal Family?" Jenetta asked.

"The peer or peeress of lower station must defer by standing aside and acknowledging the higher born by bowing his or her head. Their attendants will always behave as if confronted by a member of the Royal Family. Attendants accompanying the Peer or Peeress of higher station, are not required to do anything more then bow their heads in passing. Representatives of the King who are on official business, as was our delegation aboard your ship, are only required to bow their heads and offer the proper salutation. Commoners must treat all nobility as they would the Royal Family."

"Do I put my hand to my chest?" Jenetta asked.

"To any member of the immediate Royal Family, yes. To others, it isn't necessary since your station is the higher, but you may do so in acknowledgement if you wish. Few Peers employ such nonobligatory gesticulations. If you choose to do so, your hand should be flat, with fingers held tightly together, as I explained onboard the Prometheus.

"This is your sitting room," the minister said as they entered the suite reserved for Jenetta. "It is here that you will entertain visitors." Pointing to the doors on either side of the lavishly decorated room, he said, "These rooms on either side are bedrooms for your handmaidens. Your bedroom is straight ahead. I'll leave you to get settled in now. There will be much to keep you busy in the days ahead. Vronnesa has your schedule. Tutors will arrive tomorrow to begin your education of our culture, history, and the rituals that you will need to know. The language lessons have already been canceled. Dressmakers will arrive in the morning to prepare a suitable wardrobe for your stay on the planet, and health spa time has been scheduled."

"Thank you, Minister. I see that I'll be well taken care of."

"You're most welcome, My Lady. It's getting quite late so I'll say goodnight." The minister put his closed hand against his chest and bowed his head slowly.

Jenetta touched her open hand against her chest. "Goodnight, Minister."

As soon as he had gone, Jenetta walked to her bedroom doorway and peered in. A room as large as the entire downstairs area of her parent's home greeted her. The enormous bed was almost lost in the room, as was a sitting area with two sofas and several chairs, and a work area with a large desk and computer screen. Exploring further, Jenetta discovered that the door on the left side of the room led to an magnificent bathroom containing a sunken tub large enough for two, while the bedroom's opposite wall contained floor to ceiling windows, concealed by three rows of drapes ranging from sheer to totally opaque.

Jenetta's three handmaidens stood quietly by as Jenetta roamed her quarters. When it appeared that she was satisfied, Vronnesa asked, "Would you like us to help you prepare for bed now, My Lady?"

"Just help me remove this headdress and I can do the rest."

That was all they needed to hear. The three girls were instantly on Jenetta like snow on Everest. As Vronnesa and Tkusa worked to unfasten the headdress, Znanna began removing Jenetta's gown. All the while, the girls talked incessantly about the palace and Jenetta's schedule in the days ahead. Each time Jenetta tried to help with her own undressing, her hands were pushed gently, but firmly, away. In a few minutes she was down to her underwear, and she breathed easily again as Tkusa pressed the button on the controller that relaxed the corset. As the garment became sufficiently loose, Znanna removed it. Down to bare skin, an ultra sheer nightgown that left nothing to the imagination was pulled over her head. She hoped that either the night wouldn't be too cool, or that the bedclothes were sufficiently warm.

The handmaidens withdrew once Jenetta was ready for bed, and she was thankfully permitted to perform her toilet without assistance. It was just pure chance that the start of the Nordakian sleep period at the Palace today corresponded to the Galactic System Time used on all ships and bases, but Jenetta didn't feel the least bit tired because it was at this time each day that she reported to the bridge for her watch. She guessed that Lieutenant Kerrey would fill in during her absence, unless the Captain reassigned a more senior officer from the first watch. Since Kerrey was an experienced watch commander and the ship would only be maintaining orbit for the next month, it didn't make much sense to completely disrupt schedules, but that was at the discretion of the Captain.

Chapter Five

~ October 12th, 2269 ~

Keewatin, the dig's chief labor supervisor, burst into the mess shelter and stared with frightened eyes at the scientists as they ate breakfast. The wild look on his face was enough to silence the room and make every head turn his way.

"It's true," he said breathlessly, "you're still up here. But you can't be up here."

Doctor Peterson looked at the man as if he'd gone mad. "Where do you think I'd be, man? It's breakfast time."

"Not just you, Doctor; all of you. I just saw all of you down below in the chamber. I went down to record the activity on the gauges and— you were all there."

"What the devil are you talking about?"

"You're here— but you're also down there."

The eleven scientists just sat and stared at the man, totally unable to comprehend his meaning.

"Don't you understand?" Keewatin screamed, almost hysterically. "You're still down there. I mean, eleven people that look exactly like all of you are still down there."

"Eleven people that look exactly like us?" Doctor Ramilo asked excitedly as he jumped to his feet up. The assistants all rose to their feet as well.

"Yes, Doctor. And…"

"And what?" Doctor Peterson demanded.

"And— they're all— naked."

"Naked?" Doctor Huften asked, her eyes growing even wider.

Keewatin nodded dumbly.

If the first revelation hadn't been enough to get them moving, this latest revelation was. Keewatin was barely able to get out of the doorway before Doctor Vlashsku's long legs propelled him through the opening. The rest of the scientists were close behind. If it had been anyone else, they would probably have dismissed the man as being drunk, but Keewatin was the most dependable worker in the camp.

Even in the rush to get to the chamber, the protocols of seniority were observed, and the assistants wisely allowed the four archeologists to lead the way. Of the eleven scientists, only Edmund Hill, one of the youngest assistants, failed to navigate the grid of stakes and string. Unfortunately, Maria Tomallo and Lisa Cheney were running immediately behind him. When he tripped on a stake and fell, they stumbled over his prostrate body. All three wound up at the bottom of a meter-deep trench after sliding off the soft dirt that was piled up next to the hole. No damage was done, except perhaps to their pride. As they struggled to untangle themselves, their appearance made it seem as if they had just completed a long day of digging. Hurrying after the others, they cursed the strings and stakes that Doctor Peterson insisted upon.

Doctor Vlashsku, flashing like a neon sign in downtown Tokyo, was the first to enter the circular chamber. He was brought up short upon seeing eleven naked people standing there— including one that looked exactly like himself. They all turned to face him, and it was a tossup as to who was more shocked. As the others rushed in behind Doctor Vlashsku, considerable shock registered on their faces as well.

It was a Doctor Peterson, standing proudly in all his glory, and nothing else, that stepped to the fore and demanded, "What's the meaning of this? Just who are all you people?"

Under other circumstances, the sight of eleven naked scientists demanding such information from the clothed group might have been amusing. The clothed scientists moved slowly towards the naked group, as the naked group reciprocated. Meeting roughly near the center of the room, each stared intently at his apparent doppelganger, instinctively realizing that he or she wasn't facing a ghostly apparition. Naturally, the most clamorous duo were the Doctor Petersons, as each scientist argued with their twin over who was the original.

The naked group was finally forced to concede that, if in fact the equipment had produced exact replicas, it was far more likely that they were the duplicates. They had compared scars, moles, and even freckles, in their attempt to find something to refute the argument that they were identical, but not a single discrepancy could be found. Even their personalities were identical, as the two Doctor Petersons were constantly proving to the entire assemblage.

Eventually, the nudity of the new group had to be addressed, that point having been largely ignored in the shock of coming face to face with their exact doubles. The Lynn Steen original was sent to get something to cover the new people, but as she reached the tunnel entrance, she found it completely blocked by the camp's labor force. She yelled out what she needed and several laborers near the back turned and ran to get blankets.

Fifteen minutes later, a slack-jawed work force opened a path through their midst for the scientists and their blanket-clad duplicates. Each duplicate was taken to the shelter of their original and given clothes, before being taken to the mess tent and fed. The entire labor force stood outside, anxiously waiting to hear any snippet of news from a kitchen staff straining to hear the conversations.

"What's the last thing you remember before finding yourself naked in the underground chamber?" Doctor Peterson asked his duplicate.

"I remember standing in the center of the chamber, examining the strange symbols etched into the floor. Then I was suddenly there without clothes."

Doctor Peterson looked at the other duplicates, who nodded in agreement.

"That was four months ago," Doctor Peterson said. "We were apparently paralyzed by some sort of light beam, and rendered unconscious. We awoke several hours later, and were fine by the next day."

"Four months?" The second Doctor Peterson said incredulously. "It seems like minutes ago."

"That occurred in June; it's now October. For the past four months we've been monitoring the equipment in the chamber, never knowing its purpose, or what was happening in the locked areas of the complex. We certainly had no idea that it was fabricating duplicates of us behind those locked cabinet doors."

"To us, you're the duplicates."

"Yes, it's easy to understand how it might seem that way, but then you would have memories of the past four months and we would not."

The second Doctor Peterson nodded. "Yes, I suppose that's true. What do we do now?"

"We call Space Command," both Doctor Huftens said simultaneously, surprising even themselves by their unrehearsed harmony. They looked at each other in surprise.

"As Barbara and I have been asking for all along," Doctor Vlashsku said. "There can no longer be any doubt that we need their assistance."

"What can they do?" Doctor Ramilo asked. "They can't put the genie back into the bottle; our duplicates have already been created. For that matter, what will they do with our duplicates? Cloning has been illegal for two centuries."

"Stop talking about us as if we're not here," the second Doctor Ramilo said.

"Sorry," the original Doctor Ramilo said. "It's difficult to think of you as real people since you just stepped out of the equipment minutes ago."

"We have a far greater problem than just this set of duplicates," Doctor Huften said. "No offense intended," she added quickly, looking at her duplicate.

"What problem, Barbara?" the Doctor Peterson duplicate asked.

"Perhaps no one else noticed, but the gauges in the chamber are still registering activity. I suspect that the equipment is already working on a second group of duplicates."

"I noticed the activity," the second Doctor Huften said, "but I didn't realize its significance at the time."

"That's understandable," the original Doctor Huften said, "since you weren't aware of our monitoring efforts and the apparent connection with your creation."

"We don't know that the activity means more duplicates are being created," the first Doctor Ramilo asserted, "it could just be the equipment performing an orderly shutdown, or, maintenance operations."

"So you're saying that it will take the appearance of another eleven duplicates before you'll finally agree to call in Space Command?" Dr. Vlashsku asked.

Doctor Ramilo looked to Doctor Peterson, who said, "No, but I want proof that the equipment is actually making more clones before I call Space Command. At least we know now that nothing more sinister is going on in the complex. As Anthony suggests, the equipment might just be cleaning itself after such a complex task. It will probably shut down once it's completed its maintenance cycle. We'll monitor it closely and observe what it does."

* * *

Jenetta tossed and turned in the enormous and unfamiliar bed throughout the long night, despite the fact that she hadn't gotten more than a couple of hours sleep the morning before. With the diurnal cycle on Nordakia being almost twenty-eight Earth hours, and the sleep period being nine hours, Jenetta figured that she'd be falling asleep just about the time she was supposed to be getting up.

As she predicted, she finally drifted off to sleep just before dawn, the hour when she would have been preparing for bed aboard the Prometheus. When the three handmaidens arrived to wake her, Jenetta had gotten less than an hour's sleep, giving her just three hours sleep in the past fifty-seven hours. She resisted, politely, but they managed to get her up and into a prepared bath. The warm and pleasantly fragrant water made her sleepy again and they encountered only light resistance as they bathed her.

Once dried and powdered, the three girls propelled her back into the bedroom and dressed her, using another set of the sexy underwear from the suitcases on the ship. The gown she'd worn yesterday was the only garment that met the strict dress codes of the palace, so she was dressed in that again. Naturally, it required the corset be used, but Jenetta was so weary that she just suffered in silence. A light breakfast was delivered to the suite, but for once Jenetta wanted sleep more than food so she kept falling asleep at the table. Vronnesa fed her, with the assistance of Tkusa. After breakfast, the three girls had to practically hold Jenetta up as she teetered on her thirteen-centimeter heels while the palace dressmakers measured her for her new wardrobe. She was at last allowed to relax when her three handmaidens took her to the palace spa. Falling asleep on the table as she received a massage, she didn't wake up during her entire beauty treatment.

It was lunchtime when the three girls tried to wake Jenetta again. Having enjoyed almost five hours of uninterrupted sleep in the spa, Jenetta responded to their efforts. She yawned and stretched before looking around.

"Where am I?" she mumbled sleepily, as the three handmaidens stared at her strangely. Realizing that she had spoken in Amer, she repeated the sentence in Dakis.

"In the palace beauty spa, My Lady," Vronnesa said. "We've been here all morning. You should get up now; it's time for lunch. One of the tutors will be arriving shortly."

"Okay. Uh, how did we get here, by the way?"

"We walked, My Lady. Don't you remember?"

"Um, oh yeah. I remember now. I was half asleep. Somebody was helping me."

"That was Znanna and me, My Lady," Vronnesa said.

Swinging her legs over the edge of the thickly padded table, Jenetta sat up and idly attempted to run her fingers through her hair, but stopped immediately as her hand met resistance. A look of shock came over her face as she realized that her hair had apparently grown longer while she slept, and not just by millimeters. She pulled on the long tresses of hair that extended from her head, and almost two meters of luxurious golden mane swung over her shoulder.

"What's this?" she said, feeling her scalp to see how the wig was attached. It wasn't a wig.

"It's your new hair, My Lady, as befits your station. Is it not beautiful?"

"New hair? But how?"

"The hair is produced by a process that first determines the shape, color, and texture of your own hair, then spins a matching strand which is seamlessly bonded to one of your own. We were afraid that the machine might not be able to match your beautiful color and texture, but Znanna was able to set the machine properly. The process took many hours, but now that it's done, the spun hair appears as original. We usually just use the process to repair broken strands, but in this case we were able to make a complete extension. You said that you didn't wish to wear a wig, so this was really the only solution. People would talk if a Lady of the Royal House always wore a headdress in public."

Distant memories of a Brothers Grimm childhood fairy tale about a young woman named Rapunzel with impossibly long blond hair flashed through her mind and Jenetta giggled for a second, then said anxiously. "I've never had long hair before. It's too much work to maintain, and I haven't the time."

"Don't worry, My Lady," Znanna said. "We'll take care of it for you. That's our job. Just relax and we'll take care of everything. You should stand now."

While Jenetta stood perfectly still and erect, Vronnesa and Znanna trimmed the hair to the proper length.

"There, all done," Vronnesa said as she moved a second mirror into position so that Jenetta could see the thick, luxurious hair extension that covered her back like a blanket.

"But it extends to the floor!"

"Oh, no, My Lady," Tkusa said with alarm. "It is fully one finger width from the floor. The length of her hair is a pronouncement of a woman's status in the palace, and only a member of the immediate Royal Family may have her hair touch the floor when standing erect. Palace handmaidens are only permitted to wear theirs to their knees, and it's required to be trimmed once each week to make sure that the proper length is maintained. The scrub women can't wear their hair below their shoulder blades, but even theirs is longer than yours was."

With each such discussion Jenetta better understood the social structure within the palace. Hair and clothing seemed to be a visible definition of social class among women. Jenetta's hair was now as long as it could be without her being a member of the King's immediate family, and the extremely restrictive clothes further defined her premier place within the nobility.

"So if I understand this correctly," Jenetta said, "the length of my hair and the tightness of my clothes means that I'm ranked just below a member of the ruling Royal Family?"

"Yes, My Lady," Vronnesa said, "your rank is as high or higher than any other who is not a member of the Royal Family. Even the Queen's own sisters may not wear their hair less than two finger widths from the floor."

Stepping behind Jenetta, Znanna tied a light pink ribbon in Jenetta's new hair, at the nape of her neck. From her neck, the hair was allowed to hang wherever it fell, the massive mop of hair all but obscuring Jenetta's tight gown from the back.

After a light lunch of Queelish, a delicious Nordakian vegetable stew, Jenetta began her studies in Nordakian history. Having studied the information available on the Prometheus' computer, she soon realized how totally inadequate that text had been, but the history that the Nordakian tutor passed on seemed to be a curious mixture of historical fact and religious doctrine.

When the history tutor had left for the day, a protocol tutor arrived and Jenetta spent two hours learning about the current Royal Family, their positions within the government of Nordakia, and the extent of their powers.

"Could you clarify my status here, please?" Jenetta asked, during a pause in the instruction.

"You are a Lady of the Royal House of Nordakia, My Lady."

"Yes, I understand the title."

"That is your status, My Lady, not your title. Your title is Azula Jenetta Alicia Carver, LRHN."

"Azula?" Jenetta echoed in confusion. "That's one I haven't heard before. Okay, so far I've developed a sense of my position within the palace hierarchy, based on the length requirements of my hair and the tightness on my clothing, but I'm still not clear on what's expected of me and how I fit into the palace picture, exactly."

"Although not of Nordakian royal birth, all the rights and privileges of the peerage have been bestowed upon you by royal proclamation. You are the first to be so honored in two millennia, and the first of off-world birth ever to be so honored. All members of the nobility can trace their lineage back to one individual who was 'decreed' to be a nobleman or noble-woman by the then ruling king. You are the first member of the noble family Carver. It is absolute, and irrevocable. The family Carver will forever be listed among the nobility on Nordakia and our colonies. You should also include the letters LRHN after your name whenever it is written on documents pertaining to anything Nordakian."

"The family Carver? You mean if I have children?"

"No, My Lady. By royal decree, your parents and all their progeny are named as part of the family Carver. Your siblings, their spouses, and their offspring are accorded all the rights of nobility as well. Naturally, your title of Azula will pass to your first born when you die. If a male, the title becomes Azulo. If you have no direct descendant, the title will pass to the appropriate heir within the family Carver according to the Peerage Inheritance Laws."

"I'm not familiar with the title Azula. What does it mean? Is it sort of like— being adopted, on Earth?"

"You have not become a member of the Royal Family, if that's what you mean, but you are definitively a Peeress of the Realm. The Azulas and Azulos rank immediately below the Royal Family, and sit at the apex of the Peerage. You have further been proclaimed a Lady of the Royal House, which defines your premier status in our realm. Only marrying one of the King's sons could elevate you higher. We have been without either a Lord or Lady of the Royal House since Azulo Kwittejto passed away eighteen years ago. The status of Lord or Lady of the Royal House does not pass on with the title and inheritance. Um, perhaps it would help if I compared our society with one on Earth that I read about?"

"Yes, perhaps. Please continue."

"During what was called your Middle Ages, there existed a form of monarchial government called the Feudal System. As I understand it, the reigning monarch initially owned all the land in his realm. He then allotted some to the nobility, in exchange for vows of fealty and promises to provide fighters if war should come. The nobility then allotted parcels of land to Knights, and exacted similar vows of allegiance and support. The Knights then allotted land to serfs, who never owned the land but would work it and provide part of their crops to their Knight, who would pass part to their Baron, who would pass part to their King. Our system works similarly, except the landowners are responsible for selling their own crops and other products, and must pay their taxes to the crown with currency. Only the nobility may own land, but they don't own their serfs. Each citizen is free to move about as he or she wishes. If one nobleman is cruel or unfair, the citizen may move to another's land. If I understand the import of each title in your ancient system, an Azula is the equivalent of a Duchess, while an Azulo is the equivalent of a Duke."

"Thank you. I think I understand much better now."

"The lands bestowed on you by the King and Queen are of minor value right now, but one day they will again be part of an important agricultural area."


"Yes, My Lady; the million hectares on Obotymot that comprise your royal estate."

"A million hectares? Royal estate? That's something else no one remembered to tell me," Jenetta said quietly.

"It's just a small estate, My Lady. In fact, your estate is the smallest among all the Peers. The next larger estate is that of Meptro and Meptra Kwudozu. Their estate comprises just three and half million hectares, but it's all rich agricultural land here on Nordakia, which made it much more highly prized even before the meteor strike. When Obotymot was colonized, the king offered to double or even triple the size of anyone's estate that would exchange their land on Nordakia for land on Obotymot. It was an attempt to spur development there, but owing to pressures from the Church, there were few takers. As a result, the ruling family still retains most of the planet."

"Meptro and Meptra?"

"On Earth, the nobility was ranked, from highest to lowest, King, Duke, Marquis, Count or Earl, Viscount, and lastly Baron. On Nordakia, the ranking is King, Azulo, Suvvuto, Fetuzo, Wollzako, and lastly Meptro. Although Meptro and Meptra Kwudozu are members of the Nordakian nobility, they are only the equivalent of a Baron and Baroness in the Earth system I was referencing. While their lands are incredibly valuable when compared to your own, their peerage is of the lowest rank in our nobility. I don't mean to disparage your holdings, My Lady. Your farm land was among the very richest and most productive on Obotymot before the meteor strike.

"Our King is very wise, My Lady. If he had given you a million hectares here on Nordakia, it might have caused— let us say, hard feelings— among the Peerage who have held their land for millennia. By giving you land that is currently considered worthless, our King avoids any such discord. The nobility could hardly begrudge you receiving land that can't even grow Sulp grass. Our scientists have declared that neither the orbit of Obotymot, nor its axis, was adversely affected by the meteor. If that proves true, and the planet can avoid the ice age that some doomsayers are predicting, your estate will certainly return to its former prosperous condition in perhaps as early as— half a century, when the atmosphere completely clears. By then the family Carver will be an accepted part of our nobility and no one will begrudge you your estate. The rich farm land of your demesne has helped feed the people of two planets in the past, and certainly will again. Although I haven't visited it myself, I've been told that the palace there is well appointed, and quite lovely."


"Yes. It was built for the King and Queen when they visit that part of Obotymot. They never have though, so it's never been occupied. There's just a small caretaker staff of twenty-five servants to see that it's maintained properly."

"Twenty-five servants?"

"Yes, My Lady. As I've said, it's just a small palace; no more than a hundred suites. I understand it sits on a hill overlooking a beautiful, sparkling clear lake, and had splendiferous gardens. From the upper floors of the palace you can see the snow-capped peaks of the breathtaking mountain range that borders the northern edge of your estate. Your chamberlain will naturally handle all matters of the estate and send you periodic reports when you are away from Obotymot. He's also empowered to deal with your subjects in your absence."


"Yes, My Lady. While the estate was producing, approximately three thousand tenant farmers worked the lands around the estate. Adding in their family members, your subjects probably numbered about twenty thousand."

"Uh, do I have any responsibility to these— my subjects?"

"Oh, yes, My Lady. You are their liege; their protector and chief magistrate. Unfortunately though, most of your tenants have been forced to leave the land since it cannot support them. Your chamberlain has promised them that they will not lose their farms if they return once crops will again grow. In the meantime, your only obligations are towards those that have remained, your staff at the estate."

Jenetta sucked in as much air as her clothing allowed.

"What sort of obligations?"

"Why, payroll and benefits of course."

The situation was getting more complicated by the minute. She was now responsible for people in perpetuity on an estate which may or may not produce any income within a lifetime.

"I only earn a small sum from my service in Space Command," Jenetta said. "I can't pay wages and benefits for an estate that isn't producing enough to support itself."

"That's not a worry, My Lady. The King has suspended all Obotymot taxes indefinitely, and won't reinstate them until the lands are producing again. He is personally paying all salaries and expenses associated with the maintenance of the estates on Obotymot, and repayments will not be required until crops again begin to grow. So you have no worry, except that you probably won't see any income for many years after the land again becomes fertile."

Jenetta breathed a sigh of relief. She could have lost her security clearance with Space Command if she was forced to borrow money to pay salaries to people she had never met. Owing money to the realm, money that would only become due when the land became profitable again, should hopefully be excluded from such consideration.

Jenetta's final tutor for the afternoon was a religious scholar. He began by instructing her from the Almuth, revered on Nordakia as the book of the True Word, much as the Bible, the Koran, and other texts might be viewed on Earth, but it was the only such book on Nordakia. Jenetta was able to relate historical events learned earlier in the day.

By dinnertime, Jenetta's brain ached. The worst part of the day had been the protocol session because the internal workings of the palace seemed to make it a world unto itself. The second worst part of the day had been receiving her new hair, because she either kept sitting or leaning on it, or it was getting caught on, in, under, or around things. Having very long hair requires a discipline all its own.

For the first week, Jenetta would take her meals in her suite, but thereafter her presence might be required at formal dinners. Vronnesa, Znanna, and Tkusa served Jenetta's dinner and steadfastly refused to join her at the small table. They just stood around her, waiting until her cup needed refilling, or she needed a napkin, or, anything. She understood that this was the way things were done in the palace, but being unaccustomed to such behavior, she was uncomfortable.

She filled up quickly due to the tight constriction of the corset, and the dishes still contained most of the food when the handmaidens cleared them away. To pass the evening hours, the handmaidens took turns reading Nordakian poetry to Jenetta, so when it was time to go to sleep, Jenetta was feeling quite sleepy.

Chapter Six

~ October 13th, 2269 ~

"This is unprecedented, Edward!" Doctor Zhang shouted angrily, while waving his arms in emphasis as they stood in the underground chamber. "To make a monumental discovery like this and not inform the rest of the planet's scientific community for four months is unconscionable!"

Although roughly the same age as Doctor Peterson, Doctor Jin Wei Zhang was quite his opposite in appearance. Peterson is tall, while Zhang is barely five-foot two-inches; and where Peterson is lanky, Zhang has a roly-poly body from too many years of easy living and rich foods in his role as museum curator and funds raiser.

"I'm sorry, Jin," Doctor Peterson said, "but you have to stop looking at this purely from a scientific perspective for a moment."

"How else am I supposed to look at it? You're part of the scientific expeditionary party, and your contract requires you to immediately inform the rest the community if you make any significant discoveries. I'd say this is kilometers above significant."

"I wanted to inform you, Jin, but we felt it better that we wait until we knew what was going on in the complex. Then, when the clones emerged, we were faced with a whole new dilemma. We still don't know if the machinery is trying to shut down, or if it's making more clones. We felt that secrecy was best."

"More clones?" Zhang said, his face reflecting horror. "You think that it could be creating more?"

"We have to face that possibility."

Zhang was quiet for a few seconds, then said calmly, "You should have notified my office. If I hadn't stopped here for a routine inspection, I still wouldn't know about any of this."

"We were afraid that if the news got out, every scientist on the planet would drop whatever they were working on and beat a path to our dig immediately. You must keep this discovery a secret, Jin, until we figure out how to disable the equipment."

"I'm not sure I can do that. My shuttle crew has been associating with your team members so they probably know everything by now. I'll do my best to keep it from spreading too far, but I must notify the board of directors at the expedition museum headquarters on Anthius."

"If you report this to Anthius, the entire galaxy will know within a fortnight."

"I'll impress upon them the need for utmost secrecy."

"Humph!" Dr. Peterson replied. "They couldn't even keep the route of our artifact convoy secret."

* * *

It was still dark in the room when the three handmaidens arrived to awaken Jenetta in the morning, but that was quickly rectified as Vronnesa and Znanna pulled open the draperies to reveal a bright, warm sun in a cloudless blue sky. Jenetta couldn't believe that she had slept so soundly during the long night.

Whisked into the bathroom where a tub full of scented, soapy water waited, Jenetta's nightgown was quickly stripped off by the three women. Half helping her, and half lifting her, Jenetta's naked form was lowered gently into the warm water. She tried to resist when they begin using soft sponges to wash her, as they had yesterday, but six persistent hands are difficult to avoid, and she finally gave up and let them bathe her. Three to one odds are just too challenging to overcome graciously. At least they let her brush her own teeth, and she idly wondered who had brushed her teeth yesterday when she was mostly asleep.

Propelled back into the bedroom after being dried, powdered, and dressed in clean underwear, three pair of hands continued to dress her in corset, stockings, shoes and a full-length slip. Jenetta was distracted by a new gown lying across the bed as shoes were put onto her feet, but she immediately felt the difference.

"These aren't my shoes," she remarked as she looked down at the glistening silver and blue footwear on her feet. Rather than the solid vamp that should have covered her toes, a wide piece of leather like material crossed over the area just behind her digits, leaving her stocking-covered toes exposed. Two straps at the ankle held each shoe onto the foot. As with her original shoes, the heels were thirteen centimeters high.

"Yes they are, My Lady," Znanna stated matter-of-factly. "They were custom-made for you using a pattern created yesterday. They were delivered this morning."

"A pattern was made yesterday?"

"Yes, when the palace dressmakers came to measure you, a shoemaker accompanied them. It was just after breakfast."

Jenetta said foggily, "I don't even remember eating breakfast yesterday."

"You were quite sleepy, My Lady. Vronnesa had to feed you."

"I definitely don't remember that. What else happened?"

"Nothing. After you were measured, we helped you get to the beauty spa. That's all."

"Was I dressed or undressed when I was measured yesterday?"

"Dressed, of course."

Jenetta groaned to herself. That probably meant the new gown on the bed would have the same waist size as the other gown.

Before being dressed in the new gown, Jenetta's new hair was carefully groomed. The three girls combed and brushed it until it sparkled, then applied makeup to her face. Since first meeting aboard the Prometheus, the three handmaidens had adopted the same skin coloration as Jenetta. The make-up they used now was designed for Terran coloration.

As they helped her into the new gown, Jenetta's worst fear was realized. The new gown seemed even tighter than the original. Groaning to herself as Tkusa used the controller to make the corset constrict, she stood patiently as the three handmaidens fussed and pulled at the fabric of the gown while the zipper was closed. Ensuring that her gown looked as perfect as possible was a matter of great pride to the handmaidens, because their own status within the palace depended upon Jenetta's groomed appearance. After carefully arranging her hair, they used several ribbons to hold it properly in place.

When the three girls were done fussing, Jenetta was escorted out to the sitting room where her breakfast was waiting. Not only did the new gown seem tighter than the other one, Jenetta felt that her walking had been restricted even more, and it seemed to take forever just to reach the small table where she had been taking her meals.

The dishes were cleared away as soon as breakfast was over and Jenetta was prepared to receive the first of the day's tutors. The history tutor from yesterday arrived promptly, and by midmorning Jenetta's eyes were crossing from the struggle to remember dates, names, and historical events that every schoolchild on the planet was allowed to slowly absorb over many years. She was grateful beyond words when the tutor announced that his time was up. Jenetta smiled as he stood, pressed his closed hand against his chest, and bowed his head. Before leaving he remarked that he had seldom had such an interested and intelligent pupil. Jenetta, in time-honored diplomatic fashion, replied that she'd seldom had such a learned tutor. The tutor smiled widely at her compliment and left. As the door closed behind him, Jenetta rolled her eyes and sighed in relief.

With a ten-minute break before the next tutor was scheduled to arrive, Jenetta leaned back in the chair and closed her eyes. She must have fallen asleep because she never heard Vronnesa approach and wasn't aware of her presence until she felt her arm being gently shaken.

"What is it, Vronnesa. I was just resting my eyes."

"Of course, My Lady. I'm sorry to disturb your rest, but Prince Chazurz wishes an audience."

Jenetta came instantly awake. She knew from her lessons that Prince Chazurz was the youngest son of the King and Queen. "How soon?"

"He's waiting in the corridor."

"What do I do?" Jenetta asked nervously.

"You should be standing when he comes in, My Lady."

"Yes, of course. Help me up, please."

With Vronnesa assisting, Jenetta was able to rise from the chair and walk to the middle of the room. Tkusa and Znanna worked furiously to brush her hair and straighten her gown as Vronnesa fixed her makeup. In a matter of minutes they were ready. As Jenetta stood in the center of the room with her head suitably bowed and her hand held against her chest, Tkusa and Znanna moved to the side of the room and assumed their proper stance. Vronnesa went to the door to admit the prince.

Jenetta stared down at the carpet and stayed like that as a pair of uniformed legs moved into view about a meter in front of her.

"Kareer a Nordakia, Hetrowd," a male voice said. (Welcome to Nordakia, Captain.)

Jenetta, surprised at hearing the familiar voice, replied, "Zrand Chekkora u Lyuddro." (It's my honor to be welcomed here.)

Still using Dakis, the prince said, "Your Dakis is as excellent as I've heard, Captain."

"I'm sure that it's not nearly so expert as your excellent Amer, your highness."

The prince laughed, then said, "Please raise your head, Captain. I wondered if you would remember my voice."

Jenetta looked up at the handsome Nordakian Prince now in his mid-thirties, and smiled. He had temporarily adopted her skin color. "I didn't know that Captain Phuth Yuixotical of the Nordakian Merchant Fleet was a prince of the realm."

"It's a closely guarded secret. I'll tell you about it, but first…"

Prince Chazurz turned to the handmaidens, who were still standing with their heads bowed. "Would everyone leave the room, please?" The three girls immediately turned and walked towards Jenetta's bedroom, but one of the half dozen men that had entered with the Prince stepped closer.

"Your highness, security regulations require that at least two guards remain by your side whenever aliens are in your presence."

"Major," Prince Chazurz said slowly and deliberately, a definite edge of anger in his voice, "Captain Carver is soon to become a Nordakian citizen and has my complete trust. With citizenship she becomes an Azula, and a Lady of the Royal House. I already owe my life to her, and she certainly isn't a threat to my safety. Please leave us."

The security officer opened his mouth to speak, then thought better of it. He placed his hand against his chest and bowed his head before backing out of the room.

Prince Chazurz turned back to Jenetta. Shaking his head and scowling, he said, "And mother wonders why I spend as much time away from here as possible."

"I understand completely, your highness," Jenetta said smiling.

The Prince brightened and took a good look at Jenetta. "You're much taller than I remember, Captain, but still just as beautiful."

"Thank you, your highness. I'm wearing stilts in the form of shoes with thirteen-centimeter heels. But I've also grown six-inches since we last met, courtesy of the procedure the Raiders performed on me while I was their captive."

The Prince's face turned serious. "I read the report about that. They were trying to mold you into their idea of the 'perfect' Terran woman?"

"Yes. Since I was destined for their brothels, they wanted to maximize the rate they could charge for my— attentions. The procedure that they developed will completely rewrite my DNA over an eight to ten year period, with most of the reshaping taking place during the first two years. It's been twenty-six months now so the changes have slowed considerably, but the doctors believe I'll grow another inch."

"We never suspected while we were busy repairing our damaged ships that you were in such danger."

"There wasn't anything that you could have done, and things worked out well in the end."

"Much more than just 'well'. There hasn't been a single Raider attack in this part of the galaxy since the Battle for Higgins. We've been sending a convoy of supplies to Obotymot every three months and we haven't even seen another ship on any of our runs. Like most freighter operations in this part of space, our AutoTect equipment is now active from departure until arrival at our destination. Its use has lowered stress levels aboard ship immensely, especially when we cross the busy shipping lanes between Earth and Higgins."

"That's wonderful. You promised to tell me about your secret life, your Highness."

"It's really quite simple. As a possible successor to the throne, I'm not permitted to actively serve in the military, but, since I have two older brothers, my father allows me to captain a freighter. The press cooperates by keeping my secret and never publishes my picture, while I maintain a low profile by spending as little time as possible in the palace. Visitors don't really associate me with the Royal Family unless they see me walking around in my royal uniform or with the security detail. Now you know my horrible secret. I yearn for a life in space."

"That's a yearning that I can both understand and appreciate, since I share it. You told the Major that I was soon to become a citizen of Nordakia. Why did you say that?"

The Prince looked surprised. "Aren't you? That's what I was told. Earth, Space Command, and the Galactic Alliance Council have all given their consent and approval for you to have dual citizenship. Much of the intensive training that you're undergoing is preparation for the citizenship ceremony."

Now it was Jenetta's turn to look surprised. The information did finally explain the intense lessons in history, religion and protocol. They should not have been required as part of her participation in a medal award, no matter how ritualized the ceremony. From her first day at NHSA, Space Command had been directing her life without consulting her, but she had agreed to that when she applied for entrance to the Academy. They had the right to post her wherever they chose, assign her whatever duties they wished her to perform, and promote her or demote her as they deemed fit. But telling her that she should pledge allegiance to a foreign power was pushing her over a line she never thought she would cross.

"Apparently everyone knew except me, although I did begin to wonder how I could be an Azula and Lady of the Royal House without being a citizen."

"The honor is only bestowed upon Nordakian citizens, and only serving Space Force officers, noncoms, or ratings can receive our Tawroole Medal."

"I see. But even if I receive dual citizenship, I'll still be a Space Command officer, not a member of your Space Force."

"But you're also to be commissioned in the Nordakian Space Force."

"What? I can't. I'm a Space Command officer. I can't join another military organization."

"Apparently the details have all been ironed out. You're to be commissioned as an officer in the Nordakian Space Force, on permanent loan to Space Command, where you are to be treated as a regular member of that service. But, you can demand assistance from any Nordakian military vessel, will have all the rights and privileges of any Space Force officer, and will have real authority over any Nordakian commercial vessel. Technically, you'll outrank me while I'm Captain Phuth Yuixotical."

"Forgive me if I appear a bit flustered. I really didn't appreciate the full extent of the commitment that I'd be making by accepting the medal honor."

"I thought that you would be pleased. A Nordakian Space Force commission can help you in your work."

"My work?"

"In your position as an intelligence operative."

"My what?"

"There's no need to hide it any longer, Captain. Our own intelligence section has concluded that's it's only possible answer for the things that they've learned about you, although Space Command Intelligence continues to deny it. Don't worry, I have the highest security clearance and I'll never reveal it to another soul outside of top military circles."

"They've been investigating me?" Jenetta asked indignantly.

"It's standard procedure. It's all part of the process for you becoming a citizen and Space Force officer."

Jenetta relaxed and nodded. "Yes, of course. I understand."

"They were most baffled when one of our investigators reported that the real Jenetta Alicia Carver was dead, and even sent pictures of the plaque on the 'Wall of Honored Dead' at the Space Academy cemetery in Nebraska. But they concluded that it must have been arranged so you could go undercover at one time."

"I've been meaning to get that WHD plaque taken down," Jenetta said with a sardonic grin. "It's unsettling to have some people think that I'm deceased. That was put up back in 2256 following the explosion of the Hokyuu. When they missed finding my escape pod, they assumed that I'd been lost in the explosion."

"I see. I'm sure that an intelligence officer will be stopping by to interview you before your commission is issued, so that any missing details can be filled in, or misconceptions corrected. For instance, they know that you captained the GSC Heavy Cruiser Song at the Battle for Higgins, and that you continued in that capacity for the past year. But since only GSC line officers holding the official rank of captain can hold such posts, they don't understand why your official designation is presently just Lieutenant Commander. They suspect that it has something to do with an upcoming mission."

"I'll be as honest and forthright as my oath to Space Command allows."

"I'm sure that you will. That's a lovely gown you have on, Captain. Except for your skin color, you look every bit a regular member of the court."

"Thank you, your highness. My handmaidens have worked very hard to perfect my appearance."

"Would you care to perambulate about the gardens with me? I'd love to hear more about your part in the Battle of Vuazlee and the Battle for Higgins."

"I'm afraid that I can't walk very well in this gown and these shoes."

"That's quite alright. I'm used to strolling with mother, and her gowns are the most restrictive in the palace."

Jenetta smiled. "Your Highness, if you can stand the slow pace, I'd love to tour the palace gardens with you."

The protocol tutor was kept waiting for more than two hours, but being the protocol tutor he knew better than to complain about the Prince taking Jenetta for a long walk in the gardens. Jenetta enjoyed the tour and was happy that she finally had a chance to clear up some of the myths that the Prince had built up in his mind, but he continued to call her Captain Carver, even after finally acknowledging that she was, in fact, just a Lieutenant Commander in Space Command.

The protocol tutor had responsibility for instructing Jenetta in the role she must play when receiving the Tawroole medal, so he tried to make up for lost time by remaining until the religious scholar arrived, who then kept Jenetta busy until dinnertime. She was extremely relieved when her lessons were over for the day. Dinner arrived shortly after the religious scholar left and the three handmaidens quickly prepared the small table in the sitting room for Jenetta's meal. She again invited them to dine with her but Vronnesa told her that they had eaten while the tutor was working with her. As before, they surrounded her, watching her eat and catering to her every need. They then took turns reading to her from Nordakian poetry books until bedtime.

As the handmaidens prepared Jenetta for bed, Tkusa opened the closet to hang up her gown. Spotting other garments in the closet, Jenetta hurried over and flung open the doors. At least two dozen magnificent gowns, hung from the clothes bar.

"Where did these come from?" Jenetta asked.

"The palace dressmakers delivered them today while you were walking with the Prince," Znanna said. "They also brought shoes, undergarments, and accessories."

Opening another door, Tkusa showed Jenetta a rack full of shoes. Jenetta noted that not a single pair had heels less than thirteen-centimeter high. That was entirely understandable, because if she wore shorter heels her hair would touch the ground, an unpardonable sin in this society. If her hair was then trimmed to accommodate lower heels, she wouldn't be able to wear the higher heels again, and she also knew the value that was placed on height in this society. She sighed and reminded herself once again that it was just temporary, and would all be over in less than a month.

During the next five days Jenetta spent her mornings and afternoons with the tutors, learning the things that she needed to know, both to become a Nordakian citizen and to attend the formal state dinners. When her tutors agreed that her knowledge was adequate, Jenetta was taken on a series of tours to prominent places of historical, cultural, or military significance. Each day presented many wonderful new opportunities to embarrass herself, but she managed to impress the ministers who accompanied her by not creating any awkward incidents.

One entire day was spent answering questions posed by a group of Intelligence officers who arrived early at Jenetta's suite and stayed until dinnertime. They were ultra polite, addressing her as My Lady the entire time, and Jenetta answered their questions as truthfully as she could. Space Command had given them a complete dossier and they spent the day probing details, as if trying to disprove the information.

Jenetta attended her first state dinner at the beginning of her third week on the planet. It was a formal affair being held to honor the planet's top agronomists, and Jenetta was finally introduced to the members of the Royal Family and the Royal Court. The protocol tutor had spent a significant amount of time preparing her for that moment and she didn't make a single solecism during the entire evening. The Queen sent for her the following morning.

Jenetta's handmaidens insured that Jenetta's appearance was impeccable for her private royal audience and then escorted her to the Queen's chambers where Jenetta was met by the Queen's private secretary. Jenetta stood where instructed to await the Queen's entrance, then bowed her head and performed the traditional salute with her hand when the Queen appeared.

"Good morning, my dear. You may raise your head."

As Jenetta lifted her head, she saw that the Queen had adopted Jenetta's skin coloring. Although now in her middle-aged years, the queen was still as beautiful and vibrant as she must have been as a young woman. As with the three handmaidens, her lack of external ear parts was hidden by her hair, and with Jenetta's skin tone she looked very much like a Terran.

 "Good morning, Your Majesty."

"Have you been enjoying your stay on Nordakia?"

"Very much. Nordakia is a beautiful planet; and much like Earth."

"We've never been there, but we've seen images and there are many similarities. We believe that we have a greater proportion of land to water."

"You do. Earth is almost seventy percent covered by water where Nordakia is only sixty percent covered."

"Come sit with us and tell us about yourself."

Jenetta followed the queen to a small alcove where a tea service waited on a table between two chairs. Although Jenetta preferred a good cup of Columbian, the strong, nutty flavored tea that the Nordakians enjoyed had begun to grow on her. As they walked, Jenetta had a chance to observe the Queen from behind, and saw that, as expected, her glistening ebony hair dragged ever so slightly on the floor, and her gown was even more restrictive than Jenetta's. The tiny steps gave her a regal look as she walked with her head perfectly erect and her back ramrod straight. Jenetta estimated her age to be about seventy, but she appeared the picture of health and fitness. Jenetta waited until the Queen had taken her seat and then sat also.

"You're quite lovely, my dear. Our son is quite taken with you."

"Thank you, your majesty. Prince Chazurz is a credit to the Royal Family."

"Yes, he is. And we have you to thank for saving his life."

"I was only one of many aboard the Vordoth."

"Yes, but you were the captain. It was your decision to rush to the aid of the convoy."

"I'm glad that we were able to help. May I ask a question of your majesty?"

"Of course, my dear."

"Am I being honored for helping Obotymot, or saving the prince?"

The Queen was quiet for a few seconds as she poured the tea. "The two are not mutually exclusive," she finally said as she set the teapot down. "You actually performed several great services for Nordakia. You saved many lives aboard the three freighters, and many thousands of lives on Obotymot. We are naturally very grateful that our son was among them. The medal is being awarded for that service. You are as deserving of the Tawroole as anyone who has ever received it, if not more."

Jenetta nodded. "Thank you, your majesty."

"You're most welcome. You also have, almost single-handedly, curtailed the Raider threat in this part of the galaxy. Your title as Azula, and the lands that accompany it, are a reward for your outstanding bravery and the difference you have made in the lives of our citizens by eliminating the Raider scourge.

"The status of Lord or Lady of the Royal House is bestowed upon nobles who have performed an outstanding service to the crown. The honorific is a small compensation for saving our son. You are aware that Prince Chazurz maintains a separate identity, so the specific reason for conferring the honor will not be publicly explained.

"Your command of Dakis is excellent, by the way. There's a scholarly inflection when you speak. Are you ready to become a citizen of our planet?"

"Yes, your majesty. I hope that I can live up to your expectations."

"You already have. We can't tell you how delighted we are to have you become an officer in the Nordakian Space Force. It's taken us years to see women gain any sort of acceptance and respect there."

"You want women to be in the military?"

"Oh, yes; it's long overdue. It finally became a reality when Nordakia became a member of the Galactic Alliance. And owing mainly to your actions, the King and our military leaders have at last acknowledged that women can make a significant contribution to the service, although the only women in the service are very junior officers at this time."

"I expected you to be opposed to the concept."

The queen appeared shocked. "Why ever did you think that we'd be opposed?"

"I suppose because of the hair and clothing requirements at the palace and on the planet. Long hair and tight clothing don't allow women very much freedom. No female military officer is ever going to distinguish herself, or accomplish anything significant, if she keeps tripping over her hair and can't move freely because her uniform doesn't even allow her to walk easily, much less fight. I wouldn't be here now if I had to wear a tight skirt as a Space Command officer. I mean that quite literally."

"We're as opposed to the hair length and restrictive clothing as you."

"Please forgive me if my question appears impertinent, but if that's true, then why haven't you done something about it?"

The queen smiled gently. "We're as much a victim as every other woman on the planet. Hair and clothing requirements are very clearly spelled out in the Almuth. You've been studying our sacred text, so you know what we're up against."

"Yes, but can't it be changed? The colonists on Obotymot don't follow the dictates as it pertains to hair length and dress."

"Obotymot is a very long way from here, my dear. It might help you to understand that the church was very much opposed to our establishing a colony on another planet. They fought it for years, but the fact remains that our survival may one day depend upon the food and raw materials that our colonists can produce. We are not immune to a meteor strike ourselves, or other global catastrophe. So the king and his advisors pushed ahead in spite of the objections. The church then decided to boycott the effort, believing that it would fail without their blessing. Our spiritual leaders were most upset when the colony flourished, but they had backed themselves into a corner and felt that they couldn't soften their position.

"After the planet was struck by the meteor, priests went to the planet and told the colonists it was the price they paid for not strictly following the Almuth, but the colonists weren't ready to give up the simple freedoms they had come to enjoy. They rejected and ignored the religious orthodoxy of the priests sent there to bring them back into line. It seems to us that our colony may one day eclipse us here on the home world, but as the Queen of Nordakia, we have a duty to set an example for the faithful on this planet."

"I'm not advocating sweeping changes, your majesty," Jenetta said. "I'm only suggesting that the passages dictating hair length and clothing be changed because they keep women in virtual bondage."

"The Almuth is millennia old, my dear. So old that no one knows for sure when it was written. Its exact origins have become inexplicably obscured through the ages. But if we allow one passage to be changed, where will the changes end? I'm working to change our system without changing the Almuth. It's possible; it just takes longer. Our laws are based on interpretations of the Almuth, and a new interpretation of a passage that defines a woman's service to the community has permitted women in the military to shorten their hair by as much as a third of the length normally required of them. The same interpretation has been used to shorten their skirt lengths and allow more freedom to move. We're still a very long way from Space Command standards, but it's been a giant leap forward for us."

"I'm happy to hear that. Can't the same interpretation be used in the palace?"

"Unfortunately not. Our advisers have warned that it would be stretching things too far, too fast. Perhaps once the uniform change becomes widely accepted by our people, we can make more such advances. It just takes time."

Jenetta spent another hour with the Queen discussing life on Nordakia and the extensive changes the Queen was working towards implementing. She left the Queen's chamber feeling infinitely better about her approaching citizenship ceremony and the future of women's rights on the planet. The advances that had taken place during the reign of the current ruling family, was in no small part owed to the intelligence and diplomatic skill of Queen Ckuhah.

Chapter Seven

~ November 11th, 2269 ~

In a ceremony covered by every major news service in Galactic Alliance territory, and carried live on every vid channel on Nordakia, Jenetta became a citizen of Nordakia. She was not the first Terran to become a citizen of Nordakia, but there were only a handful on the planet, and she was the first Space Command officer to take the citizenship oath.

The day after becoming a citizen, six Nordakian Space Force officer uniforms were delivered to her suite in the palace. Following her morning bath, Jenetta's three handmaidens dressed her in one of the new uniforms. The same palace dressmakers that had made all the gowns must have made the uniforms as well, and Jenetta was required to wear a corset to squeeze into the skirt and button the formfitting jacket. The hem of the skirt was higher than the gowns that Jenetta had been wearing, but it still extended to the middle of her calves. While it allowed a bit more freedom of movement, it was a distant cry from the mobility that Jenetta enjoyed in her Space Command uniform. She still had to take two steps to equal her normal walking stride, and instead of the soft, flat-soled ankle high boots issued by Space Command, the Nordakian uniforms included knee-high, black leather boots with thirteen-centimeter heels; not that Jenetta was expecting shorter heels since they would have required her to cut her hair. Although the Queen had told Jenetta that female military officers could wear their hair shorter, Jenetta left it long for now, out of respect to the Royal Family and because her role as Azula required it to be an acceptable length while she was on the planet.

An honor guard arrived at Jenetta's suite after breakfast to escort her to the ceremony, which was to be held in the palace gardens. The guests and the press had already arrived and been seated, and the King arrived in the company of the senior admirals a few minutes after Jenetta. Lasting almost an hour, because a few admirals got a bit carried away with their speeches, the ceremony concluded with Jenetta being commissioned into the Nordakian Space Force with the rank of captain. No one could have been more surprised than she. Expecting to be commissioned as an ensign, or at the most, a lieutenant (jg), she certainly didn't expect a rank higher than that of her Space Command appointment. The commission explained why the Prince had continued to call her Captain Carver.

Following the ceremony, Jenetta returned to her suite. Her handmaidens brushed her hair and generally fussed over her appearance as she waited to be notified that the shuttle had arrived for her tour of Nordakia's largest Space Force base. When the call came, Vronnesa quickly tied her hair back with ribbons. Because of security restrictions, the young women couldn't accompany her on the tour.

At the Nordakian Space Force base, Jenetta had lunch with several admirals and half a dozen captains. She felt they were testing her knowledge to see for themselves if she deserved their regard. Where they'd addressed her as My Lady at the start of the meal, they were calling her Captain Carver by the time the meal was over, and she decided that the subtle change in title meant she had passed their tests and was deserving of the respect owed her Nordakian Space Force rank.

Jenetta's tour of the base continued after lunch, including areas posted as top-secret and requiring retinal scans for entrance. Jenetta had a chance to observe planetary security monitoring systems and view new weapons testing.

Jenetta spent the next few days touring other military installations and trying to decide if the purpose was for her to see, or be seen. Since her uniforms offered a little more freedom than the gowns, she wore them at every opportunity, to the complete dismay of the handmaidens who kept laying out gowns for her in the mornings.

* * *

Chairman Arthur Strauss nodded his approval following a presentation by Councilwoman Erika Overgaard, then shifted his body slightly in the 'oh-gee' executive chair to get more comfortable. Since the demise of his predecessor, Chairman Andrei Gagarin, he had occupied the seat at the head of the orotund table.

The meeting hall, located in the sheltered complex of a legitimate industrial conglomerate, was sheathed in the best sound-deadening building materials and employed the most advanced electronic jamming equipment available. Eavesdropping on conversations, celebrations, or tirades in the Raider hall was impossible with current technology. The spacious elliptical chamber, with its smooth, unadorned walls, was as secure as the headquarters of any nation's intelligence service. As members of the powerful Lower Council, these people spent their days planning and coordinating nefarious activities and deeds that would be perpetrated throughout the known galaxy.

"You told me earlier that you had an important matter to present to the Council today, Ahil?" Strauss queried as he looked towards Councilman Ahil Fazid.

"Yes, Arthur," Fazid replied. Of medium build and height, Fazid's appearance was mostly nondescript, except for a nose with a prominent aquiline bridge. A naturally dark complexion meant that he never had to waste time lying in tanning beds. "My chief agent on Mawcett has learned of a startling discovery by one of the archeological teams on the planet. They've found ancient equipment capable of cloning!" Fazid's excitement was obvious, but none of the other council members could muster much enthusiasm.

"Cloning?" Strauss said. "That's what has you so excited? Who needs clones?"

"Think of the possibilities," Fazid said. "Shutting down our pirate operations in this part of the galaxy has had an enormous impact on our slavery operations. If we could acquire cloning equipment, we could make our own people; people that no one would ever miss. We could clone slaves that have proven to be compliant and hardworking."

"Their collars keep them compliant and hard-working," Strauss said dismissively. "I'm not ready to initiate a decade long project to grow people that we'll have to feed and clothe for a dozen years before they become even marginally useful. Our slavery operation had been so profitable because we collected the slaves as a byproduct of our other operations."

"But we won't have to feed them for a dozen years. The clones are fully mature in a few months," Fazid said.

"A few months?" Strauss echoed.

"I'm not sure exactly how long because our agent hasn't been able to nail that point down, but the equipment was only discovered in June and there are already eleven fully mature clones on the planet."

"The clones might have other uses as well," Overgaard suggested.

"Yes," Strauss agreed, immediately grasping her unelaborated insight. "Very good, Ahil. This could be just what we need right now. How can we get possession of the equipment?"

"We still have much to learn. For example, I don't know how large it is or what powers it. And we don't know what— ingredients— are required to make people."

"We'll figure that out once we have it," Strauss said. "We own some of the best scientific minds in the galaxy."

"I'm sure that the Mawcett Archeological Expedition simply won't sell it to us, so we'll have to— appropriate it."

"That's going to present a problem. As you know, when the damn Spaccs wiped out our armada at Higgins, the Upper Council declared a moratorium on most pirate activities in GA space. The preponderance of our warships have been sent to bases in the Frontier Zone or outside GA space, where the Spaccs never venture. All base commanders have orders never to attack any vessel more than one hundred light years inside the GA's Frontier border."

"How about farming out the job?" Fazid asked. "There were a couple of merc groups at Raider Four a few months ago."

Strauss deliberated for a few seconds before replying. "Okay, see if someone is available."


"And Ahil, if we do manage to get our hands on the equipment, make sure that our representatives clean up after themselves."



"Right, Arthur. SOP. All healthy bodies under sixty will be collected as slaves; all others will be terminated and their bodies discretely disposed of. There will be no evidence left to point to our being involved."

"Very good, Ahil. See to it."

* * *

The day of the medal ceremony finally arrived and Jenetta eagerly looked forward to getting back home to the Prometheus. She naturally wore a Nordakian uniform to the ceremony, affixing her Space Command medals and the ribbons that revealed her participation in two major space campaigns. She had been well schooled in the required, hours-long ritual and performed her role to perfection. At the obelisk monument where the ceremony took place, the name of every Nordakian ever awarded the medal was read, followed by a brief statement by various Nordakian Space Force officers describing when and why each medal had been awarded. Newly cut into the marble facing on the monument, 'Jenetta Alicia Carver, Captain' was the last name to be read. The Prime Minister himself stood to read the account of her service to the planet.

"Captain Jenetta Alicia Carver ordered her lightly armed ship into a raging battle against overwhelming odds to save three freighters on an errand of mercy to Obotymot. The three destroyers acting as escort had been destroyed before her ship arrived. Her small ship, although significantly outgunned, destroyed a Raider medium cruiser and dozens of fighter craft by acting with speed and daring. Following the fight, Captain Carver ordered her ship to remain in hostile space to protect the three freighters for an entire month while necessary repairs were completed. During that time, she personally undertook a clandestine operation to penetrate a Raider base. Although captured early in the mission, she managed to escape captivity and rescue all other captives held prisoner by the Raiders, then singlehandedly destroyed the Raider base during the escape. The destruction of the base, along with the destruction of dozens of Raider warships and over eighteen thousand Raider personnel, has since that time resulted in an almost complete cessation of Raider attacks on passenger and freight operations in this part of space. The Nordakian people are pleased to bestow this small token of our gratitude on one of our greatest military officers."

The Prime Minister placed the wide medal ribbon over Jenetta's head as she bowed slightly, then all the officers on the podium saluted her. She returned their salute, turned and walked back to her place on the stage while a few more speeches were read. Glancing at the marble monument where her name had been inscribed, she felt that her Anglo name looked strangely out of place among the others. Although it had been written using the culture's alphabet, the different grammatical application of vowels and consonants made it obvious that it was not of Nordakian origin.

Most Tawroole medals had been awarded posthumously, and the only other two living recipients of the medal attended the ceremony. Neither was able to get there under his own power, both being confined to wheelchairs. One appeared so ancient that it seemed unlikely he'd be around for the next medal ceremony, and the other had been horribly disfigured. Jenetta determined to read the complete account of their actions at her first opportunity.

The delegation from the Galactic Alliance Council participated in the event as honored guests. Their speeches, on the heels of speeches by Nordakian politicians, substantially increased the time normally taken for the ceremony. Both Captain Gavin and Captain Kanes attended the ceremony, but Commander LaSalle didn't make an appearance. Jenetta wondered if she had decided not to attend after being told what she must wear. The two female GAC delegates were suitably dressed for Nordakia. They wore huge headdresses to hide their shorter hair, but were allowed to wear gowns with wide skirts since they had no Nordakian nobility status to uphold.

Jenetta's last scheduled activity on Nordakia was a royal dinner in her honor at the palace. Her handmaidens had saved what they considered to be the most beautiful gown for the very special occasion and seemed to take special delight in preparing Jenetta, probably because she had previously insisted on wearing her new uniforms so often. She thought they would wear out her new hair with their brushes and combs, and when it came time for her to leave for the banquet, not a single hair was out of place. The Queen had sent what looked to Jenetta to be about a million credits worth of jewelry for her to wear, and Znanna took great pleasure in decorating Jenetta with every last piece. Vronnesa had gathered some tiny fresh flowers from the garden and woven them into her hair as she was prepared. Jenetta wished that her mother were here to see her now because she might never believe it if she didn't see it with her own eyes. She had tried, unsuccessfully, to get Jenetta into dresses for years, and had constantly been after her to let her hair grow out to at least shoulder length. Jenetta hoped that some of the pictures made it back to Earth because she expected it would be a long time before she again allowed herself to be maneuvered into wearing clothes like the ones she had been virtually coerced into wearing for the past month.

As the guest of honor, Jenetta would be seated at the table with the King and Queen, but before dinner, she was escorted to a room where most of the Royal Family, the Galactic Alliance delegation, and Captains Gavin and Kanes were waiting. Over the next hour, what seemed like hundreds of pictures were taken by a group of photographers. The pictures would be released as the official record of the event, and Jenetta was assured that she'd be able to get some copies of the better images to send to her mom.

As Jenetta and the others returned to the dining room, dinner was served. A small orchestra entertained the guests during the meal and afterwards, but few people danced because the clothes permitted on Nordakia just didn't lend themselves to moving around a dance floor. It might have been possible with the very slowest of Nordakian waltzes, but certainly not with triple time waltzes popular with Terrans.

As Jenetta stood talking with several ministers following dinner, a servant surreptitiously slipped her a note. Written in Amer, the unsigned note asked that she return to where the pictures had been taken. She excused herself and left the party. Upon entering the room, she immediately spotted Prince Chazurz, standing in his freighter captain uniform. She stopped, bowed her head and put her hand to her chest.

"Come in, Captain. And please raise your head. I'm just Captain Phuth Yuixotical again."

"I was hoping that I'd have another chance to see you before I left, your highness."

"As did I. I couldn't attend most of the ceremonies. I hope that you understand."

"I do. The number of newsies and vidcams was phenomenal."

 "Exactly. When you see me outside the palace, I hope that you'll remember not to bow your head. Freighter captains don't rate such expressions of respect."

"I'll remember, Captain."

"I'm sure that you're as anxious to get back to your ship as I am to be aboard mine. I just wanted to stay around long enough to attend the ceremony today."

"I didn't think you were there."

"I didn't sit with the family. I was just one of the myriad faces in the civilian audience, and I didn't expect you to spot me. I enjoy the anonymity that I can experience in large crowds."

"There's a wonderful story from ancient Earth titled 'The Prince and the Pauper.' Written by an author named Mark Twain, it's the story of two identical, but non-related, boys. One, a prince, dreams of playing with the commoner children, while the other, a commoner, dreams of being a prince. They both get a chance to find out how the other lives."

"It sounds like something I should like to read."

"If you can't find a copy in the Nordakian archives, let me know. I'll transmit a copy to you."

"Thank you, Captain."

"My pleasure, Captain."

"You'd better be getting back to the party now. It wouldn't do for the guest of honor to disappear for too long. Rumors have fleet feet in a palace."

"Yes, but I'm glad that you came to say goodbye."

"Not goodbye, just kwetta-shambulaah." (Til we meet again.)

"Kwetta-shambulaah." Jenetta smiled, bowed her head, and then turned and walked back to the party.

The party lasted until well past the Nordakian midnight and Jenetta was delighted when she was at last permitted to return to her rooms after saying goodbye to all the guests and thanking the Royal Family for the honors and generosities extended to her during the past month.

The queen asked one final favor and Jenetta didn't see how she could refuse. The request was that Jenetta attend a dinner party to be given in her honor at Higgins Space Command Base. The Nordakian Ambassador, who also happened to be the Queen's cousin, normally felt rather isolated at the space station and had pleaded with her for the favor. Agreeing meant that Jenetta wouldn't be able to trim her hair until after the event, which was to be held in the Nordakian consulate once the Prometheus returned to its home port. Since the consulate was officially Nordakian property, it was subject to all the protocol requirements of the Almuth. With veiled disappointment at having to live with the long hair for several more months, she agreed to attend the function at Higgins as a favor to the Queen.

When Jenetta relayed information regarding the request to Captain Gavin, he immediately granted Jenetta an exemption from Space Command's hair length requirements. She had expected his approval, since Space Command had been so anxious to accommodate the Nordakians in all other matters.

The Galactic Alliance delegation would be returning directly to Earth, relieving the Prometheus officers of the further duty of entertaining them for several more months. A Space Command destroyer would arrive within two days to bring them directly back to Earth.

Jenetta had her last 'assisted' bath in the morning. She would never dare admit it to anyone, but it had been sort of nice being pampered by the three handmaidens during the past month. As with having a steward aboard the Song, once she'd became accustomed to their attentions, it made life easier. Of course, she hadn't permitted Woodrow to assist her in dressing, much less during her lavations.

Once dried and powdered, the handmaidens dressed Jenetta in one of the Nordakian uniforms, her new medal pinned conspicuously over her left breast, for her return to the Prometheus. Her handmaidens combed and brushed her hair until it glistened and then served her a light breakfast. She had just finished eating when a palace page arrived to inform her that the shuttle from the Prometheus was on the Palace Shuttle Pad, and was ready whenever she was. Jenetta took some time to thank the three girls that been both her servants and companions for the past month. All three expressed sadness at her departure and hopes that she would return soon.

Jenetta smiled, nodded, and said, "Kwetta-shambulaah."

As the shuttle door opened inside the Prometheus' flight bay, and Jenetta stepped down to the deck with the assistance of the shuttle pilot, she knew that she was home again. Even the odorless and recycled air of the flight bay was wonderfully welcome. The ensign on duty in the control booth just stared, open mouthed, at Jenetta in her Nordakian captain's uniform as she exited the small ship. The sexy image of her in the ultra tight skirt, with her corseted waist and high-heeled boots, contrasted sharply with the more androgynous appearance of other women on the ship. She tried to get to her quarters as quickly as possible in order to change her uniform, but she was stopped by friends a dozen times on her way there. She began to think that she should have come during third watch when most everyone was asleep.

Finally making it into her quarters, she didn't waste any time stripping off her Nordakian attire. But upon opening her closet to retrieve a Space Command uniform, she was shocked to find the entire wardrobe of gowns from the planet, and the other five Nordakian Space Force uniforms. All the shoes, uniform boots, underwear and accessories had been sent up as well. She had thought that she was leaving everything behind, but realized now that when she had dressed that morning, the one uniform must have been the only thing left in the closet.

Her stay at the palace had been— interesting. The agonizing constriction of the clothing, and the barely tolerable footwear, combined with the restriction of movement, had been somewhat evocative of her month in the Raider detention center. She hadn't been starved at the palace, but because the corset restricted her intake at each meal, she'd found herself snacking on fruit at every opportunity.

As she hung up the formfitting Nordakian Space Force uniform and donned her comfortable Space Command uniform, she took a deep full breath and thought once again how good it was to be home. Now, if only she could cut her hair...

The Prometheus left orbit for Higgins at 1600, but Jenetta was completely unaware of the departure, having gone to bed in order to be rested when she reported for third watch duty at midnight. She had taken some good-natured ribbing from her friends during lunch. Some complained about finding six-foot long strands of hair in their soup, while others joked about pockmarks in the soft deck matting from Jenetta's stiletto-heeled boots. Neither was true of course.

When Jenetta reported for her duty watch, Commander LaSalle said obstreperously, "Commander, I expect that mop to be regulation length by the time your watch begins tomorrow evening."

"I'm sorry, Commander. The Queen of Nordakia has requested that I attend a state dinner at the consulate on Higgins Space Station. I must leave my hair long until then, as much as I'd personally prefer to have it cut back to its former length. The Captain has extended a special exemption from the hair length regulation in order to comply with the wishes of the Nordakian Royal Family."

Commander LaSalle glared at her, trying to keep her temper in check. Finally she said, "At least do something with it so it's not flying around everywhere. You have the bridge, Commander."

"Aye, ma'am."

Jenetta climbed into the command chair as Commander LaSalle left the bridge in a huff. She draped her mane over her left shoulder and grinned to herself enigmatically as she stroked it. LaSalle had been openly antagonistic since their second meeting, and if the Captain's exemption from the hair regulation irritated her, then Jenetta would permit herself to be privately amused by it.

* * *

Jenetta had no desire to disturb the Captain after he had retired for the night, but the receipt of a Priority-One message left her no choice. She sidestepped the usual procedure of going through his steward for after hours contact. Activating her CT, she said simply, "Captain Gavin. Priority-One." When the Captain's sleepy voice acknowledged her call, she said, "Sir, we have a Priority-One message for you from the Higgins Communications Officer."

"Put it through to my office com unit, Commander."

"Already there waiting for you, sir."

"Very good, Jen. Thank you. Gavin out."

"Carver out," she said, and then sat back in her chair.

Five minutes later the Captain called Jenetta, and after the completion of that call, she immediately ordered the astrogator to plot the shortest course to Mawcett. She then ordered the helmsman to lay in the course as soon as it was computed and proceed there at top speed.

The Captain hadn't explained the reason for the sudden course change, and, as captain, he wasn't required to. During her watch, Jenetta made sure they continued to Mawcett at the ship's top speed of Light-412. She knew that the Captain wouldn't have ordered the ship to exceed Light-375 without excellent reason.

Chapter Eight

~ January 12th, 2270 ~

Traveling at Light-412, the Prometheus reached Mawcett just twenty-six days after receiving the message to redirect. Upon their arrival at the planet, and determining that there was no extra-world threat, they immediately assumed a standard orbit. Using ship's sensors, the entire planet was scanned for dangerous situations, but other than a couple of particularly nasty storms at the poles, nothing unusual was detected. Lastly, the ship's optical capability was used to closely examine a region identified by the Captain. But again, no signs of danger, conflict, or unusual behavior were detected. Taking less than two hours to complete the investigation after entering orbit, the next step was to send an investigative team down to the planet.

Gavin selected Jenetta to accompany him to the surface to assess the situation, leaving Commander LaSalle in command of the ship. Two Marine Assault Transports were readied to convey a company of Marines to support the landing party.

A mere twelve minutes after leaving the Prometheus, both MAT pilots touched their ships down, seconds apart, at the coordinates provided by Gavin. The descent was so rapid that one might have thought Jenetta was piloting, her love of speed a matter of court record since her court martial. During cross examination she had mentioned her early morning maglev sled rides through the Vordoth's six-kilometer long spine at maximum speed. But in this case the rapid descent was Marine SOP when dropping into a potentially hot LZ.

The planet was rated Earth class, meaning that it had a roughly 80/20 nitrogen/oxygen atmosphere with less than five percent of non-toxic trace gases, a mean temperature between 5 and 25 degrees Celsius, a mass between point .7 and 1.3 that of Earth, and a radius not less than .8 nor more than 1.2 that of Earth. For this reason, the hatchway doors were flung open and marines began leaping to the ground even before the two small ships had begun to settle onto their landing struts. Thirty-one Marines, with weapons at the ready, immediately secured the landing zone, much to the complete astonishment of civilians gathered a short distance away.

The shuttle from the Prometheus touched down seconds later. Gavin was the first to step down, quickly followed by Jenetta, who took up position on his right side. A laser pistol hung from her right hand, her finger resting on the trigger guard.

When the Marine captain signaled that no weapons were in evidence, and there didn't appear to be any imminent threat, Jenetta holstered her pistol and relaxed slightly. The Marine officer, Marine Captain Jefferson Greene fell in on the Captain's other side, his sidearm un-holstered, but pointing downward.

One of the civilians, his eyes flicking frequently to Greene's un-holstered weapon, took a step forward as the trio reached them, and said, "Welcome, Captain Gavin. Space Command sent word that you were on your way. I'm Doctor Edward Peterson, the senior member at this dig site."

"Doctor Peterson, you declared a stage-one emergency here, but we haven't detected any sign of danger; neither here nor anywhere else on the planet."

"Yes. I apologize if my message was misinterpreted, Captain. I couldn't explain the problem in detail because we feared it might be intercepted by the wrong parties. There is a major problem, but no immediate, life-threatening danger. If you'll come with me, I'll explain. But first, allow me to introduce my associates." Turning, and pointing to each as he introduced them, he said, "This is Doctor Anthony Ramilo, Doctor Barbara Huften, and Doctor Dakshiku Vlashsku. In the back row are our assistants, Bruce Priestly, Harold Deeds, Lynn Steen, Glawth Djetch, Maria Tomallo, Lisa Cheney, and Edmund Hill."

Gavin nodded. "Hello, ladies and gentlemen. I'm pleased that you all appear to be well. This is my second officer, Lt. Commander Jenetta Carver, and Marine…"

As soon as Jenetta's name was mentioned Doctor Vlashsku and his assistant Glawth Djetch gasped loudly, and immediately dropped to one knee. They bowed their heads, and pressed their closed right hands against their chests while their skin began to flash wildly in shades of blue, green, and light yellows.

Gavin, whose time at the Nordakian palace had been limited, was unaccustomed to such reactions, but he recovered quickly and continued, "Marine Captain Jefferson Greene." When neither Doctor Vlashsku nor Glawth Djetch looked up, or even moved, Gavin looked to Jenetta and nodded.

Jenetta took a step forward and addressed the two Nordakian archeologists in Dakis. "Gentlemen, please stand up and raise your heads."

"Please forgive us for not recognizing you immediately, Captain Carver," Doctor Vlashsku said once they had risen. "Because of your uniform, and because your hair is so short, we didn't immediately realize your identity."

"There's no need to apologize, gentlemen. Very long hair hinders a military person's performance. I haven't cut it, but it's wrapped very tightly into a roll at the back of my head." She turned her head to the side momentarily so the chignon was visible. Selecting her words carefully so as not to offend the Nordakians, she added, "The uniform I'm wearing is standard issue for Space Command officers. I'm permanently attached to Space Command so my Nordakian uniform is only to be used for special occasions."

"We understand, My Lady. Is there anything we may do to serve you?"

"Not presently, thank you."

Both men pressed their closed right hands against their chest and bowed their heads briefly as their flashing began to slow. Jenetta smiled and acknowledged the salute with her open hand, then looked towards Gavin who was looking at Jenetta with one raised eyebrow and a wrinkled brow.

Turning back towards Doctor Peterson, Gavin said, "You were going to explain your distress call?"

"Uh, yes––," Doctor Peterson replied, still obviously distracted by the little drama that had played out in front of him. He had traveled extensively during his lifetime, and seen much, so he was seldom as surprised as he was now. He didn't speak Dakis, and wasn't carrying a translation device so why two of his dig site team members should drop to their knees in apparent reverence to a Terran Space Command officer was unfathomable. He knew she was Terran because, with her hair pulled tightly back, her ears were clearly visible. "Uh, please follow me."

With Doctor Peterson leading, and the three military officers close behind, the entire group moved towards the entrance of the underground chamber. The two Nordakians practically knocked Edmund Hill over as they rushed past him so they could walk directly behind Jenetta while Doctor Peterson gave a short commentary about their dig site discoveries and led the way to the tunnel. The walls, ceiling, and floor of the passageway had been scrubbed clean of all dirt. No national monument on Earth ever presented a more pristine appearance. As Doctor Peterson escorted the group into the circular chamber, he turned to face them, so as to gauge their reactions.

Captain Gavin, Jenetta, and Marine Captain Greene let their eyes take in the equipment lining the walls of the room. Illuminated indicator gauges measured unseen activity, and small lights winked incessantly.

"What have you built here, Doctor?" Gavin asked.

"Nothing, Captain. We found this just as you see it. Well, not exactly as you see it. When we first arrived the machinery was all inactive."

"You mean that this facility was already in place? In this condition? I was informed that the planet's civilization has been extinct for almost twenty thousand years?"

"That's the MAE assessment. We were as astounded as you are by this find. This room has somehow survived for thousands of years without any visible signs of decay. The metal door protecting this complex is some kind of unknown alloy."

"I see. Very interesting, Doctor. I'm sure that scientific and archeological minds will be suitably impressed, but it hardly justifies a stage-one emergency distress call."

"No, by itself it doesn't. Our problem is— um— we can't turn the equipment off."

Gavin looked around the room again. "It should be fairly simple. Just disconnect the power source you're using."

"That's part of the mystery. We're not using any power source."

Gavin looked at Dr. Peterson for a couple of seconds, then looked around the room once again. "You're saying that it's using a twenty-thousand-year-old source of power?"


"How did you activate it?"

"We don't know. It was an accident. We're not sure how it was started or who is responsible."

"I see. Well, I'm sure that Space Command can send a team of scientists to solve your problem. Again, it hardly justifies an emergency distress call of the level that you placed."

"The power isn't the problem. Well, it is but it isn't."

"Doctor, I think it's about time you laid your cards on the table."


"Just tell us what prompted the distress call."

"Yes, I—  we—  that is, all of us— umm— this group, were in this room immediately following the discovery. There were three laborers present also, but we were in the center of the room when the power first came on. We were caught in some kind of a beam that— paralyzed us. We have no recollection of what happened next, but we were later informed that we remained unconscious for several hours after the wall receded."

"What wall?" Gavin asked, looking towards the ceiling.

"According to the three laborers that survived, a clear wall, rather like a solid acrylic substance, rose up here from the floor after we were paralyzed. You can see a faint, circular outline in the floor. The enclosed area then reportedly filled with an unknown gas. The laborers ran for assistance, but when help arrived, the wall was gone and the gas had dissipated."

"The three laborers that survived? How many didn't?"

"One was crushed to death against the ceiling because the wall carried him up when it rose."

Gavin looked up at the ceiling again, then around at each of the scientists before saying, "An unfortunate incident, but you all appear to be healthy. Do you need medical assistance?"

"No, that's not the problem."

Gavin, tired of probing for the simple answers he needed, just stared at Doctor Peterson with a withering look, perfected over twenty-five years. Aboard ship, it was guaranteed to intimidate subordinates and turn them into quivering jellyfish without his having to say another word.

"Okay," Peterson said, "the problem is that we've been cloned."

Gavin continued to stare at him in silence.

"A number of times," the doctor added.

"Cloned? You're telling me that this equipment makes human beings?"

"Not just humans, it also makes Nordakians."

Gavin was quiet for a minute as he thought. "So you have a maternity ward around here somewhere, filled with infants this machine has created?"

"No, not infants, full size replicas of the original; all with the complete knowledge and memories of the subject. Doctor Huften theorizes that the clones begin as a single celled organism, perhaps created from vacuumed skin cells when the gas is sucked out. Then, with the introduction of an accelerated growth protein, the clone develops to full-size within an artificial womb. We don't know how the knowledge of the subject is imparted to the clone, but it's a hundred percent complete. And every six and two-thirds days now, a new batch hatches."


"Well, whatever you wish to call it. Those eleven doors over there, the ones with the blinking lights," the doctor said, pointing to them, "open, and fully developed beings step out. A work supervisor, arriving here early one morning, found the first group. He initially thought it was us. And since the group was totally naked, he discreetly slipped back out. But he mentioned it to a couple of co-workers. It didn't take long for the word to get around the camp that we must be having a sex orgy down here, but workers who had just finished eating breakfast knew that we were all still above ground. The labor supervisor informed us of the situation and we rushed down here. That's when we found the first batch of clones. They were trying to reason out their situation."

"That must have been an interesting meeting," Gavin said, the hint of a grin on his face.

Doctor Peterson grimaced but otherwise ignored the comment and continued. "Each of the clones thought they were the original, and that it was some sort of elaborate hoax. It took a lot of talking to get them to accept the truth."

"And where are all these 'new' people?" the Captain asked.

"To avoid confusion, we decided to establish satellite dig sites for each group, where they could continue to work until we resolve the problems associated with their creation. The nearest is about five kilometers from here."

 "I'd like to see them."

"They can't offer you any more information than I've already told you."

"That may be, but I'd like to meet them anyway. Can you gather them at one location?"

"Yes, Captain."

"How many are there?"

"The first group took four months to gestate, as the equipment slowly came on-line. I suppose it's inactivity for so long caused the delay and it had to clean or prepare itself somehow, like a food synthesizer, but now we've had four groups emerge, the last being hatched this morning. Although the time between the first and second groups was almost two and a half months, the development time since then has been just six and two-third days. I imagine the equipment has completed all its maintenance cycles and is running at top speed now. There are forty-four duplicates so far."

"Okay, please send word for them to gather," Gavin said. Then turning to Jenetta and taking her aside, he said quietly, "Take over here, Jen, while I go to see these new people. You understand that this equipment violates Galactic Alliance laws against cloning and must be confiscated. These scientists are not going to be happy. Set up a camp, get whatever people you'll need to enforce the seizure, and shut this thing down."

"Yes sir."

"Carry on."

Gavin turned and walked from the rotunda, with Marine Captain Green and the archeologists following. Since CT's wouldn't function this far away from the ship on their own, Jenetta was wearing a small repeater with an independent power source on her belt. She spoke to the security officer on duty aboard the Prometheus, ordering him to send down another company of Marines, and sufficient food, equipment, and supplies to secure the area and set up a complete base of operations. Then she called the medical center and arranged for several doctors and a complete mobile hospital unit and staff personnel.

Her last call was to engineering. When she reached the chief engineer, Lt. Commander Cameron, she said, "Bill, it's Jen. We need you on the surface. I'd like you to bring three, model thirty-ten portable shelters, a crew to erect them, and a dozen of your best people."

"What specialties?"

"Power systems initially. You'll be able to shift people around as things progress."

"Okay, Commander. We're on our way."

"Carver, out."

Over the next two hours the Prometheus' shuttles, MAT's, and tugs made repeated trips to the surface as they delivered the requested personnel and equipment. The marines arrived first, and with the four squads already on the surface, they began setting up a defensible perimeter. A number of the dig site workers objected to having their shelters moved, but the Marines assisted them, only using the force absolutely necessary to accomplish their task, in relocating to a newly cleared area one-half kilometer away. When the camp was secured, it encompassed an area one-hundred-meters from the tunnel entrance in every direction. Proximity sensors were then placed around the perimeter, and robots excavated a meter and a half deep trench, with a one-third-meter raised berm, seventy meters out from the tunnel entrance. That allowed Marines to circle the entire compound without exposing themselves to fire. Two Marine guards were posted at the underground facility's entrance with orders that no one except Prometheus personnel were to be passed. Engineering crewmen quickly erected the three, thirty-meter by ten-meter structures, complete with prefabricated floors. Once anchored, the structures are able to withstand hurricane force winds of two-hundred kilometers an hour, not that such wind was expected on this part of the planet.

When the Captain and Doctor Peterson returned from visiting the clones, Doctor Peterson exploded with anger. He stomped into the prefab shelter that Jenetta had selected for the command center and screamed, "What's the meaning of this? This is a scientific expedition, not an army camp. Your robots may have damaged valuable relics by digging in areas that we haven't touched yet. I demand that you remove these people and structures at once." Turning to Captain Gavin he said, "Captain, I hold you personally responsible for this officer's actions."

"I'm sorry, Doctor," Captain Gavin said calmly, "but Commander Carver has taken the proper action, and done exactly as I would have done, had I had been here. This is standard operating procedure when seizing illegal, non-transportable assets. The Marines and camp stay as they are until the cloning equipment is disabled and transported to a location to be determined by Space Command."

"You can't take that equipment. It's an archaeological treasure. It belongs to the galaxy. Its historical significance hasn't even begun to be determined."

"Space Command Supreme Headquarters will have to be the judge about its historical significance. My duty is clear, and that's to see that it's secured and sent to the nearest Space Command base, which happens to be Higgins at Vinnia. From that point it's someone else's responsibility."

"Exactly correct, Captain," someone said from the doorway.

Jenetta turned her head in time to see Captain Kanes enter the command shelter.

"I wasn't aware you'd come down to the planet, Captain Kanes," Gavin said.

"I hitched a ride on one of the shuttle runs. I've just been talking with the site laborers who were in the underground facility when the equipment was turned on."

"Did you learn who was responsible for starting the process?"

Kanes leaned comfortably against a wall of the shelter about three meters away and said, "They say they don't know. They deny that they did anything, and say they were just setting up portable light panels when the equipment suddenly came on by itself. They ran out and reported to their boss. When they returned, they found Doctor Peterson and the others unconscious on the floor."

Turning to face Jenetta, Gavin asked, "What have you determined so far, Commander?"

"I don't have any results to report yet, sir. I've been busy getting the camp established. I've instructed Commander Cameron to locate the source of the power, and he's trying to determine if it's solar, fusion, thermal, chemical, antimatter, or stored energy. At last report, they hadn't made much progress because the facility is heavily shielded and they haven't been able to gain access to most of the control panels. Topside, the site is secure and the medical staff is setting up a portable hospital unit in the shelter next to this one. I've asked Doctor Hong to have his staff give complete physicals to all eleven original members of the archeological team, and then start on the clones. I'm expecting science officer DiMarata on the next shuttle and we'll begin our examination of the equipment inside the facility as soon as she arrives. Marine sentries have been posted with orders to restrict underground access to military personnel only."

"Very good, Jen. I'm going to return to the ship and send an encrypted report to Space Command. You're in charge down here. This entire area is under martial law. Carry on, Commander."

"Aye, sir."

As Gavin turned and walked away, Doctor Peterson hurried after him, continuing his vociferous protests.

Kanes straightened up from where he had been leaning against the wall, and sauntered over to where Jenetta was standing. He grinned and said, "I guess that means I report to you."

Jenetta also grinned. "Of course not, sir. Captain Gavin was naturally only referring to other personnel from the Prometheus; certainly not to the Chief of Intelligence for this entire area of space."

"What do you make of all this, Commander?"

"It's mind-boggling, sir, to think that a society on this planet had this level of sophisticated technology twenty thousand years ago, and yet simply-- disappeared. If they were this advanced, they must have had space travel capability as well. Perhaps they simply left, and we haven't encountered them yet."

"Yes, but that's not what I mean. What do you think about cloning?"

"Personally, sir?"


"Personally, I'm appalled at the prospect. I can't imagine having duplicates of me running around. I mean, identical people with all of my memories, feelings, and values? It's shocking to think of the possible ramifications."

"I was thinking more about the possibilities."

Jenetta looked at the Intelligence officer intently. It was logical that he would immediately think of the applications possible if the technology was made available to SCI.

"Cloning has been strictly outlawed for more than two centuries, sir."

"I don't mean for general use. I mean just for special purposes. Imagine what it could mean for an operative being sent into highly-dangerous undercover situation. We could store his information, and then, only if something happened, make a duplicate. Operatives would no longer have to worry about their families being looked after, or about their children growing up without a parent. They'd be able to better concentrate on their mission."

"It sounds ideal, but it seems to me that the system would be open to abuse. What happens if an operative was away on a mission and something came up that's ideally suited to his or her specialized skills? Do you just cook up another duplicate and deploy them? What happens when their assignment is over? Do you imprison the clones— or simply dispose of them? And what happens if an operative was severely injured or disfigured, but not killed? Would you then kill the operative and replace them with a healthy clone version? And why should the option be limited to Intelligence agents? Why not to all Space Command personnel aboard warships? Why not to everyone who must travel in space for their work? Why not everyone? It seems a slippery slope, sir."

Kanes thought for a second. "Naturally, we'd have to work out a complete set of regulations for its use, but the use can be strictly controlled. It's imperative we dismantle this equipment without destroying it."

"Yes sir, we'll do our best."

As Kanes left the command center, Jenetta could practically hear the wheels turning in his mind as he considered new possible uses and abuses of the cloning technology.

Lieutenant DiMarata arrived shortly and Jenetta led the way down into the facility. Of the twenty-five chambers arranged around the room, eleven were sealed and operating, but the opaque doors covering the artificial wombs had so far kept the process a complete mystery. An examination of an unused chamber failed to produce any insight. The interior, a meter wide and a meter deep by two-hundred-sixty-centimeters high, was a matte black color, with several small valve openings in the sidewalls, and one large valve opening in the roof. A ten centimeter depression around the perimeter of the floor appeared to be a drain, but was presently closed.

In another part of the room, eleven of twenty-five illuminated control sub-panels were displaying a plethora of changing information. The women were able to match up the symbols and figure which sub-panel represented which chamber, but there was no simple indication of what the gauges might be measuring, so the abundant information was useless. After copying every symbol or string of symbols from the sub-panels into an interface module that had a direct link to the ship's computer, the computer responded that it could find no matches in its archives. Lieutenant DiMarata also uploaded all the symbols that were cut into the floor, taking care to avoid the area where the archeologists had been standing when the machine was activated.

Several hours of additional study provided no new insights and the two women had to admit defeat in interpreting the language. They saw no means of translating it unless they found a key, so Jenetta returned topside to the command center while Lieutenant DiMarata returned to the Prometheus, where she would continue to work on the translation problem in her lab. While they'd worked below, the engineering people had frequently stopped into the room to take measurements. Commander Cameron was involved in animated conversation with several of his people when Jenetta arrived at the topside command center. She waited until he was done before interrupting.

"Find our source of power yet, Bill?"

"Well, we're not a hundred percent sure. We very early ruled out wind power and normal fluidic power systems because energy collection devices would be fairly obvious. We've also ruled out solar because we haven't found any evidence of collection panels in the area. Fission and fusion are out because we haven't found the presence of radioactivity above and beyond normal solar levels, and we've ruled out antimatter because we're not picking up any release of gamma rays. That leaves either thermal, chemical, or stored energy as our prime candidates. I'm hoping that it's stored energy because I really want to see the power cell that stays charged for twenty thousand years, but I'm putting my money on thermal power. We know that this planet has a molten core, and although it's not quite as large as Earth's, and geotectonic plate movement is more subdued, it can provide more than enough energy to power a billion small facilities like this one. Our main problem is that so much of this facility is shielded. We've determined that it's about five times as large as the one room, assuming a single level, but we haven't been able to open the other doors, or even penetrate the walls. I'm afraid to use the force that I think would do the job because it might destroy the entire facility."

"So we have to stick with conventional tools with limited destructive force?"


"Okay, Bill. Keep at it."

"Will do. I'm sending half my team back up to the ship. I'll keep the rest down here to work with me. That's more than enough now that we've narrowed down the possibilities."

Jenetta nodded, moved over to the worktable that she'd claimed when the building was erected, and sat down to think about the translation problem. She didn't know exactly how long she had been sitting there when she suddenly realized that Doctor Vlashsku was standing in front of the table. He had adopted her skin color for the meeting. As she looked up he bowed his head and touched his closed right hand to his chest.

"Hello Doctor, can I help you?"

"I'm hoping that I can be of service to you, Captain Carver. I imagine that you're trying to decipher the symbols on the people duplicating equipment. I wanted to tell you that on the morning we first found the room, Doctor Ramilo mentioned that the symbols were like the ones found at site three."

"Really? Do they have a Rosetta Stone?"

"A Rosetta Stone, Captain?"

"Yes. Um, that's a term from Earth's history. Archeologists trying to decipher an ancient writing system known as Hieroglyphics were having little success; their interpretations being just guesswork. Then one day an ancient stone tablet was discovered that contained the same message in three forms, Egyptian Hieroglyphics, Egyptian Demotic, and Greek. With that one stone tablet, an entire 'dead' culture was revealed to the scientists of our world."

"I see. No, they don't have a translation stone available for the symbols, but I thought that having a larger sample might provide some clues as to their possible meanings."

"It can't hurt. Is it readily accessible?"

Producing a portable viewpad, Doctor Vlashsku said, "It's all contained in here."

"Thank you, Doctor," Jenetta said as she took the pad, connected it to her interface device, uploaded the file, and then handed the pad back. "It may prove very useful."

"I hope so, Captain."

"Doctor, who discovered the facility?"

"Doctor Peterson's assistant, Bruce Priestly, discovered the tunnel. I understand that he never informed Edward until they had completely cleared the passageway and reached the entrance door to the facility I suspect that he was still smarting from a premature announcement the previous day about a secret burial chamber after he discovered a large sewer pipe."

Jenetta managed to suppress the chuckle that attempted to break free as Dr. Vlashsku related the amusing anecdote. "And the door opened easily?"

"No, not at all. We spent the better part of an afternoon trying to open it, but it wouldn't budge. We finally wrapped things up for the day and went to dinner."

"With the door still sealed?"


"Who finally managed to open it?"

"I guess that I did."

"What tools did you use?"

"None. We'd already used everything available, including our plasma torches, and hadn't even marred the surface."

"Then how did you get the door open?"

"I screamed at it!" he said grinning.

"That's all you did?"

"Not exactly. I was excited and couldn't sleep so I got up and went back to look at the door. I examined every millimeter of the door and frame with an optical analyzer, but found not the slightest indication of a means to open the chamber. After several hours of working on the door I started yelling and cursing at it out of weariness and frustration. I don't even remember what I said. Then all of a sudden I heard a noise like a creak and the door slid back into the frame. I was immediately apprehensive and hurried to Doctor Peterson's tent to wake him up. He told me to get the others up while he dressed, and we entered the facility as a group; probably the first people to enter it in twenty thousand years."

"It must have been a mess."

"Not at all! It looked as if it had been cleaned an hour earlier before by an army of housekeeping bots. It was spotless."

"Spotless? After twenty thousand years?"

"I suppose that with the door closed, the facility must have been hermetically sealed. Either that or the facility's air filtration system kept the lab clean."

"It would seem so. Thank you, Doctor. You've been very helpful."

"It has been my great honor if I have assisted you in any way, Captain. My younger brother is an officer on the Klidestru, and he would have been lost to our family if you had not come to his rescue and destroyed the Raiders that had disabled his ship's engines."

"I'm pleased that I was able to help your brother and his shipmates."

"Thank you, Captain."

"You're welcome, Doctor. Good day."

Doctor Vlashsku bowed his head and pressed his closed hand against his chest before turning and leaving the shelter. Jenetta refocused on the problem at hand, giving special consideration to new thoughts about the facility's almost impenetrable door opening by vocal command. Given the obvious technology employed in the facility, it was certainly within the realm of possibility. But what phrase had opened it? And would the same phrase work on the other doors that they had so far been unable to open? It was a billion to one chance that they would happen across the same combination of words that would sound like the command to open the door in the language of the people that had once populated this planet.

The graphic images from dig site three were definitely the same language as that used in the facility. Jenetta recognized several symbols, or perhaps more accurately, letters, since it looked more like a written language rather than a symbolic one.

A few more hours of staring at the strange letters, without making any progress in deciphering them, left Jenetta in serious need of a break. She left the command shelter and wandered towards the areas where digging was proceeding. People were down on hands and knees or lying in the dirt using tiny brushes and precision picks. Jenetta watched as they delicately removed small objects that appeared to be made of plastic or metal, all the time acting as if it was the most valuable object in the world. 'Who knows,' Jenetta thought shrugging, 'maybe they are— in their world.'

As she meandered around the dig site, she saw Captain Kanes, presently engaged in conversation with several laborers. As Jenetta walked in his direction, Doctor Peterson spotted her and moved to intercept her.

"Excuse me, Miss. How soon can we get back inside the facility that we discovered?"

"I'm sorry, Doctor, but I have my orders. You'll be given access just as soon as we can remove the illegal equipment and transport it to the Prometheus. Until then, the facility is strictly off-limits."

"This is absurd. That equipment has valuable historical significance. Space Command can't just confiscate it."

"The equipment is illegal according to the laws of the Galactic Alliance. It's our duty to impound it. You'll have an opportunity to file a protest and attempt to have it returned, but I doubt that will happen. I'm very sorry, Doctor."

"Not as sorry as you're going to be," the doctor said, glaring at Jenetta before turning and plodding away.

She stared after him for a few seconds then turned and walked back to the secured compound, stopping into the medical center. There were no less than four versions of Doctor Peterson seated at different health stations while physicians checked their physical condition. Jenetta looked for and found Doctor Hong.

"Doctor, it looks like you're up to your ears in Doctor Petersons."

He grimaced slightly. "And each one has the same delightful personality, unfortunately."

Jenetta smiled. "I've already experienced it several times today; a charming man, the doctor. But I guess we really can't blame him; we've barged in here and taken over what could be the archeological 'find' of the century."

"Only because of their sloppy scientific procedures. If his people hadn't activated the equipment, we wouldn't have been summoned."

"We haven't yet figured out what activated the equipment. I'm beginning to believe that it was an innocent verbalization, interpreted incorrectly by the equipment. How's the health of the original eleven that were cloned."

"They're all in pretty good health. There are the usual minor maladies, of course, all being controlled by medication. Their biggest problem is their diet. These field people just hire anyone who can boil water, instead of getting themselves a proper dietician. Their diet probably knocks twenty or thirty years off their possible life expectancy. They'll all be lucky if they live to be a hundred twenty."

"And the clones?"

"We've just started on them, but so far they appear to be identical to the originals, even down to retinal images and fingerprints. They also have the same minor maladies as their originals."

"Okay. Thanks, Doc."

"Sure thing, Jen. Say, your eyes are looking a bit bloodshot."

"I've been staring at a vid screen for hours."

"That'll do it. Lean back."

Doctor Hong produced a dispenser from a pocket and put a drop of liquid in each of Jenetta's eyes. "That'll help. They should feel better in a few minutes."

"They feel better already. Thanks, Doc."

"My pleasure."

Leaving the medical shelter, Jenetta walked down to the underground facility to continue her work, but only wound up pacing around the cloning rotunda while she glanced at the symbols and thought about the problem. She knew that some action on the part of the scientists or labors must have precipitated the engagement of the equipment. If it was like the door, it could have been a vocal command spoken accidentally by one of the archeologists examining the symbols in the floor, or even one of the laborers setting up the lights. If not vocal, then someone had activated the machine by some specific action. It seemed unlikely that a mechanical activation switch would be located in the area where subjects to be duplicated were placed. That left the three laborers who were carrying in light panels.

Jenetta walked around looking at the placement of the light panels. She knew that access to the room had been restricted since the accident, but she had no way of knowing if this was their original placement, or if they had been moved at some point. All but one of the panels seemed to be located near a wall, but none were actually touching the walls anywhere. Of course, a laborer could have leaned against the wall as he was setting up the light.

Lastly, Jenetta looked at the light panel that had been placed on the table several meters in from the entrance door. The light from that lamp was aimed downward, at the floor where the scientists were standing when the process was initiated, while all other lights were aimed up at the reflective ceiling. It's possible that a photoelectric switch had been activated by the beam as the light was positioned. Jenetta carefully examined the floor for signs of a photocell before returning to examine the table.

The table top appeared to be constructed of the same smooth, black, composite material as the doors and outside wall. It was eight centimeters thick, with support pedestals near each end, and another pedestal across the center between the end pedestals for complete longitudinal support. Jenetta ran her fingers lightly over the surface, but pulled her hand back quickly as several mellifluous tones emanated from the table. A dot of light now glowed brightly from the surface where she had touched it. She had been hoping to find some new lead. This certainly qualified.

Chapter Nine

~ January 12th, 2270 ~

Jenetta was still contemplating her next move when she received a query from the ship through her CT. A portable Space Command radio system had been set up when the camp was established. She activated a carrier to respond and was told by the com operator to standby for the Captain.

"Jen, we've just received a distress call from a freighter," Gavin said. "It's not a Raider attack; they've lost their main power systems and are operating on backup power. They're two months out, between here and Ulakkon, and we're the nearest GSC ship so we have to respond. We can't leave that artifact unguarded, so I want you to remain here until we get back."

"Yes sir. We'll be fine. I'm sure that we'll have the problems solved by the time you return."

"Good. I'd like you to have Doctor Hong return to the ship with most of his people because we might need them. Keep one of the doctors for the base."

"Yes sir. We'll need additional supplies if we're to be here for four months."

"I've already taken care of that. Food, clothing, and other supplies are being loaded into a shipping container as we speak. I'm going to leave you three shuttles. That should be sufficient."

"Yes sir. How soon do you expect to leave orbit?"

"As soon as we can take care of these final details; I estimate about thirty minutes."

"Very good, sir. Safe journey."

"Gavin out."

"Carver out."

Hurrying up to the surface, Jenetta relayed the Captain's orders to Doctor Hong, who immediately began organizing his staff for return to the ship. He selected Doctor Rowans to remain on the planet to handle medical needs. Jenetta found Lt. Commander Cameron working in the command center, and after discussing the situation, Jenetta decided to send him back to the ship with the medical staff. His skills might be badly needed when the Prometheus reached the crippled freighter. Cameron placed Lieutenant Crocker in charge of the five-person power source investigation team left behind. Kanes, upon being informed of the distress call, decided to return to the ship just in case it was a Raider trick.

* * *

"I knew this would happen," Dr. Peterson said to the other scientists at the dinner table in the mess shelter. "As soon as they arrived they started ripping up the place and shoving people around. I wish there had been some way that we could have avoided summoning them. Damn."

"It was necessary, Edward," Dr. Huften said. "We couldn't stand by while that machine continued to spit out duplicates of us, and we couldn't figure out how to stop it without possibly destroying both it and the life forms already in the early stages of creation."

"It might as well be destroyed. They'll never let us near it again. Any secrets it contains will be lost forever."

"That might be for the best," Dr. Ramilo said. "The galaxy isn't ready for such knowledge. We already have burgeoning populations on Earth and several colonized planets. We don't need the ability to breed people faster."

"Perhaps, Anthony. I just hate being shut out of our find."

"What do you think they'll do with our duplicates?" Dr. Vlashsku asked.

"I don't know. As Captain Gavin said, cloning has been illegal for centuries. By the way, Dakshiku, why were you and Glawth bowing and scraping to that impertinent Space Command officer?"

"Didn't you recognize her, Edward?"

"No, she doesn't look familiar."

"Edward," Dr. Huften said in surprise, "for the past two years her image has been spread across the front page of every newspaper, magazine, and vid news broadcast in the galaxy."

"I don't watch the news. It depresses me. Damn newsies never get the story straight anyway. They're not concerned with the truth. They just want sensationalism so they can sell more advertising. Better off if they all found honest work."

"She's Jenetta Carver, Edward," Dr. Vlashsku said. "She recently received the Medal of Honor from the Galactic Alliance for battling Raiders, and the Tawroole Medal of Valor for her military services to the people of Obotymot and Nordakia. She's a member of our Nordakian nobility; an Azula.

"An Azula?"

"It's her aristocratic title. She ranks immediately below the King and Queen on our world. She's been proclaimed a Lady of the Royal House for her special services to the Crown."

"Nordakian nobility? Humph! She has Terran ears."

"She was born on Earth, but she's also a Nordakian citizen. She's a Captain in the Nordakian Space Force, on permanent assignment with Space Command."

"Humph! Just another damn military drone."

Both Dr. Vlashsku and Glawth Djetch jumped up, their skin flashing shades of red, orange, and yellow, a sure indication of their ire.

"Do not speak of Azula Carver like that," Dr. Vlashsku said fiercely. "She is a great lady. She saved the life of my brother when she rescued a convoy carrying desperately needed food supplies for Obotymot. She then safely escorted the freighters to the planet. Those supplies saved many thousands of our people. Glawth's entire family lives on Obotymot. I only wish that she had been with us when we were cloned. The galaxy needs more people like her."

Everyone in the mess shelter had stopped eating or talking and was staring in the direction of the table occupied by the scientists. Dr. Peterson looked up at the two men, and said apologetically, "Uh, I'm sorry, Dakshiku. I'm sorry, Glawth. I didn't realize you felt this strongly about her. Perhaps I misspoke. I'm just upset about losing the underground complex. Please forgive me."

Dr. Vlashsku looked at Glawth and nodded. Both men sat back down as their flashing slowed and finally stopped.

* * *

Jenetta remained in the command center until the Prometheus left orbit in case something else was required of her. By then her stomach was reminding her, in no uncertain terms, that she hadn't eaten all day, so she walked to the back of the medical shelter where a kitchen had been set up. Marine Captain Greene, the most senior Marine officer of the three that came down to the surface with the two companies, came in as Jenetta was starting in on her first tray of food. After he had gotten his chow, he stopped at Jenetta's table.

"All quiet, Commander. I've established patrols and the rest of my people have turned in. Lieutenant Taggert will relieve me in four hours and then I'll get some sleep."

Jenetta nodded. "Care to join me, Captain?"

"Yes ma'am. Thank you."

The officer put his tray down and took a seat. He'd heard of her incredible appetite, but looking now at the two trays overflowing with food he wondered how she remained so fit and trim if she ate like that all the time. Just slightly shorter than Jenetta, at five-foot nine-inches, he probably outweighed her by sixty pounds. Of African ancestry, Greene's skin color was a rich medium brown. His powerful physique made it obvious that he spent a lot of time in the gym and he'd often seen Jenetta there, practicing her kickboxing. He knew that she was fast, incredibly fast. His preference ran to regular pugilism, where he could use his upper body strength and stamina, and he'd often speculated who would win if they fought. He felt that if he could avoid those deadly feet of hers, he could wear her down and outlast her. He held no animosity for Jenetta, and actually admired her greatly. His musings were just the natural tendency for one aggressive fighter to size up another.

"The Prometheus has left orbit," she said. "It's gone to help a crippled freighter."

"Yes ma'am. I heard when the tug arrived with enough additional supplies for a year."

"I certainly hope that we're not stuck here that long, but it's possible. Once we complete our mission, we'll reevaluate the situation. We're only a month from Vinnia so they might be able to send transport for us if the Prometheus' return is going to be delayed. The supplies are only an emergency reserve."

"Yes ma'am. Assuming that we'll be here for at least a month, may I have your permission to set up a running track and workout area for my people?"

"Yes, we have ample room within the compound for that."

"Thank you, ma'am."



"How would you feel about being cloned?"

Greene was silent as he thought about the question. Intense concentration briefly contorted his ruggedly handsome face. Finally he said, "Commander, I honestly don't know. I've seen these cloned people talking with their duplicates like brothers and sisters. I'm an only child, and I always wished that I had a brother, but I don't know if I'd want one that was an exact duplicate of me. I'd rather have one with his own feelings and attitudes, not mine. I guess that I wouldn't like it."

"What do you think should be done with the clones?"

"I'm glad that I don't have to make that decision. I mean, they're real people, right? Just because they happen to have the exact same DNA and memories of someone else, and didn't develop from the natural interaction between a sperm and egg doesn't mean they're not real people, right?"

"They certainly fit my definition of real people," Jenetta said.

"Even the ones that haven't hatched yet?"

"That's an entirely different issue, Captain."

"Is it? Really? Aren't those chambers just artificial wombs? Wouldn't halting the machines be like aborting a child?"

"I suppose that parallels could be drawn. The question is: 'At what point has life begun?' It took a hundred years for the courts on Earth to finally settle that issue once and for all as it pertains to human fetuses."

"Maybe we should apply the same rule here."

"The trouble is that we don't know what's going on inside those chambers. We have no idea at what point the heart first beats. And at what point does this manufactured life form fit the court definition of sentient life?"

"Like I said, ma'am, I'm glad that I don't have to make the decision."

"Yes, but unfortunately I do; at least as it pertains to shutting down those machines."

"Yes ma'am."

When Jenetta had finished her dinners, she stood up and picked up her trays. "I'm going to try to get some sleep. Good night, Captain."

"Good night, Commander."

Jenetta rose just before dawn. After eating a couple of hearty breakfasts, and then receiving a security status report from Lt. Taggert, she returned to the underground facility to resume her investigation of the equipment there.

The point of light was still glowing brightly, and Jenetta bent over it in an attempt to examine the table without touching it. A person would have to be incredibly naïve not to realize that it wasn't really a table, but rather a control console of some sort. The cloning process must have been initiated when a leg of the tripod stand holding the Chembrite lamp panel was placed atop an activation switch. Jenetta carefully lifted the light stand off the console, hoping that the process might shut down if pressure on a switch was removed, but she observed no changes anywhere.

Examining the top surface for another ten minutes without learning anything new, Jenetta ran her hand lightly and slowly along the side of what she assumed would be the console's front edge; the one facing an operator. Gently feeling for any indications of switches, she knew that there was a danger that she might activate something, but also knew that it was a necessary risk. When her search failed to reveal anything but a perfectly smooth surface, she did the same with the other three edges, also without success. The single dot of light on the console continued to glow brightly, but nothing changed.

 Jenetta contemplated her next move carefully. When she'd previously touched the table about thirty-centimeters in from the edge, several tones had sounded and a dot of light came on. The tripod stand had been placed near the center of the table. Operating on the hypothesis that the designer wouldn't have put any key process controls near the very edge of the top surface, Jenetta decided to touch the surface there, to see if she could feel anything irregular. As soon as her index finger touched the top surface near the edge, the entire surface of the console began to glow. Startled, she jumped back a step, then approached the table again when she realized there wasn't any danger.

With the console fully illuminated, dozens of contact spots indicative of control switches were obvious. Digital displays that appeared to give readings of current processes showed fluctuating values. Everything was labeled using the same set of symbols that they had found elsewhere in the room. Still without a translation key, Jenetta didn't have a clue as to how she could deactivate the cloning machinery, and it would be too risky to simply key in commands randomly. She might do serious harm to the beings in gestation, or to the equipment itself.

A five-centimeter wide border around the console table remained black, leading to the speculation that the area had no function other than to illuminate the console. Touching the top edge again turned the console lights off, and another touch illuminated it again. She decided to leave it on so that no one would again assume it was merely a table and accidentally trip another function. Illuminated as it was, the roving Marine patrols wouldn't dare place anything on it, as they might an ordinary table.

With little to be accomplished above ground, Jenetta had her worktable moved down to the rotunda and placed against a wall just inside the door. Except for going up to the surface for meals and sleeping, she would spend the next few days working down in the lab on the translation of the symbols.

On the fifth day following their arrival on the planet, Lieutenant Crocker, the engineering officer left in charge of the power source investigation after Commander Cameron had left, reported to Jenetta that they had isolated the source.

"As Commander Cameron surmised, the source is thermal energy. We've located an access hatchway that leads to a small, underground power conversion station. The entrance is over two meters below the current surface level and we had to excavate down to the door. It seems that the power station was created expressly for this facility. The power generating unit is mounted against the outside wall of this building."

"Can it be turned off?"

"There are no interruptible connections or controls in the power station, so they must be in a part of the complex that we haven't been able to access yet. Right now, the only way to interrupt the power flow is to destroy part of the equipment."

"I'm not willing to do that just yet. Thank you, Lieutenant Crocker. That's all."

"Yes ma'am."

Jenetta wasn't willing to cut the power off while life forms were in the process of being born. She felt that she had to find a way to interrupt the process by canceling the clone command only at the end of a process cycle.  Since that required a translation of the ancient language, she returned to her study of the symbols in the room.

Two days later, Jenetta, Marine Captain Greene, and Doctor Rowans, along with two nurses, were on hand to greet the newest eleven clones as they emerged from the chambers. They were confused about their location but not their identities. As Doctor Peterson had said about the previous clones, each insisted vehemently that they were the original person. As Jenetta tried to explain the situation, they were given blankets with which to cover themselves. Once above ground, Doctor Rowans and the nurses performed a checkup on each, and they were given clothing before being escorted to Doctor Peterson's tent for introduction to their originals.

Jenetta had briefly considered blocking the chamber doors from closing, but feared that it might not interrupt the process, and cause damage to developing embryos during a critical stage. After the newest clones emerged from the incubators, Jenetta increased her efforts to solve the problem of canceling the process properly. She had extensive experience working on computer encryption techniques, so she tried to apply the same principles, but without success.

On the evening of the second day into the new clone cycle, a roving Marine patrol found Jenetta unconscious on the floor in the rotunda. They immediately summoned Doctor Rowans, who, having just turned in for the night, came running down the ramp in his pajamas and bathrobe. After a quick examination he called for an 'oh-gee' stretcher and had Jenetta removed to the hospital shelter.

Jenetta awoke in the pre-dawn darkness with a splitting headache. Doctor Rowans, the thin doctor with salt and pepper hair was dozing in a chair next to her bed and awoke when she stirred.

"Take it easy, Commander. Here, take this," he said as he handed her a couple of tablets.

"Where am I?" she asked groggily.

"You're in the Hospital shelter. A Marine patrol found you unconscious in the lab. Do you remember what happened?"

"Uh, last I remember I was working on the translation of the symbols. I was having trouble focusing my eyes. I must have fallen asleep."

"You were drugged. I found signs of a sedative in your coffee. I assume that you didn't put it there."

"Of course not!"

"Well, someone did. It appears to be a commercially available sleeping sedative called 'Zelem', but the residue in the cup contained four times the recommended dosage."

"Who would have access to something like that?"

"Oh, anyone who has trouble sleeping. It's commonly available in most pharmacies."

"You examined all the scientists. Any of them using it?"

"I remember the Doctor Petersons telling me they used it to sleep."

"Anyone else?"

"None that I can recall."

"Thanks, doc. My head is feeling better already. I think I'll get up."

"I can't believe you've recovered already. I expected you to be out for another six to eight hours."

"I heal quickly since the Raiders messed with my DNA, remember?"

"Yes; but I'm constantly amazed by your recuperative powers."

Leaving the hospital shelter, Jenetta walked to the command shelter, where she spotted Marine Lieutenant Taggert drinking a cup of coffee. She poured a cup for herself and sat down across from him.

"I'm glad to see you're okay, Commander."

"Thanks, Lieutenant. The doctor says someone laced my coffee with an extra heavy dosage of a sleeping sedative. Have the patrols reported anything unusual?"

"Other than finding you unconscious, not a thing."

"Hmm, I can't see any of our people drugging my coffee so it has to be someone from outside our camp. The question is, 'how did they get in?' Were any civilians in the camp after 2100 hours?"

"No, I already checked the entry logs. The last one in the camp was a laborer who sliced his hand on a digging tool. He was patched up by the doc and left the camp before 1500 hours."

"That would seem to indicate that we have a hole in our security. After daybreak I'd like you to have your people cover every square centimeter of the camp. I want to know how my attacker got past our perimeter security alarms and into the facility."

"Will do, Commander."

Down in the lab, Jenetta saw that her computer and notes appeared to be untouched, so she wondered what the intruder could have been after. Then she noticed that the dot of light, shining on the console until now, was out. She stared at the console wondering if the circuit had failed, or been turned off, and then realized that the display was radically different. Someone must have been tampering with it, and that meant that someone had most likely figured out the symbols, or at least some of the cloning procedure steps. It was a further indication that the perpetrator was from outside the camp, and most obviously one of the eleven scientists, or a clone.

At the top of the new display was a symbol that Jenetta had seen on one of the empty clone chambers. Glancing across the room, she was shocked to see that the chamber was now operating, and although she couldn't discern anything except a flashing green light similar to those on the other chambers, the associated panel of gauges on the opposite wall showed the status of the new chamber to be similar to that of the original eleven.

She now knew the reason for the sleeping sedative. Someone wanted access to the room to begin another clone, and since Jenetta was spending all her time in the lab, her presence was preventing it. The new question was: Who was it a clone of? As soon as it emerged from the incubation chamber the culprit would be unmasked. Who wanted a duplicate of themselves so badly they would risk imprisonment for attacking a Space Command officer safeguarding seized contraband?

"I guess we'll know in six more days," Jenetta said aloud to herself.

The Marines checked the perimeter sensors after daybreak and found them to be functioning perfectly, so every square meter of the camp was searched. No one was found hiding. Since no one had left the camp via the only gate, Jenetta had to face the hard fact that the attacker could be a member of the crew. Either that or someone had figured out how to open a sealed area down in the facility, and was down still there. It was a definite possibility, given that individual seemed to have figured out the cloning operation.

Unable to solve the riddle of the symbols, Jenetta turned her attention to the other conundrum; namely, what opened the doors in the facility. An unshakable hypothesis held that it occurred as a result of a verbal command, so she stood in front of one of the locked doors and shouted commands at it for hours, not taking a break until noon when she went up for lunch and to rest her throat. As she ate, she reviewed what she had been shouting at the door. She had tried every command that she could think of for telling a door to open, and even added a few expletives just for good measure, trying to simulate what Doctor Vlashsku might have said from weariness or frustration. She still believed that it would most likely be a simple phrase that sounded like the proper command in the original language of the planet, but might make no sense to an Amer speaking person trying to open a door. Then another thought suddenly occurred to Jenetta. As a Nordakian, Doctor Vlashsku's flashing skin might have accidentally hit on a proper combination of chromatic light values required to activate a photometric receptor trigger. Frustration, weariness, and anger would probably have caused him to flash hues of red, orange, and yellow. Suddenly, Jenetta put her fork down and hurried out of the mess shelter to questioning looks on the faces of other dining crewmembers.

Down in the facility, she stepped up to the door that she had been attempting to open and said, "Dwuthathsei," and then quickly stepped off to the side of the doorway as the door first creaked, then began sliding open. While thinking about Doctor Vlashsku's appearance, Jenetta suddenly realized that, as an alien, he would probably revert to Dakis when angry or frustrated, although he normally spoke only Amer in the camp. 'Dwuthathsei' meant 'open' in Dakis. Jenetta next said "Hudaksei" meaning 'close'. This time the door moved noiselessly as it closed tightly.

Jenetta touched her Space Command ring and said, "Captain Greene."

"Greene here, Commander," she heard in her left ear, a second later.

"I need an armed squad down in the facility, on the double."

"On our way, Commander."

"Carver, out."

Jenetta turned to the door and said, "Dwuthathsei."

Within twenty-seconds she heard the loud sound of Space Marine boots in the tunnel, coming on strong. Greene, along with six Marines and their platoon sergeant, burst into the underground facility, taking up positions on either side of the now open doorway with weapons at the ready.

"What's the situation, Commander?" Greene asked.

Drawing her pistol from its holster, Jenetta said, "I succeeded in opening this door and I wanted backup before I go in."

The six-person squad and their sergeant looked on incredulously, until Greene said, "Meaning no respect, Ma'am, but it's our job to go in first. We'll take it from here. I'll let you know when it's clear."

Jenetta grimaced because she knew that Greene was right. As the camp commander, she should allow her Marines to enter first. Sending someone into a dangerous situation that she hadn't yet investigated herself went against the grain, but the Marines trained regularly for this sort of military activity and it would be an insult for her to usurp their role. "Very well, Captain."

Greene made a few hand motions to his people and everyone took a few deep breaths before a marine from each side of the doorway leapt into the room and disappeared into the darkness on the opposite side. When no fire came their way, another two went in, then another, and then the last two. Jenetta remained out of the doorway area until she heard, "All clear, Commander," via her CT.

As she stepped through the doorway, Jenetta saw the lights from the Marine's helmets playing around the walls and ceiling from different points in the room. It appeared to be a large barracks room. Jenetta said, "Sumattah" meaning 'lights on' and the room fully illuminated. The sudden change startled the Marines and they swung their weapons around quickly, looking for signs of danger.  It was indeed a barracks room, or perhaps a large hospital ward. Jenetta counted four rows of twenty-six beds, with half-wall dividers between each row and again between each pair to offer a semblance of privacy. There were five additional doors in a small hallway that opened up just inside the main door, and two doors at the far end of the room. Using the same procedures for checking out those rooms, they found five smaller bedrooms, with four beds and a private attached bathroom in each. The two doors at the far side of the room led to two large lavatory facilities, each with commodes, sinks, and half a dozen shower stalls. Confident that no one was hiding anywhere in the barracks area, they left to take on the other two doors in the main corridor.

The next door opened as easily as the first, although it creaked a little the first time. Inside they found a large mess hall capable of seating well over a hundred people and two attached lavatories with sinks and commodes. A fully equipped kitchen was discovered through a double set of swinging doors at the far side of the mess hall, and incredibly, the water still flowed when the tap was tested, although the first few cups dripped like mud. The tap was left open for several minutes to see if that would flush the lines a bit.

The final corridor door opened into another, smaller corridor. One door off the small corridor led to a sickbay, complete with five beds and equipment. This could also be a major find for the archeologists, but Jenetta would have to evaluate the technology before saying anything to them. A second door opened into a laundry area, and a door in there opened into a maintenance area. A stairway that descended to a lower level, gave access to all of the facility's heating, cooling, and power systems. They could now disengage the power without destroying anything, whenever Jenetta chose.

Once it became apparent that no one was hiding in any part of the facility, Jenetta had the Marines stand-down.

"Captain," Jenetta said, "those beds in the barracks room look a whole lot more comfortable than the field bedrolls we've been sleeping on. What do you think about moving our people down here? That is, as long as we're going to be here for possibly another three months."

"I think that's an excellent idea, Commander," he said, grinning.

"Good, let's do it. I'll have Doctor Rowans check the mattresses for parasites, toxins, and biological contaminants first, but everything looked exceptionally clean. I'll also have our engineers check the water in the bathrooms and kitchen to make sure that it's potable. It was looking pretty good after it ran for a few minutes, but we'll make sure before moving the kitchen down here. Even if it's not drinkable, we might still be able to wash and shower in it. I'll have to talk with the Doc before we move the hospital down here."

Over the next six hours, the camp was moved underground. The mattresses were checked and declared hygienically clean and perfectly safe, so the housekeeping bots were brought down from the above ground sleeping shelter and tasked to change linens and blankets. The mattresses weren't the gel type found on Space Command ships and bases, where the user could adjust the temperature and density of the mattress, but once the thin, gravity-shielding cloth from their camp bedrolls was attached to the underside of the mattresses, the occupant of each bed would float gently on the surface. Each headboard was equipped with a decent noise-canceling generator so that an occupant's snoring or coughing wouldn't disturb his or her neighbors.

The water in the kitchen was tested once it cleared and was found to be potable, but the engineers decided that it should be run for an hour to clean any remaining sediment from the lines and then be re-tested. All the faucets and shower valves in the bathrooms were opened at the same time. The cooks were delighted to have twenty times the workspace that they'd had in the tiny kitchen of the surface shelter, along with large walk-in refrigeration units. Both the initial load of supplies and the supplies dropped off by Prometheus just before it left orbit were brought below and stored. They had enough food to feed the entire dig site for a year, so hunger wouldn't be a problem.

Jenetta had the command center moved into one corner of the facility's large mess hall, but after thinking about the camp situation she decided that the hospital should remain on the surface. She didn't want the civilians looking for excuses to enter the facility, or even to know that she had opened the other doors. The doctor would continue to treat everyone in the archeological camp, but only topside. It was also better if the medical staff wasn't experimenting with the equipment in the lab's sickbay until the engineers had a chance to examine it.

Jenetta saw to it that everyone knew not to mention anything about what was going on below ground. She was also still worried about the attacker, but with a lot more people in the facility, an intruder could no longer move about freely.

The engineering crew had little to do since finishing with the power investigation, so they threw themselves into the examination of the kitchen and medical equipment as Jenetta returned to work in the cloning rotunda. Now that she knew the doors opened to words spoken in Nordakian, she closed the door and began experimenting with spoken commands in the lab. The lights on and lights off command worked, enabling her to discontinue use of the Chembrite panels, and she was also able to adjust the light intensity, but she still wasn't able to translate the symbols.

Six and two-third days after the previous batch of clones were born, the next group emerged from the incubators. On Jenetta's orders, the doors in the hallway had been closed. The new people were escorted from the facility as soon as possible. They couldn't pass on information about the situation below ground, because they saw only what they were permitted to see.

Only Jenetta, Doctor Rowan, and Captain Greene were on hand for the emergence of the twelfth clone two days later. They didn't know exactly when the clone was due, because they didn't know what time the command had been entered, so they got together at the earliest possible time and waited. The minutes passed like hours as they waited and speculated about the identity of the attacker. Finally, one of the gauges on the panel spiked. From previous clone births, they knew that the emergence time was very near, so they gathered near the incubation chamber.

As the door opened, Jenetta was so stunned that she couldn't speak for a full minute. Standing there, in full naked glory, was another Jenetta Carver. Captain Greene stared at her body admiringly, while the doctor hurried to put a blanket around the new, and totally baffled, Jenetta. Unlike the eleven original subjects, Jenetta had known about the process in advance, so the clone quickly accepted the fact that she was a clone, but didn't understand why she had been created, and no one in the room could tell her. She was identical in every way to the original, except for her hair. A synthetic process had been used on Nordakia to extend Jenetta's hair, so the hair on the clone was only as long as Jenetta's natural hair. The cloning process apparently couldn't, or wouldn't, replicate synthetic hair any more than it replicated the original subject's synthetic clothes.

It took several minutes for Jenetta to come to grips with the idea that she'd been cloned, and that there was now another living human being that shared every memory and thought that she'd ever had. Moreover, this new person was an exact match, right down to her fingerprints and retinal scans. She even had the chest imprint that had been placed on Jenetta when the Raiders captured her and permanently marked her as a pleasure slave. This new person was closer than even a twin could be. She was her!

Jenetta's mind raced as she tried to fit this new development into the puzzle. As far as she could see, there was little to be gained by having multiple Jenettas around, although someone must have expected an advantage or they wouldn't have risked their skin to do it. Jenetta walked along deep in thought as the doctor and the clone headed for the hospital shelter on the surface.

The clone received a clean bill of health; in fact, the doctor said that she was in absolutely perfect health. The two women spent the examination time staring at one another. Finally, Jenetta said, "This is going to be difficult…"

And the clone finished the thought with, "We can't both be Lt. Commander Jenetta Carver; even though we both are."

"Since I'm the original, you'll have to be…"

"…called by another name. But I'm not just somebody who looks like you, or rather me. I am me."

"Still, you'll need a new name to go with the new body. How about…"

"Fine, just call me Two for the time being."

"Stop finishing my sentences."

"Sorry, but they're my sentences also. I'm having the same thoughts you are."

"That should change, won't it Doctor?" Jenetta asked.

"I suppose, in time," Doctor Rowan said. "You now have different lives. You'll meet different people and have different experiences. For example, Jenetta has almost seven days more memories than Two does. Two doesn't know about the sections of the underground complex that Jenetta uncovered when she figured out how to open the doors down in the facility. Information shapes personalities. You're well past your basic developmental years, but people continue to change all their lives. Of course, your basic thought processes won't vary very much, unless one of you suffer head trauma."

"We figured out how to open the doors?" Two said.

"I figured out how to open the doors."

"Yes, but I would have figured it out too, if I was here."

"That's what the Doc means. We'll be having different experiences now."

"There's another problem that we have to face," Two said.

"Yes, in less than seven days we'll have another 'sister.'" "Exactly, and unless we figure out how to shut down that machine, we'll continue to get more new sisters every six and two-thirds days."

"There are two of us to work on the problem now."

"Right, let me get some clothes on and I'll join you down in the lab," Two said.

As Two pulled the blanket around her and headed for the old quarters, Jenetta said, "A-hem. I moved. We're living down in the facility now."

"Oh. Better show me the way then."

With Jenetta slightly in the lead, the two women walked down to Jenetta's underground quarters. The officers had naturally reserved the five private rooms that contained four beds each, and Jenetta had taken one for her personal use. They made quite a sight walking together, and everyone they passed stared after them. Of course, by now everyone in the compound knew that Two was the latest clone to emerge.

As Two dressed, Jenetta removed all the insignia from the tunic that she'd wear.

"I have just as much right to wear that insignia as you do," Two said.

"No you don't. You were only born an hour ago."

"I still have every memory and last bit of knowledge that you do."

"Until we work through these problems, this will be the easiest way to handle it. I can't be giving orders and having you countermanding them."

"We think alike, remember. I'd agree with any order that you give."

"Maybe, and maybe not. That's one of the things that we'll have to see. If we find ourselves arguing, like some twin sisters do, then we'll know that we're not exactly the same. And even if you would give the same orders, we can't have you giving them a second time and confusing everyone."

"O-kay. Tell me about our, your, discovery," Two said.

"I couldn't crack the language used on the machinery and throughout the facility so I turned my attention to opening the other doors. I spent hours shouting commands at them but nothing worked. While I was eating lunch, I realized that Doctor Vlashsku, as a Nordakian, …"

"…would probably shift to Dakis when angry or frustrated."

"Exactly. So I tried Dakis and it worked."

"What else do we have down here?"

"This barracks area, a mess hall capable of seating a hundred fifty, a laundry, and a sickbay with all kinds of interesting, new devices."

"Have the Engineering people made any progress with the medical equipment?" Two asked.

"They're disassembling and analyzing each piece, recording all steps as they proceed, in a reverse engineering effort to determine the functions. They'll produce their reports when they're done. I've been more concerned with trying to deactivate the cloning equipment."

"No progress, eh?"

"Lately I've been trying to apply Dakis to the symbols since it works for opening the doors and controlling the lights, but without a starting reference, it's almost impossible. I believe somebody must have broken the code because they were able to produce a clone of me, but we have to figure out how to stop the repeat cycle so we can turn it off without destroying a single life form. With two different cycles now, we can't even shut it down by disconnecting the power source immediately after a batch emerges. Perhaps that was the reason for cloning me. I hadn't wanted to do it anyway, by that point, out of fear that another batch had already been begun somewhere else inside the equipment. A human fetus, in the earliest stages, is incredibly small."

Two nodded. "You know, the Nordakians can't know that their language is twenty-thousand years old. The Almuth reportedly only goes back about four-thousand years."

"Just goes to show you how religion can be used to retard a culture, or in this case an entire planet. Twenty-thousand years ago the inhabitants of this planet had made outstanding technological advancements. If the Nordakians are their descendants, or even their antecedents, they should be the most advanced race in the known galaxy, by a factor of ten. Instead they observe strict religious writings that literally hobble their women and stifle their society. There have been religious cultures like that on earth, ones that deny education and free speech to women, while forcing them to wear ridiculous clothing and live a life only of servitude to men, while other tenets of their religion proscribe various actions that would allow for change and natural development in a modern emerging society."

"But how did the people from here wind up on Nordakia, or vice-versa, and where did the Almuth really come from?"

"Perhaps it was a situation such as that of the radical Separatist group that broke from the Church of England on Earth back in the early seventeenth century. In search of religious freedom, and to escape religious persecution in England, they moved first to Leiden, the Netherlands. After ten years, many of them emigrated to North America. They developed their own rules according to the way they wished to live, and woe to anyone who disagreed with the leaders who made the new rules. You only enjoyed the so-called religious freedom while you followed the strict new religious edicts of the leaders, without question."

"I suppose there could have been dozens of Almuths through the centuries," Two speculated. "Whenever a new religious sect gained control, they rewrote the book and wiped out all traces of past versions."

"Maybe. Perhaps one group even went so far as to change the symbols of their alphabet so that previous existing copies of religious doctrine would be unreadable within a few generations. It would be like trying to read Chinese when all you've ever known was Arabic. It's a miracle that the spoken language remained basically intact."

"Yes, but what are the chances that a spoken language would survive intact for twenty thousand years?"

"On Earth, it was the interaction of people from different geographical areas where language had developed independently that seemed to have had the greatest impact on each group's language. On Nordakia there is only one language. The same might have been true here. Colloquialisms are bound to creep into any language, but since all Nordakians are required to read a passage from the Almuth each day, perhaps that document is responsible for keeping the language as phonetically pure as it appears to have remained."

"But even so, subtle pronunciation nuances had to have crept in. Well, it's an interesting hypothesis," Two said, "and a great subject for discussion, but it doesn't solve our present problem. Let's get over to the lab."

Jenetta and Two worked together for several hours without making any headway with the symbols. It seems that two heads aren't always better than one, especially when they have the same thoughts, at the same time. But they found themselves working better and better together, not even having to speak most of the time.

"We're getting nowhere fast," Jenetta finally said.

"Somebody cracked it so we should be able to do it also. Who do you think could have broken it? Doctor Vlashsku? Glawth Djetch?"

"We haven't had any indication that they've made the connection to Dakis. Especially since Dakis currently uses an entirely different set of symbols for their alphabet. But someone could have followed the same logic path I did. Or perhaps the individual translated the code by using some sort of key found in another dig site?"

"If these ancients were so smart, why didn't they give their computer the ability to speak."

"That's it, Two. The doors are voice actuated. Perhaps we just need to ask a question. But in Dakis."

Changing to Dakis, Two said, "Computer, are you listening? Respond to me."

 A disembodied voice that sounded like it came from the depths of a bottomless well, said in Dakis, "I am listening."

Jenetta and Two looked at each other and grinned.

Chapter Ten

~ February 1st, 2270 ~

"Computer, why haven't you spoken before?" Jenetta asked.

"No vocalized response was requested of this unit."

"Computer, do you have visual capability?"


"Computer, do you have any other sensory capabilities?"


"Computer, list your sensory inputs."

"Thermal, olfactory, and auditory sensors are placed in various locations throughout this facility."

"Computer, do you have any knowledge of events outside this facility?"


"Computer, summarize your knowledge of events occurring outside this facility."

"Historical reference library covering years 5,372 through 18,014, and news broadcasts covering years 18,012 through 18,014."

"Computer, why only three years of news broadcasts?"

"I was activated in 18,012. 18,014 was the last year that broadcasts were received."

"Computer, what year is it now?"

"The year is currently 37,451."

"Nineteen thousand, four hundred and thirty-seven years since the broadcasts ended!" Two said.

"Computer," Jenetta said, "when did the inhabitants leave this planet?"

"Space travel has been available for many years."

"Computer, what was the last year you had contacts with planetary inhabitants?"


"Computer, prior to this year, when was the last contact that you had with inhabitants?"

"In the year 18,014."

"Computer, do you understand the language known as Amer?"

"Negative. No such interface is available in my files."

"Computer, I'll give you an example of Amer. Tell me if you recognize it, even if you don't understand it." Jenetta switched from Dakis to Amer. "Computer, this is an example of Amer. I want to know if you've recorded any conversations in this language." Switching back to Dakis Jenetta repeated the request.

"Affirmative, I have recorded a number of conversations in Amer."

"Computer, play back the Amer conversations, skipping pauses."

Over the next several hours Jenetta and Two listened to all conversations between members of the dig site team. The meeting between the scientists and the initial batch of clones was hilarious, as each group insisted most strenuously that they were the originals and the others had to be the copies. Jenetta and Two recognized all of the voices in the playbacks but they didn't learn who was responsible for attacking Jenetta. Jenetta had the computer skip over the hours she had spent trying to open the doors, and halted the playback completely when the computer reached the day the camp had moved underground. With the computer's help, it took just an hour to develop a complete phonetic translation key of all symbols used by the ancient culture. There were naturally many that hadn't been observed in the lab, such as those for weights and measures, but the computer was able to display a graphic of all written symbols using a part of the console surface. Using their new knowledge, Jenetta and Two were able to cancel the repeat function, ensuring that the current two batches of clones would be the last.

As it approached dinnertime, Jenetta received a message through her CT from Captain Greene. He reported that Doctor Peterson was in the camp, requesting to see Jenetta. Two didn't receive the message because the miniscule device wasn't biological and the machinery hadn't created one for her, but Jenetta told her what the captain had said. Jenetta opened the rotunda door and walked up to the surface alone.

"You requested to see me Doctor Peterson?"

"I was expecting you to bring over the clone."


"Yes, the twelfth clone that we heard about."

"And where did you hear about a twelfth clone?" Jenetta asked casually, believing that she had successfully suppressed the dissemination of information about the attack and the machine activation, at least by Prometheus crewmembers.

"Are you saying that there isn't another clone?"

"We've brought you all the clones of your people. There won't be any more for four more days, and you can be assured that we'll bring them to you when they emerge from the incubation chambers. What made you believe that there were more clones?"

"I heard it in the camp. I guess it's just a silly rumor. Good night, Commander."

"Goodnight, Doctor. Oh, by the way, this next batch of clones will be the last group."

Peterson's face and voice registered horror. "You're not going to destroy the equipment after they emerge, are you?"

"No, that won't be necessary. I've managed to translate all the symbols on the device and I've cancelled the repeat function. After the machine has completed the present clones, it will shut down by itself?"

The look of horror had changed to one of awe. "You've translated the language? You can't be serious?"

"I'm quite serious. It was the only way I could be sure of shutting down the process without destroying any life."

"You must give me a copy of the translation."

"I was under the impression that you had it already."

"Don't be ridiculous!" he said angrily. "If I had it, I wouldn't be asking for it. It's your duty to share it with us. After all, it was we who found the underground laboratory."

"Calm down, Doctor. I wouldn't think of not sharing my discovery with you and your fellow scientists."

Doctor Peterson's mood was changing faster than a Nordakian can change skin colors. "Thank you, Commander, thank you. It'll be invaluable in deciphering the writings on relics that we've found all over the planet. Uh, you're sure that it's accurate?"

"I guarantee you'll find it one hundred percent accurate; not that it will do you much good right now."

"What do you mean?" He asked guardedly.

"Simply that the symbols are graphics used to represent individual speech sounds, as in our modern languages, rather than being representations of syllables or words, such as an ancient pictural language like hieroglyphics. Pictural languages generally limit the exchange of complex ideas, so most cultures converted their writing medium as they advanced."

"I'm aware of that. On Earth we credit the Phoenicians and other Semitic people with beginning such conversion around 1000 BC. The Greeks, Etruscans, and Romans all had a major hand in further shaping modern languages on our planet. There have been exceptions, such as Chinese."

"Exactly. Can you imagine trying to use Roman numerals in a complex mathematical equation. They didn't even have a representation for zero. As soon as I have time, I'll begin to assemble a basic dictionary for use in understanding the language that was in use on this planet twenty thousand years ago. In the meantime I'll prepare a sheet which translates their numerical system and a chart of weights and measures."

 "Wonderful, wonderful," he said, smiling. "I had no idea that you were a scholar of ancient languages. Dakshiku has told me about your successes against the Raiders, and the military honors that you've received from Space Command and Nordakia, so I thought that you were just another military drone."

"Those military drones you refer to," Jenetta said a little testily, "are highly trained military specialists who perform dangerous and complex jobs with pride and dedication, Doctor. If not for them, your precious shipment of artifacts to Anthius would never have arrived. We lost a great many people at the Battle of Vauzlee in protection of your relics."

"Yes, yes, I know. I'm sorry. I only meant that I never imagined that you were a fellow scientist."

"Then it may surprise you to learn that many Space Command officers are trained in scientific fields, just as many are trained in medicine, engineering, and other disciplines. Prior to becoming second officer on the Prometheus, I was a Science Officer. My own field of specialization is Astrophysics."

Doctor Peterson's brow wrinkled and he looked at Jenetta with new admiration. "I see that I might have seriously misjudged you, Commander."

"I'll take your comment as a compliment. I'll send the paper over tomorrow. Goodnight."

"Goodnight, Commander."

Jenetta talked the situation over with Two, in a form of verbal thought with herself, when she rejoined her underground.

"Doctor Peterson shouldn't have known of your existence," Jenetta said, "yet he came here looking for you."

"If Doctor Peterson wasn't responsible, then the responsible party may have used him to inquire when no word was leaked of my 'birth.'"

"I wonder if the goal was to get a duplicate of me into the Archeologist's camp. Perhaps they thought that I'd reject you, and simply send you to them. Then they could use your appearance to gain access to the underground facility."

"The idea is ridiculous," Two said, "because I still have the mindset of a Space Command officer, even if I am a clone."

After preparing a translation list of the promised symbols, Jenetta and Two printed a copy to be sent to Doctor Peterson. For now they left off all reference to Dakis being the language of the planet's original inhabitants. They also left off all phonetic values so that no one would be able to associate the language with Dakis. Jenetta didn't want them to connect the inhabitants of this planet with Nordakia until Supreme HQ had been briefed. The list would actually be of little use until someone developed a dictionary, or the association to Dakis was known, but perhaps understanding the values of the numeric symbols, and those for weights and measures, would be useful.

Four days later, the final group of eleven clones emerged and was turned over to Doctor Peterson. The eleven chambers shut down automatically, leaving just one operating.

Two had remained out of sight so far, as she and Jenetta spent long hours sequestered in the rotunda lab digesting information from the ancient, but incredibly powerful, computer. As they interacted with the electronic device, they discovered that it had all along been learning from them and adjusting its speech to agree with their pronunciation of Dakis. Watching news broadcasts from almost twenty thousand years earlier showed them just how dramatically the language had evolved since then. Many references were completely unfathomable, but the computer was able to elucidate the topic in every case. It proved to be an invaluable resource.

The second clone of Jenetta emerged from the chamber two days later. The machinery darkened and went silent after she stepped from the chamber. Three, as the newest clone was named, was just as confused as Two had been since they were created from the same original scan of Jenetta, but both Jenetta and Two had had time to prepare for Three's arrival so there wasn't the initial reaction that Jenetta experienced. The doctor declared her to be physically fit, and then Jenetta and Two took her to be clothed. Again, Jenetta removed the rank insignia from the uniform.

"You're the last of us, Three," Jenetta told her. "While you were being created, Two and I figured out how to operate the equipment and it's been shut down."

"It's very disconcerting to find out that I'm a clone, and even more so that I'm not even the first. Where do I fit in here?"

"That's yet to be determined," Two said. "We're actually lucky. The scientists have each been cloned seven times."

"For now we'll work together to disassemble the lab," Jenetta said. "Once the Prometheus returns, we'll turn the matter over to Space Command for resolution."

Using construction plans they were able to download from the facility's computer, the disassembly of the cloning equipment moved along at a brisk pace. The detailed schematics enabled the engineering people to disassemble the equipment without damaging it, and it took just four days to completely dismantle the entire lab. The unique equipment from the sickbay was also packed for transportation to Higgins Space Command Base. The engineers hadn't yet been able to determine the use of most of the more complex pieces, so specialists in medical equipment development would get a chance to examine it once the equipment reached the base. Knowing that it was designed for Nordakian physiology would help significantly. Everything from the facility's computer was downloaded into Jenetta's portable computer to serve as a backup, and then the facility's computer was taken off line for study. The ancient computer core was about the same size as current modules, so Jenetta carefully packed the fist-sized unit and placed it into her luggage. A smaller computer core, cannibalized from a piece of engineering equipment used in the search for the power source, was substituted, and would be sufficient to operate the life support systems, lights, doors, and monitoring functions.

With their primary task completed, the crew was able to stand down for a few days. There would be little to do now except wait for the return of the Prometheus, expected back in about three months. The former rotunda lab became the new command center for the base, now that the cloning equipment was packed and crated for shipment.

* * *

The three Jenettas were having lunch in the mess hall a couple of days later, when the communications chief entered and anxiously approached Jenetta.

"Excuse me, Commander, but there appears to be a problem with sending our normal com traffic! It's been encrypted, and compressed for burst mode, but every time we transmit, it bounces back!"

"Bounces back? Are you sure that the transmitter is working properly?"

"I've run the diagnostic routine several times. The problem occurs after we successfully transmit. Here's the result of a waveform test that I just ran," he said, handing Jenetta a portable viewpad.

"What do you think the problem is, Chief?" she asked as she looked at the wave analysis.

"The only thing I can come up with is that IDS sigma-waves are being jammed in the planet's ionosphere."

Jenetta stopped looking at the viewpad image and turned to the NCO. "Jammed?"

"Yes ma'am. We studied jamming techniques in com school. That's the only thing that makes any sense."

"What about normal planetary communications?"

"The RF bands are unaffected and the planetary communication satellites appear to be working fine."

Jenetta jumped up from her chair. "Tell Captain Greene that I want to see him immediately."

The CPO, startled by Jenetta's sudden movement, took a quick step backward, but then responded with "Yes ma'am" and ran from the room.

Jenetta looked at her 'sisters,' and said, "Raiders?"

"Has to be," Two said. "There wouldn't be any other reason to jam com traffic."

"They must intend to take the relics directly this time, instead of intercepting a ship in space," Three offered.

"It might even be worse than that," Two said. "They might have learned about the clones and come here with the intent of seizing the lab equipment. What better way to replace the fifty thousand people that they've lost during the past year? They can make thirteen-hundred new people each year if they get their hands on this equipment. And if they manage to replicate the equipment first, they can produce an entire army in a couple of years."

"We're not in a very strong position to defend against a full scale assault here," Jenetta said. "Our two companies of Marines are adequate for holding off an attack by the entire combined scientific presence on this planet, but not for preventing a takeover by Raider forces with fighter aircraft and ground assault vehicles."

Greene ran into the mess hall within thirty seconds of the com operator leaving.

"You need me, Commander?"

"Yes, Captain, our sigma-wave communications signals are being jammed. Check with security and see if any ships are in orbit around the planet. Then put your people on alert."

"I was on my way to inform you that a ship was entering orbit when I received your message, Commander."

"That gives us a little time, but not too much. Captain, clear everything out of the three shelters topside and bring it down here. Then open the end of each unit and put a shuttle inside it, in launch position. The thirty-ten shelters were designed to alternate as aircraft hangers. It'll be better if the Raiders don't know that we have transportation off the planet. If they're after the cloning equipment they'll be careful not to blast the three shelters for fear that they might destroy something critical to the process. Oh, and have messages sent to the other dig sites on the planet. Inform them that a Raider ship has entered orbit, objectives unknown. We know that there aren't any other ships in orbit, but ask them if they have any FTL transports or tugs available."

"Aye, Commander. I'm on it," Greene said as he raced out the door.

"Jen," Two said, "Three and I will round up the scientists and dig site laborers and bring them down here."

"Right, there's nothing to hide here anymore," Three said. "But they can't be given access to the command center, since the crated cloning and sickbay equipment is being stored in that room."

"I'll have the tables pushed aside in here. Have them bring their bedding, clothes, and personal effects."

Captain Greene secreted the shuttles inside the shelters within the first hour and then reported to Jenetta while her two clones were still away. He said that answers to his query to the other sites about the availability of FTL ships had been negative. "Do you really mean to defend this location against a Raider incursion, Ma'am?"

"You don't agree, Captain?"

"No, ma'am. It's your call, but I'd blow the lab and take to the woods. If we remain here, we're just waiting to be overrun."

Jenetta took a deep breath and expelled it slowly as she considered her response. "Besides being charged with protecting the cloning equipment, we have a responsibility to defend the scientific party. How long do you think most of them would last in the wild if the Raiders chose to pursue?"

"The Raiders might not bother with them if the equipment has been destroyed when they get down here."

"Raider policy is to never leave witnesses behind, Captain. They'd either kill everyone or take them away as slaves; probably a bit of both as the older members of the scientific group would have little values as slaves."

"Yes, ma'am. But if the Raiders get us bottled up down here, it's only a matter of time before they get all of us."

"We'll do our best to see that doesn't happen. In any event, I see no alternative other than to remain here and protect this base, the seized equipment, and dig site people."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Have all our supplies and equipment been brought below ground?"

"Everything, except the weapons and ammunition we'll need to repel an assault. We're ready for whatever comes, ma'am."

"Excellent. The Raider ship hasn't tried to make contact yet. While we're waiting, let's load some of the packed equipment into two of the shuttles, just in case we have to make a fast break."

"Won't that be dangerous, ma'am. What if the Raiders intercept one or two of the shuttles?"

"I'll divide up the shipments into three groups. Capturing any one, or even two, of the three won't enable them to create clones. Let's leave one shuttle empty for personnel and leave the third part of the cargo down here."

Greene grinned. "Aye, Commander."

It took hours to round up all the scientific people working at the seven dig sites surrounding the complex and get them below ground. A few of the laborers refused to come, insisting that the Raiders couldn't take them if they couldn't find them. They grabbed their personal belongings and some food, and headed for the woods, while the rest of the laborers and support people came willingly.

There still wasn't any indication that the Raiders intended to attack the base. They might be going after the large warehouses on the other side of the planet, but Jenetta intended to be ready.

Once the scientific groups were settled in, Doctor Peterson sought out Jenetta. He wasn't allowed in the command center, so she came out into the corridor to meet with him.

"Yes, Doctor?"

"You lied to me about there being additional clones."

"No I didn't. I said that we brought all the clones of your people to you, and we have brought you all the clones of— your people. I never had any intention of giving you clones of me."

"They're clones, made from equipment that we discovered. They belong with us."

"Do you mean with you, Doctor, or to you? They're people, with free will. If they wanted to be with your group, they could have left at any time. They still can. They're not being held here against their will. I think that I can speak for them since we think alike. This is where they feel they belong."

"They're clones, Commander. They belong with their own."

"I am their own, Doctor. And they're with me. There are a lot of issues to be decided on this topic, but this isn't the time or the place to debate them."

"Very well then; just one more thing. Why did you choose to clone yourself?"

"I didn't. Someone put Zelem in my coffee cup and then cloned me while I was unconscious. You happen to be the prime suspect."


"You use Zelem to help you sleep?"

"Lots of people use Zelem to help them sleep."

"But not in this camp. You also told me that I'd be sorry for confiscating the cloning equipment."

"What? Oh, I was just angry. I didn't intend to do anything other than file a complaint against you with Space Command. I even changed my mind about that, after I calmed down."

"As I said, Doctor, you're the prime suspect. If I had any proof, the responsible party would be under arrest."


"It's against Galactic Alliance law to attack a Space Command officer engaged in the performance of his or her duty, but an even more serious crime than that was committed. My attacker intentionally created a clone. Two in fact. The first cloning process, where the cloning of you and the others began, was entirely accidental, so no charges were ever being considered for that."

"I assure you, Commander, that I had nothing to do with it."

"Yet you keep seeking to have my clones turned over to you; clones that were created as a direct result of the attack on my person."

"I only felt they would be happier with someone who didn't hate them."

"Hate them? What makes you think that I hate them?"

"Just the way that you act; such as your insistence that the process was illegal under galactic law and had to be stopped immediately."

Jenetta smiled. "I'm sorry if you misread me. I don't hate any of them; not a one. Their method of birth was no more their choice, than our birth was our choice. As to the process, it is illegal under galactic law, and it is my job to enforce galactic law, not circumvent it. The matter is academic now. The process has been stopped and the equipment dismantled. Right now my job is to make sure that it doesn't fall into Raider hands, so if you'll excuse me?"

Doctor Peterson just nodded once, turned away, and walked towards the mess hall. Jenetta returned to the command center to await further developments. If the Raiders were there for the cloning equipment, she shouldn't have long to wait.

Chapter Eleven

~ February 14th, 2270 ~

The Raider ship didn't attempt to make contact for thirty-six hours. Perhaps it took that long for them to size up the situation and verify that they had correctly identified their target location. The command center continued to monitor all RF frequencies during the entire time and no distress calls originated from any of the other camps on the planet. Jenetta and her two clones passed their waking hours talking, in what to others would be like thinking out loud while facing two mirrors. Each knew what the others were going to say before it was uttered.

"Commander, message coming in," the com chief said.

Jenetta, Two, and Three all stood up and walked anxiously over to the com station. A face, or what passed for a face, filled the com station screen. The head belonged to a Tsgardi, a warlike race originating on a planet thirteen-hundred light-years beyond the Galactic Alliance's outermost border. More closely resembling a tall, skinny, upright Terran baboon with short, thick, grey fur, than a human, the anthropoidal alien was the first that Jenetta had ever seen, other than as images in computer files.

The bridge of the alien craft, as seen in the viewscreen, was considerably different from that of Space Command vessels. For one thing, all the bridge personnel except the captain were standing at their stations. He had the only chair in sight, and the height of the stations meant that they would not be easily accessible from sitting positions. It would require a close examination to determine all the differences, but such information was probably already in Space Command databases.

"I'm Atakis Verdisqi, ship's captain. I'm calling the person in charge at the Loudescott archeological investigation site." It was clear that a translation device was being used to produce the Amer language statement since his vocal orifice had closed several seconds before the message ended.

"No outgoing image," Jenetta said to the operator, then nodded that she was ready to talk. "This is the person in charge. What can we do for you, Captain?"

"First, you can show yourself, as I have done."

"We're operating with portable equipment. The vid camera is malfunctioning and we don't have a spare. Our camp doesn't have all the niceties available on a spaceship."

"I don't believe you–– but I'll let it go for now. As long as you cooperate, no one will be harmed."

"That's a rather unusual statement coming from a Raider. You people never leave everyone unharmed, which is why people always choose to fight when you show up."

The captain laughed. "Us? Raiders? We're not Raiders. We're just a private concern. You might call us contractors. We do work for the Raiders on occasion, a lot more during the past two years then ever before, but we're still independents."

"But you're working for the Raiders now?"

"Yes, but we don't want to harm anyone. That way Space Command won't go out of its way to track us down. We like to maintain a low profile. Just give us what we want, we'll be on our way, and nobody will be harmed."

"What is it that you want?"

"Ahh, that's what I like to hear, a reasonable attempt to negotiate. What we're after today is the cloning device that you people have uncovered. Give us that and we'll leave as soon as we have it onboard. Then you can continue working as you have before."

"Cloning device? What makes you think that we have a cloning device?"

"Please, we were just starting to get on so well. Don't start to think that we're stupid. We know that you have a cloning device. One thing that I've come to appreciate is Raider intelligence information. If they tell me you have it, it's guaranteed that you do."

"All we have are ancient artifacts. Can I interest you in a complete set of twenty-thousand-year-old plastic dishes? They're in pristine condition, and even carry a full color company logo."

"We just want the cloning equipment; and I don't care when it was made. Now, are you going to give it to us— or do we take it?"

"You could try to take it," Jenetta said ominously.

"Now that's the response of a military person. You're obviously not a member of the scientific team."

"I never said that I was."

"That's right, you didn't. If you're expecting the Prometheus to return and save you, forget it. It won't be back for several months. Our decoy ship will continue to send out phony distress calls until the Spaccs are a week away, then slip away after going silent. We've been standing by for weeks so the Spaccs would be at least a month away when we moved in. We've cut off your communications so you can't contact the ship or Space Command at Higgins. You're totally isolated. Now give us the equipment or a lot of innocent people are going to get hurt."

"I can't do that, and you can't take it."

"No? We have your site on our monitors. The three shelters aren't going to afford you much protection. We can overrun your location in a few minutes and you have no means of escape."

"If you move in, you'll either destroy the equipment in your attack, or we'll destroy it before you can take it away. Either way you don't get it."

"If we don't get it, our orders are to make sure that no one else does, and–– that there aren't any witnesses left."

"Now that's the response I expect of a Raider, or a Raider lackey."

The Tsgardi captain paused for a few seconds. From the change of expression on his face, Jenetta felt that she had struck a nerve with the 'lackey' comment. She wondered what the translated word or expression was, and how closely it resembled the Amer meaning.

"I'll give you a couple of GST hours to think about it," the Tsgardi said, obviously struggling to keep his composure. "I'll contact you once more before we move in. Live or die. It's your choice." The screen went blank.

Jenetta immediately turned to the com operator. "Did they stop jamming while we talked?"

"No, Commander. They're using a standard radio frequency in the EHF band. RF frequencies still aren't being jammed. Only IDS traffic is blocked."

"Then we can still send a message out?"

"Well, yes. But my small children will be parents with children of their own before it reaches a Space Command base."

"Maybe, maybe not. Record a message for transmission using an RF com frequency in the microwave spectrum."

"Yes ma'am. You can begin at any time."

"This is Commander Jenetta Carver of Space Command, speaking from the Loudescott archeological site on Mawcett. The Earth date is February 14th, 2270. A Tsgardi spaceship captain named Atakis Verdisqi, who's admitted to working for the Raiders, has announced his intention to attack us if we don't turn over certain valuable artifacts to him and his crew. I've refused. He's given us two hours to reconsider before commencing his attack. His ship has blocked all com traffic except for old RF spectrum communications. If anyone intercepts this message, I ask that you relay it to the Higgins Space Command Base at Vinnia using an IDS com channel. Carver out." Jenetta turned to the com operator. "Repeat that three times in a burst signal and send it in the clear. Then continue sending the burst every five minutes until I tell you to stop."

"Aye, Commander." A few seconds later the operator said, "First burst sent, Ma'am."

"Any problem?"

"No, Ma'am. They still aren't blocking RF spectrum signals. The old frequencies are wide open, with only the normal background static."

Jenetta, Two, and Three returned to the table that they were using for a desk, to discuss the situation.

"We have three choices," Jenetta said.

"Use the shuttles to get some of the equipment away," Two said, "bring it back in and seal the entrance, or have the engineers create some kind of a mockup and offer that to the Tsgardi. They're so ignorant that they wouldn't know it wasn't the real thing, unless they've been given an accurate description of what the real equipment looks like."

"If they know about the equipment, they've probably received a description," Three said, "just to make sure that we don't try to pull that kind of stunt. We'd best play it safe."

"So it looks like option number one is the only logical choice," Jenetta said. "A shuttle might be able to send a message to Space Command on the IDS band if it makes it out beyond the jamming range. The way that the equipment has been divvied up, if the Raiders don't get both shuttles and the remaining pieces down here, they can't ever reassemble it and get it working."

"Who goes?" Two said.

"Jen has to stay here," Three said. "She's the senior Space Command officer, and was left in command."

Jenetta, lost in thought, said, "Why haven't they jammed com traffic in the RF spectrum?"

"They don't consider it a threat because of the distance to the nearest base or ship?" offered Two.

"Or because they wouldn't have been able to issue their ultimatum without turning off the IDS jamming signal and giving us an opportunity to broadcast a signal to Higgins?" Three added.

"Or simply because they don't have the necessary equipment to block it," Jenetta said. "We know that Tsgardi have no home world in this part of the galaxy. We've wiped out such a large part of the Raider operation here that they have to be pulling as many ships and 'contractors' as they can from elsewhere. Their resources have to be finite. I hope this attack doesn't signal a return to pirate activity by the Raiders. The past year, free from pirate attacks in this part of space, has been wonderful."

"I wonder how many crewmembers there are in the Tsgardi ship," Three said.

"If they're truly independents, they probably try to keep crew size as small as possible to reduce expenses between jobs," Two said.

"We still only have two companies of Marines," Jenetta said. "A force of sixty combatants is adequate to control any situation that might have arisen on the surface, but it's not sufficient to take on a Raider ship with any hope of winning."

"I wish that we'd had the foresight to have a couple of squadrons of fighters left with us," Three said.

"We couldn't have foreseen an attack by Raiders," Two said. "The Battle for Higgins had to have pretty much pulled their teeth in this part of the galaxy."

"I should have anticipated the possibility for technology this important," Jenetta said. "It's my fault." She knew that if the equipment, whether intact or damaged, fell into Raider hands, her career in Space Command would effectively be over. At one time a Terran military person who failed dramatically was expected to fall on their sword. That tradition had long such passed. Now, they you only made you wish you'd fallen on your sword. An individual that allowed the 'greatest scientific find of the century' to fall into Raider hands would certainly never captain a warship. She already had a black mark against her on this mission for allowing herself to be cloned. If the Raiders got their hands on the equipment, she could probably be charged with culpable negligence.  It didn't matter that the base was undermanned and out-gunned. The equipment had been entrusted to her custody. The best she might hope for now was an assurance that the Raiders wouldn't get enough to even ascertain how it worked. At least then she might not be dishonorably discharged from the service.

"The Raiders were all but wiped out in this deca-sector when the Raider-One base was destroyed," Two said. "Then between the Battle of Vauzlee and the Battle for Higgins they lost eighty-seven more ships from their nearest other bases. You couldn't defend against every possible contingency, and the Prometheus doesn't have unlimited resources."

"Let's worry about blame later," Three said. "Right now we have to develop our strategy."

"Yes," Jenetta said, suppressing all emotional expression. "Where should the shuttles go?"

"Separate directions," Two said. "Make it as difficult as possible for the Raiders to round them all up."

"One should head towards Vinnia," Three said. "It's the closest base. The closer they get, the better the chances that they'll encounter a Space Command vessel."

"The direction that the Prometheus headed is almost directly away from Vinnia," Jenetta said, "so another should head that same way."

"The third can head towards Nordakia," Two said. "It's as good a direction as any."

"How long would it take the Tsgardi ship to round them all up if they leave at the same time?" Three thought aloud.

"Shuttles are limited to Sub-Light speeds since they aren't equipped with temporal field generators," Jenetta said. "The Tsgardi ship should be able to make Light-187, or maybe even Light-225. I doubt if it can travel faster, but let's assume Light-300, just for argument's sake."

"Their top speed doesn't matter," Two said. "With FTL, the Tsgardi ship can overtake any shuttle leaving the planet within a few minutes."

"But then they'll have a problem," Three said. "If they don't want to risk damaging the equipment, they can't just start blasting away. They'll have to very carefully target the engines to halt the shuttle. The pilot can keep dodging and weaving to make that more difficult, but in the end, the shuttle can't escape. Also, the Tsgardi may be poor shots and might destroy the craft entirely."

"Or they may simply puncture the hull and the pilot will lose atmosphere," Jenetta said.

"So the pilot must be wearing an E.V.A. suit," Two said.

"But that will only delay the inevitable," Three said. "The pilot is doomed either way. And once the shuttle is halted, the Tsgardi are free to pursue and stop the others."

"The longer it takes to collect the first shuttle, the more time the others have to get away," Two said. "And with objects as tiny and slow as a shuttle, DeTect system efficiencies drop off quickly after a billion kilometers."

"But at a shuttle's top speed, it will take 2.8 hours to reach the billion kilometer point," Three said. "The Tsgardi will catch all three long before they can get far enough away to lose themselves in space."

"We might be able to arrange it so the Tsgardi don't realize that more than one shuttle has departed," Jenetta said.

"Yes," Two said, "We can ensure which one they go after first, by sending up one alone, and waiting until the Tsgardi ship breaks orbit to pursue."

"Then the others fly close to the planet surface until they reach a point directly opposite the flight path of the first shuttle," Three said. "When they leave the planet's atmosphere, they keep the planet between them and the Tsgardi ship pursuing the first shuttle."

"When we were talking to the Tsgardi captain," Jenetta said, "I didn't see any holo-tables in the background. If they're relying solely on standard two-dimensional image screens for DeTect observations, the Raiders will never even know that the others have left because the planet's icon will be superimposed over the shuttle icons."

 "So one of us deliberately sacrifices herself for the other two," Two said, "and does everything that she can to prolong the capture to give them time to escape. At four-billion kilometers out, the others can change course and head directly for their destinations with little fear of being detected by the Tsgardi. They'll also transmit an IDS message as soon as they're a hundred-million kilometers away. The jamming satellites around this planet will prevent the Tsgardi from even knowing that a signal was sent. The jamming makes them as deaf and dumb as we presently are."

"Assuming that there's only one Raider ship out there," Three said.

"Yes," Jenetta said. "We have to face the possibility that this is a trap to draw in ships coming to rescue us."

"Possible, but not likely," Two said. "This technology is too valuable to risk having it lost in a fight. I think that they'd want to get in quick, grab the prize, and get away. And if they wanted to draw in other ships, they wouldn't have blocked our IDS communications."

"Okay," Jenetta said, "the two shuttles carrying equipment will travel together towards Higgins. Only if they DeTect pursuit by the Tsgardi, will they split up."

"Then the only remaining question is, 'when do we leave?' Now, or after the Tsgardi captain calls again," Three said.

"During," Jenetta said.

"That'll be interesting," Two said. "Will his crew interrupt him while he's talking?"

"It may give us an additional minute if he's preoccupied with giving his 'prepare to die, Terran scum' speech," Three said.

"So who goes?" Jenetta asked.

"Me," Two said. "You're needed here and I'm the next oldest."

"By less than seven days," Three protested.

"As base commander, it's my decision," Jenetta said. "Two, I'm sorry— you'll take the first shuttle. You'll head directly away from Vinnia. The other shuttles will lift off as soon as you've drawn off the Raiders and they can get away without being detected. They'll head directly towards Vinnia, so keep the planet between your ship and their course for as long as you possibly can. The umbra cone in which the other shuttles will remain indiscernible is considerable and will allow you quite a bit of room for maneuvering. Your astrogation computer will alert you if you move too close to the edge."

"Right, Jen," Two said.

"Who takes the other shuttles?" Three asked.

"You'll take one and I'll find a volunteer for the third. In seventeen minutes you'll be beyond a hundred-million kilometers from Mawcett and outside the jamming range, so you can send a mayday message to the base asking for emergency support. If the message gets out, a ship from Higgins can make it here in as little as thirty days, if they have a decent top speed. We might even get lucky and reach someone who's already much closer. We're a bit off the beaten path here, but you never know who's on patrol. The shuttles should have at least a week's worth of emergency rations on board. We'll add another ninety days worth, in consideration of our DNA enhanced appetites. Someone will definitely reach you within five weeks."

With their plan formulated, the women began to make preparations so they'd be ready when the Tsgardi captain made contact again. Lieutenant Crocker immediately volunteered to pilot the third shuttle when offered the opportunity, and was briefed on the plan. Marine Captain Greene sat in on the briefing and was advised of the role that he and his people would play. Then it became simply a matter of executing the plan.

Tension filled the command center as everyone waited for the Tsgardi captain to make contact again. All three shuttle pilots were sitting nervously at the controls of the three ships, suited up in bulky E.V.A. suits, just waiting for the signal. Their courses had been plotted and entered into the navigation system on each small ship.

When Captain Verdisqi's disagreeable countenance once again filled the communications monitor, Jenetta stalled as she gave the signal to commence the operation. The order was relayed to Marines standing by to open the end of the shelter containing the first shuttle. Two had already engaged the 'oh gee' system and raised the craft enough to retract the landing skids. As the end panels swung clear, she flew the shuttle out slowly, then punched the throttle as the vehicle gained enough separation that the vortices of opposed gravity waves would not effect the Marines or the shelter.

Verdisqi continued to glower at the screen and ignore the voices calling for his attention as he demanded her answer, while Jenetta again asked him to state the terms of surrender for the equipment. The Tsgardi captain was growing angry with the stall and ignored other voices calling for his attention as he ranted at Jenetta. The com screen suddenly went blank.

The tactical station operator announced, "Commander, the shuttle is away from the planet. The Raider ship hasn't moved yet. The transmission went dead from the source."

It took the Tsgardi captain more than five minutes to decide on a course of action. His first step was to examine the site optically. Only when they spotted the open end of the shelter did they realize that they had been duped into thinking that the base didn't have any transportation. Then he had to decide whether or not to pursue. If he didn't, key elements of the cloning process might be lost to him, but it might also simply be an attempt to get far enough away from the jamming equipment to send a signal. He didn't expect to be around long enough to be caught here, but catching the shuttle before it got to clear space might buy extra time needed to overrun the base without having the equipment destroyed. In the end, he decided that he couldn't afford to let the shuttle get away. The Tsgardi ship left orbit in hot pursuit.

Seeing the ship leave orbit made it clear that there weren't any other ships out there. If there were, the captain would simply have sent one of them after the shuttle, rather than leaving the planet unobserved. As soon as the Tsgardi ship was gone, Jenetta gave the order for the other two shuttles to depart. The ends of the shelters were opened, and the ships flew off on their mission. Unlike with the first shelter, the ends of the other two were closed back up again so the returning Tsgardi ship wouldn't know that two other shuttles had been secreted there.

With the shuttles away, the base prepared for the expected attack. Two torpedoes from the ship could probably flatten the entire area, but Jenetta was gambling that they wouldn't want to risk damaging the equipment. The Marines climbed into their personal battle armor and prepared their positions in the trenches around the facility. The battle armor wouldn't protect them from a direct hit by a gunship-mounted laser or kinetic weapon, but each armor surface did provide camouflage by duplicating the patterns and colors on the opposite side of the Marine. It enabled them to blend into the background better than a Nordakian. It also blocked all thermal readings produced by a warm body, while mimicking the temperature of the surroundings. Lastly, since it had an inner layer of lightweight tritanium, the same material as the hull of the Prometheus, the wearer was protected from direct hits by most hand-held weapons and from most collateral damage resulting from nearby explosions.

The Tsgardi ship didn't return to planetary orbit for six hours, and when it did, it came from the direction that the first shuttle had taken. Jenetta calculated that the second and third shuttles, having attained Sub-Light-100, should be more than two-billion kilometers away. Although the small ships might appear on the DeTect equipment in the Raider ship, they wouldn't activate any alarms since there was no risk of a collision. And given their small size and slow speed, the Tsgardi tac officer might simply dismiss them as simply being natural celestial objects such as tiny asteroids. That is, if he even noticed them and realized that they were moving. Limited to Sub-Light speeds, the shuttles could never reach Higgins SCB on their own, but once the base received their IDS transmission, a Space Command vessel would be dispatched immediately. The jamming satellite, placed in the planet's ionosphere by the Tsgardi, would continue to prevent them from even being aware that a signal for help had been sent until an SC warship appeared on their sensors. So now, the base defenders just had to hang on until the cavalry came to the rescue.

The Tsgardi captain didn't attempt to communicate with the base until the following morning. Jenetta had finished breakfast and was enjoying a cup of coffee when the call came in. She hurried to the command center to respond.

"This is the Commander," Jenetta said.

"Oh, Commander is it?" The Raider captain said. "Well, Commander, we have one of your officers up here. She refuses to cooperate, and wears no rank insignia, but we know from her slave imprint that she's Lt. Commander Jenetta Carver. If you don't turn over the cloning equipment, you'll never see her again. How would that look to your Galactic Alliance? I'm sure they don't want to lose their biggest hero."

"She knew the risks, and she knows we'd rescue her if we could. But she also knows that we won't pay ransom for any Space Command officer, or every piece of scum in the galaxy would be trying to kidnap them. Tell her we're sorry and that we wish her well."

"What kind of people are you?!" the Tsgardi captain screamed. "How can you leave your people to die with your enemies? Don't you have some rule about never leaving anyone behind in an engagement?"

"The engagement isn't over yet, Captain."

The captain didn't respond for a few seconds. "Brave talk, but you don't have a chance. We could destroy you in seconds, but we want the technology more."

"You'll have to learn to live with failure then."

"I'm afraid that you, on the other hand, won't live long enough to learn any new lessons."

The com screen suddenly went blank. Jenetta knew that their fate would be the same whether she had complied or not. If she had turned over the equipment, the Tsgardi would have either killed all witnesses or taken them as slaves. That's really how the Tsgardi kept a low profile. Like their Raider bosses, they didn't leave anyone behind to point fingers.

The attack on the base didn't come for several more hours. Fighters began making low level passes, firing at marine positions, but being extra careful to avoid the two closed shelters. The marines tried to fire their shoulder-mounted SAM's at the fighters, but the treetop level tactics made it difficult to hit anything because the fighters were overhead and then out of sight before anyone could lock on. Fortunately, low altitude tactics made it equally difficult for the fighters to target the marine positions. Whenever a fighter moved to a higher elevation to get a clearer shot, the marines also had a clearer shot and the fighter didn't survive to make another pass.

After eight fighters had been shot down, the Raiders broke off their attack, but by then the base had suffered six dead and seven wounded. All had been taken below to the facility. Of the seven wounded, four were patched up and returned to duty, two had suffered serious injuries, and one was critical. Jenetta knew that before the fight was over, a lot more might die.

The second attack, a ground assault by mechanized forces, began about four hours later. It was impossible to tell if the six armored vehicles were manned, but their rate of fire was prodigious. The Marines responded with shoulder mounted launchers that fired telemetry guided rockets. The weapons were partially successful, taking out two of the behemoths, but in the end, the Marines had to fall back. Jenetta ordered every one into the facility. The main door was then closed for the first time since Space Command had assumed control of the site. Jenetta had created a special password in the computer so it could be locked. If someone at the dig site had solved the riddle of the language, and was in the employ of the Raiders, they couldn't let their confederates in even if everyone else in the facility was incapacitated. Besides Jenetta, only the three marine officers knew the password and how to open the door once it was sealed.

As soon as the door closed, all communication and sensor information was lost, including the signals from the topside remote vid cameras, so they were now blind, deaf, and dumb to the outside world. They were, in effect, buried alive.

Hours later they began to hear noises, as if someone were pounding on a solid steel anvil with a sledgehammer, but the ringing sound seemed a very long way off. Verdisqi had probably thought he won when the Marines pulled back, but if he expected to find the equipment in the topside shelters, he was probably spitting endless streams of profanities by now. Jenetta knew that the facility door wouldn't yield to conventional forced entry methods so she relaxed and let everyone catch their breath as the injured Marines were cared for. She didn't know how long it would take the Tsgardi to resort to explosives, but they had prepared for a long siege. The tunnel entrance leading down to the power supply facility had been filled in again with dirt to prevent the Raiders from finding it, and Jenetta was confident they could hold out until the facility entrance was breached.

* * *

Atakis Verdisqi, captain of the Boshdyte, swore repeatedly and kicked the door that had so far defied all their efforts. He knew, or at least suspected, that his quarry was inside laughing at him, and that made him even angrier. He swung the short whip, rather like a riding crop, at the nearest crewman and ordered him to go to the ship and retrieve a plasma torch. Verdisqi vowed that when he got his hands on the Commander, he would squeeze her neck until her head popped off.

* * *

Turning to Captain Gavin on the bridge of the Prometheus, the com chief said, "Priority-One message from Higgins Space Command Base, sir."

"I'll take it in my briefing room."

"Aye, sir."

Gavin lifted the com screen as he took his seat behind his desk. The face of Captain Richard Dommler, the officer in charge of fleet communications in the deca-sector, appeared when he selected the message from his queue and ordered the computer to play it.

"Larry, we've had a communication from Mawcett. It seems that the distress call you're responding to was just a ploy to draw you away from the planet. We've confirmed that the ship allegedly calling for help isn't even in the deca-sector. It picked up a shipment at the Hawking SCB transit cargo farm six days ago. We've also learned that your base on Mawcett is under attack by Tsgardi mercenaries working for the Raiders. It's recommended that you return to the planet as soon as possible, although you probably won't be in time to save the people that you left. Sorry to be the bearer of such bad news. Dommler out."

Gavin punched the two intercom buttons that would instantly connect him via CT to both the ship's astrogator and the helmsman on duty. "This is the captain. Lay in a course back to Mawcett and engage. Top speed."

"Yes sir," both said.

The enormous battleship began to swing almost immediately as the helmsman redirected the shape of the temporal envelopes being produced without even waiting for the final course coordinates from the astrogator. It took just forty-eight seconds to turn the ship a hundred-eighty degrees. That was significantly faster then dropping the envelope, using the Sub-Light engines to turn the ship around, and then rebuilding the envelope. They had left Mawcett over a month earlier and it would take that long to return. Gavin was forced to admit to himself that the landing party might only be a memory by the time they reached the planet. The Raiders were notorious for striking quickly and being gone before help could arrive, and he knew that the two companies of marines he'd left were no match for the resources aboard a Raider warship, even if it was a Tsgardi vessel. He cursed himself for being duped into rushing off to save a ship that had sent a phony distress signal, leaving his people to die against overwhelming odds.

Commander LaSalle was in the officer's mess when notified of the course change. She immediately rushed to the bridge. Not seeing the captain there, she walked briskly to his briefing room.

"Come," Gavin said in response to the computer's announcement that she was at the door.

The computer opened the doors as soon as the spoken command was received, and LaSalle walked to Gavin's desk.

"I was notified that we've reversed course, sir. Is there anything that I should be aware of?"

"The distress call was a ruse to get us away from Mawcett, and our base there is under attack by Raiders. They must have found out about the cloning somehow and are after the equipment."

"How many Raider ships, sir?"

"Unknown, but one would be more than enough to take the base. Shuttles can't mount a defense against fighters. Higgins believes that Commander Carver and her people are already lost, and I'd have to agree with them. I just hope the Raiders are still there when we get back. Find Captain Kanes, XO, and ask him to join me here."

"Aye, Captain," LaSalle said before turning and leaving the room. The expression on her face couldn't actually be described as a smile when she passed on the Captain's orders to the com operator, but one might assume she was enjoying an inside joke. The message was immediately relayed to Kanes' CT.

It took twenty minutes for Kanes to get to the bridge. He'd just spent a couple of hours working out and was showering when he received the message. He hurriedly finished his shower, dressed, and jogged to the bridge. Gavin admitted him as soon as the computer announced Kanes' presence.

"You sent for me, Larry?"

"Have a seat, Keith. I've just received some bad news. The distress call was a phony. We've been sent on a wild goose chase so that Raiders could attack Mawcett in our absence."

"Raiders? How do you know?"

"I just received a message from Higgins. They've confirmed that the ship allegedly reporting distress isn't even in this deca-sector. It was at Hawking SCB just a week ago."

"God, and I thought that the distress call might be a trick to lure us into a Raider trap."

"You're not alone. I suspected the same thing."

"What about our people on the planet?"

"Higgins is writing them off. It's understandable. How long could two marine companies with light weapons hold out against an armed assault on the base?"

Captain Kanes shook his head. "I just hope that Commander Carver was able to destroy the cloning equipment before it could fall into Raider hands."

"If I know my second officer, you don't have to worry about that. The Raiders may get bits and pieces, but they'll never be able to make it work. Jen will have destroyed enough vital components to make it unusable and irreparable. Damn, I'll miss her. She was the best second officer in the fleet. Hell, for that matter she was the best first officer in the fleet."

"Don't write her off yet, Larry; she's pretty resourceful. I wouldn't have given her even one chance in ten thousand after she was captured by Raiders and imprisoned in their detention center, but we know how that turned out."

"Keith, she only had two companies with light weapons and field SAMs. How long could she possibly hold out against a Raider warship?"

"Anyone but her, and I'd probably agree. We know that she always credits luck for her successes, but also that she never relies on it. She'd recognize that the base was indefensible against a vastly superior force so she probably blew the facility so the Raiders couldn't get the cloning equipment and then moved into the forests. We may find her dirty, scraggly, and covered with a million bug bites, but still alive."

"I disagree. I think that she'd stay and defend the base. She would never leave those scientists to the mercies of the Raiders, and she couldn't drag them with her because the older ones wouldn't last a day on the run in that forest. No, she'd defend the base. She'd stay and fight to the last man."

"If you're right, then no one had a chance," Captain Kanes said.

"That's what I'm afraid of. My hope now is that the Tsgardi leave some sort of a signature so we'll know who did it. Then we'll track them down and avenge our people."

Chapter Twelve

~ February 21st, 2270 ~

During the week following their tactical retreat into the facility, noise could be heard almost constantly through the main door sealing off the underground complex on Mawcett. The Tsgardi were undoubtedly throwing everything they had against it, and discovering what the archeologists had learned months ago, that the door and outside sheathing of the facility was impervious to most efforts to break through. Muffled explosions had been heard several times, indicating that the Tsgardi captain's patience had worn thin and they were now testing different strengths of explosives in their efforts to enter the facility. If they were the least bit careless with their shaped charges, they might bring the entire tunnel roof down on themselves. So far, the door had held without showing any sign of wear, but Jenetta was growing increasingly anxious. Marines were stationed in the corridor at all times now, in case the door suddenly gave way.

The scientists had so far been able to control the dig site employees, but the labor force was growing progressively more restless. Food, water, and air were plentiful, but the sounds and objectives of the muffled explosions were unmistakable, and lack of productive activity provided lots of time to fuel imaginations. Jenetta decided that she should try to calm everyone so she announced she would speak to them after the evening meal.

When dinner was over and the tables had been cleared of dishes, Jenetta stepped up onto a table near the center of the group.

"If I might have your attention please?" Jenetta waited until all noise stopped. "I realize that some of you feel we should give up and let the Raiders have whatever they want, but that would be a terrible mistake. Once they have what they seek, they'll kill everyone, or take them as slaves. How many of you would care to spend the rest of your days digging ore as a slave on Poqdrawk, or servicing visitors on the moons of Kapatia as a pleasure slave after your mind has been wiped clean of everything that makes you an individual?"

"It's better than dying in here," someone said from the back of the room.

"You're not listening. They'll probably kill everyone anyway because Raiders don't leave witnesses. If you're not attractive, or in excellent physical condition, you'd have little value as a slave. Look, all we have to do is hold out long enough for a Space Command vessel to arrive. I'm sure that our two shuttles were able to send messages for emergency assistance as soon as they were away from the planet."

"You can't know that," someone else said.

"Not for one hundred percent certain, but I'm confident that it's true based on our available information. Even if they didn't get a message out, the fact that the planetary communications are being blocked means that no one on the outside can contact us. The museum headquarters on Anthius has had regular communication with the planet, and I'm sure that Higgins SCB has been trying to contact us since our daily traffic stopped. Either of those instances are reason enough for Space Command to send a ship to investigate. In any event, we have no choice but to hold out for as long as we can. You all know how impenetrable this place is. Your friends and co-workers didn't make a scratch on the door, not a single scratch, after using everything available to them."

"But they didn't use explosives like the Raiders have," a second person said.

"I'm not going to lie to you. I don't know how much force the door can withstand, but so far there's no sign of damage. If and when the door is breached, the marines will fight to the last man and woman before anyone gets in here. Stay in this room and you'll be as safe as I can make you. They'll still have to get through the mess hall entrance door, which is every bit as durable as the outer door. I suggest that you find something constructive to do until a Space Command warship arrives. Several cases of newly uncovered relics were brought in when you came. I'm sure that the doctors could use some help cleaning them up. Perhaps one of our scientists could give classes in the proper handling and cleaning. You're all going to be working here for quite a while. You have an entire planet to uncover."

Lynn Steen, one of the archeological assistants, raised her hand.

"Yes, Miss Steen?"

"I'll be happy to conduct some basic classes, if you like."

"Wonderful. I'll put you in charge of coordinating the classes. Perhaps you could convince a couple of the doctors to function as guest lecturers. This room is large enough to conduct classes in half a dozen places if you have the interest and the teachers."

When no other comments or offers came forward, Jenetta said, "I'll let you know when any new developments should be shared with you." Stepping down, she walked to the command center. She knew that they'd want to talk among themselves without her present.

The Tsgardi continued to attack the entrance, and by the end of another week, it was obvious that the door's shape had changed slightly. Jenetta was sure that it wouldn't slide into the frame anymore, so if the Tsgardi were to get in, or they to get out, the door would have to be completely removed from the opening.

Perhaps the only factor that had kept the door sealed as long as it had, was that by being located in an underground tunnel, heavy equipment from the surface couldn't be used on it. The tunnel was only two meters wide and they were nine meters below the surface. If it had been above ground the Raiders could have repeatedly run their armored vehicles against it. Not that it would have necessarily made a difference, but the limited space had obviated that option. Even so, the door was showing increasing signs of stress. They had been in the underground facility for two weeks already and Jenetta doubted that the door would hold out very much longer.

Jenetta knew that if the Tsgardi managed to open a crack large enough for a small tube, they could flood the facility with gas. They had enough gas masks for the military personnel, but not for everyone in the base, and Jenetta didn't know how good a job the excellent air filtration system would do against a gas attack. Not that gas would help the Tsgardi gain entry, but it might be used as a last resort to eliminate possible witnesses. It would be pointless though, if the Tsgardi couldn't gain entrance. The communications had been recorded, and the Tsgardi couldn't destroy them if they couldn't get in.

Jenetta was in the command center, thinking about the problem, when a marine informed her that one of the scientists wished to speak with her in the corridor. She walked out to find Bruce Priestly waiting.

"Commander, if I could have a few minutes of your time, I have some information to share."

"I just so happen to have lots of time right now, Mr. Priestly. What would you like to tell me?"

"Well, you see, uh, I uh, I've spent a lot of time digging around here. In fact it was me who first discovered the door to this facility."

"I've been informed of that fact. Well done, Mr. Priestly."

Bruce Priestly had more to say but didn't know where to begin. Jenetta had nothing pressing so she gave him the time that he needed to get it out. Finally, after much hemming and hawing, he said, "Commander, I know of a way out of this facility, other than the main door. I ask that those who wish to leave, be allowed to do so before the Raiders break in."

The revelation by Bruce Priestly sent Jenetta's mind racing. The mystery of the phantom attacker had never been solved. The engineers had, by now, examined every square centimeter of the interior walls of the facility, and no other means of entrance or exit had been found.

Jenetta continued to look at him for about five seconds before saying, "You know of a way into and out of this facility, other than the main entrance door?"

"Yes, I do. You see, I uncovered a network of sewers under this area. This must have been part of a large industrial complex at one time, as the sewer network is quite extensive."

"I see. And you discovered this entrance when? Since we've been under siege?"

"No, it was before you brought us all in here. Once you arrived on the planet, and we were denied all further access to this facility, I went back to work exploring the sewer network to see if it would lead me to any more such underground complexes. While following a branch line I came up under this facility, although I didn't know that at the time. I only knew that I'd found a sealed entrance into something. I worked on it for a couple of days by myself and finally broke through, finding myself in here. Knowing that I shouldn't be here, I immediately left."

"And where is this connection with the sewers?"

"Right under that third large tile there," Bruce said, pointing to one of the large, square, marble-like slabs that covered the floor throughout the facility.

Jenetta walked over to examine it. The slab seemed solidly integrated with the flooring, with no obvious signs of having been moved recently. There didn't appear to be any way to remove it without destroying the floor.

"How do you get it up?"

"Well, I lifted it from underneath, and then just lowered it back in place."

Jenetta turned to a marine that was stationed near the door to the command center. "Call Captain Greene, please."

The guard turned to face into the room and said in a raised voice, "Captain, the Commander wishes to see you."

A few seconds later the Captain arrived and Jenetta filled him in. "Do you have some sort of a vacuum device with your equipment that we can use to lift that floor tile without damaging it?"

"We have nothing like that in our equipment, ma'am. Perhaps the ship's engineers can rig something?"

"Ask them please."

While Greene went to find the engineers, Jenetta turned back to Bruce Priestly.

"You say you worked on this by yourself? No laborers?"

"After I announced the discovery of this facility, I wasn't allowed inside after the first visit. I wanted to have a chance to examine whatever new facilities I found before I was excluded again. I didn't use any laborers to open the sealed sewer entrance because word would have gotten back to the others."

"Mr. Priestly, you're Doctor Peterson's main assistant, are you not?"

"Yes, Commander."

"And as such you have access to his quarters?"

"Yes, as does most everyone else since he lives in a tent."

"But you could come and go without anyone thinking it odd or suspicious?"

"I suppose. What are you driving at?"

"You're also a specialist in dead languages, as I recall."

"Yes, Commander."

"Why did you attack me and use the equipment here to create clones of me?"

"What? I never attacked you, Commander."

"What do you call it? Do you deny that you snuck in, put Zelem in my coffee, and then cloned me?"

"I most certainly do deny it. I never put anything into your coffee or intentionally made any clones."

"But you did sneak in? If you didn't, then why wait so long to tell me about this tunnel?"

"I, uh, uh, didn't want to get into trouble for being in the facility."

Greene returned with two engineers carrying a device they had rigged up from things included in the field mess hall and mobile hospital sent down from the Prometheus. It looked like they had used pieces of clear flexible tubing to attach turkey basters to large, rubber, sink drain covers. Each engineer applied a drain cover to their side of the tile and then pumped the turkey basters before clamping off the tubing with a hemostat. They looked at each other and nodded, then gently pulled on the formed handles of the rubber drain covers. The tile was heavy but the vacuum created by the rigged device allowed it to be lifted easily. The undamaged slab was stored upright against the wall. Revealed beneath its former resting spot was a half-meter diameter pipe leading downward into blackness. Metal alloy rungs in the side wall provided a means of descent.

"Mr. Priestly," Jenetta asked, "how far can a person walk without being observed from the surface?"

"I haven't followed all the tunnels yet, but I've gone more than a kilometer underground without any indication that the sewer was ending."

Jenetta turned to Captain Greene. "Captain, I'm sure that your people are tired of sitting around. Maybe you could send two squads out to reconnoiter the sewer tunnels and find us a safe path away from here. We'll also need a new place of concealment, large enough for everyone."

"Will do, Commander," he said grinning. "I do have a few people that are ready to jump out of their skin if they can't do something other than sit around on their arse."

"Make sure they don't engage the Raiders unless it's in defense of their lives. We want this to be a surreptitious mobilization."

"Aye, Commander."

"Thank you, Mr. Priestly," Jenetta said, "you may have saved a number of lives by sharing this information."

Jenetta walked to the mess hall to get a cup of coffee as Marine Captain Greene went to brief his lieutenants. He posted several armed Marines near the now open sewer shaft before leaving.

As she entered the mess hall, Jenetta observed that several classes were in progress. The scientists had elaborated upon her idea and were actually teaching courses in archeology to the dig site laborers that were interested. Since there wasn't anything else to do except talk or sleep, the classes were filled. Jenetta prepared her coffee and returned to the corridor in time to see Marines climbing down the newly uncovered shaft. A full squad was detailed to guard the opening.

Time seemed to slow after the Marine patrols left. If they were detected in the tunnels, the Tsgardi might realize that there was an alternate entrance to the facility. It would be difficult to track back to the entrance but they would put all their resources into the effort since they were having such difficulty with the door. The two squads on patrol were restricted from using com links because their signals might be picked up. Jenetta wouldn't have any updates until they actually returned to the base.

Reemerging from the black shaft about six hours later, the two lieutenants in command of the squads gave their reports in the command center to Captain Greene and Jenetta. Deploying in opposite directions, the squads had spent hours following the dry and dusty sewer lines beneath what must have been a very large city at one time.

"We followed the lines as they converged with other lines, getting larger or smaller as they went," Lieutenant Taggert explained. "After several hours of exploration, my squad discovered a pumping and treatment plant that's buried well below the surface. Whatever buildings were above it must have collapsed onto it as they decayed, but the place is solid, and there doesn't seem to be any danger of roof collapse. It's pretty dusty and dirty but it's somewhat defensible because it has to be totally invisible from the surface. The only way in is through the tunnels."

"How far is it from here?" Captain Greene asked.

"About two klicks. It's not a difficult walk, won't expose anyone to the Tsgardi, and it's almost completely dry the entire way."

"Any sign that the Tsgardi have entered the tunnels?" Jenetta asked.

"None at all. They're probably not even aware of the existence of the sewers."

"Let's hope," Jenetta said. "Tomorrow morning we'll start moving our base. We'll need enough food and water for a month, plus whatever other supplies we can carry. We won't move the less ambulatory civilians and wounded until the new base is completely set up, unless the Tsgardi get the door opened sooner."

All personnel not on security duty were pressed into service the following morning. That included all of the civilian laborers, people accustomed to hard work. A line of workers, stretching almost a quarter of a kilometer into the tunnel, was formed from the shaft entrance out into the sewer tunnel system so food and supplies could be moved quickly by being passed from individual to individual. All supplies were first moved into the main tunnel and stacked along the walls so that the base could be abandoned quickly if the Tsgardi broke through the entrance. A hose found in the kitchen was used to fill collapsible polyethylene containers carried empty into the main sewer tunnel, averting the chore of having to negotiate the narrow shaft beneath the facility with the tenuous water containers. Then the job of carrying everything to the new base began. It took the better part of the day to move everything to the new base, just two kilometers away.

That evening they enjoyed their last showers and hot meals for a while. Enough water for drinking and food preparation had been moved to the new base, but no one would be bathing. On the plus side, as soon as the floor panel had been removed, communication and sensor information had been restored. The bottom side of the tile appeared to be surfaced with the same material as the door. They learned that there was still just one ship in orbit, so the situation hadn't worsened. It was small consolation.

 The entrance door was beginning to show obvious signs of buckling as explosion after explosion was heard in the facility, and with time running out, the besieged group completed their evacuation. Jenetta closed and password locked all the doors in the facility before also climbing down the shaft. Captain Greene was the last to descend into the sewer, and after using the Nordakian commands that Jenetta had taught him to turn off all lights and life support systems, he carefully lowered the large, heavy floor tile into place and climbed down the metal rungs. When the Tsgardi Raiders broke through the entrance door, they would be faced with an empty, darkened corridor and locked doors of similar construction to the one they had spent weeks trying to open.

By midnight, everyone was settled into the new base. All tracks showing their passage had been carefully swept away, and simulated barriers of decayed debris had been carefully assembled in the tunnels leading to the facility and to their new base in the pumping station. Even if the Tsgardi did find their way to the pumping station, the cover on the shaft leading up into the facility was securely latched down.

The pumping station was dry, but filthy, and the silence seemed deafening after days of listening to the increasing assaults on the facility's main door. Over the next couple of days the station was cleaned as much as possible. An office area was cleared to serve as the command center. The scientists were delighted with the find and spent their time examining the pumping equipment and any artifacts that they could find. The laborers did most of the cleaning and took everything that they found to a central collection point for the scientists to examine further. The dryness of the station had helped preserve everything in it.

After several days, Captain Greene began seeking permission to send out scouts to see what was going on. Jenetta at first refused, even though she knew she needed intel. When several more days had passed, Jenetta finally gave permission, with the understanding that the scouts were to avoid contact with the Tsgardi at all costs. If discovered, they had orders to lead the Tsgardi away from the pumping station encampment.

Each team of scouts sent out, returned safely, and their reports were always the same. Raider support personnel were observed relaxing above ground near the tunnel entrance. Most of them were Tsgardi, but there were a few Terrans working with them.

The days wore on slowly. Jenetta could stand the cold food, but was dying for a steaming mug of coffee. They couldn't risk having the Raiders spot smoke or smell hot food, though, so cold food and plain water would have to suffice. The scientists had resumed the classes in Archeology, but interest had waned in the primitive, dirty, and uncomfortable living conditions.

An excited scout team returned one evening with news that the Tsgardi were gone. Captain Green confirmed that sensors weren't picking up any sign of a ship in orbit, but the com chief reported that the IDS signals were still being jammed. Jenetta decided to stay under cover for now, because it could be ruse to draw them out of their hiding place. The ship could simply have moved to the other side of the planet where it would be hidden from their sensors.

Two more days passed before Jenetta sent out scouting teams with orders to look for indications that the Tsgardi had really departed. Captain Greene led a small team into the facility from the sewer tunnel shaft. Each member was issued a gas mask, and would wear it until the air quality was tested and met minimum safe requirements.

A Marine returned from the facility team within two hours to report that the door had held. The facility was intact, except that the main door would never open normally again. Jenetta told the Marine to return to the facility and tell Captain Greene to remain there, unless the Tsgardi returned.

The outside patrols reported back a few hours later. The Tsgardi had packed up and moved out, taking everything they could plunder, including the three Space Command shelters. The even took the empty, quarter-high shipping container used to send supplies to the base before the Prometheus left orbit.

Jenetta decided that it might be safe to move back to the facility, but there was still a danger. It had been almost a month since the Tsgardi first appeared, and if at least one of the shuttles had managed to get away, then help from Higgins base at Vinnia should be arriving very soon. The only thing weighing on Jenetta's mind was that IDS com traffic was still being blocked. It didn't make sense that the Tsgardi would leave the communications blocking satellites in orbit. They never left anything of value behind. If they had succeeded in overrunning the facility, they would surely have collected them. So they might only have left the surface to get the planet's inhabitants to come out of the impenetrable facility. They might be planning to come back once a false sense of security had been established. She decided that, for now, they should remain in the pumping station, although hot food would be prepared in the facility and carried to the pumping station for consumption. And as long as there were no indications of a ship in orbit, people could go to the facility in shifts to take showers.

Two days later, sensors detected a ship entering orbit. The pumping station base was put on immediate alert and a runner was sent to evacuate the facility. Once the station was secure, Jenetta ordered patrols be sent out to collect intelligence about any landings.

Less than an hour after the patrols left, both returned. Included in the party were fighter pilots from the Prometheus. Jenetta breathed deeply and released it slowly as the pilots approached her.

"We're astonished to find you still alive, Commander!" 1st Lt. Harrigan exclaimed. "Based on what we heard from Space Command, we only expected to find bodies."

"I'm surprised to see you also, Lieutenant. I didn't expect the Prometheus back for months. It's only March 16th. I was expecting a ship from Vinnia."

"I guess Space Command notified the Captain as soon as they learned we were on a fool's errand. He ordered a one-eighty and we returned here at full speed. I think that the engines were run at a hundred and ten percent all the way back. The Captain is on his way down now. As soon as we determined that the threat was gone, we informed the ship, and his shuttle left its bay."

A slight commotion behind the Lieutenant drew their attention and Captain Gavin strode into the room, grinning.

"Jen, thank God you're alive! How is the scientific party?" Looking at the pumping plant around him, he added, "I can't wait to hear your story about this!"

"All members of the scientific staff are safe and sound, sir, including their seventy-seven clones. I lost six of my Marines in the attacks though, plus–– one of my clones."

"Six is–– what? Did you say 'one of my clones'? As in clones of you?"

"Yes sir. The machine made two before we could shut it down."

"What the devil possessed you to make clones of yourself? Wait, don't tell me right now! Save it for your full report. I'm sure that Captain Kanes will want to hear this also. Let's go back up to the surface."

"Yes sir. Just let me make an announcement." The dig site members had all been crowding around trying to hear the news. Jenetta turned to look at them and said loudly, "The Prometheus has arrived back at the planet and all is secure. You can gather up your possessions and return to your top-side camp. Thank you for your cooperation during the past month."

As the dig site members whooped, hollered, whistled, and applauded, Jenetta and Gavin, with the pilots and Marines following, made their way to the surface via an access shaft located and cleared by one of the Marine patrols.

The area outside the facility was now covered with fighters from the Prometheus. Twenty-five fighter ships, plus two MATs were parked in and around the area that had originally been appropriated for the base. The wings of the fighters, always extended outwards for flight in a planetary atmosphere, where more responsive flight characteristics were achieved by pushing off from and redirecting the air flow, had been refolded flat against their bodies once the ships were down. The large, phased array laser, mounted in a swiveling nose turret, clearly established the lethality of the fighter craft. The squat, boxy-looking utilitarian MATs, not very much more aerodynamically sound than shipping containers, contrasted sharply with the sleek, narrow designs of the fighter ships.

The Tsgardi had picked the area clean, carting away anything and everything of any value that was removable. It was almost as if the Tsgardi had been trying to wipe away all trace of the scientific effort. They had even taken the stacks of packing crates used to hold the valuable artifacts, dug up during months of effort, after first dumping the contents out onto the ground. Of course the simple truth was that the Tsgardi were the biggest scavengers in the known galaxy. Little more than trash, and the excavated artifacts, remained at the archeological camp.

Kanes was closely examining the door to the facility when Jenetta and Gavin arrived outside the entrance in the tunnel. The area immediately outside the facility had been blasted to rubble, and it was incredible that the arched roof of the access tunnel hadn't collapsed.

"Commander, welcome back to the land of the living," Kanes said as they approached.

"Thank you, sir."

"Space Command has you listed as missing-in-action and presumed lost, by the way."

"I hope they weren't too quick to notify my parents of that. They've been through enough with my last missing and presumed lost."

"Standard procedure is to notify the family as soon as a determination is made. When our fighter squadrons made contact with your Marine patrols, and we learned that you were okay, we sent that information on to Space Command. I'm sure they'll notify your parents right away that you're safe and sound. How did you manage to keep the Raiders out? It looks like they threw everything they had at this door."

"All I did was close and lock the door, sir. We have the inhabitants from twenty thousand years ago to thank for our lives. Too bad the Prometheus isn't covered with this material. We wouldn't need three layers of outer skin and self-sealing membranes."

"I was thinking that myself. I suspect this base will remain under the authority of Space Command for a little longer than originally planned.

"If we can't use it for ships that must travel in the cold of outer space, I hope that we can at least use it for armored personnel carriers and body armor for our marines. It saved our bacon, and I know it can save a lot more lives."

"I'll pass on your recommendations, Commander. I assume that the cloning equipment was destroyed as a preventative measure against falling into enemy hands?"

"No sir. I sent a good deal of it to Vinnia in two of our shuttles after the third acted as a decoy to lure the Raiders away from the planet so the two could make their escape undetected. Part of the equipment is still here, rigged with explosives and motion detonators so it will blow if it's moved. You need all three parts to make it work."

"Do you know if the shuttle pilot survived?" Gavin asked.

"It was piloted by my sister. According to the Tsgardi captain, she was taken alive."

"Your sister?" Kanes said. "What are you talking about, Commander?"

"Commander Carver was cloned," Gavin said nonchalantly, watching Kanes closely to see his reaction.

"Cloned?" Kanes said, his eyes wide. "You were cloned? How many times?"

"Twice. We named them Two and Three, temporarily."


"The clones and me. We agreed on the simple names until we figured out how to classify them."

"What ever compelled you to clone yourself?" Kanes asked, then grinned and said, "Ah, the Raider attack."

"No sir. Someone drugged me and the process was started without my permission. As soon as we figured out how to shut down the machine, we did so. But by then there were seven clones of each of the eleven scientists and two clones of me."

"Have you discovered who drugged you and started the process?"

"No sir, and I don't think that we ever will. I think the person acted impulsively and without malice, only later realizing the seriousness of the charges that would be preferred against them if his or her identity was discovered. The drug is a commonly available sleeping aid and could have easily been stolen by someone in the archeology camp. I don't think there would be anything to gain by pursuing the issue."

"Where's Three?" Gavin asked. "You did say that the second clone was named Three?"

"Yes sir. Three piloted one of the shuttles to Vinnia. I don't know her status."

"We can find out easily enough," Kanes said, "once the jamming satellites have been collected and disabled. Three tugs have been dispatched to round them up. We'll send a message to Vinnia as soon as we can."

"Yes sir. I'd also like to know if Lieutenant Crocker is okay. He took the third shuttle. We can move into the facility to continue the debriefing, if you like. We'll have to use the sewer tunnel entrance, but the way is almost dry."

Finding the nearest entrance into the sewer system, Jenetta led the way to the tunnel that led up into the facility. The marines were already clearing the pumping station and moving the remaining supplies back into the facility. Marine Lieutenant Taggert had to momentarily clear his people from the final ten meters leading to the facility so that the three officers could pass through the narrow tunnel ingress.

Kanes took a few minutes to examine the inside of the main door after they arrived inside the facility. "Amazing, absolutely amazing. A month of effort and they only managed to open enough of a crack to get a fiberoptic probe through."

"They probably gave up after finding the facility dark, and with life support disabled," Jenetta said. "I'd hoped they would assume that we'd never been there at all, and that we'd had weeks to escape through the forest. They knew by then that we'd had a shuttle and I hoped they would think that we had already moved the cloning equipment to a different location on the planet. They certainly didn't have time to begin assaults on warehouses scattered around this world. My engineers believe that the entire door frame can be removed from the inside, sir. We can replace it with one of the others. The doors in the corridor are all about the same size."

"If that's possible, then do it by all means," Gavin said. "We'll take the damaged door with us. The engineers can rig something up to replace the missing interior door."

"Yes sir. I'll get Commander Cameron on it as soon as we're done here. Shall we adjourn to the mess hall for some coffee?"

"Mess hall?" Kanes said in surprise. "You have a mess hall?"

"Yes sir. We have a mess hall capable of accommodating a hundred-fifty, and sleeping accommodations for a hundred-twenty-four. We also have a fully equipped sick bay, although I ordered that all unidentified equipment be packed up for shipment to Space Command."

Moving down the brightly illuminated corridor, with Jenetta leading, they stopped in front of the mess hall doors. Jenetta casually said, "Dwuthathsei" to open the doors and then "Summatah" to turn the lights on.

"Isn't that Dakis?" Kanes asked.

"Yes sir," Jenetta said as she stood out of the way so the two senior officers could enter the room first. "I discovered that the Nordakians were the original inhabitants of this planet, and that it was originally named Dakistee, meaning 'homeland.' Nordakia means 'new home.' Almost twenty thousand years ago a huge group of emigrants, seeking freedom of expression for their radical religious doctrine, left this planet. Some time after that, a plague infected the entire population here, leaving them sterile and unable to reproduce. They were able to completely eradiate the plague, but the damage had already been done. As they faced the demise of their species on this planet, they tried to find the people that had gone, but the ones who'd left didn't want to be found.  They didn't answer hails and it was later learned that they hadn't followed the flight plan they'd filed. The Dakistee people tried cloning to rebuild the population but the equipment was too precise and sterility was replicated into the clones. The scientists finally announced that they could never restore reproductive capability. With no one except sterile originals to use as cloning prototypes, the population died out in little more than a century. I guess the people just gave up. Perhaps if their equipment created children, instead of fully mature adults, they might have had more incentive to go on searching for an answer."

"How did you learn all this?" Gavin asked as they took seats at a table.

"While attempting to shut off the cloning equipment without damaging it or harming any of the clones, Two and I discovered the computer in the facility had auditory sensors and speech ability."

"You're saying that the Nordakian language hasn't changed in twenty thousand years?" Captain Kanes asked.

"Colloquialisms, technical terminology, and slang have naturally crept in, while others have disappeared, as with any language, but the basic language has endured amazingly well, in spite of numerous phonetic aberrations. Still, we had a strong foundation on which to build and bridge the gaps. The computer adjusted quickly to the newer pronunciations and nuances."

"If you went back twenty thousand years on Earth," Gavin said, "it's doubtful that you could even begin to communicate with any of the inhabitants."

"But Earth didn't have a single language twenty thousand years ago. I believe that the Almuth is responsible for keeping the spoken language from straying too far from the original. Someone changed the language's written symbols at some point, so it's like comparing the Roman numeral five, with the Arabic symbol for five, or the Chinese symbol for five. They represent the same integer value, but look nothing alike. Once we could interface with the computer, we reviewed as much of the historical data as we could. And once I'd downloaded everything into my personal computer, we could view the vid broadcasts from twenty-thousand years ago, with subtitles. It's fascinating. The Nordakian ancestors weren't nearly as tall as their descendents. In fact, they looked much more Terran-like than they do now. They still had no external ear parts, but the males had full heads of hair, and their skin color varied between puce and rose. Unfortunately, the Raiders interrupted our research, but we learned that the Nordakians didn't have the ability to change their skin color back then."

 "Have you told the scientists about any of this?" Kanes asked.

"No sir. I did give Dr. Peterson a full list of the symbols used for numerical values and weights and measures, but I haven't given them a complete briefing and I've withheld a full translation of the language. So far they don't seem to have made the connection to Dakis. You now know much, much more than they do. This is startling news and may have great repercussions."

"Such as?" Gavin asked.

"The Nordakians may lay claim to the planet."

"They have no claim," Gavin said. "If what you say is accurate, their ancestors voluntarily abandoned the planet twenty thousand years ago, with no intention of returning."

"It must have taken them hundreds of years to reach Nordakia," Jenetta said, "because they only had rudimentary space flight capability with sub-light speeds back then. I imagine many generations must have been born, lived, and died aboard the ships before they found Nordakia. I've wondered if perhaps inadequate radiation shielding caused mutations that were responsible for the hair loss and skin coloration differences. We do know their leaders were extreme religious fundamentalists who wanted their followers to renounce all technological advances and return to the land. From what I learned in my studies on Nordakia, they probably destroyed their spacecraft once they reached the new planet and used the materials for plows or something."

"I don't see any great repercussions either," Kanes said.

"Well, there's one thing I haven't mentioned yet," Jenetta said guardedly. "I found an old copy of the Almuth; a copy of the Almuth from before the time Nordakia was colonized. If it's ever released, that edition will rock the Nordakian religious culture to it's core. As we've seen in other cultures where a separatist group has shunned former values, such as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in mid-twentieth-century China led by Mao Zedong, it usually only lasts for one or two generations. New generations, born into an extremely restrictive society, look for change. It appears that the religious leaders who took the people to Nordakia, rewrote the text to take away most of the freedoms that people on this planet enjoyed, thereby ensuring that the colonists continued to observe the ideology espoused by the original religious zealots. If future generations rebelled, they risked being branded not just as rebels, traitors, or seditionists, but heretics. Women weren't considered second class citizens here, and enjoyed all the rights and privileges of the men, just as in Earth society."

Gavin and Kanes sat quietly and looked at Jenetta as they contemplated her conclusions.

Finally, Gavin said, "That might be something that we don't release publicly. At least not until after the Nordakians have a chance to review it. You're a Nordakian citizen, an Azula, a Lady of the Royal House, and an officer in the Nordakia Space Force, so perhaps you should present that information to the Royal Family."

"Yes sir. I'd also like to give them the computer core that I removed from here. It contains all the information that I've told you about, but we have a full copy of it."

"We'll have to clear that with Space Command Headquarters first," Kanes said. "There may be information that we don't want to disseminate, such as the cloning process, or manufacturing information on those doors and the outside covering of this facility."

"Yes sir. I removed all information about the cloning process from the core after placing an encrypted copy on my personal computer. I didn't find any information that specifically referenced the door or construction of the facility, but it might be buried in one of the numerous technical journals I haven't had time to review."

"We'll discuss it with Space Command Headquarters first," Gavin said. "Let's begin the debriefing."

"Would you gentlemen care for a cup of coffee or tea before we begin?"

Jenetta retrieved three mugs of coffee while Kanes pulled a tiny vid camera from his tunic pocket. He moistened a finger and rubbed it on the flattened side of a device smaller than a man's wedding band and stuck the device to the table surface. It would stick in that spot until pulled up. Pulling a view pad from another pocket, he adjusted the focus and aiming of the device so that Jenetta would be perfectly centered in the recorded image, then started the recording.

Jenetta began relating all events from the time that the Prometheus left orbit, until they returned. The debriefing consumed over two hours as the captains interrupted numerous times for clarifications and comments.

"So the Raider captain told you they had your clone on board, but he didn't know that she was a clone?" Gavin asked.

"That's correct, sir. She's an exact copy, except for the length of my hair. My hair was extended using a synthetic process on Nordakia prior to the medal ceremony so the cloning equipment didn't duplicate it. She doesn't have a CT for the same reason. Since I didn't identify myself, and never allowed an image to be sent while we were in communication, he believed that he captured the real Lt. Cmdr. Jenetta Carver."

"Did you get any feel for where they might be heading?"

"No sir. They could be going anywhere, but if they believe they have me as a prisoner, they'll probably head to the nearest Raider base, hoping to collect the bounty the Raiders have placed on my head. We know there are still five hidden bases in Galactic Alliance space alone, despite their being a little shorthanded these days." Jenetta grinned.

The doors to the mess hall suddenly opened and Marine Captain Greene entered. "Sorry to interrupt, sirs, but I thought you should know that the St. Petersburg has entered orbit. They report having Lieutenant Crocker and Commander Carver's sister aboard. The shuttles and their cargo are intact."

Jenetta's heart leaped, both because Three and Lieutenant Crocker were safe and because the St. Petersburg was her brother's ship. Billy, a full Commander, was the First Officer aboard the destroyer.

"Thank you, Captain Greene," Gavin said. "That'll be all."

"Yes sir," he said and left the mess hall, closing the doors again.

"Does everyone here know the commands to operate the facility equipment?" Kanes asked.

"Not all, sir. Only the officers were instructed, but most of the Marines have witnessed the opening and closing of doors and the control of the lighting so they've probably picked up the commands. While the archeological site people were in here, we left the doors open at all times and used manual controls for the lights. We didn't show them that the system operated by verbal command."

"And you don't know who drugged you and then cloned you?"

"No sir. At first I suspected Doctor Peterson, and then I thought that it might be Bruce Priestly. It had to be someone who knew that Priestly had found a way in, and who could initiate the cloning process."

"One of Priestly's clones?"

Jenetta shrugged her shoulders. "The clones should only have had the knowledge that Priestly had when he was first recorded, unless he later mentioned the sewer entrance. Everyone knew that Priestly had uncovered a sewer system, and he could have let it slip that one of the tunnels led under this facility. He might have even been followed, but I suspect that he parted with the information freely. He's very eager to achieve recognition for his discoveries. There's another possibility, as well. Since operation of the cloning equipment required knowledge that the language used here was Dakis, the culprit could have been one of the two Nordakian scientists, or one of their many clones."

The two Captains exchanged glances and nodded.

"Okay, Commander, that's all for now," Gavin said as they stood up. "Well done, Jen. You accomplished the dismantling task that you were assigned, you saved all these dig site people, and you kept the cloning technology out of the hands of the Raiders. Very well done."

"Thank you, sir."

"I concur, Commander," Kanes said. "Very well done. I hope that we can find your sister, Two, but it may not be possible."

"I'll find her, sir, somehow. I don't doubt that for a minute. And the ones responsible will pay for their past actions, as well as for any harm they do her. The Raiders have again made the mistake of making me mad."

Chapter Thirteen

~ March 16th, 2270 ~

With Commander Cameron's best people working on the project, the main entrance doorframe was unbolted and replaced using the door from the mess hall entranceway within an hour after work began. The framework and bolts, only accessible from inside the facility, were made of the same material as the door and hardly showed any signs of stress from the assault that had been waged against them. A replacement door for the mess hall, custom made from the ship's tritanium plating supply, was constructed and hung, and the swap was hardly noticeable. A dense, scratch-resistant black film similar to that used for anodizing aluminum was bonded to the new door, completely disguising the natural, deep bronze color of the tritanium.

With the almost indestructible door, the remaining cloning equipment, and the special sick bay equipment safely stored aboard the Prometheus, Jenetta was finally rotated out, along with the Space Marine companies and other Prometheus personnel that had spent the past two months on the surface. The bodies of the dead Marines, stored in one of the mess hall's large walk-in freezers since the action that took their lives, were brought aboard for return to their home worlds.

Before Jenetta left, she visited the encampment of the dig site personnel one last time. The camp was a mess, having been generally trashed by the Tsgardi Raiders. The laborers were busy trying to get things in order, but they took time out to thank Jenetta for protecting them. They knew that she had most likely saved them from death or a life of slavery. Several more thirty-ten shelters had been brought down from the Prometheus and erected for the site personnel to use until replacement living shelters could be sent from the Expedition headquarters on the other side of the planet and erected.

Once aboard the Prometheus, Jenetta was able to totally relax for the first time in weeks. She took an extra long shower and let her hair down, literally. The blond synthetic hair created on Nordakia had been kept tightly rolled at the nape of her neck since arriving on the planet. She shampooed it thoroughly, several times, along with her real hair, which was still indistinguishable from the extension. Stepping from the shower feeling refreshed and wonderful, she delighted in dressing in clean clothes for the first time in weeks. She'd been able to take a shower after the Tsgardi had gone, but no laundry had been done since they'd moved from the facility to the pumping station. Sometimes, the simple things in life mean so much.

Since Jenetta arrived back on board the battleship, a third Space Command ship, a Kamakura-class heavy cruiser, the Mentuhotep, named after the pharaoh who ruled Egypt from 2061-2010 BC, had arrived at the planet. Other ships, diverted towards Mawcett, turned back to resume their original course after it was learned that the Raiders were already gone. Jenetta's arrival at the ship had caused quite a stir and virtually everyone that she passed after coming back aboard stopped her to welcome her home. At dinnertime, she was to be the guest of honor at a small celebration aboard the Prometheus. A contingent of senior officers from the St. Petersburg and the Mentuhotep would be coming aboard for the small party.

Jenetta's brother, Billy, and her sister, Three, arrived early so they could all spend some time together before the party began. The initial meeting in the flight bay was spontaneously heart-warming. After the initial hugs, they went to Jenetta's quarters for a little privacy. Billy, like his siblings, was endowed with medium blond hair and azure eyes the color of a clear October sky. The family's Nordic ancestry was clearly reflected in his strong features. And like his father and brothers, he stood over six-feet tall. In official medical records, his height was listed as six-foot, two and one-half inches. Three was still wearing an officer's uniform, minus any insignia of rank.

"I'm glad that you're safe, little sister," Billy said to Jenetta. "We were pretty worried when Space Command listed you as missing-in-action and presumed lost."

"Thanks, Billy, I'm glad that my absence wasn't nearly as prolonged as the last time. And now you have three little sisters."

He grinned. "I'm still not over the shock. Mom and Dad were floored as well. But first things first; we can't very well continue to call them Two and Three. Three and I have been discussing the selection of proper names."

"Have you picked a new name for yourself, Three?" Jenetta asked.

"I think that I'd like to adopt great grandmother's name of Eliza Kathleen."

"That sounds wonderful, Eliza. Should we pick a name for Two, or wait and let her pick it herself."

"I think that we should pick something before Two becomes her permanent name," Eliza said, "just in case it takes us time to find her. You know how Space Command is. The name Two is probably already listed in a dozen reports."

"I agree," Billy said. "She can always change it again later if she wishes."

"What shall it be then?" Jenetta asked. "How about Christa Marie after father's mother?"

"Perfect," Eliza said. "So it's Jenetta, Christa, and Eliza."

"Since you all think alike, I'm sure she'll love it also," Billy said. "You know, it was like having you aboard the St. Petersburg, Jen."

"It was me, Billy. Eliza and I are identical. Unlike twins, who may only look identical, we're actually one hundred percent identical. She thinks like me, and has all of my memories up to the day that they were collected by the cloning machine. She is me, and I am her."

"I've always thought of cloning as taking some cells and slowly producing a new being, as would happen from normal conception," Eliza said. "When I stepped out of that chamber and met Jen, I was astounded. It's like cellular mitosis on a grand scale; as if we just spontaneously split into two people. I remember every day of our existence, up to the time that the cloning process was initiated."

"It was a bit disconcerting at first," Jenetta said, "to suddenly be face to face with a person that has your face, body, and memories, but we became the best of pals after that. Eliza and Christa know what I'm going to say before I say it, and…"

"…can complete my sentences," Eliza finished.

"But we mustn't do that..." Jenetta started.

"…in front of other people because it confuses them," Eliza finished.

"I agree with that," Billy said smiling. "It's a distraction to say the least."

"We still have to see what Space Command is going to do," Jenetta said. "Eliza and Christa have all my knowledge and every memory that I have of going through the Academy. They are me, so they shouldn't be forced to start over. I know that they'll want to stay in Space Command, since that's what I'd want."

"I think there will be some very long discussions at Supreme Headquarters and in the Galactic Alliance Council Chambers before a decision is reached about how to handle this," Billy said rolling his eyes.

"From my point of view," Eliza said, "I've earned the right to wear the uniform. I not only know everything Jenetta has done and learned, and have every memory she has, but I was actually there to do it. It's as if I was born the same time as she, and went through everything the same way."

"That's what makes it so difficult, Eliza," Billy said. "You're really only a couple of months old, but they can't very well treat you like a newborn."

"Even if they decide the worst, you'll still have several hundred years to work your way back, sis," Jenetta said.

"Excuse me? Several hundred years? Have I missed something? What are you talking about, Jen?" Billy asked.

Jenetta sucked in her breath. She had to begin telling family members sometime. "You know about the DNA re-composition that was performed on me, us, by the Raiders? What I haven't told you, or Space Command, or anybody, is that the commandant of Raider-One, Mikel Arneu, said that two treatment procedures were administered. The one I've kept to myself is an Age Prolongation process. Arneu said that I would live to be at least several hundred years old, and possibly several thousand. They weren't exactly sure what would happen because I was only the second one to receive the new procedure that they had developed, after the doctors, that is."

Billy was just sitting with his mouth hanging open. "Several— thousand— years?"

"Maybe as much as five thousand. What's worse is that I won't age until the last few years and then the aging will be incredibly rapid. I'm always going to look like a recent Academy graduate, until my end is near."

"And that's bad?"

"It's wonderful from a female vanity standpoint, but I'll be treated like an inexperienced officer by anyone that doesn't know me."

"Not much chance of there being anyone that doesn't know Jenetta Carver, or at least about you. And you haven't told anyone about this non-aging thing yet?" Billy asked incredulously.

"I didn't want to become a lab rat. And this would be just the kind of information that they'd use to take Eliza for study. They'd try to justify their actions by insisting that she's just a clone. Besides, we have no proof that our age is extended, just that we're changing. I've grown six inches since the process was started, and the doctors predicted that I'll, we'll, grow at least an inch more. You can't tell anyone about this, Billy."

Billy just nodded. The changes that Jenetta's body had undergone during the past year and a half were proof enough that something radical had been done to her. The discussion had sobered the festive mood they'd felt at first, so Jenetta changed the subject and told them about the things that had occurred after Eliza had left for Vinnia.

Jenetta's entrance at the reception was greeted by loud applause. Eliza was welcomed warmly enough, but the officers that hadn't met her before couldn't stop staring at her. It was as if they were trying to spot something abnormal. She and Jenetta had discussed it before leaving Jenetta's quarters, and she had prepared herself for the awkward moments. By the end of the reception everyone had begun to accept her, and treat her just like Jenetta.

Billy returned to his ship with his fellow officers after the party, but not before sharing a long goodbye hug with Eliza and Jenetta. All three knew that it might be a long time before they saw each other again. Billy's ship was scheduled to leave orbit in a few hours.

Certain that once they reached Vinnia they would be split up, Jenetta and Eliza decided that, for the time being, they would share Jenetta's quarters.

Jenetta wasn't scheduled to resume her bridge duties for three days, so she and Eliza fell into a routine of exercise in the morning, followed by work in Jenetta's office for the rest of the day. To occupy their time, they had begun developing a report outlining the history of Mawcett from the information and news reports that they'd found in the facility's computer. By the time Jenetta was to begin her first watch since returning from the planet, the report had grown from a simple digest to a treatise.

As was her custom, Jenetta arrived on the bridge ten minutes early for her watch. Commander LaSalle, who hadn't been at the reception because she'd had the watch, greeted Jenetta in her usual brusque manner.

"Congratulations on surviving in a sewer for two months. You came out smelling like a rose— as usual."

"Thank you, ma'am, but I hardly smelled like a rose after two weeks without bathing. The sewer itself dried up twenty thousand years ago and the only moisture was from the facility that we were occupying. But I'm glad I was able to take a quick shower before coming back aboard."

"You seem to attract trouble like a magnet. Why is that, Lieutenant Commander?"

"I suppose it's the job, ma'am. I certainly didn't invite the Tsgardi to attack us and attempt to steal the equipment that I had been charged with safeguarding."

Lowering her voice so that the rest of the bridge crew couldn't hear, LaSalle said, "That planetary assignment should have been mine. As second in command I should have been left in charge of the base while the Prometheus went off on a wild goose chase. I know that you have the Captain wrapped around your little finger, but don't think for a second that your latest escapade entitles you to any new privileges up here." Raising her voice up to a normal level, she said, "You have the bridge, Lt. Commander."

"Aye, ma'am."

Jenetta settled into the command chair and adjusted the right-hand command console viewscreen in front of her as LaSalle left the bridge. She knew now that there would probably never be anything more than a formal relationship with the first officer since LaSalle was clearly jealous of her. Jenetta was grateful beyond words that LaSalle hadn't been the one put in charge on the planet. One LaSalle to deal with was quite enough, thank you. Of course, with LaSalle in charge, things could have turned out very differently. She didn't speak Dakis, but she may have realized that Doctor Vlashsku would have switched to Dakis when tired or frustrated. She could have even employed his help in learning to interface with the computer. But if she had blundered ahead, not wanting to involve him so he couldn't share in the credit for solving the problem, the equipment and all of the personnel could have been lost. As far as the jealousy went, Jenetta felt that LaSalle's paranoia was her own biggest problem.

Responsibility for safeguarding the planet and staffing the base established by Jenetta fell to the captain of the cruiser Mentuhotep when Space Command SHQ ordered the Prometheus to proceed immediately to Higgins Space Base. Jenetta made one more trip down to the surface to visit the facility and say goodbye to the scientists before the Prometheus left orbit.

Arriving at the Mawcett base, Jenetta saw that it had been restored to reasonably good order. The perimeter sensor network had been reestablished and marines were patrolling again. The tunnel leading to the facility had been cleared of debris, making the damage to the walls outside the facility entrance that much more obvious. The roof had been reinforced to prevent collapse. Jenetta smiled when she saw that someone had erected a crude makeshift sign above the entrance declaring it to be 'Fort Carver.'

Walking though the facility, she made sure that all the materials prepared for shipping had been moved out. She also noted that the stores had been restocked in preparation for turning the base over to the Mentuhotep staff. A Marine stood guard over the sewer entrance now, even though a locking tritanium hatch cover had been installed below the marble slab. Motion sensors in the tunnel below made passage without detection impossible. Alarms would sound if anything larger than a sewer rat tried to breach the tunnel now.

Before returning to the Prometheus, Jenetta stopped by the archeological staff's camp. Doctor Peterson actually greeted her with a smile. It was probably because he was so glad to see her leave, she thought.

"Ahh, Commander Carver. Getting ready to leave for your home port I understand?"

"Yes, Doctor. We'll be leaving orbit this evening."

"Well, good luck and thank you for everything. I realize that I was a bit rough on you for the first few weeks, and I apologize."

"I accept your apology, and I understood your resentment. I would have felt the same way if I had discovered something significant only to have someone else come in and push me out of the way. We really had no choice though. I shudder to think what would have happened if the Raiders had gotten their hands on the cloning technology."

"I shudder to think what would have happened to us if you hadn't been here. I also want to thank you again for providing the complete list of symbols that you prepared. I've circulated copies to all the other camps on the planet and sent a copy to our warehouse on Anthius. When do you think you might have a basic dictionary available? I'm sure it will prove to be of immense value to the researchers once we can begin to develop translations beyond those you were able to ascertain."

"I'm glad I was able to help. I can't give you a date on the dictionary just yet, but I'll forward a copy as soon as I can. My sister, Eliza, and I are working on a report that will present the history of the planet from what we've been able to piece together during our stay here."


"You knew her as Three. She's decided to take the name of Eliza Kathleen, our great grandmother's name."

"I see. And where did your research information come from."

"The facility's computer contained some historical documents, reference information, and media reports. Once we were able to communicate verbally with the computer, we were able to examine the contents."

"You established complete interlingual communication?" Doctor Peterson asked excitedly and clearly in awe. "Commander, we must have access to that information! It will help us translate all the textual matter we've uncovered during our years of effort on this world."

"You will, Doctor. After Space Command SHQ has approved its release, I'll forward a phonetic analysis of the symbols and a complete dictionary with text translation documentation. The original files will naturally be made available to you and anyone else interested in researching them once Space Command ascertains that no other banned technology is included."

"You mean that we have to wait?"

"Doctor, the planet has been deserted for almost twenty thousand years, and you're facing the prospect of a lifetime of work here. Another year, more or less, isn't really going to make that much difference, is it?"

Doctor Peterson mumbled something unintelligible under his breath, then said, "No, I guess not."

Jenetta decided to leave before Doctor Peterson had a chance to get excited again. "Doctor, good luck with your archeological endeavors. Goodbye."

"Good-bye, Commander."

Turning to walk back to the shuttle, Jenetta was stopped by Doctor Dakshiku Vlashsku, his assistant Glawth Djetch, and their fourteen clones. All touched their closed hands to their chests and dropped to one knee as they bowed their heads.

"Please stand and raise your heads, Gentlemen."

Doctor Vlashsku stepped forward and said, "My associates and I heard that you were in the camp and we wished to thank you once again before you left."

"You're very welcome, Doctor. I wish all of you success in your endeavors here on the planet."

"We're most sorry for the loss of your clone, Azula."

"Thank you. We haven't given up hope of recovering her yet. I'm referring to her as my sister now, rather than as a clone. Her new name is Christa Marie Carver. It gives her more of an identity that way."

"I see. A wise decision," Doctor Vlashsku said as he glanced over at his own clone group.

"Gentlemen, it's time for me to leave. Goodbye."

In one voice the group said, "Goodbye, My Lady."

* * *

Christa sat up on the foul smelling cot in the brig aboard the Tsgardi ship and looked around at the dingy grey steel walls. She believed that she'd been aboard the ship for about six weeks now. She couldn't be more sure of the time because Tsgardi days are just shy of thirty-three earth hours long and she was trying to keep track of the days in GST time. So far, she'd only been able to learn that the ship's name was Boshdyte.

Despite daily interrogation visits from the captain, she had divulged very little. Her uniform was cut in places, and clotted with blood from daily whippings. She had begun to suspect that the visits from the baboon-like alien were just an excuse for the captain to fulfill his sadistic proclivities. She also suspected that the ship had left planetary orbit, because the meal routine had changed more than a week ago and the captain was no longer interrupted with messages during the interrogation sessions.

The Tsgardi didn't use the prisoner restraint bands that were employed in the Raider detention center where Jenetta had been held. Instead, they used plain old-fashioned steel handcuffs and leg irons, and Christa's wrists and ankles ached continuously where the steel gripped her tightly. A short length of chain attached between her leg irons and the rear wall further restricted her movement in the brig. At least her clothes hadn't been taken away from her, and the mind conditioning that the Raiders had performed on Jenetta enabled her to easily withstand the pain inflicted by the Captain. The DNA modification performed by the Raider doctors had her wounds healing almost as quickly as they were imposed. The gruel she was served daily tasted terrible, but since the Tsgardi themselves had healthy appetites, the quantity was adequate to keep her sated.

Christa knew that the Tsgardi captain expected her to be wearing down so she pretended that her strength was almost gone, despite the fact that she felt fine and exercised each day to the limits allowed by the shackles. Since he arrived each day at exactly the same time, Christa finished up her exercises just before then. The fatigue that she genuinely felt added to the effect that she was trying to convey. She had just completed a long series of pushups and was resting when the Captain entered the brig. Christa sat up on the edge of the cot, and hung her head in pretense of weariness as he entered her cell.

"So, Commander, are you ready to talk to me today?"

Christa just sat there looking down at the floor.

"No smart answers today?"

"What's the use? You never go where I tell you," Christa said.

She heard the swish of the whip a full half-second before she felt the blow on her left arm.

"Perhaps you're not telling me the right things. I want you to tell me how the cloning equipment works."

"I've told you before. It works very well."

Swish went the whip again and a blow landed on her right arm. "I want to know how the process makes the clones. Smart remarks will only earn you more pain."

"I don't know how it works. I'm an astrophysicist, not a medical doctor or researcher."

"You spent weeks working on the equipment. I know that you know more than you're saying. You were left on the planet to disassemble the equipment for transportation."

"I don't know anything about how the equipment functions."

Swish; another blow landed on Christa. This time the whip curled around her and the pain was felt on her back. With the third lash, her pain receptors deadened and the ache faded quickly. She would actually feel better with each new lash after this. Pain made her stronger, thanks to the mind conditioning that the Raiders had performed when they were brainwashing Jenetta to be a masochistic slave at one of their kinky resorts. Christa had acquired the same mind conditioning as a result of the cloning process. The attempt by the Space Command psychiatrist to remove the conditioning hadn't been completely successful, fortunately, but he had removed enough so that she didn't experience any sexual urges as a result of the torture.

The interrogation went on for the usual hour with Christa saying little more than usual. By the end of the session she had again told the Tsgardi captain several times where he could conceal his whip on his person between torture sessions, and repeatedly suggested a reportedly warm place where he should plan a permanent stay.

As soon as the captain had gone, Christa reclined on the cot. She could feel the whip marks and cuts already beginning to heal, and there was virtually no pain. In fact, she was feeling mildly euphoric from the beating. Despite the sense of well-being, she knew that she had to get out of the brig. As a prisoner of the Tsgardi, she would eventually be turned over to the Raiders, and she knew that Mikel Arneu would delight in wiping her mind and sending her off to one of the company's whore palaces as quickly as possible. She wasn't at all sure that her incredibly recuperative body could restore her knowledge and memories.

Chapter Fourteen

~ April 19th, 2270 ~

During the month long trip to Vinnia, Jenetta and Eliza continued to work on the Mawcett history, and by the time they reached Higgins SCB, the digest that had become a treatise, had evolved to become a book. All mention of cloning and advanced medical testing had been omitted, of course, as they concentrated on the planet's societal evolution with emphasis on religious overtones, and the increasing separation of the population along fundamental canonical precepts.

By linking the retrieved computer core to the ship's main system, Jenetta produced a complete dictionary of the language used on Mawcett at the time its population perished. The file would reside in her computer until she felt the time was appropriate for its dissemination.

Jenetta had also recorded and sent a personal vidMail message to the family of each Marine killed on Mawcett. Although it was Marine Captain Greene's job, and Jenetta knew that he had sent his messages, she felt an obligation to do so as well because they had been under her overall command at the time they died. Although Space Command personnel and Space Marines had died at the Battle of Vauzlee, while she was the acting XO of the Prometheus, this was the first time that people died while exclusively under orders issued by her. It saddened her enormously to think that she had sent them to their deaths, and even more so that if the war with the Raiders continued, many more under her command might perish. She did her best to put those feelings aside for now as she recorded the messages to the families. In each, she spoke about how the company had been on a routine assignment when attacked by the Tsgardi Raiders and how the Marine had fought bravely in defense of comrades, the civilian scientists, and the dig site laborers. Through it all, Christa's fate was never far from her immediate thoughts.

* * *

Higgins Space Command Base, a massive space station floating in synchronous orbit above the planet Vinnia, dwarfed the enormous battleship sidling up to the assigned docking pier. The station, easily visible to the naked eye from the planet below, resembled an oval-cut, blue opal gemstone, surrounded by a huge silver necklace. The necklace was the station's docking ring, where numerous ships of Prometheus' nearly two-kilometer long length could dock with the station simultaneously. Access tunnels, connecting the base to the docking ring, appeared like spokes in a wheel.

During the Battle for Higgins, the station had been seriously damaged. When Jenetta had last been here, the docking ring had been left almost useless, and great sections of the station had been open to space. They'd had enough of a warning to evacuate all civilians and non-combatant military personnel, but casualties had still been high. Although work continued inside almost two years later, the station was fully pressurized again and the exterior of the base had been returned to its previous magnificent appearance.

After docking, all crewmembers assigned to the base on Mawcett were ordered to report to the hospital for complete physical examinations. The doctors aboard the Prometheus had already completed full examinations of all personnel, but orders are orders. Eliza was included in the group, although her status in Space Command was still undefined.

Driverless transports were standing by in the docking ring when the Mawcett personnel emerged from the ship. The base hospital was a short, five minute ride from the ship and waiting orderlies escorted everyone to rooms where their examinations would be conducted.

As expected, everyone was declared fit for duty, except the three Marines who were still recovering from wounds received in action against the Tsgardi. Jenetta and Eliza were held overnight for additional testing, but at least they were permitted to stay in the same room. Jenetta was determined to see that no 'special' testing was performed on Eliza.

The women were not restricted from watching the vid news or reading newspapers, as had been the case preceding Jenetta's court-martial, and they were also permitted to have visitors. Their first visitor arrived on their first evening in port.

Lt. Commander Zane Spence had been waiting anxiously for the workday to end, and hurried over to the hospital as soon as he could. The handsome six-foot one-inch JAG officer walked into the room smiling but froze upon seeing two Jenettas. The two women were dressed in hospital gowns that gave no indication of their identity. Sitting on the same bed at the time, they laughed at the expression of dismay on his face as he looked from girl to girl.

"Jen?" he said uncertainly.

Jenetta and Eliza glanced at one another before both beamed brightly and answered, "Yes, Zane?"

"Wha–– what is this?" Spence said as he ran his right hand lightly over his short blond hair, a sure indication that he was feeling some discomfort.

Both girls said simultaneously, "What is what?"

Zane just stood there looking from one girl to the other.

Finally the women took pity on him and Jenetta said, "I'm here, Zane. This is Eliza, my sister."

"Sister? You don't have a sister. Do you?"

"I do now; two in fact."

"I don't understand," he said as he moved closer to the bed.

"The secret will be out soon so I'll tell you. While responding to a distress call from archeologists on Mawcett, I was cloned— twice. The process created two identical copies of me, and Eliza is the second copy. Christa, the first, was captured by Tsgardi Raiders and is their prisoner at present."

Spence just shook his head as if he couldn't believe what he was hearing. "Why is it you always have the most fantastic stories that I've ever heard in my life. I'd think that you'd injured your head if Eliza wasn't sitting there in front of me. You say you have another copy; one that's been captured by Raiders?"

"Yes, we've named her Christa, and she was captured by Tsgardi Raiders while acting as a decoy to help us accomplish our mission. I'm glad that you're here. I need a lawyer to help me protect Eliza."

"Protect her? Protect her from whom?"

"Protect her from whoever would try to take her away. We need to establish her identity and rights under Galactic Law."

Zane looked at Eliza as he thought. "Where did you get your name, Eliza?"

"I named myself, after my great grandmother."

"Your great grandmother?"

"Yes–– well, Jen's great grandmother, who is also my great grandmother."

"I'll have to look into this. Since human cloning has been outlawed for more than two-hundred years, I'm real fuzzy on that area of law."

"It's nice having a friend in the Judge Advocate General's office," Jenetta said, smiling as she looked up into his penetrating blue-green eyes.

"Don't feel too glad. I suspect this is going to get real messy before it gets better. It will probably have to be decided by the Galactic Alliance Council. There're only the two clones, right?"

"No. The archeological group on Mawcett accidentally activated the machine months ago. They have seventy-seven clones on the planet; seven each of the eleven scientists. There are sixty-three Terran clones and fourteen Nordakian clones, in addition to Christa and Eliza."

"Seventy-seven others? Two different species? Oh my God. Change messy to catastrophic. Uh, are they still making them?"

"No, that was my mission; to turn off the equipment and dismantle it."

Zane scowled. "But you felt obligated to test it out on yourself?"

"I did not!" Jenetta said indignantly. "I was drugged, and cloned without my consent while I was unconscious. I was opposed to the process, but–– I'm not unhappy now that I've experienced what it's like to have sisters. My brothers each have three brothers, but I was an only girl. It's wonderful to have two sisters."

"I'll start reading up on it tomorrow." Zane's scowl changed to a smile. "Right now I want to hear all about your trips to Earth and Nordakia."

Zane spent the next three hours with Jenetta and Eliza. He didn't leave until visiting hours were over and the nursing staff passed through the rooms clearing stragglers. The nurse refused to accept his story that he needed more time there because he was counsel to the two women and was taking depositions and collecting important information. He promised to start investigating the legal situation first thing in the morning, as the nurse gently pushed him out the door.

The following afternoon, Jenetta and Eliza were released from the hospital. Ordered to report to the base commander's office, they sat and stared at the austere off-white walls in the uninspiring outer office of Admiral Holt until the Admiral's aide told them to go in.

As they approached the admiral's office, the doors opened to reveal the enormous, lavishly decorated room. A SimWindow, currently displaying an animated panoramic view of the ship building docks in orbit around Mars, filled the wall behind an ornately carved desk that appeared to come from a different era. Admiral Holt, Admiral Margolan, and Captains Gavin and Kanes were sitting at the Admiral's magnificent oak conference table. Both Jenetta and Eliza walked up to the table and came to attention.

The Admirals looked back and forth between the women for a full minute, scrutinizing their faces closely, before Admiral Holt said calmly, "At ease, ladies. Welcome back, Commander. I could tell you were here because my com line hasn't stopped buzzing for an instant."

"Good afternoon, sirs. I'm sorry, Admiral. It wasn't my decision to clone myself, but I don't regret having two new sisters and I support them one hundred percent. One has even sacrificed her freedom, and perhaps her life, to prevent the cloning technology from falling into Raider hands."

"Rest easy, Commander. Captain Gavin has explained how it came about and no responsibility for the act is being directed your way. Our problem is how to handle this matter and what to do about Eliza. The Galactic Alliance Council is already discussing the matter in closed door sessions. They don't have just the problem of your two clones, Commander, but also the seventy-seven other clones from Mawcett."

"Yes sir," Jenetta said.

"For the time being, Eliza will be housed in the Bachelor Officer Quarters," Admiral Holt said. "She'll remain here on Higgins until the matter of her status and citizenship is settled. Eliza, you're excused for today. My aide will give you your BOQ room assignment. For the present, you're to continue wearing a Space Command officer's uniform, without insignia. That's all."

Eliza braced to attention and said, "Yes sir," before turning and leaving the room.

"Captain Kanes is trying to pick up the trail of the Tsgardi Raiders," Admiral Holt said to Jenetta, "and the Prometheus will follow up on any leads. We're not going to let Raiders get away with kidnapping our people, even those whose status is in doubt."

"Yes sir," Jenetta said.

"Commander, Captain Gavin has passed on your request that the computer core be turned over to the Nordakian Royal Family. An engineering examination has reveled that the core itself doesn't contain any technology beyond current levels so I've approved its presentation to the Nordakians, once all cloning and advanced technological information files have been expunged."

"Thank you, sir."

"I understand that you've written a manuscript about the sociological evolution of the original society on–– Dakistee?"

"Yes sir. Eliza and I compiled it from the historical information and media reports that we found in the computer."

"As long as it doesn't contain any classified technological information, I'll approve its release. Captain Kanes' people will look it over and then you can release it when you're ready."

"Thank you, sir."

"I've read through your reports on the actions of your people at the base on Mawcett and approved the medals and commendations that you've recommended."

"Yes sir. Thank you, sir."

 "Finally, Captain Gavin has forwarded a commendation for your excellent handling of an extremely difficult and dangerous situation on Mawcett. I've added my approval and forwarded it to Space Command HQ."

"Thank you, sir. Thank you, Captain."

"You've been released from the hospital so you're to report back aboard the Prometheus in time for your next duty shift. You're dismissed, Commander."

"Thank you, sir. Good day, sirs."

After the doors had closed behind Jenetta, Admiral Holt said, "She doesn't look any the worse for wear."

"No," Gavin agreed, "she doesn't. I can't tell you how astonished I was to find her and the entire staff of the archeological camp still alive when I arrived back at Mawcett. I felt sure she'd never leave the scientists to the mercies of the Raiders, but I never imagined she'd find a place to hide them right under the Raider noses."

"She's amazingly resourceful," Kanes said. "I felt that she might survive, but I would have put the odds that she could save all the dig site people at about one in ten thousand. They may not have smelled very good after weeks of living in the sewers, but every one of her charges were healthy, except for the Marines injured or killed in early combat. I also expected her to destroy the cloning equipment to prevent it from being of any use to the Raiders, so I was even more surprised that she was able to both dismantle it without destroying any developing life forms and keep it from falling into their hands."

"Our very young looking Lt. Commander is a remarkable officer," Holt said, looking at the two captains. "And— now we have three of her."

* * *

Eliza was waiting for Jenetta outside the Admiral's office when she emerged and they walked together to the BOQ. Locating Eliza's assigned quarters in the junior officer's wing, they sat down to talk in their unique verbal shorthand. The quarters weren't as spacious as Jenetta's aboard the ship, but no one expected a very junior officer's quarters to compete with those of a senior officer. Still, they were more than adequate for one person. The room contained a gel-comfort bed, small circular table with two chairs, computer workstation, sofa, closet, built-in dresser, and attached bath. No pictures or ornaments decorated the light-cream colored walls of the single room or bath, leaving one with the impression of drabness. Even the light-brown wall-to-wall carpeting covering the deck was dull.

"Approve the core?" Eliza asked.




"That all?"

"Nope. They approved the medals and commendations. They also gave me another commendation."

"Staying here?"

"No, I have to be back for my watch tonight so I'll have to leave right after dinner to get a few hours sleep."

"It'll be strange sleeping alone after sharing your quarters for the past month."

"I know. For me too."

They received a lot of double takes later, as they walked together to the officer's mess for dinner, although most people on the base had heard the rumor of the cloning by now. After they'd eaten, Eliza walked with Jenetta back to where the ship was docked and they said good night. They'd already made plans to have dinner together the following day.

Jenetta hurried aboard and was able to get four hours sleep before rising to go on duty.

* * *

"Does anyone wish to review any of the reports again?" Admiral Moore asked of the other nine admirals sitting around the large horseshoe shaped table in the great hall where the Admiralty Board held their regular sessions. His aide and two clerks sat dutifully behind him, as was the case for each of the other admirals, but the gallery seating was empty for this session.

The report from Admiral Holt had just finished playing on the full wall monitor behind him. The admirals had previously viewed reports from Captain Gavin and Captain Kanes, and the debriefing of Lt. Commander Carver.

"Carver again," Admiral Hubera grumbled. "I thought that we were finally done with her after she received the Tawroole medal from the Nordakians. She was supposed to fade back into the fabric of Space Command. Isn't that what you said, Richard?" he posed to Admiral Moore.

"That was my expectation," Admiral Moore said.

"And now she's brought us a whole new set of major problems. I have to say one thing about her, she never does things in a small way. When she creates a problem for us, it's always a major crisis."

"Donald, Commander Carver didn't create this problem," Admiral Moore said. "I remind you that there were already forty-four clones on Mawcett before the Prometheus even arrived there. Commander Carver not only managed to deactivate the equipment, she disassembled it without damaging it or destroying any developing life forms. That she prevented it from falling into the hands of Raiders, and saved the entire civilian expedition at Loudescott from being captured, killed, or enslaved, is a remarkable achievement."

"All she did was cower in an underground bunker while our brave Space Marines died on the surface to protect her silly as…"

"Cower?" Admiral Hillaire shouted, jumping up from his seat while loudly and angrily interrupting Hubera's latest tirade. "She was directing the defense of the base from the command post, not cowering. If you'd ever been in action you'd understand the difference."

Admiral Hubera jumped to his feet as well. "Just because I've never been in battle doesn't mean that I'm ignorant of how a commanding officer should behave!"

"If you knew anything about commanding men and women in battle, you'd  know that it's no longer done from horseback while waving a sword and inviting the enemy to blow your silly head off your shoulders with a cannonball!"

"Gentlemen, gentlemen, please," Admiral Moore said.

Both men calmed and retook their seats, but continued to glower at one another.

 "Donald," Admiral Moore said, "your disdain for Commander Carver is well known to the members of this Board. You don't have to ingeminate your position every time her name comes up."

"That's the problem, Richard. Her name keeps coming up, and coming up, and coming up. Whenever there's a major problem, you can almost depend on finding Carver embroiled in it somewhere."

"Commander Carver is an exceptional line officer and occupies a critical position in the command hierarchy aboard one of our most powerful battleships. It reasons that she might be involved whenever the Prometheus responds to trouble. She didn't create the problem on Mawcett, and cannot be blamed for any of the events that transpired there. Our job now is to resolve the thorny issue of what to do about the clones."

"Since the equipment has been dismantled," Admiral Platt said, "and there will be no further clones, why don't we just officially acknowledge their existence and recommend citizenship be issued on Earth and Nordakia?"

"The Council is discussing the issue and will announce their decision at the appropriate time. Right now I'm referring only to the two clones of Commander Carver. If we make them Space Command officers, people might come to the ridiculous conclusion that we were behind their creation." Looking quickly at Admiral Bradlee, the Director of SC Intelligence, Admiral Moore said, "Uh, we weren't behind the attack on Commander Carver and the creation of her clones, were we, Roger?"

* * *

There was little for Eliza to do except wait for something to happen. Jenetta had given her a credits card so money wasn't a problem, especially with food, basic clothing, and housing being provided by Space Command. She occupied her days by spending long hours in the base gym, swimming, running, and sharpening her kick boxing skills. Evenings were spent polishing and re-polishing the historical text that she and Jenetta had written.

Called into the hospital twice more to undergo physical and psychological examinations, Eliza passed all with flying colors, just as Jenetta had passed hers.

On the seventh day following the Prometheus' arrival at Higgins, the Mentuhotep arrived. A light destroyer, the Nelson, named after the English admiral Horatio Nelson, mortally wounded at Trafalgar while defeating the Spanish and French fleets, had arrived to take up the newly established duty station over Mawcett and staff the outpost there. The Mentuhotep had been ordered to bring the seventy-seven clones to Higgins. The eleven archeologists chose to come along also, to see that their clones received proper treatment. Space Command made arrangements to house the entire group in the civilian section.

That same day, the Nordakian Queen's cousin, Ambassador Tlekulva, visited Jenetta aboard the Prometheus to make arrangements for the dinner party that Jenetta had agreed to while on Nordakia. He was escorted to a conference room to wait while Jenetta was notified of his presence.

"My Lady," Ambassador Tlekulva said, holding his closed hand to his chest and bowing his head, "we are honored by your presence. It's indeed fortunate that you have returned when you have. After you graciously agreed to permit us to honor you at a dinner party, we scheduled it for two weeks from this coming weekend. I feared that we would have to cancel when you were diverted to Mawcett, but you've arrived here in time after all. That is, if you can still attend that Saturday?"

"I'm sure that Space Command will release me from my official duties for that evening."

"Wonderful. Handmaidens will arrive several hours before the beginning of the party to help you prepare."

"That's not necessary, Mr. Ambassador. I have my Nordakian uniforms and can dress on my own."

The ambassador looked shocked. "Uniforms? My Lady, this is a State dinner."

"My Nordakian captain's uniform wouldn't be appropriate?"

"It's surely not my place to tell you how to dress, My Lady."

"Please, Mr. Ambassador, I'm not schooled in the protocols of State dinners at consulates. I'd like to rely on you for guidance."

"Very well, My Lady. On Nordakia, your uniform would be fine for a luncheon, but never for a formal dinner. While male officers might wear their dress uniforms at a State dinner, female officers would wear an appropriate gown. The same rules are usually applied to affairs at consulates, as they are considered extensions of the sovereign ground of their home planet. May I inquire after your hair length?"

"I normally keep it tightly rolled up while on duty, as required by Space Command regulations, but my hair is still an appropriate length."

The ambassador smiled. "Thank you, My Lady. Will you have an escort for the dinner, or shall I arrange for one?"

"I have a friend whom I believe will escort me."

"Very good, My Lady. Thank you so much for seeing me, and thank you for bestowing this honor on our consulate here."

"It's my pleasure, Mr. Ambassador."

Holding out a holo-tube, he said, "Here's a copy of the list of guests that have been invited, My Lady."

Jenetta activated the tube and looked over the list, nodding at the names she saw there. "May I ask a favor?"

"Anything, My Lady."

"I'd like to invite my sister to the dinner party."

"Of course, My Lady. We'd be most honored to have her attend. I wasn't aware that you had a sister here or I would have included her on the guest list."

"Eliza came with us from Mawcett."

"Oh? Oh–– you mean the clone."

"I prefer to think of her as my sister. Is there a problem?"

"Well, ah, not exactly. It's just that their status hasn't been established yet."

"Have you met any of them?"

"Yes, I have. The clones of Doctor Dakshiku Vlashsku and Glawth Djetch came to the consulate yesterday. Following your example, Doctor Dakshiku Vlashsku and Glawth Djetch refer to them as their brothers, and they've requested that each receive an identity disk."

"And did you issue the disks?"

"The matter is still being debated by the Galactic Alliance Council. Our Majesty prefers to wait until a decision is reached there before issuing a proclamation."

"It doesn't seem like there's much choice. They're healthy, living beings, who just happen to have been born a bit differently than what we consider normal, but they're here. We can't very well just ignore them."

"It's not my place to say, My Lady, but that's a possibility."

"You mean that they might not be given citizenship on Nordakia?"

"Not only Nordakia. Earth may refuse to acknowledge the clones of Terrans. The Galactic Alliance has long imposed strict sentences against people found guilty of conducting cloning experiments."

"But that doesn't apply here. The cloning was done in error and you can't punish the innocent beings that were created."

"I'm only the ambassador, My Lady. I serve at the discretion of the King and Queen. They will decide the fate of the clones, not I," the ambassador said apologetically.

"You're correct, Mr. Ambassador," Jenetta said contritely. "I'm sorry if I've embarrassed you. I have a special interest in the matter."

"I understand completely, My Lady. Shall I have the hand maidens come here to help you and your sister dress or would you prefer to come to the consulate?"

"We'll dress at my sister's quarters in the BOQ. She'll need a headdress since her hair is quite short."

"I'll have the handmaidens bring one along."

"Thank you, Mr. Ambassador. I'll see you two weeks from Saturday evening."

The ambassador bowed his head as he placed his closed hand against his chest. "Thank you, My Lady."

Summoned to Captain Kanes' office in the Intelligence Section the next day, Jenetta sat staring at the lifeless color of the plain off-white walls of his waiting area until instructed to go in by an aide. She promised herself that if she ever had an outer office, she would give visitors something to look at while they waited. The order to appear had come through Commander LaSalle on this fourteenth day since arriving at the station, and LaSalle hadn't told Jenetta the reason for the orders, if she had known. LaSalle's contrary attitude towards her stopped Jenetta from asking anything more of her superior than she absolutely had to know. When she had previously asked for more information on other matters, LaSalle had very curtly told her that if there was more she needed to know, the information would have already been passed along. So Jenetta now only asked questions if she felt that critical information for the performance of her duties was missing; hardly the best relationship for a ship's senior officer and her immediate superior, to put it mildly.

As Jenetta passed through a double set of soundproofed doors and entered the spacious office, she saw Kanes seated at a large circular holo-table with four other officers.

"Come in, Commander," Kanes said. "Have a seat. You've met Lieutenant Commanders Reuter, Coulon, Lofgren, and Lieutenant Dolan."

"Yes sir, I remember them from my interrogation in the hospital when I was charged with being AWOL. Good day, gentlemen. Am I to be charged with something, sir?" Jenetta asked, smiling.

Kanes returned her smile. "No, not at all, Jen; you're here in your capacity as a valued member of the team this time. We've been working on the possible locations of Raider bases and we wanted your input. The late Commander Pretorious told you that there were five more Raider bases, other than Raider-One, in the part of the galaxy regulated by the Galactic Alliance?"

"Yes sir. And Mikel Arneu said they needed the explosives the Vordoth was carrying, for the construction of their newest base, so there may be a sixth, or even more, by now."

"For the present we're operating under the assumption that only five are active. The blows that we've struck during the past year have crippled their operations in this part of space. The attack on Mawcett was the first overt attack in this entire grid section since they attacked Higgins eleven months ago. Our operatives have reported that the Raiders are recruiting heavily in every hellhole in the galaxy, and if we're lucky we'll be able to plant a few people on the inside. We haven't had much success in the past, but we remain hopeful because they're so desperate right now."

"I wouldn't be a bit surprised to learn that the Raiders have a few people inside Space Command Intelligence feeding them information. Keep the names of your operatives very close, sir."

"We've already completed a new, and very exhaustive security check of every member of my section, but you're right, and people in the know will be few. We'd like to hear your thoughts on the possible locations of Raider bases. Computer, display a holographic view of grid section 8667."

The entire area above the table lit up with a 3-D representation of the section that Kanes specified.

"The Raider officer that you captured, Commander Pretorious, told us that the fleet we engaged at the Battle of Vauzlee would come from Raider Two and Raider Three. Although he refused to tell us where they were located, we're reasonably sure that they're in this grid unit."

"Sir, almost seventy percent of Galactic Alliance space falls within that single, 1,000,000 square light-year grid," Jenetta said.

"How would you narrow it down, Commander?"

"I think that you'll find both those bases within deca-sector 8667-4165. That's still a tremendous area but it's only one percent of grid unit 8667."

"It so happens that we agree with you, Commander," Kanes said. "All of the Raider attacks in sector 8667 have been plotted. Computer, set Higgins to flashing green and triple light intensity." Instantly, the point of light representing the base brightened and began flashing in green. "Computer, place a blue flashing dot where the Battle of Vauzlee took place, and a red flashing dot where Raider-One was located." When that was done he said, "Computer, plot the reported positions of all Raider attacks in deca-sector 8667-4165, or the last estimated position of ships lost during the past ten years. Highlight them in orange."

Orange dots began to sprout all over the holographic image like a time lapse vid of germinating seedlings. It took a few seconds for all points to appear, and as the hologram became covered with dots, everyone at the table studied the hologram intently.

After a couple of minutes, Kanes said, "Computer, remove all solar system reference points and natural phenomena, and remove all ship position points that are not within twenty-five light-years of any other ship position points."

The holographic image cleared up considerably.

"That should remove the unplanned attack locations, and the clutter of star systems," he said. "There appears to be three distinct areas now. Look at the concentration around the Raider-One location."

The former location of the Raider-One base was not in the center of the activity within its area of space, but it was well within the heaviest concentration of attacks in that area.

Lt. Commander Reuter said, "But each of these concentrations is still about twenty to thirty light-years across."

"Searching a deca-sector is a lot easier than searching the entire grid unit," Lt. Commander Lofgren said. "At least it gives us a good starting point for the search."

"Assuming that this identifies the general location of the bases," Jenetta said, "the one nearest Mawcett appears to be about a hundred light-years away. At Light-225, it would take about six months to get there."

"Why Light-225?" Lt. Commander Coulon asked.

"That's what I estimate as the absolute top speed of the Tsgardi ship that has my sister, based on everything that I've learned about their shipbuilding techniques and technology. I may be crediting them with too much speed, given that their engineers are reputed to the worst in the galaxy, but I want to be conservative in my estimate. We have at least four and half months to get to them before they can reach a Raider base."

"They have a six-week head start," Lieutenant Dolan said.

"If we know where they're heading, and left today on the Prometheus, we'd be there a month before they arrived. We just don't know exactly where they're heading. They may not even be going to the nearest base."

"That's true, Commander," Kanes said. After a minute of silence, during which everyone stared at the holographic image, he said, "If you captained your own warship, and could go wherever you wished, where would you head?"

Jenetta picked up a holo-pointer wand and aimed it at a point in the hologram. "I'd head to a point right about there."

"Why there?" Lt. Commander Reuter asked.

"Because of this: Computer, remove all contact points that are not within five light-years of any other contact points."

The clutter of orange disappeared leaving six dense clusters of dots. The Raider-One location was in the dead center of the densest grouping, and the spot that Jenetta had pointed to was in the center of another highly concentrated group.

"I don't know that the Raiders would be so stupid as to attack such a large concentration of ships practically on their doorstep, but they might be," Jenetta said as she picked up the light pointer again. "We have to remember that this represents ten years of collected data, and they may not have plotted the attack points as we have. In any event that's where I'd start. Computer, display and expand just the sector that I pointed to. Add in the star systems."

Instantly, the image changed to reflect just the one sector, and the legend at the bottom of the image identified it as 8667-4165. There were four solar systems within ten light-years from the point that Jenetta had selected, with a total of thirty-two planets and dozens of moons. Two of the systems had an asteroid belt around the star, and three planets had rings composed of asteroids.

"That's a lot of real estate to examine," Captain Kanes said.

"Yes, but it shouldn't be necessary to examine it all. I'd look at the asteroids first, knowing how they created Raider-One, and it might not be necessary to examine anything else. We could even just lay in wait and watch for the Tsgardi vessel to approach, or else watch for the movement of other ships."

"If you were spotted, you might have a real fight on your hands, assuming there's an entire fleet of fighting ships at the base." Lt. Commander Coulon said.

"Yes, it might be suicide to go there with just one ship, but without the ships they lost at Vauzlee and here at Higgins, they won't be nearly as aggressive as they once were."

"You're recommending that we attack, Commander?" Kanes asked.

"It would be better to go on the offensive now, while they're weak, than after they've had a chance to rebuild their fleet."

"But we're not exactly sure where they are, or even if they're in that area," Lt. Commander Lofgren said.

"Yes sir. And I'm sure that you've already discussed everything I've said today, and identified the possible systems where they might be located. I was asked for my opinion so I've given it."

"I appreciate your candor, Commander, as well as your military insight," Kanes said. "Thank you for coming in. You're dismissed."

"Yes sir," Jenetta said, before standing and turning to leave the room.

"Oh, Commander?"

Jenetta stopped and turned back towards Kanes. "Sir?"

"Have you given any more thought to joining us here in Intelligence?"

Jenetta smiled slightly. "Thank you, sir, but I can't think of anyplace that I'd rather be than aboard the Prometheus."

Captain Kanes just nodded.

As Jenetta left the office, she wondered why she'd been summoned to the meeting. Since the attacks had already been plotted, they no doubt knew the approximate location of the Raider bases, so her input would have been of little real value. Had it just been another ploy to interest her in joining the Intelligence section by re-introducing her to the officers who comprised Kanes' senior advisory staff?

As the sound-proofed doors closed behind her, Kanes looked at Lt. Commander Lofgren and said, "I told you she was quick. She went right to the area in 8667-4165 that we had identified."

"It's hard to believe that the Academy staff was so wrong about her," Lofgren replied. Chuckling, he added, "Her file from those years indicates that she can't reach a decision without taking a shuttle."

"Apparently she was trying to avoid making any errors by considering every possible permutation in the solution of a problem before acting. Now she goes with her first instincts, and we can't deny her success. I wish we could convince her to join us in Intelligence."

* * *

The ship's doctor visited Christa in the brig of the Tsgardi destroyer Boshdyte every few days to examine her for serious problems or complications resulting from the daily beatings.

"You're in remarkably good shape considering our Captain's daily visits, Commander," she heard in the tiny translator earpiece that she was always given when a visitor came into the cell.

"I owe it all to clean living and lots of rest, Doctor; lots and lots of rest. Any chance of getting out of here for a little exercise? I'm going to forget how to walk pretty soon."

"The Captain will never permit you to exercise freely, but–– I might be able to have you brought to me in the sick bay for your checkups. You wouldn't be released from your shackles though. The Captain knows of your unarmed combat skills."

"I'd welcome any opportunity to get out of here for a walk; even with the chains on."

"Very well. I'll tell the Captain that your condition necessitates your being taken to sick bay from now on."

"Thank you, Doctor."

After the doctor left, Jenetta began her daily exercise routine. Although shackled she was able to adequately exercise her muscles so there was no danger of her 'forgetting' how to walk, but she needed to get out of the cell in order to start developing a plan of escape. Being chained to the wall left little such opportunity.

She completed her exercising in time for the Captain's daily visit.

"So, Commander Carver, are you ready to talk to me today?"

"Why not. Let's talk about families. Did your mother birth any Tsgardi babies that lived?"

The captain's mouth curled into a nasty snarl and he swung the short whip with all his might. Christa felt it land on her left arm and then curl around to her back. The captain's snarl turned into a grin.

"You will not insult me or my family if you wish to survive this voyage."

Christa shook off the pain and asked, "Where are we going by the way?"

"To your worst nightmare."

"To your bedroom?" Christa asked in mock horror.

Swish went the whip again. This time the blow landed on her right arm.

"The Raiders have told me how smart you are, but I see no sign of intelligence. Even the dumbest Horway on my planet is smart enough to avoid being whipped continuously."

"What's a Horway?"

"A child's pet. It's so stupid that it will take any amount of physical abuse without fighting back."

"You must have derived great pleasure from torturing your defenseless Horway when you were just a little monkey."

The whip swished again and the tip landed cruelly on her back. But the pain, which had already started to dull, had kicked in the programming that gave her a euphoric feeling.

Christa's giggle brought a scowl to the lips of the Tsgardi. "If you find it so amusing to be whipped, I see that I'll have to start visiting you twice a day."

"Oh, it's not the whipping," Christa said, suppressing another giggle.

"What is it then?"

"I just remembered a silly childhood joke. You tell someone that you just received a Henway. They ask you 'What's a Henway?', and you answer, "Oh, about four or five pounds."

The Tsgardi captain stared at her like she had grown a second head.

"It's a play on words in Amer," she explained. "It's as if someone asked you, 'How much does a hen weigh?' So when I asked you, 'What's a Horway?' you should have answered, "Oh, about a hundred pounds."

"Horways are small pets, weighing just a few pounds."

"But a whore weighs about a hundred pounds." Christa said, then giggled again.

The Captain shook his head and remarked, "As I said, I see no sign of intelligence."

When Christa giggled again, he used the whip, and continued using it until her back was crisscrossed with bloody cuts. He only stopped because he feared that he would kill her. He knew that the Raiders wouldn't pay for a corpse. In reality, Christa was only play-acting, but the Captain believed every fake scream and groan, once she had gotten her giggling under control.

Chapter Fifteen

~ June 6th, 2270 ~

Lt. Commander Spence called Eliza's room as soon as he arrived at the BOQ. He was early for his date and informed the handmaiden who answered that he was in the lobby, then sat down to wait. Almost twenty minutes later the lift doors opened and four women emerged from the car. It was quite a spectacle. The two Terran women in front were wearing the tightest gowns that Spence had ever seen on a woman. The two women in back, Nordakian handmaidens who were well over six-foot tall naturally, were even taller now because of the high heels they wore.

Lt. Commander Spence jumped up from his chair. There was no doubt that the Terran women were Jenetta and Eliza, but it was impossible to tell which was which. Wearing beautiful gowns made of shimmering fabrics, both stood six-foot three-inches tall in their high-heeled shoes. The woman on Zane's left wore a red and gold satin gown while the other was similarly clad in a gown of blue and silver. Although restricted to taking such tiny steps that it seemed they would never reach the lobby, the women were obviously walking as quickly as possible. Zane didn't wait and walked forward to greet them.

"Wow! Jen?"

The two women looked at one another and smiled.

The one on the left said, "Which do you think…"

"…is Jen?" the other finished.

Zane's mouth opened a couple of times but nothing came out. Finally he said, "I can't tell. You're both Jen, after all. You're not going to do that to me again, are you?"

The one on the left, in red and gold, said, "I'm Jen, Zane. You can tell by my long hair. It extends to one-finger width above the floor. Eliza's hair is only as long as my natural length, so she has to wear the headdress."

"I see," Zane said smiling. "I'm glad I have a way to tell you apart. Now you won't be able to play that 'twins' game on me anymore."

"Unless I cut my hair tomorrow," Jenetta said mischievously. "I've only left my hair this length so that it would be appropriate for this party. I hope that you don't mind escorting the both of us tonight."

"Mind? Escorting the two most beautiful and sexy women on the station? Never! Besides, it's more like you're escorting me," Zane said grinning. "I'm only six-foot-one. All four of you are taller than I am."

"We have to wear such high heels because the Nordakians appreciate height, but we won't mind being a little taller than you for a change. It's only an inch and a half, after all, since your shoes add more than a centimeter."

Eliza possessed all of Jenetta's memories about her time on Nordakia, so there hadn't been any opposition to wearing the restrictive gowns, but both women had moaned as the corsets were tightened sufficiently for them to fit into the dresses. Jenetta would have had them altered, but the palace dressmakers hadn't left enough fabric to let them out. The handmaidens were well practiced, so the dressing process had moved along quickly, despite the tightness of the gowns.

Zane took his place between the two Terran women and extended his elbows for them to slip their arms through. "Ladies?"

The slow pace that the women were forced to walk gave the group lots of time to talk, but they had a dinner party to attend so they hailed a driverless cab to take them to the Nordakian embassy. The trip, only a few minutes by cab, could have taken an hour if they'd walked. As they rode, Zane enlightened Jenetta and Eliza with the facts of his investigation into the rights of clones.

"Human cloning was outlawed before any were successfully produced, so the subject of rights has never come up."

"So that means they have no rights?" Jenetta asked. "Not even basic human rights?"

"By current legal definition, they're not people, so we're at the mercy of the Galactic Alliance Council to establish their status. I've been ordered to drop my investigation and let the Council decide their fate."

"They'd better make the right decision," Jenetta said grimly, her jaw set in determination.

The 'oh gee' cab glided silently up to the embassy entrance on a gentle cushion of opposed-gravity waves and dropped its landing struts as the doors of the open-topped, driverless vehicle slid down beneath the frame. Swinging her legs out of the cab and standing up, Jenetta's hair fell to within an inch of the deck, whereupon the doorman at the entrance gate immediately dropped to one knee and bowed his head, his closed hand pressed tightly to his chest. Jenetta asked him to rise and then offered her hand to Eliza as she struggled to get out of the cab. Zane was followed by the two handmaidens.

The embassy was more like the floor in an office building on Earth, than one of the separate high-security buildings typically found on planetary surfaces, but their floor space was nevertheless considered foreign soil. They had their own security staff, but weapons were not permitted outside their 'territory.' Since this was a Space Command base, the Space Marine Corps was responsible for security outside the walls of the embassy. Of the kilometers of common area, hardly a single square meter wasn't monitored constantly by cameras or on-duty Marine personnel, and patrols could be dispatched from any one of dozens of remote security offices, in seconds, if trouble was detected.

As Jenetta's party approached staff members inside the embassy, the males immediately dropped to one knee while the females bowed their heads until they had passed. "What are they doing?" Zane whispered to Jenetta.

"They're paying their respects to me as a member of the nobility," she whispered back. "The custom on Nordakia is for males to drop to one knee while bowing their head and pressing their closed right hand against their chest when encountering a Royal. The length of my hair and tightness of my gown signify that I'm ranked just below the Royal Family."

"I understood about your becoming a member of the nobility. How did you become a Lady of the Royal House?"

"Treat this as top secret. The honor was bestowed because one of King's sons was aboard a freighter delivering supplies to Obotymot. It was never publicly released for reasons of national security, and awarding the honor doesn't require that the specifics be released. The proclamation only states that it was awarded for personal service to the crown."

 As the party reached the main reception area, the ambassador stepped forward and greeted Jenetta by pressing his hand to his chest and bowing his head briefly. He didn't drop to one knee but Jenetta certainly hadn't expected him to. As a representative of the King, on official business, he was only required to bow his head and offer the proper salutation. Also, he was the Queen's cousin and so a member of the extended Royal Family himself. "Welcome, Azula Carver. We are honored to have you here with us tonight."

"Zrand chekkora u kareerdu," Jenetta said in Dakis. Then switching to Amer for the benefit of Zane she repeated the same phrase "It's my honor to be welcomed here."

"Your Dakis is flawless, My Lady, but I think we should stay with Amer for the benefit of most of our guests."

"Thank you, Mr. Ambassador. Allow me to introduce my sister, Eliza, and Lt. Commander Zane Spence."

The ambassador welcomed each and then Jenetta held out the small wrapped package that she had brought with her. "Mr. Ambassador, I have a gift for the King and Queen. It's extremely precious and somewhat fragile. I ask that it be sent to their Majesties on a military vessel at your earliest convenience."

The ambassador handled the package delicately as he accepted it. "Might I inquire as to the nature of the gift? The captain of the ship will want to know if there's a danger."

"There's absolutely no danger, other than that it be damaged or stolen. It's a priceless, ancient artifact that I discovered on Mawcett. I believe that it holds great significance for the Nordakian people. Its value is— inestimable. Space Command has officially approved of its presentation to the Royal Family. Their Majesties will understand."

"On behalf of their Majesties, I thank you for this most precious gift."

The ambassador left, and then returned after locking the gift in the embassy safe. They talked for awhile until the guests began arriving and then formed a receiving line. The Ambassador and his wife were first, followed by Jenetta, Zane, and Eliza.

"You look ravishing, Commander," Admiral Holt said as Jenetta greeted him.

"Thank you, Admiral. You look very dashing in your dress uniform. You've won your bet, by the way."

"My bet?"

"You told me last year that you bet I'd be the first of my graduating class to reach the rank of captain, officially."

"Yes, that's true," he said tentatively.

"You've won your bet. I was commissioned as a Captain in the Nordakian Space Force while on Nordakia."

Admiral Holt laughed heartily before saying, "I don't think that qualifies in my wager, although you are technically a captain. My bet concerned your attaining the rank of captain by virtue of appointment from Space Command Supreme Headquarters. It's okay, I'm patient. I still believe that you'll be the first of your class to attain that rank in Space Command, if those shoes don't kill you first. I seem to remember you being a full head shorter."

Jenetta smiled. "Only thirteen-centimeters are the shoes, but I'm still growing, thanks to the Raider DNA process. The doctors believe that I'll make five-foot-eleven without the assistance of shoemakers."

The guest list for the party was like a who's who of the space port, and the queue behind the admiral continued to grow, so he and his wife moved along. In addition to both admirals and many of the captains from Space Command, dozens of Nordakians had come to the event. Most of the Space Command personnel were wide-eyed when first observing Jenetta and Eliza since they were unaware of the requirements for female attire on Nordakia. Unlike state dinners at the palace on Nordakia, few of the female guests were required to wear even moderately restrictive attire or maintain very long hair. Female Space Command officers wore their dress uniforms, while the non-military female guests wore normal ball gowns. Other than Jen and Eliza, only the wives of the Nordakian officials wore traditional restrictive garments. Even so, theirs were not nearly so tight, nor could their hair be worn as long. The hair of the ambassador's wife only extended to within twenty-five centimeters of the deck, and her gown allowed easy movement.

Mingling prior to dinner being served, Jenetta spoke in Amer, but slipped into Dakis when exclusively in the company of Nordakians. Doctor Dakshiku Vlashsku and Glawth Djetch were among the invited guests, but the guest list hadn't included their clones.

The ambassador had arranged for a photo session prior to the meal so Jenetta was called away for that. Dinner was announced upon their return, and everyone moved into the dining room. Jenetta was willing to bet this room had rarely seen such a large party as this.

Following dinner, the Ambassador rose and gave a long-winded speech about the contribution that Jenetta had made to the Nordakian people and the galaxy. His times in the spotlight were infrequent, and he made the most of this one. At the end of his speech, he proposed a toast to Jenetta, and then indicated that she should speak. Jenetta hadn't prepared anything, but she smiled and stood up as she desperately tried to think of what to say.

"Ambassador Tlekulva, Mrs. Tlekulva, honored guests, thank you for this great honor. It's been my privilege to be in a position to serve the Nordakian people and the citizens of the galaxy. I'm very grateful to the King and Queen of Nordakia, the Galactic Alliance, and Space Command for the honors they have bestowed upon me.

"I'd like to take this opportunity to speak to you about a topic dear to my heart. I was accompanied here tonight by my lovely sister, Eliza, whom you met earlier. Most of you already know that Eliza was born only a couple of months ago, the result of a process accidentally initiated during the discovery of ancient equipment on Mawcett. A civilization that we thought long dead has reached through the millennia to impact us significantly in our time. Although galactic law prohibits cloning of sentient life forms, we know now that the process existed some nineteen-thousand years ago. Seventy-nine new individuals were created before we could safely disengage the equipment, and the status of these new people is still in question. As a citizen of both Nordakia and Earth, I request that these new people be granted citizenship, and the full rights and privileges normally accorded to all of us.

"I'd also like to take this occasion to announce that I today received permission to publish a book, co-authored by my sisters Eliza, Christa, and myself, on the history of Mawcett. During our investigation into records we uncovered there, we've learned that Mawcett is none other than Dakistee, the original home planet of the people of Nordakia, and that the cloning technology was developed in an effort to repopulate a planet devastated by a viral infection that left the population unable to reproduce. The ancestors of the people of Nordakia had already taken to the stars before the infection spread. Although Dakistee scientists were able to successfully eradicate the virus that caused the problem, they were unable to restore the reproductive capability of the planet's citizenry. Through cloning, they hoped to ensure the survival of their people, but it was a fruitless venture because the clones also lacked reproductive capability. I hope that this new information will assist the archeological teams that are currently working on the planet. Thank you."

As Jenetta sat down, she saw the stunned expressions on the faces of the Ambassador and his wife. She had intended to brief him in advance of a public announcement, but the impromptu speech had suddenly seemed like the perfect opportunity to break the news. Obviously, the news had surprised the usually knowledgeable guests as well because it was several seconds before the stunned invitees began to applaud. Several members of the media, invited to the dinner, slipped out quickly to relay the information to their offices.

Following dinner, the guests moved back to the reception ballroom where an orchestra had begun to play. Some of the couples danced to the music, but Jenetta and Eliza wouldn't be joining them. Even if people hadn't been surrounding them, firing questions about the 'Dakistee' revelation, their gowns would certainly have prevented dancing.

They continued to answer questions about the new book until the event began to break up. To the people who kept pressing questions as they tried to say goodbye to departing guests, they simply resorted to a standard line that the book would be available very shortly now that it had been approved for release.

When all of the guests had gone, Jenetta and Eliza thanked the ambassador and his wife once again while Zane went to summon a cab.

"You're sure of your facts about Dakistee?" Ambassador Tlekulva asked.

"Yes, Ambassador."

"Then I understand now how something you found on Mawcett could have great significance for our people. I admit to having been puzzled earlier by your statement."

"I'd intended to tell you tonight, before making it public. I decided at literally the last second to release it during my speech. I'm sorry that it took you by surprise."

"I would have been surprised in either case. I look forward to reading your book with even greater eagerness. Thank you for honoring us with your presence tonight, Azula."

Returning to the BOQ, where Jenetta would stay overnight, both Jenetta and Eliza thanked Zane for escorting them, but Jenetta stayed downstairs while Eliza went up. She came upstairs a short time later, after sharing a few kisses with Zane in a less visible area near the lifts.

Eliza seemed unusually pensive as Jenetta helped her remove the headdress and gown. Jenetta knew that her sister was in pain, and had felt her own anxiety growing steadily for several hours as they approached this moment.

"I'm sorry about Zane," Jenetta said. "I know how uncomfortable you must feel."

"It's awkward–– and it hurts," Eliza said, forlornly. "I inherited strong feelings for him from you."

"I'm sorry. It's going to be like that until we separate our lives a little more and you develop your own romantic relationships. Unfortunately, that won't work with people that we already know. At least he was my only love interest before I became we."

"Not your only love interest; you love the Prometheus also. That's another love that I can't share."

"You'll develop your own attachment to a ship once they settle your status. Look at the way we began to feel about the Song after we were put in command."

"You just don't understand how difficult it is to have lived a life that isn't yours anymore. It's as if I've suddenly been cut off from everything and everyone that I know and love. And I'm supposed to just accept it and blithely move on."

Jenetta reached out and pulled Eliza to her and the two women hugged tightly. The action initiated the release of pent-up emotions and Eliza began to weep, causing Jenetta to join her. They stayed like that for several minutes.

"I can imagine how you feel," Jenetta said tearfully. "I wish that I could do something."

"You can't," Eliza said sniffling. "As you've said, it's just going to take time; time to create my own identity; time to create a new life. I hope that I can. I'm standing in a very big shadow right now."

"Don't think for a minute that you weren't equally responsible for creating that shadow. We're one and the same. You have as much right to claim a share of the honors as I have. They're your accomplishments as well."

"I know, and you know, but will they know? Will the powers that be acknowledge Christa and me as part of your past achievements and establish a proportionate status for us?"

"We'll just make sure that they do."

"How? I don't know what more we can do."

"I don't know either right now, but something will turn up." Jenetta wiped away a tear, smiled and said, "Now stop talking and help me get out of this damn corset and gown so that I can take a full breath."

* * *

Christa's first visit to the sick bay aboard the Boshdyte was enlightening. As the doctor predicted, she wasn't released from the shackles and had to stumble her way through the corridors of the ship, while being prodded by two guards. Having been unconscious when she was taken to the cell, she hadn't seen anything of the ship until now.

The hull of her shuttle had been breached after taking fire from the Tsgardi ship so she owed her life to the fact that she'd been wearing an E.V.A. suit. The small torpedo with a limited strength warhead had barely penetrated the stern, but the force had been sufficient to blow out two bulkheads and the bridge partition, and render her unconscious. Her inert form was taken to the brig, stripped of the E.V.A. suit, and shackled to the wall as the Tsgardi searched the small ship. The captain had been so angry when he learned the shuttle was empty of both cargo and passengers that he ran to Christa's cell and whipped her unconscious form mercilessly. He never seemed to suspect that the shuttle flight had only been a ruse to draw him away from the planet temporarily.

Christa's sickbay visit was her first opportunity to get a basic feel for the layout of the ship. Nothing at all like the orderly, brightly-lit vessels of Space Command, the clutter in the dimly lit corridors was abysmal. The Tsgardi never passed up the opportunity to take anything of even the most minor value when they seized a ship, and the corridors were lined with trash and salvage. Primitive when compared to a sickbay on most GSC ships, the Boshdyte's sickbay was barely adequate for most injuries the doctor was capable of treating. Three patient beds, empty at present, lined one wall. For those cases that couldn't be properly treated aboard the ship, half a dozen stasis beds, capable of suspending most bodily systems until more adequate medical facilities were available, lined another. Of the ship areas that Christa had seen, the sickbay was the only one that was clean and orderly.

To justify Christa's first trip to the sickbay, the doctor took a complete set of digital radiography images. Thereafter he would just x-ray her arms, since that was where the majority of whip blows landed.

Every three days Christa was brought to the sickbay for her x-rays and examination. As it became routine, the guards became more and more lax. Pretending to be weak and demoralized, Christa was able to lull them into a sense of absolute, unopposed control.

Chapter Sixteen

~ June 7th, 2270 ~

On the afternoon following the dinner party at the Embassy, Jenetta and Eliza forwarded an electronic copy of their book to Doctor Peterson on Mawcett. They included a copy of the unabridged dictionary Jenetta had created, with a phonetic guide for reading any text found on the planet. Now that she had disseminated information that the original inhabitants were Nordakian primogenitors, it would only have been a matter of time before someone in the MAE made the association with the current Nordakian language.

They also sent copies of the book and the dictionary to the Space Command Military Library, the Galactic Alliance Council Library, and the Royal Nordakian Literary Guild. The book was dedicated to the eleven scientists working at the Loudescott archeological investigation site on Mawcett and credited them with finding the facility that yielded the information, with special mention to Bruce Priestly. The authors of both volumes were listed as Jenetta, Eliza, and Christa Carver.

Within hours of the transmissions, news agencies from around the galaxy began calling Space Command SHQ for information and begging that copies be sent to them directly since each of the libraries would have to review the book before making it available. In the interest of public relations, Space Command made one electronic copy available to each news agency. They were authorized to make up to ten copies and distribute them as they saw fit, but only within their own news organizations.

On Tuesday morning, Jenetta received notification that the Prometheus would depart at 1800 hours. She immediately called Eliza to inform her that the ship was leaving and that she'd see her when she got back. Eliza wished her luck, both women assuming that the previously unscheduled mission had somthing to do with rescuing Christa.

At exactly 1800 hours, the Prometheus backed away from its docking pier and left orbit. Jenetta wasn't on the bridge since it wasn't her watch and she preferred to have as little contact as possible with Commander LaSalle.

Ten minutes before her watch began, Jenetta reported to the bridge. Standing near the tactical console until 2359, she relieved Commander LaSalle. Other than a status report, no more than half a dozen words were spoken between them.

There was little to do on the bridge with the course laid in, so Jenetta relaxed and engaged in light conversation with Lieutenant Kerrey or one of the other officers. She didn't need to have the captain confirm the destination once she saw the course. They were headed towards the area that she had speculated might be the location of the Raider base. At the ship's top speed it would take three and a half months to get there. Except for the four senior bridge officers, the crew believed they were headed for the Space Command outpost on Ulakkon-Three, a dismally intemperate mining planet that shipped ore to all parts of the known galaxy.

After the Prometheus departed, Eliza felt abysmally alone. Although her food, clothing, and housing needs were being filled by Space Command, she didn't have a job, or anything to do that made her feel useful. With so much free time, Eliza filled her mornings by working out in the base gym. After having lunch in the officer's mess, she would normally spend her afternoons on the shopping concourse. Jenetta had always disliked shopping because she had too many more important things to do, but Eliza found delight in spending hours in the stores because it filled otherwise boring days. Evenings were usually devoted to reading.

While having lunch in the officer's mess, a week after Jenetta left, Eliza heard a familiar voice say, "May I join you?" Eliza looked up and saw Zane Spence standing across from her, holding a tray that contained his lunch.

"Of course, Zane. Please do."

Zane grinned as he sat down and noticed the abundance of food on Eliza's tray. "I see that you share Jen's appetite."

"We're still growing. We hope that we'll eventually need less. It's terrible being as hungry as a teenager all the time."

"How are you making out otherwise, Eliza?"

"Fine, Zane. I work out in the mornings, shop during the afternoons, and read at night. It's a wonderful life for a prisoner."

"It can't be that bad. It surely beats the detention center on Raider-One that you talked about during the trial."

"It's a step above that— but only a small step. Until my status is resolved, I can't travel to Earth to visit my mother, and I can't even get a job. I have the finest education available in the galaxy, and I can't make use of it."

"Why not speak to the Admiral. He can probably arrange for you to work in the Astrophysics section until your status is settled."

Eliza made a face. "And work for Lieutenant Kesliski again? No thanks, I'd almost rather be in the Raider detention center."

Zane grinned. "How about writing another book about Dakistee? The last one looks like it's going to be a runaway best seller."

"That's only because it's the first one. Within a year or two, most of the archeologists on the planet will be publishing."

"All the more reason to do it now and beat them to print. You said at the dinner party that you still have copies of all the historical files downloaded from the computer at the facility."

"Maybe you have something there. Even if it never gets published, at least it'll keep me busy."

"Wonderful! Now, how about having dinner with me to celebrate the start of the new book?"

"I'm here every evening at 1700 hours."

"You know what I mean. Let's have dinner at Gregory's."


"Sure. I'll pick you up at 1800."

"Um, okay, Zane."

Zane phoned from the lobby of the BOQ when he arrived. Eliza stepped from the lift at the lobby level a few minutes later. She wore a Space Command officer's uniform, without insignia, as she had been instructed to do by Admiral Holt when she first arrived at the station. It would have been her preference anyway since she had acquired Jenetta's general lack of interest in dresses and gowns.

"Hi, Zane. Right on time. Did you make reservations at Gregory's?"

"No, Gregory's was booked for a private party. I made reservations at Constantine's. It's a Greek restaurant on the concourse, just down from Gregory's."

"I've passed it, but I haven't eaten there yet."

"The food and service isn't quite as excellent as Gregory's, but it's still pretty good."

"Great, I'm hungry," Eliza said, although she'd eaten several pieces of fruit just before Zane arrived at the BOQ so that she wouldn't still feel hollow after eating at the restaurant, nor embarrass herself or Zane by eating everything except the tablecloth.

Walking to the restaurant rather than taking a cab, they still arrived before the reserved time. A long line of people waited for service, and Zane notified the hostess that his party was there and ready to be seated. After being informed that there would be a brief wait of perhaps ten minutes beyond the reserved time, Zane and Eliza found seats in the entrance area and waited to be called.

The restaurant was generously ornamented with neon and metallic wall decorations, and its luminance was provided by the currently-fashionable floating Chembrite lights in various geometric shapes. The extensive use of robotics meant that only one employee, the hostess, was actually in view most of the time. A button to summon a waiter bot was on every table if service was needed after the meal order had been placed. Restrictions against use of expanded AI in robots with either mobility or wireless communication capability meant that the automatons were barely adequate for the task. Eliza much preferred the ambiance of Gregory's, with its full staff of real people.

Eliza and Zane were finally seated about fifteen minutes after their reserved time. The hostess apologized, explaining that a large private party at a restaurant on the next block was limiting the normally available restaurant seating on the concourse.

Despite the garish interior, the food at the restaurant was delicious, and the company even better. Eliza enjoyed her meal with Zane, even if he did call her Jen several times. There were no awkward moments. Since Eliza had all of Jenetta's memories, she could talk about the things that Zane and Jenetta had experienced together.

Walking along the concourse after leaving the restaurant, they made two revolutions around the shops before leaving the level. Upon reaching the BOQ, Zane walked into the lobby with Eliza and tried to steer her to the area where Zane and Jenetta always shared a parting kiss.

Eliza pulled away, saying, "No, Zane, I'm not Jen."

"Aren't you? You're as much Jen as she is."

"Not anymore. We're two separate people now." Eliza giggled suddenly. "That sounds so funny coming from me. I've been insisting all along that I am her and should have the same rights and privileges, and now I'm denying that I'm her. I guess that I haven't figured out just who I am yet, but I'm not going to cheat on Jen with her boyfriend, even if I do share her feelings for you."

"I'm not her boyfriend; at least not steady. We're friends, and we date, but there's no agreement of exclusivity between us. I date other women when she's not around. I haven't made a point of throwing it in her face, but I haven't hidden it either. She's away for months and possibly years at a time. If she was permanently stationed on the base it'd be another matter entirely."

"I see that I'll have to think about this some more. I know that you haven't come to any agreement, but she apparently feels a closer bond with you than you with her. I can tell you she'd be very hurt if she learned that we kissed."

"Then we won't tell her."

Eliza sighed. "I'm afraid I couldn't guarantee that I'd be able to do that. It's best if we don't kiss, then I won't have to keep it secret."

"But you want to?"

"As I said, I have all of Jen's feelings for you, so the answer is yes, I'd very much like to, just as she would. Thank you for dinner. Good night."

Without even waiting for Zane to reply, Eliza turned and walked to the elevator. She gave the floor destination without turning around and she heard the doors slide close behind her. She didn't turn until the elevator began to rise.

* * *

Three months into their journey, the Prometheus' temporal envelope was dropped and the ship came to a complete stop. All outgoing com traffic was halted, except for encrypted communications with Space Command by the Captain and First Officer. Jenetta had spent her free time during the past months staying fit and studying everything available in the ship's extensive computer files about the Tsgardi. A meeting of all senior officers was scheduled for 1500 hours in the large conference room on the bridge deck.

"Ladies and Gentlemen," Gavin said to start the meeting, "our first mission is to find and seize the Tsgardi ship that attacked Mawcett. The Intelligence Section has provided us with rough coordinates for a possible Raider base where they believe the ship is headed. We want to intercept it before it gets there. If we locate it, we'll jam their com traffic so they can't warn the base and then do whatever is necessary to stop them, but we want them intact, if possible. SCI believes they might have prisoners on board.

"How are we supposed to stop them, Captain?" LaSalle asked.

"We'll try to get them to surrender first. They can't outrun us and they're no match for our weapons. Failing that we'll target their temporal envelope generator, outboard power cells, and Sub-Light engines, in that order."

"Stopping them, without destroying them if they choose to run, will require pinpoint accuracy, sir. It may be impossible."

"I understand, Commander. It may not be possible to stop them intact, but stop them we shall."

"Yes sir."

"Once we intercept the Tsgardi ship, our mission is to search for and locate the Raider base. SCI believes they may be operating from a hollowed out asteroid, as was the case with the Raider-One base. We'll have to remain on our toes once we start searching because they could come streaming out like wasps from a bothered hive once we get close."

"Are we on our own, Sir, or will more ships be coming to aid us?" Lieutenant Kerrey asked.

"Right now we're on our own, but other ships are being diverted in support of this operation. Space Command informs me that this task force will comprise sixteen ships in total, unless something else comes up, and we should have the entire force assembled by the time we find the Raider base. There's only one other ship in the fleet that can match our speed, so right now we're far ahead of any other GSC ships proceeding to this area. We'll remain in this vicinity until we spot the Tsgardi ship, or until we decide that they must have chosen another destination. Any more questions?" When no one spoke, the Captain added, "Dismissed."

* * *

The Prometheus, joined after several weeks by an older battleship, the Bellona, remained in position for a full month. Named for the Roman goddess of war, the slightly smaller warship was a bit slower than the Prometheus, but was nevertheless a formidable warship. Like the Prometheus, it was the first ship constructed in its class so it had the honor of having the class designated with her name. Three heavy cruisers and ten destroyers also arrived during the weeks that Prometheus sat waiting, but there wasn't any sign of the Tsgardi ship, nor were any sightings reported by the arriving ships.

The task force was now in place, except for one ship, and the captains of the Space Command vessels began to hold a series of meetings aboard the Prometheus to plan the assault on the, as yet unlocated, Raider base. Gavin, as the senior officer, was the designated task force commander.

A week later than the last of the others, the final ship assigned to the battle-group arrived. Chiron, brother ship to Prometheus, had been traveling for months at top speed to join the task force at the RP. The might of this combined group made it the most powerful Space Command force ever assembled and little could stand in its way. Even three times the number in Raider ships should not prove a match for the task force, when the skill and training of the Space Command crews were factored in with the strengths of the warships.

Jenetta was working in her office when a small group from the Chiron came aboard the Prometheus. When her computer interface announced that Captain Kanes was requesting admittance, she pushed the com screen down on the report she was reading, said "Come," and jumped to her feet. "Good afternoon, sir," she said as he entered. "I wasn't aware you were aboard."

"Sit, please, Jen," Kanes said. "I just dropped by to say hello."

"Yes sir," Jenetta said, sitting back down. Kanes sat down in the chair facing her desk.

"I understand that the Prometheus hasn't had any luck in finding the Tsgardi vessel?"

"Not as yet, sir."

"If they were headed this way, they should have been spotted by now."

"Yes sir, although they might have had mechanical problems that resulted in a delay."

"We have to face the fact that they may have had a different destination entirely. I've kept the task force here for as long as I can. I have to release it now to Captain Gavin so it can begin searching for the Raider base. I'm sorry, Jen. I was really hoping that we would find your sister before we had to engage the Raiders."

"Yes sir. Thank you. I understand, and I know that Christa will understand also; even if she's already inside the Raider base."

Kanes looked down at the floor for a few seconds before making eye contact again. "We can't not attack the base if we locate it; not just to save one person, however special she might be. Hopefully, the Raiders will surrender without a fight, but I don't think so. Most know that murder and kidnapping charges will be preferred against them and that they face a possible lifetime of confinement at the penal colony on Saquer Major when the cases are adjudicated."

"Then we'll have to hope that they prefer a lifetime of confinement to a swift and immediate death."

It was decided that the three battleships would each spearhead a separate search effort for the Raider base. Before Raider-One was found, no one would have thought to look for a pirate base inside a hollowed out asteroid because the effort required to create such a base seemed just too enormous to be seriously contemplated. In hindsight, the solution was the only practicable one. Despite the vastness of space, somebody would have noticed the assembly of a large force of non-SC warships in Galactic Alliance space. Of course, in the past, no one ever imagined that the Raiders had such a large fleet of warships, which is another reason that no one contemplated the construction of such a base.

The force divided into the three groups and began investigating all asteroids in the sector. It took almost three weeks before the Bellona found an asteroid that provided confusing information. Sitting on the very outside edge of an asteroid belt, the enormous, ugly, black rock appeared to be composed of ferrite ore and carbon, yet the readings from sensors represented just forty percent of the anticipated mass for its size. The Bellona continued on past the asteroid as if nothing was wrong and then contacted the rest of the task force. Within forty-eight hours the entire SC warship force had assembled near the asteroid. Having deployed two communication jamming satellites to block IDS communication signals immediately after transmitting an encrypted signal announcing its find, the Bellona had never moved so far away that her sensors weren't constantly scanning the rock, searching for anything out of the ordinary.

With Prometheus, Chiron, and Bellona sitting twenty-five thousand kilometers off what they felt had to be the area on the asteroid where the hidden doors would be located, and the other ships encircling the asteroid from a similar distance, Captain Gavin broadcast a message on all RF communication frequencies in the microwave spectrum.

"Attention, Raider base. This is the captain of the Prometheus and the commander of the task force now surrounding your base. You have five minutes to respond. I urge you to contact us, or you face complete destruction."

The seconds ticked off slowly as they waited for a response. The captain even allowed a full extra minute before nodding to the weapons fire control officer. A second later a single torpedo was fired at the asteroid. As it reached a point one-hundred kilometers from the asteroid, a dozen phased array lasers suddenly uncovered and opened fire. Either the gunners weren't very skilled, or perhaps the weapons weren't very accurate, because the torpedo nearly reached the asteroid before being destroyed. The laser fire conclusively proved that the task force had found the base.

At twenty-five thousand kilometers from the asteroid, the GSC ships were outside the effective range of the asteroid's lasers. Although a laser pulse can travel a few hundred thousand kilometers before light-speed lag makes its effectiveness negligible, numerous other factors such as beam distortion from vibration, target motion, and finite sensor resolution are at work. Extreme distances didn't always stop a gunner from trying, but damage at this range is sufficiently rare that experienced gunners usually didn't bother. Unfortunately, the GSC arrays were equally useless against the asteroid. The ships had to either move in closer or rely on torpedoes to press their attack.

When no word came from the asteroid during the next five minutes, the captain gave the order to fire a volley of five torpedoes. Two were destroyed by fire from the asteroid, but the other three impacted the asteroid's walls. The effect was paltry. It was obvious that torpedoes weren't going to open a hole in the asteroid anytime soon. Gavin called a meeting of his senior officers to discuss the situation. Kanes and his top four people, who had transferred to the Prometheus when the Chiron arrived, also attended. A vid conference link was established with each of the ships in the task force, and the other senior staffs were able to participate. The large monitor in the bridge deck conference room was a patchwork of images being received from conference rooms aboard the other ships.

"As you all know," Gavin said as the conference began, "we've ascertained that the asteroid does house the Raider base, but our torpedoes have had minimal effect on that hunk of rock. Although deadly against any ship, our torpedoes practically just bounce off that thing. We have to develop a strategy for penetrating a seemingly impenetrable fortress. We're too far away for laser fire to be effective, and if we move closer we'd be putting our own ships in peril from the asteroid's guns, without any expectation of immediate results. I'm open to any suggestions."

The officers looked at one another, or down at the table as they thought. Their weapons weren't designed to penetrate kilometers of rock. All had expected the Raiders to flee as soon as they found their base under attack.

"We have a new weapon," Captain Kanes offered, "that might be able to crack that thing like a hard boiled egg, but it will take four months or more to get it here."

"What is it?" Captain Gavin asked.

"It's still classified 'most secret' so I'll have to get permission from Supreme HQ before I can more fully explain its explosive capability, or even guarantee that we can use it. But basically, it's an advancement on a weapon developed in the late twentieth century for warfare on Earth. That weapon was called a 'bunker buster' because it would plow through multiple layers of reinforced concrete before exploding, the idea being to penetrate to the lowest levels of subterranean fortifications before detonating. I know that the weapons research people have been looking for a place to properly test it."

"Based on what we've just seen," Captain Gavin said, "we'll need at least four to guarantee that one makes it through. What would happen if the gunners fail to shoot any of the weapons down?

"Well–– based on the expected yield reports that I've seen, we might have a situation like that of Raider-One after Commander Carver delivered her little present. There might be very little of that base left if four torpedoes with the new warhead all made it through successfully. We might not even be able to even identify which ships were inside before the attack."

"It sounds like a weapon of last resort then," Captain Hyden of the Bellona said.

"Yes, but if the Raiders won't surrender, it may be our last resort. We can't keep sixteen warships here indefinitely, and we can't just turn around and head for the barn now that we've found them."

"Sirs," Jenetta said, "if the new weapon is as powerful as suggested, we should only fire one at a time..."

"Don't be ridiculous, Commander," LaSalle said derisively, interrupting Jenetta's proposal. "the Raider gunners would all concentrate their fire on the one torpedo and its chances of getting through would be significantly reduced."

"I was thinking that we send three or four regular torpedoes along with it, to act as diversions. If the Raiders knock the special one down, then we send five more, again with only one of them containing the new warhead. Our first goal should be to breach the walls, not knock down the castle."

"That sounds like a sensible idea, Commander," Kanes said.

"I agree," Gavin said, nodding his head slightly.

LaSalle scowled, but said nothing. She had spoken up too quickly and Carver had made her look like a fool in front of everyone viewing the teleconference when she expounded her idea.

"Sirs," Jenetta said, "if this asteroid is like Raider-One, then the weakest point has to be the main doors. Instead of ten or twenty kilometers of rock, we would only be trying to break through a few meters of metal and the composite materials used for camouflage. I have to believe that the torpedoes would have had more of an effect if we had really identified the door area. We must be attacking the wrong point; perhaps one deliberately designed to mislead. I suggest that we fire a number of torpedoes at the asteroid from different points and then use the resulting seismal information to determine where the tunnel doors actually are."

There was silence in the room for minute. "You think that we've been deceived into attacking a point where we couldn't possibly break through?" Gavin said thoughtfully. "It's possible. With the doors closed, the asteroid just looks like a big chunk of black rock."

"Even if we're attacking the wrong point," Captain Powers of the Chiron said, "we still may not be able to crack open a hole in the asteroid once we identify the entrance."

"Captain Kanes," Captain Gavin said, "find out if we may have the new weapons for 'testing' against that asteroid. That'll give the Raiders four months to surrender, or us four months to find another alternative. Commander LaSalle, coordinate with our other ships to fire a series of torpedoes for the purpose of collecting seismic data that our science officers can use to identify the asteroid's tunnel into the port and its weakest points."

"Yes sir."

"Any other ideas?" Gavin scanned the faces around the table and on the monitor, waiting until the silence seemed to become pervasive. "Very well. Dismissed."

Kanes immediately headed for his assigned quarters to prepare the encrypted request for the ordnance. The cyphered request would be transmitted via regular RF to a communications relay satellite parked just outside the hundred-million kilometer IDS jamming range, and then retransmitted on IDS to Higgins Space Command base.

Jenetta was in the gym the next day when Kanes arrived for his workout.

"Good morning, Commander," he said. "Does that punching bag have a name?"


"The way you're hitting that bag, it seems personal."

Jenetta smiled grimly. "No, no name, sir. I was just thinking back to my time in the Raider-One detention cell and wondering about Christa."

"Ah, I see. You're worried that she might be in the Raider base that we're confronting?"

"It's not impossible."

"No, it isn't. But you can't let it influence your duty as a Space Command officer."

"It won't, sir, much as I would regret taking any action that might harm her. She knew the risk when she volunteered to pilot that shuttle. It was virtually a suicide mission, but I believed it was necessary if we were to keep the cloning technology out of the hands of the Raiders."

Kanes nodded. "She certainly acquired your strength and courage."

"I hope that it won't be her undoing. I've heard about bonds between siblings that are so strong you can sense when they're in danger, but I've tried as hard as I can and I don't get anything. You'd think that I could pick up something if there was any validity to that premise. When we were together we knew exactly what the other was thinking. When we talked, it was like thinking out loud. I've tried to stretch out with my senses here, but I get nothing back."

"Most of those reports about such contact are at relatively short distances, such as within a building or maybe across town, not across tens of thousands of kilometers."

"I suppose," Jenetta said. "I hope that whatever else happens, I learn what happened to Christa. If we use the weapons that you've requested, there may not be enough left to determine if she was even in there."

"I wish that it could be otherwise. Perhaps something will develop that will allow us to avoid using the new weapon."

"It would be great if we could warn them, in the hope that they would surrender before we have to use it, but that may not be wise. I remember reading about the discussions among decision makers trying to decide whether or not they should warn the Japanese prior to the use of the first atomic weapon on Earth in 1945. Some felt that the Japanese would surrender if they knew what was about to befall them."

"Yes, but the prevailing sentiment was that by warning them they would simply make more of an effort to shoot down the bomber. Since the United States only had two such weapons readily available, they decided to drop it without warning. In hindsight, a warning wouldn't have done any good. The Japanese refused to surrender even after the first bomb was dropped because their fanatical military leadership didn't believe that the U.S. could have more than one. Only after the second bomb was dropped did they decide that they couldn't continue to wage war against an opponent that possessed such awesome weapons."

"But there won't be any second chances here, sir. Not if the weapon is as powerful as you say."

"I only have preliminary testing data to go on, and the test results were from very small devices, but the yield is reportedly twenty times greater than the fusion warheads we've used so far. The potential power estimate was arrived at by extrapolating the yield of the small devices."

"Then the yield from the larger devices could be much greater, or much less, than predicted?"

"It's possible, but not too likely. The extrapolation formula was developed by using information accumulated from multiple small test weapons of varying sizes. Because it burrows in first, it becomes hundreds of times more powerful than torpedoes that impact on the surface."

"If we're successful here, you'd have a procedure in place to use against the other Raider bases."

"Yes, we'll be using this as sort of a testing ground for the weapon and future such operations. It would be nice if we could recover the space station somewhat intact so we could examine it closely. The same Raider engineers are probably responsible for constructing all of them. You didn't leave us much to go on with Raider-One."

"I'm sorry now, that the station was totally destroyed, but at the time I wasn't. Following my escape, I expected to be pursued by dozens of fully armed warships, with trained crews, whose only goal was to destroy me. The destruction of the station and the ships was fortunate at the time, to say the least, but if the explosion had only rendered the port's complement of ships unusable, it might have been better."

"It'd be convenient if we'd been able to plant some conventional explosives here. Not enough to destroy the entire station; just enough to kick a hole in the side of that asteroid." Captain Kanes stretched his arms. "Speaking of kicking, are you up for a little kick boxing practice?"

* * *

The next few days passed slowly. The seismic effort using torpedoes provided enough information about the asteroid's structure to enable the engineers to identify the placement of the main doors with reasonable certainty, and the three battleships moved their position to cover the newly identified entrance. Torpedoes fired against the doors didn't have much more effect than the early strikes, but the GSC task force was better positioned if any Raider ships tried to make a break for it.

On the fifth day of the siege, just as Jenetta's watch was ending, the tac officer suddenly said, "Commander, the DeTect system shows a ship approaching?"

"Send the course information to the helm. Helm, turn towards the contact and build our envelope. Com, signal GQ."

"Aye, Commander," the two officers and com Chief said.

Gavin, who had just arrived to relieve Jenetta, turned towards the tac officer, "Speed and ETA?"

"Light-187, Sir; twelve minutes."

"Helm, engage as soon as our envelope is built," Jenetta said. "Light-375."

"Yes ma'am. Helm will engage at Light-375."

"Com, notify the other ships to hold position," Gavin said.

"Aye, Captain," the com Chief said.

"I'll take it, Jen," Captain Gavin said. "You're relieved."

"Aye, Captain."

Four minutes later the Prometheus came to a stop directly in the path of the oncoming ship and waited.

"The configuration of the approaching ship matches that of a Tsgardi vessel, Captain," the tactical officer said.

The collision avoidance system of the oncoming ship automatically cut its Light Speed drive and dropped its temporal envelope when it sensed the Prometheus directly in its path.

"Tactical, jam all IDS communications," Gavin said. "Helm, take us up to her using Sub-Light-5. Tactical, have our laser gunners target their temporal envelope generator and be prepared to fire on my command."

"Aye, Captain."

As with the jamming satellites at Mawcett, any attempted transmission of IDS com traffic within a hundred-million kilometer radius would be blocked. You couldn't 'see' the signal canceling effect and only knew that it was there when you flew into the 'dead air' zone and tried to send a message. The Prometheus would stay close enough to make sure that the approaching ship couldn't transmit any messages to other Raider ships.

Jenetta moved towards the larboard side of the bridge, taking a position where she knew she'd be 'off camera' to the lens on the front view screen. She would be able to obliquely see the bridge view of the approaching ship, but they wouldn't be able to see her if vid communications were established.

"Com, hail the ship using RF com frequencies in the microwave spectrum. Send this message, 'This is Captain Lawrence Gavin of the GSC Battleship Prometheus, calling the ship off our bow.'"

They waited about ten seconds and then the com operator said, "Visual image coming from the ship, Captain."

"Put it on the front monitor."

An image of the Tsgardi captain that Jenetta had seen while she was on Mawcett, appeared on the front view-screen.

"This is Captain Atakis Verdisqi of the Boshdyte. Why have you blocked our path and our IDS communications?"

Captain Gavin immediately recognized the name from the report that Jenetta had filed. "Captain, shut down your engines and prepare to be boarded."

"We are a merchant ship in open space. By what right do you propose to board my ship?"

"By the authority vested in me by Galactic Space Command, according to the laws established by the Galactic Alliance. You will be charged with attacking the archeological dig-site at Loudescott on the planet Mawcett and remanded to a Space Command justice court location for trial."

"That's ridiculous. We haven't been anywhere near Mawcett."

"You'll have the right to defense council if you surrender peacefully. Otherwise, we'll terminate your career right here and now. Your choice, Captain."

"You have no right to stop honest merchants in the pursuit of trade," Verdisqi said angrily.

"Your ship is carrying too much firepower to simply be a merchant vessel," Captain Gavin commented.

"These are dangerous times. We have the right to defend ourselves."

"You'd have less need for defense if you weren't attacking innocent civilian settlements, such as the one on Mawcett."

"That charge is absurd. What proof do you have that we were involved in any attack on Mawcett?"

Captain Gavin turned to Jenetta. "Commander, would you come over here please."

Jenetta walked over to the center of the bridge and stood next to the command chair.

"Commander, is this the ship's captain that attacked you on Mawcett?"

"Yes sir, that's him."

Captain Verdisqi's jaw dropped. He couldn't believe his own eyes. There on the view screen in front of him was the woman that he had taken prisoner near Mawcett. He looked at Jenetta and then momentarily turned to glance over his shoulder.

"What's your decision, Captain? Do you yield, or die?"

The view-screen suddenly went dark and reverted to an exterior view of the Tsgardi vessel. The huge engines amidship engaged, and the Tsgardi ship swiveled 180 degrees before his stern engines engaged.

"The target has engaged his Sub-Light engines," the tactical officer said. "He's trying to build his temporal envelope, sir. We can't target his temporal envelope generator from this angle."

"Helm, get us to where we can target his generator. Weapons gunners, as soon as you have a shot, destroy the temporal envelope generator with our lasers."

As the most powerful Sub-Light engines currently being produced in GA space were engaged, the Prometheus shot forward. The gravitative inertial compensators immediately kicked in to prevent the ship's occupants from being splattered against the rear bulkhead walls in each compartment, but everyone felt a slight lurch at the motion. Anticipating possible resistance, most of the bridge personnel had already fastened their seatbelts. Jenetta grabbed hold of the First Officer's chair until the brief effect abated.

It only took seconds to catch the Tsgardi vessel and pass it. Powerful beams of coherent light from the Prometheus' phased laser arrays blasted the Tsgardi's temporal field generator to pieces before the ship could slip into FTL speed. Loss of their temporal generator made escape impossible, but the Tsgardi captain still refused to yield. He turned his ship to starboard and accelerated away in n space while the Prometheus altered course to again intercept.

Gavin made two more attempts to hail them before giving the order to fire at their engines. The laser gunners carefully targeted the engines, but the ship swerved at the last second, causing the one set of pulses to impact the hull instead. As large areas of the Tsgardi ship depressurized through gaping holes ripped in the fabric of her titanium skin, the Boshdyte's Sub-Light engines shut down and the Prometheus moved up alongside.

"I can't believe they continued to evade after we destroyed their envelope generator," Captain Gavin said, shaking his head slightly. "They didn't have a chance of getting away. Com, notify flight operations to send out our armed boarding parties and fighters. The shuttles must have adequate cover. Get me an update of any damage from Damage Control Central. Tactical, turn on all exterior lights."

"I guess they preferred death over incarceration," Jenetta said sadly.

Captain Kanes arrived on the bridge as the small craft were being launched. Moving over next to Jenetta, he asked what was going on. Jenetta gave him a quick briefing as they watched the view-screen.

The powerful exterior lights of the Prometheus brilliantly illuminated the Boshdyte, casting harsh shadows wherever they first stuck some exterior protuberance such as engine nacelles. The lack of atmosphere insured that effects of diffusion and refraction that redirected light and softened its consequence on a planet were missing. The large monitor on the bridge showed the shuttles as they moved towards the stricken ship, with the fighters circling to respond to any resistance from the Tsgardi ship. The mission of the shuttle crews was to board the Boshdyte to check for prisoners or survivors. They would proceed through the entire ship, deck by deck and compartment by compartment, looking for areas that might still be pressurized.

"They actually thought they could evade a GSC battleship with their temporal envelope generator shot to pieces?" Kanes said, shaking his head.

"Tsgardi have never been renowned for their intelligence," Jenetta said. "Perhaps the captain felt we wouldn't really fire on them, sir, to ensure we didn't harm any prisoners. Or perhaps he just couldn't cope with the idea of a lifetime of confinement."

The dozen fighters continued to moving slowly around the Boshdyte, seemingly daring anyone on the ship to open fire, but the Boshdyte's guns remained silent as two E.V.A. suited engineers left a shuttle and moved to an airlock near the Boshdyte's flight bay. The engineering crew was able to open a flight bay door and two shuttles moved inside.

The bridge crew went about their normal business, with one eye on the front monitor, as Marines checked the Boshdyte from bow to stern. The front view-screen became a patchwork of small images as the feed from the helmet camera on the point man in each group was received. The search teams reported in as they completed each frame section and deck. After thirty minutes, with half the ship searched, they hadn't found anyone alive. Corridors filled with salvage slowed their progress, and wearing the E.V.A. suits further slowed them. Finally, after an hour of tension aboard the Prometheus' bridge, the report came in that there weren't any pressurized sections remaining aboard the Boshdyte. Apparently all airtight doors were open during the flight, so the entire ship depressurized quickly, leaving the passageways littered with the misshapen bodies of crewmen who died struggling to fill their lungs with air just one more time while trying unsuccessfully to pull on E.V.A suits or find usable emergency oxygen canisters. Doors that tried to seal automatically against the loss of atmosphere, were prevented from closing by years of accumulated garbage in the tracks.

Jenetta, off-duty since GQ was cancelled, walked sadly to her quarters after the search ended. It had been her decision to send Christa off on the deadly mission. Christa would have been safe if they had just stayed forted up inside the facility. Of course, they couldn't know that the facility door would hold, or how long the Raiders would have stayed if Jenetta hadn't been able to get a distress call out, but there are always self-recriminations when someone under your command perishes.

Chapter Seventeen

~ October 3rd, 2270 ~

"I'm sad to announce that all aboard the Boshdyte perished as a result of the hull depressurization," Gavin said to the senior bridge staff in his briefing room. "The hull is composed of just two layers of standard titanium plating so our hundred-gigawatt lasers made short work of it. Although the damage occurred while targeting the power systems, our gunners are not at fault. Rather, the decision of the Tsgardi captain to take flight is responsible. Since its power systems remain intact, I intend to patch the holes in the Boshdyte's hull and add the ship to our task force. How about it, Commander Carver? Would you like to take command and get the ship operational?"

Jenetta, still despondent over the situation with Christa, had been brooding in her quarters until the meeting was called. "Yes sir," she said immediately. "I'll do what I can."

"Captain," LaSalle said, "as first officer I should be offered the opportunity to command the Boshdyte."

Gavin looked at LaSalle for a few seconds. "You're correct, Commander. As first officer you should have the right of first refusal. I didn't think that it was the kind of duty you would embrace. Are you asking for the assignment?"

LaSalle breathed deeply once and said, during the exhale, "Yes sir, I am."

"Very well, Commander. You have it. You'll take charge of seeing that the ship is repaired and made ready to join our forces."

"Yes sir."

"Jen, you'll take over as acting first officer during LaSalle's absence."

LaSalle looked sharply at Carver and ground her teeth. Even when she managed to snatch an opportunity away from the overeager Lt. Commander, Carver wouldn't be denied. Now Carver would have the Captain's ear until LaSalle returned from the assignment. And since the Boshdyte wasn't a Space Command warship, LaSalle would further be denied the privilege of wearing the highly coveted pip on her collar. She should have let Carver have the assignment after all. At least she would have been off the Prometheus.

 "Aye, sir," Jenetta said. "Sir, how do we respond to any ships that may happen across us while we're making repairs to the Boshdyte?"

"Treat them the same. Jam the IDS band and seize the ship. Under no circumstances should they be allowed to escape to contact other Raider ships or bases."

"Aye, sir."

"Anything else?" the Captain asked. "Anyone? Then dismissed."

LaSalle proceeded directly to her quarters to pack her bags. Engineers had already begun work on the Boshdyte's exterior plating. LaSalle could transfer to her new command as soon as the hull was pressurized.

* * *

As Jenetta temporarily moved to XO and second watch commander aboard the Prometheus, Lt. Commander Kittridge, the ship's third officer, moved from first watch bridge officer to third watch commander. LaSalle had departed to assume command of the Boshdyte while engineers worked to replace the damaged interior plates, ensuring hull integrity so that the ship would be capable of achieving and maintaining Light-187 when the temporal field generator was replaced. A massive and grisly cleanup effort was taking place aboard the ship as the bodies of the dead Tsgardi crewman were collected and laid out in a cargo hold so they could be identified and processed. Most were not in Space Command files, so their images were recorded, as well as their elbow prints, and DNA samples were taken of each before they were prepared for burial in space. The few Terran crewmen that were found aboard were treated similarly. When all bodies had been collected, LaSalle called the Prometheus. It was late afternoon and Jenetta had arrived for her watch, but Gavin hadn't left yet.

"Yes, Commander?" Gavin said to LaSalle.

"Captain, we've processed all the bodies but there aren't any Terran women among them."

"Has the brig been checked?"

"Yes sir. All three cells were empty."

Jenetta brightened immediately. There was a chance that Christa was alive. But what had happened to her? Had the Tsgardi already transferred her to another Raider ship before the encounter? Or had they slain her and ejected her body into space. No, she was too valuable for that. The Raiders wanted her alive. Of course, she could have been killed in an escape attempt.

"Have you compared the bodies against the crew rolls?" Captain Gavin asked.

"Yes sir, all are accounted for, including the captain."

"Have you checked the sickbay?"

LaSalle looked down at her portable viewpad. "Yes sir, that was checked. The doctor was found there, and one other dead Tsgardi, listed as a crewman with severe head trauma."

"Very well, Commander. How are repairs proceeding?"

"The hull repairs are almost complete, and we should be able to get underway today. We've loaded all the bodies into the cargo container they stole from Mawcett and we're set to eject it towards the nearest star. We've also cleaned all the door tracks so the doors will close during GQ or in the event of another atmosphere loss."

"Very good, Commander. Prometheus out."

"Boshdyte out."

Gavin turned to Jenetta and said, "In my briefing room, Jen."

The Captain's large and lavishly decorated office, located on the larboard side of the bridge, was arguably one of the most sumptuous briefing rooms in the fleet, appropriate for one of the best ships in the fleet. It was equipped with a wooden desk seemingly large enough to land a space tug on. An 'oh-gee' chair covered in deliciously-soft dark brown leather floated in front of a SimWindow behind the desk, and two overstuffed chairs faced the desk. Additionally, a long, comfortable looking sofa, finished in the same soft brown leather used for the chairs, sat patiently waiting for occupants against one wall. The walls themselves were paneled with real oak, finished in a light honey color, not the synthetic product that only simulated wood, and the light brown wall-to-wall carpet felt like it was ten centimeters thick. Of course, the Chiron, another Prometheus class battleship, was similarly outfitted.

"Make yourself a mug of coffee, if you wish, then have a seat," the captain said as they entered his office and he headed for his chair behind the desk.

Jenetta walked to the beverage synthesizer, placed a mug from the rack beside the unit into the opening, and ordered a steaming mug of Colombian. The unit filled her mug to within three centimeters of the top as the delicious aroma of freshly brewed coffee assailed her nostrils. Sliding the mug from the dispenser, she moved to the desk and sat down in one of the overstuffed chairs facing the captain.

"I'm interested in your take on things," he said. "What do you think happened to your sister?"

"We know that she was on board that ship when it was in orbit over Mawcett, sir, and it's unlikely that the ship made any side trips to take her someplace else. Did you notice the reaction of the captain when he saw me? He turned to look behind him. I'd order another complete search of the ship. It should be easier now that it's been re-pressurized. I think the searchers should pay extra close attention to the shuttles, fighters, stasis chambers, and escape pods. Each of them offers a pressurized haven during an attack."

"Okay, Jen, I'll order another complete sweep."

"Thank you, sir." Jenetta took a sip from her coffee mug and asked, "Uh, do you have any plans for the Boshdyte?"

"I'd just intended to use it to bolster our forces here. Why, do you have an idea?"

"Yes sir, I do. Captain Kanes made a comment to me last week about wishing we'd been able to plant conventional explosives in the port, as I was able to do with Raider-One, so that we could blow a hole in the asteroid without risk of destroying the entire asteroid."

"As I recall, you did destroy the entire asteroid that housed Raider-One," he said, chuckling.

"Uh, yes sir, but I hadn't counted on the explosion being as powerful as it was. I was only attempting to create a diversion. Anyway, I was thinking that we could fill the nose of the Boshdyte with explosives, disable the ACS and all safeties, and aim it at the asteroid's doors. The pilot could then bring it up to Sub-Light-1 or so, and abandon ship."

"Use it as sort of a battering ram, eh?"

"Yes sir, exactly. Once underway it would be virtually impossible for the laser cannon gunners on the asteroid to stop it. With the safeties disabled, depressurization won't shut down the Sub-Light engines. And with no one on board, there won't be any danger to our people. Barring an exceptionally lucky shot by the asteroid's laser gunners, the ship won't stop until it impacts the doors. At Raider-One we were able to blow the doors off with torpedoes, but we had the advantage of being inside. The doors are obviously more susceptible to an inside force pushing outward, than the reverse, and we had the additional benefit of a more enclosed space because the doors are located at the end of a tunnel. While our torpedoes may not be able to provide sufficient force to push open those doors, the kinetic force provided by the mass of the Boshdyte should plow through like a meteor pushing through a planet's atmosphere."

Captain Gavin grinned. "I like it. The ship is of little use anyway except to make our task force appear a little larger. I'd hesitate to use it in combat with its poor hull protection; everyone would have to be wearing EVA suits. So its only real use would be as a prison barge if we succeed in taking any prisoners. I'm going to approve your plan. I'll have LaSalle transfer back here."

"Uh, sir, I think that she should be allowed to have her first command for as long as possible. Why not let her stay until it's time to send the ship off on its own? I estimate that won't be for at least several days. Perhaps even a week or more," Jenetta added optimistically.

The Captain gave Jenetta a sideways glance, with a knowing look and slight smile. "I've noticed that you two don't seem to have hit it off too well."

Jenetta took another sip from her mug before responding. "We get along, sir."

"I realize that you don't openly butt heads, but you're not friends."

"I've made every effort to be just as friendly with Commander LaSalle as she has tried to be with me, sir."

The Captain stared at Jenetta intently. "LaSalle's a good officer, Jen, with a fine record."

"Yes sir, I know that. She wouldn't have been appointed as our first officer if that wasn't the case."

"But you don't like her?"

"I— don't know her, sir."

"That's an evasion, Jen. You've served together for a year."

"Nine months of actual service together, sir. I've tried not to give her any reason to dislike me, and I've never been insubordinate. No disrespect intended, sir, but I've noticed that you never call her by her first name. You only use her rank and surname."

Captain Gavin blinked a couple of times and looked away, surprised by Jenetta's observation. He hadn't realized that his own feelings toward LaSalle had been that obvious, but he knew that his second officer didn't miss very much. He didn't miss very much either, so returning his gaze to Jenetta, he verbalized an observation of his own. "It's occurred to me that you have an amazing number of officers on third watch who have sufficient seniority to rate second watch. In fact, all of them were on second watch when we left Mars."

"Third watch is a little more relaxed, sir, with so much of the ship's crew complement in quarters."

Captain Gavin just smiled and nodded. "You're dismissed, Commander."

"Yes sir." Jenetta picked up her mug of coffee and left the briefing room, then settled comfortably into the first officer's chair on the bridge.

A few hours later, Jenetta received a report that the Boshdyte had been searched again, with emphasis placed on stasis chambers, shuttles, fighter ships, and escape pods. No survivors, or additional bodies, had been found.

It took several days to prepare the Boshdyte for its grim task. Munitions were placed aboard, and heavily shielded with tritanium plating to protect them from the laser fire of the asteroid's gunners. It would ensure that they wouldn't detonate until the ship began to crumple against the giant doors of the Raider base. A pilot would take the ship back fifty thousand or more kilometers behind the picket line of ships surrounding the asteroid, and then set a course directly for the doors at Sub-Light-5. As the ship began to accelerate to five thousand kilometers a second, the pilot would have ten seconds to race to an escape pod and eject. If timed properly, the pilot would be expelled behind the line of ships encircling the asteroid and then be picked up by a waiting shuttle and taken to their ship. Five seconds after passing the blockading task force, the ship would impact with the asteroid's doors. The precisely timed detonation, with the mass of the Boshdyte compressing against the explosive force, would direct the energy towards the doors rather than just seeing it uselessly expended in vacuum.

LaSalle, after her very brief command of the Boshdyte, transferred back to the Prometheus in time for the morning briefing about the mission. Kanes also joined the senior staff as Gavin laid out Jenetta's idea and the mission objectives.

"Sir," Jenetta said, "I volunteer to pilot the Boshdyte. I'd like to get a little payback for my sister."

"Sir," LaSalle immediately said, "that should be my job. I'm still listed as being in command of the Boshdyte."

Gavin looked at Commander LaSalle. "You want to do this, Commander?"

"Yes sir."

"You realize that it's extremely dangerous? You'll have to set the course, engage the engines, and then run for an escape pod and eject. You'll have just ten seconds. You definitely won't have time to reach a shuttle and launch?"

"I–– understand that, sir."

"Very well, Commander. The job is yours. Good luck."

"Thank you, sir."

"We'll commence the operation at 1000 hours today. The other ship's captains have all been briefed and will be prepared for whatever the outcome. That's all."

LaSalle, grinning at Jenetta as if she'd won a great victory, left immediately for the flight bay, while the rest of the officers walked to the bridge. At 1000 hours the Boshdyte began to move away from the Prometheus.

LaSalle began swinging the ship around after it passed a point seventy-five thousand kilometers from the asteroid. As it lined up on the asteroid doors and she brought it to a halt, the sensors indicated that it was fifty-thousand two-hundred kilometers from the ring of Space Command vessels. That should give LaSalle more than adequate time to eject before passing the Prometheus' position. She had located an escape tube just outside the bridge and run the pod's self-diagnostic routine to ensure its rocket would fire. Now she carefully checked to make sure that no vessels were in her path, locked the astrogation controls, and engaged the engines.

The gravitative inertial compensators weren't quite as sophisticated as those aboard SC ships and LaSalle was knocked off her feet as the Sub-Light engines kicked in. There was no time to waste as she pulled herself up and ran from the bridge.

In the corridor outside the bridge, LaSalle leapt into the waiting escape pod and punched the oversized eject button. The Boshdyte was picking up speed rapidly as it hurtled pell-mell towards the asteroid. The hatch of the escape pod slammed shut and LaSalle felt the satisfying lurch as the tube's ejection jets fired. But the pod only moved a meter before a warning bell sounded, and a light on the pod's control panel started flashing. LaSalle slammed the bottom of her fist against the eject button again and again, but the pod still didn't move.

After several seconds she moved back to the door, hoping to use another pod, but the doors were tightly sealed. With the pod slightly out of launch position, the hatchway seal wouldn't release. LaSalle used her fists to pound on the door in frustration and anger.

"AAAAAAAAAHHHH," she screamed at the top of her lungs. "Damn you, Carver. This is your fault. You should be the one stuck in here, not me. You've done it to me again." She continued to scream and beat her hands uselessly against the walls of her escape pod prison as the Boshdyte raced pell-mell towards the asteroid's enormous entrance doors.

A shuttle was standing by outside the Prometheus, ready to retrieve the escape pod, but the Boshdyte passed the battleship without any of its pods ejecting.

Gavin, standing on the bridge, said, "Tactical, are you sure that no pods have ejected?"

"Affirmative, Captain," the lead tactical officer replied. "No pods have ejected."

The bridge crew watched the front view screen anxiously as the Boshdyte moved ever closer to the asteroid's main doors. There was virtually no way to stop the flight of the doomed ship now. Every Raider laser array that overlooked the entrance on the asteroid poured a stream of deadly coherent light pulses into the ship as the Boshdyte came into range. It would have been difficult for the gunners to miss such a massive target, and it was bleeding atmosphere from hundreds of small holes. But punching holes in an empty ship in space isn't going to stop it, and it continued on its path towards sure destruction. Even striking the engine and power cells wouldn't stop the ship once it had attained Sub-Light-5. Like a meteor, it would continue on until it impacted something with sufficient opposing mass to slow or stop it.

The Boshdyte struck the doors just left of center, and the combination of the explosive charges, coupled with the forward momentum of the ship, bent both doors inward as it knocked them out of their tracks. They tumbled into the cavernous interior as the Boshdyte disintegrated. A tunnel wide enough for two of Space Command's largest warships to simultaneously pass into or out of the asteroid was revealed. The Raider base was now open to attack. Without waiting for the defenders to recover from the blast, two dozen squadrons of fighters, previously launched from the SC ships, headed for the new opening. Fire rained down on them from the first Raider gunners able to re-man their guns, but only a few fighters were crippled or destroyed as the rest entered the gaping maw. The bridge crews in the ships encircling the asteroid listened anxiously to the ship to ship chatter from the pilots as the fighters began attacking the warships inside the port.

Once the Boshdyte's course had been determined, and the intent divined, every red-alert lamp inside the station had begun flashing, and gunners aboard the ships inside the asteroid had run for their stations. That Space Command would sacrifice a ship in this way caught the Raiders totally by surprise, but they responded quickly. As the fighters began their attack inside the asteroid, Raider ships were already backing away from their docking piers and moving towards the opening at much higher than normal, or even safe, speeds. The Space Command ships moved to within ten kilometers of the asteroid with the expectation that the fight was about to get serious. Laser gunners began targeting and destroying the laser weapons mounted on the surface of the asteroid while they waited for the Raider ships to emerge.

As Raider warships erupted from the asteroid, their officers were stunned to find the Space Command ships sitting on their doorstep. In seconds, the fighting outside the asteroid was as deadly as the fighting going on inside. Some ships emerging from the asteroid immediately turned to avoid the three battleships only to find themselves under the guns of the cruisers and destroyers that were guarding the flanks.

Standing orders called for the fleet gunners to concentrate first on the Raider's temporal field generators, so almost every ship emerging from the asteroid saw its generator blasted to pieces while it was trying to build an envelope.

Jenetta just sat in the first officer's chair, calmly sipping her coffee as she observed the action. The large coffee mug provided something to occupy her hands.

Unlike previous engagements, every laser weapon and torpedo guidance station aboard the Prometheus was manned and ready. The helmsman used the ship's side-mounted engines to twist and turn the ship within their allotted area of space outside the base, giving first the larboard gunners and then the starboard gunners a crack at the emerging vessels.

Gunners facing away from the action didn't have time to rest, as they were too busy firing at ships that made it past their ship. None made it past undamaged, and few were very space-worthy after running the blockade.

Tactics were limited. With their FTL capability gone, the Raiders couldn't get away from the SC warships, so this became a toe to toe slugfest. The ships with the strongest hulls, most powerful weapons, and best trained gunners, had the advantage.

Although the Raider fleet took the brunt of the inflicted damage, the GSC ships didn't escape unscathed. Raider laser gunners and torpedo officers loosed their deadly arsenal with abandon as they fought for their lives. Scores of hits were made against the Prometheus and the other ships in the close-in combat, and most ships were bleeding atmosphere from gaping holes in their hulls.

The entire fight lasted less than half an hour following the impact of the Boshdyte, and only one ship actually managed to go FTL and escape from the hell and carnage around the asteroid. When the exodus of ships from the station finally ended, the area around the asteroid was littered with the hulls of Raider ships, or pieces of Raider ships that had been blasted into oblivion. The fighter craft inside reported that the remaining ships were not attempting to back away from their moorings.

The fight was over, but before the Space Command vessels could stop and lick their wounds, they had to complete the station takeover.

Moving into the enormous hollow asteroid, the Prometheus brought its larboard laser arrays and torpedo tubes to bear on the habitat area and Gavin again broadcast a message demanding the immediate surrender of the station. In response, a message was received and the front view screen filled with the mottled and strained face of a Terran.

"This is Commandant Mercandis of Raider Three. Hold your fire. We surrender."

"This is Captain Gavin of the Prometheus. Have your people disarm and assemble in your cargo handling area. All but one of the ships that tried to leave have been destroyed and we won't hesitate to destroy the rest of this station if you put up any further resistance."

"My remaining people are only base support personnel so there won't be any further resistance, Captain."

Upon being contacted by Gavin, Captain Powers of the Chiron moved his ship into the asteroid to provide cover as the Prometheus docked and the Space Marines forces deployed into the habitat. When the Marines had control of the cargo area and the surrendering station personnel, the Chiron docked so its complement of Marines could reinforce the Prometheus' security forces. With most of the station's personnel under control, the Space Command forces were free to begin mopping up and making emergency repairs to their ships.

On the bridge of the Prometheus, Gavin was busy examining the reports coming in from Damage Control Central, and from other ships. The Prometheus, miraculously, hadn't lost any personnel in the engagement, but LaSalle was missing and no sightings of an escape pod had yet been reported. The Chiron had lost thirty-eight people when a nuclear tipped torpedo struck the ship and exposed parts of four decks. Eight other ships had also taken torpedo hits, some suffering extensive loss of life, and the fleet had been badly pounded by laser fire with many ship sections losing atmosphere and therefore some of the crewmembers working in those areas. But overall, the losses were far less than they suffered at the Battle of Vauzlee, where an entire destroyer had been lost, and hardly compared to their losses at Higgins.

The Raiders lost twenty-six of the twenty-seven ships that tried to flee. So far, no attempt had been made to search for survivors in the Raider ships and no searches would be conducted until the Space Command vessels had first completed their emergency repairs.

"Captain," Jenetta said, "permission to leave the bridge to check on damage control operations?"

"Commander, I'd like you to take control of the station instead. Get the Raiders that are surrendering under control, and insure that every square meter of the station is searched for anyone that might be hiding. Then get the station squared away."

"Aye, Captain," Jenetta said and hurried from the bridge. She was delighted with the assignment. She'd thought it would be hours before she could find a legitimate excuse to leave the ship and begin a search of the station for Christa. She wondered if the Captain was making the excuse for her. He certainly knew how important it was to her.

As Jenetta walked through the wide docking tunnel that extended from the ship to the dock, memories of her time as a captive at Raider-One flooded her mind. More important matters had occupied her conscious thoughts back then, so the base's architecture had definitely taken a back seat, but from what she remembered, this base appeared identical. At the end of the tunnel, Jenetta stepped into an enclosed dock wide enough for two vehicles or robot loaders to pass easily and safely. The enclosed dock extended out alongside the ship for over a hundred meters from the habitat's perimeter platform, but the airlock in the Prometheus' forward cargo bay was only thirty meters from the front of the ship, so Jenetta's trek was a short one.

A fifteen-meter wide platform extended along the entire front of the habitat and beyond, continuing from the first dock towards the rear of the cavern until it reached the last. A wall of reinforced plasticrete, several meters thick, between the ships in the cavern and the platform, helped insure that the habitat wasn't breached if a pilot got careless when docking. It would take a collision powerful enough to collapse the front of the ship before the platform's protective wall was damaged enough to lose atmosphere. And there were additional protections to insure that the habitat remained airtight even if a ship intentionally rammed the habitat. The back side of the platform abutted another three-meter, reinforced plasticrete wall. A dozen corridors, each with emergency bulkheads, provided entrance to the cargo area. In the event that a drop in pressure occurred on the platform, the bulkhead walls would immediately slide down into place, effectively sealing the habitat and preserving its atmosphere.

Passing through the nearest corridor brought Jenetta to the station's Docking Level cargo area. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of prisoners were sitting on the deck surrounded by armed Marines ready to open fire on any Raider who decided that he or she wanted to fight after all.

Jenetta moved to the deck area established as a temporary command center. As she reached a makeshift table constructed from packing crates, Marine Major Visconti came to an easy attention. At fifty-eight years of age, Visconti had finally overcome the strange feelings he used to experience when he found himself in Jenetta's presence. He knew she was deserving of his respect for the things she had accomplished, but her youthful appearance had for long time troubled him greatly. As a senior officer and forty-year veteran of the Corps, treating someone who looked like an Academy cadet as an equal, or worse, as a superior, was— unsettling.

"At ease, Major. I have orders from Captain Gavin to take command of the station."

"Yes ma'am, I was so notified."

"How many prisoners do you have here?"

"One thousand six-hundred forty-seven, mostly men."

"Have you begun searching for hold-outs?"

"Yes ma'am. Patrols are scouring the station deck by deck," he said, pointing to floor plans of the station spread out in front of him on the improvised table. Found in the warehouse manager's office, the plans made the task at hand much easier. "Our sensors can pick up the heartbeat of a mouse at a hundred meters, so if anyone is hiding, we'll find them."

The Docking Level here, like the Docking Level at Raider-One, had a twenty-five-meter high ceiling. According to the deck plans, the next level up had the same basic floor layout and ceiling height. The ceiling heights allowed twenty-meter tall shipping containers to be brought into the warehouse area for loading or unloading via a special airlock located just before the dock platform began it's long passage into the cavern. A lift large enough to accommodate the forty-meter long cargo containers assisted the movement of cargo between the two levels.

"Have you been to the detention center yet?"

"Not yet, ma'am. I concentrated most of my force at the top level of the habitat and they're working their way down, clearing and sealing each level as they go."

"Where's the commandant of the station?"

"He's over with that group," Major Visconti said, pointing. "They're the senior personnel."

"Thank you, Major. Carry on."

As Jenetta moved towards the prisoners that the Major had pointed to, she knew that she probably could have identified this group without having them singled out. Even in defeat, their faces exuded self-confidence. They were people used to giving orders and having them obeyed without question."

"Who's the senior security person here?" Jenetta asked loudly.

No one spoke up.

"We can find out easily enough if you want to do this the hard way, but it won't be as pleasant."

"I am," a man in his late fifties said.

"Your name?"

"Polito. Captain Dennis Polito."

"Stand up, Dennis."

"Who are you?" he asked, as he continued to sit on the deck.

"Don't you know?" Jenetta asked, her eyebrows arched in surprise that a Raider chief security officer might not know what she looked like. Her image had been plastered across every newspaper, magazine, and vid news broadcast innumerous times during the past two years. Although her appearance had changed slightly as the DNA changes progressed, he should recognize her.

"You look a little like that Carver bitch that destroyed Raider-One."

Any hope that Christa was on the station, or ever had been, immediately evaporated. The Raider security officer would certainly have recognized Jenetta immediately if Christa had been here. She worked to keep any sign of disappointment from showing her face. She knew that she had to appear powerful and callous to receive any respect from this man. He was the type that reveled in intimidating others.

"See?" Jenetta said smiling evilly. "You already knew who I am."

"I'd like just ten minutes with you, alone," he said, as he got to his feet, his hands clenching and unclenching.

"Commander Pretorious had a similar wish," Jenetta said softly. "It turned out to be the very last wish he ever made. Be careful what you wish for, Dennis; I don't have much use for Raider jailers. Did you know the late Commander, by the way?"

"I knew him. I had a lot of friends on that station."

"His neck made the most peculiar sound when I snapped it," Jenetta said, trying to appear icily calm and speak with clinical detachment as she thought about the fight. "It totally spoiled his aim, and he only succeeded in ruining my tunic with the laser pistol that he was aiming at me." She stared intently at the Raider officer. "I bet you probably had friends on this station also, but a lot of them are now floating around outside, without E.V.A. suits. At least you were smart enough to surrender without a fight. Now tell me, Dennis, how many prisoners do you have in your detention center here?"

The security man glared at her for a few seconds. She had as much as called him a coward in front of his associates. He said, through clenched teeth, "Sixty-seven."

"How many men, how many women?"

"Forty-two men, twenty-five women."

"Where's your electronic controller?"

"It was confiscated by your Spacc Marines."

"Okay, Dennis. Sit down again." Jenetta said, waving her hand in dismissal as if he was a small child.

He glowered at her as he sat back down.

She looked over the prisoners until she spotted the individual that had earlier identified himself as the commandant of the station.

"You, commandant what's your name, where's your controller?" Jenetta knew that he had identified himself as Commandant Mercandis, but she purposely avoided using his name to make him feel insignificant. Deflating his ego a little could help weaken his resolve during interrogation sessions later.

"It was confiscated also."

Jenetta turned and walked back to the command post. "Major, where are the possessions that were confiscated from the prisoners when they were searched?"

"Over there, ma'am," he said, pointing to several open-topped packing crates filled with clothing and various sundry items. "What are you looking for?"

"Two things. First, I need one of the large brass keys used by the guards to open the cell doors. And second I need a restraints controller; either a black one or a green one."

"What's the difference?"

"There are four colors. Only the green and black controllers, the ones belonging to the detention center supervisor and the base commandant, can lock and unlock the collars, so I need one of those to free the captives in the detention center."

Searching through the crates, they found a number of keys, half a dozen blue controllers, and even a few red ones before Major Visconti came up with the green one at the same time that Jenetta found the black one.

"Thank you, Major. I'll need a squad of your men to accompany me to the detention center, and also a look at your deck plans."

Twenty minutes later Jenetta entered the detention center with the squad of Marines. The Marines went in first and made sure that the area was clear of guards and holdouts, then Jenetta started with cellblock A, freeing each of the prisoners, one at a time. Memories of her own time in the Raider detention center on Raider-One again flooded her mind as she dealt with the human wreckage that she found. As on Raider-One, the women were being systematically brainwashed to make compliant pleasure slaves, and the men were just worn down from the constant brutal treatment designed to subjugate them and make them compliant slaves for the hard labor camps.

At first, most of the prisoners wouldn't believe they were being released. They thought it was just one more prank being perpetrated by the sadistic guards. Only when their neck collars were removed did they begin to believe that the release was genuine. The women either broke down in tears, or cowered in fear, while the men reacted by trying to shake hands with each of the Marine males and trying to hug or kiss Jenetta or the two Marine females. There was no additional threat, as had been the case when Jenetta made her escape from Raider-One, so the captives could just relax and be themselves.

When all the captives were free, Jenetta led the way back to the Docking Level, passing three Marine mop-up patrols on the way. She personally escorted the group to the docking bay where the Prometheus was moored and turned them over to the housing officer. For now, the former captives would be taken to a conference room, fed, and clothed. While still guarded, their identities would be checked to ensure that they were in fact Raider captives, and not Raiders attempting to mingle with prisoners in order to escape justice. They would have to wait until the doctors were finished with the wounded, and then they'd receive complete medical checkups. Lastly, they'd be assigned to visitor's quarters in a secure area aboard ship. Before returning to her other duties, Jenetta called the Chiron bridge and asked for the loan of the ship's psychologist to help with the former captives, especially the women. The Prometheus' psychologist wouldn't be able to handle the large group alone.

Jenetta's first task, after finishing with the captives, was to find the base's data center. Using Major Visconti's map she set off with the squad of Marines to track it down. A large metal waste basket, containing partially melted data rings, record wafers, and high-capacity storage rods, was still smoldering on the deck when they located the center, and she knew they were too late, but Jenetta grabbed a portable Alonn Gas canister mounted on the wall and smothered the fire completely. She felt sure that the systems people would have difficulty getting anything useful from the base's computer. All internal storage must have been erased before the commandant surrendered.

Before returning to the warehouse level, Jenetta and the Marines stopped by the detention center to pick up all the restraints that had been left there. The senior Raider personnel would object to having the restraints put on them, but they had little say in the matter. Once the collars were locked on, Jenetta knew they wouldn't pose any discipline problem. With the press of one little button on the controller they would be writhing on the floor in agony. That was how the Raiders controlled their slaves. The restraint sets left after the senior people were outfitted would be used on the burliest of the rest.

With her main objectives completed there was little that Jenetta could do except wait. The three-kilometer wide by one kilometer deep habitat area, with its eighteen levels, was the size of a small city, so it would take hours for the hundreds of Marines assigned to search the base, to complete their task. Jenetta would just have to stand by until that was done.

Chapter Eighteen

~ October 9th, 2270 ~

"The habitat search turned up forty-six Raiders who were trying to hide in the bowels of the station," Major Visconti reported to Jenetta. "The ones that survived their resistance when discovered have been put in with the rest of the prisoners to await more secure quarters."

"Excellent work, Major," Jenetta said. "Did we lose any of our people?"

"Our battle armor prevented serious injuries or death from the light weapons the Raiders holdouts had, but we suffered some minor injuries. A few of my people have already returned to duty, and the medics say the rest will all recover fully within a few weeks."

Jenetta nodded. "I'm glad the injuries were light. We'd better concentrate on getting the rest of the Raiders locked up; we can't just leave them sitting on the floor in the cargo area. Unfortunately, we don't have secure quarters available for such a large prisoner population, so we'll have to prepare something. Now that the Marines assigned to the search are available for other duties, I'd like to use them to clear out one of the large warehouses on this deck. Like the hold of a ship, each warehouse only has a couple of doors, and the prisoners can all be contained more easily there.

"Aye, Commander. Just tell me which warehouse you'd like emptied."

After a quick look at the station's plans, Jenetta selected a large warehouse that seemed to meet their immediate need.

"If you have people experienced in using cargo handling equipment, we can take everything from the warehouse and stack it here in this road," Jenetta said, pointing to one of the enormously wide aisles that ran the length of the habitat on that level. "Once the warehouse is empty, we'll secure the emergency exit doors and move all male Raiders not outfitted with restraints, into their new quarters. Your Marine guards will be able to watch them from the ten-meter high catwalk that extends around the entire warehouse interior." Pointing to a smaller warehouse next to the first, Jenetta said, "This other warehouse should be cleared for the women prisoners. Have the station leaders taken down to the detention center and house them in separate cells. There will be less trouble with the leaders isolated from the rest of the prisoner population."

"Aye, Commander," Major Visconti said.

"Carry on, Major."

Major Visconti turned and immediately called his officers together, outlining the plan and issuing assignments. Within ten minutes, the prisoners designated for the detention center were herded away, and huge cargo handling robots, controlled remotely by Marine operators, were engaged in clearing the designated warehouses.

It took several hours for the small army of bots to clear the two warehouses of their contents. The piles of crates that had been moved out into the roadway weren't very orderly because some of the bot operators were a bit inexperienced, but that was of little importance. Once the prisoners were herded into their new, temporary quarters, and the doors were locked, everyone breathed a little easier. Only three or four Marines would be required on the catwalk in each warehouse now, instead of the three dozen being employed to keep the prisoners 'contained' in the open cargo area.

Jenetta's next task was to get the kitchen operating. They would have to feed the seventeen hundred Raider prisoners three times a day, not to mention the four hundred plus Marines. Major Visconti recruited temporary cooks and kitchen attendants from among his weary Marine force and Jenetta had them prepare a meal for the prisoners and their fellow Marines. There were plenty of foodstuffs and supplies, and the first meal turned out fairly edible. The prisoners were given plenty of food, and crates of fresh fruit were placed in the warehouse confinement area so they could help themselves if they felt hungry. Casks of water were also placed in each of the warehouse lockups. The biggest problem was toilet facilities, but the Raiders would have to get by with tubs, buckets, and basins for the near term.

It took five days of intensive effort for the fleet to complete just their emergency repairs, but most ships were once again fully pressurized. The severe damage to the Chiron would take several more days, but that part of the ship was sealed off and there was no danger to the crew. Searchers found almost a thousand men trapped in the damaged Raider ships, and without any other place to put them, they brought them to the space station prison warehouse. Jenetta found herself cast in the role of a warden, supervising an enormous prisoner population living in excessively cramped quarters with totally inadequate toilet facilities. It was only possible to control them because a large quantity of the electronic restraints had been found. There weren't enough for everyone, but they were placed on any prisoner that got involved in a fight. As soon as a fight broke out, the prisoners wearing the restraints immediately dropped to the floor. Any left standing were zapped with a level two shock that rattled their teeth and left them writhing on the floor for several minutes. Prisoners not wearing restraints were shot by one of the Marines on the catwalk with a stun rifle, and left to nap off the effect of the shot wherever they fell. It usually lasted between four and six hour hours. While unconscious, the prisoner would be outfitted with Raider restraints.

As the ship's engineers were freed from emergency repair work, Jenetta was able to borrow some to work at the new prison. Four more warehouses, three for the men and one for the women, were cleared of cargo and prepared to more properly accommodate prisoners. The new dormitories, each hastily rigged with shower and toilet facilities, and capable of housing eight-hundred prisoners, were available in a few more days. Once the thin, gravity-shielding cloth, like that used in gel-comfort mattresses, was rolled out on the deck for sleeping, the prison dormitories were ready to occupy. The sleeper would be suspended a dozen centimeters above the cloth, until the normal gravity field from the gravity-deck plating curved over the cloth and again took hold of the sleeper, keeping them from floating too high.

For the prisoners, it was like moving from a flea-bag hotel room to a luxury suite.  From the catwalk in the respective warehouse, Jenetta addressed each group as soon as their move was completed. She informed them that anyone involved in a fight, or observed damaging the equipment or facilities, would find themselves back in the first warehouse without beds, toilets, or showers. If that wasn't enough to subdue most of them, the restraints would. As soon as Jenetta left, most lined up for their first hot shower since the Boshdyte had opened the doors to the asteroid.

Jenetta had to practically beg for people to fill critical positions as she tried to organize the rest of the station. She needed engineers to maintain the power systems, and since the destruction of the computer files had wiped out all the inventory records, she needed hundreds of clerks and laborers to begin the onerous task of sorting out the cargo found in the warehouses. She also needed regular cooks and mess hall people to replace the temporary Marine personnel that had been doing the job. The food was passable, but every meal had strangely started to taste the same. Jenetta had found it surprisingly difficult at one meal to taste the difference between the Meatloaf Italiano and the Tuna Noodle Casserole. Fortunately, laundry services were fully automated, so only a few people were required to monitor the equipment and bots as clean clothes were provided for three thousand prisoners and guards.

Jenetta began her days at 0600 and rarely returned to her quarters aboard the Prometheus before midnight.

Two weeks after being sent to take control of the space station, Jenetta had her first official visitors. Following a tour of the station, Captains Gavin and Kanes returned with Jenetta to the commandant's office that she had taken over for her use. The large, three-dimensional SimWindow behind her desk was playing a historical vid of the Gatun Locks at the Panama Canal. The bright blue sky was the color of Jenetta's azure eyes, and you could almost smell the wildflowers that were in full bloom in the old Canal Zone. The century old springtime scene made you want to rush outside to watch the huge seagoing ships as they passed through the locks.

Dozens of different vistas from Earth or other planets could be loaded from the SimWindow's memory core, with each image appearing so real that you'd swear you were really standing inside a building at that location. A real-time image of the cavern port outside the habitat was also available for viewing at any time. By using special cameras and sensors, the computer made it seem as if you were looking through a real window at the ships parked at the docking piers. The computer naturally enhanced the image to make it appear like a large, well illuminated warehouse instead of the airless, dimly lit cavern that it really was.

After preparing mugs of coffee at the beverage synthesizer in Jenetta's office, the three officers sat down to talk.

"It looks like you have everything under control here, Jen," Gavin said.

"Yes sir, we've stabilized things here, for now, but I know that it's not a long-term solution. You can't keep hundreds of prisoners permanently housed in one large room, and we have four such rooms. They're still getting over the shock of losing their space station and their freedom, but that won't last. We've kept them clean and well fed, so they're calm right now, but boredom is going to cause problems in the future. And I'm sure that most are planning escape attempts. We have to constantly be on alert."

"Yes, I know. Still, you've done a fantastic job here and I appreciate it. Captain Kanes' people will be in to help, beginning tomorrow. They've stayed out of the way so you could lock down the station and get things organized, but now that you're firmly in control they want to start interrogating the prisoners."

"We'll start with the ones that you have in the detention center," Kanes said. "They'll have the most information and are likely to be the ones most interested in cutting a deal since they'll face the most serious charges."

"Yes sir. I've kept them isolated since the first day. I've ordered the guards not to talk to them or even respond to questions. That should have loosened them up a bit and made them ripe for a little conversation." Smiling, she added, "I understand that several started off demanding to see me, and are now politely requesting to see me. I haven't gone down there yet."

Kanes smiled and nodded. Space Command rules forbid the torture of prisoners, psychological as well as physical, but they were still operating under battlefield conditions here so a little discomfort or inattention was excusable, and could be used to advantage.

"Jen," Gavin said, "you should know that Commander LaSalle has been found. Apparently the escape pod malfunctioned and ejected just a fraction of a second before the ship impacted against the doors of the asteroid. The main rocket on the pod fired, but then pieces of the Boshdyte, or perhaps chunks of the port doors blown off in the explosion, struck the pod. I suppose it was a miracle that the pod walls weren't penetrated. As it was, the maneuvering thrusters failed to operate, leaving her with no way to correct and stabilize. Everyone was so busy with the battle, and then with repairs, that she wasn't found until this morning. The Tsgardi don't use gravity plating in their pods, and I'm afraid that the days of constant tumbling have unbalanced her mind. When she was rescued, she was screaming your name."

"My name, sir?"

"Yes. Apparently she blames you for what happened to her. She keeps screaming "Carver, you did this to me," over and over. The doctors tell me she can't possibly return to her post on the Prometheus. She'll be taken to a GSC psychiatric hospital for evaluation and treatment."

Jenetta had been too busy to think about LaSalle since the battle began. The thought occurred to Jenetta now that she might have been the one spinning and rolling off into space if LaSalle hadn't tried to prevent her from gaining any more recognition and increased prestige in the eyes of the captain.

"As you once told me, sir, she was a good officer. Her sacrifice won't be forgotten."

"I've recommended her for a commendation. You'll take over as acting first officer when you return to the ship, until her replacement arrives."

"Yes sir. When will I be returning?"

"Although the Prometheus' most serious wounds will be repaired within a couple of weeks, we could be here for months while lesser repairs are completed. Space Command Supreme Headquarters has decided to occupy this station and has designated it as an official base because it's closer to the Frontier Zone than any other base within three hundred light-years. You've been named as the interim Base Commander until a permanent administrator arrives."

"Base Commander? But I'm assigned to the Prometheus, sir."

"You're temporarily reassigned to this new base. You'll return to the Prometheus as soon as you're relieved here."

"But what if the Prometheus receives orders to leave before the new administrator arrives?"

"Then you'll catch up with us when you're relieved here."

"But why me, sir?"

"My report to Space Command mentioned that I had put you in charge immediately following the battle and that you had done an excellent job of organizing the station and taking responsibility for the thousands of Raider prisoners. Since you're the only available senior line officer with command experience that we have out here, they've decided that you should continue in the position until a permanent administrator can be sent. You've had two warship commands, and we just don't have anyone else more qualified for the post among the task force crews."

"Very well, sir," Jenetta said, her disappointment obvious in her voice.

Gavin looked over at Kanes and nodded slightly. Then both men stood up. "Stand up, Commander," Gavin said to Jenetta.

Jenetta looked questioningly at Gavin for a second and then stood.

"The room will come to attention," Gavin said. Kanes came stiffly to attention. Jenetta followed suit. "Lieutenant Commander Jenetta Alicia Carver, by order of Space Command Supreme Headquarters, with confirmation by the Galactic Alliance Council, you are immediately advanced to the rank of Commander on this 22nd day of October, in the Earth year 2270. Congratulations, Commander. At ease." Gavin smiled and held out a small box to Jen.

Jenetta was stunned. She took the box and flipped up the cover. Inside were two rank insignias bearing three wide gold bars, the insignia for a full commander in GSC. Looking back at Gavin, she said, "Commander, sir?"

"That's correct, Commander," Gavin said, as he and Kanes sat back down and grinned at the surprised expression on Jenetta's face. "The Promotion Selection List for Commander was posted a month ago and you were named as an eligible. Space Command regulations specify that the duly appointed base commander of any official base or StratCom-4 station must have the rank of Commander or higher. Space Command has decided that you should fill the available position here."

"Th-Thank you, sir," Jenetta stammered slightly as a cascade of thoughts rushed through her mind. "I'll do my best to fulfill my new responsibilities."

"There was never any doubt in my mind, Commander. Now that this is an official base, personnel will be arriving to staff it properly."

"Yes sir. What about civilians, sir?"

"What about them?"

"Well–– on every base or station with which I'm familiar, there are sections set aside for civilian use; shops, businesses, recreation, and housing."

"Use your judgment, Commander. I've never been a station administrator, so I can't properly advise you. With luck you won't have to worry about civilians before the new administrator arrives. Then it'll be his or her problem."

"Yes sir."

"Is there anything that you need?"

"A few good officers would help a great deal. I've been able to borrow engineers and labor, but I need a few people with administrative ability so that I don't have to personally supervise every facet of this operation."

"I'll find some good people that'll give you a hand until their ship departs."

"Thank you, sir."

"Have you restored the computers yet?"

"Not yet. The engineers are still trying to recover expunged data. Once we start using the computers, any old data will be lost for good. Only the separate systems for life-support and weapons control are functioning properly at this time."

"How much more time do they need?"

"They've requested another week, and I've told them that they must complete their work by then because we need the system. We're getting by with portable systems right now, networked through the Chiron's main computer system, and a cumbersome paper system."

"They must receive whatever time they need," Kanes said. "Please rescind your deadline."

Jenetta looked at Kanes and nodded once. "Yes sir. I'll notify them immediately. It'll make our task here more difficult, though, and I really don't think they'll recover anything more if they have extra time."

"It's important that we recover every kernel of data available, regardless of the time required. You'll just have to get by as best you can."

"Yes sir."

"Space Command has notified the families of the crewmen killed in the battle and announced the seizure of the station, so I've lifted the ban on outgoing communications," Gavin informed Jenetta. "The jamming satellites should be disabled within the hour, if not already deactivated.  You can contact your family if you wish."

"Thank you, sir, I will. I'm sure they're beginning to worry since we've been out of communication for so long."

Gavin and Kanes stood as if on cue. "We'll get out of your hair, Jen," Gavin said. "I'm sure that you have much to do and so do we. Captain Kanes will be back tomorrow to start working with your prisoners, and I'll find some good people for you."

"Thank you, sir."

After the two captains had left, Jenetta removed her tunic just long enough to replace her insignia of rank with the new insignia that Gavin had given her. Her father had said two years ago that she might be considered for early promotion when the selection committee met again, but at the time she hadn't really considered it very likely since her previous advancement had been just eight months earlier. As she expected, she hadn't been named to the list that next time around. But being promoted almost a year shy of the normal 'minimum three years in grade' guideline meant that the Selection Board had named her eligible for early promotion with the newest list. The three bars had come as a complete surprise because the list had apparently been posted while they were already involved in the siege of the asteroid and normal communications were suspended.

Jenetta worked until midnight, then walked to her quarters in the station. She was tired but took time to send a message home to her folks, to Eliza, and then to each of her brothers. She relayed the sad news that Christa was still missing. But it wasn't all bad news since Jenetta was alive and well after a major battle, and sporting the three wide bars of a full Commander now.

As Commander Jenetta Carver, she now held the same rank as her eldest brother, Billy, and outranked her other three brothers, all of whom were older by four to six years. Her mother had told her that Billy was extra sensitive about Jenetta possibly catching him or even surpassing him, so she didn't make a big fuss over the promotion. She didn't want him to think she was rubbing his nose in it, but inside she was screaming with delight. She had been the butt of jokes at the Academy because of an embarrassing incident that occurred during her first semester. Just prior to graduation, she had been voted most likely to remain an ensign for the longest period. It was a slightly less crass way of being named 'Least Likely to Succeed', and it certainly wasn't a distinction that anyone would take pride in. As it turned out, the prediction had been spot-on accurate, but not for the reasons expected. Several months after graduation, Jenetta had barely made it into a life pod and ejected before the ship on which she was serving, exploded. She'd spent almost eleven years floating through space in a stasis bed that virtually suspends life. Since being found, she'd used her 'second life' to swiftly climb through the ranks. No other member of her class at the Academy had yet reached the rank of Commander, although two others had attained Lt. Commander.

Slowly, through incredibly long hours and hard work, the space station operations began to come together. Jenetta named Lt. Commander O'Day from the battleship Bellona, one of three officers reassigned from shipboard duty by Gavin, to function as Warden of the Prison after hearing him recount his previous job duties. Lieutenant Orlean, also of the Bellona, was named as Food Services Administrator, while Lieutenant Sayars, from the destroyer Buenos Aires, was named as Headquarters Administrator. With these three main jobs delegated, Jenetta would have more freedom to handle the myriad of problems that required her personal attention, as well as being available to help the three officers when they got inundated with problems.

The computer engineers finally agreed that they had recovered as much as they were ever going to get. Once that milestone was reached, they overwrote all memory storage areas with binary strings of zeros, rebooted the system, and began loading Space Command software modules. It took another week to run and test every part of the system, but by the time all the ship repairs were completed, the station's main computer system was fully functional. They could finally do away with the all the paper and rely on the computer for information. Updated versions of the Space Command databases were copied over from the Chiron's main system before operations were shifted to the station's system. With the communications systems repaired and operational, the station would automatically receive encrypted asynchronous systems and data updates directly from Space Command.

As procedures were established and refined, life aboard the station began to seem almost routine. The prisoners were still a constant worry to Jenetta, but so far everything was under control. Kanes and his people came every day and interviewed prisoners, filling volumes with what was said, and with what wasn't said.

As the weeks passed, Jenetta began to spend an increasing number of hours working on a master plan for the base. She suspected that civilians would soon pour in looking to corner the choicest spots for commerce on a new base, so a group of engineers was conscripted to prepare basic designs for a concourse shopping level after establishing the basic requirements by using the layouts of the Vinnia station and three Earth stations as models. They also prepared plans to convert former Raider barracks quarters to military and civilian housing. Jenetta didn't want her successor to arrive and not have any plans in place for the station's development. Besides, the intense work effort helped keep her mind off Christa for at least a few hours each day.

All levels below the docking/main warehouse level were designated as military use only and required an implanted CT or ID chip for main entry points, with handprint and/or retinal scans for the more secure areas. While all officers have a CT, or cranial transducer chip, NCOs and enlisted personnel have an implanted ID chip. It lacks the two-way communication capability of the CT, but it can receive messages and be detected by sensors located throughout a ship or base so that an approximate location of any individual can be instantly determined. Like the CT, it's also used for low-level identification purposes, unlocking entrance doors to secure areas for which the individual is authorized.

Huge lists of the equipment and materials necessary for the new construction and remodeling efforts were prepared and forwarded to the Space Command Quartermaster. It would take many months before it started to arrive, but a lot of the construction preparation work could be completed in the meantime.

Requesting, and receiving, permission from Space Command Supreme HQ to move the base, Jenetta had the hollow, hundred-eighteen-kilometer long asteroid pushed out and away from the edge of the asteroid belt. It was positioned it in its own orbit around the star. By distancing the asteroid twenty million kilometers from the asteroid belt, ship movement around the base would be both safer and easier. The Raiders wanted to hide, and used the asteroid belt as cover, but there was no such need to disguise a Space Command base.

Although the habitat had been completely inspected from top to bottom, an examination of the Raider spaceships in port had yet to be performed. The Marines had swept them the first day and cleared them of Raider personnel, but none had been examined further. None of them were adequately armed, or protected for fighting, so they hadn't even tried to run the blockade around the station.

Although the habitat section was only three-kilometers long, the docking platform and piers extended along the interior wall for some forty-kilometers in the asteroid. As many as a hundred-fifty ships could docked simultaneously. Survey crews were sent into each former Raider vessel to determine its space worthiness, while another group was assigned to examine the ship hulls at the far recesses of the thirty-kilometer wide by sixty-kilometer deep cavern where the Raiders had been repairing ships taken in their attacks. The hulls of ships destroyed during the battle, as well as whatever other floating debris could be collected, had been brought into the asteroid and placed in the scrap area where it would eventually be recycled.

Thousands of cargo containers seized by the Raiders also required examination, first to determine if they were empty or still contained stolen cargo such as unprocessed ore or manufactured goods, and then to see if they contained identification that would allow them to be returned to their proper owners. Of course the insurance companies that had paid off on their loss would have to be involved. It would have been so simple if the computer files hadn't been destroyed. Jenetta could have used ten times the number of crewmen that she had been able to borrow from the ships in the task force. Worse, people would soon begin to disappear as they were recalled to ships preparing to leave the base.

Spending part of an evening reading the latest quarterly report from her chamberlain on Obotymot drove Jenetta's depression to new lows. Estate expenses continued to mount dramatically as the crown paid her twenty-five full-time servants their full wages, plus paid for all supplies and maintenance costs necessary for a palace she had never even seen. Since it was expected that the estate wouldn't produce any income for decades, she might wind up so deeply in debt that it would take all of her five thousand years to clear it up. She and Eliza had established a foundation to help her people on Obotymot through profits funneled from the book sales, but so far it only amounted to a drop in the bucket.

As she tried to think of ways to keep from sinking further and further into debt, she was struck with an inspiration. While a captive on Raider-One, she'd learned of a parasite removal ray in the detention center. Simultaneously depressing buttons on either side of the bathroom mirror bathed the prisoner in a beam of light that killed any harmful parasites that might have established a home on the body. The ray had the unique side effect of removing all body hair not protected by a special shower cap, but the person's eyes had to be shielded with a special set of goggles as the light could reportedly destroy them in a nanosecond. Jenetta, not warned of the effect on body hair, had been surprised to find all hair below her neckline, missing. Her legs, with weeks of growth, were suddenly silky smooth again. That was welcome, but she'd been dismayed by the sudden absence of all pubic hair.

Jenetta couldn't recall ever hearing of any such product on the market, and wondered if the idea had ever been patented. She found an engineer who would, in his free time, disassemble one of the devices and through reverse engineering completely document its construction and operation. She paid him from her own credits accounts for his work. When he presented the plans to her, she filed a patent application for the device. Any profits earned from licensing manufacturing rights would go directly into the foundation she'd set up to help her people on Obotymot. The Raiders had intercepted the first convoy of food and medicine being sent to the colony after the meteor strike, so it seemed only fitting that something developed by the Raiders be used to help alleviate the suffering on the planet.

Six weeks after taking the asteroid base, the first non-military ship arrived. Having learned of the new base via company dispatch, a freighter altered course slightly to stop and have a look. A year earlier everyone had dreaded passing through this area of space, but now it was looked upon as being one of the safest parts of the galaxy. That was understandable, since sixteen SC warships were still moored inside the asteroid base while they performed their repairs.

Approach control directed the ten-kilometer long freighter to a parking orbit on the backside of the asteroid so it would be out of the traffic pattern for ships entering and exiting the base. At the full ten-kilometer length allowed by Galactic Alliance regulations, the freighter was much too long to be easily accommodated inside the asteroid, although it could fit inside and even turn around.

Arriving at the base a couple of hours later, a shuttle from the freighter was directed to one of the habitat's numerous flight bays. As they disembarked, the captain and his party were escorted to the Port Officer to present their manifests. Lieutenant Sayars was currently functioning as Port Officer, as well as wearing a dozen other hats in the under-staffed operation.

After examining the required holo-tube lists of items being transported, Sayars said, "Welcome to Space Command Base 8647, Captain Werner. Your ship is our first visitor. What can we do for you?"

"The company ordered us to stop and have a look after learning that Space Command has established this as a permanent base. We'll probably be establishing a hub operation here, as we do at most SC bases. Is there any chance of getting some supplies? We've been in transit for two and a half months and we have another nine and a half months before we reach Vinnia. The selection of fresh foods at Eprikal was limited, and we've already eaten our way through most of what we were able to procure."

"You'll have to speak to the base commander about that. We're not really set up to re-provision ships yet."

"Are you short on supplies?"

"No, not as far as I know. There were over eight thousand Raiders operating from this base so the supply inventory is  enormous. It's simply that I'm not authorized to dispense them. As I said, your ship is the first to stop here and we're still getting things set up. The Base Commander will have to handle all requests until such time as an operational procedure is established."

"I understand. And where might I find the Commander?"

"Computer, where's the Commander?" Sayars said, after touching the face of his Space Command ring with his left forefinger.

Via the CT implanted behind his left ear, he heard the computer respond with, "The Commander is in her office."

"Sayars, out. The Commander is in her office, sir. Would you like to be taken there?"

"Yes, thank you."

Sayars motioned to an aide who then arranged for a Marine to show the Captain and his party the way.

When Captain Werner's group reached the Commanding Officer's outer office, Jenetta's aide notified her that a freighter captain was requesting an audience. She had him admitted to her inner office and stood to greet him. Captain Jeffrey Werner, at five-foot eight-inches, was shorter than Jenetta, but he appeared fit and intelligent. His brown hair was closely cropped in a military style haircut.

"Welcome, Captain," Jenetta said. "I was notified that a freighter had arrived in orbit."

"Thank you, Commander. I'm sorry to bother you but I understand that you have to approve the sale of any food supplies, personally."

"Oh? Well, I'm sure that we can accommodate you. You were probably sent here because we haven't established a procedure for the sale of supplies yet. We're still getting things organized."

"So I understand. Then it would be possible to get supplies?"

"Surely, if we have what you want. Prepare a list of items that you'd like and we'll see what we have in inventory."

"My first officer has a list. She's in the outer office."

Jenetta said aloud, "Computer, have my aide send in Captain Warner's first officer."

A few seconds later the door opened and the first officer entered the office.

"Gloria!" Jenetta immediately exclaimed loudly with obvious delight.

"Jen!" Lt. Commander Gloria Sabella responded.

In seconds, the two women were hugging and laughing.

"How have you been?" Jenetta asked as they separated.

"Wonderful, how are you? When did you get the extra stripe? Are you really the Base Commander here? How did that happen? You're so tall! You're taller than I am."

Both women suddenly remembered the Captain, who was watching with an amused smile on his face. "Don't mind me, ladies. You're obviously old friends."

"Captain," Gloria said, "this is my very good friend, Jenetta Alicia Carver. I'm sure that you're familiar with the name."

The Captain stood a little straighter at hearing the name. "Indeed I am. I didn't realize you were that Carver, Commander. I should have expected to find you at the middle of this latest victory. It's an honor to meet the person who has made so much of the galaxy safe for us freight jockeys."

"And I didn't realize that your ship was the Vordoth. It was my first command, you know. I hope that you and Gloria can join me for dinner tonight?"

"I'm sure that you have other friends aboard the Vordoth from the way they always speak of you when your name comes up in the news. Perhaps you'd like to join us?"

"Thank you, Captain. I'd love to visit the ship again."

"Fine. 1800 hours?"

"I'll be there. I could use a little break. Since the battle, all I've done is work. Leave me your list and I'll let you know tonight what we have."

Gloria handed Jenetta a data wafer containing the list and the two women hugged again before she and the captain left the office.

Chapter Nineteen

~ November 24th, 2270 ~

The shuttle arrived at the Vordoth fifteen minutes early. As soon as the small ship had moved to its designated parking location and shut down its engines, crewmembers flooded into the bay. A huge crowd was waiting when Jenetta emerged from the small craft. They cheered wildly and surged forward to greet her as she walked down the ramp.

Jenetta smiled and greeted most of the crewmembers by name. She had gotten to know them when she was asked to take command of the vessel after a Raider attack had left the freighter without a captain. Although essentially just a passenger on that trip, she'd been the only Space Command officer on board.

Gloria came to her rescue and cleared a path for her, leading her to a shipping carton from which she could address the group. Jenetta knew that she wasn't going to get out of the bay until she said something, so she stepped up and turned to face the group.

"Thank you for that very warm reception. It's wonderful to see all of you again. A lot has happened in the three and a half years since we worked together to begin ridding the galaxy of Raiders. As you know, our latest engagement has denied them another base of operations. We destroyed twenty-six warships here, and further reduced their personnel numbers by some eight thousand." Jenetta had to pause as a cheer went up, then continued with, "Almost a third of which are in custody on board the space station. This area of space should now be as safe as the area where Raider-One was located. Space Command has appropriated the asteroid and designated it a permanent base, so it will remain a safe haven in this part of space for travelers. We're happy to welcome the Vordoth as the first visiting ship, and I'm delighted to be back among all of you, even if my visit will be a short one. Thank you."

Stepping down from the shipping carton amid loud applause and cheers, Jenetta was pulled towards the corridor door by Gloria as she waved to her admirers. A lift delivered them to the deck where the officer's lounge was located, and they were met by the Captain and Jenetta's closest friends aboard the ship. Lt. Commander Rebecca Erikson - the ship's doctor, Lieutenant Charley Moresby - the ship's chief engineer, Senior Freight Operations Chief 'Gunny' Rondell - the retired Space Marine Master Gunnery Sergeant, and Leah Brewster – a former slave that Jenetta had rescued from a detention cell in Raider-One, greeted her every bit as enthusiastically as had the crew in the flight bay. After completing therapy to remove the conditioning performed by the Raider jailers, Leah had been offered a position on the Vordoth as a traffic specialist. She now coordinates cargo shipments and deliveries. Jenetta smiled and hugged each of them.

"Jen, you've grown so tall," Rebecca said, "that I might never have recognized you."

"It appears that I've finally stopped growing now that I've slightly exceeded the predicted five-foot eleven-inches, doc. I still eat like a teenager, but the hunger pangs aren't as bad as they were between meals before, unless I've been working out."

"Congratulations on your promotion, Commander; and for becoming the Base Commander of this brand new Space Station."

"Thanks, doc, but I'm only an interim Base Commander, here until relieved by the permanent administrator; probably in three or four more months."

"Is that good or bad?"

"Definitely good! You know me; I want to be out in space, not meeting and greeting dignitaries or negotiating with vendors for concourse space. I'll leave that to the administrative types who've never developed proper space-legs."

"Where will you go after you leave the station?" Charley asked.

"Back to the Prometheus, I hope. Captain Gavin told me that this is just a temporary reassignment."

"Maybe you'll get your own ship now," Leah offered.

"No, I don't think so. Only officers with the rank of Captain get command of the kind of ship that I want. A Commander can become captain of a quartermaster ship, troop transport, outpost barque, research craft, hydrogen harvester or tanker, diplomatic corps yacht, or other non-combat vessel, but never a warship. I'd rather be the second officer aboard the Prometheus, than the captain of any one of those vessels."

"They should just make you a Captain and put you where you deserve to be," Gunny Rondell said, "in command of a battleship." Gunny Rondell had been one of Jenetta's most loyal and ardent supporters since she had captained the Vordoth.

"Thanks, Gunny, but you know they can't just promote that way. As it is, I was surprised to find I was on the Promotion Selection List for Commander. I was a year short on time for the minimum 'three years in grade' as a Lieutenant Commander qualification, so they obviously included me with the ten percent that are allowed to be considered for early promotion."

"Jen," Gloria said, "tell us about Mawcett. We heard you were one of the ones that were cloned."

"Yes, I was. I have two sisters now. Both look exactly like me and have all my memories. If they were here with us now, you couldn't tell us apart."

"Where are they?"

"Eliza is on Higgins SCB. I don't know where Christa is. The last we knew, she was a prisoner of Tsgardis working for the Raiders. One of the reasons, as if we needed any more, for our taking this station was our search for her. We know that she was aboard the Boshdyte when it left orbit around Mawcett. We intercepted it on its way here but Christa wasn't aboard, thank heavens!"

"Why 'thank heavens'?" Rebecca said in a surprised voice. "I thought you wanted to find her."

"I do, but the Boshdyte captain chose to fight instead of surrendering. Our gunners targeted the engines, but the ship swerved and the hull was breached. All aboard died of asphyxiation. If Christa was in their brig, she would have perished."


"How could they both have all of your memories," Charley asked. "I don't understand."

"The cloning equipment makes identical, full-sized replicas, and since the human mind is essentially a chemical computer, the cloning machinery duplicates it. They don't have all my new memories, just the memories that I had at the time that I was 'recorded' by the equipment. Christa is seven days older than Eliza, so she has seven more days of newer memories than Eliza."

"How did it feel to be cloned?" Leah asked.

"It didn't hurt or anything— and I don't even remember it. At first I was upset that it happened, but then I came to consider them as my twin sisters. Because they both came from me, we think alike and can even finish each other's sentences. Now that we're apart though, we're developing unique memories from our new experiences."

"Where do you think Christa is now?" Gloria asked.

"I really expected her to be on the Boshdyte. But it arrived here weeks later than expected, so it might have stopped somewhere to drop her off, or perhaps she was transferred to another ship when they met up in space. I just don't know."

The group moved to the officer's dining room when the officer's mess attendant, Anthony, came into the lounge to announce that dinner was ready.

Over a delicious meal, they continued to talk about Jenetta's adventures during the past three and a half years, and the Vordoth crew eventually drifted into telling her of their travels since then. Of course their travel had been comparatively dull thanks to the improved situation with the Raiders, but they had some amusing anecdotes of things that had happened aboard ship during the recent voyage or while loading and unloading. The Vordoth had picked up a full cargo assembled at Vinnia and taken it to the cargo hub at Eprikal, a planet located just inside the Frontier Zone. There they had dropped the cargo and picked up another to be taken back to Vinnia. Except for a two-week layover at Eprikal, they had been on the ship the entire time. Taking more than two years, the run was one of the longest round trips that the freight company asked of their regular employees. Longer trips were performed by employees who either brought their immediate families along, or who had no family ties and slept much of the trip away in stasis sleep.

 After dinner, the group returned to the lounge for a few more hours of conversation before Jenetta had to return to the base. She gave Captain Werner a data wafer that contained a list of the supplies the base could provide and then said goodbye to everyone. As with all close friends, hugs and kisses were the only way to convey the feelings of sadness at parting. Gloria walked with her to the flight bay.

"See you at Higgins, I guess," Gloria said.

"I hope so. I'm not sure how long I'll be here. It depends upon how long it takes for my replacement to arrive and then what transportation I can get to Higgins. How long will you be there?"

"We'll have at least a month layover after we drop cargo. Then no more roundtrip runs of over twenty months for three years."

"Look up Eliza when you get to Higgins. She'll be as happy to see you as I am, and she'll love having company."

"But I don't know her."

"Yes you do. She's me, remember. Don't think of her as just my sibling, but as a twin who was with us every single time we were together."

Gloria shook her head. "It's all so strange. How do you do it?"

"I was dismayed at first also, but you'll be amazed at how quickly you'll adapt to the situation. It'll seem like you're with me. You'll only have to keep track of which twin you're with. For example, she'll obviously remember none of what we talked about today since she wasn't here, but she'll remember every other conversation we've ever had before today. And if you're the least bit slow in dropping your cargo, you might find her pestering you to take a few rides on the maglev sleds."

Gloria grinned at the reference to Jenetta's infamous early morning sled rides through the freighter's cargo spine at top speed. She shook her head again a couple of times, then wrinkled her brow. "It's difficult to imagine, but I'll look her up as soon as I have a chance."

"Good. Will you be coming to the station tomorrow?"

"I doubt it. If I know the Captain, he'll want to get underway just as soon as we get the supplies. We'd better say goodbye here."

After they hugged and said their goodbyes, Jenetta boarded the shuttle. Gravity was decreased in the airlock as soon as it was depressurized, and the shuttle backed out slowly, then turned and headed for the base. The evening with friends had been a tonic, wiping away all the stress that she had been feeling for the past few months. Tomorrow, much of it would return, but for now Jenetta felt wonderful.

The Vordoth left its stationary orbit around the asteroid after picking up its supplies early in the morning. Jenetta knew when the ship was leaving but problems elsewhere prevented her from going to the control center to watch its departure on the screens. With each new day came new problems, but the people that Captain Gavin had sent were a great help, and they enabled her to keep a handle on everything. She wondered what would happen when they had to leave, but she didn't have time to dwell on that problem just then.

* * *

"The new base, which we've named Dixon, is now fully operational," Admiral Burke said to the other nine admirals seated at the large horseshoe shaped table in the Admiralty Board Meeting Hall at Supreme Headquarters on Earth. "Commander Carver, by all accounts, is doing an exceptional job as base commander, despite the problems of personnel shortages."

"They're on their way, Raymond," Admiral Ressler said. "She'll just have to make do until they can get there."

"She hasn't complained, Shana," Admiral Burke said, "and I'm sure that she knows we'll be sending the people as quickly as possible."

"Carver can't remain as base commander once the base is re-designated as StratCom-Three," Admiral Hubera stated, "because regulations require an officer with the rank of captain. I can't understand why the Officer Selection Board even named her to the early promotion list for Commander."

"Captain is a recommended rank, Donald, not a required rank," Admiral Hillaire said. "Commander Carver already meets the 'minimum rank' qualification for command of a Space Command Base. You know full well that we didn't have any experienced base commanders among the task force crews; someone who could jump in and assume command of Dixon. We didn't expect to take this base intact and weren't prepared with a waiting staff. Carver was the only experienced commanding officer available for the assignment. We can't delay the StratCom designation change."

"The reports from Captain Gavin have been filled with glowing praise for the job that Commander Carver is doing," Admiral Platt said, "so there's no need to rush the appointment until we find the right individual. The reports from Captain Kanes and the ship captains in the task force have also praised the job that Carver is doing."

 "Carver is far too young, and far too inexperienced, to hold such a responsible position," Admiral Hubera grumbled. "Just because she's gotten lucky during a few engagements with Raiders, doesn't mean that she can handle the responsibilities of running a major Space Command base, and a StratCom-Three base at that. It's a miracle that we haven't had a major incident occur at Dixon."

"She's been outstanding at every post she's held," Admiral Platt said. "As commanding officer of the heavy cruiser Song for more than a year, she consistently proved herself to be an excellent leader and administrator. I have no reservations whatsoever about her being the base commander of our newest base."

"Nor do I," Admiral Moore said. "This officer may be quite a bit younger than our other base commanders, Donald, but I'm confident that she can do the job. And it'll be excellent experience for her. She'll continue on as base commander until we find the right person to replace her. Perhaps we should even consider letting her remain as base commander for a full five-year duty tour? Does anyone, except Donald, have any thoughts on that?"

Chapter Twenty

~ February 19th, 2271 ~

As always happens in life, the hours turned into days, and the days into weeks. With the arrival of every Space Command ship at Dixon, Jenetta eagerly looked for her replacement, but was continually disappointed.

The Prometheus departed eight days after the Vordoth. Her engineers had done a good job of preparing the ship for normal FTL travel, but only a fully equipped ship yard could restore the ship to full fighting effectiveness. An enclosed repair berth would be waiting for it when it arrived at the Mars shipyard. Jenetta made the time to go to the port operations control room so she could watch her ship back away from the docking ramp and then slowly leave the dimly illuminated interior of the station. Workers attempting to remount the enormous, newly-constructed entrance doors stopped work and vacated the tunnel so that the Prometheus would have an unimpeded path out of the asteroid.

Once the almost two-kilometer-long ship had cleared the entrance, the construction workers returned to their task. The port entranceway and tunnel was now well marked with new navigation lighting, and the new doors were being mounted not to hide the location of the port, but rather to assist in its protection in the event of an attack by Raiders, or anyone else. Jenetta lingered for several minutes after the Prometheus disappeared from sight before resuming her duties. The departure of her ship left her sad for the rest of the day.

The other ships of the original task force also began to leave in the days following, but there were never less than five battle-ready warships at the base at any one time, a standard procedure for the protection of all large bases. Named to honor the famous Space Command Admiral of the twenty-second century, the re-designation of Dixon Space Command Base from StratCom-4 to StratCom-3 meant that the base would soon become homeport for a number of warships that would aid in the defense of the base and conduct patrols within the surrounding deca-sector and the Frontier Zone.

At the beginning of the twenty-third century, the Alliance had laid claim to a one-hundred parsec wide band around their existing territory, except where the space had already been claimed by another nation. Although part of the GA, the newly claimed area had been far too vast for proper enforcement of laws there, so that part of the GA became known as the Frontier Zone. In GA 'regulated' space, Space Command had complete search and seizure authority over all shipping as they sought to enforce the laws of the Alliance. In the GA's Frontier Zone, over three-hundred twenty-six light-years deep, Space Command wasn't able to do much more than answer distress calls and maintain a semblance of order because the space was just too vast, and SC's resources too limited. But with the greatly reduced Raider activity in GA 'reg' space, Space Command was stepping up patrols in the Frontier.

The officers and crewmembers loaned to Jenetta had been as dismayed as she to see their ships leaving without them, but as newly arriving replacement personnel assumed their duties, the temporary duty personnel began leaving to rejoin their ships. Jenetta continued to believe that her tenure at Dixon would be short; owing such conviction to the Space Command regulation that StratCom-3 base commanders should hold the rank of Captain or above.

Kanes had moved onto the base when the Prometheus left, and his staff moved onto the base when the Chiron prepared to leave for the Mars shipyard. Exhaustively interviewing every single captured Raider, even the cooks and cargo handlers, the Intelligence people kept the prisoners separated from the general prisoner population once their interview started, and then scheduled them for shipment out on the next available ship. By the end of three months, only the leaders, still being held in the detention center, remained in the station. Jenetta breathed a huge sigh of relief when the last prisoner housed outside the detention center was shipped out and the warehouse 'dormitories' were disassembled so the space could once again be used as warehouse space.

Kanes came to say goodbye on the day he was leaving for Higgins with the last of the captured Raider leaders.

"Good luck, Commander," Kanes said.

"Thank you, sir. Have a safe trip back to Higgins."

"Thank you. I want to tell you what a wonderful job you've done here. You've really turned this into a model base. Now that businesses are moving in and opening shops on the concourse, it'll really come to life."

"Yes sir. Have you heard anything about my replacement? My permanent base personnel roster has swollen to over five hundred but I'm still in command."

"That's probably because you're doing such an outstanding job. They usually don't rush to replace someone who's performing their task so well."

"You're saying that if I mess up, I'll be replaced quickly?"

"The speed of the replacement sometimes depends upon the degree of the problem. It's a double-edged sword though. Anything serious enough to warrant your rapid replacement would also be a barrier to further promotion and postings. I appreciate how anxious you are to be back aboard ship, but don't do anything hasty."

Jenetta smiled. "I don't think that I'd do anything to jeopardize my career, but there must be some way to get out of here."

"If you wish to transfer to my section, I could probably get you out of here more quickly."

Jenetta smiled. "Thank you, sir. It's not that I'm ungrateful or unappreciative of the offer, but…"

"But you still want to be in space aboard the Prometheus."

"Yes sir. And if that's not possible, then any other ship, before a base or planetary assignment."

Kanes grinned. "I understand, Jen. Perhaps one day you'll have your fill of hurtling through space FTL and decide to join my team. You've a brilliant mind, and I'd like to have you in my section, so I'll keep asking."

"Yes sir. Thank you. Have a safe trip."

"Thank you. And I hope that you get what you're looking for."

"I had it, until a few months ago. I'll get back there again, sir."

Jenetta walked to the port operations control center later to watch the transport ship leave. Kanes presence at Dixon had been Jenetta's last close link with Higgins.

The transport ship wasn't just carrying the last of the Raider prisoners. Secreted in a hold was one of the small security ships that the Raiders used in their ports. Intended for delivery to Commander DeWitt of the Weapons Research section at Higgins, the small security vessels had the unique ability to drain all energy from other small ships, such as tugs and shuttles. When their weapon was fired at a ship, what appeared as a blue light to the occupants of the attacked vessel, rendered them temporarily unconscious. Years earlier, during lunch at Higgins SCB with Jenetta, Commander DeWitt had expressed a desire to examine one, so that she might determine how it accomplished its function. Knowledge of the weapon might enable them to better protect Space Command vessels, and it might also be added to Space Command's already impressive arsenal of weapons used in their war against the Raiders.

* * *

As the GSC destroyer San Francisco completed its mooring, Jenetta waited eagerly on the docking pier. The ship's second officer was her brother Richie, and it would be their first meeting since he had been on Earth for Jenetta's medal ceremony.

Returning the salutes of crewmen as they disembarked on liberty, Jenetta scanned the faces of the departing crewmembers anxiously. Richie wasn't really that difficult to spot when he finally appeared. At almost six-foot three-inches, with bright blond hair, azure eyes, and the Nordic features found in all the Carver children, he stood out against the other crewmembers like an active volcano would stand out in a mountain range of snow-capped peaks. Upon reaching the end of the docking tunnel, he stepped up to Jenetta and saluted smartly. She returned his salute, smiled and then grabbed him, wrapping her arms around him as he hugged her in return.

"Hi sis."

"Hi Richie. It's great to see you. Welcome to Dixon Space Port."

"Thanks. And congratulations, Jen. I can't believe that you're the Base Commander here."

"It's just a job."

"Just a job! Listen to you. This is the fastest growing Space Command base in the galaxy. I believe that when you become the Admiral of the Fleet, you'll say that it's just a job."

"I don't want to be the Admiral of the Fleet either," Jenetta said. "He spends all his time flying a desk at Supreme HQ on Earth."

"You've got the space bug worse than any of us. I swear you'd take a demotion back to Lieutenant Commander to be aboard a ship again, wouldn't you?"

"In a heartbeat. I may have the impressive title of Base Commander, but I'm nothing but a bureaucrat now. I expected to be relieved after a few months but I've been here for six now, and still haven't heard a word about going back to the Prometheus. Come on, I'll give you the tour of the base. We can talk as we walk."

As they began walking down one of the wide 'streets' between warehouses, Richie said, "You know, it's not really that much different being the Commander of a Base or being the second officer on a ship. Our days are both filled with administrative details. The only difference is that a ship stops in different ports occasionally, while you get to meet all the ships that are stopping."

"Oh, it's a lot different being on a ship," Jenetta said. "There's the possibility of running into a Raider, or encountering an unusual situation. Here, it's just the same dull routine day in and day out."

"Don't worry, sis. I'm sure they haven't forgotten about Jenetta Carver back at headquarters. Maybe they just wanted to give you a rest after Mawcett, and the book that you wrote. It's fantastic by the way. You should hear Pop talk about you. I think he's forgetting he also has four sons. We're all a little jealous."

"I'm sure that Dad hasn't forgotten you. You can't expect him to brag about you in front of you. And the book is just a compilation of the data that we found in the computer."

"It's more than that. You breathed life into an ancient people. It headed the non-fiction best seller list for six months."

"Eliza's responsible for much of it. She did all the editing and polishing."

Richie smiled. "Isn't that like saying 'I did it with the help of me.'"

"No, not exactly. We're separate people now, and each should receive personal recognition for their efforts and accomplishments. Have you spoken with Eliza?"

"Of course, every week. She messages me with the same regularity as you. Mom and Dad hope the two of you will be able to come home for a visit soon."

"That would be wonderful, but I keep hoping we'll learn what happened to Christa. I'd like to go home for a visit with both of them. I do wish the Galactic Alliance would finally decide to make them both citizens. There's very little else they can do."

"The issue is a hot potato. They don't want to endorse anything that could even remotely be perceived as approving of the cloning process." Glancing over at Jenetta, he said, "Billy told me that he couldn't tell the difference between you two."

"It was great that his ship happened to be the one that picked up Eliza on her way to Vinnia. They had a chance to spend some time together. Have you seen Jimmy or Andy?"

"No, Jimmy's way over in section 8667-1674 and Andy's in 8667-2351. I sent Jimmy congratulations when he was promoted to Lt. Commander, and he indicated that it'll probably be a couple of years before he can get home again. We may not all get together for quite a while. I don't know if their ships will ever get this far out for a visit."

"It doesn't matter. I'll get off this rock eventually and go see them."

"You make it sound like a prison that you're trying to break out of."

Jenetta silently berated herself. "I do, don't I? I'm sorry. I don't want to sound so despondent. It's just that you're the first person in months that I've been able to use as a release for my frustration. I won't say another word about it. How are things going for you? How's Marisa?"

"Great. She wants to set the date for the wedding. The San Francisco is supposed to head to Mars for an overhaul of our temporal field generator after this patrol. I should be able to get two months off while it's in space dock. I hope you can make the wedding."

"I'd love to, you know that, but I don't have any idea when I'll be able to get away from here. If I can't make it, cryogen a piece of the cake for me."

"Of course."

"How's everything else?"

"Great. I love my job, my ship, and my future wife; not in that order. When we leave here we're going over to sector 8667-4869. That's confidential though."

"I won't tell a soul. Be careful, Richie. There's still a bit of Raider activity over there."

"I'm looking forward to meeting them. So far, only you and Dad have come up against the Raiders, and he only had one brief contact, while you always seem to be in the thick of battle. The rest of us want a crack at them now, before you get back to your ship and wipe them out."

Jenetta laughed. "Wipe them out; as if that was possible. The Raider organization is like the Lernean Hydra of mythology that Hercules destroyed. Cut off one head of its nine and two more grow in its place. We need an Iolaos to hold a torch to the cut-off heads, to keep new ones from growing back out while the others are cut off by Hercules."

Then it was Richie's turn to laugh. "It seems like you're our Iolaos."


"You certainly prevented Raider-One from growing again, and now you've done the same with Raider Three. By turning this former Raider base into a Space Command base, it can't grow out again. Can you do it six more times, and then also cut off the indestructible head that finally becomes vulnerable without the others?"

Jenetta grinned. "If given the chance I'd sure love to try. Who's playing the part of Hercules and wielding the sword in this little drama?"

"With Raider-One, you kind of filled that position. Space Command took care of it this time. We'll just have to see what happens next. Maybe one of the new Prometheus class battleships will cut off the next head."

"New Prometheus class battleships?" Jenetta echoed.

"Yeah. I heard they're supposed to be named Epimetheus, Hercules, and Atlas. Remember, it was Chiron and Hercules that saved Prometheus from the wrath of Zeus."

"And Epimetheus was Prometheus' brother, while poor Atlas was doomed to carry the world upon his back. When are they supposed to be launched?"

"I'm not sure, but it won't be for another year at the earliest, maybe two. Last I heard they had just started to apply the middle plating to the frameworks of the three ships. They started laying down the keels just after the Prometheus and Chiron were stolen by the Raiders. If you hadn't recovered those two ships, the Raiders might have become unstoppable."

"I wouldn't want to face them in battle, that's for sure."

Richie nodded, then said, "So far all we've done is walk and talk." Gesturing to the warehouses they were passing, he said, "Tell me what I'm seeing here."

"Sorry. There's nothing special here. This is just the main cargo storage area. The warehouses that we used for the temporary prisons are a little further on. The levels below us are all used for military purposes, while the shopping concourse is on the next level up. Above that we have a floor of civilian office space and then floors of living quarters, both for civilians and Space Command."

The tour lasted for two hours, and ended when they arrived at Jenetta's office.

"I don't know what's so difficult about this job," Richie said. "You weren't paged once."

"That's because I told my aide that I'd make him work a double shift tonight if I was disturbed," Jenetta said smiling. "Here, look at my calls from the time while I was with you." Jenetta turned the com's view screen so that Richie could see it.

"Wow," was all he could say as the list scrolled on for several pages.

"You should have seen it several months ago. It was three times that long every couple of hours. I've finally gotten things somewhat organized. I never realized there was so much to running a base. Like you, I thought that it would be like running a ship, but it's actually been ten times more work. Of course, I started off with no computer, no staff, and no procedures in place. My replacement won't have it nearly so tough."

"You'll just have it running the way that it should be running when its time to walk away from it."

"That's fine with me. I wouldn't want to leave a mess for someone else to clean up. Another month should see things about as stable as they're going to become. All the key positions are filled now and the personnel just have to learn their jobs."

"How many people do you have here?"

"Two-thousand three-hundred forty-two Space Command personnel, not counting visiting personnel like yourself and your crewmates, and almost four-hundred civilians. The base can house almost six-thousand military and two-thousand civilians, in our present configuration, so we're far from overcrowded."

"Wow! That's more SC personnel than you'd find on a heavy cruiser. I have to hand it to you, Jen. Running a base with this many people has to be a chore."

"I'm just glad that our numbers have shrunk so much."


"Of course. We had almost three-thousand prisoners here when I became the Base Commander. Add in another thousand or so Marines, engineers and assorted temporary personnel, and our current size is much smaller."

"Oh. Well, I can see your point. Three-thousand prisoners?"

"Yes, didn't they release that to the press?"

"I heard that five-thousand were killed and twenty-six ships were destroyed, but I don't remember hearing about any prisoners taken. I do remember that you wiped out more than eighteen-thousand in Raider-One."

"Eighteen-thousand two-hundred thirty-one. Because of their losses at Vauzlee and Higgins, half of which came from this base, they were understaffed here by at least eight  thousand."

Richie shook his head a couple of times. "I can see where these losses would leave quite a hole in their organization."

"It's knocked them back further than they've been in years. With the loss of two important bases, and so many ships and personnel, they can't operate openly any more, so it can almost be considered safe to travel in this part of the galaxy. We believe that they have just one more base operating in this immediate part of space."

"You know where there's another base?"

"Not precisely, but based on the attacks that have occurred, we think we know the territory that Raider Two spans. And part of it extends into sector 8667-4869. That's why I said you should be very careful on your next patrol."

"Okay, sis, I'll be careful. Speaking of my ship, I have to be getting back. I haven't had any sleep since coming off duty and I'll need to get some rest before my watch tonight."

"Third watch?"

"Of course; I'm the second officer."

"Okay. See you tomorrow?"

"Sure. How about I stop by for lunch?"

"Great. See you in my dining room at noon."

After sharing a hug that clearly demonstrated their close bond as siblings, Richie returned to his ship. Jenetta read through her messages and then called the captain of the San Francisco. She invited him and his senior staff to have dinner in the Base Commander's private dining room. The Captain enthusiastically accepted and Jenetta set the time. She next called her dining room and told them how many to expect for the meal. Such was the life of a Base Commander. Meet and greet, wine and dine, and wheel and deal.

Captain Fortins of the GSC destroyer San Francisco, followed by the staff members that he'd chosen to bring, entered the private dining room of the base commander promptly at the appointed time. Jenetta, wearing her dress uniform, stepped forward to greet the small dinner party.

"Welcome to the Dixon Space Port, Captain Fortins. Welcome Ladies and Gentlemen."

Fortins extended his hand to Jenetta. "Thank you, Commander. It's a pleasure to be here, and a real pleasure to meet you. Allow me to introduce my staff. This is Lt. Commander Van Buren, our chief medical officer."

"Welcome Doctor Van Buren."

"Thank you, Commander."

"This is Lt. Commander Kirvan, our chief engineer."

"Welcome Commander Kirvan."

"Thank you, Commander."

"And these are Lieutenants March and Flores."

The younger officers' eyes were glued to the medals, the most prestigious in the galaxy, that Jenetta wore on her uniform. Seldom did a young officer have an opportunity to meet someone that had received the Space Command Cross, and almost never one who had been awarded the Medal of Honor. Since Jenetta was the only Terran ever to have been awarded the Nordakian Tawroole Medal of Valor, it was doubtful they would ever see that medal again on a Space Command uniform. The SC Star, Bronze Comet, and two Purple Hearts were like icing on a cake. The three ribbons that represented participation in a major engagement, one each for the Battle at Vauzlee, the Battle for Higgins, and the Battle for Dixon, were aligned below the medal ribbons.

"Welcome Lieutenant March."

"Thank you, Commander."

"Welcome Lieutenant Flores."

"Thank you, Commander."

"My First Officer and the second watch group are still on duty," Fortins said, "and your brother and the third watch group are asleep. You were together with your brother today, I understand."

"Yes, he came for a visit as soon as you docked, and I'll be seeing him again tomorrow. Shall we take our seats at the table?"

The mess attendant immediately began to serve appetizers once the six officers had taken their seats at the large circular table.

"What do you think of our prize, Captain?" Jenetta asked.

"I'm impressed. This is an amazing base. Was Raider-One similar?"

"Very. This asteroid is a little larger overall, but the basic construction of the port is the same. According to the construction records we've found, they first hollow out the asteroid. Then they construct an interior shell of pre-stressed plasticrete panels, linked together for strength. Lastly, they backfill any gaps between the panels and the hollowed out area with vacuum plasticrete to provide maximum strength. It's a phenomenal engineering feat. The habitat area is almost identical to that of Raider-One; at least as far as I know from my examination of the floor layouts in the computer and the limited movement that I had in the corridors of Raider-One."

"Commander," March said, "we were able to hear everything that happened to you at Raider-One because of the trial, but we haven't been able to find out very much about the Raider officer that attacked you while you were in command of the Song. Could you tell us about that?"

"Oh, there's not much to tell. Commander Pretorious stole a uniform and laser pistol from the Delhi after it was destroyed in a collision with a Raider destroyer during the Battle of Vuazlee…"

The young officers were spellbound as Jenetta recounted the entire tale. Even though she didn't embellish it at all, they sat with their mouths open until she was done.

"Wow," March said.

"Ditto," Flores added.

"The entire incident lasted only a few minutes. The doctor bandaged my wound and I was perfectly fine in a few weeks."

The mess attendant began to serve the entrees, so further discussion was delayed until everyone was served. For the rest of the meal the visiting officers questioned Jenetta about the attack on Mawcett, the Battle for Higgins, and the taking of the asteroid space base.

"I have a copy of your book about Mawcett," Kirvan said. "It's wonderfully detailed and written. It's amazing that such technology existed almost twenty thousand years ago and yet all trace was lost until the scientists uncovered it during the past decade."

"I'm sure there have been a number of civilizations throughout the galaxy that have risen to greatness only to disappear into oblivion. There were even several on Earth, although none achieved anywhere near Dakistee's level of sophistication. Until the underground facility was found, no one even suspected that the Dakistee civilization had been so advanced, but twenty thousand years of erosion and corrosion can erase most signs of a dead civilization."

"Commander," Flores said. "I have a good friend aboard your old ship, the Prometheus. He says it's a great ship and that everyone misses you."

"It is a great ship, and it has a great crew. Who's your friend?"

"Lt. Commander Timothy Eaton. He was promoted into your old position as Second Officer."

Jenetta felt as though Flores had stepped up to her and slapped her. Space Command had promoted someone into her position? They didn't promote for temporary reassignments, so now she understood why she was still here on Dixon; there wasn't a position to go back to. Jenetta carefully hid her emotions from her visitors.

"When did your friend join the crew?"

"About seven months ago."

'Seven months!' Jenetta screamed silently. 'That was right around the time that the Prometheus left Dixon. They must have gotten Eaton from one of the other ships in the task force. One way to find out.'

"Your friend must have been part of the task force that helped take this station?" she said to Flores.

"Yes, he was on the Amsterdam. They took a torpedo hit that killed thirty-one crewmen. Tim was lucky to have been on the bridge at the time. The bridge made it through the battle intact."

"The Amsterdam is a good ship with an excellent crew. They kept on fighting until the battle was over, even though, as you say, they were seriously damaged."

Jenetta continued to smile and entertain the group for a couple of more hours even though her heart wasn't in it. She had been so busy the past months that she hadn't maintained contact with anyone on the Prometheus. Just keeping up with calls to her folks, her brothers, Eliza, and Gloria required more free time than her busy schedule allowed. Now, with her position aboard the Prometheus gone, she wondered how much longer she'd be stuck here. She shouldn't really have expected them to hold the job open for six or more months, but she felt that she should have been told. Perhaps they didn't want her to know, fearing that her performance here would suffer. She was sure they knew how much she wanted to be part of the Prometheus' crew.

The San Francisco remained at Dixon for two more weeks, and Jenetta spent every possible free minute with her brother. She never mentioned what she had learned about the Prometheus, and never again expressed her unhappiness with her job.

At the end of its R&R stay, the San Francisco left for its patrol of sector 8667-4869. Jenetta came down to the docking pier to smile and wave goodbye to Richie, who waved from the ship as the docking hatch was closed and sealed.

Jenetta stopped looking for her replacement after that. She would see the job through until Space Command decided that she should go elsewhere. She might have been able to use her fame and influence to get a ship, but playing politics was something she was loath to do. Instead, she began associating more and more with the people that moved through the port.

Since being named as commanding officer of Dixon, Jenetta hadn't had time to work on leads to Christa's whereabouts, but now she began to make time to collect information she thought might help her find Christa. As the days, weeks, and months passed, she built a small network of valuable acquaintances. Her role as base commander provided a lot of contact with military people, freight haulers, civilians, and the numerous lower forms of sentient life arrested by the Marine security patrols. She encrypted and sent to Captain Kanes any pertinent information that she picked up.

Jenetta was working in her office one day when a message arrived from Commander DeWitt. She pushed the play button to view it after finishing the report that she was working on.

"Hello, Jen, congratulations on your promotion and your appointment as Base Commander. Your present, in the form of the Raider security ship, arrived yesterday and I just had to thank you right away. My people are already busy trying to reverse engineer the energy weapon. It's the most exciting thing that's come our way in months. I'll let you know what we find once we figure it out. Congratulations again, and thanks."

Jenetta smiled and then sighed as she returned to her work as an administrator. At least the people in the Weapons Research section at Higgins were enjoying the work they were assigned.

The occasional perk of meeting an old friend was a lot more common on a base than onboard a ship. A few weeks after Richie left, the GSC research ship Archimedes, named after the famous Sicilian-born Greek mathematician and inventor, docked at Dixon and Jenetta received an unexpected visitor at her office.

"Karen!" Jenetta cried, when one of her best friends from her Academy days entered her office.

Lieutenant Karen Anderson, all five-foot six-inches of her, came stiffly to ersatz attention. "Lieutenant Anderson reporting to the Base Commander's office, to request a visit with an old friend, ma'am."

Jenetta came out from behind her desk and wrapped her arms around the red-headed officer. "It's so good to see you. You look wonderful."

As Anderson relaxed her prankish stance, her animated, freckled face lit up with a wide smile. "Not as good as you though; you haven't aged a day since we graduated from the Academy. Everybody always says that, but in your case, it's a hundred percent true. And I seem to remember being a couple of inches taller than you once. I can't believe that you're the Base Commander here, Jen. Of course, since returning from the dead you're the hottest thing in Space Command."

"It's true; I'm the CO. I was also a bit shocked when it happened. But I'll get back into space again."

"This is a dream job. You're not happy?"

"You know me, Karen. My heart is on a ship. Speaking of which, what are you doing on a ship? I didn't think that you wanted shipboard duty."

"That was just a defense mechanism," Karen said, her pixie-like green eyes twinkling. "I only said that I didn't want it because I knew that I'd never be in the top half of our class at the Academy. I'm not a brain like you. Scholastically I was only 186th in our class of 289, so I never expected to get shipboard duty. I was stationed on the Ethridge Space Station at Nivella-3 when I was offered the posting to the Archimedes, so I naturally jumped at it. I couldn't believe they picked me. I love it on the ship and I've never been happier in my life."

"That's wonderful, Karen. I'm so happy for you. Um, Ethridge? Wasn't that where Heather Gulvil was posted?"

"Yes, and she's still there. She's a Lieutenant and a Senior Food Service Administrative Officer now. She talks about you all the time, telling everyone how close you both were while at the Academy."

"We were close?" Jenetta said grinning.

Karen laughed. "In her mind, you were. I didn't remember it exactly that way either."

"Does she still tell everyone that'll listen, how I smoked up the zero-grav lab at the Academy?"

"Yes, but now she claims that it was a planned prank, rather than a mistake. She tells people that you did it just to get a reaction out of grumpy old Professor Hubera. She says that you were the only one who could do it and not have it hurt her grade. Even with the failing score on that one lab exercise, you finished number one in his class."

"I guess that I'll never live that incident down completely."

"Jen, you were only seventeen; a kid. You were nervous, and time was almost up for the test. It's time to get over it. Besides, I don't think that it's thought of very much anymore; other than by you, that is. Whenever your name comes up, all people normally talk about is how you single handily destroyed Raider-One and cleaned up this part of the galaxy. Of course, now all they're talking about is how you were cloned. A lot of people think the Galactic Alliance Council, the Admiralty Board, or SCI was behind it so they'd have more Jenetta Carvers around."

"You're kidding!"

"No. You know how some people are. That's why giving your clones citizenship has been such a hot issue. The paranoids are afraid that it may lead to more un-intentional cloning of important personages."

"I was as opposed to cloning as everyone else!" Jenetta said sharply, then softened her voice as she added, "but now I've changed. I love having two sisters. I wish that I had them when I was growing up."

"How does your family feel about them?"

"They've welcomed them as if they were always there."

"That's great. Now tell me how you wound up on Dixon as the Base Commander."

"Wrong place at the wrong time. I was the acting first on the Prometheus and my captain was the senior officer at the engagement here. When the battle was over he sent me to take command here and get things sorted out. That led to me being named Acting Base Commander while the task force repaired the battle damage to the ships, which in turn led to me being posted as the official Base Commander. I guess that I owe the promotion to the position, since they only appoint officers holding the rank of Commander, or higher, as base commanders, other than at small outposts."

"You're the first in our class at the Academy to become a full Commander, you know."

"Yes, I know. Quite a leap for the person voted 'most likely to remain an ensign for the longest time.'"

"Oh, those class titles are such nonsense. Look at Gary Bushnell; he was voted 'most likely to be first to make captain.' He's still a Lieutenant, although he's been on the Lieutenant Commander Promotion Selection List for two years now."

"How about you? Are you on the list?"

"No, we science officers don't move up like you hot shot line officer types. Maybe in a few years I'll make the list. When you make Admiral, in a couple of years," Karen said smiling, "you can give me a little push."

Jenetta laughed. "You've got it. For now how about a walk through the shopping concourse; then tonight you'll join me for dinner."

"Great. Can you get away?"

Jenetta smiled. "I'm the base commander. Who's going to tell me I can't take a break to chat with an old friend. Let's go."

Karen's ship remained at the base for five days and she and Jenetta spent every evening together until she had to leave. Karen even joined Jenetta for dinner as a special guest when Jenetta entertained the senior command crew of the Archimedes, surprising the other officers by her presence at the meal.

A month after the Archimedes departed, the Johannesburg arrived at the port. They had briefly exchanged fire after a chance encounter with a Raider destroyer in sector 8667-4332. The  Johannesburg tried to give chase when the Raider ship turned and fled, but damage to its power systems prevented them from traveling faster than Light-150. They naturally headed for Dixon so repairs could be made. Dixon didn't have a complete ship repair facility like that found at Mars, but it did have three enclosed shipdocks, and offered the maximum in Space Command protected refuge while a ship's systems were taken off-line.

After having the crew disembark, except for Marine security personnel, Jenetta ordered the ship moved to one of the two currently available, enclosed spacedocks. Once the ship was moored inside, and the dock pressurized, workers could perform their duties without having to wear bulky EVA suits.

Engineers from several ships in port collected to assist in the work on the damaged systems. Jenetta's office arranged housing for the displaced crewmembers and coordinated the repair efforts. As was her custom, she entertained the senior staff on their first night at the station. The entire senior staff came for dinner since only Marine guards were left onboard the ship, and her private dining room was filled to capacity. They talked about the brief battle with the Raider ship, and discussed tactics for several hours.

"How would you have handled it, Commander?" Captain Rhein asked Jenetta.

"I doubt that I would have handled it any differently, Captain," Jenetta responded. "A random encounter in space hardly allows for a battle plan. It was pure chance that they damaged your power systems. It could easily have gone the other way. Then instead of your coming here for repairs, you would have been bringing us prisoners; if any survived."

"It would suit me fine if none survived. I had several friends on the Delhi, and my roommate at the academy was the first officer on the Song. He was on the bridge when the ship was damaged at Vauzlee. Perhaps you remember Commander Harant?"

"Just the name, I'm afraid. When I took command of the ship after the battle, the bridge officers were all deceased. It was hours before we could even reclaim their bodies. We had to wait until the bridge bulkheads were repaired and the bridge re-pressurized. The crewmembers of the Song and the Delhi were terrible losses, and they were just part of our total losses that day. We made the Raiders pay though. They lost fifty for each of ours."

"It's not enough. We have to stamp out these vermin once and for all. They've been running rampant for thirteen years now!"

"We're making progress, sir. In the past two years we've slowly been cutting away at their bases, ships, and personnel. I understand they're having trouble recruiting new people; even from the scum on Urgucet. The word is out that Space Command is coming on hard and that employment with the Raiders is not conducive to long life."

"Where did you hear that, Commander?"

"Oh, one hears quite a lot of things on a space station that has as much freighter traffic as we see, now that the Raider threat has been removed from this sector. You need only keep your ears open."

"Yes, I suppose you would hear things. Have you learned where Raider Two is?"

"No, I haven't. I'm sure that its exact location is a closely guarded secret, limited to senior command officers of the Raider ships. Eventually, we'll find it, even though it's probably as well hidden as this base was."

"But you must have some idea."

Jenetta didn't feel compelled to share the information that she had learned in her intelligence briefing at Higgins with the entire senior staff of a destroyer so she tried to remain somewhat vague. "It appears that it's either in sector 8667-4869 or 8667-4868," Jenetta said. "Beyond that I don't know."

"Those two sectors include two-hundred square light years. We must be able to narrow it down more than that?"

"Did you get a course fix on the ship that you tangled with before you engaged?"

Captain Rhein looked over at his astrogation officer, who nodded. "Yes, we did."

"Did you include that information in your report, or did you only report the course of the ship after the encounter?"

"I'm sure that we reported its course after the engagement."

"The course before the encounter might be of more use to intelligence. There's always the chance that the ship was either headed to or from the Raider camp. I doubt they'd run towards the base after the engagement, although that information can be useful also."

"It's possible. I assumed that they were simply on an intercept course, believing us to be a freighter or passenger ship. I'm sure their original course information is recorded in the main computer and can still be retrieved. I'll find it and pass it on to Intelligence in the hope that it can help."

"They never know what tiny scrap of information will pay big dividends. I've been looking for anything that will help me track down my sister. So far I haven't found a thing, but there has to be someone who knows."

"Since she wasn't on the Boshdyte, is there a chance that she had been–– killed, and her body ejected?"

Jenetta sighed and said, "Anything is possible. We down-loaded the Boshdyte's computer contents after we captured it. We not only didn't find any clue as to the location of other bases, there also weren't any entries about Christa, except one describing her capture, and the doctor's records regarding x-rays made in the sick bay. The Tsgardi are terrible record keepers, and their computer files were as messy and disorganized as their ship. When the Tsgardi died, we may have lost our only chance to learn what happened, but I'm not giving up."

Chapter Twenty-One

~ August 16th, 2271 ~

It took several weeks for the engineers to complete repairs to the Johannesburg, but the ship was able to return to its patrol of the sector with its systems fully restored.

Inside the asteroid, the shopping concourse most reflected the spaceport's growth and popularity as the base quickly developed into a hub for freighter and military ships. Jenetta always took at least two daily breaks from her regular duties and strolled along the walkways, chatting with merchants and visitors when greeted. She often ate lunch at one of the numerous restaurants and food counters that had opened.

On one particular day, Jenetta was enjoying a lunch of Queelish, a Nordakian vegetable stew, when an Alyysian trader slid into the seat across from her. Members of a race that had migrated from thousands of light-years across the galaxy with pre-FTL propulsion, the Alyysian claimed no home world in Alliance space, although there were small colonies on several different worlds. Their unique physiology allowed them to be frozen solid and then thawed out and revived when they reached their destination. She had met a few Alyysian in the past, but this one was unknown to her.

"Goo noon, Com," Jenetta heard in her CT as the Alyysian spoke.

Jenetta held up an index finger and then adjusted the translator device that she wore on her belt so the proper translation would come through. It hadn't been set for Alyysian speech, but part of the sentence had been translated anyway. Then she nodded to the Alyysian.

"Good afternoon, Commander."

"Good afternoon, Shev…"

"I am Shev Pallowkith."

"Good afternoon, Shev Pallowkith."

"It's a pleasure to meet you."

Jenetta knew that Alyysian traded anything and everything of value. They never hesitated to trade in slaves, drugs, or even body parts, although such trades were illegal in GA regulated space. They enjoyed no diplomatic immunity, so if convicted of trading in illegal contraband, they would be sent to a Galactic Alliance prison. For that reason, they rarely sought out Space Command officers. "What can I do for you?" she asked.

"I rather think it's a matter of what I can do for you. I have information on the whereabouts of your sister, Christa."

Jenetta stopped eating and put the spoon down. "I'm listening."

"Information has recently come my way that a young Terran woman matching your description is available for sale from the Tsgardi. I believe that she might be your lost clone."

Jenetta stared at the Alyysian impassively. Her contact with Alyysian traders had been so limited that she didn't know what telltale signs to look for when trying to determine if they were lying. She knew that all Alyysian were addressed with 'Shev' before their names, much as a Terran would be addressed as Mr. or Mrs., but little else. Typically about four-feet six-inches tall when standing upright, they looked a bit like erect versions of Terran toads. They all wore the same dark gray cloaks that covered most of their yellow skin. Being neither male nor female, the Alyysian were true hermaphrodites and could reproduce without contact with another of their species. "And what will it take to secure her release?" Jenetta asked.

"The Tsgardi are demanding ten thousand credits."

"Space Command policy is to not negotiate for kidnapped officers or civilians."

"That's why I haven't approached Space Command. I thought you might be more receptive."

"I could arrest you for slave trading based on what you've already told me."

"All I've said is that the Tsgardi are looking to sell your clone. I haven't participated in any trading. You can't charge me with anything and you know it, Commander, so let's stop the games. Are you interested in learning more or not?"

"What's your interest in this?"

"A broker's fee of ten percent for arranging a meeting between the two parties. That's separate from whatever purchase arrangements you settle on. It's based on the asking price, and it's payable in advance."

Jenetta leaned forward and said angrily, "So you expect me to turn over a thousand credits to you before I've even seen my sister or verified that she's alive?"

"Yes," it said, quite matter-of-factly. "A thousand credits in a certified draft payable to bearer, or I leave right now."

Jenetta sat back. She didn't say anything for almost thirty seconds as she stared at the Alyysian. This was the first lead she'd had to Christa's whereabouts. She didn't want to lose an opportunity to recover her, but she wasn't going to pay a cent until she was assured that the information was genuine. "I want proof that these Tsgardi have Christa, and that she's healthy."

"What kind of proof? A body part?"

"Of course not, but I'm not paying anything until I know this offer is authentic."

"I'm only an information broker; I don't have any access to your sister. I can't provide any proof that they even have your sister, but you don't pay the Tsgardi if they don't deliver."

"If I agree, where would the exchange take place?"

"The Tsgardi would deliver her to a mutually agreed upon place. I imagine that the Gollasko colony might be suitable and agreeable to the Tsgardi."

The Gollasko colony was deep inside the Frontier Zone, much closer to the 'open space' border than the border of Galactic Alliance regulated space. It had no formal justice system, and integrity was defined by the individual fastest with a pistol. It had a deserved reputation for being a wide-open spaceport.

"Yes, I'd agree that the Tsgardi would favor a place such as that."

"Would you like me to make the arrangements?"

"Tell me, Shev Pallowkith, how did these Tsgardi come to acquire my sister?"

"As I understand, it was in a trade with the ship that captured her at Mawcett. At first they believed her to be you and intended to cash in on the huge reward that the Raiders were offering for you, but they later learned that the million credit bounty of a few years ago had been rescinded and replaced with a reward of just ten thousand credits for your return in good condition. When they further learned that it was only one of your clones, and that the Raiders would only pay two thousand credits for her, they decided that they could do better right here. They know that you've been looking for her."

"And how fixed is the price? I'm not wealthy, you know?"

"Come, Commander, you published a book that remained at the top of the Galactic Times best-seller list of non-fiction hard-covers for six months. Still, there might be room for negotiation. My fee is fixed, however. Now— are you interested?"

"Yes, it will take me a day to arrange for the draft, and perhaps a couple of weeks to find a ship that will take me to the Gollasko colony."

"The time arrangements for your trip are between you and the Tsgardi. As soon as you pay my commission fee, I'll put you in touch with the proper intermediary."

"I'll be back here for lunch tomorrow. We can take care of it then."

The Alyysian smiled a toothy grin of uneven teeth. "I'll see you tomorrow then."

Sitting in the same booth the following afternoon, Jenetta silently exchanged looks with the Alyysian when it arrived. She then placed a credits draft on the table between them, her hand on top of it.

"Just so there's no misunderstandings later, this one thousand credits is being paid for you to arrange a meeting with the Tsgardi who have my kidnapped sister Christa. This is something that you say you can do, and will do?"

"Of course, Commander. You have my word that your sister will be released to you if you meet the demands of the Tsgardi for ten thousand credits."

Jenetta lifted her hand and the Alyysian took the draft. It scrutinized the document carefully and seemed satisfied. As it stood up to leave, it said, "I'll let you know of the rendezvous place and time within a few days. At that time I'll give you the contact information so that you can contact the Tsgardi directly. Have the credits ready and be prepared to travel within two weeks."

Turning, the Alyysian made it halfway to the door before being surrounded by four other restaurant patrons. Identifying themselves as Station Security, the draft was confiscated. The Alyysian continued to protest its innocence of wrong-doing as it was half walked and half dragged to the station's detention center.

Jenetta visited the Alyysian trader in the detention center the next morning. "Good morning, Shev Pallowkith. Did you sleep well?"

"Commander, if you don't release me immediately, you'll never see your sister again."

"You can drop the phony line, Shev Pallowkith. We know it was a scam to defraud me of a thousand credits. After we parted two days ago, I was able to learn a little about you. Following a series of bad trades you're almost broke. You also haven't made many friends here, so the people that you've associated with were more than willing to talk about you for a few small considerations. Being broke and alone has made you a bit desperate, so you tried this little scam to get the money you need for passage off this station."

"You're correct that I'm broke, and a little desperate to get off this station, but that's what drove me to approach you. Knowing the risks, if I wasn't desperate I would never have come within three meters of a Spacc officer. My information is correct, even though I'm broke."

"Really? And just how did you come by this information? You haven't been seen in the company of any Tsgardi recently, and you haven't sent or received any messages since arriving here a month ago. We checked all the station logs."

"My sources are my livelihood. I won't divulge them."

"Very well. I've recorded a complete deposition about our two meetings. It will be forwarded to the Galactic Alliance Justice Court, along with you and the voice recordings made from our two encounters. The charge is Conspiracy to Defraud. Since you seem reluctant to cooperate, you'll probably receive the maximum sentence of ten-years, instead of the three-year minimum. Good-bye, Shev Pallowkith."

Jenetta was halfway out the door of the cell before the Alyysian called to her. "Wait, Commander. I've reconsidered."

Jenetta turned, walked back into the cell, and stared at the Alyysian.

"Will you promise that I'll receive the minimum sentence if I tell you everything?" Shev Pallowkith asked.

"If I feel that you've been completely truthful, I'll recommend the minimum sentence. I can't promise anything, but the judges normally follow a Base Commander's suggestion on sentencing when the accused pleads guilty."

Shev Pallowkith looked at Jenetta intently. "I've heard that your word is good so I'll trust you. I was paid a hundred credits to sell you on the idea of traveling to the Gollasko colony. I would be paid an additional five thousand credits the day you left, and I was to keep anything that you would pay me. The money would allow me to get my cargo released from the lousy, no-good, chiseling, freight-hauler that brought me here and I'd be able to start trading again."

"Who masterminded the plan to get me off the station?"

"I don't know."

"Why did they want me off the station?"

"Idon't know."

"Who approached you with this proposition?"

"It was a Tsgardi named Sikata Iqsidrev; at least that's what she called herself. We were never seen together in public. I was escorted to her quarters a few weeks ago by a Terran. She paid me the up-front money and then told me what day to approach you."

"Where is she now?"

"She left the station the same day. The delay was to let her get as far away as necessary before I contacted you."

"Where did she go?"

"All I know is that she had a ship waiting. I think it was a freighter by the way she talked, but she never named it."

"What did she look like?"

"Like a Tsgardi," Pallowkith said, with what passed for an Alyysian shrug. "They pretty much all look alike to me, except–– her fangs looked even sharper than most, almost as if they were filed. And her fur was very neatly trimmed instead of looking shaggy like most other Tsgardi. That's all I know."

"Did she mention any names of fellow conspirators?"

"No, none. That's all I know."

"Would you recognize her again?"

"Possibly, from among a small group."

"How were you to be paid the balance of your money?"

"The credits have already been deposited into a numbered account. After you had left the station, I was to receive the number and access code to the account by message."

"Who was the Terran?"

"Some dumb freight hauler; I don't know his name. He probably didn't even know it. He was paid ten credits to find me and bring me to her quarters. He knew nothing about the deal."

Jenetta nodded slowly. "I'll send someone down with images of all the female Tsgardi who have been on the station within the past month, along with some images of Tsgardi that couldn't possibly have been here. Identify her properly and I'll recommend the minimum sentence. If you pick one of the ones that couldn't have been involved, I won't."

"Thank you, Commander. I'm sorry that I tried to trick you and I hope that you find your sister. Um- could I ask a favor of you?"

"You may ask, but I won't promise that I'll do it."

"I want to consign my interest in my cargo to you."

"What? Why me? I put you in here."

"I don't want that damn bastard of a freight-hauler to keep it. And I thought perhaps you might give me a stake when I get out of prison, if you're able to do something with the cargo. You're the only one I've met here that I trust will treat me fairly."

"What's the cargo?"

"It's mostly crystals and semi-precious stones. I bought the entire liquidated contents of a gem stone shop for twenty thousand credits from a recently widowed woman on Taurentlus-Thur. It's worth a hundred thousand credits at wholesale."

"No weapons, or illegal contraband?"

"None, Commander. Do you think I want my sentence increased?"

"How much do you owe to the freight-hauler?"

"One thousand-three-hundred credits. He says that it's a shipping surcharge for station docking fees and additional expenses, even though I paid him for passage in full before we left Taurentlus-Thur. He's leaving the station in five days and says that he'll seize my cargo and sell it to cover the expense if I don't pay."

Jenetta nodded. "I'll send a cargo ownership transfer claim form down with the images of the Tsgardis."

"Thank you, Commander."

After receiving the completed form from the Alyysian, Jenetta paid a visit to the ship holding its cargo. The Wallaby, unlike the massive freighters that could haul ten kilometers of linked cargo sections on each run, was a single hulled ship of just three hundred meters. As such, it was permitted to dock at one of the station's docking piers.

"I understand that you've assessed additional charges on my cargo," she said to the captain after preliminary introductions with the Terran freight hauler were completed.

"Your cargo, Commander?" he asked. "I'm not carrying anything for Space Command this trip."

"It's my personal cargo. I acquired it from Shev Pallowkith."

The captain looked bewildered. "You bought Pallowkith's cargo?"

"Not exactly. He deeded it over to me, but now I understand that it can't be released, even though the freight charges were paid in full before you left Taurentlus-Thur. Why is that, Captain?"

The Captain's demeanor changed and he became nervously defensive. Space Command could seize his ship if he was convicted of violating the terms of a shipping contract. "There were additional expenses, Commander. I'm only passing on my costs, as permitted under Galactic law. I have that right where the cargo necessitates additional transport costs, not apparent at the time it was accepted for shipment."

"What sort of additional expenses?"

"Well, uh, there was the extra food. And then there was the, uh, damage that they did to the other cargo."

"What are you talking about?"

"Your cargo. The Taurentlus-Thur Jumakas."

"Jumakas?" Holding up copies of the shipping manifest to examine it again, she said, "The cargo is supposed to be crystals and semi-precious stones."

"There's that too, but it was the Jumakas that caused all the damage and extra expense."

Jenetta drew in her breath and released it slowly. "I didn't know anything about Jumakas, but didn't you calculate how much food they'd consume on the trip and charge accordingly before you left the planet?"

"We did, but we didn't realize that the shipping crate would be so flimsy. They broke out just a week into the trip and ruined their entire food supply. We had to feed them with food from the mess hall after that. They also destroyed a lot of other cargo in the hold where they were being housed. And we had to construct a new shipping crate. I've also continued to feed them since we arrived here and discovered that Shev Pallowkith couldn't come up with the additional credits to redeem his cargo."

Jenetta sighed. "What if I take the rest of the cargo and let you keep the Jumakas. You should be able to sell them for much more than the thirteen hundred credits."

"Sorry, Commander; I don't want them vicious monsters on this ship one minute longer than necessary. Once I get to open space I'll jettison them and then sell the precious stones to recover my costs. You either have to pay the surcharges or I keep the entire shipment."

Jenetta didn't see any alternative so she handed over her credits card and watched as the Captain processed the transfer. After she had applied her thumb to the charge terminal to approve the transaction, she said, "Bring everything out to the dock so I can do an inventory check."

"Right away, Commander."

Jenetta check marked the inventory entries on the manifest as the boxes were delivered to the dock. The last item, simply listed on the manifest as 'wood box with Jum', was a reinforced cage that contained the two Jumakas. Dockworkers stepped back uneasily as the huge cage was pushed through the airlock tunnel. The Jumakas snarled and snapped at the appendages of anyone who got too close. Since Taurentlus-Thur was located almost a hundred parsecs beyond the outermost border of the Galactic Alliance, few GA citizens were familiar with its indigenous wildlife. Jenetta had heard of Jumakas, but this was the first time she'd seen any. The big cat-like animals had been domesticated long ago on their home planet, and were commonly kept as pets, or as guard animals. She supposed that these were being trained to guard the shop of the gem stones merchant.

Similar in physical appearance to Terran Jaguars, both animals had fur as black as space. It gave them a look like that of big Terran cats affected by Melanism, a pigmentation condition that darkens their fur to a very dark-chocolate brown. At roughly a hundred sixty pounds each, they were smaller than the average Terran Jaguar, which in captivity will typically weigh around two-hundred-fifty. With an average lifespan of sixty Earth years in the wild and ninety in captivity, they lived two to three times as long as Jaguars. Obviously young, probably less than two years of age, the fully-grown female cats had bright yellow eyes that seemed to glow.

When the inventory had been verified, Jenetta ordered it taken to a Space Command warehouse. She had no idea what she was going to do with the big cats yet, but they couldn't be left on the dock, and she certainly wasn't going to allow the freighter captain to space them.

Jenetta found a secluded area in a warehouse where the animals could be kept for a while. They would be isolated from taunting workers and Jenetta could even exercise them right in the warehouse. She suspected that they hadn't been out of their cage since breaking out of the first one. Jumakas had a reputation for being highly-intelligent, docile animals, making them exceptional pets, but they were also fiercely territorial, making them excellent for guard work once they identified a territory, or owner, as 'theirs.'

Jenetta pushed a packing case over to the cage and sat down where the animals could easily pick up her scent. The cats watched her warily at first, but slowly settled down. She stayed with them for two hours that first day, talking to them calmly. She told them that they were safe now and that nobody would be poking objects at them or teasing them. Her voice seemed to reassure them and they stretched out languidly in the cage, but continued to watch her intently.

Jenetta was extremely careful when feeding the cats at first, afraid that she might lose a hand, or even worse. But she discovered that they wouldn't even accept food directly from her, having been trained only to eat from their food bowls. Training guard animals not to accept handouts was done to ensure that they couldn't be poisoned or drugged by outsiders. Jenetta decided they must have been half starved on the cargo ship or they wouldn't have broken out of their cage and gotten into the food supplies. Having them eat only from their bowls made good sense, and Jenetta decided not to tempt them again to accept food from her hand.

By the time Shev Pallowkith was shipped out in the brig of a Space Command destroyer, for the first leg of his journey to a justice court, Jenetta had been accepted by the big cats as their mistress. Once away from the crewmembers that had been taunting and teasing the large animals while they were in the freighter's cargo hold, they had settled down and even became docile and playful in her presence. She personally fed them their twice-daily meals and they came to understand that she represented their link to food. She began walking the big cats every day, and after that she was rarely seen without them when off duty. They were so well behaved that she took them to her quarters to live, and after a few more weeks she didn't even use the leashes anymore, as the big cats never strayed from her side when out of her quarters.

Jenetta located a gemologist who would appraise the cargo for a fee, and with his certification, she was able to sell the entire lot for sixty-thousand credits to a shop owner on Higgins. After deducting the credits used to pay the original freight bill adjustment, the gemologist's fee, and the new freight bill for delivery of the cargo to Higgins, she deposited the remainder in an interest bearing account for Shev Pallowkith. She had already become so attached to the big cats that she decided to keep them as her commission for handling the sale.

Cayla and Tayna, as she named the two female cats, would be her almost constant companions from then on. At first she couldn't tell them apart, and had to rely on color-coded collars, but eventually she learned to identify them from their unique personalities. The big cats wouldn't leave her side when they were out of her quarters, unless she told them to stay in one place. During the day they stayed quietly in her office while she worked, and when she ran in the gym, they loped alongside her, one on either side. Other runners gave the trio a wide berth. At night the cats slept on blanket pads that Jenetta placed on the carpeted deck next to her bed. The pets greatly helped fill the frequent voids of loneliness that Jenetta had felt since the Prometheus left.

In October, after leaving her office following a hard day's work, Jenetta headed for the shopping concourse to pick up a couple of personal items. As always, her cats were at her side, never straying more than a quarter of a meter away as they walked. Other shoppers stepped quickly out of the way as they approached, but the trio had become a frequent sight and no one fled in terror anymore.

Absorbed in looking for the entrance to the shop she was seeking, Jenetta was totally unprepared when Cayla suddenly snarled viciously and bounded away. She hadn't even had time to call out to her when Tayna followed suit. Jenetta's initial reaction to the movement of the big cats probably saved her life. As she leaned into a running position from an upright walking position, in order to race after the cats, a laser shot passed over her right shoulder. Jenetta identified the location of the shooter just in time to avoid being hit by a second shot that barely missed her head as she dove for the ground. A third shot went wildly into the ceiling as Cayla reached the shooter and leapt upon him. Her hundred-sixty pounds, magnified greatly by the momentum of her charge, were more than enough to knock the shooter to the deck. Before he even landed, Tanya was also atop him. Only one more shot was fired, but because Tanya had already clamped her powerful jaws around his right forearm, snapping the bones like toothpicks, it too went wild.

Seeing that the shooter was down, Jenetta jumped to her feet and raced the fifteen meters to where the cats were fighting with the attacker. Touching her SC ring, she said quickly, "Security, shots fired, Concourse, B Street between Third and Fourth Avenues. Carver out."

It was likely that security had already seen the commotion on their monitors and dispatched Marines, but the call would alert them if they had missed it. Jenetta picked up the weapon from where it had fallen when Tanya broke the attacker's arm, and called to the cats.

"Cayla, Tayna, release him," she commanded loudly.

As if the cats understood her words, they immediately calmed down and released the shooter, who had already ceased struggling. Shoppers, climbing to their feet now that the shooting had ended, looked on with horrified expressions as the cats rose from the prone body and padded calmly towards Jenetta, blood dripping from their muzzles. A half dozen security personnel arrived just as the cats took up their usual positions at Jenetta's side. Blood was pooling quickly around the attacker's upper torso as Jenetta handed the weapon to one of the Marines.

"Have you called for a corpsman?" Jenetta asked the staff sergeant who appeared to be the senior NCO at the site.

"They're on their way, Commander. What happened here, ma'am?"

"I was walking along when the man on the floor over there opened fire. I assume I was the target. My cats took him down, but he got off four shots before they stopped him. You'd better check to see if anyone's been hit."

Two medical corpsmen arrived as the security people spread out and started querying the crowd to see if anyone had been wounded. The corpsmen worked furiously for a few minutes before determining that the attacker was beyond any help they could offer. They relaxed noticeably for a couple of seconds then stood up. As one covered the attacker's upper body with a thin piece of white material, the other approached Jenetta.

"He's gone, Commander. He was as good as dead when we arrived." Looking down at the bloody muzzles on the cats, he said, "One of your cats ripped out his throat. It appears his larynx was crushed and the neck snapped. His heart continued to pump out blood for a few minutes, but he was beyond help by the time we reached him."

"Okay, Sergeant," Jenetta said, "see that the body is delivered to the morgue and tell them to perform a full autopsy."

"Yes, ma'am. Would you like me to have a look at your cat's foreleg?"

Jenetta hadn't noticed until then that Tayna was holding her right front leg in a slightly raised position. She immediately dropped to her knees and lifted the leg for a look.

"It looks like she was hit by a laser shot," Jenetta said. "It's a deep graze, but the wound was cauterized by the laser. I imagine it's painful."

"I have something that will help," the corpsman said.

Retrieving a pneumatic injector from his kit he kneeled down and reached for the leg. Tanya snarled a warning and he stopped.

"It's all right, baby," Jenetta said. "Let him fix your leg."

Looking at Jenetta, the corpsman asked quizzically, "Do they understand Amer, ma'am?"

"I know very little about their species, no one does, but they always understand whatever I say to them. She'll let you touch her now."

When the corpsman reached out again, the cat didn't resist or growl a warning. She allowed the corpsman to examine the wound, clean it and spray on a bandage, and then use the pneumatic device to inject an antibiotic and mild anodyne.

"It's not serious, Commander. As you said, she was just grazed. She'll be all right in a few days."

"Thank you, Sergeant."

"My pleasure, ma'am," he said, smiling. "I'm always happy to help a hero, regardless of their species."

As Jenetta stood up, she said, "Yes, I guess they saved my life."

The senior security man returned and said, "No one was hit by the laser shots except you, Commander. Three shots were terminated by walls, and one shot terminated in the ceiling."

"I wasn't hit, Sergeant."

"Yes, ma'am, you were. Look at your right shoulder."

Jenetta felt at her shoulder, then pulled at the fabric of her tunic so she could see the area. Her insignia of rank had been neatly sliced in half, and a burn crease extended across the epaulet. "Hmm, that first shot came closer than I thought." Looking back at the security man, she said, "Clean up here, Sergeant. I'm going to the security center."

"Yes, ma'am."

Twenty minutes later Jenetta was seated in the security center watching replays from the concourse vid cameras with the duty officer, Lt. Blumenthal. She had taken time to wash the blood from the faces and paws of the two cats.

"Here's the assailant," the lieutenant said, pointing to the screen. "He appeared just a few minutes before you arrived, and took up a position against the wall. He must have received information from a confederate that you were headed his way since you say your shopping trip hadn't been planned."

Jenetta watched the tape several times before saying, "It certainly appears that this was a planned assassination attempt, but they couldn't have known what store I was headed for."

"How do you suppose your cats knew he presented a threat to you, Commander? He didn't pull the pistol out from under the jacket draped over his arm until after the first cat started to race towards him. If your cats hadn't spotted him, he probably would have waited until you were much closer. He couldn't have missed you once you were only a couple of meters away."

"Either they noticed him staring at me, or they're even more intuitive than I suspected. I'm surprised that he fired at me at all once Cayla started towards him. If he was smart he would have either run away or fired at her."

"Perhaps he was firing at her, but she was moving too fast," Blumenthal offered.

"No, he was definitely firing at me. I didn't see him fire the first shot, but I marked him before the second, and he was watching me all the way. After seeing the vid record I'm more sure of that than ever. He completely ignored the cats until they were practically on him."

"He must have felt they didn't present much of a threat. Perhaps he thought they had just gotten away from you, like ill-behaved pets. The other people on the concourse didn't appear to be afraid of them."

"That will probably change now. The expressions on the faces in the crowd when my cats climbed off the attacker's body spoke volumes."

"Oh, I don't know. Everyone knows that the cats only attacked someone that was attempting to assassinate you."

Jenetta nodded absently. "If our assassin had a confederate, we might be able to spot him from the vid logs. In fact, there might have been several assassins, since my destination was unknown. Scan all the logs for ten minutes before I arrived on the concourse, looking for anyone suspicious who might have been tailing me. If you spot anyone, backtrack their movements and see if they met up with anyone else."

"Aye, Commander."

"Let me know as soon as you learn the identity of the attacker, and find out how he got on the station."

"Aye, Commander."

"I think that I've had enough shopping for tonight. I'm headed for my quarters. Goodnight."

"Goodnight, ma'am."

By the next morning, several reports about the attack were waiting for Jenetta in her computer. After making a cup of coffee, she read each carefully. The cause of death was officially recorded as severe trauma to the neck and spine. There was evidence of both suffocation and cardiac arrest, compounded by a severe loss of blood. Tests revealed that the assailant had probably felt little pain because of the high levels of narcotics found in his system, most of which were illegal substances. The broken right arm was listed as an incidental injury.

The attacker had been identified, and traced to a freighter that had arrived the morning of the attack. A search of his quarters aboard the freighter and his possessions revealed nothing. The movements of several other Terrans on the concourse had been labeled as suspicious, and a search for them had commenced immediately, but each of them had left the station within an hour of the attack and their whereabouts were unknown. Their images had been added to the 'wanted for questioning' files, and if they entered any Space Command base in the future, they would be immediately arrested for interrogation. Since all were Terrans, the images had been sent to Earth in the hope that they could be identified.

With the attacker dead, and all of the other suspects gone, there was little more that could be done. The case would remain open until all of the suspects were found and interrogated, or Space Command was sure of their deaths.

Chapter Twenty-Two

~ October 23rd, 2271 ~

Almost exactly one year to the day since being appointed as Base Commander, Jenetta received a visit from a Space Command officer who had just arrived aboard the GSC Destroyer Havana. Captain Carlton Desmond eyed Jenetta's big cats suspiciously and nervously as he accepted the offer of a chair. They eyed him as well as they languidly rested against the outer walls of the office. Their open eyes and an occasional flick of their tails were the only indications that they weren't sleeping.

Desmond, having been born and raised in Buenos Aires, was a graduate of SHSA, the Southern Hemisphere Space Academy, class of '30. Dark Latino features belied his Anglo name. His black, wavy hair was beginning to silver slightly at the temples, and Jenetta wondered if he touched up the narrow moustache that graced his upper lip. Twenty-six years Jenetta's senior, the disparity of ages was amplified by Jenetta's appearance as a twenty-one year old, even though she was chronologically thirty-six now.

"Welcome to Dixon Space Port, Captain," Jenetta said in greeting.

"Thank you, Commander. It's a pleasure to meet you. I was admiring your operation as I walked here. The base looks clean, efficiently organized, and well run."

"Yes sir, we've come a long way in the past year."

"I sort of feel guilty about taking over after you've worked so hard to establish this base and get it operating so splendidly."

"Pardon me, sir? Taking over?"

"Yes, Commander. Here are my orders."

Jenetta accepted the data ring that he held out and touched it to the spindle in the media drawer on her desk before handing it back. The table of contents only listed one message and she tapped the play button to view it. An image of Vice-Admiral Raymond Burke, the director of SC Base Operations, appeared on the com screen. He ordered Captain Desmond to proceed immediately to Dixon Space Port and assume command of the base. The data ring and message was verified as being genuine.

"I'm speechless, Captain," Jenetta said, clearly bewildered.

"Weren't you informed of my pending arrival?"

"I was told a year ago that I would be relieved as soon as a permanent replacement could be found. I suppose it took them a long time to find the right individual, but I've heard nothing about anyone actually coming to take command."

"You should have been informed of my imminent arrival. I've been on my way here for six months. I guess somebody messed up."

"Well, you're here now, sir. I'll move my things out of the Base Commander's quarters today and you can move in tonight. I'll move my personal effects from this office to an empty office down the corridor this afternoon."

"There's no need to move out until you're ready to go to the ship."

"The ship, sir?"

"Yes. I'm not here to take command and push you into a supporting role, Commander. You're to proceed to Higgins on the Havana, leaving in about seventy-two hours. That will give me a couple of days to become acclimated, before I officially assume station command. I'll move into temporary quarters for the time being. I can tell you that I'll sure be glad to get out of the ship. I was getting more than a bit claustrophobic after six months on board."

"Very well, sir. Our VIP suites are well appointed, and quite spacious. I don't think you'll feel cramped in there. Are your bags still aboard the Havana?"


Jenetta lifted the com screen and pushed a button. When the image of her aide appeared, she said, "Jason, Captain Desmond has arrived with orders to take over command of this station. Please arrange quarters for him in the VIP section until I can vacate my quarters. His bags are still aboard the Havana. Arrange with housing to have them picked up and brought to his suite."

"Take command, ma'am?"

"Yes, Jason. He's to be the new Base Commander of Dixon."

"Yes ma'am."

Jenetta pushed the view screen down. "Captain, would you like me to give you a tour of the base now?"

"Yes I would, Commander. I've really been looking forward to it."

The big cats rose as Jenetta stood. Turning towards them, she said, "Cayla, Tayna, stay here." Both cats immediately sank to prone positions again.

"They seem very well behaved, Commander. Are they for your protection?"

"I acquired them from an Alyysian trader that I arrested. He couldn't very well take them to prison, and wouldn't have wanted to anyway. They were just trade goods to him. I originally kept them as companions, but they did save me from an assassin recently."

"An assassin? On the base?"

"Yes, he attempted to end my career in Space Command with a laser pistol. My cats somehow sensed his intentions and terminated his career instead. Tayna broke the arm holding the weapon while Cayla ripped out his throat. He was dead in minutes."

Captain Desmond's face immediately adopted a sickly look and color, and his right hand went involuntarily to his throat. He swallowed hard as he listened to the story. "Where did this happen; near your quarters?"

"No, the assassin could never have reached my quarters, or even this office, with a laser pistol. The energy signature from the power pack would have set off alarms at a dozen different points. It occurred on the shopping concourse, because that's the only place he could have carried the pistol. He never would have gotten it onto the base on his person, so it must have been brought in by a merchant, secreted in legitimate cargo."

"Aren't incoming shipments checked?"

"They are now, but originally we weren't able to check as thoroughly as we would have liked. I'm sure that some weapons and contraband slipped through in the early months when we were so terribly shorthanded."

"Of course."

"We've installed sensors on every block of the concourse since the attempt, so you can't carry a weapon's charged power pack more than fifty meters without setting off an alarm. The new sensors also detect gunpowder and explosives."

"Who was behind the assassination attempt, Commander?"

"We don't know, but I imagine it was a Raider operation." Smiling, Jenetta added, "They don't seem to like me very much."

"I can understand that. You escaped their clutches and destroyed their base, and since then have thwarted them at every turn. Every time they've suffered a serious blow, you've either been behind it or a party to it."

"Yes, I suppose I've given them enough reasons to dislike me. Why don't we start our tour and we can talk as we walk?"

Over the next six hours, Jenetta took Captain Desmond on a complete tour of the base, all eighteen levels. She learned that until six months ago, then 'Commander' Desmond had been the Port Operations Officer at Fallsworth SCB. He was posted to Dixon SCB as the new CO when his promotion came through. When Jenetta introduced him as the new Base Commander to the senior officers in each area, their surprise was naturally as genuine as hers had been. The normal tour of duty for a senior officer was five years, unless that officer had done something seriously wrong, necessitating recall. Rumors immediately began to circulate. Some said that she was being recalled to receive another promotion and her own ship, while others said that she must have said or done something to infuriate the Admiralty Board.

Completing their tour of the base about dinnertime, Jenetta and Captain Desmond walked to the Base Commander's dining room for dinner after Jenetta had taken the cats to her quarters and fed them. Jenetta rarely ate alone, and should have been entertaining the senior staff of the Havana tonight, but there was a great deal to discuss with Captain Desmond so she hadn't contacted the Havana's captain. She would be sure to invite him tomorrow night for her last official dinner as base commander.

Jenetta and Captain Desmond spoke for hours as Jenetta tried to prepare him for his new post to the greatest extent possible in the limited time available.

When arriving at the Base Commander's office at 0648 hours the next morning, Captain Desmond was surprised to learn that Jenetta had already been working for an hour. He stayed by her side throughout the rest of the day as she performed her duties. Things had backed up a little because of the six-hour tour the day before and they had little time for personal discussion.

At 1800 hours Jenetta finished up in her office and left for her quarters to get ready for dinner with the senior staff of the Havana. Captain Desmond left to change also.

Entertaining the staff of the Havana was just one more dinner party in a long line of dinner parties. She was once again implored to provide details about her adventures and she accommodated the officers, describing the actions that she had taken, to the delight of her audience. Having only heard rumors about the latest assassination attempt, everyone wanted to hear the details.

Jenetta spent one more day helping Captain Desmond ease into the job as Base Commander and then at 1600 hours he officially relieved her of command. Captain Desmond requested that she have dinner with him, and she agreed, although she'd planned to get an early start on her packing.

Arriving at the Base Commander's dining room, she found it empty. Even the mess attendant was absent. Expecting the Captain, as the new base commander, to call ahead and advise the dining room staff of the number expected for dinner, Jenetta hadn't performed the simple daily chore. Captain Desmond arrived a few seconds later.

"Did you call the mess attendant and tell him we'd be dining here, sir?"

"No, is that necessary?"

"I always call ahead so they know how many to expect."

"Well, too late now. Why don't we just eat in the officer's mess?"

"Okay. It'll give me another chance to say goodbye to some of my people. Excuse me, your people now."

Located on the other side of the kitchen, the officer's mess hall was just a short walk away. As they entered, everyone stood and began applauding. Banners expressing goodbye and good luck messages, hung from the walls and ceiling.

"Your aide asked me to bring you here tonight so the senior officers could all say goodbye," Captain Desmond explained.

The dinner turned into a real party after the meal was finished, and Jenetta spent time with each officer thanking him or her for their hard work and loyal service. It was almost 2200 hours before she was able to get away and return to her quarters to begin packing her things.

Jenetta marveled at how much she'd managed to accumulate during the past year as the impossibility of fitting it all into her spacechest and suitcases became apparent. She only managed to complete her packing after she had several empty shipping cartons brought to her quarters. The wall chronometer was displaying 0302 when she slipped tiredly into bed. It was strange to be leaving. She hadn't formed the attachment that she'd formed with her ships, but it still felt very strange to be going away.

Up early the following morning, Jenetta prepared to leave her quarters after stacking her bags by the door. She performed a quick double-check, just to make sure she wasn't forgetting anything, and left the apartment with her cats. As she took a last walk through the well-illuminated and colorfully decorated shopping concourse, she remembered back to how it had looked when she had first assumed command. It had simply been a dim, somber, storage area then.

After her nostalgic look around, she walked directly to the Havana. At the airlock entrance, she saluted the OD and said, "Permission to come aboard?"

The lieutenant (jg) on duty eyed the big cats nervously as he saluted and replied, "Granted, and welcome Commander. If you'll wait just a minute, I'll have the housing officer come down to show you to your quarters."

Lieutenant Caffrey arrived within minutes and escorted Jenetta to the quarters assigned to her. They were nothing like her old quarters on the Prometheus, but this was just a destroyer after all, not a battleship. Her bags were delivered about an hour later as she sat on the carpeted deck of her sitting room, petting her cats and contemplating her future. The big cats purred contentedly as Jenetta stoked their heads absentmindedly.

Jenetta didn't report immediately to the Captain since she was just a passenger, not a crewmember. She was expected, and the housing officer would notify him or the XO that she was aboard. For the first time in many months, Jenetta found herself with absolutely nothing to do. Her time would be her own on the journey to Higgins, so she resolved to start working out regularly again. Where she'd once exercised two or more hours every day, her time for such activities were limited while on Dixon. She'd been lucky when she could free up an hour every few days. The four and a half-month trip would give her plenty of time to get back into shape.

Once under way, Jenetta received a message via her CT that Captain Meyers would like to see her. A lieutenant was sent to show her the way to the Captain's briefing room. She naturally left the cats in her quarters.

"Come in, Commander," Captain Meyers said warmly as the door of the office opened to admit her. "Welcome aboard the Havana. Coffee?"

"I never refuse a good cup of coffee, Captain," she said smiling.

"I only guarantee that it's hot," Captain Meyers said, returning her smile. "You'll have to be the judge of whether or not it's good."

Jenetta prepared a mug and raised it to her lips. Breathing in the aroma before taking a sip, she closed her eyes and tipped the mug back slightly. Like any good beverage connoisseur, she allowed the black liquid to roll around in her mouth as she savored the taste. Satisfied, she swallowed and smiled. "It's good, Captain."

 "I like it but one never knows if it's good, or if you've simply become accustomed to it over the years." The captain chuckled at his own remark.

Jenetta had put Captain Meyers age at 50'ish when they met for dinner two nights earlier, and the date on his Space Command ring confirmed that he'd graduated from NHSA in 2239. He was a couple of inches shorter than herself, and probably about fifty pounds heavier, but not egregiously out of shape. He had a pleasant face and a calm demeanor.

"Commander, we just received a message for you from Dixon. It was forwarded to us by Captain Desmond, who apparently received it in error because it was addressed to the Dixon SCB Commanding Officer."

Captain Meyers turned his com screen around so that Jenetta could see the message. The face of Captain Richard Dommler appeared on the screen. "Commander, Captain Carlton Desmond will be arriving shortly to assume command of the Dixon Space Command Base. You're to proceed to Higgins Space Command Base at Vinnia on the GSC destroyer Havana. Report to Headquarters upon your arrival here.

"Captain Richard Dommler, message complete."

"Well, it's nice to see they at least tried to alert me to Captain Desmond's arrival. I guess you made the trip a little faster than expected, sir."

Captain Meyers leaned back in his chair. "I think that somebody just fouled up. You should have been notified months ago so you could have prepared for the transition of command. Any idea where you'll be posted next?"

"No idea at all, sir. I just hope it's a ship this time."

"You shouldn't have any trouble getting a berth on any ship in the fleet. Who wouldn't want Commander Jenetta Carver on their senior staff?"

"I'm not so sure about that; I might be a little too well known. Some captains may not want me on their staff out of anxiety that my shadow is too large. At least Captain Gavin was beyond that. His own reputation and seniority ensured that no one would overshadow him. I've also heard that some senior officers in Space Command believe me to be a loose cannon, and may fear that I'll endanger their crew."

"Loose cannon? Piffle! I'm sure that most captains would be happy to have you. I'd take you in a heartbeat if I had an open post."

"Thank you, Captain," Jenetta said, smiling. "I appreciate that."

"I, uh, understand that you brought two rather large pets aboard with you?"

"Yes sir. I have two cats."

"Cats? I was given to understand they were as large as Mountain Lions, and black as space."

"They're Taurentlus-Thur Jumakas."

"Jumakas? Ah, yes, the two animals that saved you from the assassin earlier this month. Do they present a danger?"

"To anyone contemplating an attack on my person, they should be considered deadly. Otherwise, they're just as tame as pussycats, and almost as playful. They're extremely intelligent, and sometimes I swear that they can actually read my mind. They're incapable of speech, but they always seem to understand what I tell them, and they manage to make their needs, questions, and moods known to me through their limited vocal abilities."

"If an animal is intelligent enough, it finds a way to communicate with its master. Will they stay in your quarters or should we find a place in a hold?"

"They'll stay in my quarters if I tell them to, even if the door was left wide open during my absence. I take them with me when I exercise though. They need to run also."

"Of course. While you're on board you have the complete run of the ship, Commander, but please leave the cats in your quarters except when exercising them. And I give you a standing invitation to drop in on me anytime."

 "Thank you, Captain. I'll take you up on that."

Jenetta spent the next hour talking with the Captain and then returned to her quarters. After changing her clothes, she walked to the ship's gym with the cats and punished the punching bag until her wrists ached. The large cats sat and watched the large brown bag intently, as if ready to pounce on it at the first sign that it was preparing to oppose Jenetta's assault. Then Jenetta walked to a storage bay that was used for a running track and jogged for the better part of an hour. The big cats loped alongside her, as always.

Jenetta quickly fell into a daily routine aboard the ship, exercising in the morning before breakfast and then working in her quarters for much of the rest of the day. She busied herself organizing all her notes from conversations that she'd had while on the space station, with the hope that something would point to Raider operations and the possible location of Christa. She also practiced her Dakis by having the shipboard computer's audio interface speak to her only in the Nordakian language.

Visiting the Captain every couple of days provided a little variety in the daily routine, and they ate dinner together almost every evening. Both had become accustomed to the loneliness of command and it was nice to have a kindred spirit aboard. Captain Meyers learned early on to have enough food for four brought to his quarters when Jenetta would be joining him for the meal. Her appetite had waned slightly on Dixon, but now that she was spending so much time in the gym, it had come roaring back and she needed at least thrice the normal portion amount of someone her size.

After four and a half months of travel, the Havana docked at Higgins. Jenetta left her packed bags inside the door of her quarters so they could be taken to the BOQ later in the day, then went to say goodbye to Captain Meyers and thank him for the ride and his hospitality.

Jenetta had sent notification of her imminent arrival to her sister, and Eliza was waiting on the platform when Jenetta emerged from the docking tunnel with the cats. As they hugged tightly, the big cats sniffed Eliza. They seemed confused to find the same basic scent as Jenetta, but they accepted it and relaxed their vigilance due to the warm embrace.

"So these are the Jumakas. They're absolutely beautiful."

"Yes, this is Cayla, and this is Tayna. Cayla, Tayna, this is my sister, Eliza." The big cats each made a deep throated mewling sound at the mention of her name. Jenetta knew it to be a form of greeting. "They say hello, and seem to have accepted you already."

"Hello Cayla, hello Tayna," Eliza said as she stooped to pet the large cats. Looking up at Jenetta, she said, "We probably smell alike to them." Straightening back up, Eliza said, "Sis, you look wonderful, and it's so great to see you again. You look as fit as we've ever been."

Jenetta smiled. "You too. Lots of time in the gym I'd guess?"

"What else is there to do? A year and half, and still the Galactic Alliance Council hasn't made a decision about my citizenship. I can't leave the station because I can't enter any world without a passport."

"I know; it's ridiculous. I've been thinking about it, and I believe it's about time that we did something about it. I don't like to play power games but the Council has had long enough to take action. Our fame should be worth something."

"You can't get involved! It'll damage your career in Space Command."

"Career? I've been marooned inside a rocky asteroid for the past year, and I had to find out from a lieutenant at a dinner party that my post on the Prometheus was permanently assigned to someone else. The first I knew I was being relieved at Dixon was when the new base commander arrived in my office and showed me his orders to take command of the base. I was on the Havana, on my way here, before Space Command finally bothered to send me new orders. Lately, it hasn't seemed like much of a career to risk."

"You're just tired and a little cranky after the long trip. You'll feel better after you get situated. Are you staying at the BOQ, or on the ship?"

"The BOQ; I was only a passenger on the ship. I have to check in, and then we can go do something together."

The cats took up positions on the outside of the two women, allowing them to walk together as they proceeded to the Headquarters section. Everyone they passed gave them a very wide berth. Unlike at Dixon SCB, where everyone had grown accustomed to seeing Jenetta walking with her cats, here they only saw two ferocious looking animals without tethers.

There weren't any orders waiting for Jenetta, so after making arrangements for quarters in the BOQ, Jenetta and Eliza walked to the shopping concourse. For the next few hours, they perused the merchandise in the shops. People already familiar with Jenetta may not have been aware that she'd been promoted to Commander a year earlier and she received quite a few double takes, but it was the two cats that drew the most attention. A Marine security patrol discretely followed them around in case the animals caused a problem, but they never approached Jenetta. Jarheads don't tell senior SC officers that they can't walk with their pets, as long as the pets behave; especially when that senior officer is Commander Jenetta Carver. The presence of the two cats ensured that neither Jenetta nor Eliza was jostled out of the way by other shoppers.

At dinnertime, Jenetta fed her cats and left them in her quarters while she and Eliza went to the officer's mess. After each woman filled her two trays to overflowing from the mess hall's freshly prepared offerings, they found an empty table where they could enjoy their meal.

"So what can we do to establish my citizenship?" Eliza asked.

"I thought you didn't want me to get involved?" Jenetta said, smiling coyly.

"Stop it. Just tell me what you were thinking."

"Okay, sorry. I don't really have any specific plan. It's just that over the past year I've learned how big our reputation is. I've met people from dozens of different worlds all over Galactic Alliance space, and most of them already knew of me, even if they didn't recognize our altered facial appearance. With that kind of fame we must have some kind of leverage. If I went to the press and started an appeal on behalf of you, Christa, and the other clones, we might be able to whip up enough interest to get this finally resolved. Right now, the issue has all but disappeared from the public view, and once an issue disappears from public discussion, politicians lose interest. We have to get it center stage again, or you might never get your citizenship. Worse, someone might decide that you're not a real person, and therefore eligible for medical research or something. Since you can't travel without a passport, I'm sure the other clones are all still on Higgins as well."

"Yes, I see them often. I understand they're collaborating on several books about their discoveries on Dakistee. They asked if they could reference several passages from our book and I gave them permission. Their originals have all returned to the planet to work, but the clones can't travel without legal identification. So you want to raise a public outcry in favor of establishing a policy?"

"Exactly. The politicians can ignore you, or me, or the people on Dakistee, but they can't ignore all the people of all the populated worlds."

"And just how would we get this outcry started?"

"How many interviews have you given since the book was published?"

"None. We didn't write that book for personal attention or gain. That's why we established a foundation to distribute most of the proceeds from the sales to help our people on Obotymot, with the rest going towards grants to fund the continuing scientific research on Dakistee."

"Exactly. We missed a golden opportunity to keep the issue center stage, but at the time we believed they would do right by you. I've since become a lot more cynical in that regard. I traded a job that I loved for a promotion. It wouldn't have been so bad if they'd been straightforward with me. There are a lot of unpleasant jobs in the service and I don't mind doing my share, but I feel that I should have been told the truth."


"Why what? Why should I have been told the truth?"

"Yes. We joined the service without any expectations other than to serve. Of course, we wanted to get into space, but other than that, we would take what we got. Remember how excited we were when we found we had gotten a ship? It didn't matter that it was a Quartermaster supply ship, or that we were only the science officer, we were going into space. And that's where we've been for the past year. You were stuck on one base in space and I was stuck on another, but the point is that we've had it pretty good, even if our futures were a bit uncertain. Poor Christa has had it the worst. We don't know where she is or even if she's still alive."

Jenetta silently mulled over what Eliza had said. "Okay, Jiminy Cricket," Jenetta said with reference to the fictional moral adviser and conscience of an animated puppet named Pinocchio. Richie, who'd developed a love for twentieth-century vids when he was young, had found a copy in an old archive and presented a copy of the animation to Jenetta when she was a young girl. She must have watched it fifty times. "You're right. I've been feeling sorry for myself because I lost my posting on the Prometheus. I just have to get over it and stop blaming Space Command. They've been good to me. They gave me the dream post in the first place, and if they feel that I could serve better somewhere else, then I go where they send me. But that doesn't mean I'm not going to work to get you and Christa recognized as citizens. And I intend to find Christa if I have to resign my commission and go all the way to the Uthlaro Dominion to find her."

"You think she's on one of the Raider's resort moons?"

"If Mikel Arneu got his hands on her, she's probably on her way there. But it's a long voyage so she won't be there yet."

Chapter Twenty-Three

~ March 6th, 2272 ~

Eliza had completed work on the second book. Already having been cleared for distribution by the Intelligence Section of Space Command before Jenetta arrived back at Higgins, the book was being readied for publication. When contacted to determine if they would attend a press conference where the new book would be introduced and discussed, the response from the representatives of the news services on Higgins was overwhelmingly positive. Each requested an exclusive interview, so Jenetta and Eliza promised that each news service sending a representative and broadcasting or printing at least the two opening statements in full, would be permitted a private half-hour interview, to be conducted during the two weeks following the conference.

The women knew they would control the tenor of the initial statements as they prepared for the press conference, but they also wanted to control the direction that the questions would take afterward. Carefully crafting responses to every anticipated question and topic, they worked out answers that would always segue to the issue of citizenship for the clones. The dialogue was intended to be strong, but not overly critical of the Galactic Alliance Council. Jenetta and Eliza wanted the Council allied with them, not rallied against them.

The Nordakian ambassador seemed hesitant at first, when Jenetta requested permission to hold the press conference at the embassy, but then consented. How could he possibly refuse a member of the nobility and his planet's greatest heroine? Jenetta knew that the location would lend an air of apparent support for the issues that would be raised, although she naturally promised to inform all press conference attendees that the opinions expressed were not necessarily shared by the King and Queen.

Every news service represented at the station did send someone to the embassy on the day of the press conference. Jenetta and Eliza would be busy doing private interviews for the full two weeks, if everyone fulfilled the broadcast requirement.

Coming out several minutes before the conference was set to start, Jenetta and Eliza took their seats on the raised platform and waited for the appointed time. Jenetta would speak first. The conference was being broadcast live in the station and on Vinnia.

As the wall chronometer indicated that it was time for the conference to begin, Jenetta rose and moved to the podium. "Welcome, everyone. Thank you for attending the first press conference that we've held since my sisters and I released our book for publication. We've been extremely pleased by the reception the book has received, and we're happy to announce that roughly sixty percent of the proceeds from the sale of that first book have gone to help our people on Obotymot through our Obotymot Relief Fund. Most of the remaining funds have been funneled into our Dakistee Scientific Expeditionary Foundation, which has so far issued twenty-six grants to qualified researchers, scientists, and academicians. The money is being used to fund more research into the history of the people that occupied the planet so many eons ago. Our first book barely scratched the surface of the culture and technological advances made by the people of Dakistee, which is why Eliza has written a second volume. We hope it will be embraced as strongly as the first.

"As many of you know, my sister Eliza is a product of the technology developed by the original inhabitants of Dakistee. Although cloning has been illegal for two-hundred years, an ancient process, initiated accidentally, has resulted in the creation of seventy-nine new people, virtually indistinguishable from their originals. The equipment has since been dismantled, in accordance with the laws of Galactic Alliance, but the people born before that occurred are still with us. Their lack of citizenship and passports prevent them from traveling, so you're likely to meet them anywhere on this station. Space Command is currently housing all but one.

"I'd like to turn the podium over to Eliza now for her opening statement, and then we'll entertain questions. Thank you."

Eliza moved to the podium and looked solemnly out at the reporters. Every bit as strikingly lovely as Jenetta, Eliza enunciated loudly, "Good afternoon. I don't exist." She paused for a few seconds for effect. "I'm here. I'm flesh and blood. I breathe air and consume food to live, but to the Galactic Alliance Council, I don't exist. A year and a half ago, there were long debates on how to handle the problem of the new people. The number of debates has slowly decreased, and if you'll check the council records, as I have, you'll see that they have not discussed the issue once during the past eight months.

"We've been fortunate in being permitted to travel here to Higgins rather than being restricted to living on Dakistee, but now we're prevented even from returning to Dakistee. Look at me. Is there anything wrong with me? The physicians at the base hospital tell me that I'm in perfect health. Is there any legitimate reason why I should be denied citizenship in the galaxy? Any reason why I should be denied travel privileges and documents? My sister Jenetta, the person from whom I was duplicated, has citizenship on two worlds. I'm denied citizenship on both because the Galactic Alliance Council can't decide how we should be treated. Is that fair? I was born in a different manner than Jenetta, but I have every memory that she had at the time I was conceived, so I feel I've lived every second of her first thirty-three years. As Jenetta said, the equipment has been dismantled. We're not seeking a license to produce more clones. All we want is for the seventy-nine 'new people' to be granted citizenship by the planet they feel is their homeland. Is that so much to ask? With all of the billions upon billions of people on the inhabited worlds throughout Galactic Alliance space, would a few dozen more citizens really make that much difference?

"We'll answer all questions now about Dakistee, the cloning, or the citizenship issues."

The press conference lasted for another two hours. Jenetta and Eliza were both delighted that the majority of questions concerned the cloning and citizenship issues, and they answered openly regarding the events on the planet, but didn't reveal anything about how the cloning process actually worked. After the conference, the various news services lined up to request a personal interview with the two women. They had been told in advance that the order would be decided by random selection once all requests were received, so there wasn't any jockeying for position in line.

That evening, broadcasters around Galactic Alliance space began to air the footage from the press conference. Due to the distances involved, it would actually take a week for it to reach the extreme edges of Alliance space, even being transmitted on an IDS frequency. Every news service that hadn't carried the broadcast live, rebroadcast the original statements made by Jenetta and Eliza. Most networks included an editorial news piece about the press conference, and came out strongly in favor of granting immediate citizenship to the Dakistee Seventy-Nine, as they were now being called.

On the fourth day following the press conference, Jenetta received orders to report to Admiral Holt's office the next morning. She arrived promptly at nine a.m. and stared at the plain off-white walls of the admiral's outer office until the admiral's aide finally told her to go in, thirty-three minutes later.

Entering the Admiral's enormous office, she walked directly to his desk. Holt was reading from his com screen. An impressive image of the Grand Canyon on Earth was showing in the SimWindow behind the Admiral. Jenetta wondered if the view had been selected to transmit an intentional subliminal message. Coming to attention in front of the desk, she said, "Commander Jenetta Carver reporting as ordered, sir."

Holt didn't look up for fifteen seconds. He then stood, and walked around his desk. The seventy-one-year-old officer's still fit body, and prematurely gray hair, gave him a look of marked superiority. He was still as sharp as they come, but his six-foot two-inch height no longer made him quite the larger-than-life figure he had seemed to be when Jenetta was only five-foot-four. The two stars on each shoulder would make most junior officers quake, but Jenetta was no longer a junior officer, and no longer quaked. Speaking in a very loud voice, his irritation clearly evident, he said, "Commander, why is it that every time you come to Higgins, my com panel lights up like a globular cluster? You've been gone for almost a year and a half, and for that entire time my com panel has only occasionally been somewhat lit. But just a few days after you return, I've got every news service in the galaxy calling me. And I can't even begin to count the messages from Space Command Supreme Headquarters and Galactic Alliance Council Chambers."

Jenetta, still at attention, said, "I'm sorry, Admiral. I assume that the messages are in reference to the press conference that Eliza and I held to discuss our book? We were given permission to publish and promote the new book."

"That press conference wasn't to promote the new book and you damn well know it. It was to promote the issue of granting Terran and Nordakian citizenship to the clones."

"With all due respect, sir, the clones have been patiently waiting for more than a year and a half for something to be decided regarding their status. The Galactic Alliance Council has ceased to even discuss the issue."

"So you figured you'd just hold their feet to the fire for a bit. Is that it?"

"We just wanted to bring the issue out for discussion again, sir. We didn't intend to cause any problems."

"Commander, don't try to do an end run around me. I've been fighting in the political trenches for too long. I know exactly what you were trying to do."

"Yes sir."

"Ohhh–– at ease!" the Admiral barked.

Jenetta relaxed.

"I would have left you on Dixon if I thought that you'd pull a harebrained stunt like this. You might very well have undone the solution that we had worked out for the clones. The Galactic Alliance Council has been waiting until the issue appeared dead so they could slip some legislation through quietly. Now every group opposed to granting citizenship to clones has had new wind fill their sails."

"You're saying that the G.A.C. had decided to grant citizenship, sir?"

"Exactly, but not anymore. Your little press conference has pushed the legislation back to the bottom of the pile. The Council wanted to handle the issue quietly, with little fanfare."

"The issue has been all but dead for eight months, sir. What exactly were they waiting for? They've had ample opportunity to pass legislation quietly and with little fanfare for many months."

The Admiral looked at Jenetta and smiled weakly. "Sit down, Commander," the Admiral said softly, pointing to an over-stuffed chair facing his desk. He walked back around his desk and sat in his own chair. His gruff attitude had evaporated when he saw it was having no effect, and his voice was relaxed when he said, "You've changed, Commander. You've always spoken your mind, but now you have strength and conviction in your voice."

"Yes sir. I've just spent a year as the commanding officer of a new Space Command base. That kind of duty changes a person, as I'm sure you're well aware."

"Yes," Holt said, and then smiled, "it does; which is precisely why you were put in charge and left there for a year. You needed a little rounding out. Instead, I believe that your corners have grown sharper."

"We all have issues that motivate us like no other, sir. This is one of mine. The other is the location of my sister Christa. I will go wherever Space Command sends me, and do whatever job Space Command assigns, but I need the issues of my sisters settled, and I'll do what's necessary to accomplish that. If that means I have to resign my commission in Space Command, then so be it."

Admiral Holt took a deep breath and released it slowly before saying, "Calm down Commander. I've no intention of asking for your resignation; you're much too valuable to the service. You're an excellent leader; you're resourceful, intelligent, and you've almost got too much guts for your own good. We've spent a lot of time watching you and planning your career since you came to our notice. You don't think you became the second officer of one of the two best ships in the fleet by chance, do you? And under conditions that required you to function as the temporary first officer for your trip to Earth?"

Jenetta looked at the Admiral for a few seconds before answering. "No sir, not by accident. At least not the appointment part. I thought that Commander LaSalle joining the ship at Earth was chance."

"We had another officer right here at Higgins who could have filled that post, but we wanted to see how you'd perform in the job. Of course, we didn't know about the Raider ambush at the time that decision was made, and the trip to Earth was supposed to be a milk run. As it turned out it gave us a chance to test you further by giving you your own command aboard the Song, temporarily. Even that turned out better than anticipated. Following the battle for this station, I found myself able to justify leaving you in command of the Song for a full year."

Jenetta was shocked by the revelation. "And Captain Gavin was in on all this?"

"No, not fully. He was only instructed to present you with difficult problems, and give you opportunities to solve them, so that you could be evaluated. At first, he was strongly opposed to having a recently promoted Lieutenant Commander as his first officer for the trip to Earth, but your performance so impressed him that he completely reversed his opinion before the ship had even left the spaceport. His reports on you have been so glowing that you'd think he'd invented you in a workshop."

"Then why did he allow my position on the Prometheus to be filled by someone else? He told me that it would be held for me."

"That was our doing; mine and the Admiralty Board. After hearing how well you did setting up the new base, we decided that you should remain there for a while, but we couldn't leave a senior post open on an active-duty warship."

"But why was I left at Dixon, sir? You must have known that I wanted nothing more than to be on the Prometheus, in any capacity."

"As I said earlier, we wanted to round out your education a little. You did so well the first month that we felt you could handle the job on an extended basis. A year in a duty assignment like that is very educational. Don't you agree that you've learned a great deal? You've met half the GSC captains in this deca-sector of space, and probably a hundred freighter captains, while learning to manage thousands of people and solve a myriad of problems each day, just as I do here. You were not only responsible for thousands of Space Command personnel, but for a large population of civilian transients as well. If you had stumbled a bit, we had the built-in excuse that you were inexperienced and that you were creating an entirely new command structure. A few serious problems were expected; there are always serious problems on a large base. But you performed beyond everyone's expectations. If there were serious problems, neither Space Command Supreme Headquarters nor I ever heard about them. Dixon, although a border post, has been the quietest base in GA space for the past year.

 "And you actually became a victim of your own courtesies. The word got out that the entire senior staff of every ship stopping at Dixon was invited to have dinner with you, so almost every captain that could find an excuse to visit Dixon, did so. Probably just for the opportunity to meet Jenetta Carver and hear her stories."

"Was I wrong to show courtesy to the senior officers of the ships?"

"No, not at all, although I've never heard of anyone else doing it on such a consistent basis. Normally, just the captain, and possibly the first officer, is invited to have dinner with the base commander when a ship docks."

"Then Space Command has been satisfied with my performance at Dixon?"

"Extremely. Every report that I've seen from the ships visiting Dixon have praised your accommodation and re-supply efforts. The merchants that have leased space on the station haven't been complaining to Space Command about anything, unlike merchants at most other bases, and the freight haulers haven't complained about excessive bureaucratic delays. I had considerable trouble getting you away from Dixon when your year was to be up. Some members of the Admiralty Board at Space Command were so pleased with your performance that they wanted to turn Captain Desmond back and leave you on Dixon for a full five-year tour. They even promised me that you'd receive another promotion before your tour was up so you'd be able to move right into your own warship command when you left Dixon. I argued that you could be much more valuable to us elsewhere over the next four-years, even though I wholeheartedly concurred that you should get your own ship after that. We have plenty of good administrators, but few enough line officers like yourself. We argued back and forth for months. The final decision to allow Captain Desmond to relieve you as base commander wasn't made until several days before the Havana actually arrived at the station."

"I guess that explains why I wasn't given notice that he was arriving. Thank you, Admiral. I appreciate your support and that you were able to have me relieved on Dixon."

"The Admiralty Board was correct in their assessment of your ability to run that station. Since you left, I've received numerous requests from Captain Desmond for the immediate appointment of additional senior officers to his administrative staff. He claims to be inundated with work and can't comprehend how you were handling it with just one lieutenant as an aide."

"I didn't really have very much time to teach him my procedures. The Havana was only to be in port for seventy-two hours."

"Well, that was done at his request. He wanted to get in and take over quickly without any extended goodbyes to the staff from the outgoing Base Commander. He may have been a bit premature in making such a request before acquainting himself with the operation."

"Yes sir. Are there any plans for me now?"

"There were, but they'll have to be reevaluated in light of the press conference."

"What should I do about the other interviews?"

"Other interviews?" the admiral said, his eyes widening. "You've scheduled more press conferences?"

"Yes sir. We promised every news service broadcasting the opening statements of the press conference that we'd give them a private 30 minute interview."

The admiral stared at Jenetta for a few seconds without saying anything. "With your and Eliza's cooperation we might be able to turn this around. It'll be up to the two of you, Commander."

"If you'll assure me that the clones will have their status settled, I'll do whatever you wish, sir."

"I can assure you that Space Command is ready to address their status and make a recommendation. I can't speak for the Galactic Alliance Council."

"That's good enough for me, sir."

"When are these interviews supposed to start?"

"Tomorrow. We have six scheduled in the afternoon."

"Okay, Commander. You and Eliza report here tomorrow morning at 0900 hours so that we can rehearse what you'll say."

"Yes sir. Tomorrow at 0900 hours."

"You're dismissed, Commander."

Jenetta stood up, said, "Yes sir" then turned and left the room.

Eliza and Jenetta reported to the Admiral's office the next morning for the interview preparation. The base's information officer was waiting with the Admiral, and over the next couple of hours they discussed the interviews and how to respond to certain questions. The information officer also provided relevant information about the different journalists that would allow Jenetta and Eliza to easily change topics by mentioning certain things that could cause that particular interviewer to go off on a tangent and waste their half-hour in pointless chatter.

Jenetta had arranged for the loan of a small vacant store on the shopping concourse for the interviews, and she and Eliza were waiting there when the first reporter, Cameron Morris, and his cameraman, showed up. It took a few minutes for the cameraman to set up his camera tripod and backdrop so they could began.

"Commander, you made the first statement at the press conference so let me start with you. What will you do now to win basic rights from the Galactic Alliance Council for your sisters and the others from Dakistee?"

"Actually, Mr. Morris, the issue has almost been rendered academic. I learned this morning that Space Command Supreme Headquarters had already addressed the problem. They can't speak for member worlds, so the issue of Terran and Nordakian citizenship will still have to be decided by the Galactic Alliance Council and planetary governments involved, but the Admiralty Board has decided to provide visas to each of the seventy-nine new people that will allow them to travel freely anywhere in the galaxy. The new people were born on Dakistee, with technology legally developed by and for the Dakistee people millennia before the formation of the Galactic Alliance and Space Command. Since Dakistee is within the confines of Galactic Alliance territorial space, Space Command is justified in confiscating and dismantling the cloning equipment, but it considers the new people exempt from personal indictment under a grandfather clause in the Galactic Alliance Charter that addresses the use of pre-existing technology on member and non-member worlds. Space Command is officially considering the seventy-nine 'new' people to be citizens of Dakistee. In fact, they are to be the only Dakistee citizens until a formal government is established on the planet, and immigration privileges become available."

"Dakistee citizens? Then it really doesn't matter what the Galactic Alliance Council decides? Their status as citizens of Dakistee gives them basic sentient-life rights."

"It does. The new people have an identity now and can travel freely as Dakistee citizens. Those were our primary concerns. It would be wonderful if they're offered dual citizenship on the planets their originals call home, but if that's withheld, it won't affect them greatly."

"I see," Mr. Morris said, mentally crossing out many of the questions that he had intended to ask. "Then let's talk about the new book."

The rest of the interviews followed a similar pattern that day. The big nightly news lead was the recognition of citizenship rights for the people born on Dakistee, and the granting of galactic visas by Space Command under a provision in the original GA Charter. The pressure was immediately lifted from the Galactic Alliance Council and the issue died out within a few days. After the news had broken, the interviewers only concerned themselves with asking questions about the new book, or about the attack on the Loudescott archeological site by the Tsgardi ship.

Two weeks later, after the matter of the Dakistee Seventy-Nine had once again slipped into the foggy background of the collective subconscious, Jenetta was called to Admiral Holt's office.

She was only kept waiting for ten minutes on this occasion before being sent in to see the Admiral. Walking up to his desk, she came to attention and held it until he turned from his com unit and acknowledged her.

"Commander Jenetta Carver reporting as ordered, sir."

"Stand easy, Commander. Our attempt to defuse the Dakistee situation has worked better than expected. The G.A.C. is extremely pleased with the solution."

"That's good news, sir. Now perhaps they'll pass the legislation to give dual citizenship to the Dakistee citizens."

"Don't press it, Commander; they'll get to it when they can. The good news is that you stopped the nonsense in time to save your career. After reviewing your initial statement at the press conference, the Admiralty Board has decided that your comments were completely innocuous, and if not for the impassioned oratory by Eliza, the conference would probably have had a completely different tone. Since Eliza is not a Space Command officer, she certainly can't be held liable for her remarks. But don't ever think that I don't know you planned it this way. If you ever again feel that you must take action so contradictory to the precepts of the service, I hope you'll come to see me first. I'd hate to see you throw your career away for nothing."

"Yes sir. Thank you, sir."

"I've decided that you should have a little time away from here. The Royal Family on Nordakia has formally requested that you come for a visit, so I've arranged transportation for you."

"But sir, I haven't had a posting in more than five months. I've sat around on the Havana, sat around on Higgins, and now you want to send me to Nordakia? That's a four-month round trip aboard the Prometheus or Chiron, if we only spend a few days there. If I travel by destroyer, it's six months or more."

"This isn't a request, Commander. You'll travel aboard a Nordakian Cruiser, the Ezillusuh, set to depart two days from now. The Royal Family has also requested that Eliza accompany you. I suppose they want to question you both about your books."

"I can't speak for Eliza, but I think she'll welcome an opportunity to travel a little after being here on the station for so long."

"Fine. You understand that she'll be expected to dress the part?"

"You mean as a noble?"

"Yes, the same way you dressed for the party at the embassy."

"Me too, sir?"

"No, of course not," The admiral said. "You'll wear your uniform."

Jenetta breathed a sigh of relief.

"That's your Nordakian uniform, Commander. Or perhaps I should say Captain, since that's your rank in the Nordakian Space Force."

Jenetta's relief had been short lived. The Nordakian uniform was almost as uncomfortable as the formal wear of the palace. The skirt was only calf length but was almost as tight as the long gowns, and the knee length black leather boots had thirteen-centimeter stiletto heels that made her feet ache.

"How long will we be on Nordakia, sir?"

"As long as the Royal Family wishes you to remain there. A day, a week, a month, a year, five years, whatever. You are an officer of the Nordakian Space Force, Captain, and only on loan to Space Command at the pleasure of their majesties."

Jenetta grimaced. "Yes sir. Is that all, sir?"

"Yes, Commander. That's all. You're dismissed."

Jenetta turned and walked to the door, stepping out of the room as the dual doors slid noiselessly open, and then closed just as silently behind her.

Walking directly back to the BOQ, Jenetta stopped at Eliza's door and waited while the computer announced her presence outside the apartment. Eliza opened the door a few seconds later and stood to the side so that Jenetta could enter.

"Come on," Eliza said, "put on your sweats so we can go to the gym."

"I want to talk to you first. We're being shipped off to Nordakia. We leave in two days."


"Yes, both of us."


"Admiral Holt says the Royal Family has requested that we visit."

"Your voice says you don't believe that."

"I think that the Royal Family may have been asked to invite us. They want us out of the way for a while."


"I'm not sure. Perhaps it's because of the press conference. They might hope that our absence here will let everything die down completely. Or perhaps it's something else."

"Well, I don't have to go. I'm not in Space Command."

"You might as well be. You're being housed, clothed, and fed by Space Command. Besides, a few months away might be good for you. You said you're tired of being cooped up here, so it'll be nice to be on a planet again, with fresh air and sunshine."

"But we'll have to dress in those long, awful gowns, won't we?"


"And wear those terrible shoes with the thirteen-centimeter heels that make our feet ache."


"And you still think that I should go?"

"Yes. They must have a reason for shipping us off. Besides, why should I be the only one to suffer," Jenetta said grinning.

"Are you sure that my presence was requested?" Eliza said, grinning back at Jenetta.

"Come on, let's head over to the gym."

"Okay. It'll just take me a minute to get ready."

Two days later, Captain Jenetta Carver of the Nordakian Space Force reported aboard the Ezillusuh with Eliza and two very large cats. Jenetta was dressed in one of her Nordakian uniforms and the officer on duty at the docking entrance came to rigid attention as she and Eliza approached. They were quite a spectacle to those people on the dock unfamiliar with the forms of dress required of Nordakian women. Eliza was dressed in one of the gowns that barely allowed her to walk, and Jenetta didn't have much more mobility in her form fitting uniform. Both women were again wearing corsets that painfully constricted their waists by five centimeters. Jenetta would have had new uniforms and gowns made, but every time she'd been required to wear the restrictive clothes, she'd believed it was the last time. Although the palace dressmakers hadn't left enough fabric to let out the clothes around the torso, they'd left enough in the hem so the clothing could be altered for Jenetta and Eliza's new height.

While Eliza was wearing a headdress that extended almost to the deck, Jenetta had let down her hair. She'd had it trimmed to the proper length before reporting to the ship because it had grown quite a bit over the past year and a half. Although she had many times considered cutting it back to the acceptable Space Command length for loose hair, she had never done it, keeping it tightly rolled up at the base of her neck instead. As the commanding officer at Dixon, there was no one there to order her to get it cut.

Jenetta and Eliza were immediately escorted to a prepared VIP cabin, where they found three handmaidens waiting. The handmaidens would stay in an adjoining room, standard practice when transporting dignitaries aboard a military ship, but they would be available to attend the two women during all of their waking hours.

After settling in, Jenetta reported to the Captain on the bridge, and remained until after the ship left port and was on its way to Nordakia. The trip would take three months at top speed.

There wasn't much to do aboard the Nordakian ship, so Eliza spent most of her time in the cabin. Nordakian women weren't permitted to exercise with the men, so she and Jenetta couldn't spend any time in the gym. They exercised together in their cabin instead, using several bed pillows tied together to form a punching bag, much to the horror of the handmaidens. A cargo hold was set up for their use so they could run with the cats. Jenetta's Space Force service and senior rank gave her the run of the ship so she spent time on the bridge or in engineering, but she felt useless most of the time. Since the corset restricted how much they ate at any one sitting, they seemed to be eating almost constantly, munching on fruit or snacks throughout the entire day.

At least there were two women officers, both lieutenants, on the ship, and they all got together evenings to talk. Jenetta wondered if the discussions would have a corrupting influence on the women. She discovered, although it came as no real surprise, that neither of the two officers liked the tight skirts and boots, and both wished they had the freedoms that the men enjoyed. They expressed their hopes that, someday, the military would adopt uniforms like Space Command's. They were grateful, though, that they were allowed to wear their hair shorter than what was normally permitted on Nordakia. Both women wore it at the minimum length, so it only extended down to their derrières.

Finally arriving at Nordakia, after three months of travel, a shuttle took Jenetta and Eliza down to the surface. They were greeted by Minister Gkibuke at the palace shuttle pad.

"Captain Carver and Lady Carver. Kareer a Nordakia."

Both Jenetta and Eliza replied together, "Zrand Chekkora u Kareerdu," its Amer translation being, 'it's my honor to be welcomed here.'

"We have your suites all prepared. If you'll just follow me…"

Eliza had the most difficulty walking, so everyone walked at her pace. It made for an amusing parade, the minister, Jenetta and Eliza with the cats, the handmaidens, and the porters with the luggage, all walking at a snails pace. But for the cats, it was a common enough sight at the palace.

'All that's missing are the juggling clowns and calliope music,' Jenetta thought facetiously, as the group crept along towards the residences.

Jenetta and Eliza had been assigned adjoining suites in the area of the palace reserved for royal visitors. The three handmaidens that had traveled with the women went with Eliza, and Jenetta found Vronnesa, Znanna and Tkusa waiting for her in her suite. After the minister left, the four women had a warm reunion.

Jenetta's first order of business was to take off the uniform. It was late and she had been wearing the boots all day. Over the previous three months, she had grown more accustomed to wearing the heels, but her feet still ached at the end of each day. Her three handmaidens undressed her and ran a bath so that she could relax in the warm water. Jenetta had learned on her last visit not to waste her time fighting them, so she just relaxed and let them take care of her. She also had to worry about appearing to fight off attackers in the presence of the cats, who restlessly padded around the bathroom and bedroom during their first few hours there. Jenetta had to admit that being pampered like royalty, occasionally, was nice.

After being dried and prepared for bed, Jenetta relaxed in the enormous bed, which had been adjusted according to the specifications she had used on her previous visit, and fell into a deep sleep.

In the morning, the three handmaidens called lightly to Jenetta to wake her. The cats wouldn't allow them to approach the bed while she was sleeping, so they called from about three meters away. Once she was up, the handmaidens led her into the bathroom and bathed her again. Dried, powdered, and perfumed, she was guided back into the bedroom, where they dressed her in clean underwear and then wrapped the corset around her. Vronnesa used the white controller to reduce her waist as Jenetta tried to expel enough air to help the process. Then the three handmaidens finished dressing her in stockings, shoes, slip, and gown. Vronnesa had tightened the corset more than necessary, so she relaxed it a little until the gown fit properly. Jenetta was grateful for the small adjustment.

Once fully dressed Jenetta took the mincing steps allowed by the gown and walked to the outer room where her breakfast was waiting. As always, the corset kept her from eating very much, and she was soon full, if not satisfied. She had requested that a large bowl of fruit always remain filled so she could snack. Instead of being given time to relax after breakfast, her handmaidens immediately whisked her off to the beauty spa. The first task was to repair her hair. A number of strands had broken since her last visit to Nordakia.

Shaped like an oversized, open faced space helmet mounted on a tall plastic box, the machine would carefully separate and trace every single strand on her head, seamlessly extending any that had broken off with a synthetic hair that perfectly matched the original.

When she was done, every hair that grew from her head appeared to almost reach the floor. She stood perfectly still as her handmaidens trimmed the hair to exactly the right length of one finger width from the floor, since only the Queen's hair was allowed to actually touch the floor. When they were done, the thickened blond tresses again made Jenetta feel like Lady Godiva. She could easily use the voluminous mane to protect her modesty if she was naked.

No sooner had Jenetta finished with the hair machine than Eliza arrived with her entourage of three handmaidens. Currently, her hair barely reached the middle of her shoulder blades, although it hadn't been shortened since her birth on Dakistee. Jenetta estimated that she would be wedded to the hair machine for at least a couple of hours.

Moving to a recliner so that she could receive a manicure while she received a facial, Jenetta fell asleep.

Chapter Twenty-Four

~ July 22nd, 2272 ~

Jenetta and Eliza lunched together in Jenetta's room after returning from the spa. On this trip there would be no tome carrying tutors waiting to occupy her time with lessons, so the entire day was free for whatever activity they chose.

As they were having desert, Jenetta remarked to Eliza, "I don't understand it. I haven't been able to stop thinking about Christa since the minute we arrived. I guess I feel so terribly guilty being pampered while she may be suffering."

"I know what you mean. I haven't been able to get her out of my mind either. Perhaps it's because we've just been sitting around without anything to occupy our minds. That hair helmet should at least have music piped into it. I'm glad we don't have to do that very often."

"You've been thinking about her also?"

"Ever since I woke up. No, that's not correct. I've been thinking about her off and on since we landed."

"I wonder if you've been picking up on my thoughts."

"Or you picking up mine. You know what they say about bonds between siblings; especially siblings that were together in the womb."

"We weren't in the womb together, Eliza. I was thirty-three years old when you were born."

"We were in the womb together, literally. We were together as one person then. That makes us even closer than twins who develop from the splitting of an egg already fertilized by a single sperm. I am you and you are me."

"But we've never been affected by each other's thoughts before."

"How do we know? Whenever we've been together we've been working towards the same goals. When you were on Dixon, you were too far away to be affected by my thinking, or I by yours."

"Okay, let's test it. What am I thinking right now?"

"You're thinking— that you've had enough to eat for the moment because your corset is killing you."

Jenetta looked at Eliza and laughed. "Is that your brain speaking, or your mid-section?"

Eliza giggled. "Maybe both, but I know that I'm full and my corset is killing me."

"Me too, but I don't think that was a valid test. What else are you getting?"

"I still can't get the image of Christa out of my head."

"Me too. Maybe we are connected. Let's relax and try to think about something else."

Rising from the small table where Jenetta took her meals, they moved to Jenetta's sitting area and selected comfortable chairs as the six handmaidens cleared the table. The cats took up places on either side of Jenetta's chair. Their senses may be confused by Eliza's smell, but their ability to identify Jenetta was infallible.

"What are you thinking now?" Jenetta asked after a few minutes.

"I'm thinking—that I hope palace security is excellent. I could never fight off an assassin dressed like this. I can't even get up out of this chair without assistance."

"I've had that same thought every time I'm encased in one of these gowns. I always have such a feeling of helplessness until I'm free again."

"You said a couple of months ago that you'd go to the Uthlaro Dominion to find Christa."

"Yes," Jenetta said.

"We have quite a bit of money in our book account with the new advances. How much would a small ship cost?"

"They're not cheap; not if we want one that will get us there in a reasonable time. Are you thinking that you want to go?"

"I want to see Christa free. Like you, I'll do whatever is necessary."

"I'll probably have to give up my commission. I doubt that they'll give me a ten year leave of absence."

"Ten years?"

"That's how long it will take to get there and return, assuming that we find her right away. It could take twice that long if we run into problems or can't locate her."

"What about outfitting the ship with weapons?"

"That's an absolute necessity. I know where we can have that done in the Frontier Zone. I learned quite a bit about such matters while I was at Dixon."

"How soon can we leave?"

"As soon as we get back to Higgins I'll resign my commission. Then we book passage to Urgucet. I know the name of a dealer there who has a large inventory of the kinds of ship we'll want. He caters mainly to smugglers, and can get whatever you want if he doesn't have anything in stock. Once we get into the Frontier Zone, we'll have the ship outfitted to meet most problems we might encounter."

"Sounds like a plan."

"Yes. But we can't begin until I can get us back to Higgins."

Listening to Nordakian poetry as the handmaidens took turns reading, the two women relaxed to the extent permitted by the restrictive clothing and the thoughts that were racing through their heads about the upcoming mission. Their thoughts and repose was interrupted when a palace page arrived at the door. Vronnesa spoke with him and then came over to Jenetta.

"My Lady, the Queen asks that you and Lady Eliza come to her rooms."

"Of course. When?"

"Now, My Lady, if it's convenient. She also asks that you bring your pets, so she may see them."

Jenetta looked over at Eliza who nodded. "We're ready."

The handmaidens helped Jenetta and Eliza stand up, then  straightened their clothes and fixed their hair to perfection before the group followed the waiting page to the Queen's quarters. The big cats walked alongside Jenetta and Eliza, and each group of handmaidens followed their mistress. The page, whose walking was not restricted in any way, nevertheless led very slowly. He was obviously accustomed to the Queen's pace.

Arriving at the Queen's suite, the party halted and waited in the corridor to be admitted. After just a few minutes, the two wide doors of the suite were opened and Jenetta and Eliza were admitted with the animals. As always, the handmaidens remained behind in the corridor.

Jenetta and Eliza approached the queen, bowed their heads, and pressed their hands against their chests, Jenetta's open and flat, Eliza's closed.

"Please lift your heads, ladies," the queen said.

"My Queen," Jenetta said as she raised her head, "we're honored to be summoned into your presence."

"You are always welcome here, Captain, as are your sisters. Welcome to the Royal Palace, Eliza."

"Thank you, your Majesty. It's my honor to be welcomed here."

"Captain, your beasts are magnificent," the queen said as she admired Cayla and Tayna.

"Thank you, my Queen. They've become treasured companions. Unless I'm threatened, they're as friendly as could be."

"I see that. Captain, I want to congratulate you on another successful attack against the Raiders, but mostly I want to personally thank you for the treasure that you have given us."

"Treasure, your highness?"

"Greater than all the gold and jewels in the universe. You've delivered to us the original Almuth, as I'm sure you well know. Finding it in the computer core that you presented to the ambassador came as a considerable shock, and has shaken our priesthood to its very core. No one ever suspected that our ancestors had come to this planet so they could follow a modified version of the True Word. It finally explained things that had mystified scholars for centuries. They never understood why the page numbering, on what we believed to be an original document, wasn't consistent. Pages seemed to end without full explanation of what they appeared to be conveying, and additional pages seemed to have been inserted because they contained no page numbering. We understand now that our ancestors cut out the passages that they wished to ignore and added new passages that better fit their idea of how the Almuth should read. They deviated from the Almuth in ways that never would have been accepted on Dakistee."

"It wasn't our place to announce what we found. We thought it better that you discover it for yourself and decide whether it should be made public."

"Our scholars and academicians have been arguing over that very fact for more than a year. His Majesty has finally decided that we've been living a lie for millennia, and that the True Word shall be restored to the people. We've printed up millions of volumes, and they will be distributed shortly. A few priests have objected, and say that if the books are distributed, they'll take their followers and leave the planet, much as the original groups must have done on Dakistee. But the True Word will no longer be repressed by a handful of extremists."

"What will you do, your Majesty?"

"This planet isn't a prison. We shall allow anyone to leave who wishes it. Their threats won't dissuade us from spreading the True Word, as it was indeed written on Dakistee."

"There was another document in the core that I felt you should find and decide whether or not to reveal."

"You're talking about the report that puts the blame for the Dakistee viral infection squarely on the shoulders of the extremist priesthood?"

"Exactly. The government case seems pretty conclusive. The virus was developed by one of the followers, and the priests who took them off planet infected food supplies and the drinking water systems in major reservoirs just before they left. The King's agents found schedules and documents in one of the rectories. In fact, the documents provided the information they needed to eradicate the virus, though it was too late to save the population from extinction."

"The King and his advisors have decided that the document should not be made public at this time. It would serve no useful end for our people to know that our ancestors had committed mass genocide in the name of a false religious document. It will be retained in the archives, though, in case rebellious actions by the current priesthood necessitate its release."

"I think that they'll be more amenable to the changes if they know of its existence."

"Yes, we agree. The religious leadership has been shown a copy. While they have so far stopped short of throwing their full support behind restoring the True Word, they are wisely not seeking to suppress it. The few priests in opposition haven't had access to the document. We will proceed as planned."

"It will mean sweeping changes, your Majesty."

"Yes, but for the better. The modified Almuth has held our people back for hundreds of centuries. The original version contained no bans on using the technology that the brilliant minds of our people could conceive, nor restrictions on the way that women could participate in society. There were also no requirements for the length of a woman's hair or the clothing that she must wear. That was a modification by the priests who led our people here. There will be many changes, but those things will finally free our people. And we have you, and your sisters, to thank for it."

"We're most happy that we could serve our people."

"We also found the news broadcasts in the core to be most interesting. Our scientists have been debating the appearance of our ancestors most vigorously. Their smaller stature and skin coloration was more closely akin to that of Terrans than as we now appear."

"The generally accepted physical form of my Terran ancestors in that era, as presented by the scientific community on Earth, is also quite different than the way we now appear. I suppose every species is going to change over a period of twenty-thousand years."

"Yes, I suppose that's so, but our scientists have begun an investigation to learn if Terrans and Nordakians are related."

"On Earth, scientists have sought to learn how life originated for centuries. One speculation is that micro-organisms were brought to Earth on a meteor, and the existing conditions made the planet ripe for an explosion of life. Perhaps it happened similarly on Dakistee."

"It's a new area for our scientists because no connection with indigenous life forms here could ever be established. The name of our world has always suggested that we came from somewhere else, but no records were ever found to support that."

"Perhaps future discoveries by your scientists on Dakistee will provide more relevant information for the investigation."

"Perhaps. We shall be observing their efforts with a keen eye. And to properly thank you for your role in all this, I have something for you; something precious to both of you."

The Queen signaled to a handmaiden standing near a door, who in response turned and opened it. Jenetta and Eliza stood open mouthed in shock and surprise as another woman walked in. Recovering, they both ran to her, to the extent allowed by the gowns. The cats, instantly alert to the mood of their mistress, naturally reached the woman first, but were confused by her scent.

"Christa," Jenetta yelled as they reached her, and then the three women were together and hugging each other. They carried on for several minutes, crying as they spoke each other's names, and hugging each other tightly. The cats circled the group trying to determine what they should do, if anything. Finally, the women tried to get their emotions somewhat under control and walked, half-giggling and half-crying, back to the Queen.

"Your Majesty," Jenetta said with a voice still choked with emotion, "I could not have asked for a better gift. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. But how did you find her?"

"You're most welcome, my dears. I'll let Christa tell you her story. I know that you'll want some privacy, so why don't you go back to your rooms for now and continue your reunion. Tonight you'll all join us at dinner."

"Yes, your Majesty. Thank you again."

The three women backed away several steps and then turned and left the room, arms locked together. The door had barely closed before both Jenetta and Eliza were pumping Christa for information.

"Okay, okay, one at a time," Christa said, wiping away her own tears of happiness.

"How did you get here?" Jenetta asked.

"A Nordakian freighter picked me up. They brought me here."

"What do you mean 'picked me up?'" Eliza asked, using her turn to speak.

"I was in an escape pod and they found me."

"How'd you get into an escape pod?"

"It was a Tsgardi pod from the Boshdyte. I'd been pretending for weeks that I was getting weaker and weaker, so the guards were getting more and more lax. They knew the Captain interrogated me daily and beat me at every visit. After I overheard a couple of guards talking about what they were going to do when we reached the Raider base in a few weeks, I figured I'd better get out of there fast. I couldn't count on someone dropping a controller like last time. When I was taken to the sick bay for an examination, I waited until the lone guard looked away for a second and then picked up an instrument sterilization unit. As the guard turned back I bent it over his head, knocking him senseless. Then I hit the doctor. I hated to do that because he had been the only one on board that was kind to me, but I had to get off that ship. I did check and make sure that I hadn't killed him. He was okay, just groggy from the assault.

"Next I opened the door from the sickbay and checked the corridor. It was empty, so I sprinted to the nearest escape pod. I knew that I'd never make it to a shuttle or space tug while I was wearing the shackles. By the way, the shackles were much easier to run in then these dresses. Anyway, as soon as I was in the pod, I punched the eject button. I was really relieved when the pod ejected. I'd heard a couple of the guards talking one day, and apparently they didn't believe that very many of the pod engines would fire, if needed, because the maintenance chief was such an incompetent oaf.

"The ship must have been traveling at Light-187 or faster, so even though they knew that a pod ejected, they would have been at least a billion kilometers away by the time they realized that I was the one who'd left. I assumed they would turn the ship around to look for me, so I disconnected the emergency beacon and turned off all the power in the pod, except for minimal life support. Then I just sat down in the dark and waited, and waited, and waited. I used the time to pick the locks on the manacles. I spent a full month sitting, eating, and sleeping in the dark, hoping during all my awake hours that the Tsgardi couldn't spot the tiny energy signature of the life support system. I figured after 30 days that they'd probably stopped looking, so I reconnected the emergency beacon, and climbed into a stasis bed. After our last experience, I knew that it might be years before I was found. As it turned out, I was found after only five months. The medical officer on the Nordakian freighter didn't know how to reverse the Tsgardi stasis bed process, so they parked me in the corner of a hold and brought me here. I was revived three and a half months ago."

"Three and a half months ago?!" Jenetta said. "And you couldn't call us and let us know that you were okay?"

"Minister Gkibuke called Admiral Holt while I was still recuperating. That's when I learned about my new name. I love it, by the way. Anyway, the Admiral told the minister that he'd have both of you on a ship headed this way within two days, and he asked the minister not to let anyone know about finding me until we had been reunited."

"Why that old so-and-so," Eliza said. "He knew all along and never told us."

"He probably thought it would be a nice surprise."

"It was a wonderful surprise," Jenetta said, "but I'd have preferred knowing that you were okay during our trip here."

The three women spent the rest of the afternoon talking about everything that had happened since Mawcett, and only stopped because they had to get ready for dinner with the King and Queen.

As they walked together, side by side toward the palace banquet hall, Jenetta idly wondered if Nordakians who hadn't seen Terrans before, would think they all looked alike. The three women, standing six-feet four-inches in the heels, would certainly change the misconception that Terrans were all midgets. Her Majesty had sent a request that the cats accompany the women to the dinner so the other guests could see the animals. Jenetta was concerned that the large assemblage would cause the cats great agitation, so she sat on the floor and spoke to them for several minutes before they left their palace suite, soothingly explaining how secure the palace was and that there was little danger from the guests, so they should be on their best behavior. The cats were fed before going to the banquet so that hunger wouldn't affect their conduct.

A large group of dignitaries were already assembled for the dinner, and more were arriving as the dinner hour approached. The three identical women naturally became the center of attention, but the other guests didn't try to get too close because the cats growled menacingly if anyone moved closer than half a meter. Despite Jenetta's attempt to prepare them for the crowd, they were still nervous with all the people crowding around to stare. They must also have been feeling some confusion about the new woman who smelled and looked just like their mistress and the other one. While wearing the thirteen-centimeter heels, the three sisters weren't much shorter than most Nordakian women; and since they spoke fluent Dakis, they were able to participate in any conversation.

Called into the dining room at the appointed time, the guests were escorted to their seats at the various tables, while Jenetta, Eliza, and Christa were seated at the head table with the King and Queen. Jenetta and Christa sat on the King's right side, and Eliza sat on the Queen's left. Despite the confusing smells, the cats were somehow able to discern which was Jenetta and stayed by her chair.

The meal, as befits a royal banquet, was delicious, and no affair of state would be complete without speeches, so after dessert had been served and eaten, the King stood up to speak. Palace scribes rushed to record his words for posterity.

"My people, I'm glad you could join us tonight for this fine repast. I have to stand for a few minutes to help my digestion, so I thought I might as well say a few words." The King paused while a polite round of chuckling passed around the room. "I'd like to introduce my guests here at the head table, although they really need no introduction. On my immediate right is Captain Jenetta Carver of our own Space Force," the king paused while the guests applauded, "and to her right is her sister Christa." After another pause for applause, he continued, "And to my beautiful Queen's left is Captain Carver's sister Eliza."

When the applause subsided, he said, "As I'm sure you already know, Christa and Eliza are what we have been calling, 'new people'. They were born less than two years ago on what has been known as Mawcett, but what will only be known on Nordakia as Dakistee from this day forward. Dakistee has been proven to be the original homeland of our people, and it was technology created by our far distant ancestors that's responsible for Eliza and Christa being here with us today. Although they are 'new people', I can assure you that they are no less complete than Captain Carver herself. As Dakistee has been proven to be the original homeland of our people, I have decided to offer dual citizenship to all seventy-nine citizens of that planet who desire it. I hope that this will finally put an end to lingering debates surrounding the issue of their births."

The room erupted in applause following the announcement. Jenetta, Christa, and Eliza were shocked by the unexpected declaration, but recovered quickly and joined in the ovation.

The King continued after the applause had died down. "You're aware that Captain Carver, fighting against a vastly superior force on Dakistee, protected the technology of our ancestors from theft by Raiders. One of the items that she was able to save for us was a computer core dating back almost twenty thousand years. Buried among the priceless historical records in that computer core was a version of the Almuth that we had never seen. After a year of study by our greatest scholars, it's been established, beyond any doubt whatsoever, that it's the original version. The version we've been faithfully following as the True Word, is actually a carefully edited document prepared by a handful of religious renegades who founded the original colonies here on Nordakia."

The room full of dignitaries, normally very quiet during a speech made by the King, seemed to have even stopped breathing. Most had heard of the discovery of the original Almuth, but few had yet seen a copy, and they didn't know if it was to be accepted as the doctrine that the planet would follow.

"This day I've signed a proclamation that the original version shall be restored as the One True Word. Millions of copies are being printed, and will be distributed, beginning tomorrow, to schools, government offices, and religious centers. The old copies will be collected and destroyed, except for copies to be housed in museums and official archives, purely for historical purposes. Publishers are being given copies of the original document so they may reproduce them for purchase by our citizens, and electronic downloads will be free to all. Observing the original Almuth will result in many changes in the way that we live. The religious leaders that brought our people here apparently felt they should follow a much stricter discipline than the original Almuth required. Their changes resulted in our people surrendering many of their rights, and many of the advances that had been made by our ancestors. Technology was totally shunned by those leaders, and new restrictions to freedom were imposed. It's only been during the past few hundred years that new, looser interpretations allowed our people to once again employ technology that would make our lives easier, healthier, longer, and more rewarding. The original version finds no fault with the way we've been living, and in fact allows greater freedoms. The Almuth shall continue to be our guiding beacon, but its light will shine a little brighter than before for our people.

"I wish to again thank Captain Carver, Christa Carver, and Eliza Carver for bringing the original Almuth back to our people." The King began the applause and standing ovation that lasted several minutes while the skin color of the audience flashed in shades of blue, green, yellow, and tan. As the attendees retook their seats, the king continued with, "Azula Carver," he said, looking at Jenetta, "we owe you a debt we can never repay. But I've arranged for a small gift as a token of our great admiration and affection. I hope it will please you. I have today, by royal decree, appended all royal lands on the Gavistee Peninsula to your existing estate."

The room erupted in applause again, and the noble born of Nordakia rose to their feet as one, their skin color flashing like a prism twisting in the sunlight. Jenetta was speechless so the applause gave her time to compose herself and think of something to say.

When the nobles had retaken their seat, Jenetta said, "Your majesties, I am very grateful for the honors and gifts you have bestowed upon me and my family. I am most appreciative, and I will continue to dedicate my life to your service and to the protection and advancement of all our people. Thank you, your majesties."

With the speeches over, the guests moved to the ballroom to listen to the orchestra. Jenetta privately wondered how long it would take for dancing to become a custom if less restrictive gowns became common. In spite of the music, people crowded around the three Terran women, as close as the cats allowed, to ply them with questions about Dakistee and the original Almuth.

Following the dinner party, Jenetta, Christa, and Eliza returned to Jenetta's rooms and talked for several hours more. It was like a pajama party with the sisters that Jenetta never had as a child. For this evening, they shared the same enormous bed.

In the morning, the three women discussed the previous night's events as they ate breakfast. Both Christa and Eliza had decided to accept the Nordakian offer of citizenship. There had been little doubt that they would. It would give them the protection of a real planetary government and more firmly establish their rights as 'real beings' instead of just 'clones.'

Jenetta kept hoping to run into Minister Dtaple Gkibuke, but in the several days following the dinner party she never encountered him. She finally sent a request that he visit her. He arrived at her rooms within an hour of receiving the request.

"Minister, thank you for coming so promptly," Jenetta said after he had been ushered into her sitting room and her three handmaidens had withdrawn.

"I am honored to have been summoned into your presence, My Lady."

"I have a question, and I've been a bit embarrassed to ask anyone else."

"I will answer it openly and honestly if I know the answer, My Lady."

"The King and Queen have increased the size of my estate, but I'm afraid I'm ignorant of exactly what that means. You see, I've never been to Gavistee. Is the peninsula quite large, and how much land has been added to the million hectares I was granted originally?"

"My lady, the peninsula is quite large. If I remember correctly, it's somewhere along the lines of thirty-six million hectares."

"That's considerable," Jenetta said. "And how much land is now included in my estate."

"Why, thirty-six million hectares, My Lady. The entire peninsula was owned by the crown."

Jenetta gasped, then coughed once. If her mental calculation was correct, thirty-six million hectares was about three-hundred sixty thousand square kilometers. That was almost the combined size of Kansas and Oklahoma back on Earth.

"The entire peninsula was Royal land?"

"Yes, My Lady. Hence the name. It was intended literally when the planet was settled."

Jenetta knew that Gavistee translated to 'Queensland' in Amer.

"The king said it was a small gift," Jenetta remarked.

"And so it is, My Lady. Their majesties have many billions of hectares of land on both Nordakia and Obotymot. Your Gavistee estate represents, oh, roughly, just two percent of all vegetational cover under cultivation on the planet before the meteor struck; and an almost insignificant amount of the total arable land."

"Perhaps the estate size is small to our majesties, but I'm quite overwhelmed."

"My Lady, the return of the original Almuth will radically change our two planets. Not a single individual will remain who is not affected. We owe that to you. The king said the land is a small gift, and so it is, compared to the gift that you have given us. I believe that Obotymot will grow closer again because the priesthood can no longer be justifiably critical of their freer lifestyle. You have changed all our lives, and we are grateful almost beyond words."

Jenetta smiled. "Thank you, minister."

"Thank you, My Lady."

It didn't take long for word of the King's offered citizenship to reach the G.A.C. In a special session, so as not to be outdone by one of its member planets, the G.A.C. finally passed legislation guaranteeing the rights of the seventy-nine 'new people,' and recommending that planets offer full citizenship rights to the 'new people' created from their citizens. Earth immediately offered dual citizenship to the clones of the nine Terran scientists, and Christa and Eliza. The Carver women finally had the simple recognition that they had been seeking.

A few days later, the oath of Nordakian citizenship was administered to Christa and Eliza in a private ceremony held in the palace. The King also honored Christa and Eliza by proclaiming each to be a 'Lady of the Royal House.' Jenetta had received that honor before the cloning took place, so it was only right that the two 'new' women have the title. Neither woman could share the title of Azula since there could be only one for the estate on Obotymot.

Changes began appearing on Nordakia almost immediately. In the palace, the dressmakers were worked overtime in preparing new gowns for the Queen and court. At least for the present, the lengths would remain the same, but the skirts became wide and even voluminous in some cases. At the very least, slits appeared so that it was easy to take normal steps. Jenetta, Christa, and Eliza were finally liberated from the necessity to ever again wear corsets when all new gowns were made for them, this time with the proper waist measurement.

The Queen led the reform in hair length by having her hair cut so that it only fell midway down her back. She would have liked to have cut it shorter but she was afraid that women still clinging to the old ways would have their locks shorn too high, so as not to offend the Queen by having hair nearly as long or longer.

The military immediately changed the uniforms worn by women. They weren't quite ready for trousers yet, but the skirts were shortened to knee-length, and styled fuller so as to allow a full step without restriction. The Queen privately promised Jenetta that within a year, she would make sure that trousers were part of the women's accepted uniform standards. The high-heeled boots remained standard women's footwear, however; at least for the time being. But the heel became much more stout so that they offered better stability, and therefore placed less strain on the ankles and arches.

Asked to make a good will tour, Jenetta visited a number of bases in her new uniforms, with her hair shortened to shoulder length. The Queen hoped that Jenetta's example would encourage quicker acceptance of the newly revised regulations. It seemed to work, and the more comfortable skirts and shorter hair were adopted immediately by the women of the service. Jenetta was happy to be rid of the long hair, but before it was cut, she, Christa, and Eliza had a number of pictures taken that could be sent to Mom. They posed together in the former ultra-tight gowns with their almost floor length tresses clearly visible, and the cats at either end.

A few days after completing her tours of the bases, a message arrived from Space Command for Jenetta. As it was from Admiral Holt, she played the encrypted message in the privacy of her rooms after decoding it using the encryption codes on her personal log ring.

"Commander Carver, the battleship Bellona will be arriving at Nordakia within 24 hours with orders to return you to Higgins. I request that Christa and Eliza return with you so that they might officially be granted their Terran citizenship, if they wish it. Space Command also wishes to officially recognize their participation in the actions at Dakistee, should they return with you. I'll see you in two months, Commander.

"Brian Holt, Rear Admiral, Upper Half, Higgins Space Command Base, message complete."

Neither Christa nor Eliza were required to go to Higgins since they weren't Space Command officers, but they did want to get their Terran citizenship recorded. The trip would be considerably quicker on the return trip than it had been on the Nordakian cruiser coming to the planet.

Chapter Twenty-Five

~ August 3rd, 2272 ~

Two days later the three women bid goodbye to the King and Queen, and thanked them for everything, especially for saving Christa. After saying goodbye to the handmaidens as they vacated their rooms, they walked to the shuttle waiting on the pad. Jenetta had already changed into her Space Command uniform, now permitted in the palace, although they had requested that Jenetta wear her Nordakian uniform or a gown for all except her last day.

The captain of the Bellona, Edward Hyden, greeted them personally at the flight bay, although he approached them slowly when he noticed the cats eyeing him warily. He had gotten to know Jenetta quite well while the Bellona was stationed at Dixon, and he was anxious to meet her sisters.

During the trip to Higgins, the three women were frequent guests in Captain Hyden's dining room for evening meals. Many of the conversations concerned tactics employed in the Battle of Vuazlee, the Battle for Higgins SCB, and the Battle for the Dixon SCB. There were also extensive discussions about the defense of Mawcett/Dakistee.

Quarters at the BOQ had already been arranged for the three women when they arrived at Higgins, and their instructions were to report to Admiral Holt's office at 0900 the following morning. Appropriate dress would be an officer's dress uniform without insignia for Christa and Eliza, while Jenetta would wear her full dress uniform. The citizenship pledge was considered a formal ceremony.

The three women caused quite a stir as they walked to the headquarters section the following morning. They'd had their hair cut in the same shoulder-length style on Nordakia, and, except for the rank, collar insignia, and medals that Jenetta wore, they appeared identical as they walked side by side.

They were only kept waiting for a few minutes before being sent into Admiral Holt's office. The room was already crowded with captains and a few commanders. Jenetta knew most of them from her time on Higgins and Dixon, but she walked directly to Admiral Holt's desk and came to attention, with Eliza and Christa on either side.

"Stand easy. Welcome back ladies. It's wonderful to see you all safe and together again. I hope that you've forgiven me my little surprise. I felt that it would be acceptable since it was such a nice surprise that Christa was alive and well."

"Of course, Admiral," Jenetta said, smiling. "It was a wonderful surprise to find Christa on Nordakia."

"Good." Admiral Holt stood up and came out from behind his desk. "The room will come to order. Commander, you may join the other officers."

Admiral Holt administered the citizenship pledge and then shook hands with Eliza and Christa. "Ladies, I've been instructed by Supreme HQ to ask if either, or both, of you would like to enter the service?"

Christa and Eliza looked at one another and then turned to the Admiral.

"Would we have to attend the Academy again?" Christa asked.


"Yes sir," Eliza said. "We have all of Jenetta's memories so it's as if we were there. We have a complete knowledge of everything that she learned, so it would be pointless to spend four years there."

"That's not a problem. Space Command agrees and has decided there would be little use in having you attend the Academy. You would be credited with Commander Carver's education credentials including graduation from NHSA, and immediately enter the service as Ensigns. Because you are both, technically, only two years old, Space Command can't credit you with any of Commander Carver's prior years of service, even though you have her memories of it."

Christa and Eliza looked at one another. They didn't say a word, but didn't have to. They turned back to the Admiral and said simultaneously, "Joining Space Command is our greatest desire."

The admiral was taken aback by the unrehearsed statement, spoken with such synchronization that only one voice could be discerned. He smiled and said, "Wonderful. The room will come to attention."

Christa and Eliza came immediately to rigid attention, as did all the officers in the room.

"By special order of Space Command Headquarters, I'm pleased to announce that Christa Marie Carver and Eliza Kathleen Carver, having satisfied the educational requirements of Space Command's Northern Hemisphere Space Academy, are officially graduated from that fine institution, and inducted into the Galactic Space Command with the rank of Ensign." The Admiral administered the Space Command oath of loyalty, and then said, "Congratulations, Ladies."

The Admiral saluted Eliza and Christa and they returned the salute.

"Remain at attention, please," Admiral Holt said.

"Christa Marie Carver, for conspicuous service to the Galactic Alliance, by selflessly endangering your life while acting as a decoy so shuttles carrying confiscated equipment would not fall into the hands of the Raiders, you are immediately promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Junior Grade on this 3rd day of October, 2272."

The admiral took a Lieutenant (jg)'s insignia from a box and pinned it on the right epaulet on Christa's uniform, handing her a second. Then he saluted her and she returned his salute.

The Admiral next moved over to Eliza.

"Eliza Kathleen Carver, for conspicuous service to the Galactic Alliance, by selflessly endangering your life while acting as a shuttle pilot to escape from Raiders with confiscated equipment, you are immediately promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Junior Grade on this 3rd day of October, 2272."

The admiral took a Lieutenant(jg)'s insignia from another box and likewise pinned it on Eliza's uniform, handing her the second. Then he saluted her and she returned his salute.

"The room shall be at rest," the Admiral said. "The ceremony is complete."

Eliza and Christa turned to Jenetta and all three had tears in their eyes. They hugged without regard for what anyone thought. Then the other officers moved in and congratulated the two women.

With the ceremony over, the other officers began to leave after offering their congratulations. Jenetta turned to the Admiral to see if they were dismissed.

"Stand by, Commander, until the room is clear."

As the last officer left and the doors closed, leaving only Jenetta, Eliza, Christa, and Captain Kanes with the Admiral, the Admiral said to Eliza and Christa, "Ladies, Captain Kanes has requested that one of you be assigned to his section. Knowing that Commander Carver has several times stated her preference for a shipboard position, and knowing her competence in that regard, I told him that I would ask you before making any assignments. Do either of you wish to work in the Intelligence Section?"

"Thank you, sir," Christa said, "but I'd prefer a position aboard a ship. I thank the Captain for his offer though."

"I feel the same way, sir," Eliza said.

"I expected as much. Very well." Handing each woman a data ring attached to a card with her name, Holt said, "Lt. Christa Carver, you will report to the captain aboard the GSC battleship Chiron for bridge duty when it arrives in port in one month's time. Until then you'll report to Captain Kanes for temporary duty in Intelligence. He feels that if you have a chance to work there you might have a change of heart." The admiral paused and looked at Eliza. "Lt. Eliza Carver, you'll report to the captain aboard the GSC battleship Bellona, currently in port, for bridge duty assignment. You two ladies are dismissed and may wait in the outer office for Commander Carver."

The two new lieutenants came to attention, then turned and left the office. Jenetta stood there, unsure of what was about to come.

"Commander," the admiral said, "have you had enough of lounging around?"

"Very definitely, sir."

"Good. Captain Kanes has a little trip in mind and he'd like to discuss it with you."

"Yes sir. Am I being assigned to the Intelligence Section?"

"Just temporarily. Captain Kanes feels that your contact with freighter officers while on Dixon might be useful in drawing up a plan of action. Then he'll travel with you on the Prometheus when it leaves. It's due to dock here in about four to six weeks."

"With me, sir?"

"Yes, the Prometheus will spearhead the project."

"Am I being re-assigned to the Prometheus, sir?"

"Oh, did I leave that out?" Admiral Holt said innocently, with the hint of a smile. "Yes, you're being re-assigned to the Prometheus. I'm sure that doesn't upset you, eh?"

"No sir. Absolutely not. Is Commander Eaton being assigned elsewhere?

"No, he'll remain on as second officer."

"Then what will I be doing, sir?"

"You're replacing Commander Tighe, who's been promoted to the rank of captain and given his own ship, the Austin, a new destroyer being launched in about six months. He's been filling your position on the Prometheus during the past year and a half, so as to get some experience in battleship operations, while waiting for his ship to be completed at Mars."

"My position?"

"Yes, the position that Captain Gavin promised to hold for you."

"I don't understand. I thought that Commander Eaton was permanently assigned to my old position?"

"That's right. Commander Eaton was placed in your old position. Commander Tighe was placed in your new position. Immediately after being promoted to Commander, and following Commander LaSalle's unfortunate accident, you were named as First Officer of the Prometheus to replace her, but since you were temporarily assigned to Dixon, Tighe was assigned to fill in for you. He joined the ship when it reached the Mars shipyard."

Jenetta was stunned. "I'm to be the First Officer on the Prometheus?"

"You already are the First Officer. You were listed as being on temporary assignment to Dixon, and you've been listed as being temporarily assigned to Higgins since completing your tour there. I'm glad we're finally able to complete these assignments. Captain Gavin keeps asking me when he's getting you back."

"Yes sir. Thank you, Admiral."

"Report to Captain Kanes tomorrow at SCI. He'll free you up when the Prometheus arrives and Tighe leaves the ship. That's all, Commander."

"Yes sir," Jenetta said smiling, then added in a soft voice, "Thank you, sir."

The admiral smiled.

"Sir, what about my two cats?"

"Space Command permits all officers to keep one pet as long as that pet is kept in the officer's quarters, and the pet doesn't become a nuisance."

"Yes sir, but I have two. I can't split them up. They provide company for each other when I'm not in my quarters. I fear that one may rip things up if left alone for too long."

The Admiral snorted slightly. He couldn't dictate such policy exemptions aboard a ship commanded by another officer. "I'll speak to Captain Gavin and tell him that it's all right with me if, and only if, he concurs."

Jenetta smiled and said, "Thank you, sir." She came to attention, then turned and left the office. She now understood why Commander Eaton had been promoted into her old position aboard the Prometheus before it even left Dixon, and the hurt that she had felt disappeared in the blink of an eye. She chastised herself for the small feeling of resentment that she'd secretly harbored since learning about it during the dinner with the officers of the GSC destroyer San Francisco.

Eliza and Christa were waiting near the corridor door in the Admiral's outer office. They'd helped one another put the insignia of rank on their other shoulder while waiting, and added the line officer insignia to their collars that they'd found in the same small box.

"Well, Lieutenants," Jenetta said peremptorily, "are you going to open the door for your Commander, or just stand there with silly grins on your faces."

Both women came to attention, and then Christa waved her hand at the door sensor, opening the door to the corridor. As Jenetta walked between them, one of them suddenly swatted her on her backside as she passed. She paused only briefly and then ignored it and kept walking. Eliza and Christa caught up with her and fell in on her left side since she was the senior officer.

It was still too early for lunch, so the three women returned to Jenetta's quarters in the BOQ. With so much good news, they had to tell somebody, so they sat together in front of the com terminal and sent a message to Mom and Dad, filling them in on all that had happened in the Admiral's office."

As the message was dispatched, a signal indicated that an incoming message was waiting. Jenetta hit play and the screen lit up with the image of a smiling Mikel Arneu.

"Hello, Angel. Belated congratulations on your promotion. I thought we had you when that Tsgardi captain sent word that he'd captured you near Mawcett. Imagine my surprise when I learned that he only had a copy. And that stupid Tsgardi couldn't even hang onto a duplicate, despite being ordered to chain her to a wall with real chains. Then one of my subordinates came up with that failed plan to draw you away from Dixon so that we could capture you. You must tell me some day how you saw through that. I'll be sure to ask you before we wipe your mind. Sorry about the assassination attempt, by the way. The people responsible went against orders in an effort to curry favor with an Upper Council member. You won't have to worry about any of them ever bothering you again. Oh, I'm reserving three places at the resort now. I'll be seeing you."

Jenetta slapped the screen down on the com unit. "We'll meet again, Arneu. But next time, you'll be the one chained to the wall."

~ finis ~

*** Jenetta's exciting adventures continue in: ***

Trader Vyx

(sneak peek)

A Message To My Readers

If you've enjoyed this novel, I hope that you'll take just a few minutes to leave a review on the Amazon site. They are much appreciated, as they often assist purchasing decisions by other readers.

Thank you


This chart is offered to assist readers who may be unfamiliar with military rank and the reporting structure. Newly commissioned officers begin at either ensign or second lieutenant rank.

Space Command Officer Hierarchy:

Admiral of the Fleet (5 Star)

Admiral (4 Star)

Vice-Admiral (3 Star)

Rear Admiral – Upper (2 Star)

Rear Admiral – Lower (1 Star)



Lt. Commander


Lieutenant(jg) "Junior Grade"


Space Marine Officer Hierarchy:

General (4 Star)

Lt. General (3 Star)

Major General (2 Star)

Brigadier General (1 Star)


Lt. Colonel



First Lieutenant

Second Lieutenant

The commanding officer on a ship is always referred to as Captain, regardless of his or her official military rank. Even an Ensign could be a Captain of the Ship, although that would only occur as the result of an unusual situation or emergency where no senior officers survive.

On Space Command ships and bases, time is measured according to a twenty-four clock, normally referred to as military time. For example, 8:42 PM would be referred to as 2042 hours. Chronometers are set to always agree with the date and time at Space Command Supreme Headquarters on Earth. This is known as GST, or Galactic System Time.

Admiralty Board:

Moore, Richard E - Admiral of the Fleet

Platt, Evelyn S. - Admiral - Director of Fleet Operations

Bradlee, Roger T. - Admiral - Director of Intelligence (SCI)

Ressler, Shana E. - Admiral - Director of Budget & Accounting

Hillaire, Arnold H. - Admiral - Director of Academies

Burke, Raymond A. - Vice-Admiral - Director of GSC Base Management

Ahmed, Raihana L. - Vice-Admiral - Dir. of Quartermaster Supply

Woo, Lon C. - Vice-Admiral - Dir. of Scientific & Expeditionary Forces

Plimley, Loretta J. - Rear-Admiral, (U) - Dir. of Weapons R&D

Hubera, Donald M. - Rear-Admiral, (U) - Dir. of Academy Curricula

Ship Speed Terminology:

Plus-1 - 1 kps

Sub-Light-1 - 1,000 kps

Light-1 - 299,792.458 kps or (c) (speed of light in a vacuum)

Light-150 or 150 c - 150 times the speed of light

Hyper-Space Factors:

IDS Communications Band - .0513 light years each minute (8.09 billion kps)

DeTect Range - 4 billion kilometers

Sample Distances:

Earth to Mars (Mean) - 78 million kilometers

Nearest star to our Sun - 4 light-years (Proxima Centauri)

Milky Way Galaxy diameter - 100,000 light-years

Thickness of M'Way at Sun - 2,000 light-years

Stars in Milky Way - 200 billion (est.)

Nearest galaxy (Andromeda) - 2 million light-years from M'Way

A light-year - 9,460,730,472,580.8 kilometers (in vacuum)

A light-second - 299,792.458 km (in vacuum)

Grid Unit - 1,000 Light Yrs² (1,000,000 Sq. LY)

Deca-Sector - 100 Light Years² (10,000 Sq. LY)

Sector - 10 Light Years² (100 Sq. LY)

Section - 94,607,304,725 km²

Sub-section - 946,073,047 km²

Mission Descriptions for Strategic Command Bases:

Strat Com 1 – Base - Location establishes it as a critical component of Space Command Operations - Serves as home-port to multiple warships that also serve in base's defense. All sections of Space Command maintain an active office at the base. Base Commander establishes all patrol routes and is authorized to override SHQ orders to ships within the sector(s) designated part of the base's operating territory.

Recommended rank of Commanding Officer: Rear Admiral (U)

Strat Com 2 – Base - Location establishes it as a crucial component of Space Command Operations - Serves as home-port to multiple warships that also serve in base's defense. All sections of Space Command maintain an active office at the base. Patrol routes established by SHQ.

Recommended rank of Commanding Officer: Rear Admiral (L)

Strat Com 3 – Base - Location establishes it as an important component of Space Command Operations - Serves as homeport to multiple warships that also serve in base's defense. Patrol routes established by SHQ.

Recommended rank of Commanding Officer: Captain

Strat Com 4 – Station - Location establishes it as an important terminal for Space Command personnel engaged in travel to/from postings, and for re-supply of vessels and outposts.

Recommended rank of Commanding Officer: Commander

Strat Com 5 – Outpost - Location makes it important for observation purposes and collection of information.

Recommended rank of Commanding Officer: Lt. Commander

The Clones of Mawcett

No attempt has been made to show the thousands of stars, planets, and moons in this small part of G.A. space. The only purpose of this two-dimensional representation is to provide the reader with a feel for the spatial relationships between bases, systems, and celestial events referenced in the first three books of this series. The mean distance from Earth to Higgins Space Command Base has been calculated at 90.1538 light-years.

.jpg and .pdf versions of the above map are available for downloading at :

should the names be unreadable in your printed or electronic media.

Product Decription

Some customers have requested that the product description on Amazon, be included with the kindle copy. I've added it here:

While digging through the ruins of a long dead civilization on the planet Mawcett, a team of Terran and Nordakian archeologists find an underground tunnel leading to a door in such extraordinary condition that it could have been fabricated as recently as that morning. They labor throughout the day, using every modern device available to them, but are unable to gain entry.

Then, in the early hours of the new day, seemingly in response to the screams of a frustrated, over-tired scientist, the door slides noiselessly open. Upon passing through the entranceway, the archeologists are stunned to find an elaborate complex in pristine condition. Summoning the courage to venture further, they enter a large circular chamber lined with strange electronic equipment, and immediately become engrossed in examining strange symbols etched into the floor near the center of the room. Suddenly, they're bathed in a strange light that paralyzes them where they stand. They watch in frozen terror as a clear, circular wall rises up around them. When the enclosed area begins to fill with a dense ocher gas smelling of persimmons, the dig site laborers, who had witnessed the activity from the periphery, run screaming for the entrance.

(special preview)

Trader Vyx

Chapter One

~ October 4th, 2272 ~

He strained to hear the slightest of noises above his own laborious breathing. They were still out there, somewhere in the darkness. He was sure of that now. Three times during the past hour he’d thought that he’d lost the ones who hunted him, and three times they’d turned up again at his back. He needed to rest, but the relentless pursuit wouldn’t allow it. To stop was to die, and he wasn’t ready to surrender up his life just yet!

He sensed, rather than consciously saw the movement, and immediately flung his agile five-foot eleven-inch body sideways into the blackness of the abandoned building! The rotted wood of the old doorway frame where he’d attempted to conceal himself just a second before, exploded into hundreds of tiny pieces as three lattice projectiles struck it! Twisting as he flew through the air, Vyx tucked in his head and curled into a tight ball so he could execute a quick roll. A plume of dust and dirt erupted upwards as he landed hard on a sagging wooden floor covered with years of accumulated filth. His roll left him crouched in position to spring again, and a swift look around was all he needed to choose his direction of flight.

As he sprinted towards the rear of the building, and the only other doorway illuminated by the soft rays of diffused moonlight outside, he strained to see the path in front of him. He couldn’t afford the time needed to pick his way slowly through the building, so he desperately hoped there were no gaps in the flooring, or accumulations of trash left by former building occupants that would trip him in the darkness.

Emerging at the rear of the deserted building, he flattened himself against the outside wall, gulping the hot, dry air of a peaceful summer night as quietly as possible. He didn’t have the luxury of standing in the doorway while he slowly scanned the street. He’d have been clearly outlined in the moonlight for any that had followed him into the building. The wall offered a modicum of protection from visual scanning, but it offered little concealment from a thermal scanner. When nothing moved in response to his sudden appearance, he made a dash for the end of the street. The buildings on this block were all occupied by local citizens, so he couldn’t seek shelter here. On the Gollasko Colony, bursting into an occupied house would earn you a quick trip to the Body Disposal Depot. For that matter you might have your ticket punched early by disturbing the wrong party in an abandoned building. Like the nineteenth-century American west at its wildest, people shot first and questioned later. Justice was dispensed from the fastest gun, and everyone here had an irrevocable license to kill.

Making it to the end of the street without seeing anyone, and more importantly without drawing fire, gave him new hope. If he could just make it back to his hotel, he might be safe. Armed guards patrolled the lobby, and sensors linked to automatic weapons safeguarded all other possible entrances to the building after dark. If only he hadn’t lost his weapon so early in the fight he might have been able to reduce the odds by now. He knew that there were at least three of them, and that they had to be using some kind of electronic tracking device. If he knew what they had, he might be able to give them the slip, but it could be thermal, infrared, auditory, or olfactory. It might even be a combination of all four. The newest devices, used by the Space Marines, did employ all four sensory systems, and the arms merchant employing these hunters usually had the latest and best for his own people.

Instead of trying to hide, which would be a waste of time, he sprinted down several streets and then ducked into a doorway to catch his breath. Nothing moved behind, but his pursuers had appeared from nowhere before, so he didn’t spend any more time there than necessary. No sense giving them a stationary target to lock on to. As soon as he was able to breathe easily, he ran on; his hotel still being at least eight long blocks away.

It took less than ten minutes to cover the distance to the hotel, but he was again breathing with difficulty when it came into sight. Rather than making an immediate dash for the hotel's front entrance, he stayed in the shadows of a building across the street and observed the movements of pedestrians as he filled and refilled his lungs with air. He was just about to step out when he caught a glimpse of almost imperceptible movement several doorways down from the hotel entrance. Pulling back, he stared intently at the recessed entrance of the closed shop.

It was another fifteen minutes before he saw any additional movement. When you stare into a darkened area for a prolonged period, your eyes and mind begin to play tricks on you, but he was sure that there was someone there; someone who didn’t belong there; not at this hour anyway.

Other than the front doors, all entranceways to the hotel were barred after dark, so he didn’t have a chance of getting to his room and reaching his backup weapons. If he had a weapon, he’d make a run for the hotel entrance, relying on his skill with a pistol to get him there. Without a weapon he was about as dangerous as one of the painted targets on a weapons practice range.

He backtracked a block without exposing himself to the watcher in the doorway so he could think and plan without danger of being spotted. He hated being weaponless, but the arms merchant that he had met with tonight would have been suspicious if he’d come wearing all of his hardware. They’d allowed him to enter with one laser pistol only because there were seven heavily armed bodyguards in the room during the negotiations. He had several blades hidden about his body, but they were of little use in the current situation.

Shev Rivemwilth, an Alyysian trader and arms merchant well known in the illegal arms trade, rarely left the sanctuary of the Gollasko Colony, and never ventured into Galactic Alliance regulated space where his arrest would ensure he never saw free sky overhead again. It was widely rumored that he was a front man, in the loosest sense of the word ‘man’, for the giant Raider organization that had become the scourge of the galaxy. The ugly creature neither acknowledged nor denied an association with the Raiders.

As members of a race that had migrated in non-FTL ships from many thousands of light-years across the galaxy, Alyysians claimed no home world in Galactic Alliance space, although small colonies existed on several different worlds. Their unique physiology allowed them to be frozen solid and then thawed out and revived when they reached their destination. Typically about four-foot six-inches tall when standing upright, they looked a bit like erect versions of Terran toads. They all wore the same dark gray cloaks that covered most of their yellow skin. Being neither male nor female, the Alyysian were true hermaphrodites that could reproduce without contact with another of their species.

The meeting had started well enough. Vyx had set his translation device for Alyysian and they had gotten the pleasantries out of the way quickly. Then Vyx spelled out what he was looking to purchase. After a bit of haggling, and an examination of a merchandise sample, an agreement on price was reached. Shev Rivemwilth specified that payment would be required in two parts, half before, and half upon delivery. Vyx had just agreed, and stood to leave with the promise of returning tomorrow with the first half payment, when a convicted Tsgardi killer named Recozzi, entered from the corridor.

A race more closely resembling Terran baboons than humans, Tsgardis often file their normally sharp teeth to sharper points to make their appearance even more menacing. Immediately recognizing Vyx as a Space Command undercover operative, Recozzi uttered a profanity and grabbed for his weapon. Vyx managed to pull his first and, with a slight sweep of the weapon, sliced off the top of Recozzi’s head just below his eyes. Shev Rivemwilth leaped for safety behind a sofa as Recozzi’s body, now almost lifeless, continued firing his automatic weapon as he fell. An errant shot hit Rivemwilth in one of his two hearts and putrid yellow-green blood began spurting over floor and furniture. Recozzi’s fire also caught two of the bodyguards, who let loose with their own weapons as they fell. By some miracle, Vyx was only hit by a burning graze from someone’s laser weapon. Diving for the open door as weapons fire continued the light show inside the room, he lost his pistol as he tumbled. He decided it wouldn’t be prudent to re-enter the room in order to retrieve it.

Vyx literally ran for his life, and made it safely to the street after descending the single flight of stairs in just three leaps. He was half a block away when the first shots were fired in his direction. Over the next hour, he played a game of cat and mouse with the Shev’s bodyguards. It's no fun being the mouse.

The first light of dawn found Vyx still alive,and still on the run. Long shadows were his only companions as he loped down deserted streets. Although no fire had come his way since the earlier shot at the abandoned building, hours ago, the hairs on the back of his neck continued their erect stance. He felt sure that the hunters weren’t far behind. It was the first time since he'd come dirt-side that he appreciated the shorter diurnal cycle of this planet. A twenty-two-hour forty-minute daily revolution meant that the sun rose that much sooner, and with the coming of the new day, the odds that he might actually survive increased dramatically. He’d be able to purchase a new weapon as the stores opened in a couple of hours. People moving about on streets mostly abandoned after dark, would provide him with some welcome cover. Armed and less conspicuous, he might yet have a chance to reach his hotel room.

It cost Vyx three times what it usually fetched, but the old laser pistol was worth every penny under the circumstances. The shop owner generously threw in two extra power packs, both fully charged. Vyx tucked the pistol into his belt and warily exited the dilapidated pawn shop. The owner could probably take the rest of the week off on what he had made from the sale of the pistol.

Walking cautiously towards the hotel, Vyx mingled with the early morning pedestrian traffic on the sidewalk. It would seem a surreal sight to someone accustomed to life on most civilized planets, but every person on the street, except for the smallest of children, was carrying a pistol or rifle. Amazingly, there was very little violent crime in the colony. Occasionally a drunk would be rolled, but no vandals broke into homes here. The ones that had tried it, had long ago been delivered to the Body Disposal Depot, and with the entire citizenry armed, the surviving lowlifes were too smart to attempt it.

He got to within eighteen meters of the hotel before one of the hunters from the previous evening stepped out of the doorway where he had waited all night, and opened fire. Prepared for any movement from that location, Vyx dove for cover behind a waiting taxi as the first shot came his way. The second went wide as well, and it was the last 'free' shot that the killer got. Before he could fire a third time towards Vyx, the local citizenry opened fire on him. He must have only recently arrived in the colony because he was apparently unaware that you never fired a weapon on a crowded street here. The populace wasn't specifically trying to protect Vyx; it was just an automatic reaction to an ignorant fool firing into a crowd.

For several seconds, lead, lattice, and laser fire poured into the doorway from every direction. When the killer fell to the ground, he had more holes in him than a brand new box of data rings. His two shots had missed Vyx, but two colony citizens were down. One was dead from a lattice weapon blast to the chest, while the other had received only a grazing laser weapon injury to his leg. People crowded around the hunter’s body to see if they recognized him, but no one claimed any familiarity. It was further testimony that he was new here.

Vyx made it into the hotel while everyone’s attention was diverted and before the sanitation truck arrived to pick up the two bodies. The guards in the lobby were on heightened alert as a result of the shootout in the street, but they didn’t stop Vyx from proceeding to his room after he flashed his keycard for the door.

As soon as the reinforced ferrocarbon alloy door of his room was closed and locked behind him, Vyx took a deep breath and released it slowly. He then retrieved the backup pistol from his suitcase’s hidden compartment, and slipped it into his empty holster. The pistol that he had just purchased was placed on the dresser and he would carry it in his belt when he left the room again, but first he had to report in.

Another pocket in the suitcase yielded a miniature radio transmitter. He stuck the three-centimeter wide satellite dish against the window pane and aligned it using its audio locator capability. The RF signal from his radio would be transmitted to a tiny satellite, about the size of his fist, which he had placed in geosynchronous orbit around the planet upon his arrival. The satellite would then compress the encrypted message before re-transmitting it on a designated IDS frequency. It would take almost seventy hours to travel the two-hundred-ten light years to the Intelligence Section at Higgins Space Command Base, so it would be at least six days before he received a response.

From a subcutaneous pouch in his chest beneath his left arm, Vyx retrieved a tiny recording wafer. It contained a full account of his trip to the arms merchant, from the time he left his hotel room last night, until his return. A chip attached to the optic nerve of his left eye provided the image, and a chip embedded in each of the audio canals of his ears provided stereo audio tracks. Recorded information traveled through his lymphatic system for delivery to the wireless recording device mounted over the ribs beneath his left arm, so no transmission signal could ever be picked up by detection scanners. He delicately slid the tiny silicon wafer, not much thicker than an ordinary piece of writing paper, into his audio transmitter and pressed the send button.

His report sent, Vyx could relax. He took a hot shower and climbed into bed to get some much-needed sleep. He should be safe as long as he stayed in the hotel, but his pistol went onto the nightstand next to the bed anyway.

(end of Chapter 1)

home | my bookshelf | | The Clones of Mawcett |     цвет текста   цвет фона   размер шрифта   сохранить книгу

Текст книги загружен, загружаются изображения

Оцените эту книгу