Book: Azula Carver



Azula Carver

Azula Carver



Azula Carver


A Galaxy Unknown® series – Book 10


Copyright ©2015 by Thomas J. DePrima


15.i.18



All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. The scanning, uploading, downloading, and/or 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.


ISBN-10:   1619310287

ISBN-13:   978-1-61931-028-5



Cover Spaceship by: Martin J. Cannon


This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. It may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person with whom you share it. If you're reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return it to the owner and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

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


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



www.deprima.com









Acknowledgement



Many thanks to Ted King for his invaluable developmental editing assistance,


my copy editor Myra Shelley and her proofreaders,


and to Mike Norcutt for his post review.









This series of novels includes:



A Galaxy Unknown®

A Galaxy Unknown®


Valor at Vauzlee


The Clones of Mawcett


Trader Vyx


Milor!


Castle Vroman


Against All Odds


Return to Dakistee


Retreat And Adapt


Azula Carver




Other series and novels by the author:



AGU:® Border Patrol…


Citizen X


Clidepp Requital


Clidepp Deja Vu



AGU:® SC Intelligence…


The Star Brotherhood



Colton James novels…


A World Without Secrets


Vengeance Is Personal



When The Spirit…


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

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Appendix

Map












Chapter One

~ July 26th, 2288 ~



"Greetings, Admiral Moore," the recorded image of Admiral Carver said from the full-wall monitor in the VIP conference room aboard the battleship Artemis, GSC-BD382. Her look was serious but not stern. "I hope you'll forgive me, but I won't be available to welcome you at Quesann when you and the other members of the Admiralty Board arrive. I'm currently aboard the Ares, and I don't know how long I'll be away, or even if I'll be returning to Quesann. My destination is my estate on Obotymot.

"Regions Two and Three are stable and in moderately good shape. I regret I wasn't able to completely eradicate the Denubbewa threat, but we've left them reeling. And the means to destroy them wherever and whenever you find them is at hand if they refuse to leave our space. The second most important issue is the Uthlaro. I believe they will never accept that their dominion is just a memory. Complete isolation of their solar system— as we've been forced to do with the Tsgardi— may be necessary to contain the threat they present. The final decision is naturally up to the Admiralty Board and the GA Senate, but I recommend it be most seriously contemplated. The indisputable evidence that they've begun building warships in violation of the sanctions leveled against them for attempting to arrogate Region Two is clear evidence of their mindset. That they established their new operations outside Galactic Alliance borders where they believed we'd never find them does not make the Uthlaro any less guilty of violating the terms of surrender they accepted to avoid having their world reduced to rubble.

"If it turns out we never meet again, I want to thank you and the other Board members for the support you've shown me over the years. It's been an honor and a privilege to serve with you, and all the men and women of Space Command and the Space Marine Corps.

"Jenetta Alicia Carver, Admiral, aboard the SC Battleship Ares. End of message."

The Admiralty Board, the Galactic Alliance Senate, and all support personnel were underway to Quesann to occupy their new headquarters in what was intended to become the hub of the Galactic Alliance. Meeting in special session to hear a message received overnight by Admiral Moore, the Admiralty Board members were clearly stunned by Admiral Carver's words. Every member sat up a bit straighter in their chair as Admiral Carver delivered the closing comment. No one in the conference room seemed willing to break the silence as they looked at one another.

"We agreed to suspend all normal business until we reach Quesann," Moore finally said, "and only meet for emergency purposes. When I received that message overnight, I knew such a session was required. A few hours later I received a second message, addressed to the Board." Admiral Moore nodded to his aide and the image of Vice-Admiral Holt filled the monitor.

"Greeting from Quesann," the image said. "I look forward to welcoming all of you when you arrive. An issue has arisen that I consider to be one of the most serious we've faced in a number of years. When you receive this, Admiral Carver will already be underway for Region One aboard the Ares. Upon learning you had nominated her for the rank of Admiral of the Fleet to replace Admiral Moore following his soon-to-be-announced retirement without first discussing it with her, and that the nomination had already been unanimously approved by the GA Senate, she informed me she was resigning her commission effective immediately.

"I recall a time, not that many years ago, when I warned this board that Admiral Carver might resign her commission if you promoted her to a two-star. The highly dangerous situation facing the GA at that time was such that she accepted the promotion and then proceeded to defeat the Milori threat, ending forever their attempts to absorb GA space into their empire. And when you promoted her to admiral, I again felt sure she would resign. The onerous task of bringing the rule of law and order to Region Two, the danger from the THUG pact, and then the threat of the Denubbewa no doubt played a significant role in her continued service.

"But now things have calmed considerably, and with no great threat currently facing the GA, she feels comfortable with submitting her papers."

Admiral Holt paused to allow that thought to permeate through the room before continuing.

"I naturally argued with Admiral Carver and finally convinced her not to resign just yet but rather to take a leave of absence. Before she left Quesann, she wrapped up much of the most important outstanding business for this command. She approved the location and final construction plans for the new Dakinium foundry, with building scheduled to commence before you arrive at Quesann. The foundry will be located around the sixth planet, a gas giant, in the Lorense system. Lorense-Six can provide all the hydrogen fuel we'll need for a hundred thousand years. The new shipbuilding facility will be located in the same system and orbit the third planet. Lorense-Three is similar to Mars in that it has only a very thin atmosphere but is ideally suited for the construction of underground bases. Locating both facilities in the same star system ensures they can both be protected by the same fleet. And the proximity of the Lorense system to the Quesann system means that Supreme Headquarters and the Galactic Alliance Senate share in that protection.

"Admiral Carver also issued orders for a task force of one Destroyer, six Scout-Destroyers, two Ship-Transporter vessels, ten CPS-14s with habitats, and as many engineers as could be spared to proceed with all haste to the secret Uthlaro shipbuilding base discovered by our SCI people. The warships defending the base will either be driven off or destroyed. The enclosed docks will then be towed to Lorense-Three by the CPS-14s, where they will form the foundation for our own shipbuilding operations. The open framework docks will be disassembled and loaded into the Ship-Transporters, along with any hulls which have been laid.

"The matter of Admiral Carver's leave of absence and her possible resignation is now in your hands, ladies and gentlemen. I can't tell you how to proceed, but I most strongly suggest you tread carefully if you hope to have even a small chance of keeping her in the service.

"Brian Devon Holt, Vice-Admiral, Region Two Headquarters, Quesann. End of message."

Again, silence pervaded every square millimeter of the room. It was broken when Admiral Hillaire said, "Well, Admiral Holt did warn us we were pushing her too far. Before the Battle for Stewart with the Milori, we promised Admiral Carver she would return to the rank of captain from her brevetted stars and be given command of a new battleship. Instead we again pushed her up the ladder and saddled her with all the problems of the two new regions that, combined, are now six times larger than Region One."

"And she has performed better than anyone could have imagined," Admiral Moore said. "Instead of the complete, system-wide anarchy we expected, there's actually a semblance of peace. That's why she was entrusted with such a task. She's far too good a military strategist and administrator to be a mere battleship captain, as demanding as that job is. For the same reasons, she was chosen as my replacement."

"It appears we've finally asked too much of her," Admiral Bradlee said.

~     ~     ~

"You can't resign your commission," Eliza said.

"Sure I can," Jenetta said nonchalantly. "Once an officer has completed the minimum number of service years required to satisfy the Academy education requirements, he or she can resign their commission at any time. My obligation was fulfilled more than two decades ago."

Jenetta and Eliza were sitting on the deck of the admiral's suite aboard the battleship Ares while Cayla and Tayna laid between them, purring with contentment as the two women combed the short, thick fur of the big cats. Thor was down in a hold but wasn't caged. He was never caged anymore and had the freedom to run around the enormous space to his heart's content. Jenetta was still keeping the sexes separated in an effort to prevent nature from overpowering the verbal instructions she had given all three cats not to engage in sexual activities. She visited Thor several times a day to feed and groom him, and provide a bit of companionship. He had grown to love her and accept that she belonged to him, just as Cayla and Tayna had so many years ago. Any of the three Jumakas would sacrifice themselves in an instant to save Jenetta from harm.

"That's not what I mean, and you know it," Eliza said. "I mean that you, Admiral Jenetta Alicia Carver, can't just resign. You've become the face of Space Command. Few people outside of the service would recognize Admiral Richard Moore, but everyone in Galactic Alliance space knows the face of Admiral Jenetta Carver."

"No one is indispensible."

"Except you."

"No, not me either."

"Name one person who could replace you."

"I'll name two— you and Christa."

"Come on, get serious."

"I am serious. Either one of you could step in for me and no one would know the difference."

"We may have all your knowledge up to the point where you were cloned, but we've led vastly different lives since then. There's no way either of us could step into your shoes— even if we wanted to."

"Ah-ha. See? You wouldn't want the job either."

"No, I wouldn't. And neither would Christa. But you accepted the responsibility for your career long ago, and you can't just run away from it."

"I accepted the responsibility of being a Space Command officer and doing whatever job I was assigned, but I never wanted to be an admiral. I was content being a captain at Stewart SCB, and I looked forward to receiving command of a warship when my five-year tour of duty was up. Then the Milori attacked and the Admiralty Board brevetted me to Rear Admiral (Lower). They never asked if I wanted the rank or responsibility; they just pushed it on me. Then they did it again when they promoted me to Rear Admiral (Upper). They didn't ask if I wanted it; they just went ahead and did it. Then they promoted me directly to full admiral without asking, but this time it was a permanent appointment with the full approval of the GA Senate. Everyone on Earth knew about the promotion before I did. The serious issues facing the GA prompted me to accept the position, and I've done the best job I could."

"You always do."

"But now they've gone ahead and promoted me to Admiral of the Fleet. And again they haven't asked if I even wanted the rank or the job."

"They probably thought you'd refuse it."

"And they would have been absolutely right. I will not spend the rest of my days in Space Command shuttling back and forth between the GA Council chambers and the Admiralty Building on Quesann. Period."

"But when we joined Space Command we gave up our right of self-determination."

"Yes, that was part of the contract. But, when a contract is no longer serving one party or the other, you terminate it in accordance with the provisions in the contract. That's all that happens when you resign your commission. You're terminating your contract with the military and regaining the right of self-determination."

"I don't know what else to say, other than I think you were wrong to resign your commission."

"I haven't."

"But you said you have."

"No, what I said was I informed Admiral Holt I was resigning my commission. Then, without waiting for a full explanation, you tried to talk me out of it."

"Then you haven't resigned your commission?"

"Not yet. Admiral Holt asked me to take a leave of absence. I agreed— for the time being."

"But you are going to resign?"

"If they try to force me to accept the fifth star— yes. I won't spend the rest of my years in the service flying a dirt-side desk."

"So this trip home is just to force them to rescind the appointment?"

Jenetta took a deep breath and released it slowly before answering. "No. It's to give me time to decide what I really want. I know I haven't been truly happy for a very long time. My life has been the embodiment of the old saying about it being lonely at the top. Well, I've been at the very top for a long time, and I can confirm just how lonely it can be. The weekly vidMails I exchange with Hugh are wonderful, and I look forward to them with great anticipation, but they're just not enough. Other than when I've been aboard the Ares, or when you come to visit me at the Governor's mansion, I have no one to hug except my cats. The unquestioning loyalty and love Cayla, Tayna, and Thor show me helps a little, but I also need intimate human companionship when I'm off duty. I've compensated by staying busy all the time, but I want more. I need more— more than just a job I perform because it's necessary, not because I enjoy it. I'm going to see what it's like to be a lady of leisure for a while. Mom's been managing the estate, with the able assistance of Chamberlain Yaghutol. I'll see if there's a role there for me." After a long silence, Jenetta said, "Well? Say something."

"I think you're doing the right thing."

"You do?"

"Yes. A leave of absence is exactly what you need. It will give you a chance to figure out what you really want. If you find you don't spend most of your days worrying about what's happening in your command and you aren't bored out of your mind sitting around as a lady of leisure with nothing more important to do than plan the evening's menu, then maybe it's time to separate from the service."

"I could do with a little boredom."

"Yes, a little boredom can be good. Especially after the hectic pace you've lived for the past couple of decades with its life-and-death struggles and problems that would make a marble statue weep. But if you find yourself climbing the walls after a few weeks, you'll have to decide if that's really what you want to do for the next five thousand years."

"We still don't know we'll live that long, and I prefer to live my life as if we'll have normal lifespans."

"At least until we celebrate our two hundredth birthday and still look like we're twenty-one? At that point we'll have to acknowledge there might be a chance Mikel Arneu was being truthful about the Age Prolongation Process. Have you told Hugh?"

"That I might live to be five thousand years old? No, not yet."

"No, I mean about the LOA."

"I sent off a vidMail this morning. He should receive it in about a week."

"Can he get away to join you on Obotymot?"

"I hope so. He has a lot of leave time saved up. We agreed to accumulate as much as we could just in case we found ourselves in the same region of space. I think he has almost eight months now."

"They can't give him that much time off at once. The XO of a destroyer is too important for the daily operation of a ship and simply can't be gone that long."

"No, not all at once."

"It's been a long time between trysts, hasn't it?"

"Far too long. It's been twelve and half years since our last physical contact. Knowing he was there, waiting, is the only thing that's kept me sane over the past decade. That and our weekly vidMails."

"It's hard to believe it's been that long."

Jenetta smiled sadly. "Not for me. To me it seems like a century."

~     ~     ~

"It's my great honor to present the first elected president of the planet Dakistee in almost two hundred centuries," the speaker at the lectern announced to the first assembly of the newly elected Dakistee congress. "Madam President?"

Madu Ptellewqku rose from her chair on the podium and walked to the microphones. "Good morning. It's a great pleasure to address the first meeting of this august body. As your newly elected leader, my overall goal is to return the planet Dakistee to its former glory— and more. The universe has changed immensely since we entered stasis nineteen thousand, four hundred annuals ago, and we have a lot of catching up to do. In the recent general election, voter participation was almost one hundred percent. Only a few citizens— those who haven't properly recovered from their long sleep— were unable to cast ballots. So I know we have the support and backing of our people. Of the hundred eighty thousand Dakistians who entered stasis, a hundred forty-two thousand survived the long sleep. We mourn the loss of the many citizens who died in stasis sleep because power systems supplying energy to their beds were damaged in natural seismic events. In our wildest imaginations, we could not have anticipated the length of time we would sleep. But the sleepers who survived give us a solid base with which to begin rebuilding our civilization. The Galactic Alliance has been most generous to our people, supplying us with ample food, medical supplies, and temporary shelters. But it's now time to begin rebuilding our cities and constructing permanent homes for our people.

"After long discussions with city planners, I and my staff have decided on six locations around the planet for the construction of our major cities. The new locations are close to the former major cities in those districts, but none encroach upon the former city limits. While I am just as nostalgic as any of you towards our former home sites and would love to see them rebuilt exactly where they formerly stood, I understand the reasons. The city planners believe the massive work required to prepare the sites for new construction would be severely compromised by having to first remove the ancient and crumbling foundations of past construction and municipal underground infrastructure at those locations. We don't want to rush the new construction, but neither do we want to get bogged down in delays that could take many decades to resolve before construction could begin. It will be far better if we start on virgin ground— so to speak.

"During the past two and a half annuals, while we've been awakening our people, we have also been searching for the enormous wealth of our planet that had been concealed deep below our planet's crust in vast storage vaults. Once located, small armies of security personnel were assigned to guard those locations. We now have the wealth we need to complete the proposed first step. At the same time, I would like to begin work on our highest priority— finding a cure for the sterility that plagues our entire population. We must have future generations ready to take over when we can no longer serve our people. The Galactic Alliance has already begun efforts to find a cure for the virus but report no success to date. This issue is so important that I don't feel we should rely on them alone. I've been contacted by medical firms on Earth and numerous other planets who wish to be involved, for a fee— in some cases, a very large fee. Almost all require a promise of payment even if they don't find a cure.

"I have received one proposal that doesn't require payment if they fail. But the price of success is astronomical. The question is this— is there any price too high for a cure that will save our people from extinction within a century? My staff has also been discussing the possibility of instituting a new stasis program for half our people which will have a thousand sleepers awakened every fifty annuals. The hope is that a cure will be found during the next millennium. The new stasis plan ensures there will be enough diversity among the survivors to repopulate the planet.

"In the coming weeks, as this new congress forms committees and begins the processes of representative government, these issues and many more will be discussed at length and decisions reached. I will naturally continue to work with the most educated advisors as I guide our government through the difficult days ahead."

~     ~     ~

Chairwoman Gladsworth pounded a decorative gravel one time on the equally ornamental sounding-block and said, "Today's meeting will come to order."

Once all council members were seated and the room was silent, she said, "We shall dispense with the reading of the minutes today because our visitor is not authorized to hear Upper Council business. I welcome the acting chairperson of the Lower Council, Neil Soroman. You have the floor, Mr. Chairman."

Soroman stood and looked around the conference room. Eight of the twelve Upper Council members were the most beautiful women on the planet. Each of them appeared to be in her early twenties when, in fact, they had passed the century mark decades ago. Each had taken the Raider DNA Manipulation Formula to change their sex so they could take the Age Restoration Formula, which only worked with female gender. They had, to a man, expected to return to their former sex, but they kept procrastinating whenever it was suggested. Having also taken the Age Prolongation Formula, their young age was firmly reestablished. They now expected to live as much as five thousand years longer before they'd have to become female again and restart the process, but each had discovered he enjoyed his new sex. They had everything a material girl could want— dazzling beauty, power, long life, and almost immeasurable wealth.

The other four Upper Council members were Soroman's former Lower Council associates who had been promoted. Although all were anxious to take advantage of the formulas, they had been ordered to wait while further testing was performed. The four positions they occupied on the Upper Council had previously been filled by four female members, all of whom had died horribly after beginning the Age Restoration Process. The scientists were still trying to determine why it worked on one group from the Upper Council and not the other. That the successful group had once all been men and the failed group were all women was obvious. They just hadn't been able to isolate the specific cause.

"Good morning," Soroman said. "My reason for being here today is to report on the Dakistee situation. Our representative met with the newly elected planetary leader and entered into negotiations regarding a medical solution to their sterility issue. The new president, Madu Ptellewqku, was interested but non-committal. The negotiations ended with her announcement that she would discuss the terms with her advisors. Our negotiator believes we might be asking for too much. She thinks we'd have a better chance of making a deal if we reduce our demands."

"Too much?" Gladsworth said. "We're offering to save her entire race. How can any price be too much?"

"She and her people are extremely grateful to Space Command and the Galactic Alliance for finding them, awakening them, and then supporting their entire population with food, clothing, and shelter. According to our negotiator, the president was upset that we would ask for things the GA has banned or restricted. President Ptellewqku was perfectly willing to discuss a payment of precious metals and gemstones."

"Was she aware she was negotiating with a Raider employee?"

"Uh— doubtful, Madam Chairwoman. Our negotiator's credentials as an employee of one of our pharmaceutical laboratories are impeccable. Ptellewqku just doesn't want to anger the Spaccs and the GA. Her counteroffer of platinum, rhodium, gold, and precious gems was very generous."

"No, this might be our one chance to get all the development studies, manufacturing plans, and operations instructions for the cloning process, plus the chemical formulas and process instructions for manufacturing Dakinium. Nothing else is acceptable. She can keep her pretty rocks and shiny metals. They represent a pittance of the calculated value of the items we require."

"Very well. I'll relay that to our negotiator. I don't feel hopeful though. It's true the Dakistians need help to save their race, but it's not an immediate need, and they may choose to exhaust all other avenues first, only then becoming desperate enough to accept our offer."

"You're the head of the Lower Council. Find a way to make them deal."

"Yes, Madam Chairwoman. We'll find a way."

"You're excused, Mr. Chairman."

After Soroman left the room and the doors had closed behind him, Gladsworth said, "He's no Arthur Strauss."

"That's for sure," Councilwoman Stengel said. "Arthur would have had a plan for forcing them to sign before he came here to report."

"Speaking of which, Councilwoman Overgaard, what's the status of the search for Strauss? We must have him back so he can resume his role as the head of the Lower Council."

"It's as if he's dropped out of the universe, Madam Chairwoman. I have every available security employee in Galactic Alliance space and beyond searching for him. No one has seen him since the day he left here four months ago and disappeared."

"That's unacceptable. We need him back here. Did I put the wrong woman in charge of the search? As I remember, you promised you'd find him."

"We've exhausted tens of thousands of leads without locating him or even believing the leads were ever credible. He obviously doesn't want to be found. Either that or he's dead."

"If he's dead, I want to meet the person who killed him. Is that perfectly clear, Councilwoman Overgaard?"

"Perfectly, Madam Chairwoman. We'll start anew and reexamine every item and article of clothing we collected from his apartment. Then we'll follow up on all leads from the first search while also trying to develop new leads."

"Damn," Gladsworth said. "If we'd gotten the cloning technology when we first went after it back in '70, we could have recorded the physiology and memories of every important employee by now and been able to produce a new Arthur Strauss—or even several Strausses—at will. We'd never have to fear losing one of our best people again. But perhaps it's not too late to possess the cloning process. If Ptellewqku won't accept our offer, there's bound to be someone on Dakistee who will. We only need to find that person and install them as president. It shouldn't be too difficult. It's been millennia on Earth since anyone other than the major powerbrokers have been responsible for putting politicians in office, although the ignorant populace of the different countries still foolishly believe their votes are responsible for electing the politicians who have continued to disappoint them decade after decade. It gives the electorate something to think about and complain about while the puppet-masters pull the strings and line their pockets with the wealth of nations. There's no reason why such a venerable tradition shouldn't also be installed on Dakistee while the politically ignorant still rule the masses."














Chapter Two

~ August 5th, 2288 ~



Jenetta was working in her office on the admiral's bridge when a message arrived from the battleship Artemis. Although she had filed her official leave-of-absence papers, she was still tidying up various sundry matters from her role as the Commander of the Second Fleet and Military Governor of Regions Two and Three. Priority One messages were always delivered to the intended recipient without regard for present involvements and required a retinal scan.

"Hello, Jen," the image of Admiral Moore said from the large wall monitor as Jenetta completed the scan and tapped the 'play' sensor. "Your message left us all a bit speechless. The vagueness of your return date was confusing, but we received a message from Brian Holt just after yours arrived. He explained that you're seriously in need of some time off and have taken an official leave of absence for an extended period to recharge your batteries.

"We know we've asked a great deal of you over the years, and we're well aware of the sacrifices you've made. These have been difficult times, and if we've seemed to take you too much for granted, I apologize. We always knew we could count on you— more than any other frontline commander— to help get us through the difficulties that faced Space Command and the Galactic Alliance. The Admiralty Board, Space Command, Space Marines, GA Senate, and all the people of the Galactic Alliance are deeply indebted to you for your many years of service and incomparable dedication to duty.

"Once you've rested and are ready to return to work, we'll have time to discuss the role that Admiral Jenetta Carver can play as she continues her invaluable service to the Galactic Alliance. Naturally, the role should be both gratifying and fulfilling.

"Richard E. Moore, Admiral of the Fleet, aboard the GSC Battleship Artemis. Message complete."

Jenetta leaned back in her chair and stared silently at the Space Command logo that had replaced the image of Richard Moore as the message ended. It was the first time since she had been promoted to lieutenant commander that anyone in command had even suggested her assignment be gratifying and fulfilling.

I sense Brian Holt's hand in this, she thought. I wonder what that crafty old devil said to them? For the time being it made no difference. She still intended to take an extended LOA, even if the entire Denubbewa fleet showed up and threatened Quesann.

~     ~     ~

"Madam President," her Chief of Staff said as the cabinet meeting began, "our intelligence operatives have concluded that the offer to solve our sterility problem in exchange for the cloning technology and the metallurgical process for manufacturing Wlabisnk-320, or what the GA calls Dakinium, can only be coming from the Raiders. You can't seriously be entertaining their proposal."

"To save our race from extinction, I would make a pact with the devil."

"That's exactly what you'd be doing. We've carefully examined the history of the Raider crime organization, and this is exactly how they operate, using ostensibly legal companies to front their illegal operations. If the GA Senate learned we were negotiating with them, they would withdraw all support and isolate us here on our planet."

"If it was the only way for our species to survive, isolation would be worth it. We were isolated before we entered stasis, and our race managed to survive just fine until our Nordakian ancestors tried to kill us off."

"Madam President, while we slept, the galaxy changed more than we could have imagined. At one time we were sure we were the only intelligent species in the universe. After sleeping for almost twenty thousand annuals, we've awakened to learn we are just one of dozens in the Galactic Alliance. And that's just in this one small part of this one galaxy. There may be millions of intelligent species in the universe. We cannot return to an existence of isolation while the galaxy and universe continues to pass us by. And there's no way of knowing if the Raiders can even accomplish what they promise. But if they can, who is to say they are the only ones?"

"And who is to say they're not? We know from Commander Carver's own statements that the incredible healing nature of her body is owed to a Raider DNA Manipulation Process. If they can produce that, what other miracle formulas might they already possess? The GA hasn't got anything to match that formula."

"We must give the GA a chance. They're working on it."

"And what results have they produced?"

"It takes time just to set up the operations and begin research. The Raiders are still making idle promises while the GA is working towards a solution."

"Most of us have worked in government— or at least large bureaucratic organizations that operate like a government— so we're all aware of how notoriously inefficient the operations under the control of politicians can be. They're often filled with waste and fraud, rampant with cronyism, and controlled by small, petty bureaucrats who are only interested in building their own little empires within an expansive labyrinth of other small bureaucratic empires. In spite of the importance to our own population, the government labs here on Dakistee were unable to find a cure for the sterility. It's only a matter of time before the political games begin anew that make progress here impossible. That's why I've appealed to private industry to solve this medical problem."

"We have no problem with our world turning to private industry to help solve this millenniums-old problem, Madam President," the Minister of Commerce said. "Our problem is the possible alienation of the Galactic Alliance and the real threats posed by a Raider organization gaining access to a material that would make them more militarily powerful while also gaining knowledge that would give them the ability to clone their top leaders as many times as they wished. As you know, selective breeding was a concern when the cloning project was initiated. We feared that many people with less desirable traits might be bypassed in favor of more highly intelligent and handsome members of our race. That's why laws were enacted to ensure no healthy subject could be turned away if the project development was successful. Even then, the selective breeding issues persisted when some proposed that people with less desirable appearances and birth defects should not be considered healthy. We were spared further controversy when we learned that cloning couldn't solve the sterility problem. We cannot turn over the information the Raiders are seeking. I would rather see our race die out."

"Very commendable, Minister Czelloc, but I doubt the majority here would agree with you. The survival of our race is of paramount importance."

~     ~     ~

"Come in, Larry," Jenetta said to Captain Lawrence Gavin when he appeared at the door to her office on the admiral's bridge shortly after the Ares entered Region One. "Make yourself a beverage and join me."

"I'm about coffee'd out for today," he said as he took a seat in one of the comfortable chairs in her informal seating area.

Jenetta placed her viewpad on the coffee table, took a sip from her coffee mug, and said, "Is this visit because there's something important to discuss, or just a social call?"

"A little of both I'd say. I've heard a rumor that you've decided to resign your commission. Any truth to that?"

Jenetta smiled. "Has my sister been whispering in your ear?"

"Eliza? Never. She's no more inclined to spread scuttlebutt than yourself. No, I got a vidMail from a friend in the Second Fleet who heard a rumor going around on Quesann. I also heard from a friend at SHQ on Earth who says you're to be the new Admiral of the Fleet when Richard Moore retires soon. So I was wondering which of the two rumors was more accurate."

Jenetta sighed. "No, I haven't resigned my commission. And yes, the Galactic Alliance Senate approved my promotion to Admiral of the Fleet, effective the day Richard retires later this year. That's why I needed to get away from Quesann before the Admiralty Board and the Galactic Alliance Senate arrived there."

"So the purpose of this voyage is a getaway breather?"

"I've officially taken a leave of absence. The Ares will return to the Second Fleet after delivering me to Obotymot. My plans beyond my arrival at my estate are still uncertain."

Gavin nodded without commenting.

"No words of wisdom from my mentor?" Jenetta said with a smile.

"I'm still digesting what you said. And the student surpassed her mentor a long time ago."

Jenetta looked at Gavin and smiled. "I've always appreciated your words of wisdom, Larry."

When he smiled, she said, "What?"

"Oh, I was just remembering that day, a long time ago, when a young Ensign, recently promoted three grades to Lt. Commander, reported aboard the Prometheus. She was to be the second in command during the voyage to Earth for the Prometheus' christening ceremony. I thought I could almost see the water dripping from behind her ears."

Jenetta smiled. "I guess I was pretty green."

"No. That's just it. I fully expected you to be, but I was wrong— you weren't. You jumped in with both feet and had the recently assembled skeleton crew in full readiness before we ever left Higgins. I know experienced commanders who would have been envious if they had seen what you accomplished in such a short time. Then, when we learned we would be going into battle against a far superior Raider task force, you got the entire crew rated well above par in weapons training on new and unfamiliar equipment. Your efforts made a considerable difference in that conflict. Few would have expected us to come out as much on top as we did. You know, there really have been times over the years when I've wondered who was mentor and who was student. And you've gone from Ensign to Admiral of the Fleet while I still have the same rank I held when you graduated from the Academy."

"Your rank is by choice. You could have had your stars decades ago. But you wanted to remain as captain of a battleship. And I would have done the same if I could. I would still love to be a warship captain, but it can't happen now. When they permanently promoted me beyond my brevetted rank, there was no going back except a demotion with official censure. That could have an adverse effect on the morale of everyone in Space Command, so it can't be allowed to happen."

"Would you even consider it?"

"I've thought about it. But I couldn't bring myself to do anything to disgrace the uniform. No, I've accepted that I can never be a warship's captain. And with each climb up the five-rung ladder of general officer, I've spent less time aboard a ship and more time behind a desk. But you know all this already. I've bored you with my problems more times than I've wanted. You're just unlucky enough to be my closest friend aboard ship and the one person I can be totally open with."

"I've never believed that made me unlucky. Quite the contrary. So what options do you have? Are you going to become an active member of the Nordakian nobility and spend all your time in court, doting on the king and queen?"

"Not in this lifetime. My initial plans are simple. I intend to get some rest at my estate while I establish, or reestablish, my relationship with my mother and my sisters-in-law and their children whom I have never met. I also intend to meet and greet my subjects, most of whom I have never met. The last time I was on Obotymot, agricultural efforts were just beginning to make some inroads. The former tenants were slowly returning to their farms from the cities where they waited out the atmospheric cleansing and recovery efforts. I've also been struggling to keep Thor, Cayla, and Tayna from becoming too intimate, despite nature's drive for them to procreate. Once we're off-ship and on the estate, I intend to let nature take its course."

"Just as you envy my shipboard position, I envy your familial ties. I have no one back home to return to, so my command is my family."

~     ~     ~

As the Ares neared the planets in what was considered the core of Region One, Jenetta ordered a change in course with Nordakia as an interim destination. It wasn't very far off the direct course to Obotymot, and Jenetta wished to speak to the king and queen. It had been many years since she'd had an opportunity to meet them in person, and she looked forward to the visit. She immediately ordered the com system in her office to communicate only in Dakis so she could brush up her Nordakian language skills a bit before she needed them.

When the ship reached Nordakia, the time at the royal palace was the Earth equivalent of roughly 0200 hours. Jenetta had sent an earlier message to the palace that she would arrive at the palace shuttle pad at 1000 hours GST. Since the diurnal period on Nordakia was almost twenty-eight Earth hours, the Nordakian clocks could be out of sync with GST by a considerable amount, but on this occasion they were fairly close. She would be arriving at the palace an hour before noon, local time.

As the time approached for her to depart, Jenetta removed her uniform and dressed in a gown suitable for the palace and the occasion. The women's fashions on Nordakia and Obotymot had changed dramatically in the years since Jenetta had delivered an original version of the Almuth to the Nordakian king and queen. The gowns that required her to wear a breath-stifling corset and were so tight they prevented her from walking at anything quicker than a snail's pace were long gone from her wardrobe. The gown she wore today was not one of the flowing gowns worn by the lower classes on special occasions, but it allowed Jenetta the freedom to walk at a pace she desired and didn't require body-contouring undergarments. While the general populace had embraced full freedom of choice in attire, the nobility had stubbornly clung to a regal sense of propriety. Full freedom of choice in attire by the nobility wasn't banned, but more conventional clothing was expected at court, so Jenetta wore a gown appropriate for a meeting with the king and queen. Nordakian males were always between seven and eight feet tall, while Nordakian women were always between six and seven feet in height. Since Jenetta's five-feet-eleven-inch height left her shorter than Nordakian women, she was wearing shoes with thirteen centimeter heels as she had done on all previous visits to Nordakia.

~     ~

The small ship touched down on the palace shuttle pad a few seconds before 1300 local time, an hour before noon in Nordakia's twenty-eight-hour daily cycle. Minister Dtaple Gkibuke, the chief of protocol for their Royal Majesties King Tpalsh and Queen Ckuhah, was waiting with a small band and a greeting party of nobles from the court.

As Jenetta stepped off the shuttle ramp, the band began playing the Nordakian Anthem. She stopped and came to attention until they completed the musical number. At that point, Minister Dtaple Gkibuke stepped forward and bowed. His position in the palace exempted him from dropping to one knee as it did everyone else in the greeting party.

"Your Grace," Gkibuke said in Dakis as he bowed his head, "it's wonderful to have you back on Nordakia."

"It's been a long time, Minister."

"Much too long between visits, Your Grace, for one of our greatest heroines, but we know how busy you've been, protecting the people of the GA."

"I'm delighted to say that things are quieter now than at any time in recent decades."

"Let's hope it stays that way— for a while at least. Your Grace, please allow me to introduce the members of the nobility who have come out to welcome you home."

Jenetta recognized about half the assembled group from her previous visits to the palace. She smiled and either nodded properly or shook hands when they were extended. After several minutes of small talk, Minister Gkibuke cleared his throat and said, "His majesty is waiting to welcome you in his study, Your Grace."

"Of course, Minister. Let's not keep his majesty waiting."

Jenetta thanked the nobles as a group for the warm welcome, then called to Cayla and Tayna. The two Taurentlus-Thur Jumakas were standing in the doorway of the shuttle, and as Jenetta turned to follow the minister into the palace, they bounded down the ramp and took their usual places by her sides. The cats had come to understand how such formal ceremonies were conducted and now always hung back a bit on these occasions unless they sensed danger.

The walk through the palace was quite a bit brisker than in past visits owing to the far less restrictive clothing Jenetta was now able to wear. The ban regarding the wearing of uniforms by women in the military had been rescinded, but Jenetta was delighted with the opportunity to wear a gown on this occasion. It had been years since she had worn anything but her uniform to formal gatherings.

When they reached the study, the protocol minister said, "Please excuse me for just a moment, Your Grace, while I announce your presence."

"Of course, Minister."

Gkibuke knocked twice, opened the enormous door slightly, and peered in before opening it more fully and stepping inside. He left it open just a crack, and Jenetta heard him speak loudly into the very large room. "Your Majesty, it is my honor to announce that Azula Carver has arrived and is waiting to visit with you."

Jenetta didn't hear a reply, but the door opened fully a second later and Minister Gkibuke stepped aside to allow her and her pets to enter the room. Once she was inside the lavishly decorated room, Gkibuke stepped out and pulled the door closed behind him. Jenetta walked towards where the king was standing, stopped ten paces away, and bowed her head. She stared at the carpet until the king said in Dakis, "Raise your head, Your Grace, and come join me."

Jenetta raised her head and smiled, pointed to the floor with both hands, then walked forward to where the king was standing. There was no one else in the room. The act of pointing was to communicate with Tayna and Cayla that they should remain where they were. Both cats understood and laid down where they had been standing.

"You're still as lovely as I remember," King Tpalsh said as Jenetta neared him.

"Thank you, Your Majesty," Jenetta said with a smile. "And you're still as handsome and as flattering as always."

Tpalsh laughed. "It goes with the territory, Your Grace. But in your case it's true. You haven't aged a day since I first met you."

"The result of the experiments performed on me by the Raiders."

"Yes, I recall you saying that previously. And you won't age until your final years? At that time the degradation will happen swiftly?"

"Yes, Your Majesty."

"I envy you. The rest of us go downhill slowly once we reach a certain age. I would love to have the vitality of youth until my final years. But I'm sure such a discussion is not what brought you here. Is there a problem?"

"There are always problems but none I came to discuss with you and the queen. This is purely a social visit. It's been a very long time since I was last here, and I wanted to say hello while I was nearby. I hope my visit hasn't alarmed you. I've taken a leave of absence from Space Command, and I'm traveling to Obotymot for an extended period of rest and relaxation."

"That's all?"

"That's all, Your Majesty."

"I feared it might be something to do with the Dakistians."

"Do you have concerns about Dakistee?"

"Yes. Grave concerns. But let's sit down before we begin discussing them. Would you care for a beverage?"

"A cup of tea would be welcome."

The king walked to the nearest wall and yanked once on a sash cord that hung there. A second later a door on the other side of the room opened and a servant entered the study. The king told him to bring a pot of tea, and the servant disappeared as quickly as he had appeared.

In just the time it took for the king and Jenetta to settle into comfortable chairs for their discussion, the servant was back with a tea service tray that held a steaming pot, cups, silverware, napkins, and a dish containing pastries. He placed the tray down on the low table in front of the chairs where the king and Jenetta were seated, and then looked at the king expectantly.

"That's all for now," the king said to him.

The servant bowed his head, turned, and walked briskly from the room as the king and Jenetta fixed their beverages to suit their personal taste using the sweeteners and creams on the tray. Jenetta smiled slightly as she took a sip from her mug and let the strong, nutty-flavored tea roll around in her mouth for a second before swallowing. Although she normally preferred Colombian coffee as a beverage, the Nordakian tea was a staple on Nordakia and was a nice change.

"Pastry, Your Grace?" the king said as he took one of the delicious desserts for himself.

"Not just now, Your Majesty."

The king finished his pastry before he began the discussion. "I want to talk to you in your capacity as the second most powerful person in Space Command. You asked if I have concerns regarding Dakistee. The answer is yes; I have very grave concerns. We've officially apologized for the acts of our distant ancestors and tried to support the rebuilding efforts on Dakistee in any way we could, but I'm afraid they'll never trust our efforts to establish peaceful, diplomatic relations. For them, the events of two hundred centuries ago seem very recent. It may take decades before they forgive my people."

"That's foolish— but understandable. The people who committed those heinous acts are long dead. Their bodies have, no doubt, turned to dust by now."

"Yes, but the people currently alive on Dakistee were alive during that time and slept through all those intervening years. For them, it's the same as if my people wronged them most grievously today and then asked for unconditional forgiveness tomorrow. The event would just be too recent in their minds."

"Yes. Perhaps in time they'll realize the folly of holding our people in this century responsible for the sins of our distant Nordakian forefathers. But history shows us that hatred often dies an interminably slow death."

"When I received your message that you'd be stopping for a visit, I thought you also had concerns about the new government on Dakistee."

"We're watching the situation closely. If you're worried they might attack Nordakia, seeking retribution for the sins of the past, let me put your mind at ease. They have no ships or weapons with which to attack you. Nordakia is safe at this time."

"Yes, we're safe now, but the rumors coming from Dakistee warrant attention. Lady Christa is doing an admirable job from what we understand, and despite her Nordakian citizenship, she has been accepted everywhere. I'm sure her Terran appearance being almost identical to that of our ancestors has an influence. Has she been in touch with you?"

"I communicate with her regularly, but it's mostly personal issues. She reports current military and political information to the Region One HQ Command Center on Earth. What is it you've heard?"

"We have several intelligence operatives on Dakistee, collecting any information they learn about the new government. Normally, all off-world intelligence gathering is left to SCI, but with Dakistee being the original home world of our people, this situation is— unique. It's difficult for our people to get close to the Dakistians because our appearance makes us so easy to identify as Nordakian, but we've managed to establish a small network of informants that provide fairly dependable and useful information." The king hesitated for a moment before continuing, as if trying to decide how much he should say. "Our latest information is that the new president and her cabinet have just signed an agreement to turn over all information regarding the manufacturing of Dakinium— or, as they call it, Wlabisnk-320— plus all information regarding the cloning process to the Raiders in exchange for a cure to their sterility."












Chapter Three

~ August 23rd, 2288 ~



Jenetta was shocked but had long ago learned to mask most reactions completely. The King only saw her poker face. "How reliable is this information, Your Majesty?"

"How reliable is any information purchased from an informant? Until we have confirmation from a different source, we're treating it as just a rumor. But we're paying a bit more attention to this one than many others because of the enormous significance if it's true."

"Yes, we must watch this closely. Have you notified SCI at SHQ?"

"Our Minister of Intelligence sent a message two days ago, detailing everything we've learned on the matter. It's not much, but we continue to pursue any new leads."

"And does your source give a timetable for the transaction, Your Majesty?"

"Our information is that no transfer of Dakinium or cloning information will take place until the formula has been delivered to Dakistee and tests in a Dakistee laboratory indicate it will actually cure sterility in their citizens of childbearing age. At that point, the planet leadership will transfer all early research information on the cloning process. It wouldn't be sufficient to produce clones, but it would allow the Raiders to begin assembling the equipment necessary to prepare a cloning lab like the one found on Dakistee that was later impounded and removed from the planet by Space Command. Before the second half of the information is delivered, the formula must cure a test group of female Dakistee citizens and allow them to become impregnated by cured Dakistee males.

"As we understand the situation, tests have shown that Dakistian females do produce viable eggs, and the males produce viable sperm, but when the two necessary ingredients for procreation get together, the eggs never fertilize. So it may not be necessary to cure both sexes. Perhaps only one sex needs to be cured. But the final cloning information won't be delivered to the Raiders until healthy babies are produced and tests indicate they are not anomalies."

"Well, that should give us a bit of time," Jenetta said. "But I'd like to ensure that the Raiders never get even that first part of the information. We know they have some of the brightest research minds in the GA, and if they acquire an early part of the puzzle that contains some breakthrough information, you can be sure they'll get to work advancing that knowledge. The GA Senate has declared that information regarding the cloning process and the manufacture of Dakinium be classified Most Secret. Distribution of such information to unapproved persons or companies, or even possession of such information by parties who did not originate the data, is therefore sedition. As you know, sedition is one of the very few crimes in the GA that carries a possible death sentence. That should give pause to anyone considering giving such information not only to the Raiders but to anyone."

"Desperate people sometimes ignore laws and consequences and act on their impulses," King Tpalsh said.

"Yes. I wonder if Lady Christa has been informed of this?"

"That would be a decision for Space Command. We haven't notified her."

"I'll take it upon myself to inform her. I believe it's important she be aware of the potential situation brewing there. She is, after all, the commanding officer of the Dakistee station."

"I hope the rumors are false, or perhaps the information was only based on an offer made by the Raiders and our Dakistee cousins refused it."

"We'll find out. I'm glad we have intelligence operatives on the planet. The dissemination of Most Secret information to a criminal organization cannot be allowed."

"That's all I needed to discuss. Is there anything you wanted to discuss that requires the secrecy of this chamber?"

"No," Jenetta said with a smile. "Anything else I have to say might be privileged information, but it's not Secret or above."

"Fine. Then shall we join my queen? It's almost lunchtime."

"Yes, lets. I'm looking forward to seeing Queen Ckuhah again."

Jenetta finished her tea and stood up as King Tpalsh did the same. They made small talk about the kingdom as they walked through the corridors to the royal family's private dining room. Although they had concluded their discussions of the important Top Secret matters, the rest of their conversation wasn't for the ears of palace gossips. Tayna and Cayla normally never left Jenetta's side when walking but understood that on this occasion the importance of the Nordakian king meant that she wanted them to stay back a couple of paces.

"Welcome, Azula Carver," the queen said as Jenetta and the king entered the dining room. She remained seated at the dining table. "It's marvelous to have you here again. It's been much too long."

"Thank you, Your Majesty, I'm delighted to be here again. You're looking wonderful."

"Thank you. And I see you've brought your pets with you again. How nice."

"Cayla and Tayna accompany me wherever I go. They've become more used to being around other people, and while they are still as protective of me as always, they allow others to approach me now without getting overly apprehensive for my safety."

"I see that. I believe that in the past they would never have allowed anyone to walk side by side with you."

"They were very young. Now they've matured and understand that not everyone is a threat when I'm among friends. And how is Prince Chazurz? I haven't seen him in the longest time."

"He's still enjoying his role of Captain Phuth Yuixotical. We've tried to interest him in taking a role here in the palace, but he prefers to be out sailing among the stars in a freighter."

"He has the same malady that's afflicted a great many, including myself."

"I suppose we must be grateful there are people who happily take on the responsibility for keeping trade flourishing among the worlds in Galactic Alliance Space. But we do miss him and are always happy to see him when he drops by for a brief visit. His older brothers are more interested in affairs of the nation and will be the next generation of leaders to our people."



"I'm sure that won't be necessary for some time. You and His Majesty seem to be in fine health and spirits."

"That's true right now, but we are getting older and sometimes talk of stepping down and turning over the reins of power to Prince Adrazzo. As the eldest of our three sons, he is the successor to the throne. Then perhaps we could find a little time for ourselves. Maybe we'd come to visit you on Obotymot."

"You're always welcome, Your Majesty. I have that enormous palace that was built for you and King Tpalsh, and most of time it's almost empty."

"I'd like to visit you there one day. I don't believe we've ever been to that part of the planet."

"It's a beautiful world, and my estate encompasses one of the finest areas. I'll always be grateful for your most generous gift."

"You're as deserving as any member of the nobility— and more than most," the king said. "Tell me, is the land returning to a productive state?"

"The valleys where we've liberally applied fertilizers to restore the topsoil lost through erosion during the years after the meteor strike have come back wonderfully. Our crop sizes are increasing every year. My chamberlain tells me production is up again this year, and life there is good. My mother confirms that the tenants who have returned to their farms are happy to be back tilling the land. And even the wilderness areas are in bloom, although the vegetation is still a bit scattered in places."

"Excellent. Cleansing the atmosphere and supporting the farm families while the growing of crops was impossible put a large hole in the treasury, but the yearly deficits have ended and revenues are slowly replacing what we spent. If we get another five years without a major disaster, we'll be in good shape again."

"At least we're prepared now in case another asteroid comes our way. The Sky Watch programs over Nordakia and Obotymot should give us time to locate and destroy any errant rocks before they can strike us."

"Yes, no asteroid must ever be allowed to pass within ten million kilometers of either planet."

The conversation was briefly interrupted by the announcement that the food was ready and could be served when the king and queen chose. The king instructed the servers to bring it out. Jenetta was delighted to see that Queelish, the delicious Nordakian vegetable stew she had become extremely fond of during her first visit to Nordakia, was the opening course. It was filling enough for her to consider it the entire meal on most occasions, but she saved room for the main course, which consisted of a fish fillet with sides of a wild rice and a vegetable that resembled asparagus. The fish reminded Jenetta of the tilapia on Earth and was delicious, as was all the food served.

When the meal was over, the dishes had been cleared away, and tea had been served, the king said, "I've been thinking, Your Grace. Now that you'll not be immediately returning to Space Command, perhaps you could help us with a problem we're anticipating will cause us great angst."

"And what is this problem, Your Majesty?"

"Immigrants. Millions of immigrants. We've learned that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of passenger ships and freighters are headed towards GA space from the Clidepp Empire. They are reputed to be packed with refugees trying to escape the civil war that has embroiled that nation. We can absorb some, but not the volume reportedly headed for this part of space. And Clidepp ships are so slow that by the time they arrive here they'll be out of food, so we can't simply turn them back."

"It's a difficult problem. You can't take them and you can't easily refuse them."

"And it's not just us. Obotymot is sure to be a destination for many. In fact, since Obotymot is closer to the Clidepp Empire, you'll probably see them before we do."

"The GA Senate has been wrestling with that problem for a while. I understand the emergency food stocks are being increased to the maximum in anticipation of a sudden demand. The stocks had been badly depleted because we've been feeding all the people on Dakistee since their awakening. Thank goodness the Dakistians located their buried treasuries. It's allowed them to begin purchasing their own food supplies from commercial traders as they develop agricultural production on the planet."

"I'd like to appoint you to head up our effort here," the king said.

"Your Majesty, I would be happy to take on any project you wish, but as you said, the ships will begin arriving on Obotymot long before they can reach here. I think my time would be better spent working from there to prepare for the refugees."

The king sighed. "I know you want to go home. You can coordinate the effort from there while working with our people here, can't you?"

"Very well, Your Majesty. I'll do everything I can as the coordinator of the effort."

The king smiled. "Thank you, Your Grace. I knew we could count on you."

Jenetta smiled, but if she had been alone she would have frowned and sighed. It might not be much of a rest after all.

Jenetta spent the rest of the afternoon in the company of the monarchs, then prepared to take her leave. The queen invited her to stay over for an extended visit, but Jenetta told her that while she would love to, she had too much to do. She did agree to stay for dinner.

Upon boarding the Ares later that evening, Jenetta ordered Captain Gavin to set course for Dakistee. She didn't elaborate, and he didn't pry. He simply had the navigator plot the course. As the ship left orbit, it headed for Dakistee at Light-9790.

~     ~     ~

"What's happened?" Christa asked excitedly as she entered Jenetta's suite aboard the Ares. "What are you doing here? Is everyone okay?"

"Calm down. Everyone is fine. I just need to talk you before I head for home."

"Is there a problem at the estate? Is Mama okay?"

"Christa, calm down. As far as I know everyone in the family is fine."

Christa took a deep breath and plopped into one of the comfortable chairs in Jenetta's sitting room. "You frightened me. You gave me no notice you were coming. You just showed up and ordered me to come to the Ares. What are you doing here anyway? You're a long way from your command. And with the Admiralty Board and the GA Senate moving to Quesann, I didn't figure to see you for a long time, unless I had an opportunity to go to Region Two."

"I've taken a leave of absence. I need a rest— away from Space Command and the Admiralty Board."

"Then it's true?"

"What's true?"

"That Admiral Moore has decided to retire this year and the Senate has confirmed you to take his place."

Jenetta grimaced and snorted slightly. "Yes, that's true. But it's not going to happen."

"So you ran away?"

"I'm officially on LOA."

"You ran away," Christa said with a knowing grin.

"Well— what would you have done?"

"The same thing. I wouldn't let them pin those five stars on my shoulders either." A smile suddenly crossed Christa's face. "Admiral Hubera must be spinning in his grave. He said you'd never make captain after you made lieutenant commander."

"Hubera isn't dead."

"Well, he should be. But they say only the good die young, so he'll probably live longer than us."

"And it's Captain Hubera, Retired."

"For what he tried to do to you and to Eliza and me, it should be Petty Officer Hubera, Jailbird."

"He got what he deserved, and he's out of our lives. I don't even think about him anymore."

"Okay, I'll drop it. So what are you really doing here? Why haven't you gone home to see Mama, Marisa, Regina— and your nephews whom you've never seen?"

"I'm going. I was on my way there when something important came up. We need to talk. Do you want something to eat or drink?"

"I'd love some chocolate ice cream. The stuff they serve on the Marine base is horrible and usually melted."

"Coming up. Play with the kiddies while I get some."

When Jenetta returned with two bowls of Double Chocolate ice cream, Christa was playfully wrestling on the floor with Tayna and Cayla. "I've missed these gals," she said as she stood up. "I wish I had a couple of companions like Cayla and Tayna."

"Perhaps you will."

"Have you mated them with Thor?" Christa asked as she took the bowl Jenetta was holding out.

"Not yet," Jenetta said as she plopped into a chair.

"Where is he, by the way? I'd like to meet him."

"He's down in a hold."

"You have him locked up?"

"He's not in a cage or anything, Christa. I just keep them separated for now so nature doesn't follow it's normal course."

"Can I see him before I go?"

"Of course. Eliza will be joining us when she gets off duty. We'll go down then. I'm sure Cayla and Tayna want to see him as well."

"So what's so important you came to see little old me?"

"I stopped at Nordakia before I came here. The king relayed some intelligence information his people had learned. Were you aware that the new president and her cabinet have signed a deal with the Raiders to give them all of the information they have on cloning and the manufacture of Dakinium?"

Christa stopped eating, removed the spoon from her mouth, and stared at Jenetta. "Where did they hear that?"

"I don't have the particulars. The king told me that a full report has been forwarded to SCI."

Christa took a deep breath and released it slowly before saying, "Madu has been actively soliciting outside help to solve the sterility problem. One of the pharmaceutical companies that responded to her call for proposals is reputed to have ties with companies that are believed to have done business with the Raiders. There's no clear chain of evidence that the company is involved with the Raiders directly. In any event, I hadn't heard that any agreements had, as yet, been signed, or what the payment form might be."

"This is serious, Christa. If what the Nordakian Intelligence Service heard is true, we're talking about sedition."

Christa nodded. "I understand. I can't imagine Madu being so foolish as to even entertain such a proposal."

"It may simply be a false report cooked up by an informant looking to get paid by the Nordakian Intelligence people."

"How many intelligence people do the Nordakians have on the planet?"

"I have no idea. Based on our conversations, I know Madu wants nothing to do with their distant relatives. How many Nordakians are on the planet?"

"Quite a few, actually. Many of the Dakistians don't harbor any ill will towards the Nordakians. They know the crimes committed here were perpetrated by ancestors long dead. And they appreciate the helping hand the Nordakians have extended."

"I don't like to meddle in the affairs of other commands, but I'm going to make an exception this time. I intend to send a Priority-One to Admiral Platt outlining everything I've heard and expressing my concerns. From that point it will be up to her to follow up because I'm going home. The king has asked me to coordinate the Clidepp refugee problem, so I'm going to be busy with that."

"Have any arrived in GA Space yet?"

"Not as far as I know, but it's only a matter of time. We know they're coming and we need to be prepared when they do arrive. Come home when you get a chance."

"I don't have transportation."

"Oh, I might be able to arrange that when you can get free here for a short time."

"Well, if the Admiral of the Fleet can't arrange for a ship then I don't know who can."

"Don't even joke about my holding that position."

Christa grinned. "Sorry."

When the computer announced a visitor at the door, both women looked in that direction.

"Must be Eliza," Christa said.

"Yes," Jenetta said, looking at the chronograph on the wall. The watch had just changed. "Computer, who is at the door?"

"Lt. Commander Eliza Carver is waiting in the corridor."

"Open the door to admit her."

"Christa, what are you doing here?" Eliza asked before she was halfway through the door.

"The Admiral of the Fleet requested my presence."

"You're not going to let that drop, are you?" Jenetta said.

Christa smiled. "I'm sorry. I couldn't resist. That was the last time."

Turning towards Eliza, Jenetta said "I had a few questions to ask about things on Dakistee."

Seeing the ice cream bowl that both of her sisters held, Eliza said, "Ice Cream? Chocolate? Any left?"

"It's Double Chocolate, and there's only about a gallon or two. You know where it is. Help yourself."

When Eliza returned with her bowl of ice cream, Jenetta and Christa were seated in the plush sitting-room chairs making small talk as they polished off their ice cream. Eliza selected one for herself and sat down to enjoy her own frozen confectionary dessert.

~

The three women, along with Cayla and Tayna, went down to see Thor once Eliza finished her ice cream. Thor had naturally met Eliza numerous times but had never met Christa. He approached her warily at first, even though she looked identical to the other two.

"Thor, this is my sister, Christa," Jenetta said.

Thor sniffed in her direction, then moved in closer and sniffed again. Finally, he walked right up to her and sniffed. Then he turned to look at Eliza before moving to her and sniffing. Lastly, he sniffed Jenetta. Cayla and Tayna made some mewling noises, to which Thor responded.

"Think he has us sorted out?" Christa asked.

"I'd love to know what Cayla and Tayna just said to him," Eliza said. "And what he said back."

"Since Thor was given to me by the Hudeerac Order, I've become convinced that Jumakas have a definite language. It's just physical limitations that prevent them from articulating speech we can understand. I don't know if that means they're limited or we are. But there has to be a way to communicate better. They seem to understand Amer, so it's not a matter of limited intelligence on their part. Cayla and Tayna have seemed to understand everything I've said since the first day I got them. I've always wondered if they've picked up any other languages since they were born. When I was at the royal palace on Nordakia we only spoke in Dakis, and my girls seemed to understand what was going on. Whether it was just their understanding of protocol or whether they actually understood what was said, we may never know. But perhaps one day we'll find out."

"So after you allow them to breed, who's getting the kittens?" Christa asked.

"I think it's bit premature to make any decisions in that regard. First, we don't know if my girls can produce healthy offspring. They appear healthy, but we know very little about Jumaka physiology. I've been fortunate to have access to some of the finest medical people in GA space, and a few have even had some veterinary experience. In any event, most are familiar with alien species anatomy and welcomed an opportunity to examine Cayla and Tayna. They tell me Jumakas, while having a physiology similar to other animals from Taurentlus-Thur, aren't that radically different from Earth feline species but none could tell me if my girls could bear young. And until Thor joined us, there seemed little likelihood the opportunity for procreation would present itself.

"Second, we don't know if Jumakas are monogamous. Thor, Cayla, and Tayna love to romp and nuzzle, but when it comes time to procreate will Thor select— or have to select— just one of my girls? We have no idea.

"Third, we don't know about litter sizes.

"Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, the pair has to bond. It's not just a matter of the human selecting the kitten, but of the kitten also selecting the human. The kitten must accept the human as their own."

Jenetta stopped and looked down when she realized Tayna and Cayla seemed to be hanging on every word she spoke. "Do you agree?" she said to them. Both of them stepped closer and licked her hand.

"I'd say that means they agree," Eliza said.

"Okay, you're right," Christa said. "We'll have to wait until the kittens are born and weaned before any decisions are made. But I'm certainly going to hope at least one of them bonds with me."












Chapter Four

~ August 25th, 2288 ~



The Ares left Dakistee orbit a few hours after Christa returned to the planet. There were no more stops planned, and Obotymot was just one day away at Light-9790.

~     ~     ~

Jenetta had forbidden Captain Gavin to perform the ritual normally conducted for retiring admirals leaving their command because she didn't want it to appear as if she wasn't returning, even if she wasn't. Instead she had hosted a small party during second watch for all senior officers aboard ship. Those on duty were able to briefly drop by because the party lasted several hours. When asked what her future plans were, she was always noncommittal, saying only that she was seeking a period of rest and relaxation after so many years of turmoil and war. Still, most of the officers acted as if it was the last time they would see their respected and beloved leader.

As the last of the crew left the party and Jenetta was alone, she felt terribly depressed. She hadn't thought her departure would affect her that way. She had been looking at her leave as her chance to get away from a job she didn't want, but she knew that a career in Space Command had been the only job she'd ever wanted since entering the academy thirty-six years earlier. She wondered if she was throwing away her only chance for future happiness because she feared being locked into a boring job on the Admiralty Board. She suddenly felt very lost.

~

When it was time to leave the Ares, Jenetta, with her three Jumakas, began the long trek to the shuttle bay where a small ship was waiting to take her to the surface. As she rounded the first bend in the corridor, she saw it was lined with crewmembers standing shoulder to shoulder on both sides of the corridor. All were wearing their dress uniforms, and the sight made her pause for a second. She took a deep breath and continued. As she did, the crewmembers braced sharply to attention.

For the rest of her walk to the shuttle bay, the corridors were likewise lined with crewmembers standing shoulder to shoulder at attention. It took all of her willpower to maintain a staid expression.

Jenetta was relieved to see that the shuttle bay appeared almost deserted when she entered. If there had been something more planned, she feared she might not be able to maintain her stoic appearance. As it was, tears began streaming down her cheeks as she took her seat in the small ship. She was glad there had been no one else in the cabin to see and wondered if the pilots had noticed on their cabin monitors.

~

As the shuttle carrying Jenetta and her three cats slowly settled towards the pad outside the palace on the Family Carver Estate, Jenetta sighed. She knew that when she stepped from the shuttle ramp she would effectively be detached from Space Command. The Ares would leave Obotymot orbit soon after her luggage and personal effects were brought to the surface and return to Region Two. There would be no ship waiting overhead to take her wherever she wished to go, whenever she wished to go there.

When the shuttle had fully settled onto the pad, Jenetta stood and moved to the hatch. Cayla and Tayna were at her sides, and Thor was following. The welcome at the palace was like the parting moments at the ship in reverse. The entire palace staff, including the security staff, had turned out to greet her. It was like a small town welcome for a returning hero. Jenetta recognized a number of people from her previous time at the palace, but there were many new faces.

Nordakians were usually able to control the chromaticity of their skin color, which was sort of aqua when no effort was being made to alter it. When meeting an alien whom they respected or wanted to honor, they tried to match the skin coloration of that individual. But when excited, they lost control of their ability to hold one color. So as Jenetta appeared in the hatchway of the shuttle, the palace staff, which had all matched the skin color of the Azula Mum in preparation for greeting Jenetta, lost control and suddenly resembled spinning rainbows gone amuck.

Jenetta smiled and waved to the assembled staff as she walked down the ramp. As she stepped to the ground, all Nordakian males in the crowd except Chamberlain Yaghutol dropped to one knee, lowered their heads, and pressed their hands against their chest, while the women lowered their heads and pressed their hands against their chest. Jenetta's first royal command of the day was for everyone to raise their heads and for the males to stand up.

The first ones to reach her as she stood at the base of the ramp were her mother, two sisters-in-law, and two young boys who closely resembled their Carver fathers. At first the boys were a little intimidated by the large Jumakas, but they quickly lost their fear as Jenetta picked one of the boys up and placed him on Cayla's back. To the large Jumaka, roughly a hundred sixty pounds of bone and muscle, the weight of the thirty-pound child was insignificant. Once the other child saw this, he wanted a ride also, so Jenetta placed him on Tayna's back. Thor was definitely the larger and stronger of the three Jumakas, but Jenetta was unsure how he would react to being cast in the role of a beast of burden. Jenetta knew that neither Tayna nor Cayla would buck the child off or harm him in any way.

After Jenetta and her relatives had exchanged an initial greeting of hugs and kisses, they moved towards the palace. Marisa and Regina each walked alongside the Jumaka carrying their son in case he started to slip off, but the Jumakas were careful not to make any quick movements.

As the small party approached the throng of greeters, Jenetta's chamberlain stepped forward, pressed his hand to his chest, then dropped to one knee and stared at the ground.

"Chamberlain Yaghutol, please raise your head and stand up," Jenetta said.

The Nordakian smiled as he rose. "Greetings, Your Grace. It's wonderful to be able to welcome you home again."

"Thank you, Chamberlain. I'm delighted to be here. You've done a wonderful job here. The palace and grounds look magnificent."

"Thank you, Your Grace. It's been my honor to represent you during your absence."

Raising her voice to address the servants, Jenetta said, "Thank you for this wonderful greeting. I'm delighted to be here among you again. I see a lot of familiar faces but also a lot of new ones. I shall welcome the opportunity to renew my acquaintance with the long-term household staff and to become acquainted with the new members."

To the sounds of more clapping and cheering, Jenetta led the small family procession into the palace.

The Family Carver palace was, in the tradition of palaces everywhere, beautiful. It sat on a slight elevation overlooking a picturesque, sparkling clear lake, and had splendiferous gardens. Originally built for the royal family of Nordakia and their court when they visited Obotymot, the upper floors contained a hundred suites. A suite intended for a member of the lower peerage consisted of a bedroom about half the size of a small ballroom, a similarly-sized sitting room where visitors could be entertained, and two large bedrooms to house the noble's handmaidens and servants. An upper peerage noble would have a master bedroom twice the size of that occupied by lower peerage royalty, a larger sitting room, and four enormous bedrooms for their staff. From the outside, the palace had a slightly trapezoidal appearance, and every suite had a balcony. From above, the courtyard, gardens, and pools in the center were visible. Like a modern hotel with high-speed elevators, the palace had been built upwards so as to have a smaller footprint than palaces built on Earth prior to the twentieth century. From the penthouse floor, originally reserved exclusively for the king and queen, and now for the Azula and her family, one had a magnificent view of the breathtaking snow-capped peaks rising up from the mountain range that bordered the northern edge of the estate.

A lift took the party to the third floor and they walked to an enormous sitting room. Once inside, more hugs and friendly banter replaced the stiffer formality of the first greeting.

"So what's going on, Jenetta?" her mother asked sternly. "I got a message from you yesterday telling me that you were arriving today for an extended stay. How can you stay for an extended time? You're the Commander of the Second Fleet and the military governor of Regions Two and Three. What did you do? Get yourself fired?"

Jenetta was shocked by the forthright question. "What makes you think I got fired?"

"I've been a military wife long enough to know that when a commanding officer loses their command it's either because they did something wrong or they're getting a promotion. Oh my God, you're not getting promoted again, are you? The only higher position is Admiral of the Fleet."

"Not if I can help it."

"What does that mean?"

"It means that the GA Senate has confirmed the Admiralty Board's recommendation that I be appointed as Admiral of the Fleet to replace Admiral Moore when he retires this year."

Jenetta's sisters-in-law immediately jumped into the conversation.

"Admiral of the Fleet?" Marisa said. "Oh, Jenetta, what an honor! And at such a young age. You've only been an officer for what, thirty years?"

"It's been thirty-two years since I graduated from the Academy."

"As far as I know, no one with less than sixty-five years of service has ever become the Admiral of the Fleet," Regina said.

"And I fully intend to not be the one who breaks that tradition."

"You don't want the rank?" her mother asked.

"It's not the rank, Mama. It's the job that goes with it."

"Oh. I understand," her mother said, knowingly. "You still want to be the captain of a ship in space."

"Is that so bad?"

"Not for a man."

"That's sexist, Mama."

"No, it's not. I'm not talking about talent and ability. I'm talking good old practical biology. The Admiral of the Fleet rarely travels beyond a quick commuting distance. That makes having a satisfying family life infinitely more possible for female officers. That is, if you want a family."

As Jenetta's face reflected the shock she was feeling from her mother's last sentence, she turned to face away from the three women. Following a few seconds of silence, she turned back, having recovered her normal, staid expression. "I can't believe I've been so focused on what I saw as the terrible aspects of the position that I never even thought about the positive aspects, such as raising a family. Of course I want children, Mama. But until now it's been a distant dream."

"Of course you don't have to be around to raise your children. They could even be born in a test tube and raised in an incubator until they were old enough for a nanny to take over. Then you could visit them once every five years or so until they go off to college and leave your life forever."

"Or I could marry someone who will take responsibility for raising the children."

"Yes, but while men can be excellent fathers and can be great substitute mothers where the mother is gone from the home, do you really want to miss the experience of raising your own children? I wouldn't give up even one minute of memories from my years raising you and your brothers. And if I might say so, quite proudly, you've all turned out wonderfully. People back in the twenty-first century learned to their sad chagrin that children are far more likely to turn out badly where they have little daily contact with a loving mother."

Jenetta looked over at her two nephews playing gleefully on the floor with the Jumakas. Thor was even being included in the playtime now and seemed to be enjoying himself. Cayla and Tayna were making sounds that Jenetta assumed were instructions to Thor not to be too rough. Until now Thor had mostly lived a solitary life in an Ares hold except when Jenetta or Eliza dropped by to feed him or simply give him some companionship. And while in a Hudeerac zoo he never saw anyone except for a few moments each day at feeding time or when they came to clean his cage once a week.

Sights like the one playing out in front of her never failed to tug at the heartstrings of any woman who wished to have children one day. The question for Jenetta had to be: would the rewards of motherhood be adequate to overcome the unhappiness of being planet-bound until her children were all off to college? And Jenetta wasn't even sure she or her sisters could bear children, given the changes imposed on their bodies by the Raiders. The entire Dakistee race of women of childbearing age were reputed to be fertile, with eggs just yearning to accept sperm but which had so far been unable to produce a single fetus. If Jenetta discovered that she couldn't bear young, she would be devastated. And if she reversed her position regarding accepting the promotion in order to offer a stable home life for progeny that would never be born, how long would she have to wait before she could resign? Five years? Ten? Twenty? If it was only five, she could do it. She had spent five years chained to a desk at Stewart, after all. The decision to ultimately resign in the near future definitely warranted a reevaluation.

Jenetta managed to slightly change the direction of the conversation at that point by asking Marisa and Regina about their lives as mothers. As the women gushed on and on about how wonderful their kids were and the trouble they were always getting into, Jenetta's maternal desires were growing like never before. But as the old saying goes, it takes two. Which reminded her that she owed Hugh a vidMail.

The reunion with the family was wonderful. Jenetta enjoyed it, her mother was pleased no end, and Marisa and Regina didn't want it to end when it was time to prepare for dinner. To say the kids enjoyed their time with the Jumakas would be a considerable understatement.

As their mothers tried to pull them away with promises that they could play with the kitties again tomorrow, Arturo, the older of the boys asked, "Can I keep the kitty with the white spot on her front paw?"

"I want the other black one," Berl, the younger of the two, said quickly.

"No, dear," Regina said to her son. "The kitties belong to Auntie Jenetta. They're a family, and we can't break them up. But I'm sure that Auntie Jenetta won't mind if you play with them again tomorrow."

When Arturo looked at Jenetta for confirmation, she said, "Cayla, Tayna, and Thor love children, and I'm sure they'll be just as anxious to play with you tomorrow as you are to play with them."

That seemed to satisfy the young man, and he went with his mother without further resistance, as did Berl.

Once the two moms and their progeny had vacated the room, Jenetta's mother said, "That was very deftly handled."

"What was?"

"You know— the way you maneuvered the conversation away from a discussion of your future plans for children."

"Would you expect less from the Admiral of the Fleet?" Jenetta said with a grin.

"I'm not talking with the Admiral of the Fleet. I'm talking with my daughter, whom I hope will make me a grandmother someday."

"You're already a grandmother twice over. And when Andy and Jimmy finally find the right girl, you'll no doubt be a grandmother again— perhaps many more times."

"And what about my three daughters? Is there no hope for children? Or are all of you just so fixated with a life in space that you have no time for romance?"

"Don't be too quick to judge Christa and Eliza with the same yardstick you use with me. They've seen how dedication to duty above all else can harm chances for romance. Which is not to say they won't wind up in the same situation I'm in."

"Which is what, exactly?"

"Being in love with someone you can only see once every twelve years."

"Has it been that long?"

"Twelve and half years, actually."

"I think you need to find a new man. Preferably one that's located in the same region of space."

"Oh, Mama, you know you can't dictate to your heart. It dictates to you."

"You can't dictate to your heart, but you can narrow its selection to viable candidates."

"It's not Hugh's fault anymore than it is mine. He has no more control over where Space Command posts him than any of us. We go where assigned. Just have faith that it will happen when it happens, Mama." Looking to change the subject, Jenetta asked, "Are we dressing for dinner tonight?"

"I thought it would be nice. I asked the butler to serve in the smaller of the guest dining rooms tonight rather than the family dining room."

"Are we expecting company?"

"No, it will just be the six of us."

"Then I'd better get going. I have to feed Cayla, Tayna, and Thor first."

Reaching out and pulling her daughter to her for a tight embrace, her mother said, "It's so nice to have my baby home for a visit."

"I'm happy to be here too, Mama. It's wonderful to be with my family again." As they separated, Jenetta turned towards the Jumakas and said, " Okay, kitties, it's meal time."

The three Jumakas jumped up and raced to her sides as she turned and left the room.

As she expected, a palace housekeeper had seen that her luggage was brought to her room, unpacked, and the clothes pressed and hung in the closets. A meal cart containing the specially prepared food for the Jumakas was waiting against the wall near the bathroom they would have for their exclusive use. Cayla and Tayna already knew how to use the systems built into every bathroom for the use of pets, and they would now teach Thor. Jenetta had already decided she wouldn't separate them anymore. Thor would stay with her and the girls now that they were at the estate, and the Jumakas would have the run of the palace grounds.

As happy as she was to be with her family, Jenetta couldn't stop thinking about the Dakistians. The Galactic Alliance had done so much to help them, and now they were conspiring with the Raiders. She suddenly rushed to her office and sent off messages to both Christa and Space Command SHQ.

~     ~     ~

"Madam President, Commander Carver wonders if you might be able to spare her a few minutes." Madu Ptellewqku's secretary announced over the com system.

"Is she here?"

"Yes, ma'am. She's here in the outer office."

"Send her in."

"Yes, ma'am."

A few seconds later the door opened and Christa entered the lavish office. The government office building had been the first built on the site of the new city. In fact, the entire center of the city was dedicated to government space. At first, only the buildings for which there was an immediate need would be constructed, with the remainder of the government space being devoted to enormous parks and walking areas, but the plans were already drawn for a government complex that would eventually use most of the space in a six-kilometer-square area.

"Christa, come in," Madu said, smiling as she rose from her chair and walked around her desk to greet her friend and guest.

"Good morning, Madu," Christa said, returning Madu's smile. "I hope I'm not interrupting your schedule too much. I see you have others waiting in your outer office."

"Let them wait. They're all contractors hoping I'll adjust our established plans to suit their needs or schedules. So, is this a social call?"

"Partly. We haven't seen one another in two full lunar cycles."

"I know. I've been meaning to invite you to have dinner with me, but my schedule has just been so erratic."

"When things calm down, perhaps we can enjoy an evening together to discuss less important and completely trivial matters."

"Meaning that you have something of vital importance to discuss now?"

"I suppose that will depend on your answers."

"That sounds ominous. Come sit down."

Once the two women were settled in the informal area of Madu's office, she said, "Now, what is it you've come about?"

"Probably the most important issue facing your planet— the sterility issue."

Madu nodded. "I'm listening."

"The GA scientists continue to work on the problem following an established agenda of careful research and testing, but to date they can claim no real progress. The reports I've received tell me they've eliminated several causes but still have no real clues for why the reproductive systems of your citizens reject procreation. But my visit here today is for a related but different reason.

"I've heard a rumor that you've been negotiating with a certain pharmaceutical research company that has been remotely linked to the Raiders in the past. Some intelligence people believe that Trigenetics Galactica Pharmaceutical is actually a wholly owned subsidiary of the Raiders, although they've so far been unable to prove that."

"Christa, I can't be concerned with unproven allegations about corporate ownership or behavior, or we'll never get anywhere. When there's proof of wrongdoing or criminal association, I'll remove a company from all consideration. But until then I must be free to negotiate if there's any chance someone might succeed where the GA scientists can't. TGP is a highly successful company with enormous research and development facilities scattered around GA space. I can't just dismiss them out of hand."

"I understand, Madu. I realize the importance of the issue and that you must seek answers from every possible source. Let me just say one last thing, and then I'll let you get back to work. If you make any financial arrangements with a company that is merely suspected of collusion with— or of being owned by— the Raiders, you will not later be held responsible. My purpose in coming here today was simply to alert you to the fact that TGP has long been the subject of SCI investigation, and to warn to you be careful what you agree to. And be especially careful what agreements you might sign."

"Thank you, Christa. You're a good friend. And if SCI ever does prove that TGP takes direction from the Raiders, I will terminate our association immediately. In the meantime I must use every avenue available to us as we work to cure my people's sterility."

Christa nodded. "Thank you for taking time from your busy schedule to hear my concerns, Madu."

"You're always welcome here, Christa. I appreciate your concern and how tirelessly you've worked to help the citizens of my planet get back on their feet. Goodbye."

After Christa had left the office, Madu, deep in thought, walked slowly back to her desk. When she had taken her seat, she tapped a button on the com unit and said, "Tell Minister Sltuvyck I must see him immediately."

Five minutes later, Sltuvyck was seated in her office, facing her desk.

"Commander Carver was just here. She knows we've been negotiating with TGP."

"It's not illegal to negotiate with companies from off world."

"You fool! Don't you understand? She knows we've promised to share the cloning process data and the metallurgy information on Wlabisnk-320."

"She couldn't. Only you and the cabinet members know about that deal."

"I tell you, she knows. I know she knows."

"Did she say she knew?"

"It's not so much what she said as what she didn't say, and what she hinted at. She knows. I know she knows."

Sltuvyck began to fidget nervously in his chair. "She couldn't possibly know."

"I'll remind you of those words as they place the noose around your neck."

Sltuvyck blanched as he thought about the penalty for sedition. He knew Madu's intuition was uncanny. "What do we do?"

"I have to think," Madu said as she began pacing around the office. "I have to think."












Chapter Five

~ August 27th, 2288 ~



"Your Grace," the butler said as he entered her main office on the third floor, "a shuttle has entered the atmosphere. It appears to be headed this way. They haven't acknowledged any of the hails by our security forces, so security requests permission to shoot it down."

"Does the ship appear to be armed?"

"No, Your Grace. But it could be a remotely controlled ship with a large explosive device. The head of security strongly suggests you and the family go down to the emergency bunker immediately."

"Sound the evacuation alarm. I want everyone in the bunker."

"Yes, Your Grace," the butler said, then raced from the room. A couple of seconds later the emergency alarm began sounding throughout the palace.

Jenetta ran to where she expected to find the kids playing with the Jumakas, but they weren't there. She made it down to the first floor in twenty seconds and ran to the open courtyard in the center of the palace. The Jumakas and the children were there, along with her mother and two sisters-in-law. They were standing with bewildered expressions on their faces because they didn't know what the alarm meant.

"We must go down to the bunker immediately," Jenetta yelled over the sound of the alarm. "There's a possible threat headed this way."

"What kind of threat?" her mother asked.

"Not now, Mama. Just follow me."

Regina and Marisa picked up their children, and the group raced to an elevator. The Jumakas naturally followed along.

While the alarm was sounding, the button that sent the elevators plummeting to the underground bunker would work for anyone. As the doors opened at the bottom of the shaft to reveal an empty corridor, Jenetta stepped out and turned to her left. She had never been down here before, but her palace on Quesann was modeled after her palace here, and she assumed the bunker was almost an exact duplicate as well.

The enormous bunker was already crowded with staff members who had headed there as soon as the alarm sounded. As the last of the staff entered the bunker behind Jenetta, the massive door was closed and the room sealed. They were now safe from almost any attack on the surface.

The main room resembled a large lounge, and there was adequate seating to accommodate all, but everyone stood around, listening for any sound from the surface despite the fact that they were too far down to hear anything short of a nuclear explosion.

Finally, the phone rang, startling some of the staff who were straining to hear any sound from above. The butler answered the phone, nodded as the other person spoke, then hung up the device. He walked to where Jenetta was standing.

"Your Grace, Captain Pwuhvasqu, the chief of security, says all is secure. They were able to make contact with the Selaxian freighter that launched the shuttle. It appears the shuttle had a problem with its communication equipment as it entered the atmosphere. It doesn't present any danger."

"A Selaxian freighter? They're an awful long way from home. Who's in the shuttle?"

"The pilot is supposed to be a Terran named Wilkerson. M.A. Wilkerson to be precise. That's all Captain Pwuhvasqu was able to tell me at this time."

"Okay," Jenetta said loudly so everyone in the bunker could hear, "the crises is over. We can return topside."

Jenetta and her family, including the three Jumakas, were naturally accorded sole use of the first elevator to rise to the main floor of the palace. The spacious, high-speed elevators would have the entire palace staff topside within a few minutes.

Captain Pwuhvasqu was waiting on the first floor to greet the Azula when the elevator doors opened. "Your Grace, I'm sorry for the confusion. I felt it better that you be in the bunker in case this really was an attack on the palace."

"You took the correct action, Captain. I'm glad you were able to determine that the shuttle offered no real danger before you found it necessary to destroy it. The freighter captain should have contacted you before the shuttle was even allowed to leave the ship. At a later time we'll have to discuss having planetary security ships in orbit around Obotymot so ships entering orbit can be cleared before the situation escalates to the danger point. Good work, Captain Pwuhvasqu. Carry on."

"Yes, Your Grace. Thank you."

~     ~

The shuttle touched down on the palace pad about twenty minutes later. Captain Pwuhvasqu and a detail of twenty security people were standing nearby to ensure the safety of the Azula and the palace staff.

After extending from an opening in the hull, a ramp lowered gently until the furthest end made contact with the ground. Immediately thereafter a hatch opened to reveal a Terran male who filled the opening, literally. He didn't appear particularly large by Terran standards, but he was a giant by the standards on Selax, where the average male stands just three feet, one inch. As he stepped out onto the ramp, Jenetta judged his height to be about five feet eight inches. The stranger walked down the ramp after taking a quick glance at the assembled security and palace staff, and went directly to where Jenetta stood. Most everyone in the known galaxy could identify her in a heartbeat.

"Mr. Wilkerson?" Jenetta said.

"Aye, Admiral. I'm Wilkerson."

Wilkerson appeared to be slightly older than middle-aged, at perhaps eighty or ninety. His hair was prematurely white, and his skin was tanned, which was surprising for someone who had just spent five years in space. At one time, Terran space dwellers used tanning beds to replace the missing effects of the sun in keeping their bodies healthy. But vitamin supplements and special lamps in all the corridors of larger ships had replaced the need for spending time in a tanning bed each week. It appeared that Wilkerson had continued to use a tanning bed.

"You will always address Her Grace as Azula Carver or Your Grace," Captain Pwuhvasqu said loudly in a threatening manner from a few meters away.

Wilkerson looked at Captain Pwuhvasqu, then sheepishly back at Jenetta. "I'm sorry, Your Grace."

"No harm done, Mr. Wilkerson. The Nordakian rules of proper etiquette where the nobility is concerned are quite strict, but I took no offense. If you were a Nordakian, you would have been required to drop to one knee and press your hand against your chest at our meeting. Not being a Nordakian citizen, you are, of course, exempt from that ritual."

Looking around at the Nordakian males, most of whom stood nearly eight feet all, Wilkerson said, "I feel like I've finally managed to escape from Lilliput only to land in Brobdingnag." This was a reference to the classical tales of travel by Lemuel Gulliver, written by Jonathan Swift and published in 1726.

"I promise you won't be caged and put on public display here, Mr. Wilkerson," Jenetta said with a smile. "And my people are exceedingly friendly and courteous."

"At least I won't have to worry about banging my noggin on the overhead a dozen times each day for years."

"Did you travel all the way here from Taurentlus-Thur in a Selaxian freighter?"

"Yes. It was the only ship headed this way for over a year, so I had little choice. I knew I couldn't survive five years of travel in a Lilliput environment and remain sane, so I purchased a cargo container and hurriedly outfitted it as a personal living accommodation. I had all the space I needed for living and for a complete lab in which to continue my work. I even had running room for the Jumaka I purchased for you."

"A Jumaka? For me?"

As Jenetta uttered the words, Cayla, Tayna, and Thor, who were standing by her sides, raised their heads and looked at her briefly before returning their attention to Wilkerson.

"Yes. You told me in one of our communications back in 2282 that you had two females but no way to impregnate them. So I purchased a male for you before I left Taurentlus-Thur. It was extremely difficult to get an export license for him because the government has placed a complete ban on Jumaka exports. I was only able to get him off the planet because I told the authorities he was for Admiral Jenetta Carver, who already owned two females but no male. As soon as they heard he was for you, they agreed immediately. They had heard the stories about you and your Jumakas. And— the fact that you are one of the most powerful persons in Space Command didn't hurt. They said that once I delivered the animal, you would have to contact them so they know you actually received him. If you don't, I can never return there."

"Who do I contact?"

"I have all the information in my computer files. I'll dig it up and bring it to you." Looking around, he asked, "Uh, where should I have the tug place my container?"

"You can stay in the palace while you're here."

"Thank you, but the lab in my cargo container is all set up for my work. I have a large collection of recordings I've tried to use to learn the language of the Jumakas, but I couldn't seem to make any headway with the Jumaka I purchased. He appears to be a very healthy male. He just won't talk to me, even though he seems to understand everything I say."

"Do you keep him caged?"

"The freighter captain insisted on that, but I let him out every day to run in the exercise area of my container, and his cage is not small. I tried to make him understand that I was only following the orders of the ship's captain, but I don't know if he understood. However, he always went back into the cage when I told him to."

Turning towards Captain Pwuhvasqu, Jenetta said, "Captain, is there an area on the palace grounds where a cargo container wouldn't look too much out of place?"

"At the very rear of the grounds, Your Grace, there's a heavily treed area just inside the palace walls where a full-sized cargo container should be completely hidden from the palace. In fact, it should only be visible from directly above. "

"Good. Would you make arrangements for Mr. Wilkerson's cargo container to be placed there?"

"Of course, Your Grace."

"There, Mr. Wilkerson. You're all set. I'd very much like to meet the Jumaka you've brought as soon as you're settled."

"Of course, Your Grace. And I'd very much like to become acquainted with your present Jumakas. They all appear very healthy. Um, when did you acquire the third Jumaka?"

"He was a gift from the Hudeerac government. They had him in a zoo, and he was not being treated well."

"Him?"

"Yes."

"Then have the females been impregnated?"

"Not yet. At least not before we arrived here. I've given them permission to do whatever nature motivates them to do now that we're here on my estate."

"Marvelous. I'm delighted I'll be here to record the entire event. If there is to be an event. I've been studying them for fifteen years, and we still know so little about them. In the wild, it's virtually impossible to study them. Whenever I set up an observation post, they always seemed to learn I was there and would melt off into the jungle."

"I contacted you because you were reputed to be the foremost expert on Jumakas, and you stated that you were trying to develop an interface so we could communicate. Have you made any progress in that area?"

"I've developed several prototypes, but I haven't been able to get any Jumaka to talk for me."

"How does it work?"

"It's like the microphone that undersea divers or astronauts used to wear," Wilkerson said as he put his hand to his throat, spreading his thumb and forefinger as wide apart as possible and placing the area between them against his throat. "It wraps around the neck and picks up the sounds made in the larynx. I've built a translation device, but without knowing what the sounds mean, collecting them has been almost pointless."

"My girls and Thor are very intelligent. I'm sure I'll be able to convince them to work with you."

"That would be wonderful."

"I'm willing to bet they'll be as enthused about being able to communicate with us as we are about communicating with them."

~     ~     ~

"Today's meeting will come to order," Chairwoman Gladsworth said as she pounded the decorative gravel once on the sounding-block.

Once all council members were seated and the room was silent, she said, "Councilwoman Overgaard has a report to make regarding her investigation into the whereabouts of Lower Council Chairman Arthur Strauss. We'll start with that report today. Councilwoman Overgaard?"

"Thank you, Madam Chairwoman. As I reported previously, we've gone back to the very beginning and started our investigation anew, hoping to find a lead we might have previously missed. This time we began by investigating all normal business Chairman Strauss was involved with when he disappeared and everything unusual he had been involved with during the previous five annuals. Perhaps the most unusual situation was his involvement with Mikel Arneu, who had used his position to transform himself into a woman named Nicole Ravenau, ostensibly to better hide from Space Command."

"Yes, we're familiar with the Arneu/Ravenau situation. Continue."

"As you're probably aware, Ravenau was killed when the building housing her lab was destroyed in what has been described as a suspicious accident. Fortunately, the Arneu formulas for the DNA Manipulation Process and the Age Prolongation Process had already been turned over to the Central Labs section. However, while investigating the suspicious nature of the explosion we learned that not all of the recovered computer files had been examined in detail. The reason is simple— we believed we had all of the important files and there would be little chance that the unexamined files would contain anything pertinent to the cause of the explosion. That proved to be true during our recent reexamination, but we did find some interesting material regarding Nicole Ravenau. It seems she had ordered a team of her people to prepare the injections she would need to change her appearance again. In fact, it appears they might have prepared as many as fifty different appearances for her. Most of the new bodies would be males, but a dozen were female."

"And what significance does that have in the investigation to locate Arthur Strauss? Ravenau was dead long before Strauss disappeared."

"Perhaps."

"Perhaps?"

"We learned that one of the appearances designed for Ravenau in secret was a copy of Arthur Strauss, right down to his fingerprints. She would become his twin. Even more than a twin. She would actually be Arthur Stephen Strauss. She would not only look like him, she would sound exactly like him. From a physical standpoint, no one would be able to tell the difference, personal mannerisms aside."

"But she died in the explosion. They found her body."

"Not necessarily. The line of reasoning we're following now is that she was responsible for the explosion as part of an effort to hide from Strauss. He had repeatedly threatened to kill her after the Christa Carver incident on Dakistee, and she may have believed she would only be safe if Strauss were dead. But she first had to fake her own death so no one would suspect her. We believe the Ravenau body was faked, using one of the women from a failed experiment. We expected to find Ravenau's body, and we found one that looked like her, so we didn't look further. We believe that once her transformation into an identical Arthur Strauss was complete, she killed the real Strauss and took his place. Then it was simply a matter of waiting for just the right opportunity for her to disappear."

"Why disappear at all? She could have moved into Strauss's life and no one would have been able to tell the difference."

"Perhaps she tried on Strauss's life for a time and didn't like it. Or perhaps she was upset when four council members beneath her were advanced to the Upper Council. "

"This is all just speculation, right?"

"Yes, Madam Chairwoman."

"Pursue this line of investigation and find out how much of this speculation might be true. If Nicole Ravenau is alive, I want her found. I don't care if she's a she, a he, or an it. Find her."

"Yes, Madam Chairwoman. We'll pursue her to the ends of the galaxy if necessary."

~     ~     ~

"Please come in, Your Grace," Wilkerson said when Jenetta and a small detachment of security personnel arrived at the converted cargo container at the rear of the palace grounds. The full-sized cargo container had started life as just a large metal box, twenty meters tall by forty meters long by ten meters deep. Wilkerson had converted the interior to resemble a five story building as might be found on Earth, but it also had a full engineering deck for generating energy, recycling water and air, and heating and cooling the container as needed. While in space, the only access had been through one of the top hatches, but now end doors could be swung open so a more dignified entrance was possible.

The visitors had to climb up two levels to where the Jumaka Wilkerson had acquired was caged, but stairways provided access to the different levels rather than ladders. Wilkerson knew it would take years to reach Obotymot from Taurentlus-Thur, and he didn't want to be climbing access ladders all day, so he'd had stairs installed when he was converting the container to living quarters. Jumakas have no difficulty with stairways but do have difficulties with ladders, which no doubt helped Wilkerson with his decision to use stairs inside the container.

"This is Nicolaus Copernicus," Wilkerson said when they at last reached the area where the male Jumaka was caged. "I got him from a trader while he was still a kitten. I just call him Nicky."

"Why is he still caged?" Jenetta asked.

"That's at the request of your Captain Pwuhvasqu. He said it would be better if Nicky stayed caged until you had had a chance to meet him and evaluate for yourself if he should have the freedom of the grounds Cayla, Tayna, and Thor enjoy."

As Jenetta stepped forward towards the cage, the Jumaka took a step backward. But as Cayla, Tayna, and Thor joined Jenetta and pressed their muzzles against the bars, the Jumaka male moved forward to sniff the strangers. These were the first Jumakas he had seen since leaving Taurentlus-Thur, and his initial hesitation— perhaps from being outnumbered three to one— was understandable. Where Cayla and Tayna had fur as black as space, with yellow eyes that seemed to glow, and Thor had deep brown fur and dark green eyes, Nicky had steel-blue fur with deep blue eyes.

"Hello, Nicky," Jenetta said. "Welcome to Obotymot." Pointing to each of her Jumakas, she said, "This is Thor, this is Tayna, and this is Cayla. I can tell we're all going to be great friends."

As soon as Jenetta stopped speaking, the three Jumakas by her sides took over. After a few opening mewls on their part, Nicky responded.

From behind Jenetta, Wilkerson said in a lowered voice, "Your Grace, this is wonderful. That's the first time I've ever heard Nicky make a sound. Is he communicating with them?"

"I imagine it's a sort of greeting. As to what they're saying exactly— well, that's why you're here, Mr. Wilkerson."

"Yes, yes, of course."

"When Thor first joined us, Cayla and Tayna began teaching him how to interact with humans and the rules of our society he must follow. He learned very quickly. I'm sure it will be the same with Nicky. I think it's safe to release him now. Cayla, Tayna, and Thor will make sure he doesn't get into any mischief or harm anyone while he's learning to live among us."

As soon as Wilkerson opened the cage door, Nicky bounded out and made a physical connection with the other three Jumakas through muzzle contact, then sniffed as he walked around them. Finally, they had a sort of discussion that Jenetta intensely wished she could understand.

"Mr. Wilkerson, could you show me the devices you've been working on?"

"Of course, Your Grace. They're on the next level down."

Without telling the Jumakas to either stay or follow, Jenetta followed Wilkerson to the stairway. The security detail followed along, with the four Jumakas bringing up the rear.

"Here's the latest device," Wilkerson said, handing Jenetta a collar with a built-in sound pickup chip. "Since Nicky wouldn't make any sounds at all, I couldn't experiment with it on him, so I used it on myself while developing it. I wanted something that was supremely comfortable, since they'll be wearing it full time, and as durable as possible." Pointing to a large, plastic-like box on a worktable, he said, "That's the receiver. It has an internal translation chip just like the ones we use for alien translation equipment, but I've been unable to program it. I needed Jumakas for that and a way of determining what they're saying."

As they talked, Cayla and Tayna had joined Jenetta at her sides. Thor had hung back with Nicky. Jenetta looked down at Cayla and said, "How about it, baby? Will you help us develop a translation dictionary of the sounds your larynx is capable of producing so we can have real discussions in the future?"

Cayla nodded her head.

"Did she just nod in agreement?" Wilkerson asked in obvious amazement.

"Yes, she 's willing to help," Jenetta said as she bent over and wrapped the collar around Cayla's neck."Until now, the only response I've ever been sure of was when either Cayla or Tayna nodded or shook their head."

"The diamond emblem on the collar should be placed directly under her throat," Wilkerson said. "That's the pickup chip."

Jenetta twisted the device so the chip was properly placed before she finished buckling the collar. It was slightly snug to keep it from turning but shouldn't bother the Jumaka. To be sure she said, "How's that, baby? Too tight?"

Cayla shook her head.

"Good. Okay, Mr. Wilkerson, we're ready to begin."

"Wonderful." With a friendly grin he added, "You know, this is the first time I've had a member of the nobility as a laboratory assistant."

"Well, this is the first time I've ever been a laboratory assistant."












Chapter Six

~ September 30th, 2288 ~



"Message to Hugh Michaels, Commander, aboard the GSC Destroyer Bonn. Begin message.

"Hugh, it normally brightens my day when I get a vidMail from you. I was so looking forward to your being here in October, and now I'm depressed because you say you can't come until December. It seems like an eternity since we last held one another, and I've been counting the days until you joined me on Obotymot. But at least you've gotten permission to use three months of your accrued leave time so I'll have you from December through February. I wish you could have gotten more of the eight month's time you've saved, but I understand how difficult it is for a ship's XO to be away so long. Space Command better not postpone your leave again or I'll be sending a note to Admiral Platt in which I express my displeasure that one of her officers cannot get a long-overdue vacation. I'm disappointed, but I have a new date to concentrate on for your arrival.

"Until then I'll content myself with managing the estate and assisting Dr. Wilkerson with developing the language translation code for my Jumakas. Hugh, I knew they were bright, but they have a far greater understanding of life and the universe than even I imagined. Wilkerson says that when the translator is finished and proven, the GA may have to consider re-categorizing them as a sentient species, which would give them significant new protections throughout GA space. Other sentient species would not be allowed to trap them or cage them. It would be like a Terran trapping and caging a Pledgian. Pledgians certainly aren't among the brightest species in GA space, and there may never be one that understands quantum physics, but they are sentient. And I now believe that Jumakas are more intelligent than Pledgians. As you know, my girls have always understood me when I've spoken to them in Amer. I can't wait to ask them how they learned the language and how many other languages they understand. From their behavior when we arrived on Nordakia, I believe they have a good understanding of Dakis as well.

"There's the timer so I have to go. I'll be counting the days until you arrive. I love you.

"Azula Jenetta A. Carver, from the palace on the Family Carver Estate on Obotymot. Message complete."

Jenetta leaned back in her office chair and sighed. She had tried to appear somewhat upbeat as she recorded the message, but she also wanted to display her unhappiness. To get her mind off her disappointment over Hugh's vacation delay, she decided to send out vidMails to her brothers and her dad. She quickly reviewed the last vidMail she'd received from each, and then recorded and sent her replies.

When she was done, she turned her attention to the vidMails she'd received since her latest login. The first was from Admiral Holt. She tapped the play button after highlighting the message line in the queue.

"Hi, Jen, I hope everything is well there on Obotymot and that you're enjoying your rest. Things have been jumping here on Quesann since the GA Senate and the Admiralty Board arrived. They've occupied their office buildings and homes and have been meeting in regular session every day for the past two weeks to take care of all the business that was suspended during their travels here. Some members of the GA Senate disagree with your decision to put them on another island from where the main SC base is located. I've explained they have better protection here than they ever had on Earth, and that by being apart from the base they are less of a target in the event of an attack on the base. All of them have visited the underground bunkers on their island and many have expressed their displeasure that the living conditions down there are less than luxurious. I explained that the accommodations may never even be used, and if they are used, it will probably only be for a matter of hours during an emergency. I guess I didn't do a very good job because they just passed a resolution that all of the quarters will be redecorated immediately, and each delegate will have the final say in the decorations of his or her space. Thank heavens the bunkers were carved from solid bedrock or they'd probably have us moving walls. And all for an emergency shelter that will probably never be used in an emergency.

"You're lucky to be well away from this place right now. These politicians could try the patience of Job. And I'm certainly no Job, so I've been staying away as much as possible, ostensibly examining the progress at the new facilities in the Lorense system and working to correct any problems. The construction of the Dakinium foundry around Lorense-Six is progressing quite well. A visiting team from the Jupiter facility was astounded with the size. They agree that it should have no problem meeting the intended goal of producing ten times the Dakinium currently being produced at Jupiter.

"On Lorense-Three, we're already beginning to occupy the first of the underground bases. The Uthlaro destroyers protecting the shipbuilding facilities outside GA space refused to abandon their posts, arguing that they were outside GA space and that Space Command had no authority there. Captain Lizbeth Ferona of the Destroyer Glasgow explained that the surrender agreement signed by the central government on Uthlarigasset forbids the construction of new warships by the Uthlaro, period. She further explained that in unclaimed space, Space Command is not restricted from taking any actions it deems necessary to enforce conformance by GA nations regarding treaties, trade agreements, the transport of illegal products, or anything else that would be an illegal act in GA space. The captains of the Uthlaro warships chose to fight, and our ships were forced to destroy them completely because the gunners kept firing even after most of their ship has been reduced to scrap. It was just like the situation with that military officer at Quesann who knew the Uthlaro government had surrendered unconditionally, yet who chose to fight the final battle of the war months after the surrender, only to see his entire armada completely destroyed. Anyway, the enclosed docks to be towed by the CPS-14s have already begun their journey to Lorense-Three, and the open docks are being partially dismantled and loaded into the Ship-Transporter vessels for their transport to our new space-dock facilities.

"So, all is well, even if some of the GA Senate delegates are a bit grumpy. I guess most of them had established themselves on Earth and didn't really want to leave. But it is part of the job that they go where the GA Senate assembles. They can always resign their position at any time, if they wish.

"Jen, I know it's only been three months, but I'm wondering if you've reached any decision. I'd love to hear back from you, even if you haven't. Please don't forget about this old space dog.

"My love to the family.

"Brian Devon Holt, Vice-Admiral, Region Two HQ, Quesann. Message complete."

Jenetta tapped the record button and began talking.

"Message to Brian Devon Holt, Vice-Admiral, Region Two HQ, Quesann. Begin message.

"Brian, I could never forget about you," Jenetta said with a smile. "Even though I've been gone from Quesann for three months, I've only been home for one month. So far I've been enjoying my time here. I guess I've been so busy that I haven't had time to miss Quesann, which is not the same as saying I haven't missed you and all my other wonderful friends.

"So far I haven't formulated any long-term plans. Hugh was supposed to join me on Obotymot, but his planned leave was cancelled because Captain Simpson had to travel home on emergency leave. It seems Marie's parents were both killed in a tragic accident. A giant sink hole opened up beneath their home and swallowed the entire house, which was then covered in hundreds of tons of dirt when the sidewalls of the hole collapsed onto the house. There was no warning, and there had never been any problems like that in the area before. Marie won't be back until the end of November, and then Hugh will be able to leave, unless some other emergency interrupts our reunion.

"I'm glad you're enjoying a period of relative calm. The problems with the Senate are to be expected when you make a major geographic move like that. Once they settle down to real work, the pressure on you should ease up— but you already knew that, you old space dog, and probably better than me.

"In the vidMail to the Admiralty Board where I broke the news that I wouldn't be in Quesann to greet them, I strongly suggested they consider isolating the Uthlarans to travel only within their own solar system, as we were forced to do with the Tsgardi. You might want to suggest that to the Board as well. I feel certain the Uthlaro will never stop trying to recover their empire and overthrow the GA.

"I'm glad you called, and that I'm not forgotten. I'll try to vidMail once each month, with additional messages if I have something special to report.

"Be well, Brian.

"Azula Jenetta A. Carver, from the Palace on the Family Carver Estate, Obotymot. Message complete."

Jenetta spent the next two hours responding to the other vidMails. She also sent one off to the authorities on Taurentlus-Thur, thanking them for allowing the export of the male Jumaka so her female Jumakas would be able to breed.

With her required work completed, she logged out of her computer and went to check on the translation work with the Jumakas. It had been slow going so far. Cayla would usually start the day off, followed by Tayna. If Thor felt in the mood, he would take a turn. So far, Nicky had wanted nothing to do with it, but he was content to sit or lie with the others and listen. Berl and Arturo wanted to play with the kitties and were disappointed each day when Auntie Jenetta had to tell them that they were needed in the laboratory. The boys had twice tried to sneak into the lab and been promptly escorted out by Mr. Wilkerson.

"How goes the work, Mr. Wilkerson?" Jenetta asked as she entered his laboratory in the cargo container.

"I'm still mired down with semantics and intent. I know now that the Jumakas don't converse in carefully constructed sentences, as is the norm for most sentient species. They speak in single words strung together to convey what they want to communicate. For example, they might say, 'Danger. Behind. Bushes. Attack.' where a Terran or most other sentient species might say, 'Watch out, there's something in the bushes behind you. I sense extreme danger. Something is preparing to attack us.' Now, one might think that such a simple way of speaking would lend itself to easy conversion, but not so. The translation device never knows if the Jumaka is warning of an imminent attack and that they should all run away, or if it means the Jumaka is about to attack whatever the danger is in the bushes. This is an extremely simple example. It can get very complex."

"How about if, initially, we just concentrate on building a dictionary that contains every word they use? If the translator says to me, 'Danger. Behind. Bushes. Attack,' I can make a judgment call on the level of potential danger."

"Aye, I can do that. And then work on the full translation of the messages with sentence structure later."

"Just remember that while the translation devices we currently use with alien species are wonderful for basic conversations, live interpreters are still used for all important business meetings and government negotiations because of language nuances usually communicated by tonal quality. There are so many interpreters in the GA Senate, they outnumber the delegates. And that's in an institution where it's mandatory that all delegates speak Amer."

"Yes, Your Grace, you make a very powerful argument for taking this slowly instead of trying to jump ahead to a finished translation device. I guess I'm just so excited because I've spent most of my working life on Taurentlus-Thur studying Jumakas and the other indigenous species, and now I feel like I'm so close to achieving my dream of actually conversing with a Jumaka."

"I understand, Mr. Wilkerson. For so long I've wanted to understand what my girls were saying, and now we're so close it would also be easy for me to let my exuberance get the better of my good judgment. Let's progress in an orderly fashion so when we're done, the research will be beyond question by detractors."

"Detractors? You think there will be detractors?"

"In my experience, there are always detractors. People have different agendas, believe that their own research is more accurate, or simply want to prevent colleagues from being recognized. Whatever the possible reasons, let's make sure we don't give them anything they can use to belittle your research."

"Yes, Your Grace. As Aesop wrote in his story about the tortoise and the hare, 'slow and steady wins the race.'"

~     ~     ~

"Commander, there's an SCI officer here to see you," Christa's com unit said as the message scrolled up on the screen.

"I don't recall having an appointment to meet with SCI," was Christa's immediate reply, which scrolled up on the screen of her aide in the outer office.

"No, ma'am. He arrived without notice."

"Send him in," Christa said as she returned to reading the report on her computer. When she looked up, an SC commander with an SCI insignia patch on his collar was standing in front of her desk. She stood up and extended her hand. "Lt. Commander Christa Carver, sir. How can I help you?"

"I'm Commander Von Dresdelle. SCI has learned of an agreement between the Dakistee president and a Raider-owned corporation named Trigenetics Galactica Pharmaceutical."

"Have you?" Christa looked down at her computer monitor, then turned the small camera mounted on top to face across the desk. "Computer, confirm the identity of my visitor." Christa gestured towards the small camera. "Commander?"

The officer bent down so the camera could study his right eye, then stood up when the computer beeped.

"Identity confirmed as Commander Wilhelm Von Dresdelle, of SHQ SCI."

Christa turned the camera back to its former position, then gestured toward a chair and said, "How can I be of help to SCI? I'm sure you know far more about any agreement than I do."

As Von Dresdelle sat down, he said, "The king of Nordakia submitted a full report containing all information collected by his intelligence people."

"Yes, I was rather surprised when I learned that Nordakia had undercover intelligence operatives on Dakistee."

"You knew of the operatives?"

"My sister stopped by a few months ago after first visiting Nordakia. She told me of the alleged pact."

"And have you learned anything since?"

"I paid a visit to the president. I told her I'd heard a rumor that she might be negotiating with TGP. I informed her that the company was suspected of being owned by the Raiders."

"And?"

"She said she was working to cure the sterility problem that was killing the people of her planet and she couldn't be concerned with mere allegations. I told her that if it turns out TGP is Raider owned, she would not be held responsible in any way for any financial arrangements made before said allegations were proven."

"So, in effect, you were telling her you knew about the arrangement where the Raiders were promised they would get access to cloning technology and Dakinium manufacturing technology?"

"I never said anything about cloning or Dakinium, but I was hoping she would make the connection. I wanted her to be aware of the dangerous ground she was treading if she was considering such an arrangement. Madu is the leader of her people, and while I would not hesitate to arrest her if she was ever suspected of any crime that violates GA laws, I hoped that knowledge of the consequences might prevent any possible attempt to actually transfer such information. My job here is to function both as an administrator and an ambassador for the GA. It would be far better for the GA if I didn't have to arrest the planet's president and throw her in jail. However, as I said, I would not hesitate to issue an arrest warrant if I believed she was actually guilty of such a crime, or if I was ordered to arrest her."

"I see. Perhaps in the future you can avoid warning potential seditionists that we might be watching them."

"I thought a goal of the SCI was to always make potential seditionists worry that we're watching them so it might stop potential seditionists from actually becoming seditionists."

Von Dresdelle grimaced, stood up and said, "Good day, Lt. Commander. Thank you for your time."

Christa also stood up. As Von Dresdelle turned to leave, she said, "Drop by any time, Commander."

~     ~     ~

Minister Sltuvyck stuck his head into President Ptellewqku's office and said, "Got a minute for me?"

"Yes, but just a minute. What's up?"

"I thought you'd like to know. One of our intelligence operatives spotted an SCI commander going into the SC Administration Building on the Marine base."

"How does the operative know he's SCI?"

"He cleverly concealed his identity by wearing a distinctive insignia on his collar. He was SCI all right. And the level of rank suggests he was there to see Commander Carver."

"Damn. I told you she knew. By now she's probably told him everything she knows."

"What could she know?"

"She's a Carver. A clone of Admiral Carver. She probably knows more than you do."

"More than me? Well, that's possible. You've done all the negotiating and left me in the dark."

"You said you didn't want to know. You said you couldn't betray what you didn't know."

"I wish I didn't know even as much as I do. So what are we going to do?"

"What can we do? We wait."

"For them to put a noose around our necks and pull the lever that drops the floor from under us?"

"Hopefully not. I'm hoping TGP can't come up with a successful formula."

"You signed an agreement with them hoping they would fail?"

"I've only begun hoping they would fail since I learned Christa knew about the agreement. I thought no one would ever be able to trace the leaked data back to us. I hoped they'd think one of the archeologists on the planet found a buried cache of papers and sold them for a small fortune to a Raider buyer."

"Maybe we should get an assassin to kill Carver."

"That was tried once, remember? She has more lives than a rignoo. Besides, it's obvious that others know now."

"Then why haven't they arrested us?"

"Because we haven't actually committed a crime yet."

"No? What about conspiracy to commit sedition?"

"Since we haven't been accepted yet as a member nation by the GA, we can't be charged with mere conspiracy about anything. We actually have to turn over documents. I checked the law to be sure."

"There has to be something we can do. Let's cancel the agreement."

"I tried. TGP said that if I don't follow through they'll allow the signed document to fall into the hands of the media."

"But you just said the GA can't charge us with conspiracy."

"They can't, but they can make the allegations public. It would ruin our careers overnight. We'd be recalled from office and disgraced. We wouldn't be able to get a job sweeping out the offices."

"That's a sight better than a date with a noose."

"I'm trying to find a way out that lets us miss any appointment with a hangman and gets us the solution to the sterility problem."

"And what have you found so far?"

"Nothing yet, but I'm still working on it. Now get out of here and let me think. Your minute was up five minutes ago."












Chapter Seven

~ October 28th, 2288 ~



"Perfect, Your Grace. You're right on time."

"Did we have an appointment, Mr. Wilkerson?"

"Uh, no. But I'm glad you're here. I've just put the finishing touches on the first experimental collar with the translation circuitry fully incorporated into the collar. It's a bit bulky, but it's the best I'm capable of producing with the equipment I have. I've built a new receiver as well. Cayla and Tayna have been incredible. Thor has helped considerably. And even Nicky has finally begun to participate. I think he might have been a little embarrassed that everyone else was helping while he just sat back and watched."

"Is this the new receiving unit?" Jenetta asked, pointing to a large metal box on the table.

"That? Oh, no. That's a power supply for a micro laser cutting tool. " Wilkerson held out a tiny bit of plastic that had a curved extension attached. "Here's the new receiving unit. It fits over the ear. Try it."

Jenetta placed the unit on her left ear. "Like this?"

"Yes. Now ask Cayla a question."

"Um, Cayla, are you hungry?"

The Jumaka looked at Jenetta and made a noise in her throat. Jenetta heard. "No, Jenta. Ate breakfast already."

Jenetta's face lit up. "It's wonderful, Mr. Wilkerson. Absolutely wonderful."

Wilkerson smiled widely. He had a receiving unit over his ear, so he'd heard the response. "I'll have to tweak the translation circuit a little so your name comes out closer to the real phonetic sounding."

"Based on our previous conversations, I expected the first words to be something like, 'Ate.'"

"It seems that while I've been trying to learn from them, they've been learning from me as well. They never knew how their words would sound to us, but now that they can hear how their speech is converted into Amer, they're actually modifying the way they speak to us. During our lab time, I've had the speakers turned up so they can hear whatever I hear."

"Uh, is that desirable? I didn't want to change them."

"I think that was unavoidable. Whenever species meet and interact, change is inevitable. And changes in their speech was a natural evolution once they could audibly compare it to the way we speak. Perhaps when they speak to each other, their speech patterns will remain the same. Maybe it's only the way they speak to us that will change, since before now there was no way to even speak to us."

"Then you believe that when speaking to us their speech will continue to evolve somewhat?"

"Yes, and of course I'll be tweaking the translator as we progress, so some of the change will be produced by the electronics as the program learns to better interpret what they're saying, just as it did originally with aliens."

"Mr. Wilkerson, would it be possible to have the signal sent directly to my CT from the collar?"

"You mean the tiny chip that SC planted in your head when you entered the academy?"

"Yes."

"No, not directly. As I understand it, CTs and IDs have complex filtering circuits so they won't receive anything other than official transmissions. But there might be another way. When you're away from a ship with its central computer for telecommunications, don't you use some kind of range extender that communicates with your CT?"

"Yes, it's a tiny unit we wear on our belts when we're on a planet with no SC communications base units or when we're visiting a non-SC ship in space."

"If you can get me one of those range-extender units, I'll see if I can modify the translator to send the signal directly to it, and the extender can then send it to your CT."

"I have one in the palace. I'll bring it down to you later. Do you mind if I talk with Cayla, Tayna, Thor, and Nicky now?"

"Not at all, Your Grace. I have some planned tweaking to do with the translation program."

Jenetta spent the next couple of hours talking to the Jumakas. She had a million questions to ask about their personal histories, and while she only made a small dent in the pent-up question list, she learned an incredible amount about their lives before they became part of her family. The most starling news was that Cayla and Tayna were not sisters. They had been paired as cubs because the gemstones merchant who purchased them wanted a matched pair and they looked so much alike that the trader had passed them off as sisters from the same litter. Both agreed they had long ago begun to feel like sisters and would have been heartbroken if they had been split up when Jenetta rescued them from the cargo ship. All of the Jumakas agreed that the time they had spent with Jenetta was the most pleasurable time in their lives, and they were so happy they had chosen her as their human.

~     ~     ~

Over the following days, the Jumakas were more often available for playtime with the children, and the boys delighted in running around the garden chasing the big cats or being chased by them in a sort of tag game they had devised. Nicky was a little hesitant to join in at first, but he came around and was soon racing around the gardens with the others. The Jumakas, as with most animals, instinctively understood that the children were immature humans who had to be protected at all times and tolerated when they got a little too rough. Their mothers were very vigilant and loudly corrected the behavior of the boys when they did things like biting the ears of one of the Jumakas. The big cats never lost their composure with the children.

Since the Jumakas had the full run of the palace and the grounds inside the walls, they knew every square inch of the property. The staff had ceased being frightened by the sudden appearance of one of the big cats, or all four of them, but that didn't mean they were immune to a little shock when they turned around and suddenly saw one of the big cats staring at them. It was simply because the Jumakas made not the slightest noise when moving about the palace.

Jenetta had always fed the Jumakas at meal time, but now the kitchen staff took over that duty. The big cats were fed at the same time every day in a small dining room near the kitchen area. Jenetta's instructions were that the Jumakas were to receive all they could eat at meal time, with no extra food between meals.

~     ~     ~

Jenetta had begun marking the days off a calendar she'd printed that showed when Hugh would arrive. Among the many things occupying her mind, the arrival of Hugh was by far the most important to her. She was brought up out of her reverie when the phone on her desk rang.

"Azula Carver," she said as she picked up the receiver.

"Your Grace, this is Captain Pwuhvasqu. We've just been contacted by a GSC ship in orbit. They say they're coming down to the palace and request landing instructions."

"They're landing?"

"Yes, your Grace."

"A shuttle?"

"I don't believe so, Your Grace. They identified it as a CPS-14, and asked if our shuttle pad could accommodate it. I told them to stand by while I checked."

"Ahh. A CPS-14 is an enormously large deep-space tug, Captain. It's a bit too large to be properly accommodated on our shuttle pad. Have them land in the open field outside the palace walls. And extend them every normal visitor courtesy while they're here."

"Of course, your Grace."

~

Roughly thirty-five minutes later, a CPS-14 settled onto the large empty field to the west of the palace walls. Jenetta walked out to the craft with a detail of her security people. She didn't treat it like a state visit because no one of importance had been identified as being aboard the ship.

The CPS-14 had been assembled with four of the half-width cargo containers beneath its keel, and it was on these that the entire weight of the small interstellar ship rested. The containers had been specially designed to function as undercarriage support for a CPS-14, and they were well suited for the job. Each container had a hydraulic leg in each of the four bottom corners. The sixteen legs would extend out once the craft was near the ground and keep the ship level at all times. If the ship sensed that the ground might be too soft to provide good support, it would alert the bridge crew before the oh-gee power systems were shut down. Once settled on the ground, the top area of the ship, usually referred to as the sail, was some thirty meters above the ground. The ship appeared fairly small when alongside a destroyer in space, but here on the planet it seemed enormous.

As Jenetta and her security force reached the ship, a hatch near the bottom of one of the center-located cargo containers opened and two Space Command officers stepped out. Seeing the security detail approaching, they straightened their uniforms and waited near the ship. When the detail reached them, the senior officer took one step forward, both came to attention, and then saluted. "Admiral Carver, I present to you a new CPS-14 to use as your personal barge while you are on leave from Region Two."

Jenetta returned the salute and said, ""My personal barge?"

Extending a viewpad, the lieutenant said, "Yes, ma'am. Here's a message from Admiral Moore."

Jenetta accepted the viewpad, and said, "And what is your name, Lieutenant?"

The lieutenant became a bit red-faced. Officers and enlisted were supposed to identify themselves immediately upon meeting or encountering a superior. But Jenetta was used to such responses from junior officers when they met her for the first time. Meeting a general officer face to face was a bit intimidating for a junior officer, and meeting a four-star— not to mention one as famous as Admiral Carver— could be a bit overwhelming.

"Uh, sorry, Admiral, ma'am. I'm Lieutenant Clancy McDonnell, and this is Lieutenant(jg) Brandy Pfeiffer. We're a third of the bridge crew for your new barge, Admiral."

"And your orders are just to standby until I wish to go somewhere?"

"Yes, Admiral. The ship is fully stocked and we can remain here for up to five years without victualing, although we'll run out of fresh vegetables in about a year."

"Thank you, Lieutenant. As you exhaust your fresh food supplies, just submit a request for replacements from my kitchen staff."

"Aye, Admiral. Do you have an plans for a maiden voyage?"

"Not at the moment. Don't worry, I'll give you plenty of notice."

"We can lift off with five minutes' notice at any time, Admiral."

"Excellent, but I'll try to give you a bit more notice than that. That's all, Lieutenant. You're dismissed. It's a pleasure to meet both of you."

"Thank you, Admiral. And it's a real honor to meet you and be part of your barge staff."

~

Once back in her office, Jenetta activated the viewpad purported to contain a message from Admiral Moore. It required her to hold it up to her right eye for a retinal scan before the message would play.

"Hello, Jen. I hope you're getting plenty of rest. As I understand it, you're going to need it. I've been informed you've agreed to take full responsibility for the Refugee Resettlement Program established by the King and Queen of Nordakia to deal with the expected deluge of refugees trying to escape the civil war in the Clidepp Empire and settle on Nordakia and Obotymot. To properly fulfill that role, you're going to need transportation between Nordakia and Obotymot, as well as other destinations in Region One.

"And when you're ready to return to us here at Quesann, you'll have a ship capable of making the journey. You already know the CPS-14 is Dakinium sheathed, making it almost invincible to attack by anyone other than the Denubbewa, but what you may not know is that for the past two years our top people have been secretly working on a modification that will increase the speed of all our ships by almost fifty-percent. That's right, Light-9793.48 will no longer be the top speed of our ships. Pretty shocking, isn't it?

"A little more than two years ago a CPS-14 captained by a young Lieutenant(jg) named Sydnee Marcola suffered engine problems while on special assignment outside of GA space. Your position in Space Command allows you access to the full details of the incident should you wish to read the reports, so I won't repeat them here. Suffice it to say that while attempting to get their temporal envelope generator working without the proper replacement parts, they tried something so outlandish it would normally not have been brought up in serious discussion. But they were desperate. Amazingly, the repair not only got the generator working, they achieved Light-12,241.63. And the only part modified was the induction coil.

"After two years of investigation, our scientists have determined that the repair made by the crew of the Justice caused the energy to ripple very uniquely, and the ripple effect affected the double wave of the temporal envelope in ways never anticipated. The special metallic properties of a new, special-purpose sort of glue developed for the Marines was principally responsible. But it made the scientists look at the role of the simple induction coil in a whole new light. The bottom line is that we've managed to further enhance the ripple effect and the proven top speed of our CPS-14s is now Light-14,685.7. Because the numbers are getting so large, we've decided to use a simpler expression for the new speed. A physicist, Ernst Mach, who studied the shock waves associated with breaking the sound barrier, was honored by having the measurement system named after him. As you know, Mach-1 is the speed of sound. So our new FTL speed reference will be Marc-1. If further advances are made, we'll use references such as Marc-1.3 or whatever is appropriate. The Marc term represents the first four letters of Lt. Marcola's last name.

"This small ship is the first one built around a new temporal generator and will give you a thrill like the one you must have experienced when the Colorado first achieved Light-9793.48. The Board has decided we should share this advance with commercial shippers because the ripple effect also affects the single envelope in a similar manner, but that probably won't happen right away. The GA Senate will probably want to argue the issue for the next five years or so. But we're moving ahead to produce the new induction coils for all ships in the SC fleets. Even the older, non-DS ships that are currently limited to Light-450 will have their speeds increased to about Light-675."

Jenetta paused the recording to think about the new information. She remembered her brother Billy mentioning that he had assisted a young officer named Sydnee Marcola in command of a CPS-14 who had been tasked with finding a temporal generator believed to be aboard a freighter on its way to Centrasia. The story might make interesting reading. She would have to download the related reports the next time she accessed the SC data systems.

"Jen," Admiral Moore said when she resumed the playback, "when you're ready to return to active duty, come to Quesann so we can discuss your future role in Space Command. We need you, Jen, and I think you still very much want to be a part of the Space Command family. I know we can find a role for you that will be both satisfying to you and highly beneficial to the Galactic Alliance.

"My warmest regards to your family.

"Richard E. Moore, Admiral of the Fleet, Admiralty Board HQ on Quesann. Message complete."

Jenetta smiled as the message ended. They were pulling out all the stops to get her to come back. It was a wonderful compliment. She certainly hadn't expected them to extend the courtesy of a barge for her private use while on LOA. And what a barge. With Light-14,685.7, or Marc-1, she could go anywhere and get there one-third quicker than the Ares. By the most direct route, Earth had been forty-eight days from Quesann. A quick calculation told her the trip would now only take thirty-two days at Marc-1. Sixteen days was a considerable time-savings. And since ships are 'out of phase' while traveling in a double envelope, there's no danger of a collision with anything that's 'in phase.' It made one wonder if they had reached the limits on speed. But every time they had begun to believe that before, something happened to prove them wrong.

~     ~     ~

"Your Grace, I asked you come down here so we could test the connection between Cayla's collar mic and your CT using the range extender."

"I'm ready whenever you are, Mr. Wilkerson."

"Fine. If you'll just put this extender on your belt and activate your CT while depressing the tiny red button on the side of the unit, we can begin."

"Unfortunately I'm not wearing a belt with this gown, but I can simply hold it," Jenetta said as she synced the extender to her CT.

"Fine." Looking towards Cayla, who was watching attentively, Wilkerson said, "Are you ready, Cayla?"

"Ready, Wilkysson," the Jumaka said.

Looking at Jenetta, Wilkerson smiled and said, "I still have to tweak the translator a bit so my name is pronounced properly."

"I heard Cayla clearly via my CT. This is wonderful, Mr. Wilkerson."

"I believe so, too, Jeneeta," Cayla said.

"I have to tweak your name a bit more also. But it sounds closer now than before. We'll keep working on it as we assemble a full translation dictionary."

"How long do you think that will take?"

"I really don't know. So far I've managed to establish a basic speech pattern translation capability. The rest may develop automatically within the translation device as the conversations between yourself and the Jumakas progress. There may, of course, be times when they reference something from their home world that you're unaware of, but I can probably help there because of the many years I've spent on Taurentlus-Thur."

"I'm very pleased by your progress so far, Mr. Wilkerson. I, and the GA, owe you a great debt for your dedication to this project. I suppose the next step is for me to petition the GA Senate to accept that Jumakas are sentient. Getting that passed will take some doing."

"I agree. But when they do, the effort will have been worth it."

"Yes, but I have trouble envisioning a day when Jumakas will be able to roam around freely whenever Terrans are present. Their appearance is too close to the carnivorous animals of our home world. I remember how it was whenever I was on a station concourse and people first noticed my girls. They would scramble to get away, fearing they were about to be attacked and eaten."

"In time, that too will change. Perhaps the microphone collars will help. It makes them look slightly more domesticated."

"But I don't want people to think they're mere pets," Jenetta said, "that need to be controlled by being kept on a leash."

"Perhaps there's some way we can modify the appearance of the collar so it doesn't look so much like a restraint device and more like a decorative piece of jewelry like a necklace, or perhaps a bandana."

"I think I'll ask my mother and sisters-in-law for suggestions. They're all so wonderful with decorating and clothes selection. I'm sure they'll have some excellent ideas. Thank you for all your hard work to date, Mr. Wilkerson. It's been wonderful to be able to converse with the Jumakas."

As Jenetta turned to leave, Cayla said, "Should I come with you, Jeneeta?"

The range extender was still switched on and Jenetta heard every word clearly via her CT. Turning, she said, "You're free to come and go as you please, dear, while we're on the palace grounds."

"Me think you want to show my collar to mother and sisters?"

"Uh, yes, that's a thought, if Mr. Wilkerson is finished with you for today."

"Yes, she's free to leave," Wilkerson said.

"Then let's go visit my relatives," she said to Cayla.

As Cayla and Jenetta walked through the palace corridors, Jenetta said, "Conversing with you is going to take some getting used to. I love that we can, but for so many years I've had to determine your likes, dislikes, and moods mostly by guessing."

"You always wonderful to Tayna and me since day you rescue us from cargo people. Tayna and me like you from the start. We still talk about first day when you sit in hold and talk to us like real people."

"Did you understand Amer back then?"

"Yes. We learn by listening to crew on ship. But we unable to speak Amer. All they heard was growling."

"I'm happy to say we've made the first steps towards having the galaxy understand you're not normally vicious animals. And things such as happened on Hudeer should become increasingly rare. You understand that the Hudeerac people aren't all mean?"

"Yes, Jeneeta. Thor tell us what done to him. Zoo man poked with long pole every day. Sometimes, he hit Thor with pole."

"That's what I suspected."

"Thor didn't mean to kill zoo man. He carried away when saw chance to get even. Didn't know Hudeerac so easy to damage. They look strong and powerful, not weak like you."

Jenetta chuckled. "Yes, they do. But most intelligent species have overcome their physical shortcomings by developing powerful weapons for defense."

"And to hit with."

"Yes, for offense as well. But most of us just want to live in peace."

"Tayna and me like that about you. We know you powerful military leader but don't go make trouble. You only fight when have to. Jumakas on home world just want live in peace, too, and avoid two-legs as much as possible."

"How large is the Jumaka population on Taurentlus-Thur?"

"Big. So big have trouble stay hidden from two-legs."

"If we went there, would you and Tayna be able to find your family?"

"You our family, Jeneeta. And we yours. And now have Thor and Nicky in family."

"I love all four of you."

"And we love you. No want look for Jumakas on home world."












Chapter Eight

~ November 28th, 2288 ~



"It's official, honey," the image of Hugh said as Jenetta opened the vidMail message. "Captain Simpson will return to the ship on December 18 and resume command. It'll take a couple of days for her to get back up to speed, and then I can leave. So officially my leave commences on December 21st. As soon as I can arrange transportation I'll give you an Obotymot arrival date. God, I can't wait to see you and hold you again. I know I won't be able to sleep the night before I arrive at your estate. Gotta go. I just wanted you to hear the good news. I love you.

"Hugh Michaels, Commander, First Officer of the Bonn. Message complete."

Jenetta immediately began recording a reply. Since she had arrived back in Region One they had communicated with increasing frequency, so their messages tended to be a little shorter. Hardly a day passed when they didn't both send a message.

"Message to Hugh Michaels, Commander, Acting Captain aboard the GSC Destroyer Bonn. Begin message.

"Just send me your location and I'll send my barge for you. I guarantee it'll be quicker than any other form of transportation you can arrange.

"Azula Jenetta A. Carver, from the Palace on the Family Carver Estate on Obotymot. Message complete."

Since the Bonn was one of the older pre-DS ships, it had always been assigned patrol duties close to the heart of Region One. It was unlikely that the trip would take more than a full day each way at Marc-1.

~     ~     ~

"Your Grace," Captain Pwuhvasqu, the head of security for the Family Carver Estate, said in a phone call, "I've just received an unconfirmed report of a ship landing in the northernmost part of the estate."

"A ship, Captain? What kind of ship?"

"The description would indicate that it's a cargo vessel small enough to land on a planet."

"Who reported it?"

"An estate tenant on holiday who was fishing in the Aquillwla River tributary."

"But we have no confirmation yet?"

"I've dispatched two squad cars to investigate. They should reach the reported location in roughly twenty minutes."

"Very good, Captain. Keep me informed as you learn more."

~

"The two patrol cars I sent have reported in, Your Grace. There are, in fact, four freighters on the ground now. It appears that aliens are marking off the land into farm-sized parcels. When our men approached, they were fired on."

"Fired on?"

"Yes, Your Grace. No one was injured. I ordered our people to pull back, and I've issued an order for full mobilization of my forces. All off-duty officers are beginning to report in. We should be ready to go in about thirty minutes."

"Captain, I don't want this to escalate until I've had a chance to speak with the alien visitors. Have you identified their race?"

"My men report that they appear to be Yolongi and Mydwuard."

"I see. No Olimpood?"

"None observed yet, but as I understand it, that species is most at home in the sea. Perhaps their ships have landed elsewhere on the planet, closer to an ocean."

"Understood, Captain. I'm going to see for myself in my barge."

"They may attack you, Your Grace."

"The barge is sheathed in Dakinium, so it's virtually indestructible. I'll be careful, Captain. Thank you for your concern. Azula Carver, out."

"Captain McDonnell," Jenetta said when she had contacted the CPS-14, "I have a little trip planned. How soon can you be ready?"

"Five minutes, Admiral. May I ask where we're going?"

"To the northernmost part of my estate."

"On this planet?"

"Yes, Captain. It appears we have some uninvited guests there."

"Yes, ma'am, Admiral. We'll be ready to lift off in four minutes forty-five seconds."

"Very good, Captain. Carver, out."

Jenetta debated whether to change into her SC uniform, then decided to remain in the gown she had selected to wear that day. She hadn't worn her uniform since first arriving on Obotymot and loved the feeling of freedom the gowns gave. The palace dressmaker had been busy making gowns for her through all those years she had been away. She had so many gowns now, she wondered if she'd ever have a chance to wear them all, and the dressmaker continued to work on new gowns as styles continually changed. Jenetta did, however, decide to wear her soft SC boots. She had always worn high heels in the palace because the entire staff were Nordakians, but high heels were not particularly suited to walking in fields.

When she was ready to leave, she walked out onto the balcony in her bedroom. It overlooked the rear garden and she could see the Jumakas playing with the boys.

"Cayla, Tayna, Thor, and Nicky," she shouted. "Meet me out front of the palace."

As she watched, the Jumakas raced for the house.

The four Jumakas were waiting by the palace shuttle pad when she emerged from the palace.

"Where going, Jeneeta?" she heard Cayla ask via her CT.

"To check out a report that ships have landed on the estate without permission and fired at our people. But I don't want any of you to attack them unless they attack first. And then only the person who represents a threat."

"Yes, Jeneeta."

With Tayna and Thor walking on one side, while Cayla and Nicky walked on the other, she passed through the main gate and headed to where the CPS-14 was sitting. Jenetta wondered if the pairings had any significance, such as established mating partnerships.

An engineering chief was standing at the ramp outside the craft and saluted as she approached. She returned the salute and climbed the ramp to enter the cargo container. The chief had to wait until the four Jumakas preceded him so he could close the hatch. The ramp automatically retracted.

"Straight ahead, Admiral," the chief said. "There's a lift for your use. But all four of your cats won't fit inside with you. Two can wait for the car to come down or use the stairs."

Without waiting for instructions, all four Jumakas raced for the stairs.

"Um, can they understand me when I speak, Admiral?"

"Yes, they speak Amer, Dakis, and other languages."

"Speak, ma'am?"

"You have to have a receiver. Your CT— or ID chip in your case, Chief— can be set to receive the translated signal their microphone collar broadcasts. Without the collar, their speech sounds like growls."

"I see. I had no idea they were that intelligent."

"Few people do, Chief. They're sentient beings and far more intelligent and civilized than some of the other sentient species in GA space."

As the lift gate opened topside in the CPS-14, Lieutenant McDonnell was waiting to greet Jenetta. The Jumakas arrived a couple of seconds later.

"Welcome aboard, Admiral."

"Thank you, Captain. You may lift off whenever you're ready. Our destination is the northernmost part of my estate."

"Yes, ma'am, Admiral. Would you care to join us on the bridge?"

"Yes, thank you, I would. This will be my first journey in a CPS-14."

"Actually, it's precise designation is a CPS-14 type B."

"I have noticed a few modifications, such as the fact that the container lift actually rises into the ship. In the CPS-14 I toured, you had to use a stairway. And I know about the speed increase in this vessel."

"Yes, ma'am. Those are the main differences. This way to the bridge, Admiral."

Once on the bridge, McDonnell offered the command chair to Jenetta. She declined, pulled down a jump-seat near the tac station and belted herself in. Since they would be operating in the planetary atmosphere, things could get bumpy. The four Jumakas had followed them in and then sat down near Jenetta's feet.

The small crew was well practiced, and in seconds the ship was aloft and zooming towards the northern part of the estate. Although it could take up to thirty minutes to reach the northern border by air car, the CPS-14B would make the trip in minutes. McDonnell raised the ship up high enough to ensure there was no chance of hitting an oh-gee vehicle, and then had the helmsman apply the maximum safe Sub-light power. In just three minutes they were approaching the mountain range that marked the estate's northern boundary.

"Captain, turn eastward, staying south of the mountains until you see alien craft on the ground. You'll see a large lake with a river flowing both in and out."

"Navigation?" McDonnell said.

"I have it identified, Captain," the navigator said. "I'm sending the course to the helm."

As the area came into view, Jenetta could see the four ships on the ground. They looked oddly familiar. Then she realized why. One of the SC warships operating under her command had once seized a small freighter that was transporting stolen merchandise. That ship looked almost identical to these ships. It had been consigned afterwards to SCI agent Trader Vyx for use by his teams as a base of operations.

That freighter had been built by the Uthlaro, and she remembered the description from the files. The Siqquet model had been built at the Xillesku Shipbuilding yard on Uthlarigasset. A total of three hundred ninety-four had been produced in that model series, and most were still reputed to be in service. Top speed for the ship when it was fresh out of the shipyard was Light-300, which was considerably faster than the Clidepp Empire permitted. That gave it a considerable advantage over the Clidepp warships. The cargo area could accommodate either loose cargo or cargo containers since both sides of the ship at the cargo bay level opened fully. With containers, it could accommodate four full forty-meter-long containers twenty meters high. A container that size, outfitted for passengers, could house a lot of refugees.

"Captain, hover at a hundred meters over the freighters on the ground."

"Aye, Admiral. Helm, make it so."

"Aye, Captain."

As the CPS-14 took up a position over the four freighters, chaos broke out on the ground. The SC ship had arrived so fast that it seemed to appear from nowhere. People were running every which way. Some seemed desperate to get inside one of the freighters, while others were grabbing laser weapons and aiming them at the surprise visitor. A few even discharged their weapons, but laser pulses couldn't penetrate or damage the Dakinium surfaces of the ship.

It was about ten minutes before the people on the ground stopped shooting and came out of hiding. The hovering ship didn't seem to present a danger. But when Jenetta ordered McDonnell to land the ship two hundred meters from the freighter closest to the lake, the people on the ground ran for cover again. However, this time they didn't discharge their weapons.

As the CPS-14 set down, the support legs leveled the ship and determined the solidity of the surface. The report was favorable. The ground beneath the ship was solid.

Jenetta gave the aliens time to get used to the idea that a ship had landed in their presence. A group had approached cautiously and then walked to within twenty meters of the ship. They stood there for about fifteen minutes, waiting for something to happen. When nothing did happen, they turned to walk away. That's when Jenetta ordered the ramp to be extended.

The outside group stopped and turned back, then waited again.

"Okay, Captain, I'm going out," Jenetta said.

"Admiral, no. They fired at us. There's too much danger. Let me send out a couple of my people first."

"This isn't a warship, Captain, and you don't have any Marines with armor. Besides, I've got my own protection detail with me. But maintain a direct link with my CT at all times."

As the exterior hatch began to roll back, the group outside raised their rifles. When only Jenetta and the four cats walked out, they relaxed. Jenetta stood at the top of the ramp and looked around, then walked to the bottom and stepped onto the ground. Her protection detail gathered around her.

"Men with guns," she heard Tayna say.

"May be danger," Thor said.

"Everyone stay calm," Jenetta said. "We only attack if they start something."

"Who are you?" one of the Yolongi shouted to Jenetta. He seemed to be in change but didn't seem disposed to come any closer than five meters.

In addition to the modified range extender that allowed her to talk to the ship and her Jumakas, Jenetta had added an alien translator device and set it to Yolon, the de facto standard in the Clidepp Empire. The device would send the converted speech directly to her CT.

"I'm Azula Carver of the Family Carver. This is my land you're camping on."

"Camping on? We've claimed this land for settlement as is our right under Clidepp law when the land is not being used for any useful purpose."

"That's incorrect. This is a nature preserve and a recreation area for my tenants. No permanent construction is permitted here."

"You're too late, lady. We've already claimed this land under the centuries-old provisions of Clidepp law."

"There are several problems with that. One, you are no longer in Clidepp space, so Clidepp law has no validity here. Two, this entire planet was long ago claimed in the name of the King and Queen of Nordakia. Every millimeter of the surface became their property. Three, the King and Queen of Nordakia deeded this property to my family in perpetuity. As the Azula here, I decide who can, and who cannot, live here."

"And what if I decide you should die here, right now?" The Yolongi said as he rested his hand on a pistol stuck in his waistband.

"Then you would be making the gravest mistake of your life. If you manage to harm me, the entire weight of the Nordakian military, and in fact, the entire weight of Space Command, would land on your head. It's doubtful anyone in your entire party would live out the hour, and surely not the day. Not a very good start on a new life in a new nation."

"Ha! You think that tiny little ship you arrived in is going to harm us?" the leader said, laughing.

"Captain McDonnell, do you see that stump of a dead tree about forty meters on my right?"

The Yolongi leader looked around to see who she was talking to.

"Aye, ma'am," Jenetta heard in her CT.

"Have your tactical officer burn it."

With unbelievable speed, one of the hatch covers on the rear cargo container opened and a powerful laser beam shot out. The stump burst into flames. The hatch cover closed as quickly as it had opened.

The leader of the group said nothing at first, then, "So, you have a laser cannon." A lot of the belligerence he had been exhibiting until then had disappeared.

"It's actually the least dangerous weapon I have available in my ship's arsenal. I could just as easily have launched a rocket that would destroy one of your ships, or all of them, but you'll need them to leave this part of space."

The group behind the leader was talking and gesturing furiously while one was pointing at the burning stump. Their leader turned and shouted at them to shut up.

"What's it to be?" Jenetta asked. "Do you leave peacefully, or do I have my ship destroy all of you right now?"

"We can't leave," the leader said, taking a few steps forward. "We're almost out of food. We thought we might be able to get some fish from the lake."

"If you need food, I can help you. Do you have enough fuel to move your ships?"

The leader walked even closer, but still stopped two meters from Jenetta. "Our hydrogen tanks are three-quarters full," he said in a normal tone.

"So, no problem there. Okay, I'll have my navigator send you planetary coordinates for another location on my land where you can make camp. Undo the damage you did here by removing all the plot markers, and pick up all your trash. Then move all of your ships to the new area. I'll have a food supply ship drop off enough food for your entire group. The food ship will also take your refuse for recycling. How many in your party?"

"Four thousand two hundred, more or less."

"Forty-two hundred? Packed into those four small ships?"

"It's a bit crowded, but it was better than dying at the hands of the Triumvirate forces or being caught between them and the rebels."

"Let me give you a little bit of advice. The next time you want to immigrate to a new nation, don't try to smash your way in. Request entrance. You'll get a lot further."

"Uh, is it too late to start over with you?"

"Do what I've said, and I'll drop by your new camp in a couple of days to discuss it."

"Yes, Azula."

One of the men from the group that had hung back came hurrying up to the leader and whispered something, then rushed back to his group.

"Excuse me, Azula. One of my people thinks you look familiar, and you mentioned a Family Carver. Are you perhaps related to Admiral Jenetta Carver, the military leader who whipped the Milori, Tsgardi, and Uthlaro nations?"

"I am Admiral Jenetta Alicia Carver. I'm not in uniform because I'm on leave. This is my family's estate."

The leader of the group seemed to have been struck dumb for a few seconds. He moved a little closer to Jenetta and was finally able to mumble, "I'm terribly sorry for threatening you, Admiral. I had no idea who you were."

"I never felt threatened. If you had actually made a threatening move, one of my companions would have ripped your throat out before you could bring a weapon to bear, and my ship would have instantly wiped out your entire party if any one of them had made a threatening move."

The leader swallowed hard as he looked down and studied the appearance of the Jumakas closely for the first time. He had previously accepted that they were mere family pets. Fear became obvious on his face as Thor bared his large fangs and rumbled a low growl. The man took a quick step back. "Uh, they're your protectors?"

"They're my family. What's your name, citizen?"

"I'm a— I'm Storrgatl Kordorl. I'm the leader of this group."

"Well, Mr. Kordorl, I'll see you again in a few days at the new location."

"Yes, Admiral— er, Azula."

"One more thing, Mr. Kordorl. Part of my estate security force is presently headed this way in oh-gee vehicles and should arrive shortly. Don't fire on them when you see them as you did earlier, or they might return fire this time."

"We never aimed at the earlier air cars. We shot around them. We just wanted to frighten them away."

"You fired on my ship."

"I tried to stop my people, but they were scared because you were hovering directly over our ships."

"As their leader, you should make them understand that my people might return fire if fired upon, even if you're not aiming directly at them. I assure you that your people would not stand a chance of winning or perhaps even surviving the encounter."

"Yes, Azula."

Once back inside the CPS-14, Jenetta said to the Jumakas, "I'm very proud of all of you. You did an excellent job."

"Man not really dangerous," Cayla said. "Too scared."

"Yes, he was trying to bully his way through the meeting. Thor, what was that growl for?"

"Him showing off," Tayna said.

"Well, it was very effective. Thank you. You definitely left a lasting impression on his mind."

"Man leave his impression in clothes when Thor growl," Nicky said. "Could smell it."












Chapter Nine

~ December 2nd, 2288 ~



"Good morning, Azula," Storrgatl Kordorl said as Jenetta stepped out of her oh-gee vehicle in the open meadow where the four Yolongi spaceships were now parked. The four Jumakas had jumped out of the open-topped vehicle as soon as it settled onto its skids.

"Good morning, Mr. Kordorl."

"My people want to extend their gratitude for the food you've given us. Our food stores had been greatly depleted and the variety was quite limited."

"How's the health of your people? Do you require medical assistance?"

"Thank you, but we have our own physicians. We are a little low on several medicines though."

"Prepare a list, and I'll see what we can do."

"Thank you, Azula. You're very generous."

"What are your plans, Mr. Kordorl? Where will you go now?"

"We've discussed it at length. We'd like to immigrate to Obotymot."

Jenetta was silent for a few seconds. She had expected this request.

"Is that possible?" Mr. Kordorl asked when the silence had lasted longer than he expected.

"Yes, it might be possible. But you might find the immigration requirements a little too— demanding. We've been anticipating the arrival of refugees from the Clidepp Empire for some time. We knew shiploads of émigrés would arrive here eventually, but the ships from the Clidepp Empire have always been so slow we knew we had time to plan for their arrival. The king asked me to head up our refugee program, and I've been doing a lot of research on the past efforts of various cultures to welcome newcomers. I've come to the conclusion that a successful immigration program requires just one thing."

"And what is that one thing?"

"The immigrants must be willing to forsake their heritage and allow themselves to be assimilated into the culture of the nation they wish to join."

"That sounds reasonable, Azula."

"At first, it might— but think about it. Most of the people on this planet have lived here all of their lives. And the people that immigrated here have principally come from Nordakia where life is much the same. So there has been little difficulty in assimilating newcomers into this culture."

"But you're a Terran. You were born on Earth."

"I see you've been studying my background."

"After our encounter, I checked the files and read everything I could find."

"Yes, I'm a Terran by birth and a citizen of Earth. I'm also a citizen of Nordakia and therefore Obotymot, since this planet is politically tied to Nordakia."

"Before we left Yolongus, we sold all of our property and converted the funds to GA Credits. We're not asking you to give us land. We're willing to buy it for cash."

"Now that's the first problem. On Obotymot, as on Nordakia, all land is owned by the nobility. You cannot buy land on either planet."

"But what about all those small farms we see everywhere? And what of the towns and cities?"

"The nobility leases land to tenants. Tenants pay fifty percent of their crops in exchange for use of a farm, or fifty percent of their net earnings for the space in a building if they're a professional or a retailer. In return, the government supports our citizens in many ways, such as free health care and education, and programs to combat poverty. We also support our citizens in their old age so none need fear not having a roof over their head or enough food to eat. The fifty percent share is the only tax or fee ever paid by our citizens, except for fines if they break the law. The one amount goes to support all of our programs and assistance. When a meteor hit this planet more than two decades ago, it flung enough dirt up into the atmosphere to cause a year-round winter. All crops were destroyed and most wild animals died off. The government undertook a massive program to save as many wild species as possible and scrub the atmosphere clean so the sun could again warm the planet and restore life here. It's taken many years and trillions of GA Credits from the Nordakia Royal Treasury, but life has mostly returned to where it was before the meteor struck, and we continue to improve each year. That effort was only possible because of the surpluses from the fifty percent shares that had accumulated in the Nordakian treasury over the years. You probably noticed how poor the soil was where you first landed."

"Yes, but we believed we could dredge the lake and use filtered sediments to enrich the land."

"That lake has already been dredged and the sediments were used to create fertilizer for the farms. All you'd get now is sand and rock."

"We didn't know that."

"In time, wild grasses, bushes, and trees will take over the unimproved land and continue the restoration process of the soil there through normal, seasonal plant decay."

"So you won't sell us any land?"

"No— but I do have fertilized land ready for tenant farmers who are willing to work hard and grow their own crops. After the meteor struck, many former tenants moved to Nordakia and became tenants there. They haven't returned, and the leases on the land they once farmed are available to new lessees."

"I'll have to ask my people if such an arrangement would be acceptable. We've always owned our own land."

"Leasing from the nobility is rather similar to owning the land. You can do whatever you wish on the land, unless your actions violate the necessary environmental laws which protect the lands of your neighbors. You can't pass on ownership of the land to offspring or other relatives when you die, but you can reassign the lease to them through provisions in your will. In that way, control of the land stays in the family. The only exception is that no two or more farms can be controlled by the same individual, and no adjoining farms can be controlled by relatives closer than second cousins. If your people are interested in becoming tenants, there are a number of other requirements they'll have to accept."

"Such as?"

"Throughout history, people emigrating to foreign lands have immediately established enclaves where they could feel more comfortable and practice the rituals and customs they had been practicing in their former nations. It makes perfect sense that this would happen, but complete separation from neighbors frequently causes mistrust on the part of the other citizens. The most successful immigration programs in GA space have been the ones that literally force immigrants to assimilate into the existing society. At first, they won't be nearly as comfortable as they would if they could simply sequester themselves in an enclave where everyone speaks the language of their homeland, enjoys the same ethnic foods, practices the same rituals, and, most especially, worships in the same religion. But in the long run, the migration is far more successful for the nation and for the immigrants themselves. Some say that diversity is good and argue that a mixing of cultures enriches the lives of all. The problem has always been that there is seldom any real mixing when groups establish their own enclaves and remain apart and distinct. Each individual seeks the comfortable path, and that path lies with the known rather than the unknown. That's not acceptable here. We have one form of government and one religion. Any émigrés would have to outwardly embrace both."

"You can't ask us to worship a different god."

"I didn't say that. What you do in the privacy of your own home is your business. You simply will not be allowed to worship a different god in public or openly display any religious materials inconsistent with Nordakia's one true religion. You will also not be allowed to dress in accordance with your former religious doctrine or attempt to impose any of your former values on anyone else, including fellow émigrés. In short, you are asking to join us here. If we permit you to stay, you must actually join us and adapt to our laws and systems. We will not adapt to you, your customs, your religion, or your former laws. If you can't accept that, we'll attempt to help you find another planet where they might welcome you or at least accept your presence."

"I don't think my people would agree to those terms. The rules of our religion are very strict. We cannot deviate from them even the slightest."

"I understand. And I'm sorry it has to be this way. You see, throughout known history, religion has been responsible for more death and destruction than any other ten issues combined, including power and greed. In fact, fanatics of one religion on Earth have been fighting other factions of the same religion for over fifteen centuries and continue to fight to this day. Neither side has a chance of winning, because you can't force the entire population of a planet to believe the same way you do when your own neighbors won't even believe the same things you do. But many people in that religion firmly believe they will win if they can just fight long enough. So they fight and they die, and their sons and daughters fight and die, and their grandsons and granddaughters fight and die, and their great-grandsons and great-granddaughters fight and die. And on and on and on, century after century.

"It's probably most interesting that the ancestors of the people of Nordakia originally came from the planet Dakistee. Those ancestors left Dakistee because their religious beliefs had, over time and through the efforts of certain religious leaders, deviated from the beliefs of the majority on Dakistee. So we understand firsthand how damaging religion can be to a culture."

"And how do you stop some people from becoming disenchanted with their religion?"

"We don't. But no one is required to attend services, so if they don't wish to worship the teaching of the one true book, they're free not to. However, if they attempt to begin a sect which follows different teachings and gather like-minded individuals to join them, the government will support their effort to leave the planet so they can start their own religion somewhere else."

"What if they begin a movement to abolish all religion?"

"It's been tried over and over by governments and groups on Earth, and it's always failed. People want to believe in a supreme being, or at least a supreme truth; especially during difficult times. Our government here is not unresponsive to the needs and desires of our people, and we don't try to tell them how to think, but we do pay attention to dissenters and troublemakers to ensure things don't get out of hand. We have a wonderful system here. It works and works well. I'm not saying it would work as well elsewhere, but we have just the right amount of freedom and religion with limited government involvement. That last part is always the key. Government should never get too intrusive into the lives of its people. Governments are supposed to serve the people— not the other way around. We provide services when people need them and back away when they don't."

"Yet you don't allow people to choose the religion they want to follow?"

"As I said, you're free to worship any god you choose in your own home. And you can practice any religious custom you formerly practiced inside your own home. You are free to do anything you wish inside your home, providing it doesn't violate Nordakian laws intended to protect the people of Nordakia and Obotymot."

"But I can't attempt to interest others in joining my religion of choice?"

"As long as it occurs only in your own home, and the others are not being held there against their will, you are free to discuss it with them. If they disagree, they have to be free to leave."

"And if enough people agree that our religion is better, can we then go public?"

"No, but you're free to leave the planet and find a new home. As I've already said, if you wish to settle here, you must embrace our laws and values and adapt to our way of life, fully, outside your home. We are not going to adapt to your former way of life. We are not going to honor the brave heroes of Yolongus or celebrate the holidays established on Yolongus in their honor. We will not allow you to fly any other nation's flag or display it where it can be seen from outside your home. We are not going to change our dietary laws to agree with Yolongus religious scripture. If life was so wonderful on Yolongus, you would not have left. Since you're obviously here looking for a new life, you must break completely with the old one, continue your search for a home on another planet, or return to Yolongus with our blessing. You cannot pick and choose only the best parts of life from both cultures as if you're picking dinner items in a restaurant. If you choose to stay here, you must accept that your life is going to change and perhaps change dramatically. But isn't change what you were seeking?"

"Being from Earth originally, do you practice the one true religion of Nordakia?"

"I've studied the religion extensively and found many consistencies between it and the religion my family practiced on Earth. Most religions seem to have had a simple premise at their inception— namely— worship of a non-temporal being. It's only when senior people in the religious hierarchy start adding esoteric rituals for the express purpose of making their religion appear more divinely inspired, or for testing the devotion of their followers, that things begin to deviate. It's happened in every religion I'm familiar with. I am in concert with the one true faith of Nordakia and support it one hundred percent."

"I'll put the issues to my people, and see what they wish to do. Are you available to speak with them as you have me?"

"With the understanding that what I've told you is not open to debate. It's an either/or choice. Either accept our requirements for immigration, or we'll assist you in leaving to find a home elsewhere. I'll provide enough food for your journey and help you find a suitable, habitable planet. Region One doesn't have a great selection of available planets with the climatic conditions you were used to on Yolongus, but I know of several in Regions Two and Three that might satisfy you, as long as you understand you'll be starting from scratch with no infrastructure already in place. In other words, the uninhabited planets are in a primitive state."

"I'll explain that to my people as well."

~     ~     ~

Jenetta was asked to come back several days later to discuss the terms for remaining on Obotymot and answer questions. She had prepared a handout that addressed all of the key points and brought enough copies so every adult would get one. A small stage had been erected from which she could speak. The Jumakas took up positions on either side. After addressing each point on the handout, she opened the session to questions.

Hands immediately shot up. She pointed to one of the closer citizens and he stood up.

"Azula, will we get to select the farm we want?"

"Good question. Anyone interested in farming will first be interviewed by one of my farm managers. Afterwards, they'll be offered a choice of three farms. They should then visit each of them. Some will have homes already on them and some will be virgin land. The farm managers will help arrange loans for construction if there is no home on the farm. All farms available for leasing have water already piped to the location. If the land is not presently fertilized, sufficient fertilizer will be delivered as soon as the farm is let. If none of the three farms are acceptable, the farm managers will offer a new selection of three more choices. And yet a third selection will be offered if the farmer can't find an acceptable farm among the first two groups. Once you pass on selecting from a group of three farms, those farms will be immediately available to other candidates and may no longer be available to you if you decide later than you want one of them, so please understand that when you pass them up. I know some are going to want to be very near friends and relatives. Let me tell you right now that the selection process is intended to ensure that doesn't happen. We don't want you to be too close to friends and past neighbors. We want you to make new friends from among the existing population, and that process will be best served by isolating you, to a degree."

"You're intentionally separating us from family and friends?"

"Yes. They won't be so far off that you can't easily visit them, but they won't be on farms that adjoin the farm you're leasing."

Jenetta selected another person for the next question.

"Azula, will we really be welcome here?"

"That will largely depend on you. My tenants are all hard-working people who love this land and are fiercely proud of their farms and their families. They enjoy interacting with their neighbors and sharing agricultural information. They are not in competition with one another. Their only enemy is nature, and they work in a cooperative environment that benefits all. If you are friendly and welcome them into your hearts and homes, I have no doubt they will reciprocate."

Another asked, "What guarantee do we have that if we make our farms highly successful the government won't step in and take them away?"

"This is not Yolongus, and there is no corrupt Triumvirate here. I am the government. As long as you obey Nordakian and Obotymot law, and annually share your produced crop as required in your lease agreement, you remain as the tenant.

"You manage your own farm, but we provide support all along the way, and then we share the crop. We want you to be successful. The more successful you are, the happier we are. That's why we have farm management experts who will advise you if you have a problem and who conduct regular teaching sessions in town halls throughout each district. This is a cooperative effort all the way. The lessee always has first right of lease renewal, and in fact the lease is automatically extended from year to year unless the lessee informs us they wish to be let out of the lease. The farm will never be taken from you for other than good and valid reasons. The only one I can think of at the moment is if you choose not to grow a crop for two seasons or more. You can't simply camp on farmland you're not working and allow it to go fallow without good reason. I invite everyone to ask the farmers in the areas you visit if they know of anyone who has ever had their farm taken from them or if I have not been a good and fair landlord.

"If you have a problem, you should first contact your farm management representative. If he or she fails to resolve your issue to your satisfaction, you should next contact a local magistrate. If he or she fails to resolve your issue, you should bring it to my chamberlain. If he fails to resolve your issue, you should bring it to me. I'm always available to intercede in any problem, but I ask that you follow the proper channels. At no point would you wait more than two weeks for an answer."

The next person asked, "Kordorl says you told him we can't wear what we want. Why not?"

"I never said that, and I'm sure Mr. Kordorl didn't say that either. What I said was that you will not be allowed to dress in accordance with former religious doctrine."

"Our religion doesn't require us to wear these grey cloaks. It's our preferred clothing."

"Are you a farmer?"

"Yes."

"Do you wear that when you're out working in the fields?"

"Of course not. It would be too hot and we need to move easily and freely."

"Do you wear it when you're home?"

"Of course not."

"When do you wear it?"

"When we go to town."

"Why?"

"Because— everyone wears one."

"So, you wear it so you don't stand out as being different?"

"I guess."

"Here, no one wears one. If you wear one, you will stand out as being different. Why would you want to stand out as being different here when you wore one only so you wouldn't stand out on Yolongus?"

The person sat down without replying.

"You may wear whatever you want, as long as you cover yourself sufficiently so as to not offend others with a too-scantily-clad body. But the clothes you choose to wear cannot conform to any religious doctrine that would make it immediately obvious to everyone that you are a practitioner of a religion other than the one-true religion observed by Nordakians and Obotymotians."

"You call that religious freedom?" an unknown speaker shouted.

"Wearing clothes that announce to others you are different will ensure you remain different— and apart. No one invited you to come here, and the people of this planet owe you nothing, but they are willing to provide a refuge to anyone who wants to become one of them. Remaining different and apart is not becoming one of them. 'In your face' apparel that announces you will never assimilate into this society makes your position perfectly clear. We will not establish protected enclaves within our society for people who wish to be apart. I've offered food for the journey to all who choose not to become an accepted member of Obotymot society. I suggest you leave now and attempt to find a place where you can happily remain different and apart from the main population. I wish you well."

Jenetta stepped down from the small stage as Mr. Kodorl came running up to her.

"Azula, we have more questions."

"Mr. Kordorl, I thought I made it perfectly clear that the rules I established regarding religion were not open to debate. Since you apparently didn't communicate that effectively to your people, I'm wasting my time here. Good day."

"Azula, please. I did tell them, but there are always a few fools who refuse to accept the facts."

"Then get up on that stage and make it clear that I'll make one more effort to answer questions about becoming a citizen of Nordakia and Obotymot. But if one more person again asks why the rules exist, I leave."

"Yes, Azula."

Kordorl stepped up onto the stage and looked out at the assemblage with obvious anger. "I told you all that questions about religious issues were not to be brought up here," he shouted. "The rules regarding religion are the rules, and that's it. This meeting is to clarify issues relating to tenancy of farms and becoming citizens of this planet. As far as anyone on this planet is concerned, the religion you practiced on Yolongus was left on Yolongus. What you do inside your own home is your business, but you will not bring that issue outside your home in any way. Do you understand? Now, if anyone broaches that subject again, they will be carried bodily to the ship and will not set foot outside again until that ship reaches another planet. Anyone who can't abide by the rules of this nation will be taken elsewhere. You probably won't find a host anywhere in the galaxy who is as hospitable as Azula Carver, nor a planet as ideally suited for agriculture, but you'll be able to stand outside your home and shout your personal religious convictions to the heavens all day, every day, as you slowly starve to death. Azula Carver has consented to make one more effort today. I know that many of you have important questions regarding tenancy and she will attempt to answer them.

Jenetta answered questions for the next twenty minutes before someone jumped up and said, "I'm not giving up my god for a nice farm and a comfortable life." Three burly men immediately rushed to where the heckler was standing and lifted him off the ground, then carried him away. That was the last time anyone interrupted to talk about religion.

~     ~     ~

Mikel Arneu came awake with a start. Alarms were sounding throughout his underground complex on Pelomious. Jumping from bed, he raced to his control room. Images of a dozen shuttles landing on his property filled the screens. It was an invasion, and he knew instantly who it was. The Raider organization had found him.












Chapter Ten

~ December 5th, 2288 ~



Arneu knew he couldn't escape, or rather that she couldn't escape since Arneu's most recent body change had been from male to female. While Nicole Ravenau, Arneu had sworn an oath to herself that she'd never again use any of the DNA Manipulation Formulas she possessed that would make her a female. The sexual frustration she'd felt every day of her existence as a woman was responsible. Although a woman in every way except her memories, she'd been unable to even contemplate having a sexual relationship with a male. And her sexual trysts with females had been most unsatisfying when compared to the memories of sexual encounters she'd enjoyed as a male.

But after killing the real Strauss and then successfully acquitting herself/himself as Arthur Strauss for a time, he needed a new identity. He knew that the people searching for Strauss would be looking for a male, so he'd decided that a female body would be the best hiding place. It had meant another year of pain and suffering because of the changes necessary in a gender switch, but he was nearing the end of his transition and the pain was largely a thing of the past.

Arneu, now assuming the newly created identity of Aliana Shanara, hurried to take a shower, dress in the sexiest clothes she owned for the new body, and get her makeup as close to perfection as possible.

The people above her hidden, underground complex were just getting ready to use equipment that would smash through the reinforced walls and roof when Shanara pressed the control that raised the large, camouflaged plasticrete pad to reveal the entrance to the underground parking area. They were going to get in either way, and there seemed little sense in having them destroy her home. She still hoped she might be able to make them believe that she hadn't seen Arneu in years.

~

"Mikel Arneu?" the man wearing black commando armor said to Shanara when she opened the door from her living quarters to the underground parking area.

"No. My name is Shanara. Aliana Shanara."

The man raised a viewpad and held a key down while different images flashed on the screen. He went too far and had to back up. Then he held up the viewpad and compared the image to Shanara. "Yep. That's him," the commando said to the four others with him. "Let's check her for weapons. She's obviously not carrying a pistol or knife, but we're warned to watch for jewelry with poisoned barbs that can kill in seconds."

Shanara took a quick step backward. "Don't you dare lay a finger on me, you cretin."

Her protests did little good. They knew they had the right person. And Shanara knew they had her. After checking for poisoned jewelry and finding two pieces that appeared to fit that description, Shanara's hands were cuffed behind her back and she was led to the surface.

Once above ground, the small group headed towards the nearest shuttle. Shanara suddenly stopped walking and the lead commando walked into her, almost knocking her over.

"You left my house open. You could at least close the garage door."

The commando looked back at the raised plasticrete cover. "How do we close it?"

"You took my remote control. Press the red button and then the yellow button to close the cover."

The commando removed the confiscated remote from his pocket and stared at it for a second, then pressed the two buttons. Nothing happened.

"We're probably too far away for the signal to reach the receiver. You have to be closer."

"Get her aboard the ship," he said to his men. "I'll be right there." He began walking back towards the underground garage, repeatedly pressing the buttons as he walked.

Shanara, being led up the ramp of the shuttle hollered before being pushed inside, "You're still too far away. You have to get closer."

The commando continued to walk and press the buttons. He was almost to the cover when it finally started to move downwards. He watched as it closed completely and then turned back towards the shuttle. Suddenly an explosion lifted him high into the air. The full perimeter charge was sufficient to ensure he was dead before his body began to fall back towards the ground.

"I told you not to touch me," Shanara mumbled under her breath when she heard the explosion. Then she smiled.

~     ~     ~

"The people I brought from Yolongus have made their decisions, Azula," Storrgatl Kordorl said to Jenetta after being escorted to her office in the palace.

"And?"

"About three-quarters want to remain here and become citizens of Nordakia and Obotymot. They understand they will never own the land they farm and agree to lease it from you as do your present tenants. They also promise to work at being accepted as part of the community rather than seeking isolation in the familiar and promise to keep their religious observances inside their homes. The others refused unconditional acceptance of your terms and voted to continue their voyage until they find an acceptable home where they'll be welcome without having to change."

"Fine, Mr. Kordorl. I'm sure the people who stay will find that their new neighbors will welcome them and do everything possible to help them adjust. And what about you, Mr. Kordorl?"

"Uh, I'm obligated to help the remaining twenty-five percent find a new home on another planet. But— if you permit me, I'd like to return here after they're settled. I'm a good farmer and I have enough GA Credits from selling my property on Yolongus that I'll be able to lease virgin farmland and build a home right away without borrowing."

"As long as you agree to abide by the rules I've established, you'll be welcome here, Mr. Kordorl."

"Thank you, Your Grace. Uh, that is the proper way of addressing you isn't it? I heard some of your servants address you that way."

"Yes, it is the proper way, Mr. Kordorl."

"Thank you for welcoming so many of us to your planet, Your Grace. From everything I've been able to learn about you through media accounts and from your present tenants, I think the ones who have decided to go elsewhere are making a monumental mistake."

"Each person has to decide for themselves what will make them happiest. Obotymot is a wonderful place to live, but I understand that some people have to be able to, as you said, 'stand outside their home and shout their personal religious convictions to the heavens all day, every day.'"

"I'll contact your farm management group when I return from delivering the other refugees to whatever planet they choose. I don't know how long that might be."

"We'll find you a farm you can approve of when you return, Mr. Kordorl."

The Jumakas were in the doorway and stepped out of the way as Kordorl left. Jenetta, sitting at her desk, looked at them from across the room and noticed a change.

"Girls, you appear to be putting on weight," she said.

"Feeling fat," Tayna said. "Eating too much. Palace chefs putting too much food out for us."

"Are you sure that's it?"

"Not sure," Cayla said. "But always hungry."

"I hope this isn't too indelicate, but have you engaged in sex with either of the guys?"

"With Thor," Tayna said.

"With Nicky," Cayla said.

"Just one partner each?"

"It our way." Tayna said. "Just one."

"We call that being monogamous," Jenetta said, "when you mate with just one partner. Uh, I'm not suggesting that anything will happen to either of your chosen partners, but if it did, do you take a new partner?"

"Only if alone again," Cayla said. "Is your mate coming soon?"

"Do you remember Hugh?"

"We there when you first mate," Tayna said.

"Hugh will be here in a couple of weeks."

"Will you get fat then?"

Jenetta chuckled. "Uh, we'll have to see. I've considered it."

"You control it?" Cayla asked.

"Yes."

"Why?" Tayna asked.

"It's complicated. I haven't decided if it's the right time yet."

"When right time?"

"That's the big question. I suppose I have to discuss it with Hugh after he arrives. It's customary for humans to have a ceremony where we pledge ourselves to each other. I guess it started as a way to ensure the children would always have two parents to care for them. Human babies are much more fragile than Jumaka babies and for a much longer time."

"We see with Arturo and Berl. Jumaka babies be having own babies by now."

"Yes. We must be very careful with our children for the first five years because they're not totally coordinated during that time. And until they become teenagers, they need help and guidance."

"We always careful with babies," Cayla said.

"I know, and we appreciate it. Both Arturo and Berl will grow up to be strong men one day, able to take care of themselves and make their own babies. Uh, do you know how many days your pregnancy will last?"

"We think it about three moons plus a little, or hundred of days," Tayna said.

"And, uh, do you know how far along you are?"

"Maybe about one moon," Cayla said.

"So then your babies will be delivered about the middle to the end of February. How many baby Jumakas are usually in a litter?"

"For first time momma, can be one two. But usual is three four. Could be five, but not to first time momma."

"And how long do the cubs rely on their mother?"

"On home planet, babies need momma two annuals," Tayna said.

"Two annuals? Is that necessary?"

"Must learn swim, hunt, survive. As prisoners of men, babies taken away six moons."

"Well, you're not prisoners here," Jenetta said.

"Know," Cayla said. "With you is home. You belong us."

~     ~     ~

"Richard," Admiral Hillaire said to Admiral Moore during a regular meeting of the Admiralty Board in their new building on Quesann, "I just heard yesterday that you ordered the first CPS-14 with the new temporal generator to be sent to Admiral Carver for use as her barge while she's on leave. Isn't that a bit unusual?"

"Perhaps, but the circumstances are unusual. I recently learned that the King of Nordakia has asked Jen to head up a program to deal with refugees from the Clidepp Empire. I can't imagine anyone being more qualified since she's a Terran living among the Nordakians and understands the difficulties of adapting to a totally different culture. In accepting the job offered by the king, she is not only assisting Nordakia and Obotymot but the GA as well, so I felt it was fitting that we extend a bit of help to her in performing the job.

"A few days ago I received a vidMail from Jen with an attachment. The attachment was a list of requirements she's established for any émigrés who wish to settle on Nordakia or Obotymot. My aide has a copy for each of you." Turning slightly, he indicated to his aide that the handouts Jenetta had created on Obotymot should be distributed to the other admirals at the table.

After everyone had had a chance to read the handout, Admiral Moore opened the issue for discussion.

"It's bit harsh, isn't it?" Admiral Woo said.

"As the only Nordakian citizen here," Admiral Yuthkotl said, "I can say on behalf of my fellow countrymen that I think it's perfect. I received a copy of this yesterday from my king. He believes that Admiral Carver did a splendid job. We don't want immigrants who will establish their own communities within our communities and always remain apart from the rest of the population. They must be willing assimilate and actually do so. And while I know some will argue, I don't believe it's reasonable to expect ninety-nine percent of the population to change and adapt to the new one percent. Yes, I understand that the rules of social hospitality say a host must always cater to a guest to the point of bending over backwards. But these are not guests. They are future potential citizens and they must work to establish their place in the society of the planet they choose to make their home, not the other way around. We are only providing an opportunity for a better life, not promising them a better life without any effort or sacrifice on their part to fit in. It's all about opportunity and what they are willing to do to make it work."

"But Lesbolh," Admiral Woo said, "Admiral Carver is asking them to give up their religion."

"No, she isn't, Lon. She clearly states they are free to practice whatever religion they choose inside their homes. The government will not place any restrictions on their religious practices there, other than the normal laws that we all live under. For example, if someone subscribes to a religion that requires him to perform live sacrifices of his children or neighbors, we will step in and stop him, and punish him if he's already murdered or disfigured someone. All Admiral Carver is saying is that when outside their homes people may not broadcast their religious preference and differences by wearing clothes symbolic of a religion other than the main religion of the planet or engage in any practice that announces they do not subscribe to the one true religion of the planet's population."

"That's suppression of religious freedom," Admiral Woo said.

"Tell me, Lon, is every planet in GA space being required to allow refugees in?"

"Of course not. The GA Senate addressed that long ago. They decided that each nation can choose for themselves whether or not to accept refugees, and if they do, the nation decides what an acceptable number of them should be."

"Would you prefer that Obotymot and Nordakia accept no refugees at all?"

"Of course not. The nations should be free to accept or reject refugees as they choose."

"But you don't believe they can place any restrictions whatsoever on who they let in?"

"You're twisting my words, Lesbolh."

"Tell me how I'm doing that, Lon, because I want to understand your point, and I'm having trouble. It seems your arguments are in disagreement. By forbidding prospective émigrés from wearing special clothing dictated by their religious tenets and practicing rituals outside the house that flagrantly tout their religion on a planet that until now has had only one religion, we are trying to prevent confusion and confrontations between our citizens and promote harmony among the masses. If another culture is going to join us, they must make some small concessions to blend or there will be problems, as experienced in other nations throughout history. We do not ask refugees to change their private values, only their public appearance and image. And if the prospective immigrants can't agree to small changes in their dress code to conform to accepted norms on our planet, they are perfectly free to try to find a planet where they will be accepted unconditionally. Nordakia and Obotymot are sure to be the better for their departure. By accepting refugees, we're hoping to solve some of the galaxy's problems, but we don't want to cause new ones."

"Then you're proposing an isolated society?"

"No, quite the opposite, Lon. We proposing a homogenous society. Allowing groups to establish small enclaves all over the planet would result in isolated pockets in our society. If refugees are going to join us on Nordakia or Obotymot, they must actually join us."

"But Lesbolh, don't you see that by forcing people to change, you are destroying the very diversity you need to grow as a culture? And we all know that religious fervor is one of the strongest mind-sets in the general population. Often, it's even stronger than patriotism."

"That's exactly the point, Lon. We aren't seeking diversity; we're seeking unification. We don't want to introduce any mind-set that's stronger than love of family, love of community, and love of nation because it drives people apart without any chance of ever reuniting them. I believe that an individual's loyalties, in order of priority, should be spouse and family, community, nation, the Galactic Alliance, and lastly their religion. I put religion last not because it isn't important— we believe it is something special— but that it is between a person and their god. It isn't something you have to market by carrying a banner through the streets and screaming the name of your god for all to hear."

Admiral Moore had allowed the discussion to go unchecked so the two members of the board could get it out of their systems. Once ten seconds had passed without any new arguments, he said, "I've sent a copy of Jen's requirements list to the GA Council. They can decide if it should be distributed to all of the delegates in the Senate for review, although I'm sure that by now Azula Carver's list is being spread throughout all three regions of GA space by the media, and I fully expect it to be adopted by more than just Obotymot and Nordakia."

"Has Jen made a decision about her future in Space Command?" Admiral Ahmed asked.

"Not yet, Raihana, but I'm still hopeful we'll be able to get her to come back. For now, let's just give her the time and space to make her own decision. She's been such an integral part of Space Command for so long that it's hard to envision the service without her. I'm hoping she begins to feel the same way."

"What of your retirement, Richard? You were supposed to have returned to Earth by now."

With a smile, Admiral Moore said, "My wife keeps threatening to divorce me if I don't come home soon, and I keep telling her I can't come home yet and asking her to come here until I can return to Earth. I've sent her images to show her how beautiful it is here and how unspoiled and pristine everything is on Quesann, but her main concern is separation from our children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and now our first great-great-grandchild. My decision to retire was only to placate her because she didn't want to come out here, so I'm not entirely unhappy Admiral Carver chose to take a leave of absence that forced me to change my plans. I miss my wife, but it's no worse for me than for all the men and women of Space Command and the Space Marine Corps who are separated from loving spouses for long periods of time."

"As we near mandatory retirement age," Admiral Hillaire said, "I'm wondering how I'll feel when I have to hang up my uniform and wear civvies every day. It's not that I can't envision the service without me; it's envisioning me without the service. And I can't hit a golf ball straight down the fairway to save my life."

~     ~     ~

"Madam President," the representative from Trigenetics Galactica Pharmaceutical said, "my people are demanding a token sample of the cloning documentation if they are to continue work on your sterility problem."

They were the only two in Madu's office, and the electronic scrambler on the her desk was flashing, indicating that no recording device could be recording the conversation. Madu was unaware that the TGP representative had ocular and audio implants like those used by SCI. They allowed her to record everything without relying on external devices.

"No," Madu said.

"No?"

"No."

"Madam President I remind you that you agreed to turn over all early research data before the formula has been tested and proven."

"But not before the formula has been delivered and initial tests in a Dakistee laboratory indicate it will actually cure the sterility. And the initial transfer of information will not happen even one day before we reach that point."

"My superiors insist that you give us the preliminary data now, or we might end all work on the formula."

"Very well. End it."

"Our scientists have determined that if we stop work, there's no chance you will ever cure the problem."

"Are you saying you've found the cure?"

"I'm saying that no one else will. We know that now."

"Prove it."

"What?"

"I said, prove it. Prove to me that TGP is the only company in the universe capable of solving this problem."

"Uh, I didn't say that."

"Yes you did. You said that if you stop work, there's no chance we will ever cure the problem."

"I merely meant that there's no one else willing to take on this extraordinary challenge."

"I'm not going to alter the original agreement. If you can't stand behind it, then let's mutually agree to cancel it."

"We're only asking for a small sample of what you intend to give us anyway."

"I'm not giving you anything. You're working to earn the materials. And so far I haven't seen any indication that you've made any progress. Or am I wrong?"

"We have made enough progress to know that none of our competitors will ever cure the problem. That's why they insist they be paid even if they fail."

"I'm willing to pay for a cure but won't pay for failure. And I've seen no proof that you can provide a cure. Now you want early payment. That may work with some governments where they foolishly begin to pay before any work is even started, but not with my government. We only pay once a project is judged successful. Now, if you have nothing to present to me, I have a full appointment schedule. You know the way out."

~     ~     ~

"I'm sorry sir. I tried my best. She refused. I'm forwarding the recording of our meeting."

"Then eliminate her. Perhaps we'll have better success with her vice-president."

"Uh, I don't do that, sir."

"I know that, but you know who does. Take care of it."

"Yes, sir. Uh, sir, her vice-president will not even discuss the issue."

"Then eliminate him also. And keep eliminating their appointed successors until we find one who will be more cooperative. Understand?"

"Yes, sir."

"Accidents might be best. Yes. Yes, much better than assassins. Assassinations draw too much media attention and investigation. Make sure they all die in accidents. No, wait, make it just one large explosion that takes out Madu, her vice-president, and her entire cabinet. Multiple accidents in too short a time span would be too suspicious."

"Yes, sir. I'll contact the right people and pass along your orders."












Chapter Eleven

~ December 8th, 2288 ~



"Girls," Jenetta said to Cayla and Tayna, "I've been thinking about the upcoming blessed event. I remember when I was young a girlfriend of mine had a pet feline that was pregnant. As her time neared, she disappeared. My friend was extremely upset, believing that something had happened to her best friend. They found the new mother and her litter several days later in a small tool shed behind the house. My friend had fixed up a nice carton with soft blankets for the event, but it appears the cat wanted a more private spot for the birth when her time came. I thought you might also want some privacy when the time comes to have your babies."

"That be welcome," Cayla said. "A dark place with soft grasses for bed be nice for babies."

"Grasses? We could make a nice soft bed from blankets."

"Grass be nicer at first. Feel more natural. Then blankets later."

"Uh, okay. Grass it is. Do you want a spot in the palace, or would you prefer to be outside?"

"Outside in garden feel like old home," Tayna said.

"Okay. Pick a spot you like and I'll mark it off bounds to everyone at the palace from one moon before the expected date of the event until after you have your babies and tell us it's okay to have visitors. Uh, Mr. Wilkerson has requested that he be allowed to record the event."

"Like Wilkysson, but no want him there on day."

"He expected that. He proposes that he set up a camera for remote monitoring. He says you won't even know it's there. He says no one has ever recorded the birth of Jumakas and that it's important to document such events."

"If he no there and camera make no noise, is alright," Cayla said.

"How about you, Tayna? What do you think?"

"Agree with Cayla. Okay if no noise or movement. Wilkysson help Jumakas by giving us voices. We like him."

~     ~     ~

Jenetta had been trying to slow down ever since arriving on Obotymot, but she had found it difficult. She couldn't just turn off a work discipline that had consumed almost every available minute of every day for more than two decades. She tried not responding to vidMails right away but couldn't sleep at night until she'd gotten up and cleared her queue. And she tried to delay other simple tasks but found herself getting upset because she hadn't completed them. Her greatest success in avoiding— or, rather, procrastinating— normal tasks occurred when, instead of working, she went and played with her nephews and the Jumakas. Cayla and Tayna were decreasing their playtime activity, but Thor and Nicky took up the slack.

The two young boys loved racing around the garden with the Jumakas, playing hide and seek or tag. With their incredible olfactory and auditory senses, the Jumakas never had a problem finding the boys and could run them down in an instant if they wished, but they always pretended to either not sense the boys' presence or to be considerably slower than their actual speed because it made the game more fun for the children and, therefore, more fun for them.

~     ~

As the day of Hugh's arrival grew near, Jenetta found it more and more difficult to think about anything else. She sent the CPS-14 to pick him up two days early, knowing he couldn't leave until his scheduled time, but she wanted to make sure the ship was there and ready when he was. As it was, Captain Simpson excused him a day early. He'd done a great job during her absence and she knew how anxious he was to see Jenetta.

As the CPS-14 touched down in the open field next to the palace grounds, Jenetta was there waiting. There was no band or greeting party of servants, but Hugh hadn't been expecting any.

As Hugh stepped down from the ship's ramp, he braced to attention and saluted. Jenetta wasn't in uniform, but she was a four-star admiral and deserving of the salute.

Neither Jenetta nor Hugh made any efforts to embrace in public. It wouldn't be proper. So they made small talk as they walked to the palace with the four Jumakas trailing along. Hugh naturally knew all about the new Jumaka and the new collars that allowed the Jumakas to converse with Jenetta and the wildlife expert she had hired.

Jenetta's mom and her sisters-in-law were waiting to welcome Hugh at the palace. Everything was very proper and they made small talk for about ten minutes before Jenetta asked to be excused to see Hugh privately.

As the door to her bedroom closed, Jenetta pivoted, giggled, and jumped at Hugh. He was expecting that and caught her as she reached him, then pulled her to him. It wasn't a very dignified action for a four-star admiral and a commander, but propriety was the last thing on their minds.

~

"Wow!" Hugh said as he pulled the sheet aside and stared, out of breath, up at the ceiling. "It's been so long I thought I might have forgotten how."

"You didn't. I can testify to that."

"I guess it's like walking. You may get too old or infirm to do it one day, but it's not because you've forgotten how."

"Are you ready for another go?"

"Already?" he said with a chuckle. "Give me a chance to catch my breath."

"You're getting old, lover."

"All of us can't stay twenty-one forever."

"Okay. I'll let you rest. But I want you fit and ready in fifteen minutes, Commander."

"Yes, ma'am, Admiral," Hugh said as he rolled over and began tenderly kissing her breasts.

"I thought you needed fifteen minutes?"

"I never said that. You established the time. I just said I needed to catch my breath."

"Have you caught up with it?"

"Almost."

~

"Do you want dinner?" Jenetta asked a couple of hours later.

"Can we have it delivered in bed?"

"I'm the Azula. I can have it delivered in the bathtub if I want."

"Then yes, wherever you want. As long as I don't have to get dressed. I think I'm too tired to pull on my pants. You've worn me out."

"I'll tell them to knock, then leave it outside the door. I don't want to shock the entire palace staff."

"I think they probably know what's going on in here."

"Do you want oysters?"

"Oysters?"

"Isn't that what most men say is an aphrodisiac?"

"I don't need an aphrodisiac. I need energy. Make sure they send up a couple of pots of coffee. And not decaf."

~     ~     ~

"Well, it's about time you two made an appearance," Jenetta's mom said two days later. "We were beginning to think we wouldn't see you until Christmas."

"We had a lot of catching up to do," Jenetta said.

"Yes, I imagine so. Twelve and a half years is a long time. I haven't seen my husband since I moved to Obotymot, but it certainly hasn't been twelve years."

"I can send my barge to bring him here for Christmas if he can take the time off," Jenetta said. "I already offered to bring Christa here if she can take a few days off. She's going to let me know. Daddy's never seen the Family Carver Estate, has he?"

"No, he hasn't. It would be wonderful to have him here for the holiday. I'm going to send him a vidMail right after breakfast and ask him if he can come. Oh, I'm so excited! Too bad the boys can't come."

"Billy's not that far. Perhaps he can make it. It would really be great if the entire family could get together, but Richie, Andy, Jimmy, and Eliza are much too far away."

"It would be so wonderful if Billy could make it for Christmas," Regina said. "Arturo and I haven't seen him in two years. If not for vidMails, Arturo probably wouldn't even remember what his daddy looks like."

~     ~     ~

Christa's schedule was the most flexible, so the barge picked her up on Dakistee first, then raced to where Captain Quinton Carver's heavy cruiser, the Octavian, was on patrol. Lastly, the CPS-14 flew to where Billy's ship, the Seoul, was on patrol.

On December 24th, four Space Command senior officers named Carver assembled with other family members at the family estate on Obotymot. It was the first time Jenetta had seen her father face to face in two decades.

~

"So you ran away?" Captain Quinton Carver said to his daughter as the four Carver officers and Commander Hugh Michaels met privately in Jenetta's sumptuous third-floor office. "I thought I taught you better than that."

"As I recall, you were trying to figure out a way for me to run away from a general officer position back then."

"Not run away. Never run away. I just wanted you to get what I thought you wanted— a shipboard command. I never expected you to leave the service."

"I haven't left the service. I'm on an official leave of absence. I even have use of a barge while I'm on leave, courtesy of Admiral Moore."

"And when does your LOA expire?"

"Well, Hugh is here until mid-March, so it will last at least that long."

"And then?"

"I don't know."

"You're not going to resign your commission, are you?"

"I was so angry when I learned they had planned to give me a fifth star without consulting me, I was ready to resign. But since then I've cooled down and rethought my position and my future."

"And?"

"Still no decision."

"When are you two getting married?" Quinton asked as he looked at Hugh.

"Daddy!" Jenetta said loudly.

"I'm ready, sir." Hugh said. "I've proposed twice since I've been here, but Jenetta hasn't accepted."

Looking at Jenetta, Quinton said, "You can't seem to make up your mind about anything these days."

"Getting married to a fellow officer in Space Command is a difficult proposition."

"Only if you're in the same command structure. Hugh's in Admiral Platt's fleet."

"And if I accept the fifth star, everyone in the service will be in my command structure, including all of you."

"Uh, that's true. However, I believe there are special exemptions where the discrepancy in rank is more than two levels and the officers don't have close contact because of their positions. But there will always be a magnifying glass turned your way by people just waiting to scream nepotism."

"I could tolerate that. Hugh has achieved his rank on his own, without any help or involvement from me, and he's on the verge now of becoming a warship captain. He's on the latest promotion list."

"Congratulations, Hugh," Quinton said as Billy and Christa expressed congratulations as well.

"Thank you. It's just a matter now of reaching a point in the line where a destroyer is available. I was hoping to get a command in Region Two so I'd be closer to Jenetta, but now I don't know what to hope for."

"See what you're doing by being so indecisive?" Quinton said to Jenetta. "You're keeping everyone hanging. You don't know if you want the fifth star. You don't know if you want to get married. You probably don't even know if you want children."

"Daddy!"

"Okay, that last one was unfair," he said as the others chuckled. "Your mother put that in my head."

"Speaking for myself, sir, I've been wanting to start a family for years."

"Hugh!"

"Well, it's true, honey. You never seemed to want to talk about it whenever I've tried to bring it up."

"Is that what's really behind your LOA?" Quinton put to Jenetta. "You want to have children but you don't want to be in Region Two while your husband and most of your family is in Region One?"

Jenetta didn't answer right away.

"It is, isn't it?"

"It's been a— consideration. I didn't think it would be fair to our baby to have only one parent and no other family nearby, especially if that one parent was always running off to distant parts of GA space to fight invaders from outside our space or put down insurrections by nations such as the Uthlaro or the Tsgardi."

"From what I hear, you've pretty much pulled the teeth from both those groups. When you created a Region Two Territorial Guard from the former Milori military, I was afraid you had made a serious miscalculation, but so far they seem to be loyal to the Galactic Alliance."

"The military strength added to our forces at the Battle of Quesann by the Milori enabled us to defeat the Uthlaro armada with minimal losses on our side. Everything I've seen since then tells me the people of Milor are happy to be part of the GA, and their leaders have no desire to renew the decades of conflict they suffered through under Maxxiloth. Still, there always seems to be a new group waiting in the wings, just itching for a crack at the grand prize. I've begun to wonder if it will ever end."

"No, it won't," Quinton said. "Not ever. It never has in recorded history and never will. There will always be a new threat from an unexpected enemy who wants to kill us or enslave us and our people simply because some despot wants power or wealth. We must remain vigilant and be prepared to take them on whenever and wherever they come at us. We are the final, stalwart line of defense between them and our nations, our people, and our families."

"That's such a depressing thought. To think there will never be a time of peace where someone isn't threatening to destroy us."

"With every victory against enemy forces, we improve the chances for peace. But we can never let down our guard and allow the enemy to see any sign of weakness. Because if they see weakness, the will come at us again, believing they can now destroy us while we're weak. After the first world war on Earth, everyone except the military believed it had been the war to end all wars, and the politicians began disbanding the military as soon as it was over. Two decades later, a new world threat appeared and the militaries of those nations who only longed for peace weren't strong enough or trained well enough to properly defend against the initial attacks. There were terrible losses, and the enemy took an enormous amount of territory until the peaceful nations managed to rebuild their fighting effectiveness. Then it happened yet again two decades later in southeast Asia. The politicians— the same ones who made it impossible for the military to do what was necessary to win that war— immediately cut the legs out from under the military when a truce was signed. Two decades later, the military wasn't prepared when the next conflict arose. You'd think they'd have finally learned their lesson after that, but after the next conflict they did it once again. Most politicians never seemed to learn that if you want peace, you must always be prepared for war. President Theodore Roosevelt, a former military man, once said something like, 'Speak softly but carry a big stick.' I'm thankful the Galactic Alliance is a bit more aware of the dangers than Earth's leaders. Yes, it is depressing, Jen, but the only other option is to surrender and die."

"Okay, enough of the surrender and die talk, Dad," Billy said. "This is supposed to be a holiday celebration. It's Christmas, so let's all have a cup of eggnog, spiked slightly if you prefer, and relax. Jen, you told us you were going to take us on a tour of this magnificent home of yours."

"Of ours, Billy. This is the Family Carver Estate. There's always space for you, Regina, Arturo and the rest of the family. It's not like we're likely to run out of rooms. The cleaning bots spend most of their time maintaining the cleanliness of rooms that have never once been occupied. Come on, I'll show you a couple of hundred bedrooms that have never been slept in, then the rest of the palace and the grounds."

~     ~     ~

"Well, Ambello," Uthlaro Minister Ulalahu Valhallo said to Minister Neddowo as he gestured towards the images on the large monitor at the front of the Council Chambers, "there's the proof you've been seeking— images of the battle outside of GA space where Space Command destroyed the warships guarding our new space docks. This arrived shortly after the battle, but the transmission was garbled and it took until now for the experts to clean it up sufficiently to be viewable. Are you quite satisfied now? Carver has destroyed all of our hopes for a future fleet of warships, along with the warships the Raiders had contracted with us to build for them. Now we truly don't have a single warship left. Not one decent warship we could use to protect our planet, not that there was ever any chance of opposing Carver if she came back."

"That was an illegal act by Carver," Neddowo screamed as he jumped to his feet. "She had no authority to destroy our private property in unclaimed space."

"Our surrender to the Galactic Alliance was unconditional. One of the conditions that Carver specifically stated was that we never again build warships unless specifically granted permission by Space Command. Did we have permission?"

"You know we didn't."

"Then Space Command was merely enforcing the surrender agreement."

"But the construction was taking place outside GA Space. Space Command has no authority there."

"Our legal people have investigated that assertion. Under Galactic Alliance law, and in the absence of a claim by a sovereign nation for the territory involved, Space Command is free to take whatever steps it deems necessary to enforce provisions of the surrender agreement. Your information was wrong, Ambello."

"Then we'll have to start again at a new location. But this time we'll claim the area of space where the docks will be. And the claim will be made by a newly established sovereign nation. Space Command will not dare commence war attacks in a new nation's territory."

"And how do you propose to fund this new nation and construct the space docks and warships?"

"Why, from the treasury of course."

"Impossible. If there's a trail leading back to us, the claim for sovereign nation status will be invalidated and Space Command will again come and destroy everything."

"Then I request that the government return some of my seized assets so I can leave the planet and establish the new nation as separate and apart from this government."

"Return your assets? Those assets were long ago liquidated to repay the treasury for your poorly conceived plan to seize the GA's Region Two."

"There was nothing 'poorly conceived' about it. The plan was brilliant. Space Command had simply made technology advances beyond those we were aware of, so I hadn't credited Admiral Carver with the ability to defeat us."

"Whatever," Minister Valhallo said. "In any event, there are no funds available in the treasury for another expensive folly on your part."

"Very well. Then I'll go it alone. I still have sources where I can get funding, although I would have preferred to have the government here involved instead of the violent criminal elements to which I will now have to turn. I hereby resign my position on this body. And when the day comes that I destroy Carver, Space Command, and the Galactic Alliance," Neddowo said as he raised his arm to point at the Council leadership, "you shall all bow down to me as your Emperor."












Chapter Twelve

~ December 27th, 2288 ~



The holiday get-together had been wonderful. Everyone had a great time, but it was a time of sadness when Quinton, Billy, and Christa had to return to their ships or posts. Without the barge, the half of the Family Carver that had enjoyed the brief visit couldn't have been there, and Jenetta resolved to send a note of appreciation to Admiral Moore for extending her the courtesy.

"Still sad because they had to leave so soon?" Hugh asked her as they sat down to breakfast.

"Of course, but it was wonderful for the short time it lasted. "What about your family, Hugh? Have you seen them recently?"

"Not in over two decades. My folks have moved down to the land I bought on Pelomious and built a nice little house there after selling their home on Earth. Dad likes it because it's so much like the area west of Wichita where he grew up, but Mom is always complaining that the neighbors are so far away they never see anyone unless they go shopping. She says the fact that the cost of living there is a tenth what it was on Earth is the only thing that keeps her there. I think they're slowly getting used to it. We exchange vidMails about once a month."

"What about your sister?"

"I have no idea where she is. The last time I heard from her she was headed for Kethewit."

"Kethewit? Whatever for?"

"The love of her life— that particular month— was headed there for a job."

"And you haven't heard from her since?"

"Nope. I don't even know where to send a vidMail. My folks haven't heard from her either."

"That's sad."

"Yeah. Well, my family was never close like yours. I was surprised when my folks agreed to move to the ranch on Pelomious, but I guess they couldn't resist the attraction of the lower cost of living. It had gotten so expensive to live on Earth that most everyone who could afford to leave had left. And with every family that left it got worse because there were fewer people with assets the governments could grab as taxes, so they either had to keep raising the rates or become more creative as she searched for new ways to impose taxes. My folks got out just before the Unified Earth Governments Coalition agreed to seize all assets of anyone leaving the planet permanently, which gives them ownership of everything those who are leaving previously owned. You can still leave, but only with the clothes on your back. Back in the twenty-first century, authors and movie makers had a field day creating stories about a dystopian future resulting from global war, worldwide weather disasters, or pandemics. They largely ignored political corruption and taxation as the culprits that would eventually destroy life on Earth. The governments there keep saying unemployment is just three percent, but they never tell you that seventy-eight percent of the world's population doesn't work anymore and gets a check every month from governments literally drowning in debt. Don't your folks still own a house there?"

"Not anymore. Once Mom got comfortable here, she put it up for sale. It sold in a week because of its location inside the special housing section next to the base. Marisa and Richard sold their house on Earth as well. There was no sense paying the outrageous taxes and maintenance while Marisa and Berl were living here and Richie was on the San Francisco. And Regina and Billy sold their house as well."

"That's great. Your family got out just in time, as mine did. So I guess you're going to be stuck with the whole gang."

"I wouldn't call it stuck. I love it."

"I was only kidding."

"I know—," she said, holding up the breakfast muffin she was buttering, "or I would have thrown this at you." With a giggle she added, "I still might, simply for saying such a thing."

"Honey, I love you, and I love spending time in the palace with you, but I'm beginning to feel like I'm in a ship. What say we go out for a ride around the countryside. I haven't seen any part of this planet except for the area immediately around the palace."

"Okay. I've been wanting to do that also, but we've been having so much fun in our bedroom."

"We still have two and half months for bedroom fun. Besides, I need a day off. My back is beginning to ache a little."

"Let's take an oh-gee car and cruise around the farms and towns in this part of the estate. I've wanted to see if the newcomers are settling in okay."

"What time?"

"As soon as you're ready."

"Then let's take a shower and go."

~

Two hours later Jenetta, with Hugh, Thor, and Nicky, were cruising at treetop level above the farms. It was December 27th on Earth and winter in the USNA, but it was late spring on the Carver Estate on Obotymot. Before Hugh arrived on Obotymot, Jenetta had the palace dressmaker make a number of shirts and several pairs of slacks for him, anticipating that they would tour the farm. She didn't know if he had any civvies that weren't twenty years out of style. He was wearing one of the new outfits today.

Jenetta's first stop was a farm where she had once interceded between her chamberlain and the tenant to help the farmer get his fair share of fertilizer. As she set the vehicle down, the farmer and his son came running from the field where they were working. As they got close to the oh-gee car, both he and his son dropped to one knee and bowed their heads.

"Please raise your heads and stand up," Jenetta said as she stepped from the car. As they rose, she said, "How have you been doing? It looks like you're growing a fine crop this year."

"Yes, Azula Carver. The weather has been good to us this spring and we've had a number of excellent growing seasons since you helped us get the fertilizer we needed."

"Your son is getting big," she said with a smile.

"He's a strong, healthy boy," the man said, laying a hand on the boy's shoulder. "And I have two more sons now. Once we knew the farm could support us, my wife and I decided to have more children. One boy is two years of age and the other is six months. In a few years they'll be able to help us work the farm."

"Is there anything you need?"

"As long as God continues to bless our crops with sunshine and makes water abundant, we can handle the rest."

"Excellent. I'm delighted to see you prospering."

"Azula Carver, what are the newcomers like?"

"Like you, I suppose. All they want is a chance to grow their crops and raise their families in peace and security. I'm sure they're a little frightened about being in a strange land, but they've vowed to make every effort to blend in with our people and become part of our community. Give them a chance and I'm sure they'll make good neighbors."

"We will, Your Grace."

"Fine. May the sun shine on your crops and the heavens water them with just the right amount of rain."

"Thank you, Your Grace."

"Goodbye."

As the car rose up and moved towards the next farm, Hugh said, "If his attitude is representative of how the people here feel about you, you could get elected queen."

Jenetta chuckled. "They don't elect the queen. And I suppose I'm already as powerful and influential. On Obotymot anyway."

"If we married, would I be the Azulo?"

"No. You would be the Azstat."

"The Azstat? What's that?"

"It's the husband of an Azula who attained his position through marriage. He becomes part of the nobility with the marriage, but he has no real power. The power can only rest with someone born into the nobility. If we married and our firstborn was a son, he would become the Azulo when I stepped down. If the firstborn was a female, she would become the Azula when I stepped down."

"And what if our son, the Azulo, married? What title would his wife have?"

"His wife would be an Azula, but she would not have any power and could not rise to power as a result of his death, except as regent until one of her offspring reached the age required to rule. If she hadn't had any children with the Azulo, then the title would pass to another Carver-born, according to the laws of nobility succession."

"Okay, I think I understand now. So when do we get married?"

"What makes you think I'd marry a commoner?"

"Who's a commoner? I'm a Space Command senior officer and soon to be, I hope, a warship captain."

"Well, I suppose that does make a bit of a difference."

"Stop teasing me and answer the question."

"Well, definitely not this year."

"Okay. The new year starts in five days. I can wait."

~

New Year's Day, as celebrated on Earth, came and went without Jenetta making a commitment to marry Hugh. He knew she wanted to but couldn't understand why she was holding back.

As the days passed, Cayla and Tayna were showing more and more. Jenetta had two birthing boxes made for the Jumakas from oversized shipping cartons. They were simply sturdy boxes of a man-made material with a single opening that would give almost complete privacy to the mothers-to-be. After adaptation as birthing boxes, they were situated in a shaded area of the large garden behind the palace and placed in fairly close proximity to one another with their single opening facing the other box. The arrangement offered the maximum in privacy for the expectant mothers because the area was off limits to everyone except the gardeners, who knew they were to stay away from a box once the Jumaka moved in.

Wilkerson had been allowed to set up a wireless infrared camera in each of the cartons and had then been restricted from further access. Jenetta had confirmed that the cameras had a fixed focus and could not pan or zoom; therefore, they made no noise and there was no movement. They were so tiny that no one would even realize they were there without advance notice. Wilkerson had also tweaked the translator device so that the Jumakas could turn it off or on at will by a simple spoken command, much as Space Command officers terminated the carrier following communications. It gave the Jumakas a bit of privacy not available when the units were active all the time.

As the time approached for the births, the soft grasses in the birthing boxes were replaced with fresh grass every day.

Jenetta was sitting out by the pool with Hugh when she heard Cayla say, "Jeneeta. Much pain. My time."

Jenetta hurried out to the rear garden, but Cayla was nowhere in sight, so Jenetta hurried to Wilkerson's cargo container. As she reached his lab, she found him staring at a monitor."

"Come in, Your Grace. Cayla just arrived in her birthing box a few minutes ago."

"Does she look okay?"

"No one has ever recorded a Jumaka birth, so I can't be sure, but based on my knowledge of Terran animals, I believe so. So far her appearance and actions are similar to those of large Earth cats preparing to give birth."

"That sounds positive. I'm surprised Tayna isn't there."

"From everything we've seen and heard, the birth process seems to be a highly private time for Jumaka females."

Jenetta and Wilkerson watched as Cayla squirmed and stretched on the bed of grasses. They could see her body's contractions and hear mewling sounds as pain washed over her.

Finally, they saw one tiny ball of wet fur in an amniotic sac begin to slide from Cayla's body. They could see her pushing to help the baby get clear.

"The baby appears to be coming out feet first," Jenetta said. "Is that bad?"

"That's not unusual. Terran kittens come out either way. They're not like human babies that must come head first."

Cayla immediately began licking the tiny fur ball as it cleared her body. Another appeared, got halfway out, then appeared to stop. The Jumaka twisted to help the delivery and then began licking the second fur ball as it cleared her body. A minute later they saw a third. Each of the fur balls were moving energetically by now. That was always a good sign. It was two more minutes before they saw a fourth kitten, and by the time the fourth was out, the first was already sucking down it's breakfast.

"She looks okay," Jenetta said. "They all look okay."

"Yes, it appears to have been a good delivery. Mother and babies appear fine."

~

Cayla didn't leave the birthing box for two days. By then the kittens, which had seemed to spend most of their days suckling, were okay to be left alone while Momma went to get some food for herself.

As soon as Cayla, now looking slim again, had eaten her fill, she returned to her litter.

Jenetta had shared the images recorded by Mr. Wilkerson first with the family and then with the staff. Arturo and Berl kept looking at the images and trying to decide which kitten they wanted, but Auntie Jenetta explained that they didn't get to pick a kitten. She told them the kitten had to pick them, and there were no promises that they would even be chosen. But this didn't lessen the enthusiasm of the children for having their own Jumaka.

~

Eight days later, Tayna moved into her birthing box. The gardeners had tread as softly as possible as they replaced the grasses each day in preparation for her delivery, then vacated the area as quickly as possible. They couldn't resist a few glances towards the box where Cayla was caring for her litter, but it was too dark inside the shipping box for them to see anything.

Tayna's delivery was very much like that of Cayla. Once the contractions began, the whole process took less than ten minutes. As with Cayla, Tayna's litter consisted of four babies. The Jumaka population on Obotymot had jumped practically overnight from four to twelve. The cameras in the birthing boxes revealed that the mothers and babies were healthy.

~

Jenetta and Hugh had continued their sightseeing tours of the estate and their contact with farmers, merchants, and newcomers. Since the first excursion, they had gone out almost every other day, except for the time when Cayla and Tayna were delivering their litters. Jenetta was pleased to see that the newcomers were making an effort to fit in with their new neighbors, and their neighbors were helping the newcomers every way they could with information about the growing seasons and advice about planting and harvesting crops on Obotymot.

Roughly three thousand refugees had chosen to remain on Obotymot, representing almost six hundred new farm families. This went a long way towards replacing the farm families that had moved to Nordakia after the meteor strike and not returned when the planet was again viable for crop production.

"I can't get over how enormous your property is," Hugh commented after they had reached the lake at the northern part of the peninsula and he had set the car down where they'd have some shade for their picnic. They were very close to where the Clidepp refugee ships had first set down. "I thought my ranch on Pelomious was big, but this estate makes it seem like one of the small farms here."

"The king and queen were very generous," Jenetta said as she spread a blanket for their picnic. "I couldn't quite believe it when I learned how large the estate was. Of course, back then the land was practically worthless because everything on the planet was dying. But I knew that one day it would be healthy and vibrant again, and now it is."

"I've only got a few more weeks before I have to return to the Bonn. I'm going to miss this place, and I'm especially going to miss you. Our time together has been wonderful."

"I'm going to miss you, too. This has been the most wonderful time I've had in many years. I've even been able to mostly forget all those years of loneliness when we were apart."

"The question is, are we simply going to return to those years of loneliness?"

Jenetta took a deep breath and released it slowly. "There's something I've never told you. In fact, I've never told anyone. Except for Christa and Eliza. And I only told them because they share the same secret."

Hugh's expression turned to concern. "What is it, babe?"

"This isn't going to be easy to hear or understand. And you can never repeat this to anyone. And I mean anyone."

"This sounds serious. What is it? I promise I'll never say a word to anyone."

"You know about the experiments the Raiders performed on me when I was their prisoner."

"Yes, of course. That's not the secret is it?"

"It's related to that. Although many people know I won't age until I'm near the end of my life, I've never told anyone how long the Raider Commandant said I'd live."

"Are you telling me you're beginning to age? Because I can't see any change."

"No, that's not it. And I really don't know if there's even any truth to what I was told."

"What is it? Tell me."

"Mikel Arneu said I would live to be at least three thousand, and possibly five."

"Five thousand years?"

"Yes. But I have no proof of that. I only have his statement that I would."

Hugh stared at Jenetta for a few seconds before saying, "Do you think it's true?"

"I— don't know. I only know that I look almost the same age now as when I graduated from the Academy. There's a slight change from the eleven years I spent in stasis after the Hokyuu exploded because you continue to age, although very slowly, while in stasis."

"My God, when I'm old, gray and feeble, you'll still look like you do now."

"If Arneu was right, I'm doomed to watch all of the people I love age and pass away for millennia while I continue to look as I do now."

"What do the Space Command doctors say?"

"I've never told them. I was afraid I'd become a lab rat, subject to eternal experimentation."

Hugh nodded. "I think you've reached a career position now where they couldn't do that. No one is going to tell the Admiral of the Fleet she has to become a pincushion."

"No, but there's always Christa and Eliza."

"The Admiral of the Fleet could protect them as well."

"And there's one more thing you need to know."

"Lay it on me. Tell me everything."

"I don't know if I can have children. The Raiders might have made me sterile. They expected to make me a whore at one of their kinky sex palaces. My body didn't look exactly like this before they started on me. I was quite a bit shorter, for one thing."

"I know. I've seen your pictures from the Academy. I want to have children, but mostly I want you, babe. We can figure something out about children later. You don't even know, you said, if you can have kids or not. Maybe there's nothing wrong with your reproductive organs."

"And that brings up another issue."

"Another secret?"

"No, just a sort of— observation or speculation. If I can have children, will they inherit my 'never aging' trait? Can you imagine a baby that's a baby forever? That never grows up?"

"That— could be a problem. But we'll never know the answer to any of these questions unless we make a baby. If you don't want to tell the doctors and the scientists, we'll have to take action on our own. So— will you marry me?"












Chapter Thirteen

~ March 5th, 2289 ~



"Commander," the message from her aide said as it appeared on Christa's com monitor, "the intelligence section just picked up a broadcast from the capital. An explosion has rocked the headquarters of the planetary government. There are definitely casualties, but so far they've released no names or numbers."

Christa immediately called the SCI office. When someone picked up, she said, "This is Commander Carver. I want everything you know about the explosion at the planetary headquarters building."

"This is Lieutenant Dodgeworth, ma'am. So far, we only have what information is coming from the media broadcasts. The explosion seemed to be centered on the eighteenth floor, but damage extends from the fourteenth to the twenty-fifth. The president and her cabinet were meeting in their twenty-first floor conference center today. It's too early to say what the cause of the explosion was. We've heard that fire suppression systems on most of the floors are operating and have kept the fires from spreading. Firefighting crews began arriving on the scene a couple of minutes ago and have begun efforts to fully extinguish all fires. Oh-gee rescue trucks are standing by at rooftop level. After dropping off rescue personnel, they've begun taking victims aboard and transporting them to the nearest hospitals. That's all we have, ma'am. We've called the emergency operations center, but all lines are busy and we can't get through."

"Thank you, Dodgeworth. Keep me informed as you get any new information."

Christa rose from her chair and began pacing around the office. As commander of the GA forces on Dakistee, she had significant resources she could send in to assist, but the planetary government had to formally request their help first. Without such a request, they could only stand by and watch. And most of the people who had the authority to request the assistance worked in the building where the explosion occurred.

"An explosion while the cabinet meeting was in session," Christa said aloud to herself. "It could be a coincidence, but it could also be an attempt by someone to change the power structure in the planetary government."

Christa was too keyed up to return to the reports she'd been reading, so she turned on the large wall monitor and began watching the live media broadcasts about the explosion. It was pandemonium at the site. Oh-gee fire trucks were hovering around the building, shooting fire suppressant into the building through holes in the building's exterior. The damage was incredible. On the side of the building currently being filmed by oh-gee cameras, there was nothing left of the building's exterior surface on six of the floors. Broken office furniture could be seen on the exposed floors and what appeared to be bodies. As she watched, rescue personnel entered the area from the building's core and began trying to help people who had been caught in the blast. Most were already beyond help because this area had taken the brunt of the explosion. Those who hadn't died from the explosive force had died horribly from the intense flames because they'd been too injured to get away on their own.

Christa continued to watch until the rescue effort was called off. Everyone who could be rescued had been. From that point it was a recovery effort as bodies were carried out and stacked like so much cordwood in oh-gee trucks on the rooftop. The early numbers being reported by the media ranged from one hundred dead and a thousand injured to five hundred dead and three thousand injured. Most of the injured hadn't been anywhere near the explosion but had suffered from smoke inhalation on the upper floors of the sixty-eight story building or been injured when debris rained down upon them as they walked at street level.

The planetary government emergency operations center never requested assistance from Space Command, so Christa wasn't able to send anyone. She finally turned off the broadcasts and returned to the reports she had been reviewing.

~     ~     ~

As the family was having breakfast, Cayla suddenly entered the family dining room. She was carrying one of her kittens by the scruff of its neck. She walked to Jenetta and placed the kitten in her lap, then said, "Jeneeta, need box."

"Is everything okay?" Jenetta said to Cayla as she picked up the tiny Jumaka cub and looked at it. "Is there something wrong with your baby?" As she held up the kitten, it began mewling.

"No. Just need pen babies can't climb out of."

"For use in the garden?"

"No. In house. Done with garden."

"Okay, I'll get you something."

"Will get next baby."

Jenetta handed the cub to Hugh and hurried to the kitchen while Cayla went back to the garden. One of the kitchen staff understood exactly what was needed and rushed to a storeroom, returning with an enormous, plastic-like food storage bin with sides that rose half a meter. The bin dimensions were about two meters square. Cayla would have no trouble jumping in and out, but the cubs would be unable to get out on their own until they grew larger. Jenetta asked one of the kitchen staff to get a couple of blankets to use as padding in the bottom of the bin.

By the time Jenetta returned to the family dining room, Cayla had returned with another cub and then left again. Annette was holding the second cub, while Arturo and Berl stood on either side of her, gently petting the baby Jumaka. In the three weeks since their birth, the cubs had already grown five times their original chicken-egg size. Jenetta would have expected the cubs to be squirming around, but they were content to lie quietly in the laps of Hugh and Annette as they were petted.

By the time Cayla returned with the third cub, the blankets had arrived and been spread out in the former food bin. Instead of putting the cub in the bin, Cayla gently set it in Jenetta's lap. Without a word, she turned and hurried back to the garden.

Jenetta was delighted to finally see the cubs up close. The one Cayla had left with her on the most recent trip was a male, with steel-blue fur and deep blue eyes like his daddy. His underbelly was dotted with centimeter-wide white spots.

When Cayla returned, she brought the last of the cubs to Jenetta and placed the cub on Jenetta's lap, then laid down next to her chair. She appeared exhausted, so the cubs must have been taxing her ability to feed them and keep up with them if they were getting out of the garden box.

The latest one brought to Jenetta was a female, as black as Cayla, with bright yellow eyes. It also had white spots on its belly. Jenetta wondered aloud if all the cubs had the white spots. When Hugh and Annette checked, they confirmed the cub they were holding had the spots. Both were females, with one having black fur and yellow eyes like her mama and the other having dark green fur with ruby red eyes.

"All babies have white spots for two moons, then start to fade," Cayla said, tiredly.

"Cayla, are you okay?" Jenetta asked. She was the only one able to talk with the Jumaka. The range extender she always wore now had not been synced with Hugh's CT, and no one else had a CT or ID since they were not members of Space Command.

"Very tired," Cayla said.

"If you want to take a nap, go ahead. We'll watch your babies for you."

"Yes, sleep."

~

When Cayla awoke, the room was empty. She excitedly rushed to the bin and saw it was also empty. Hearing voices nearby, she ran to the sitting room next door. The family was in there, holding and petting the cubs.

"Cayla," Jenetta said, "do you feel better?"

The Jumaka padded into the room and over to Jenetta, who was holding the male cub.

"Feel more rested."

"Good. Have you named your babies yet?"

"Want you to name them, Jeneeta, so have names you can say."

"Okay, if that's what you want. We've been talking about what we'd name them if it was up to us. I think this one could be Orlando. He reminds me of a boy I knew in school when I was young because his fur reminds of that boy's hair color."

"Or-lan-doe. Strong name."

"My mom suggested the one she's holding that looks just like you and Tayna could be Cheri."

"Cher-ee."

"Regina thinks the other baby that looks like you could be Kera."

"Ker-ah."

"And Hugh thinks the one with the dark green fur could be Ruby."

"Ru-bee."

"Of course, if you want different names we'll help you select something else."

"No. Names good. Or-lan-doe, Cher-ee, Ker-ah, and Ru-bee."

Cayla continued to rest while the family watched over her young for the rest of day. Expecting that Tayna would also need a pen for her cubs, Jenetta had the staff fix up a second box and bring both to the family sitting room so the Jumakas wouldn't be disturbed during meal times.

Just before dinner, Jenetta walked to her office and composed a vidMail to be sent to all of the absent Carvers.

"Hi, gang, meet Orlando." She held the cub up so the camera could get a good view. "He's one of Cayla's cubs. The other three are named Cheri, Kera, and Ruby. All of them are healthy and just as cute as this little guy, who's about three weeks old now. Cayla wanted privacy for birthing and the first few weeks, so today is the first day we've gotten to hold them. Their mama is a bit worn out right now, but she seems fine. Tayna also had four cubs, but her delivery was later than Cayla's, so she's still staying alone with her brood out in the garden. Perhaps she'll bring them into the house in a week or so, and then we'll learn their sexes and give them names.

"Cayla says— oh that's right, some of you may not know that we can communicate with the Jumakas now. Years ago I retained a wildlife expert who has devoted his life to studying the animals on Taurentlus-Thur to see if he could interpret the sounds they make when they speak to each other. I really didn't expect too much, but I had to try. His results have far exceeded anything I could have hoped for. When Thor joined the family, we learned that they actually do communicate in a spoken language, although it just sounds like growls to us. Mr. Wilkerson developed a translator based on the one we use for alien translations and designed a throat mic like those once used by astronauts and undersea divers. After much work and with great cooperation from the Jumakas, he's come up with a basic dictionary and uploaded that to the translation device. He continues to tweak it, but we can now have conversations with the four Jumakas. I've learned so much about them. And I know now that they are definitely sentient beings in every sense of the word and by every definition used by the Galactic Alliance to determine the freedoms accorded to aliens.

"Time to go. I'll send more soon. I love all of you guys."

Jenetta pulled up her file of addresses and added them to the header so everyone would get a copy of the message.

~     ~     ~

"Christa, thank you for coming," Madu said from her hospital bed after ordering her security detail to turn off the room's cameras and microphones during Christa's visit and shooing them from the room.

"Not at all, Madu. I'm relieved to see you looking so well."

"Thank you. I've been told that my vice-president and my entire cabinet of ministers didn't survive. I was very fortunate. For the past two weeks I've had a urinary infection that keeps me running to the bathroom all day. The restrooms in the government building are all located in the core, near the elevators. It's the strongest part of the building and suffered the least damage. I had just gone to the restroom when the explosion occurred."

"It was an unfortunate accident."

"It was no accident," Madu practically spit out. "The official explanation is that a steam pipe fractured, but we know it was a bomb. We have video footage of an unknown person entering the building with a package the day before and leaving a short time later without the package. We haven't identified him yet, but we will."

"I suspected it wasn't an accident. Pretty dumb of somebody to pull something like that. It's possible to assassinate a single leader and perhaps make it look like an accident, but the entire executive branch of a planetary government with a bomb? Perhaps I can help. SCI is the best security and intelligence organization in the galaxy, after all."

"I was hoping you'd offer. I was afraid you might not after my being so stupid."

Christa didn't respond to Madu's statement. If Madu wanted her to know the details, she'd tell her.

"I have a confession to make. When I agreed to meet with the representatives of TGP, I was aware they reputedly had ties to the Raiders. And I'm sure they were behind the bombing."

"What makes you so sure it was TGP? Did they threaten you?"

"No, not exactly. Oh, Christa, I was such a fool. TGP promised me they could cure our sterility problem, and I fell for their promises. I signed an agreement with them to turn over the cloning and Dakinium manufacturing plans in exchange for the cure. They said they were the only ones in the galaxy who could possibly cure our problem, and if they failed, I would owe them nothing."

"And have you turned over the plans?"

"No. I haven't given them a thing. The agreement stated that there would be no transfer of information until the formula was proven to work. And they haven't given us anything yet— but they've begun pressuring me to give them our early research, saying they must have it before they'll give me anything."

"So terminate your agreement."

"I tried. They've threatened to make the agreement public. Christa, I would gladly give my life for a cure to our problem. I was even willing to make a deal with the devil."

"Since Dakistee hasn't been officially accepted as a member planet by the GA Senate yet, you can't be charged with conspiracy to commit sedition, but there's no exemption from sedition charges if you actually do give them the files they want. Although Dakistee is not a member planet, it has been granted special permission to trade with member planets. Usually, non-member planets are restricted from trading with member planets. But— with those privileges, comes responsibility. Uh, you do realize TGP would never make that written agreement public, don't you?"

"No. They said they would."

"If they did, they could be charged with conspiracy to commit sedition. They certainly don't have any exemption. In fact, if you sign a confession outlining your actions and provide a copy of the agreement, we can arrest everyone involved at TGP. Perhaps the bomb was an attempt to eliminate everyone who knew about the agreement before it could be made public."

"So I guess they figured they could kill me and my people and seal the secret forever, or perhaps they merely hoped our replacements would be more pliant. Or both."

"Madu, I was never in your office and never warned you about a possible connection between the TGP and the Raiders."

"Don't worry, Christa. I'll never tell a soul you tried to save me from myself. If anyone asks, you didn't come to my office that day."

"That's not what I'm saying. I really never was in your office that day."

"I don't understand. Don't worry, I won't betray you."

"The person you thought was me was actually my sister Jenetta— Admiral Jenetta Alicia Carver."

"Jenetta?"

"Yes, she wanted an opportunity to personally gauge your involvement with the TGP and the Raiders. I'm sorry for the twin switch."

"But how? I hadn't even heard she was on the planet. And where were the Jumakas that are always by her side?"

"Jenetta arrived in an SC warship and summoned me to come up and meet with her. She told me what she wanted to do, and we changed uniforms. Then she came down to the planet and went to visit you. Afterwards she returned to the warship and we exchanged uniforms again. She briefed me on everything that was said in your office so I'd be prepared if anything came up. An hour later I was down on the planet and the destroyer was on its way back to Obotymot. The Jumakas were left on Obotymot because they would have been a dead giveaway of her identity."

"Then Space Command did actually know?"

"Of course we knew. We knew everything. And if we learned that you had turned over the documents they wanted, I would have been ordered to arrest you for sedition. I certainly didn't want to. On Jenetta's orders, I was to pretend I had actually been the one who visited you, so I told an SCI officer who came to visit me everything Jenetta related to me about the visit. And I was then soundly criticized by the SCI officer for what Jenetta said to you. You're my friend and I didn't want to deceive you and certainly didn't want to arrest you, but I didn't want to see even early research information make its way into the hands of the Raiders."

"I was a fool, Christa, but I would have done anything, and I mean anything, anything, anything, for a cure."

"I understand your reasons, but I don't agree with your actions. What now?"

"Now we start over. I have to put together a new cabinet of ministers and get a new vice-president."

"And what of TGP?"

"They will be forbidden from ever doing business on Dakistee."

"And what will you use as a public justification for that ban? You can't tell the truth unless you give us a confession and a copy of the agreement."

"I'll find a reason. I can't give you a confession at this time. But I'll save the agreement and give it to you at a later time."

"Destroying TGP won't make a difference, you understand. The Raiders have an entire legion of so-called legitimate organizations that they hide behind while they do business. But it will be another thorn in the side of the Raiders and perhaps slow their activities for a while."

"What do you think I should do about their attempt to assassinate me and my people?"

"Continue to insist that the explosion was really an accident and send us the video footage of the suspect. SCI will learn who he is. Cut off all contact with TGP and send them an official letter stating that any and all previous arrangements and agreements with the Dakistee government are now null and void."

"They might try to kill me again."

"Not if they're smart. Your letter, on your official stationery, will make them understand that the government on Dakistee will no longer do business with them. They'll believe you know the explosion wasn't an accident, and they'll have to believe that your intelligence service will be watching them closely from now on. I'm willing to bet you'll never see your TGP contact again. The Raiders have a very low tolerance for failure and stupidity."

"And you believe the Raiders will just go away and forget it?"

"I'm not naďve, Madu, and I know you're not either. The Raiders want the cloning and Dakinium research and aren't going anywhere. I think their next move will be an attempt to get control of the government here by supporting candidates who will do their bidding, just as the large corporations, bankers, and unions on Earth have done for centuries using contributions to political action committees and payoffs laundered through a support networks of lobbyists, media companies, and bought-and-paid-for hacks."

~     ~     ~

"By now I'm sure you're all aware of the explosion on Dakistee that killed most of the executive branch of its government," Chairwoman Gladsworth said to the assembled members of the Upper Council. "The government there is still calling it an accident, but I've learned that the acting chairperson of the Lower Council, Neil Soroman, orchestrated it."

"Good God! The fool," one of the council members mumbled.

"Exactly. That was his solution to our directive that he find a way to make them deal. He kills them. It's going to be tougher than ever to get the cloning and Dakinium documents now. People will be frightened to death even to talk to our representatives. Oh, how I miss Arthur Strauss. Arthur would have had them queuing up to cooperate."

"Speaking of Arthur," Councilwoman Overgaard said, "we've found Mikel Arneu on Pelomious. He has a new female identity now and is going by the name Aliana Shanara. Our security people have taken him, or rather her, into custody."

"Positive ID?"

"The Aliana Shanara ID is one of the identities we found in the lab where Nicole Ravenau had her people create dozens of new identities before Ravenau destroyed the lab and killed them all. All of Ravenau's, aka Arneu's, programmed images were given to our people to compare with anyone they suspected. Yes, the ID is positive."

"I want her brought here."

"They're on their way in one of our fastest ships. Since we haven't been able to manufacture or amass sufficient Dakinium to sheath a ship, we don't have the speeds available to Space Command. They won't arrive here for another month or more."

"Good work, Councilwoman. I wish Soroman had a tenth your ability. So, everyone, what are we going to do with our fool of an acting Lower Council chairman?"

~     ~     ~

Neil Soroman took another gulp and drained the glass of Kentucky Bourbon. It had been a long day, but he had dinner reservations and tickets to a new show, so he had to hurry home, change, and pick up the woman he had reserved for the evening. He had been reveling in the news of the explosion on Dakistee since it first came over the news. It gave him such a rush knowing he had the power of life and death over the little people— even the little people who aspired to play in the big leagues. The final death toll had been staggering, and he giggled like a schoolgirl every time he thought about it.

As he stepped out of his office, he realized his bodyguards were not at their posts. He pulled out his com device but couldn't get an activation signal, so he stuffed it back into his pocket. He was getting angrier by the second and was really going to ream them a new hole when he saw them. They were probably down in the lobby, shooting the bull with the other morons the company owned.

As he reached the elevator bay, he realized there was no one else around either. The secretary who greeted visitors was nowhere to be seen.

"What is this?" he growled. "I'm going to sack the entire lot of them."

Soroman stepped into an open elevator and pressed the button for the lobby. But the elevator, which was supposed to stop only at the lobby and the top floor executive suite, dropped just three floors before stopping. As the elevator doors opened, four very large men with grim expressions on their faces entered the elevator. Soroman backed up until his back was against the rear wall. Instead of turning around to face front, as people always do, the four men continued to stare at Soroman as the car descended. Fear was etched into Soroman's face.

Soroman never made it home, never picked up the hooker he had already paid for, never made it to the restaurant or the theatre, and was never seen again. No exhaustive search for Soroman would be made, as there had been for Arthur Strauss. The Upper Council already knew where he was— or rather where he had been just before the giant machines began grinding up his body for pet food.












Chapter Fourteen

~ March 21st, 2289 ~



Hugh had only been gone a day, and Jenetta was miserable already. For three months they had lived like newlyweds, sans the big wedding, and life had been wonderful.

Jenetta was still staring at her untouched breakfast when her Mother arrived in the family dining room. Annette recognized the look immediately, so she walked behind her daughter and placed her hands on Jenetta's shoulders.

"I felt the same way every time your father returned to his ship because I knew it would be a year or more before I would hold him— and be held by him— again. Thank heavens for vidMail. It's helped keep me sane."

"That's all we've had for the twelve and a half years before this leave."

"You'll be okay in a few days, dear. The mood fades quickly when you're busy, and you're always busy. I was always busy as well, because I had your four brothers and you to take care of. You five kept me running. Well, look who's here."

Jenetta looked up and saw Tayna walking towards them with one of her cubs dangling from her mouth. She came directly to Jenetta and deposited the cub on Jenetta's lap. Without a word, she turned and raced out the door.

"I guess Tayna's ready to move back into the house," Annette said.

Twenty minutes later, all four cubs had been brought from the garden birthing box to the dining room. When Tayna brought the last cub, she put it on Jenetta's lap, then sat down. Cayla heard the commotion in the next room and came from the sitting room to welcome Tayna back. After a minute of mewling and low growls with Cayla, Tayna activated her microphone.

"Jeneeta, you name babies. Like with Cayla babies."

"Of course, Tayna. The family has been discussing possible names."

Lifting one of the four squirming cubs on her lap, she checked it's sex. It was male, with dark brown fur and deep green eyes like his father, Thor.

"How about Jake for this little fellow?"

Tayna nodded and said, "Jake."

Jenetta handed Jake to Annette and picked up another cub. It was another male, but unlike Jake's coloration, he had black fur and yellow eyes like his mother.

"How about Alex?"

Tayna said, "Al-ex," and nodded.

After handing Alex to Annette, Jenetta picked up the third of the cubs Tayna had put onto her lap. It was a female with light grey fur and yellow eyes.

"I think I like Autumn for this little girl. What do you think, Tayna?"

Tayna nodded and said, "Aw-tum."

The last cub to be named was another female. This cub also had light grey fur, but her eyes were green.

"I think this little girl looks like a Chelsea."

"Chel-see," Tayna said and nodded.

"So we have Jake, Alex, Autumn, and Chelsea," Jenetta said as she placed the last cub next to Autumn on her lap. "All of your babies are beautiful, Tayna, and all look healthy. How are you feeling?"

"Tired. Babies keep me up. Want to be fed all time, or climbing out of box."

"Why don't you find a quiet place to rest. We'll look after your babies while you sleep."

"Good. Need sleep."

Tayna stood up, and padded out of the room in search of a quiet, pleasant place to nap.

A few minutes later, Regina and Marisa arrived for breakfast with Arturo and Berl in tow. As soon as the boys noticed the cubs on Auntie Jenetta and Nonnie Annette's laps they squealed, "More kitties!" and raced to pet them. They had to be reminded to be very gentle because the cubs were only a few weeks old.

Cayla knew her babies couldn't yet climb out of the new box because of its higher sides, so she relaxed in the family dining room until it was time for her breakfast. When she returned, Thor and Nicky were with her. Each of them now had their own microphone collar they could activate or turn off at will. They relaxed on the floor with Cayla while they digested their meals, but in a couple of hours they would probably be racing around the grounds. With unrestricted access to the entire palace and the grounds, they usually spent hours each day racing around outside and inside. They had especially been enjoying use of the swimming pools since arriving on Obotymot. Like the jaguars on Earth, Jumakas loved the water. In the wild it had been an important source of food and they were very adept at swimming.

~     ~     ~

Lt. Commander Eliza Carver stopped running on the track aboard the Ares to take a break, cool down a bit, and get a drink of water. She had been running for over thirty minutes.

As soon as she stopped, three other officers who had been running on the track stopped as well and approached her as a group. One was a lieutenant commander and the others were lieutenants.

"Come on, Christa," Lt. Commander Mandera said. "Just tell us if Admiral Carver is coming back. Everyone is dying to know."

"I honestly don't know what her plans are, guys. I'm not even sure she does. Right now she's relaxing at her estate and enjoying the first real rest she's had in more than two decades. We're Space Command officers, and we go where they tell us and do what they tell us, but Admiral Carver had the entire weight of Region Two and Region Three on her shoulders. She was responsible for all of us, all of the Space Command personnel in these two regions, and all of the inhabitants on all of the occupied planets. I can't even imagine having that kind of responsibility for so long. Let it go, guys. When she's rested and made a decision, we'll all know."

"But you're her sister, you must have some idea what…"

Mandera's words were interrupted when all four of the officers received an emergency message via their CT. Everyone aboard the Ares received the same message. A second later it came over every speaker on the ship, but by then the four officers were already racing down the corridor.

"GQ! GQ! This is not a drill. Secure the ship and proceed to your General Quarters stations."

As a bridge officer, Eliza's GQ station, when not on duty, was the Auxiliary Command and Control Center. She raced there as quickly as her tired legs would take her. She was dressed in perspiration-soaked sweats and needed a shower, but that would have to wait.

As Eliza reached the AC&C, off-duty bridge officers were already crowding into the enormous Center. The large monitor at the front of the room showed a ship at maximum magnification. It appeared to be a derelict freighter.

"Attention, this is the captain. We've come across what appears to be a derelict ship. We're going to circle around it and check space for any other ships. We won't drop our envelope until we sure we're alone out here, but stay alert."

Eliza watched as the Ares circled the derelict ship from the minimum safe distance of twenty-five thousand kilometers. While the tac officer searched space for other vessels, especially hostile ones, the people in engineering were appraising the condition of the derelict.

When the Ares had completed a full three-hundred-sixty-degree circle of the derelict, the captain announced, "We appear to be alone out here with the derelict, but we don't know if anyone aboard her is still alive. Commander Carver, report to the bridge."

All eyes in the room watched Eliza as she stood and hurried to the door. A few minutes later she appeared on the large AC&C monitor as she entered the bridge. Captain Gavin gestured towards his office and she followed him in.

"Eliza, two Marine fire teams are assembling in the shuttle bay. Take them and as many engineers as can be crammed into a shuttle, and visit that hulk. Everybody must be in EVA gear because the ship appears to be full of holes as were the Yenisei and the Salado when they were found. If the holes in this ship were also made by those Denubbewa missiles with the tiny nuke warheads, the interior of the ship may be glowing with radioactivity, so nobody removes their EVA gear until the radiation levels of the area have been determined to be safe."

"Yes, sir."

"We want to confirm her identity and learn anything we can about her last minutes."

"Confirm her identity, sir? Do you believe you know who she was?"

"We think her name was Lina Algocoldo, a Eulosi freighter reported missing a few months ago."

"Eulosi?"

Gavin nodded. "She took ten kilometers of food, wood products, and electronics to Milor and was returning with Milori foodstuffs and unprocessed ore when she went missing. We need to know what happened to her. Remain vigilant at all times. If the Denubbewa suddenly show up, we might not be able to recover you right away. Hide as best you can, and we'll contact you when we're able."

"Yes, sir."

Eliza braced to attention, then turned and hurried out. Her first destination was the EVA preparation room near the shuttle bay. Once she was suited up, she hurried to the shuttle bay. The two Marine fire teams and a second lieutenant were fully suited up except for their helmets. They lined up as soon as Eliza appeared. While Eliza performed a walk-around with the shuttle mechanic, eight engineers in EVA suits arrived.

Eliza nodded to the mechanic as they completed the check and then hurried aboard, signaling to the lieutenant that the Marines and engineers should board.

Eliza was working her way through the checklist when the Marine Second entered the flight deck and dropped into the co-pilot seat.

"Lieutenant Nathan, isn't it?" Eliza said as she finished her checks.

"Yes, ma'am, Commander."

"All buttoned up in back?"

"Yes, ma'am. We're good to go."

Eliza checked to verify the system was showing the hatches as being locked and sealed, then released the skid magnets and raised the shuttle into the air, turning it towards the temporary airlock as it slowly rose half a meter above the deck. A slight touch on the thruster control sent the ship moving towards the hull airlock.

After positioning the shuttle within the airlock markers, Eliza lowered the ship and locked the skids. The operator in the control room began lowering the temporary walls when his systems stated that the shuttle was down and locked.

It took just seconds for the huge motors to remove all the air from the temporary airlock and a few more seconds for the huge hull doors to open.

"Ares shuttle bay operations," Eliza said, "Shuttle-06 ready to depart the Ares."

"Shuttle-06, you're cleared to depart."

Eliza used thrusters to get clear of the Ares, then lit the Sub-Light engines and headed towards what they believed was the Lina Algocoldo.

As the small ship neared the derelict, Eliza flew the shuttle around the freighter vertically, then horizontally. It was a mess. There were numerous holes in the hull. Whoever attacked the freighter wanted to make sure it couldn't get away.

"Ares, this is Shuttle-06, confirming the damage appears to have been made by Denubbewa missiles. The holes in the hull are so numerous it appears doubtful there will be any airtight areas, but we're going to make an attempt to board the freighter now if such action is approved."

Eliza recognized the voice of Captain Gavin when she heard, "Roger, Shuttle-06. You're cleared to proceed. Use extreme caution."

The entire aft section of the freighter, which was always the cargo section, was missing, so there was no maintenance bay segment where the shuttle could dock. Eliza maneuvered the small ship to a position close to an emergency airlock in the main ship before addressing the Marines and engineers in the cabin area.

"This is Commander Carver. We're unable to dock with the freighter, so we'll have to do this the hard way. I want four teams, each consisting of two Marines and two engineers. Lt. Nathan will make the team assignments once you're aboard the freighter. It appears that the freighter was damaged by Denubbewa missiles. We know from bitter experience that their missiles have small nuclear warheads, so we believe there will be radiation aboard the ship. Your EVA suits will protect you from the radiation, so even if you find an airtight area, you will remain fully suited at all times. We need to confirm the identity of the freighter and recover whatever logs we can from her computers if there's any energy left in her power cells. The Ares communications chief is standing by, ready to accept all transmissions.

"We also want to check for any possible survivors, even if there are no airtight areas in the ship. Check all escape pods and stasis beds. It's doubtful anyone in an EVA suit would still be alive, but confirm that as well.

"As the only pilot aboard, I have to remain in the shuttle to hold its position steady. Once Lt. Nathan joins you in the rear cabin, I'll depressurize so we won't have to use the small airlock. Good luck and use extreme caution aboard that ship. We have no idea what you might find.

"Carver, out."

"Okay, Lieutenant," Eliza said to Nathan. "Any questions?"

"No, ma'am. I understand our task."

"Good, then go back into the rear cabin and let me know when everyone has their suits sealed and is ready to disembark."

"Aye, Commander."

Eliza watched via the rear cabin cameras as Nathan went to each Marine or engineer and confirmed that their suit was sealed. He then reported that they were ready for depressurization.

"Roger, Lieutenant. Commencing depressurization." When the air in the cabin had been sucked into a storage tank, Eliza unlocked the hatches. "You're good to go, Lieutenant."

As the Marines and Spaccs exited the shuttle, they tethered themselves to a tow line. Nathan hooked up to the line last and towed everyone the short distance to the ship using the thruster harness he was wearing.

Upon reaching the freighter, everyone activated the magnetic soles on their boots and stood on the freighter until an engineer managed to open the emergency airlock. Two Marines entered first. Then every fifteen seconds another pair entered the ship as the airlock recycled until all were inside. Nathan, being the only one with a thruster harness, was the last one in. He was required to remain outside in case someone lost their connection footing on the freighter and began to drift away.

Eliza could only connect to one helmet cam at a time so she chose the view from Nathan's cam. Aboard the Ares, all seventeen cams were being displayed on the large monitor at once.

The Marines led the way but encountered no resistance or living persons. They did, however, have to step over numerous Eulosi bodies. The group assigned to recover data from the computers made their way to the bridge, and although sensors indicated that the bridge was open to space, the doors were sealed and the Marines had to cut their way through. Once inside, the group found more dead bodies. The ship's power cells still had plenty of power, so one engineer managed to get the interior lights functioning while the other went directly to the security console and began downloading the ships logs and transmitting the data to the Ares.

The search teams scoured the ship looking for any signs of life and found none. But they did find a Denubbewa cyborg. It had been cut almost in half by a laser weapon. An engineer on the team that found it contacted Lt. Nathan, who contacted Eliza.

"Commander, one of the teams has found a dead cyborg. Should we bring it to the shuttle?"

"Are you sure it's dead?"

"They say yes. Half its head is missing."

"Which team, Lieutenant?"

"Designation Foxtrot."

Eliza pulled up the cam images coming from Foxtrot-1. The cyborg certainly appeared to be dead.

The connection to the bridge of the Ares had been open since Eliza entered the shuttle, so she said, "Ares, are you seeing the images from Froxtrot-1?"

"Affirmative, Shuttle-06. Standby."

"Standby, Lieutenant. The Ares will make the decision."

A few minutes later, Eliza heard Captain Gavin say, "Shuttle-06, have the Foxtrot team recover the torso and head only. "

"Message received, Ares. Only torso and head will be recovered."

Eliza relayed the orders to Nathan, who relayed them the Foxtrot team. Eliza watched as an engineer used a laser to remove the arms and legs from the cyborg. As a green liquid began to run from the cut connections, the engineer picked up the unwanted pieces and tossed them aside. The gravity plates on the deck were still functioning or little green globules would have been floating everywhere.

"Torso and head recovered, Commander," Nathan said when the Foxtrot team was finished.

"Carry on, Lieutenant."

By the time the teams were ready to return to the shuttle, they had searched every part of the freighter. They had recovered all the logs and were confident there was no one left alive aboard the ship. They had taken photos of all the dead bodies, along with a small DNA sample from each, but the desiccated conditions of the corpses prevented them from being able to record lip prints, which is how the Eulosi identified individuals on their planet. One engineer suggested they bring back the heads, but the Ares nixed that idea.

With their tasks finished, the teams returned to the shuttle. When all hands were aboard, the hatch was closed and locked. Eliza verified the locked condition and then pressurized the rear cabin.

As the rear cabin reached full pressure, Eliza announced, "Do not remove your helmets. The sensors indicate that your suits have been exposed to radiation. When we reach the Ares in a few minutes, you'll undergo decontamination procedures. Lieutenant, you'll have to remain in the rear cabin so you don't contaminate me or the flight deck."

"Understood, Commander."

It took just minutes to travel the twenty-five thousand kilometers to where the Ares was waiting. After entering the shuttle bay and moving to the assigned parking location, Eliza shut down the systems and remained on the flight deck until all search team members had exited the ship and been scrubbed and cleared. The decontamination team then entered the shuttle and cleaned the rear cabin. When Eliza finally left the small ship, she was checked for radiation and then cleared. She went to the EVA preparation room to remove her suit before going to her quarters. She still smelled of perspiration from her earlier run, so she showered, changed into a clean uniform, and reported to the bridge. She immediately noticed from the view on the front view screen that they were still in close proximity to the derelict freighter. Captain Gavin was in his office, and the door opened to admit her when she stepped in front of it.

"Come in, Eliza. Good job. We've positively identified the ship as the Lina Algocoldo, and I've sent a notification to Space Command, plus a copy of the logs we recovered."

"Are we remaining here by the freighter for a reason, sir?"

"Interestingly, we're almost in the exact center of Region Two. There have never been any reports of Denubbewa sightings or attacks within a thousand light-years of this location. Now we find a freighter that appears to have been attacked by the Denubbewa, and its ten kilometers of cargo is missing. And— we find a Denubbewa corpse aboard the derelict ship. What does that suggest to you?"

Eliza knew he was looking for an answer other than the most obvious one, so she said, "Well, sir, if the attack wasn't perpetrated by the Denubbewa, then it had to have been committed by someone who wanted us to believe it had been committed by the Denubbewa."

"Exactly. And who do you suppose that might point to?"

"Other than the Raiders, I can't think of anyone."

"Neither can I. I seriously doubt the Tsgardi would be able to come up with a complex plan that pointed to another perpetrator. And the Uthlaro fleet was virtually wiped out. It could be a pirate group who got their hands on a destroyed warship and managed to get it operational after Jenetta wiped out the Uthlaro fleet, or even an Uthlaro crew who simply went rogue after their empire was gone. I want to remain here until I hear back from HQ and learn their assessments."

"That could take days, sir, or longer."

"I'm not in a hurry to be anywhere else."

Eliza smiled. "Neither am I, sir."

"The engineering section is trying to learn what they can about that Denubbewa corpse. They tell me that the torsos of the Denubbewa recovered after we destroyed the motherships out near the Hudeerac border all had a memory module in the chest. Our scientists haven't understood everything they've been able to download, but they have made a little progress in deciphering some of the coded data. Engineering has sent the data from our corpse's module to SCI. Perhaps we'll learn if this cyborg was part of the attack group here or if it was simply part of some space junk the real attackers found in the area of our battles and they're trying to mislead our investigation."

"Yes, sir. If someone found a corpse near a battle site, they could very well also have found some unexploded missiles there. We know the Denubbewa fire them by the hundreds in an effort to inundate their enemy with destructive blows, but many missiles never hit their intended targets and eventually go ballistic."

"That's true, Eliza. That's all for now. Dismissed."












Chapter Fifteen

~ May 22nd, 2289 ~



As with felines on Earth, the Jumaka cubs grew astonishingly fast during their first twelve weeks of life. All were now larger than a fully grown Terran housecat, with Cayla's brood being slightly larger because they were born a little earlier. All had been weaned off their mother's milk, which was a relief for Cayla and Tayna. The babies now consumed the same food as the adult Jumakas.

They had become a real handful when they were in the palace and seemed to be everywhere all the time. The family and staff were extra careful not to step on them or trip over them, but occasionally a tiny scream of pain would be heard when the tip of a tail or a paw was underfoot. For that reason, Cayla and Tayna kept them outside as much as possible. Arturo and Berl would spend all morning, every morning, after breakfast playing made-up games with the cubs as their Terran and Jumaka mothers looked on. Then they'd eat lunch, take a nap, and be ready to play all afternoon if Cayla and Tayna hadn't taken the cubs into the denser part of the garden to learn survival and hunting techniques in the wild, although it was doubtful they'd ever need them. The training was useful though because it reinforced their natural instincts while sharpening their reflexes, which better prepared them to defend themselves and their Terrans if trouble arose.

~     ~     ~

"The meeting will come to order," Chairwoman Gladsworth said to the members of the Raider Upper Council assembled around the meeting table as she pounded her gavel once, then put it down. When everyone had quieted down, she said, "Councilwoman Overgaard has informed me that Mikel Arneu aka Nicole Ravenau, plus a number of other aliases— including Arthur Strauss for a time and now Aliana Shanara— is here and waiting with her guards outside this chamber. Shall we bring her in?"

Everyone nodded affirmatively and Gladsworth touched a contact point on a console by her right hand. A couple of seconds later, the chamber doors opened and three burly guards and the Chief of Security followed the comparatively petite Aliana Shanara into the room. Her hands were cuffed behind her back, and she was wearing the outfit she had worn the day they found her on Pelomious. Since then she had only worn pajamas in her cell.

"Has she been checked for weapons?" Gladsworth asked the Chief of Security.

He nodded.

"You're damn straight I've been checked for weapons," Shanara said. "I was checked on Pelomious and then several times every day since while in my cell where there was no possibility I could have acquired any new weapons. Usually it took three of them to check me."

"Are you that dangerous?" Gladsworth asked.

"No, they just enjoyed searching my body for weapons."

Gladsworth chuckled. "I can understand why. That's a very attractive body your people fashioned for you. Guards, release her and leave the room."

"I ask that you reconsider, Madam Chairwoman," the Chief of Security said. "She's extremely dangerous and clever. She killed one of my men on Pelomious."

"I warned him not to touch me," Shanara said and then snickered.

"We'll be fine, Chief. Now do as I ask."

"Yes, ma'am."

Shanara rubbed her wrists after the cuffs were removed and the guards left the room.

"You've been with us for a long time, Aliana," Gladsworth said as she read from a screen in front of her. "You joined us as cargo handler, third class, and worked your way up quickly. In 2258 you were already a Senior Grade Supervisor on one of our remote bases. Then you proposed an idea for a hidden base inside an asteroid and were put in charge of overseeing construction— a very responsible position for such a young man. Your performance was always rated superior by your supervisors. When Raider One was finished, you were given command of the base and you began to assemble a group of scientists to work on the DNA Manipulation and Age Prolongation Processes, which I see you named after your original identity."

"Why am I here?" Shanara asked.

"I especially applaud your work on the two formulas. Most of this Council has benefited from them greatly."

"Your appreciation didn't stop you from chasing halfway across Region One to find me and drag me back here."

"You were brought back here because you killed Arthur Strauss."

"And now you intend to kill me. So get it over with and stop with the history lessons."

"Do you want to die?"

"What does that have to do with anything?"

"There might be an alternative."

"You're not going to have me killed?"

"The matter is still open for review. The answer will depend on you. You've done some very fine work for us. But we can't have you running around killing your co-workers and employees without good reason. Destroying the lab where you were in charge was extremely costly. The buildings you destroyed represented a large investment, but that pales in comparison to the deaths of the workers there. Some of the people you killed were the finest scientific minds in the galaxy."

"I had good reason. Strauss had threatened to kill me several times. I believed he had only spared my life temporarily because he still needed me for some purpose. I had to eliminate him first and then cover my trail to protect my own life."

"Yes. Arthur Strauss. Hardly a day goes by we don't miss his firm hand on the tiller of the Lower Council and mourn his loss. Surprisingly, you did a remarkable job of standing in for him. No one suspected for a second that our most recent Arthur Strauss was no longer the same Arthur Strauss who had so deftly guided the efforts of the Lower Council for so long. You probably could have stayed in that position for years, and no one would have been the wiser."

"When you chose four of my subordinates to fill positions on the Upper Council, passing me by for promotion, my value to the organization was made abundantly clear."

"Then you misread the situation. You weren't bypassed for promotion because we didn't value you. You were passed over because your skills in that position were rated so highly there was no one else in our entire organization who could fill your shoes. We could think of no one else we could put in charge of the Lower Council. That position is almost on a par with mine."

"You're saying that the chairman of the Lower Council is more valuable than the other council members here today?"

Gladsworth looked around the table. If there had been any doubt that this was really the person last known to the council as Arthur Strauss, it had now been dispelled in Gladsworth's mind. Strauss had always been a master manipulator of people and she had just seen how easily Shanara had twisted the meaning of her words to put her, the chairwoman, in the awkward position of defending herself. She knew she had to phrase her response carefully so as not to anger her fellow council members but was thrilled beyond words with Shanara's simple response. "No, of course not. I'm saying that the Chairman of the Lower Council is equally as valuable to the Raider organization as every council member here today and wields just as much power. In fact, there are times when the Lower Council Chairman wields far more power than the Upper Council members because he or she operates without daily supervision and his or her decisions affect the performance of this entire organization. That's why the individual chosen to chair the Lower Council is so very important and why it's been so difficult to replace Arthur Strauss— and you."

"What are you saying? That you want me back to chair the Lower Council?"

"I'm saying it's a possibility— if you can control your maniacal impulses to kill everyone around you."

"I only kill when I have good reason. I was fighting for my life with Strauss. I believed it was either him or me."

"I've heard that, but what about the thousands of test subjects you killed while developing the DNA Manipulation and Age Prolongation Formulas?"

"Necessary damage. We didn't use live subjects until we believed we were on the cusp of a breakthrough and could not proceed without the critical data those tests would provide. Besides, none of those subjects were useful for anything else. As captives we had collected while taking freighters and passenger ships, they were only useful as slave labor, and virtually all of them were not even fit for that. They were old and weak. All they did as prisoners was eat our food and consume our air and other resources. This way they served a good and useful purpose."

"We have no problem with death, when death serves a distinct purpose for the organization and doesn't cause more problems than it solves, but we must avoid such actions that harm the organization or antagonize the masses enough to rise up and demand that the GA do something about us. I trust that if we forgive your past mistakes, you will see they are not repeated. We don't kill people who have value to us, and we don't go after the Carvers. They are either too intelligent for the people who seek to harm them, or they lead charmed lives. You will not take any action whatsoever against them, their relatives, or their interests without prior approval from the Upper Council. Is that clearly understood?"

Shanara knew what her response had to be. Any other response would result in her death. "Understood, Madam Chairwoman. Every time I've had contact with the Carvers, I've come off second best. I want nothing more to do with them. I will not seek them out or engage them in any way unless ordered to do so by the Upper Council."

"Good. We know you're highly intelligent, crafty, and totally without human compassion. Those are the attributes we most prized in Arthur Strauss. As it turns out, we once again have an immediate opening on the Lower Council. Would you be interested in accepting the chairman's position there?"

Again, Shanara knew what her response had to be. "Yes, Madam Chairwoman. I would be honored to accept the position as Chairwoman of the Lower Council. Will I be required to— depose— my predecessor?"

"No, that's already been taken care of. We signed an agreement with the Dakistians that required them to provide us with the documentation necessary to build our own cloning labs so we could make clones, plus give us the manufacturing information necessary to produce our own Dakinium. The agreement required them to turn over all documentation once we had developed a cure for their sterility and it was proven to work, but we wanted them to give us the early data from the period when they started their work on the cloning as a gesture of good faith and to ensure they would follow though later. Once they gave us the first part, we'd have a sword to hold over their heads if they failed to give us the rest once we gave them the cure."

"I'm surprised they actually signed something that could get them hung."

"They're desperate. Anyway, Neil Soroman's solution for pressuring them to give us the data was to kill them all. He ordered that the headquarters of the Dakistee planetary government be blown up. Why are you smiling?"

"You made Soroman the chairman of the Lower Council?"

"Acting chairman. We were desperate after Arthur Strauss disappeared."

"No wonder you sent a team halfway across Region One to find me and bring me back. I have to say I don't think you have much chance of getting the documentation now. And your ace in the hole— the threat of blackmail— is gone. You can't blackmail dead bodies."

"Yes, the situation has worsened considerably. Your first job is to try to salvage anything we can from that fiasco. The Dakistians still need the sterility cure, and one of the incoming ministers or aides may be willing to deal."

"Have we developed a cure for their sterility?"

"We've made no progress to date. That will also be one of your priorities."

"Is that all?"

"No. We also want you to discover why the Age Regression Formula kills any females who attempt to use it, while males who have used the DNA Manipulation Formula to change their gender and then used the Age Regression Formula suffer no ill effects."

"Will I also be allowed to pursue other interests?"

"Such as?"

"I'd like to find out why the Age Prolongation Formula only allows the recipient to live an estimated five thousand years. I believe full immortality should be possible to achieve."

"I don't think anyone on the Upper Council would object to that. You may pursue that as a side goal, but cloning is your main project. And if we can't get the cloning documentation from the Dakistians, we must develop our own. If they can develop it, so can we."

"Where will I be living?"

"The organization-owned apartment provided to the chairman of the Lower Council has been cleaned and is ready for occupancy."

"Is that the same apartment I used as Arthur Strauss?"

"Yes. Would you prefer a different one?"

"No, that's fine. I was just wondering."

"Is there anything else you need to know right now?"

"No, Madam Chairwoman. Since I've already occupied the position, I know what's required of me."

"Good."

Gladsworth touched the contact spot on the console and the entrance doors almost flew open. The three security guards and their chief rushed in as if expecting they would have to subdue the prisoner. They were surprised that she was standing almost exactly where they left her.

"Chief, we've come to an agreement with Miss Shanara. She will be the new Chairwoman of the Lower Council, effective immediately."

The eyes of all four security people opened wide, and their faces reflected the shock they were experiencing. Their thoughts immediately turned to the their treatment of Shanara while she was their prisoner.

"Miss Shanara," Gladsworth said, "I realize you may harbor some ill will towards these men for past acts of— personal contact— but it is the wish of the Upper Council that you forgive and forget all such prior contact. That was a different time and a different situation. They are all highly dedicated security people, and they will now take their instructions from you. Chief, do you understand?"

"Yes, Madam Chairwoman. Miss Shanara is now the new Chairwoman of the Lower Council, and we take our orders from her."

"Miss Shanara will probably want to do some shopping before going to her new apartment since she probably didn't have time to pack on Pelomious. You will issue her one of the Lower Council VIP Unlimited GA Credits Cards and then escort her to wherever she wishes to go."

"Yes, Madam Chairwoman."

"Is there anything else you need, Miss Shanara?" Gladsworth asked.

"I think I have everything I need for now, Madam Chairwoman."

"Good. Welcome back to the organization."

After Shanara was gone and the doors had closed, one of the council members said, "Do you think we can trust her, Madam Chairwoman?"

"We've given her what she wants— an opportunity to develop a full immortality process. Yes, I think she'll play along. She's just as cunning and deadly as Arthur Strauss, and we've needed that on the Lower Council since she left. But if she disappoints us, we're no worse off than we were this morning."

~     ~     ~

"Jeneeta getting fat," Cayla said in the family dining room one day during breakfast. The Jumakas had finished their breakfast and the adults were lounging around the room while the cubs played around, under, and over them.

Since only Jenetta had a CT, no one else had heard a thing. Jenetta knew she couldn't keep the secret much longer, so she decided it was time to tell the family. "Yes, Cayla, I'm putting on a little weight."

Annette, Marisa, and Regina stopped eating and looked at Jenetta. They all knew her body prevented her from changing or aging in the slightest.

"Oh my God," Annette said. "You are putting on weight. Is that a baby bump?"

Immediately Regina and Marisa jumped up from their chairs and hurried over to Jenetta where they looked for themselves and then hugged her and showered her with good wishes.

"When did this happen?" Annette asked.

"Back in February," Jenetta said.

"You've been pregnant for three months?" Marisa asked. "Why didn't you tell us?"

"You all know what the Raiders did to me. I had no idea if I even could have a baby. And if I did have a baby, I didn't know if the baby would be— normal. Hugh and I decided there was only one way to find out."

"So you decided to have a baby out of wedlock?" Annette asked.

"Oh, Mama, you're so old-fashioned."

"I can't help it. It's the way I was raised."

Jenetta giggled. "It's the way I was raised also. Hugh and I are married."

"What?" Annette screamed. "And you didn't tell us? Or invite us to the wedding?"

"It was just a small civil ceremony at a local parish house and I swore the priest, his wife and the witnesses to secrecy until I announce it publicly. Hugh and I will have a large 'reconfirmation of our vows' ceremony if everything goes well."

"What's not to go well? You're pregnant."

"I told you what my concerns are. For all I know, the only thing growing inside me might be a cyst or a tumor."

"We have to get you to a doctor."

"I sent a message to Space Command two days ago requesting that the next ship passing by with a full medical staff stop so I can get a physical exam."

"And?"

"They've said a ship will stop within a week."

~     ~     ~

"Congratulations, Admiral, " the doctor, Commander Verler, aboard the GSC Destroyer Vancouver said. "You're pregnant."

"Is everything alright? I mean with the baby?"

"From everything we can see, the fetuses are healthy."

"Did you say 'fetuses,' Doctor? As in plural?"

"Yes. You're having twins. You say you just completed your first trimester? And you haven't been examined before this?"

"No, but I've spent a lot of time studying what I needed to know about staying healthy when pregnant."

"There is one anomaly, Admiral."

"What is it?"

"The development of the fetuses are what we would expect to see at five months, not three."

"Could that be related to the unique healing powers my body developed as a result of experimentation by the Raiders? I heal ten times faster than most Terrans."

"I suppose it's possible. You're sure conception only took place in February?"

"That's when I stopped using birth control."

"Well, I would expect to see you gain weight quite rapidly now if you're to have a normal delivery."

"Any indication of the sex of the babies?"

"It's too early to be one hundred percent sure, you understand, but our equipment indicates that it's one boy and one girl."

~

On the trip down to the planet aboard her barge, Jenetta planned what she was going to say in the vidMail where she shared the happy news with Hugh. She still didn't know if everything was going to be alright, but she had already waited until she'd had a full examination to tell him he was going to be father, twice over. She knew he wanted children and that he'd be happy, but she was still worried there might be complications with the aging of the kids. That the doctor said their development appeared to be two months more advanced than what she believed had been the actual date of conception was worrisome.












Chapter Sixteen

~ April 14th, 2287 ~



~ June 3rd, 2289 ~

"Before we close today's regular meeting," Admiral Moore said to the members of the Admiralty Board, "I want to announce the contents of a message from the captain of the destroyer Vancouver. It seems Jenetta requested that a ship with a full medical crew stop at Obotymot to give her a physical."

"Is she okay?" Admiral Plimley asked.

"Better than that. The captain says the doctors determined that she's pregnant. With twins."

"That's wonderful," Admiral Hillaire said, "but does it mean she won't be returning to Space Command?"

"Jen hasn't said anything to that effect."

"Who's the father of the children?"

"That information wasn't included in the vidMail, but my guess would be Commander Hugh J. Michaels, XO of the Bonn. He and Jenetta have been dating for two decades."

"Are they married?"

"I don't know. There's nothing in her personnel file that says they've married."

"Nothing in his either," Admiral Woo said as he read the information on a viewpad. "He took vacation leave from mid-December through mid-March of this year and traveled to and from Obotymot on Admiral Carver's barge. And this is interesting. He's on the promotion list for captain."

"How far from the top?" Admiral Moore asked.

"He's seventh."

"That means he probably won't get a command this year," Admiral Bradlee said. "I believe there are only five more destroyers scheduled to launch before January."

"That's too bad," Admiral Burke said. "A promotion and first command would have been a nice gift for the new parents."

"Lon," Admiral Moore said, "have all five ships been assigned to officers?"

Admiral Woo hit a few keys on his viewpad and said, "Only the first three are confirmed. The others are tentative, but the officers on the promotion list haven't been notified yet."

"Let's have a show of hands for all in favor of assigning the fourth new destroyer to Commander Michaels," Admiral Moore said. A few seconds later, he said, "Let the record show the vote is unanimous. Commander Michaels will be moved up the list by three positions so he receives the fourth available ship. Now, if there is no more new business, this regular session of the Admiralty Board is closed."

It was almost lunchtime as the AB members headed toward the door that led to their offices and their lunchroom. As they entered the hallway, Admiral Ahmed said to Admiral Moore, "Richard, do you realize that all current production ships are reserved for the Region Two Fleet? That will put Captain Michaels here and leave Jenetta back in Region One, two thousand light-years away unless she returns to Space Command."

With a smile, Admiral Moore said, "Yes, I realized that, Raihana."

~     ~     ~

Aliana Shanara stood at the floor-to-ceiling glass window of the penthouse apartment and looked down on the streets far below as she thought about her life. She was right back where she had been as Arthur Strauss, but there was no chance of getting away this time. They had found her once and they would find her again, since they knew all of her possible other identities. And if she tried to run, they would probably kill her this time.

The four months she had spent as Arthur Strauss would allow her to slip back into the chairperson role seamlessly, but that was the least of her concerns. She had become female again just to throw anyone looking for Strauss off the trail, and it hadn't worked. So now she was stuck with this body. She knew the Upper Council wouldn't give her a year off to change into a male at this time, but perhaps if she did a good job they would allow her time to change in a year or two.

Shanara tossed back the half glass of whiskey she'd been sipping from, walked to the sofa, and sat down. After pulling off her thirteen-centimeter heels and dropping them on the floor, she rubbed her aching feet. She'd vowed she'd never be a female again, but despite minor discomforts, she had to admit she'd so far been more comfortable in this body than she had as Nicole Ravenau. Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad.

She picked up an electronic pad and began making notes about the projects outlined by Gladsworth. The sooner she got to work, the sooner they'd see progress and the sooner they'd give her time off to change her sex. The liter of alcohol she'd consumed since arriving at the apartment earlier didn't impair her thought processes at all.

~     ~

Shanara was sitting at the chairman's place when the rest of the Lower Council arrived for the scheduled meeting. They looked at her suspiciously, but no one said anything. They knew she never would have gotten into the building, much less up to this floor and into the council chamber, if she didn't have the proper authorizations.

"Take your seats and you'll learn what's up," Shanara said.

The members of the Lower Council took their regular seats, then turned all of their attention to Shanara.

"First," Shanara said, "I'm the new Chairwoman of the Lower Council. Neil Soroman has been retired."

"When did he retire?" councilmember Theodore Langford asked pointedly.

"Just after the last scheduled meeting of this council, which is why all subsequent meetings were cancelled until today. And I didn't say he retired. I said he was retired. Just as Andrei Gagarin was once retired."

"Why weren't we informed?" Langford asked.

"Theodore, shut your mouth or you'll be the next one retired."

Langford shut his mouth.

"Better. Second, I'm Arthur Stephen Strauss."

Everyone's eyes opened just a little wider.

"Yes, I'm back. I even changed my sex using the DNA Manipulation Process to help me hide, but the Upper Council tracked me down and brought me back because this place has fallen into such a poor state since I left. I'd love nothing more than to leave again, but you're stuck with me just as much as I'm stuck with you. I've read all of the reports you've filed since I've been gone, so I'm up to speed on the situations in your departments, and I'm pretty upset with a few of you. Over the next few months we'll bring your departments back to where they were when I tried to retire and then increase their productivity and profitability, or some of you may be retired. I'll give you all the benefit of the doubt and assume that half-wit Soroman was responsible for the depressed condition. But I want all of you to put in a hundred ten percent until your numbers get back up to where they should be. Have I made myself clear?"

Langford meekly said, "Yes,— Arthur."

"The name is Aliana Shanara now."

~     ~     ~

"Wow, what a week this has been," Hugh said excitedly as the vidMail began to play. "First the news from you that you're pregnant with twins, and now I get notified that I'm getting a command sooner than expected. I've received orders to report to Mars to begin making preparations to take command of a new destroyer currently nearing completion. His name is the Stockholm, and he's set to be launched in November. I love you, I love my future children, and I love my job— in that order."

Softening his voice, he said, "How are you, babe? Feeling okay? I wish I was close enough that we could have a real conversation. I really, really want to be there when the babies come, but I just don't know if that's possible now. If we estimate nine months from the date we— uh— made them, they should be born sometime in late November, but my ship is launching in mid-November. Why does everything have to happen at the same time? And you suspect they might be premature because of what the Raiders did to you? I just hope and pray the babies are healthy. And if we get lucky and they're as beautiful as you, it'll be a nice bonus.

"At least you have your mom and Regina and Marisa there. And maybe Christa can come over from Nordakia around the due date. Have you told your dad, sisters, and brothers yet? What am I saying? Of course you've told them. You probably sent them a vidMail right after you sent one to me.

"My fellow officers threw a little congratulatory party for me last night. It was just after I came off duty following second watch, so it started late and ended early. Someone came up with some cigars made of bubble gum from somewhere, so everyone got a cigar and I bought everyone their first bottle of ale. The drinking was light and didn't last long because most them had to be up for first watch. Now I have something else to celebrate, and by tradition I have to buy the first round again. They're a great group, and I'm going to miss them all.

"There's the timer so I have to sign off for now. I'll talk to you tomorrow.

"Hugh Michaels, Commander, First Officer of the Bonn. Message complete."

Lately, Jenetta had been recording a reply as soon as Hugh's message completed. But this time she just sat back in her office chair. She supposed it was too much to hope for that Hugh would be there when the babies came. It was frequently like that with military families. Her dad hadn't been there when she or her brothers were born. He was always off in space. It didn't mean he didn't love them. In fact, he'd always been fanatically devoted to his wife and children. It was just the way it was in the service.

Jenetta stood up and walked out of her office without recording a reply. She felt depressed, even though she hadn't really expected Hugh to be there at the delivery. Out in the garden, the boys and the Jumakas were running around like maniacs, playing the game of tag they had invented. The rules were simple. You had to tag someone if you were tagged by the person who was 'it,' but it couldn't be the person who had tagged you, and you couldn't step outside a defined area or you automatically became 'it.'

Annette, Regina, and Marisa were sitting in lawn chairs enjoying the show when Jenetta joined them.

"Did you get your daily vidMail from Hugh?" her mother asked.

"Uh-huh."

"Why so sad?"

"Hugh can't come in November. He's getting a command and he has to go to Mars. The ship launches in November."

"Oh, honey, that's too bad. But— that's the way it often is in the service."

"I know, Momma."

After a minute of silence, Annette asked, "Or is it something else?"

"What do you mean?"

"Hugh's getting the one thing you've always wanted so badly. He's getting a warship command."

Jenetta didn't respond.

"Isn't that really why you're so melancholy?"

"I— suppose that's a big part of it. And I can't believe I'm jealous of my husband's success."

"Believe me, honey. You're getting the better deal."

~     ~     ~

"Come in, Christa," Madu said, rising from her desk in the new executive branch offices.

"Don't get up," Christa said.

"It's good for me, the doctors say. They want me to get a little exercise to help complete the healing process rather than my just sitting on my expanding posterior all day."

"The security here is extremely tight. I had to walk through three different detector stations before I was even allowed to get into the elevator."

"Security is determined that nothing like what happened will ever happen again. This building was intended as a museum that would showcase the destruction of our civilization as a result of the sterility plague and is only a temporary headquarters. Our planners are designing new buildings devoted exclusively to the two branches of government. The offices will actually be far below ground to protect them from air attack, and no one with an explosive device will ever get closer to the offices than the main floor."

"That should prevent any future enormous loss of executive power at one time."

"Yes. They almost crippled the government. They would have if I hadn't had to run to the bathroom."

"What did you want to see me about?"

"A representative from TGP was here this morning."

"The one you'd been dealing with?"

"No. She hasn't been seen since two days before the bombing. Her apartment had been cleaned out, and she left no forwarding address."

"What did the TGP rep want?"

"The representative said she was sent to extend their condolences for the great loss of life from the tragic accident at the old offices."

"That's all?"

"No, she said she was told to ask if I had reconsidered my position about supplying the documentation they had requested."

"And?"

"I told her that the deal had been cancelled and there would be no documentation coming now or in the future. She said TGP had an agreement with the planetary government of Dakistee. I told her to sue us in GA court. I told her our lawyers were certain that if the terms of the agreement ever became known, the entire corporate management of TGP would be arrested and eventually hung for conspiracy to commit sedition."

"And what did she say?"

With a wide smile, Madu said, "She got a little pale and left without saying anything. I don't think she wanted to pass on that message. It was a priceless moment. It doesn't begin to come close to making up for the loss of so many wonderful and selfless people, but it's the best we're going to get."

"Have you made any progress towards building a new cabinet?"

"I've compiled a list of all the people I feel would be qualified for the different positions, and we're busy vetting them to make sure there's nothing in their recent background that indicates they've been involved with any shady practices or anything to suggest they could be bought off. Any luck identifying our bomber?"

"Just that he's a Terran. SCI thinks he might have been wearing a prosthetic layer over his face."

"A mask?"

"Essentially, but one so lifelike it's difficult to detect. There are just the most subtle of shadows on the side of the bomber's head where Terran ears would be, which drew them to conclude he wasn't Dakistian. Your video images are only white light reflections, so when facial recognition failed, they began trying to identify him by height, estimated weight, mannerisms and gait. They're the best, Madu. If it's possible to identify him, they will."

"We really want this person, Christa."

"As do we. Uh, Madu, have you reconsidered that other matter we spoke about yesterday when you called?"

"Which matter?"

"Enlisting the help of the Nordakian government in solving the sterility problem. They tell me you won't cooperate with them at all."

"They're the ones who created the problem," Madu said angrily.

"Madu, you know that the people who did this died and turned to dust twenty millennia ago. Their decedents are no more guilty of this despicable act than your people are guilty of attacking the trade conference at Earth in '85. It's time to forgive the Nordakian people. You don't blame me for the plague and I'm Nordakian. Most of your people hold the Nordakians blameless for the act and are grateful for the help and assistance they've received from their cousins."

"Your linage is Terran, Christa, not Nordakian. You're only Nordakian by virtue of a royal proclamation. Naturally I wouldn't hold you accountable. Your people even look like mine, except for those appendages on your head that you call ears. As for those blue-green monsters, I will never, never, never forgive them. They are the direct descendents of the people who did the act and are therefore just as guilty."

"They are not blue-green monsters. You come from the same bloodlines. I realize they don't look like us, but that's been attributed to mutations resulting from the inadequate radiation-shielding in the spaceships their ancestors built to take them away from here. If they were working on your sterility problem, the chances of finding a cure would be increased. Internally, they are closer to you than to me."

"No, Christa. I will never, never, never forgive them."

"Are you the same Madu Ptellewqku who said to me at the hospital, 'I would gladly give my life for a cure to our problem,' and 'I would have done anything, and I mean anything, anything, anything, for a cure?' Or was that another Madu Ptellewqku? So you'd do anything— except forgive decent people who had nothing to do with committing the act?"

~     ~     ~

After receiving word from HQ that the engineers had been unable to extract any pertinent information from the Denubbewa memory module data they'd sent, the Ares resumed its patrol route. It had hardly traveled a light year before the tac officer announced an anomalous reading off starboard. It was second watch, and Commander Joshua Gates was in the command chair.

"All stop. Maintain the envelope. What is it, Tac?"

"Unknown, Commander. It could have been almost anything. It was at the extreme edge of our DeTect range, and we only saw it for an instant. But whatever it is, it doesn't belong there."

"Helm, take us back, but no closer than twenty-five thousand kilometers."

"Aye, sir," the helmsman said as she turned the ship and applied power to the envelope generator.

Seconds later, the Ares was sitting twenty-five thousand kilometers off what appeared to be a freighter with no freight containers.

"It looks just like the Lina Algocoldo," the tac officer said. "I mean the hull condition is the same. The basic ship design is very different."

Gates tapped a contact point on the monitor by his right hand and said, "Sorry to disturb you, Captain. It appears we have another dead freighter. We're sitting twenty-five thousand kilometers off."

"Yes, sir," Gates said a few seconds later and leaned back in the command chair to await the arrival of the captain on the bridge as he said, "Com, sound GQ."

Instantly, the GQ horns through the ship began blaring with the well-known general quarters sound, followed by a message that it was no drill. Crewmembers began throwing anything loose into lockers and using the provided straps to lock equipment and supplies down to the deck. In quarters, the third watch crew was jumping out of their rack and pulling on clothes as they ran for their GQ stations.

Captain Gavin arrived less than a minute after receiving the call. He was still straightening his tunic as he entered the bridge.

Gates jumped out of the command chair and climbed into the XO chair.

"I have the bridge," Gavin said. "Have we completed a three-sixty, Commander Gates?"

"Negative sir. I was waiting for you to arrive."

"Let's do that now, then. Helm, take us around."

"Aye, sir," the helmsman said as she applied power to the sub-light engines and performed a slow circle around the derelict freighter while maintaining a distance of twenty-five thousand kilometers.

"The damage appears like that of the Lina Algocoldo," Gavin said. "Tac, do you confirm?"

"Aye, Captain."

"XO?"

"Aye, Captain, I confirm as well."

"Just what in hell is going on out here?" Gavin said. "Who's attacking these freighters?"












Chapter Seventeen

~ June 15th, 2289 ~



"Who's up on rotation, Tac?" Captain Gavin said.

"Lt. Commander Mandera, sir."

"Have him report to my ready room."

"Aye, sir."

"XO, you have the bridge," Gavin said as he climbed out of the command chair and headed towards his office.

"Aye, sir, I have the bridge," Gates said. Expecting the captain to return after Mandera was briefed, Gates remained in the XO chair.

~

In what seemed like a reenactment of the investigation mission commanded by Eliza, Mandera piloted the shuttle to the derelict and stopped outside the emergency airlock because there was no way to enter the freighter with the maintenance section missing.

As with the Lina Algocoldo, the hull had been punctured by numerous small missiles tipped with a nuclear charge, and the freighter's corridors were filled with bodies. This time, however, the dead were Arrosians, the diminutive relatives of the Selaxians. Head space was limited in the freighter, and the Marines and engineers hurried to complete their tasks. But it wasn't only the limited headroom that made them hurry. They didn't want to be caught outside the Ares if whoever had attacked the freighter returned.

As soon as the logs were transmitted and the DNA collected, Gavin ordered Shuttle-04 to return. Mandera breathed a sigh of relief as he shut all systems down once the shuttle was parked in the bay aboard the Ares.

~

"The freighter was the Wipuls Vos, Captain," the tac officer said to Gavin in the captain's office as the Ares continued to slowly circle the derelict freighter. "It apparently means Space Queen Seven in the Arrosian language. It was reported missing in November of last year. The cargo was ten kilometers of unprocessed ores."

"About a month before the Lina Algocoldo," Gavin said.

"Aye, sir."

"But no Denubbewa bodies this time?"

"Not according to the Marines or engineers who went aboard," Lt. Commander Mandera said. "And I never caught a glimpse of anything on my monitor."

"I don't think that other Denubbewa died aboard the Lina Algocoldo, sir," Gates said.

"That seems to be the general consensus," Gavin said. "The head wound wasn't consistent with a fight aboard the ship. It was more like that Denubbewa had been too close to an explosion, which would be more in line with the theory that it had been found floating in space and used to throw us off the scent of whoever is doing this. But we still have no idea who's behind these attacks.

"Nothing we can do here. Make sure the logs and DNA information are sent to HQ, and take us back to our original patrol route course, Commander. Dismissed."

The three officers left the captain's office and returned to their duties. Gates climbed into the command chair and announced he had the bridge. The helmsman had temporarily had the command, and Gates expected the captain to return to his quarters.

Gavin didn't immediately head for his quarters, though. Instead he moved to the informal furniture in his office and laid down on the sofa to think. No Space Command captain liked mysteries such as these. They tended to keep them awake, and then they felt tired all the next day.

~     ~     ~

Word reached Aliana Shanara that the Dakistians had declared they would never again do business with TGP. The response was expected. If that idiot Soroman hadn't already been turned into pet food, Shanara would have seen to it personally. She had already dispatched undercover operatives to Dakistee to learn where the central repository of information such as the cloning data was now located. They had discovered that the new executive branch offices, temporarily housed in what was intended to be a museum, were impossible to penetrate without the highest of security clearances. It was the most likely location for the storage of the data, but no one knew for sure. The people who would have known were all dead from Soroman's assassination explosion. The only one left was the original target, and gaining access to her now was almost impossible without being a member of the Dakistee government or Space Command.

Thinking of Space Command made Shanara think of Christa Carver. It didn't make sense that she could have survived those three lattice wounds, but she was still among the living. Shanara shook her head to clear it before she started thinking up ways to kill the Carvers. If she tried that again, there would be no mercy from the Upper Council. Unless they didn't know she was behind it.

~     ~     ~

"Your Grace," Captain Pwuhvasqu said when Jenetta picked up the line, "We've received a landing request from the captain of a GSC admiral's barge."

"An admiral's barge? Which admiral?"

"He said Admiral Evelyn S. Platt."

Jenetta's face lit up. She liked Admiral Platt and immediately looked forward to seeing her. She was surprised that Evelyn hadn't given her advance notice, though it might be an impromptu visit.

"Of course she can land, Captain. Have her flight crew set it down next to my barge. I'm going out to meet her."

"A security detail will meet you at the palace gates, Your Grace."

Knowing it would take fifteen to thirty minutes for the barge to set down, even if it had already been in the upper atmosphere, Jenetta took her time. When she arrived at the palace gates, six security people were waiting. They surrounded her as she walked to where the barge would land, maintaining a discreet distance that still allowed them to offer maximum protection. Without a moment's hesitation, all of them would use their bodies to block fire from an attacker. The greeting party was further surrounded by the four adult Jumakas. The cubs would have come also, but Jenetta told them to stay and play in the garden with Arturo and Berl. She didn't want the welcoming to appear like the circus was in town.

Jenetta and her entourage remained near the compound walls until Admiral Platt's ship was down and the power was cut.

As a ramp extended from one of the half-wide containers supporting the ship, Jenetta moved forward, followed by the security team. She waited there until Admiral Platt appeared in the hatchway, waved, and then began to walk down the ramp. Jenetta moved to a spot just short of the end of the ramp.

"Jen, it's wonderful to see you see again," Admiral Platt said. "And you're looking so well." With a smile she added, "And so large."

"And it's wonderful to see you, Evelyn. You look great. The AB moving to Region Two seems to agree with you."

"My life has sure been a lot less hectic since the Board moved. The seat that must be occupied by the fleet commander in the region where the AB meets is now Brian's responsibility, since as Deputy Fleet Commander of the Second Fleet he naturally took over your duties while you're on LOA. I've been able to buy tickets to operas and never worry about having to cancel them. But enough about me. Tell me about you. When are the babies due?"

"If you assume a normal delivery, in November."

"You're not assuming a normal delivery?"

"The doctor aboard the Vancouver said the fetuses were in a stage of advanced development. I don't know if that means they'll come early or not."

"A stage of advanced development?"

"We're assuming it's because of the testing the Raiders performed on me. For a long time I was afraid to have children, but Hugh really wants kids, and so do I, despite my worries. Evelyn, let's get out of the sun and into the house."

As they reached the main gate and entered the palace grounds with the entourage still around them, Admiral Platt said, "You call this a house? It's bigger than the Palace of Versailles."

"Versailles was originally intended only as a hunting lodge for Louis VIII in 1624 and then steadily expanded outward to accommodate the royal court. From the beginning, this structure was intended as the home of the royal court when the king and queen visited Obotymot, so it was built upwards like a modern hotel. It's a bit large, but you get used to it. The Jumakas and the kids have plenty of room to run around."

"Kids?"

"My nephews."

"Oh. Is your family visiting?"

"No, not visiting. They live here. This is officially listed as the Family Carver Estate, and we have plenty of room. The entire family can enjoy the comforts of the palace and still never get in anyone else's way. It's possible to live here and never even see anyone in the family if you stay in your apartment and don't come to the family dining room at mealtime. We have enough room here for generations of Carvers."

"Does that mean you won't be returning to Space Command?"

"Not at all. It simply means that Carver family members have a place to return to when we need a break from roaming around the universe."

"The universe? We haven't even explored the galaxy yet. And God only knows how many hostile civilizations we'll encounter by the time we do. Have you heard about the Denubbewa attacks in Regions Two and Three?"

"No. What's happened?"

"Perhaps we should wait until we have a bit more privacy," Admiral Platt said as they were about to enter the palace.

"Of course. Let's go to my office. I'll give you the tour later."

Jenetta's butler was standing by just inside the main foyer as they entered, so she asked him to bring coffee and light desserts to her office. The security team had not followed them into the palace, and Jenetta told the Jumakas that she and Admiral Platt were going to her office to discuss Space command business. She suggested they go to the garden and play or relax. The four Jumakas turned almost as one and raced away.

"That's so amazing. It's like they understood every word you said."

"They did. We recently learned that the Jumakas are actually a sentient race. I've had long discussions with them and learned a great deal about their history."

"Excuse me? Long discussions?"

"I've long known that my girls could understand me when I spoke to them, but after acquiring Thor I discovered that they appeared to be talking among themselves. To me, of course, it only sounded like growls or mewls. So I hired a wildlife expert who had devoted his life to working with wildlife on Taurentlus-Thur to see if he could develop a sort of alien dictionary so we could understand what the different sounds meant. He modified an alien translator device and began working with my Jumakas here at the palace. What he learned was staggering. They actually communicate with one another just as we do. Their larynx is simply incapable of vocalizing anything we'd understand. It's sort of like the situation with dolphins, but Jumakas are significantly more intelligent. Anyway, each of them now wears a collar, and I wear a small translator. It's keyed to their collar microphones, so when they activate their collar, just as we can activate our CTs, their words are transmitted to my CT."

"Amazing. And you actually speak with them."

"They understand Amer, Dakis, and smatterings of other languages they've picked up in their travels, so they don't need a translator to understand me. And with the translator, I can understand them. So yes, we actually have discussions."

Admiral Platt took a deep breath. "Jenetta, you never cease to amaze me."

"Well, I didn't develop the translator. That was the work of Mr. Wilkerson."

"But you initiated the development effort and probably bore the expense of the work."

"It's been worth every GA Credit, Evelyn."

They had reached the elevator but hadn't entered yet when eight Jumakas seemed to appear from nowhere and went racing by them on both sides.

"My God, what was that?" Admiral Platt asked.

"We'd better get into the lift car or we might get run over by either the adult Jumakas or my nephews. They play games that consist of chasing one another around the palace."

After stepping into the lift, Admiral Platt asked, "How many Jumakas do you have? I just counted eight small ones, and there were the four larger ones before."

"That's all of them. Four adults and eight babies. But the babies are getting big— fast."

"Are you raising them?"

"The cubs were born in February. They're the babies of my two girls, so I guess you could say I'm helping to raise them. I have no intention of selling any of them, if that's what you meant. As I said, they're sentient beings. Selling a sentient being is engaging in slavery, even if the sentient being hasn't been officially designated as such at this time."

"I didn't mean to imply you were doing anything improper."

"I know. I just wanted to make the situation clear, and I do intend to pursue sentiency status for Jumakas so people stop imprisoning them, selling them, and exploiting them as if they're wild animals of limited intelligence."

They had continued to walk as they talked and had arrived at Jenetta's office. She was using a space originally intended as a bedroom for a handmaiden as a personal office when she was in her bedroom suite, but her large office on the third floor near her chamberlain's office was where she conducted estate business and entertained visitors when privacy was required. They continued to make small talk until the coffee was brought in, then sat in the informal area and talked serious matters.

"An SCI team— I think you know them—" Admiral Platt said, "came across a derelict freighter in Region Three. After investigating, they were departing the area when Denubbewa ships suddenly appeared and tried to destroy them. They managed to get away only because their ship is, in all probability, the fastest freighter in Region Three. It had been secretly upgraded by our Space Command engineers and has a top speed of Light-487."

"You're talking about Trader Vyx and his four agents?"

"Five now. They found an undercover SCI agent in stasis aboard that derelict freighter and she's become part of the team."

"Did they see a Denubbewa mothership?"

"Yes. And they said Denubbewa warships came streaming out like ants from an anthill."

"More than one mothership?"

"Not that they saw, but they were only trying to get away. The AB has decided to sheath the Scorpion in Dakinium as soon as the new foundry at Lorense-Six is operating. The Scorpion will also receive the new temporal generator so it's capable of achieving Marc-1. The team has already been recalled for the modification because it will take them so long to reach the Lorense system, unless they manage to hitch a ride in a DS transport. So far they're traveling on their own.

"And our scientists have recently come up with a way of altering the surface color of Dakinium so ships can be disguised as ordinary Tritanium hulls now and yet the sheathing has all the properties of regular Dakinium. Fleet ships will continue to use the black coloration, but other ships, such as diplomatic and courier ships, and especially SCI ships, can use other color schemes.

"Getting back to the situation in Region Three, the budget office has estimated that the construction cost of an entire fleet of SCI ships similar to the Scorpion will cost far less than the cost of one battleship, and the per-ship cost for operation with a crew of six is estimated to be just five percent that of a Scout-Destroyer. It will give us a lot more eyes in the deep recesses of Regions Two and Three and be fast enough and tough enough to escape almost any enemy. Armament will be limited, but we don't want them to fight. We want them to watch and report."

"It sounds like we're taking a page from the old Raider playbook. They once positioned small ships throughout Region One to keep track of the movement of Space Command warships."

"Except our ships won't be stationary. They can be far more useful crossing and crisscrossing space as they look for signs of potential trouble."

"It sounds like a good plan, Evelyn. You said attacks in both Regions Two and Three?"

"Yes, and I just learned this latest information. The Ares, while on routine patrol, came across two derelict freighters a light-year apart. Both had been reported overdue and missing since this past November. They appeared to have been attacked by Denubbewa warships. Their entire cargo sections were missing."

"They went missing at the same time?"

"No, about a month apart."

"It sounds like one or more rogue Denubbewa warships escaped the battle where we destroyed all those motherships and is running low on food and supplies."

"Or there's a pirate group operating out there who wants us to think that. The interesting thing is that the attacks occurred more than a thousand light-years this side of the battle zone."

"That doesn't make sense if they're Denubbewa. We believed the Denubbewa wouldn't attempt to encroach further into our territory until their main fleet or other support arrived."

"Yes, that's what we believed."

"Has any action been proposed?"

"Just a notice to all fleet ships to be on the alert for any derelict ships, any Denubbewa warships, or any suspicious behavior among other ships."

"I guess that's all we can do for now. Evelyn, are you still overseeing all construction of warships?"

"For the moment. When the new yard at Lorense-Three is operational, all new warship production will move there. The Mars Yard will then concentrate on producing our Ship-Transporters and all fleet support vessels."

"Hugh was just notified to report to Mars to begin his preparation work for his first command. The thing is, he was seventh on the promotion list and suddenly got bumped to fourth. Do you know anything about that?"

"I was advised of the bump after it was approved by the AB. I understand they thought it would be a nice surprise for the new parents to celebrate the births and Hugh's first command in the same month. By the way, are you and Hugh married? I hope you don't mind me asking, but according to the files neither of you are married. If you are, you should update the files so there isn't a problem regarding spousal and dependent benefits."

"So you think that was the only reason for him being moved up?"

"What else could there be?"

"If Hugh had remained in the seventh slot, he wouldn't have received a new destroyer. There are two new heavy cruisers set to launch in January. Those new commands would have created a promotion domino effect among commands as two captains of light cruisers moved up to the heavy cruiser command, two frigate captions moved to the light cruisers, and two destroyer captains moved to the frigates. Since none of the captains of the Light Destroyers have five or more years in grade, they're not eligible to move to a different ship yet, so Hugh would have gotten an older destroyer."

"He should be happy to get the new ship. They're the fastest we've ever produced. They have the new ripple-effect envelope generator and will be as fast as these new barges we're using."

"He's delighted."

"He is, but you're not. Why not?"

"If he was getting an older destroyer, he'd be remaining in Region One where speed isn't as important."

"And the new destroyers are all going to Region Two."

"Exactly. That means Hugh will be in Region Two, and I'll be in Region One if I don't return to active duty with Space Command."

"I think I see Richard's hand in this," Evelyn said with a smile.

"That crafty old devil is doing everything he can to get me to come back."

"We all want you back, Jen. We need you. The rest of us are getting too old for the increased workloads that have landed on our shoulders during the past two decades. We need fresher minds and younger bodies to take over. We were all delighted when the GA Senate unanimously approved your promotion to Admiral of the Fleet. We believed the AB would have the best leader possible— one who was still young and energetic and with as sharp a mind as they come."

"Thank you for the compliments, Evelyn. I still haven't decided if I'll take the job. At first I wanted absolutely nothing to do with the position. But now I'm going to have a family to raise, and I know how difficult that is for a woman in the service when she's away from her home port for months or years at a time. I don't want to deprive my children of a mother while they're growing up. I remember how happy my childhood was and know it wouldn't have been as wonderful if my mom hadn't been there for me."

"I was fortunate to have come up through the ranks while the Galactic Alliance was more like a fishpond than an ocean. I managed to avoid shipboard time during those years when my children were young. I don't know how new mothers in the service cope these days."

"As soon as I make a decision, I'll notify the AB, but that won't be before November."

"I'll pass that along to Richard."

"And now, if we've concluded our Space Command business, how about joining my mom and my sisters-in-law in the garden. Can you stay for dinner, by the way?"

"I'd love to do both. Thank you. But there is one more issue to discuss. I didn't come here to learn if you were going to return to Region Two."

"Okay. I'll bite. Why did you come here?"

"I came to warn you. We've learned that your life is about to get very— difficult."












Chapter Eighteen

~ June 30th, 2289 ~



"More difficult than it has been?"

"I certainly believe so."

"Are the Denubbewa on their way here to attack my household?"

"No. At least I don't think so."

"Then I believe I can weather anything else."

"I hope so, Jen. This is huge."

"So tell me already."

"We've been intercepting messages between Clidepp ships. They're on their way here."

"Here? I haven't done anything against the Clidepp government."

"It's not Clidepp government warships. The armada headed this way is comprised of passenger liners and freighters filled with refugees."

"What?"

"As I said, we've been intercepting messages for weeks— but those messages are between refugee-filled ships. The word has gone out that Jenetta Carver and Obotymot will welcome everyone who agrees to the terms you laid out for immigrants. They believe that as long as they agree to abide by your rules and assimilate into the existing society, they will be welcomed here with open arms."

"Oh, no."

"Oh, yes. SCI estimates that as many as three hundred ships are headed for Obotymot."

"Oh double no."

"I thought I should relay that information in person."

"Thank you, Evelyn. I suppose I should have anticipated such a situation, but it simply never occurred to me. It makes sense that people who have found a safe haven in a time of war would alert their relatives and friends, who would alert their relatives and friends, who would alert their relatives and friends."

"What will you do?"

"I'll have to think on it. I'm not going to make an abrupt decision that might create more unpleasant results." Jenetta took a deep breath and released it quickly. "Shall we join my family in the garden? It's only a five-minute walk. You did say you were staying for dinner, didn't you?"

~     ~     ~

"Some of you have been seen arriving after seven a.m. and/or leaving before seven p.m." Aliana Shanara said immediately after opening the meeting of the Lower Council. "If your department has returned to— or exceeded— the profitability levels of my last days as Arthur Strauss, I have no problem with that. However, if that's not the case and you continue to put in less than a full day, the day will come when you're met at the elevator by a special security team. And that's the last day anyone will ever see you again. At the next meeting of this council, someone else will be sitting in your chair. Have I made myself clear?"

Shanara looked around the table. Most of the council members avoided meeting her gaze.

"You shouldn't let my appearance fool you. I'm still the same ruthless bastard I was when I appeared here as Arthur Strauss. But I suppose you should call me a ruthless bitch now— behind my back.

"Okay, let's move on to new business. The Upper Council wants us to procure all secret documentation regarding cloning from the Dakistians, as well as their metallurgical documentation regarding the manufacture of Dakinium. I've had special operatives trying to learn where such data is being stored, but so far they've come up empty. The main problem seems to be that Soroman assassinated almost all of the people who knew. So we have to find an alternative solution. There must be another set of documentation somewhere. They'd have to have a backup. They wouldn't rely on having just one copy of such important documents. Let's put our heads together and develop a strategy to find one of the alternate sets. I'm open to suggestions."

Councilmember Theodore Langford raised his hand tentatively, as if afraid to say what was on his mind.

"Langford," Shanara said.

"Uh, this wouldn't be another attempt to kill Christa Carver, would it?"

"Absolutely not. The Upper Council has forbidden any such attacks and we'll have no part in them. Understood?"

As she looked around the table, each of the council members nodded their head.

"If we can't get the plans from the Dakistians, the Upper Council wants us to develop our own cloning labs. I don't want to spend the next fifty years reinventing the wheel, so let's come up with some ideas. If you can't think of anything right now, I want you to submit one in writing within the next twenty-four hours or you'll be eating and sleeping in your offices until you do. And don't send me any foolish ideas just so you can say you've complied. Okay, who wants to start? Or should I pick someone?"

~     ~     ~

"I've further refined the Jumaka translation database, Your Grace," Wilkerson said when Jenetta dropped in to visit him in his lab behind the gardens. "The translator will now expand the Jumaka sentences to better simulate the way we speak. Instead of hearing something like, 'Look for babies,' you'll hear 'I'm looking for my babies.' It's not perfect yet, but every tweak gets it a little closer to normal Amer."

"That's wonderful, Mr. Wilkerson. You've done an exceptional job. I was wondering if I might make a request?"

"Of course, Your Grace."

"I was thinking that a small external speaker the Jumakas could wear around their necks might be useful. Naturally, they'd have to be able to activate it and deactivate it, just as they can with the collars."

"Hmmm. I can think of situations where that would be perfect and situations where it would be less than desirable."

"That's why they must have the ability to turn it on or off by spoken command. In security situations, they could deactivate the external unit, and only I and the other Jumakas would be able to understand what they're saying. In other situations, they would be able to talk with people other than myself or yourself."

"Yes, under those conditions it would be perfect. So we'd need something very portable but with enough power to drive a speaker. I'll get to work on it and see what I can come up with."

"Thank you, Mr. Wilkerson."

~

"Come in, Chamberlain Yaghutol," Jenetta said when he appeared at the door of her office on the third floor.

"You wanted to see me, Your Grace?"

"Yes. Can you tell me, roughly, how many farms we have that are not being worked by a tenant?"

"Well, yes, but understand not all are ready to be occupied. You see, several annuals ago when you expressed a desire to have the entire peninsula mapped, the planning department began making a complete survey of your entire estate. Much of it was virgin land at that time and remains so. Once they had all the data, they set about identifying the land most suitable for agriculture, the land most suitable for parks and recreation, the land most suitable for manufacturing use, and the land which would best serve as municipal use for villages, towns, and cities. In essence, they established a complete model, subject to your approval, that would serve for the next hundred annuals.

"At present, there are roughly eighty-five thousand farms unoccupied. Most of that land is virgin in that it has no domicile, has never been farmed, never been fertilized, and to which water conduits and irrigation piping have never been laid. In other words, they're farms that have been identified on maps as such and fully surveyed but which are not ready for tenants. We simply didn't need to prepare them for use since we didn't have farmers desiring to occupy them."

"It appears that the time may have come to begin expanding the aqueduct system to provide irrigation water to those surveyed farming areas that currently don't have access to water for irrigation. How many ready-to-occupy farms do we have? I'm not concerned with abodes and barns, only water access."

"Roughly twenty thousand, most without any existing structures or fences but with irrigation piping to the surveyed plot."

"So, if we stay with the policy of not allowing newcomers to occupy adjoining farms, we have roughly ten thousand farms available for tenancy."

"Yes, your grace."

"Thank you, Chamberlain. That tells me what I needed to know."

"Always ready to serve, Your Grace."

~     ~     ~

A week later Jenetta sent a request to the King of Nordakia asking that two Home Guard warships be stationed around Obotymot. It had not seemed necessary previously because the society was almost a closed one, the planet was almost entirely agrarian, and it was just recovering from decades of natural damage resulting from the meteor hit. Nordakia was the business, military, and education hub for both planets.

She made a similar request to Admiral Platt at Space Command, asking for orbiting warships on station around Obotymot when the Clidepp refugee ships began to arrive.

Weeks later, Clidepp ships in GA space received a repeating message from Azula Carver. The captain of each ship ordered it played over speakers throughout the ship. In the message, Jenetta said, "Attention Clidepp refugees. The people of the GA are sympathetic to your plight and wish to help where we can. I've been informed that as many as three hundred passenger ships and freighters filled with refugees are presently headed towards Obotymot. I regret that we cannot possibly accept everyone aboard those ships as immigrants and most will be turned away. Presently, my estate can accept only ten thousand more new core-family groups into our farming communities. A core-family group is one where all family members live together on one farm. Our resources are finite, so that's all I can permit to land on my estate. I naturally can't speak for the other estates on the planet. We realize that everyone on their way to Obotymot is willing to accept our conditions for assimilation into our society, but the issue now is simply one of how many new immigrants the planet's infrastructure can support. I'm sorry and regret I must suggest that many of you establish a new destination or risk being turned away when you arrive here. Ships entering orbit around Obotymot will be assigned an arrival number and immigrants will only be accepted from the earliest ships to arrive."

Refugee leaders aboard the ships immediately called emergency meetings to discuss the announcement.

~     ~     ~

"You've been unusually quiet lately, dear," Annette said to Jenetta one morning at breakfast. "Are you feeling alright?"

"Yes, Mama, I'm fine."

"Is everything okay with the babies?"

"Yes. Nothing unusual. I'm just tired of being fat and knowing I'm going to get a lot fatter in the coming months. My body hasn't changed in more than two decades, and now I seem to be changing every day."

"It's only until November," Marisa said.

"That's more than four months from now. I wish Hugh were around."

"We're military wives," Regina said, "We must accept there will be long stretches where we don't see our spouses. Hugh has his job and you have yours. And yours is seeing that you remain healthy for your children."

"I'm staying healthy. I'm paying more attention to what I eat now than at any time over the past two decades when I remained healthy no matter what I ate. But I'm still concerned for my children. I can't help worrying that the changes made to my physiology will pass on to them in unwanted and unpredictable ways."

"You're afraid they won't grow up?"Annette asked.

"What if they get stuck in permanent infancy? What kind of life would that be? And what if their minds mature, but not their bodies? Or what if their bodies mature but not their minds?"

"You'll know the answers to that at the proper time," Marisa said. "There's no sense worrying about things we can't control." Turning to look at her son, she said, "Berl Edmond Carver, stop playing with your cereal and eat it, or you won't get to go outside and play with the kitties this morning."

"I can't help worrying if I made a mistake by allowing myself to get pregnant. But back then I didn't even know if I could get pregnant."

"Don't ever think that, honey. Allowing yourself to get pregnant was the only way you'd know for sure, and it was the right time. I'm sure all your worries will be unfounded. Now eat your cereal or you won't get to go outside and play with the kitties."

Jenetta smiled at Annette as her two sisters-in-law giggled.

~     ~     ~

"Contact off the larboard side," the tac officer aboard the Ares said. "Too distant to get any information."

"Under power?" Captain Gavin asked from his command chair. It was nearing the end of the first watch and XO Gates had arrived on the bridge and climbed into the XO chair, but Gavin hadn't relinquished bridge command yet.

"I'm unsure, sir. I only had a read for a fraction of a second, but I would say probably not, based on the data I received."

"Helm, turn us around and head for that contact. Maintain twenty-five-thousand-kilometer's distance as you circle the object if it's stationary, and maintain the envelope."

"Aye, Captain," the helmsperson said.

Several minutes later the Ares was standing well off the derelict hulk of a freighter. The cargo section was missing, and the hull was peppered with holes.

"Looks like another Denubbewa attack, or a simulated one," Gavin said to Commander Gates.

"Yes, sir. Should we ready a boarding party to collect information?"

"Yes. Let's get the gritty details so we can report to HQ. I wish we could find whoever is doing this."

As before, the shuttle, commanded this time by Lieutenant Connie Cox, would have to remain by the freighter's emergency airlock while the Marines and engineers entered the ship to collect the log information and DNA from the bodies of the crewmembers. While she held the small ship in position, the boarding party, led by Marine Second Lieutenant Xander Lolla, exited the shuttle. Lolla, wearing a thruster harness, then towed everyone the short distance to the ship. Within minutes, the Ares crewmembers were entering the ship.

The log data had been transmitted to the Ares, and the DNA collection was almost complete when the tac officer suddenly announced, "DeTect contact, Captain. Five ships approaching off the starboard quarter. The computer identifies them as Denubbewa warships."

"Lieutenant Cox, this is the Captain. Return to the Ares at once. No arguments. Lieutenant Lolla, we have Denubbewa warships approaching. No time to bring you back aboard. Get your team into escape pods or stasis beds if any are available. We'll return as soon as we can. Acknowledge."

"Acknowledged, sir."

"Helm, as soon as the shuttle is aboard, build the envelope and get us out of here. Make our course reciprocal to that of the Denubbewa."

"Reciprocal, sir?"

"If they came from a mothership I want to know it, and know where it is."

The wait seemed interminable, but finally the shuttle was aboard and the envelope could be built. Two minutes later, the Ares disappeared from sight just as the Denubbewa warships arrived within firing range.

"What about our people, sir?" Commander Gates asked.

"We're not equipped to fight Denubbewa warships with the Ares. If we stay here and fight, we all die. We need scout-destroyers with bombing capability. But every SDB we have has been sent out to search for Denubbewa in that part of Region Two where they were last seen. Damned clever of the Denubbewa to leave that cyborg body on the Lina Algocoldo."

"Clever, sir?"

"If we hadn't found that, I would have requested SDBs join us right away. But that body indicated that someone was trying to make us think it was Denubbewa when it actually wasn't. Clever."

"Yes, sir. I see."

"I'm going to send a message to HQ, XO. Keep a sharp lookout for any sign of a mothership or a further Denubbewa presence. You have the bridge."

"Aye, sir, I have the bridge," Gates said.

Captain Gavin sat down behind his desk and touched the sensor spot on the com unit that would begin recording an outgoing message.

"Message to Admiral Brian Holt, HQ, Quesann Space Command Base. Begin message.

"Brian, we've just run away from five Denubbewa warships that seemed intent on engaging us. We had come across a third derelict freighter and an investigation team was aboard collecting log data and DNA when the Denubbewa showed up. I only had time to recover the shuttle standing by outside the derelict. My investigation team is still aboard the freighter. We have a scout-destroyer with bombing capability in our docking collar beneath the ship, but as you know, bombing runs require two. So I need at least one SDB here as soon as possible if we're to have a chance of recovering our people and destroying the Denubbewa warships attacking freighters in the Ares patrol area. A dozen would be better since I have no idea how many Denubbewa ships might be in this vicinity. We are currently traveling on a reciprocal course to the one on which the Denubbewa arrived. Since we couldn't engage those warships, I'm hoping to at least pick up some information about their current point of origin. I hate leaving people behind, but saving the thirty-five hundred crewmembers aboard the Ares naturally took priority.

"Lawrence F. Gavin, Captain, aboard the GSC Battleship Ares. End of message."

Captain Gavin sat back in his chair and thought about the people he had left behind. There had really been no choice. The Denubbewa had easily destroyed every Space Command warship that had gone up against them before Admiral Carver devised the ingenious tactic of using the scout-destroyers as bombers. The SDB would actually lay a bomb inside the Denubbewa ships as the out-of-phase scout-destroyer passed through the enemy ship, but the timing sequences that allowed for the precise placement required two SDBs with their propulsion and weapons systems linked together via telemetry data. All new scout-destroyers and destroyers were being equipped with bomber capability before they left the shipyards, but older ships were still waiting to be retrofitted and had standing orders to avoid any contact with Denubbewa ships. No frigates, cruisers or battleships were being retrofitted for bomber capability.

Gavin felt that Jenetta should be aware of the new Denubbewa threat but didn't know if she was still being kept apprised of developments in Region Two, so he prepared a special report to her and sent it off before heading to his quarters to have dinner. Gates would keep him informed if anything developed.












Chapter Nineteen

~ August 6nd, 2289 ~



"No, sir, nothing yet," Commander Gates said when Gavin contacted the bridge after dinner to learn if there had been any sign of a mothership or any sightings that might point to a Denubbewa base. There was little doubt now that the Denubbewa were responsible for the freighter attacks, and those ten-kilometer-long cargo sections had to be hidden somewhere.

"Very well, XO. Let's swing around and head back to the derelict. We need to keep an eye on those Denubbewa ships until the second SDB gets here."

"Aye, sir. We'll change course immediately."

"Maintain maximum DeTect distance when we locate them and don't drop our envelope for any reason."

"Aye, sir."

~

"No sign of the Denubbewa warships, sir," Gates said when he contacted Gavin after the Ares arrived back at the derelict.

"I don't want to begin a rescue operation for our missing people and have it interrupted by their return, so let's perform a thorough sweep of the area out to a hundred billion kilometers. Drop Distant DeTect sensor buoys at key locations to increase our DeTect range. If the space is clear, we'll go get our people off that derelict."

"Aye, Captain. We'll begin a full sweep of the area."

"Alert the next two pilots on rotation to be ready and standing by."

"Aye, Captain."

"Out," Gavin said.

"Out," Gates acknowledged, then passed on the captain's orders to the helm to begin the sweep and instructed the tac officer to alert the next two shuttle pilots on the rotation list.

~

Four hours later, a thorough sweep of the area confirmed that no Denubbewa warships were within a hundred billion kilometers. If any did return, the DeTect sensor buoys would alert the Ares in sufficient time to complete the rescue and evacuate the area.

Two shuttles were launched, one empty but for the pilot. The other contained two Marine fire teams, a staff sergeant, and a second lieutenant. The Marines would attempt to locate and recover the Ares crewmembers from the first boarding party.

Gavin had come to the bridge as soon as the shuttles were launched. Gates had moved to the XO chair, but Gavin didn't assume control of the bridge. He let his XO continue as commander.

As the Marines entered the derelict, the front monitor on the Ares bridge showed the image from each of the ten helmet cams. The Marines started with the escape pods, but all were empty, so they moved to the sick bay. There had been four stasis beds there, but all were missing.

"I'm not liking this," Gavin mumbled under his breath.

"Ares, this is Lieutenant Dayner. No joy in either the escape pods or sick bay. Any suggestions?"

"Are you picking up any signs of life with your monitors?" Gates asked.

"Nothing indicated."

"Dayner, perform as thorough a search of the ship as possible, seeking signs of any of our people or any other sign of life."

"Aye, sir."

An hour later, the exhaustive search had been completed with negative results. If the Ares crewmembers had been aboard the freighter, the Marines would have found them. Freighters were not that large that they could have missed them even if the Marines hadn't had search sensors that could pick up the heartbeat of a mouse. The shuttles returned to the Ares empty but for the crewmen that had gone on the recovery mission.

"In my office, XO," Gavin said to Gates after the shuttles had returned and the Ares had once again built its temporal envelope. Gates gave temporary command to the helmsman as he climbed down from his chair.

"Dammit," Gavin said as the doors of his office closed behind Gates. "The Denubbewa must have taken them."

"It would seem so, sir."

"What's the name of that ship?" Gavin asked.

"According to its logs, it's called the Galada Tomestora. The cargo on this run was listed as foodstuffs and unprocessed ores."

"What registry?"

"Centrasia."

"How long has it been missing?"

"It hasn't been reported as missing yet."

Talking aloud as he thought, Gavin said, "So it's a very recent kill. The Denubbewa had already taken the cargo, and there was nothing worth salvaging in the freighter. So why were they returning?"

"I don't know, sir."

"Perhaps they weren't returning, XO."

"They weren't returning to the Galada Tomestora? "

"I'm thinking now that perhaps we went the wrong way."

"The wrong way, sir?"

"When we went in search of the mothership I believed the warships had launched from, perhaps they were actually returning to their mothership, not coming from it. Their course just happened to take them near one of their kills."

"So the mothership might be on the course they were traveling?"

"It's a possibility. Let's head that same way and see if we can pick up their trail."

"Aye, sir. Should we recover the sensor buoys first?"

"No. Leave them in place. We'll be alerted if they return here. That's all, XO."

"Aye, sir."

~

Ninety-six minutes later, the Ares passed the Denubbewa warships. They were still on the same course they had been following when they were spotted approaching the Galada Tomestora. At Light-9790, the Ares passed the small task force of Denubbewa ships in the blink of an eye, and it's doubtful the warships even realized why a blip had appeared momentarily on their screens and then disappeared just as quickly. Gavin had retired for the evening but would be on the bridge in minutes if called. Gates decided not to call him just yet and had the battleship continue on course. The Denubbewa warships were headed somewhere, and Space Command needed to know where.

~

When Captain Gavin arrived on the bridge at the beginning of first watch, Lt. Commander Eliza Carver had the bridge. She briefed Gavin on the situation and then was relieved.

Gavin settled into the command chair and focused on the front monitor as he thought. In almost half a day they had traveled some twelve light-years. It would take the Denubbewa more than twelve days to cover that same distance. Since Gavin was following up on the only lead they had, he made up his mind to follow the present course for no more than five days total.

Since the first destruction of a Denubbewa warship, it had been known that the cyborgs had a mechanical body with an organic brain, but no one knew anything about their thought processes. It had always been assumed that the cyborg race acted like computers, and indeed all previous evidence seemed to point to this conclusion. Since the shortest distance between two points was a straight line, it was logical to assume that the Denubbewa course would take the Ares directly to a place of importance, whether that was a base or a mothership. But how far was that place?

~     ~     ~

Gavin got his answer when he was awakened two days later at 0325.

"Captain," he said sleepily.

"Lt. Commander Carver, sir. We've found them."

Gavin was instantly awake. "A mothership?"

"It appears to be four motherships, sir, but we only got a momentary glimpse before we were past them. We're currently holding at ten billion kilometers beyond the cluster of ships."

"I'll be on the bridge within five minutes, Commander."

"Aye, sir."

"Out."

Eliza leaned back in the command chair and looked at the blurry image on the front monitor. The great distance and incredible speed had combined to make the single frame all but unrecognizable. But there wasn't anything else it could be.

As Gavin stepped onto the bridge a few minutes later, he stopped well short of his command chair as he stared at the front monitor. "Damn," was all he said before heading to his office to compose a message to Space Command.

When Gavin returned, he climbed into the command chair as Eliza moved to the XO chair. "Where are we, Commander?"

"The middle of nowhere, sir. The nearest star is sixteen light-years from here, and we're not on any normally traveled trade routes. The Denubbewa picked the perfect place to hide their motherships."

"Okay. Good job, Commander. Now I have another job for you. I want you take the Pechora and get some better images of those motherships. Then I want you perform a daily flyby at maximum range on different vectors to verify they are still there each day until we can assemble a task force of SDBs. The Ares will move off to a rendezvous location ten light-years away to await the arrival of our other ships."

"Aye, sir. When should I leave?"

"Now. You're relieved of bridge duty for the rest of the watch. As we speak, an SDB crew is being notified by the computer to report to the ship."

"Aye, sir," Eliza said as she hopped out of the XO chair.

"I have the bridge, Commander. Good luck."

"Thank you, sir."

In twenty minutes, Eliza had picked up the things she would need from her quarters and was entering the Pechora via the docking collar hatch. In an emergency, a Scout-Destroyer could launch within five minutes, but launch time wasn't critical on this occasion so the bridge team prepped the ship according to standard launch protocols. Even so, the SDB with a full crew of one hundred eighty-five aboard dropped from beneath the Ares within thirty minutes from the time Eliza entered the ship.

Eliza didn't waste any time. She knew the captain wanted— nay needed— detailed images of the Denubbewa motherships to plan an attack once the SDBs arrived.

So as not to compromise the current location of the Ares, Eliza had the navigator plot an approach vector that couldn't be associated with the location of the Ares if it had been noticed as it flew by earlier. Before beginning the run, Eliza addressed the crew and explained what they were doing and why, as well as the overall mission.

When the bridge crew was ready, Eliza ordered the ship forward. The SDB passed within twenty kilometers of the stationary motherships. It appeared and disappeared before the Denubbewa could have even known it was approaching. And the double envelope used to achieve Light-9790 made any DeTect wave reflections appear like erratic neutrinos. If they passed that close on a regular basis, the Denubbewa would eventually learn what was causing the momentary blips, but this was just a special, onetime event. In the future, flybys for the purpose of monitoring their continued presence at the same location would be done at maximum distance. Clarity of later images wouldn't be important. They would only need to verify the continued presence of the Denubbewa mothership fleet.

As the SDB reached the location where they would wait until it was time to perform the next daily flyby, Eliza had the tac officer display the newly recorded images on the front monitor. As the first, incredibly detailed images appeared, Eliza couldn't completely mask her horror. She mumbled, "The captain isn't going to be pleased with this development. Space Command isn't going to be pleased either. Heck, even I'm not pleased."

Jumping up from her command chair, Eliza gave control of the bridge to the helmsman and walked quickly to the office on the larboard side of the SDB bridge. Captain Gavin had to hear the news immediately.

~     ~     ~

"Your Grace," Captain Pwuhvasqu, her chief of security, said when she picked up the phone, "a Space Command vessel has entered orbit around the planet. "They request that they be allowed to send a shuttle down to the palace."

"What ship is it, Captain?"

"The GSC Destroyer Dublin, Your Grace."

"Permission granted, Captain."

"Thank you, Your Grace. I shall inform them."

Jenetta had requested that Admiral Platt send two destroyers when the Clidepp refugees began to arrive, but she hadn't expected one to arrive this soon. She checked her appearance in a mirror and then left to greet whoever was arriving. The shuttle might take as long as a half hour to arrive on the palace shuttle pad, but she wanted to be there when it arrived. It was taking her longer and longer to get from place to place these days because she had to move so slowly, but she arrived before the ramp had fully extended.

Jenetta had expected a senior bridge officer, but the person who stepped through the hatch was a medical doctor. Jenetta waited until he stepped off the ramp before saying, "Welcome to Obotymot, Doctor."

Lt. Commander Fabrini stopped, came to attention and saluted.

Jenetta returned the salute, even though she wasn't in uniform.

"Admiral Carver, Admiral Platt sends her regards. She requested that we stop and invite you up to the ship for a complete medical exam. She said there are no Terran doctors on the planet and it's been some months since your last checkup by the doctors aboard the GSC Destroyer Vancouver."

"That was very kind of Admiral Platt. I'm about to enter my third trimester soon and the babies have seemed unusually active. I would welcome a checkup."

The arrival of the shuttle had attracted the attention of everyone in the palace. Annette, Regina, Marisa, Arturo, Berl, and the twelve Jumakas had all come hurrying out to see what was going on. The cubs lined up in front of their parents.

Annette stepped forward to stand next to Jenetta and said, "I'm coming up with you."

"It's not necessary, Mama."

"I'm coming."

Jenetta smiled and said, "Okay, Mama."

Cayla and Tayna then stepped forward and Jenetta heard in her CT, "We're coming also, Jenetta."

Jenetta looked at them and said, "Okay, girls, you can come also."

"Can we bring our babies?"

"No, not this time. Your babies should remain here. We'll be back shortly. I'm sure Thor and Nicky can look after them until then."

When Jenetta turned back towards Dr. Fabrini, he smiled and said, "You talk to your pets as if they're people. It was almost like you were having a conversation."

Other people might have been getting tired of responding to that same general remark, but Jenetta was happy to explain the situation to everyone who was interested. It was going to take a lot of effort to get people to accept that the Jumaka race was deserving of sentiency status, and she looked upon this as 'priming the pump.' "They're not my pets, Doctor, they're my friends. And they are sentient creatures who understand several languages. Their larynx doesn't allow them to converse directly with Terrans, but we've developed a translation device like the alien translators in widespread use for interaction with other species. It sends their speech— what seems like growls and mewls to the Terran ear— to the range extender I'm wearing, which sends the converted speech directly to my CT."

"So you can actually have a complete conversation with them?"

"Just as complete as the conversation I'm having with you right now."

"Amazing. Everyone in Space Command knows you have two Jumakas or rather had two Jumakas, but I don't think anyone knows they're sentient."

"We're going to change that perception. Shall we go?"

~     ~     ~

Captain Rokowski, the Dublin's commanding officer, along with a medical team, was standing by to greet Jenetta when she exited the shuttle. Once introductions were out of the way, Dr. Fabrini signaled to a corpsman with an oh-gee chair. The corpsman approached Jenetta and lowered the chair to the deck. Jenetta breathed a sigh of relief as she sat. The seat of the chair was covered in an oh-gee fabric that made the occupant float very slightly above the surface, so Jenetta felt almost weightless. The corpsman then passed a safety strap around her chest to keep her in the chair as he raised it and began lightly pushing towards the sickbay.

The Dublin's medical staff was fast and efficient. Within an hour, all tests had been completed, and Dr. Fabrini sat down to discuss their findings.

"You say you're in your sixth month, Admiral, but our instruments say you're in your eighth month and almost ready to deliver."

"I can't be. I used a contraceptive until February to prevent pregnancy."

"Which contraceptive?"

"Genobarazon."

"Well, that's one of the best and the safest, but this time it appears it didn't work. Perhaps it's that unique physiology of yours. It might have neutralized the effects of the drug in the way it neutralizes alcohol in your system."

"Oh, no. Does that mean that every time my husband and I have sex, I might get pregnant?"

"It's possible, if your reproductive cycle is right, but I can't say definitively without tests, and I can't run those tests while you're pregnant. Perhaps you might put the full responsibility for contraception on him until you know?"

"Well, at least I understand why I'm so huge for six months. Eight months makes a lot more sense. So when will I deliver?"

"When your body decides it's time. But it could happen any time now, or any time during the next thirty days."

"Do the babies look okay?"

"They look perfect, according to all our readings. I'm going to arrange for a birthing room next to the sick bay. You'll stay here until it's time."

"No. I will have my children at the family estate on Obotymot. It's the beginning of a tradition."

Dr. Fabrini smiled. "Admiral Platt thought you might insist on that. She authorized us to set up a mobile unit on the planet until the delivery and then provide support for an additional month."

"Admiral Platt seems to know me as well as my own mother. Very well, Doctor. Set up your mobile unit. We have plenty of space inside the palace, so you won't have to operate out of a shuttle or portable shelter."

~     ~     ~

Two days later the mobile unit was set up and operating. Annette had wanted the Obotymot midwife who had delivered Arturo and Berl but was delighted with having a Terran medical unit in case there were any complications.

The medical unit had set up their operation just one floor down from the penthouse suites reserved for Family Carver members. The rooms there, originally intended for Nordakian nobility of Azulo and Azula rank when the royal family visited Obotymot, were large and spacious. Other than a daily check on Jenetta, there was nothing for the medical staff to do, so they sat around drinking coffee and dreaming of what it would be like to live in the luxurious splendor of the palace on a permanent basis.

Some of the medical staff began spending time in the gardens, watching Arturo and Berl play with the cubs. They were fascinated by the Jumakas and the familial relationships of the species. They were especially intrigued when Cayla or Tayna would conduct a class with their offspring. The cubs would line up like students in a class and pay complete attention to their parents. It was like watching Terran children in school, except if the attention of one of the cubs wandered, they would get a paw smacked across the side of their head— no claws, just a gentle reminder to pay attention. Even mild corporal punishment, such as a ruler across the palm, had long ago been outlawed in some cultures on Earth when students failed to pay complete attention to their teacher or when they failed to complete their school assignments, but it was still de rigueur on most worlds in GA space.

~     ~     ~

Jenetta was walking from her private office in her suite to her bedroom when her water broke. Her babies weren't going to wait any longer to be born. She pressed the button on the special wrist monitor she was wearing and every member of the medical team was alerted instantly. Before she could even reach the doors to the corridor, two nurses had opened those doors and were pushing an oh-gee gurney into her sitting room. They helped Jenetta get aboard and then pushed the gurney towards the elevator.












Chapter Twenty

~ August 9th, 2289 ~



"I call this emergency session of the Admiralty Board to order," Admiral Moore said.

The large hall was almost empty. Only the admirals seated at the large horseshoe-shaped table and a few of their key aides seated behind their bosses were in attendance. The gallery seating was completely empty.

"I'm going to play a message received from Captain Lawrence Gavin a few hours ago." Admiral Moore nodded towards an aide and the image of Captain Gavin filled the enormous monitor on the wall behind the Admiral of the Fleet.

"I have a most serious condition to report," the image of Gavin said. "You've no doubt received my previous message about the five Denubbewa warships. We successfully determined their destination and have arrived here days ahead of them. What we've found is a Denubbewa base. Allow me to put up an image taken by the Pechora, commanded by Lt. Commander Eliza Carver."

The sharpest image available from the SDB filled the monitor as Captain Gavin's voice could be heard describing the scene.

"As you can see, there is one complete Denubbewa mothership surrounded by three more motherships in various stages of completion. We know now why the Denubbewa have been attacking freighters. It wasn't for the value of the cargo or the foodstuffs. It was for the kilometers of unprocessed ore the freighters were transporting. In the image you can see what appears to be a foundry. Of even more concern are the number of other motherships being built. In the image you can see at least twelve more hulls already laid. That will give the Denubbewa sixteen motherships right in the heart of Region Two if we don't destroy them.

"I asked for a handful of SDBs when I thought we were facing five Denubbewa warships. Now I'm requesting every SDB you can send. We have to stop the construction and stop it now. I have no idea if any part of those three partially constructed motherships are operational, but I think we can assume the one mothership is fully operational and probably packed with Denubbewa warships that will come streaming out like bees from a bothered hive when we attack. We have to hit them, and hit them with everything we've got. I leave the ship assignment request with you.

"Lawrence F. Gavin, Captain, aboard the Ares on patrol in Region Two. Message complete."

Normally, the monitor cleared when the message was completed, but Admiral Moore's aide had paused the playback because he believed the admirals would want to study it. There was silence around the table while everyone looked at the image showing the Denubbewa shipbuilding scene.

"They're back," Admiral Plimley said, breaking the silence.

"They never left," Admiral Woo said. "We just didn't know they were there. Those nearly completed motherships weren't just slapped together in a few months. Even creatures who can work twenty-four/seven because machines don't have to sleep can't work that fast."

"It makes you wonder how many other places there are like this in the GA. This is just one miniscule area in a region that's two thousand light-years across and almost as wide."

"When my SCI agents came across that Denubbewa mothership in Region Three," Admiral Bradlee said, "I hoped it was just an anomaly. Now I find myself wondering just how many operational Denubbewa motherships are out there and how many more are being built as we speak. There could be operations such as this one sprinkled throughout GA space, including Region One. All they need is a source of ore and a construction site in a place where spaceship traffic is limited."

"But even if they have the ships," Admiral Yuthkotl said, "they certainly can't have enough people to crew them."

"If they were people," Admiral Hillaire said, "I'd probably agree with you. But we're talking about mechanical beings that can be produced on an assembly line. Even if they do have an organic brain, they probably have some way of growing those quickly. Why else would they be building so many ships?"

"Perhaps this is the way the Denubbewa always conquer new territory," Admiral Bradlee said thoughtfully. "Rather than a massive invasion, as we've been expecting, perhaps they send a dozen or more motherships to different remote locations and those ships begin building new fleets so as to attack from within. Then when the ships are ready, they crank up their assembly line and start turning out cyborgs to man the ships."

"The new shipyard at Lorense-Three is ready to come on line," Admiral Moore said. "The docks we confiscated from the Uthlaro are in place and the yard personnel are almost ready to start production. We were planning on building a mix of warships, but it now seems like we should concentrate all production on new Scout-Destroyer-Bombers. We must also step up retrofit efforts to add bombing capability to all older SDs. It's frustrating that our biggest and most dangerous warships are completely useless against the Denubbewa and must run away when they encounter them."

"When will the new foundry orbiting Lorense-Six begin operations?" Admiral Burke asked.

"They expect to begin full-scale operations this month," Admiral Ahmed said. "The preliminary work Admiral Carver did before she took her LOA sped the process considerably, and the foundry is already producing raw Tritanium and Dakinium. Once they finish constructing the various jigs and forms they'll need to produce ship framework, engines, components, and sheathing, they'll run twenty-four/seven."

"I'll notify the yard managers at both facilities to halt work on everything except SDBs," Admiral Moore said. "In the meantime, I make a motion that we send fully half our SDBs to rendezvous with the Ares to destroy the motherships they've located."

As Admiral Moore looked around the table, every admiral nodded.

"It appears to be unanimous, unless I've misread the reactions to the request. Does anyone disagree?"

After ten seconds of silence, Admiral Moore said, "Let the log show that the motion has passed unanimously. Captain Gavin will get a task force of SDBs to eliminate the Denubbewa threat in his patrol area."

~     ~     ~

Jenetta's eyes fluttered slightly, then opened wide. "Mama?" she said.

Annette had been reading in a chair next to the bed and didn't realize Jenetta was awake until she heard her speak. She put down the viewpad and smiled at her daughter. "Hi, baby. How do you feel?"

"Better than I have in months, Mama. Are my babies okay?"

"You are now the mother of two beautiful children."

"But are they okay? Any problems or— anomalies?"

"None that anyone has observed," Christa said as she walked to where Jenetta could see her. "Don't you remember the delivery?"

"Christa, you made it!"

"When an admiral sends her barge to pick you up, you go."

"It wasn't an order. It was just an invitation."

"I know. And I wouldn't miss this for anything. I arrived during the delivery. Afterwards, while you were out cold, I sent messages to dad, Eliza, and the boys. I'll let you take care of telling Hugh, and I'm sure everyone is going to be dying to see pictures."

"I'll never forget the delivery, but I must have passed out immediately afterwards."

"Yes, you did," Annette said. "The doctor was a bit worried until he examined you, but he said everything seemed fine. They brought you up here to your own bed after the delivery was over."

"I want to see my babies," Jenetta said, throwing back the linens that covered her and swinging her legs over the side of her bed.

"Jenetta, calm down and get back in bed. They'll bring your children to you."

"I'm fine, Mama. I heal ten times faster than other people, remember? For me it feels like days since I delivered. I feel wonderful. Better than I have in months."

Annette stood up and walked to where her daughter was getting to her feet. "Okay, dear, but hold my arm and tell me if you begin to feel faint."

"I feel wonderful, Mama."

"Then do it for my peace of mind."

"Okay, Mama," Jenetta said as she slipped her feet into her carpet skimmers. "I can't go out in my nightgown. I need a robe."

"Let's walk to your closet."

Once Jenetta had her robe, she, Annette, and Christa walked out into the sitting room. There were several medical people there, and they jumped to their feet when Jenetta suddenly appeared.

"As you were," Jenetta said. "Relax. I just want to see my babies."

"You shouldn't be up yet, Admiral," one of the doctors said. "You're too weak."

"I'm fine, Commander. I feel like I could run ten laps around the palace. Where are my babies?"

"In the first handmaiden bedroom, dear," Annette said.

As they entered the room, the two nurses in there braced to attention.

"As you were. I'm just here to see my babies."

"We would have brought them to you if we'd known you were awake, Admiral," one of the nurses said as they relaxed. "They should be fed now, if you feel up to it."

"Let me just look at them for a couple of minutes, then they can chow down on mama's milk."

The babies were in small plastic-like enclosures that had the appearance of incubators, but the units weren't sealed and the top lifted up on pneumatic hinges that would hold the cover up until it was pushed down to a closed position.

"They're beautiful, Mama," Jenetta said.

"They both have your looks. Blonde hair, azure eyes, and fair skin."

"Like Arturo and Berl. All the kids are fair."

"The Carver genes, I guess," Christa said.

"Which was born first?" Jenetta asked.

"Your daughter was out ahead of your son by two minutes. Is that important?"

"It is in the Nordakian nobility line of succession. It means that she has first claim to the title. I hope Hugh isn't upset when he learns the boy doesn't look like him."

"He won't be. He loves you, and the kids look like you. I'm sure he'll love them."

"I have to tell him he's a daddy."

"That can wait until after the babies are fed. Do you feel up to it?"

"I feel wonderful, Mama. It's so great to be able to see my feet again."

"I know, dear. I had that experience four times. The most difficult time was with Andy and Jimmy. And like you, I felt wonderful when it was over, but the months of discomfort had been worth it."

"I'm glad it didn't prevent you from having one more."

"I had made up my mind that I was going to have a girl and wasn't going to stop making babies until I did. I guess you're lucky you don't have twenty brothers."

"I'm glad I came along in time to save you all that extra effort."

"It wasn't really an effort. I loved every minute of those years. Well, perhaps not every minute. There were times when you kids tried my patience. But you'll see what I mean. Now I can sit back and enjoy my grandchildren without suffering months of back pain."

"Okay, Grandma. Let's feed the newest Carvers."

"Wait, you have to name them. The doctor needs that information for the birth certificates."

"Hugh and I decided on Kyle and Kaycee. So it will be Kyle James Carver, and Kaycee Annette Carver."

"Carver?" Christa said. "Not Michaels?"

"Hugh insisted. Because of the prominence of the Carver name on Nordakia, Obotymot, and in the GA, he wants the kids to be recognized as Carvers wherever they go. James is Hugh's middle name, so Kyle will have a name link to his father, just as Kaycee will have a name link to her grandmother."

~     ~     ~

The tenants on the peninsula naturally knew of Azula Carver's pregnancy, and when they learned that there were two new possible heirs to the title, they celebrated the births. The celebrations weren't organized affairs, but the taverns and restaurants were busy with parties and revelers for two days.

~     ~     ~

"Sir, when we performed our flyby today we realized that one of the motherships is gone," Eliza reported from the SDB Pechora. "Since only one mothership appeared operational in the original images, that has to be the missing ship."

"Damn," Gavin said. "The AB has ordered half the SDBs in Region Two to rendezvous at our location, but it will be weeks before they can arrive because they've been operating at the extreme limits of GA space. You're sure the ship is gone?"

"We were operating at the maximum DeTect range, so I suppose it's possible we missed it, but I didn't want to risk another flyby without consulting you first."

"We need to know. You're authorized for a second imaging flyby, Commander, at a distance that leaves no doubt."

"Aye, sir. We'll commence the run as soon as I sign off."

"Contact me again when you've confirmed the situation."

"Aye, sir."

"Out."

Eliza returned to the bridge and issued orders for the imaging run, then sat back and watched the forward view being projected on the front monitor.

~

"It's confirmed, sir, the mothership is no longer at the site, and it appears that all activity has ceased."

"Damn. I hope we haven't lost the opportunity to destroy that ship. You saw no sign of any activity?"

"That's correct, sir. It looks like they've abandoned the unfinished ships."

"Transmit the images to us so our people here can examine them as well."

"Aye, sir. Transmitting now. They're on their way."

"Commander, we have to find that mothership."

"We have no idea which way it headed, sir, and they could have an entire day's head start. It will be like finding a minnow in an ocean, but we'll commence a search immediately."

"Maybe we'll get lucky. We have twenty times their speed capability, so we can cover a lot of space while they're still within a day's travel. In any event, we can't be any worse off than we are right now."

"Are you going to cancel the rendezvous, sir?"

"No. We'll need every ship we can assemble here to search for that missing mothership if we can't find it within a few days."

"Aye, sir."

"We'll begin searching as well. Coordinate your search with the Ares tac officer so we don't cover the same areas."

"Aye, sir."

"Out."

~     ~     ~

"The chairman of the Lower Council wishes to address us today," Chairwoman Gladsworth said to the members of the Upper Council as she called the meeting to order. "Chairwoman Shanara, you have the floor."

"I'm here today at the request of this council to report on the progress of our attempts to secure the cloning documentation. So far all attempts have failed. I've tried bribery, blackmail, threats to the individual, threats to the individual's family, and outright theft of the documentation. The main problem with the latter option seems to be that when Soroman authorized a mass assassination of the planetary leadership, he killed most of the people who might have known where the files were currently being kept and where any backups might be found.

"As you know, the Dakistians are rebuilding their world and government offices have been moving around like chess pieces as new buildings are completed. The key agencies that were being quartered on an interim basis in high-rise office buildings have moved out because the president declared that those buildings couldn't be properly secured for government activity. Those agencies have temporarily moved into small buildings intended for museums and schools where everyone even entering the building can be searched. In brief, it was a mess before, and Soroman made it ten times worse by killing all those government ministers and employees.

"I'm not saying we'll never get the documentation, but you have to realize that it will be a long-term project. We may not see any results until the agencies stop moving around, the president has a chance to rebuild her cabinet, and those new ministers learn to distinguish their rump from their elbow."

"How much time do you think that will take, Chairwoman Shanara?" Chairwoman Gladsworth asked.

"It's impossible to tell. Most political appointees who are placed in positions of power that didn't require any special education or training for the job are often political hacks whose only skills are fundraising and/or sucking up to higher ups. Most of the ambassadors on Earth, as an example, are people who bought their jobs by making enormous contributions to their president's election fund from either personal wealth or their talent for squeezing money from the president's political supporters. Take the U.S. as an example. If you've ever seen a committee hearing where ambassador nominees were being questioned before their nomination was approved, you'd know what I mean. I remember one where the nominee had never even been to the country he was being considered for and didn't even know what form of government was in place in that country. In another hearing, the nominee being considered for the top ambassadorial position couldn't even identify where the country was located on the map."

"Yes, those are the kind of dolts we can usually turn," Councilwoman Stengel said.

"True. Those are the types of people most susceptible to bribery because that's how they got where they are, and once they get there, they're more than happy to take money instead of giving it. But at the same time, the individual has to have knowledge that we need or power we can corrupt and manipulate. I'll continue my efforts to corrupt people inside the Dakistee government, but it will take time before they learn enough to be worth the bribery money I'll have to pay.

"The other alternative is to develop a procedure where we produce our own clones without the Dakistee documentation. That will not be difficult at all. Scientists on earth had already succeeded in cloning animals before governments began making it illegal for anyone other than government agencies to continue such research. The old research is available and we can simply start from where it was dropped and complete the process. However, we don't have the growth secrets that will age them in a week's time so they'd be useful right away. Again, that's something we can work on and possibly develop within a decade or two. The real problem is finding a way to duplicate the contents of the cloned individual's brain in a new body. We can selectively wipe a person's mind at present, causing a condition such as amnesia going back as far as we wish, and we can insert new thoughts that they believe were acquired on their own. But to copy every thought and memory in the original's head, hold it in long-term storage until needed, and then create an identical clone of the original is well beyond us at this time. If you wish me to begin work on such a project, I will start immediately, but I wouldn't expect any kind of results for at least twenty years, and more likely fifty."

"Thank you for the update, Chairwoman Shanara. The council will discuss it and tell you of our decision or perhaps call you back if we have more questions."

Shanara stood up, thanked the Upper Council members for the opportunity to explain the situation, and left the room.

"She certainly sounds just like the old Strauss," Councilwoman Stengel said. "It's refreshing after that fool Soroman."

"I agree," Councilwoman Whitely said. "But it would be a shame if we had to wait fifty years before we could make our own clones."

"Shanara isn't going to give up trying to get the documentation from the Dakistians," Gladsworth said. "That was another of Strauss's endearing qualities. He had the tenacity of a bulldog protecting his bone, and now we have him back as Shanara. I must say, though, I didn't care for the dress she's wearing today."

"And she had a little too much rouge on her cheeks," Stengel said.

"I don't care for her hairstyle," Whitely said. "The bangs make her look less intelligent."

"And she's tall enough that she doesn't have to wear thirteen-centimeter heels," Overgaard said.

Council members Kelleher, Fazid, and Blosworth, the only male members on the council, and three of the four most junior members, sat back and tolerated the ensuing discussion of clothes and makeup that seemed so important to the nine women on the council.

An hour or so later, the council finally returned to work on the day's agenda.












Chapter Twenty-One

~ August 22th, 2289 ~



"The crew of the Ares welcomes the crew of the Koshi," Gavin said to Lt. Commander Ellison when the GSC-SDB116 arrived at the rendezvous point.

"Thank you, sir," Ellison said. "I guess we lost an opportunity to bag a mothership because we were just too far away."

"It couldn't be helped, Commander. We never expected to find a mothership this close to Quesann. The other ships were turned back when the Ares and Pechora couldn't find it after an exhaustive search, but with the Koshi and the Pechora watching our backs, the Ares engineers can now enter those motherships that were being built and determine how far along they were, and try to figure out how long it takes them to build one of those monsters. We couldn't do it before because if the Denubbewa mothership returned, we'd have to vacate the area and possibly not have time to recover our people. With two SDBs patrolling the area, we can blow them away before they know what hit them."

"Yes, sir. When do you wish to begin?"

"It's 1426 GST right now. Contact Lt. Commander Carver aboard the Pechora to establish your bombing linkup. We'll move to the Denubbewa shipyard and my engineers will leave the Ares in a shuttle at 1500 and proceed to the most complete of the three motherships. You'll have to be prepared to take on any Denubbewa that show up."

"We'll be ready, sir."

"Very good, Commander. Carry on. Out."

The Ares left the rendezvous location and moved to a position near the most completed of the gargantuan Denubbewa motherships. At 1500 the Ares cancelled its envelope and a shuttle left one of the bays. Ten minutes later the shuttle was sitting just outside the mothership. The ship was so enormous, the pilot wasn't sure where to bring the small ship to a stop. The officer in command of the investigation team suggested they enter the tunnel leading to the interior of the mothership as if they were a Denubbewa warship returning to base. The pilot agreed that might be the best solution and entered the tunnel. It was the last decision he would ever make. Before the shuttle had flown a dozen kilometers into the tunnel, powerful laser beams flashed out from the sidewalls, neatly slicing the small ship in half. Because it happened well inside the tunnel entrance, the Ares was unable to see the defensive action.

"What's happened?" Gavin said from his command chair. "What happened to the shuttle signal? Is it being jammed?"

"I'm not sensing any jamming signals, sir," the tac officer said.

"Then are the Denubbewa blocking it somehow?"

"I'm not getting anything, sir. Nothing at all."

"I see something floating out of the entranceway tunnel, sir," Commander Gates said.

"Tac, maximum magnification on that object."

"Maximum magnification, sir. It looks like— the shuttle, but it's— in two pieces."

"It is our shuttle. You can see headless bodies still strapped into their seats, from the pilot back. Who was piloting that ship?"

"Lt. Ben Parksman, sir," Gates said.

"Is that mothership occupied? Was that a deliberate attack?"

"I'm not seeing any signs of life, sir," the tac officer said, "although the Denubbewa don't emit much in the way of heat signatures."

"Then who attacked our shuttle?"

"It might have been a sort of self-defense mechanism," Gates said. "Any ship trying to enter the mothership without giving a certain recognition signal might come under fire from an automated laser cannon."

"Well, if that's the case, we certainly can't send any more shuttles in."

"What about sending one of the SDBs, sir? The shuttle was just Tritanium, but the SDBs are Dakinium-sheathed. Laser energy would simply be absorbed. And if they fired something stronger, it would just bounce off."

"Unless they fired some of those small nuclear-tipped missiles. Don't forget the Salado and Yenisei."

"Do you think they'd risk using those missiles inside their own mothership?"

"It would seem unlikely, but who knows?"

"The only other choice seems to be to destroy it so they can't ever use it, but we risk losing an awful lot of valuable intel."

"Com, set up a three-way between the Koshi, the Pechora, and us," Gavin said.

"Aye, sir, ten seconds."

Eight seconds later the images of Ellison and Eliza appeared on the main monitor.

"We just lost the shuttle sent over to that damned mothership," Gavin said. "All aboard were apparently killed when the ship was cut in half along the longitudinal axis. We can't send another Tritanium-hulled ship in there."

"So you want a Dakinium-sheathed ship, sir?" Eliza said. "I volunteer the Pechora."

"This has to be a volunteer effort all the way, Commander, since we are in no danger if we don't venture in. Inform your crew of the risks. Any who don't wish to enter the mothership can transfer to the Koshi. Contact me after any who wish not to go have transferred off your ship. Gavin out."

Fifteen minutes later, the Ares received a call from the Pechora.

"I made an announcement sir and instructed anyone who wished to transfer to the Koshi before we enter the mothership to immediately report to the shuttle bay. No one has entered the shuttle bay since the announcement."

"Very well, Commander. Proceed at your own pace."

"Yes, sir. Pechora out."

Gavin leaned back in his command chair and stared at the monitor. It was still showing an image of the mothership's entrance at maximum magnification. Suddenly, the image blacked out completely.

"Tac, reduce magnification slightly."

An instant later it was just possible to make out the shape of a black SDB against the star field as it entered the cavernous opening. As it reached a point where the shuttle had been destroyed, a laser beam shot out from the sidewall of the mothership and struck the SDB hull along the center line. The beam didn't have the slightest effect on the Dakinium, and the SDB continued to glide silently into the mothership.

"We're in, sir," Eliza reported. "I always thought the interior of Stewart SCB was large. That entire asteroid would get lost in here. This interior is easily four times as large. The center area appears to be devoted to docks for ship parking, while the outer walls seems to be housing, administration, engineering— or whatever."

"Any signs of life, Commander?"

"None, sir. No Denubbewa warships either."

"Since all of your crewmembers are volunteers, have a couple of dozen engineers suit up in EVA gear, divide into teams of six, and do a little recon. You have Marines, right?"

"Just two squads, sir."

"Send half a squad of Marines with each team as a protection detail."

"Of course, sir.?"

"Have your Marines be on the lookout for intruder prevention weapons like that laser cannon at the port entrance, and booby traps."

"Yes, sir"

"Have your tac officer retransmit all helmet cam images to the Ares."

"Of course, sir. Anything else?"

"That's all for now, Commander. Ares out."

Eliza set up the teams and briefed them, then watched as they left. She would have preferred to lead them, but she was in command now and had to remain with the ship.

Rather than docking, the SDB was floating close to an airlock. The teams moved out and entered the airlock in pairs because it only accommodated two people at a time. Once everyone was inside, the teams separated. Eliza sat in the command chair and watched the helmet cam images on the front monitor.

When Eliza was young, or rather when Jenetta was young, she had watched sci-fi shows where every alien ship seemed to be an organic entity with gooey, dripping walls and equally strange, gooey aliens, or completely impractical crystalline structures such as those that resembled delicate snowflakes. But since she'd joined Space Command, all of the ships she had encountered from all nations and alien life forms seemed rather conventional. Oh sure, the aliens came in every size, shape, and color, and were different on almost every planet, but the ships all seemed fairly conventional. The Denubbewa mothership was no different. She didn't understand the purpose of most of the consoles she saw, but from a materials and construction standpoint, they weren't all that different from Space Command ships. It seemed that practicality won out over abstruse impracticability every time.

The teams stayed aboard the mothership for several hours, and the engineers never entered a place that hadn't first been cleared by the Marines. No intruder-prevention weapons or booby traps had been discovered anywhere. By the time the teams were ordered to return to the Pechora, everything had started to look the same. They still didn't have a clue what most of it did, and it could take years to learn that.

After recovering all her crewmembers, Eliza spoke to Captain Gavin from her office while he was in his office. Commander Gates was with the captain.

"Everything went smoothly, sir, as you saw from the helmet cams. There didn't appear to be any Denubbewa aboard. No one has a clue what the various control consoles do or what the labs were to be used for."

"I understand. We were at a loss to explain their functions as well."

"The only option would seem to be that we drag one of these things back to Quesann for study."

"We have to make sure we're not dragging a Trojan horse before we do that," Gavin said.

"How about if we drag it to the Crondezzo system? At just twenty light-years, it would be close enough to Quesann for a modestly easy commute but not put Quesann in any immediate danger. We could rig the mothership with a couple of WOLaR bombs in case it suddenly came alive and developed a mind of its own. We should also drag those other keels back to the Lorense system foundry to take advantage of the materials and salvage the cargo containers for the freight companies they belong to."

"We'd need a whole fleet of tugs for that."

"The CPS-14s used to recover the space docks and hulls from the Uthlaro's latest effort to rebuild their military fleet should be available."

"I'll contact Quesann and see what they think."

"What should we do now, sir? Return to the Ares?"

"For now, remain inside that behemoth. Keep a sharp lookout for any signs of life. Perhaps some Denubbewa are hiding and just waiting for us to leave."

"Aye, sir. We'll remain in place and monitor the mothership interior for any signs of life until we hear from you."

~     ~     ~

"We've heard from the Ares," Admiral Moore announced at the regular meeting of the AB. "Captain Gavin requests that we send as many CPS-14s as possible to his location. He wants to drag the partially completed Denubbewa motherships to the Crondezzo system so our engineers and scientists can examine them. He also suggests bringing the open hulls to the Lorense system to recycle the materials."

"I'll second that if it's a motion," Admiral Woo said. "The ones Admiral Carver destroyed in her campaign were a mess, and most of the systems were just piles of electronics. We didn't learn very much from them. But intact motherships are a different matter entirely."

"Why the Crondezzo system?" Admiral Burke asked. "There's nothing there."

"That's the whole point. If the motherships are rigged to explode or to respond to remote control and suddenly come to life, the damage would be minimized. He also suggests planting WOLaR weapons inside the hull as a precaution so the ships can be remotely destroyed if they should suddenly come to life."

"That sounds like a sensible precaution," Admiral Hillaire said. "I'll support his proposal."

"All in favor?" Admiral Moore said. Looking around the table at the show of hands, he said, "Let the record show that the Board is unanimously in favor of bringing the three Denubbewa motherships to the Crondezzo system for close inspection and disassembly by our engineers and scientists, and bringing the open hulls to the Lorense system to be used as ship construction material.

"In other new business, I received a vidMail from Admiral Carver overnight. She is now the mother of two healthy babies. One, a girl, has been named Kaycee Annette Carver, and the other, a boy, is Kyle James Carver."

"Then she's not married?" Admiral Plimley said.

"She and soon-to-be Captain Hugh Michaels were married in February. Jen says Hugh insisted the babies have the Carver last name rather than Michaels because of its importance among the nobility on Obotymot and Nordakia.

"She also had a recommendation for the Board. She suggests that instead of requiring two SDBs for every bombing run with the Denubbewa, we could use CPS-14s as the lead ship to provide the telemetry timing data. That way, we could double the search capability of our current fleet of SDBs. If we mounted a CPS-14 collar on the SDBs, like the SDB collar on the battleships, each SDB could have their own CPS-14 with them when it's needed. The battleships can carry a CPS-14 in their shuttle bays to work with their SDB."

"Why not just have the SDBs carry the CPS-14s in their shuttle bay?" Admiral Bradlee asked.

"Admiral Carver says the shuttle bay on the SDB is too small to house a CPS-14."

"The cost of a CPS-14, which is basically a large tug, is miniscule compared to the cost of an SDB," Admiral Ahmed said. "If the Ares had had a CPS-14 with it that had been telemetry-paired with its SDB, they would have gotten that first Denubbewa mothership. I'll second the motion."

"There's no motion on the table yet," Admiral Moore said.

"Then I make a motion that we pair a CPS-14 with every SDB as the lead ship in bombing runs."

"I second the motion," Admiral Bradlee said.

"All in favor?" Admiral Moore said. After glancing around the table, he added, "The motion carries unanimously."

"Why didn't we think of that before?" Admiral Hillarie said. "It's so logical."

"That's why we need Admiral Carver back on active duty in Space Command," Admiral Yuthkotl said. "She never has a problem seeing the forest for the trees."

~     ~     ~

"Pechora, this is the Ares. A Denubbewa mothership just appeared on one of the Distant DeTect sensor buoys we put out. The Ares and Koshi are sounding GQ. The mothership will be here in less than ten minutes."

It was 0352 and the young lieutenant(jg) who was normally a helmsman had the third watch command. He immediately called Eliza's quarters and relayed the information.

"What should I do, Commander?" Lt. Dressa asked nervously.

"First, calm down. What are Captain Gavin's orders?"

"He hasn't transmitted any."

"He must also have been asleep at this hour. Well, he'll tell us as soon as he gets to the bridge. In the meantime, begin building our double envelope. I'll be on the bridge in a few minutes."

By the time Eliza got to the bridge three minutes later, the envelope had been built. Dressa yielded the command chair to Eliza, and she sat down to await the call from Gavin. Dressa moved to the helmsman chair.

"Pechora, this is Gavin. What's your status?"

"We have built our envelope and are awaiting instructions, sir."

"Excellent. We and the Koshi are underway for the rendezvous point. Join us there so the Pechora and the Koshi can link up for a bombing run."

"Aye, Captain. We'll be there straight away."

"Ares out."

"Helm," Eliza said, "take us to the RP."

"Uh, I'll have to drop the envelope so we can maneuver through the tunnel."

"Negative. We can't drop the envelope because it would take us two minutes to rebuild it. Calm down and think, Dressa. Because we have our Transverse Wave double envelope built, we're out of phase. We'll just pass through whatever solid matter we encounter, including this mothership's hull. So just take us directly from here to the RP."

It was Dressa's first time in a bridge command combat situation, so Eliza understood and wouldn't hold it against him as long as he managed to get his nervousness under control.

With a slightly embarrassed expression, Dressa said, "Engaging."

A second later the Pechora was so far from the mothership that it would have been just a distant speck if a rearward image had been up on the monitor.

?

When the Pechora arrived at the original RP location, the Ares and the Koshi were standing by. Gavin had the com chief establish a three-way between the ships. Each command officer saw the other two commanding officers on their front monitor.

"We'll wait to see what the Denubbewa mothership does," Gavin said. "Our sensor buoys are giving us a clear image of the Denubbewa shipyard. Link up and prepare for a bombing run. Then move the ship-to-ship contact screen to your armchair monitors and standby."

The Pechora and Koshi moved into position for the attack run. The Pechora would lead the assault, acting as the targeting ship and transmitting the timing information to the Koshi, which would actually lay the bombs inside the mothership. In previous engagements when attacking a mothership, three WOLaR bombs had been dropped. Three bombs, even WOLaR bombs, had proven inadequate to incapacitate the motherships, so they would now drop five on each pass. Both the Pechora and the Koshi had one hundred WOLaR bombs loaded in their tubes, but the Pechora would only switch places with the Koshi and drop bombs if the Koshi's bombs were not completely successful and the Koshi exhausted its load. They would keep attacking until either the Mothership was destroyed or they both ran out of bombs.

Slightly more than ten minutes later, the Denubbewa mothership came into view on the front monitor of all three Space Command ships.

Gavin waited until it came to a complete stop before saying, "That's your cue, Pechora and Koshi. Good shooting. Let's send these Denubbewa to join their cousins in whatever afterlife these cyborgs believe in."

While the Koshi would actually drop the bombs, it only did so when the Pechora's targeting computer gave the command, so the timing between both ships had to be perfectly synchronized down to the nanosecond. To accomplish that, the Pechora's computers would actually fly the trailing Koshi through the mothership.

Although separated by a considerable distance, both ships moved out as one when Eliza gave the command to engage.












Chapter Twenty-Two

~ September 11th, 2289 ~



Two days after the GSC Destroyer Vancouver arrived at Obotymot, it had departed to continue its patrol duties, but the mobile hospital unit remained for a full month following the birth of the twins. Before they left to rejoin the Vancouver, the doctors certified that Jenetta and her babies were in perfect health.

Jenetta had just finished transmitting her daily vidMail to Hugh from her personal office when Tayna entered. The Jumaka asked if she could see the twins. The hospital staff had managed to keep them out until then, which hadn't been difficult because she and Cayla knew a new mother was entitled to a little privacy right after a birth.

"Of course you can, Tayna. Why don't you and Cayla bring your families in so everyone can see my babies."

Ten minutes later, the entire population of Jumakas on Obotymot— all twelve of them— were lined up in the section of Jenetta's enormous bedroom that had been converted into a nursery. Jenetta wrapped each of the babies in a blanket and placed them in wicker baskets, which she then set on the floor so the Jumakas could see them more easily.

The cubs, now almost seven months old, were almost fifty percent of their expected adult size. It would be like a Terran child being almost three feet tall. But the baskets were a little higher than the cubs were tall, and even stretching their necks didn't enable them to see Kyle and Kaycee clearly. Ruby, one of Tayna's litter, walked up to the edge of the wicker basket and stood on her hind legs with her front paws on the rim of the basket to get a better look. Tayna instantly scolded her and Ruby got down. Tayna 's collar was still active so Jenetta heard the scolding.

"It's okay, Tayna, as long as they don't climb into the baskets with the babies. The babies are much too delicate for that right now."

Tayna told Ruby it was alright to put her front legs on the basket but not to go any further. In seconds, all eight cubs were perched with their two forelegs on the rim of the baskets so they could see.

"Ruby wants to know the name of the baby she's looking at," Tayna said to Jenetta.

"Kaycee."

When Tayna didn't say anything, Jenetta said, "Tayna, do your babies understand Amer?"

"We've been teaching them Amer. They're still learning, but they understand a lot. Ruby knows what you said."

"We'll have to get some more microphone collars made so they can talk with me."

"How soon can your babies talk?" Cayla asked.

"Normally, Terran babies can't talk until they are almost an annual old."

"By then Jumaka babies are full grown and able to hunt on their own."

"Yes, Terran babies are a lot more dependent on their parents for a longer time."

When Ruby said something to Tayna, Tayna said, "'No."

"What did she ask you?" Jenetta asked.

"Ruby wanted to know if she could have this one."

Jenetta grinned, but not in a condescending way, before saying, "Ruby, I'm pleased that you'd like to have Kaycee as your own, but as I've told Arturo and Berl, both Terran and Jumaka have to agree it's something they both want. So if you love Kaycee and get her to love you by being her companion, her friend, and her protector as your mother has been to me, there's a chance she will select you also when she's old enough to make that decision. Do you understand what I've just said?"

Ruby nodded her head up and down.

"Good." As Jenetta looked around at the other cubs, they all nodded as well.

~     ~     ~

Seconds after beginning their bomb run from ten billion kilometers away, the Pechora and the Koshi arrived at the Denubbewa shipyard. The helmsman barely had time to make a slight alteration in course before the SDB was passing through the center of the enormous Denubbewa mothership. If the release of the bombs hadn't been handled by the Pechora's computer, the bombs would never have been planted properly.

In a few more seconds the two SDBs were billions of kilometers away. Since they were still linked, both ships came to a halt the instant the helmsman aboard the Pechora followed Eliza's order of all stop.

Eliza, Lt. Commander Ellison, and Captain Gavin had maintained a direct communication link since the two SDBs had first been linked up for the bomb run.

"How'd we do, Captain?" Eliza said after touching the contact spot on the monitor by her right hand that would open the voice line with Captain Gavin.

"Let me send you the image I'm getting from the sensor buoy we left at the ship site."

A second later, the front monitor showed the mothership the pair of SDBs had just attacked. There were huge holes in its hull from the WOLaR explosions. It may not have been able to escape the area, but it was still not destroyed.

"It looks like we have to make another pass," Ellison said.

"I agree," Gavin said. "Let them have another round."

"Aye, Captain. Are you ready, Commander?"

"You have the helm, Commander. Take us in."

Eliza gave the order to her helmsman, and after making a wide swing around to point at the shipyard site, the two small ships disappeared in the blink of an eye.

This time the small ships didn't enter the mothership dead center. They were actually closer to the far end, away from the tunnel entrance, but they did pass through the body of the mothership.

When the SDBs were again at a remote distance, Eliza activated the com link. "Second pass complete, sir."

"Excellent work, Captains. My congratulations on a job well done. You should be seeing the live feed now."

The mothership was no longer a ship, and explosions continued to rock the large pieces tumbling in space. They had hit something that had caused a cascading series of internal explosions and ended the threat from that ship forever. They watched closely for any sign of Denubbewa warships, but they saw none emerge from the various pieces of the mothership.

"I hesitate to say it," Gavin said, "because I know how resilient these creatures are, but it looks like a clean sweep this time."

"Should we return to the RP, sir?"

"Yes, come on in. We're through making bomb runs for today. We'll let the dust settle and see where things stand tomorrow. If we got lucky, the warships inside that mothership were all destroyed, but we'll continue to monitor the images from the sensor buoy to see if anything starts to move under its own power. If it does, we'll make additional bomb runs, but we'll only drop one WOLaR each pass because we'll be attacking warships, not motherships."

~     ~     ~

"Wonderful news this morning," Admiral Moore said after opening the regularly scheduled meeting of the AB. "We received word from Captain Gavin overnight that the Denubbewa mothership we thought had gotten away before we were able to get assets in place returned to their shipyard."

"Are we sure it's the same one?" Admiral Bradlee asked.

"Well, we can't be sure of that because they all appear identical in design and construction, and they have no exterior markings, but we're going to assume it was the same one. The Ares had placed Distant DeTect buoys out so they'd have adequate warning if any Denubbewa ships arrived. When they got a signal indicating a Denubbewa mothership was approaching, they dropped a sensor buoy and returned to the original RP. It was from there that they launched the bomb run.

Lt. Commander Carver led the attack run, with Lt. Commander Ellison in command of the bomber. They dropped five WOLaR weapons on the first pass and five more on a second pass. On the second pass, the mothership was 'almost obliterated,' in Captain Gavin's words."

"Then I suppose we've lost all opportunity to recover the inspection team the Ares had to abandon," Admiral Burke said.

"Until we find a way to stop a Denubbewa vessel without having our vessel destroyed by those small, nuclear-tipped missiles they fire by the hundreds," Admiral Bradlee said, "our inability to do anything other than totally destroy the Denubbewa whenever and wherever we find them means that anyone taken by them must immediately be considered lost. I don't like it one damn bit more than any of you do, but we're unable to disable their ships and board them while they have missiles that render Dakinium as ineffective in ship-to-ship battles as aluminum would be. If we tried, we'd lose our ship and every crewperson aboard him."

"What now, Richard?" Admiral Plimley asked. "Are we still attempting to recover the ships at the Denubbewa shipyard and bring them here?"

"I see no reason to change our plans. Those ships might give up valuable insights into the minds of the Denubbewa. We should proceed as planned and bring the ships to the Crondezzo system."

~     ~     ~

Aliana Shanara stood pensively staring out the floor-to-ceiling glass window of her penthouse apartment. She was miserable and saw no relief in the near future. The Upper Council, according to one of her bodyguards, had decreed that if her bodyguards lost sight of her for even one minute, the entire team would get to observe a working blast furnace in a foundry— from the inside. As a result, they were well motivated to keep track of her at all times. When she went clothes shopping, one of them always went into the dressing room with her. As long as they didn't touch her, she didn't mind. She supposed it had something to do with having been a male on more than one occasion, as well as having been a female more than once. It gave her a unique perspective regarding gender.

Shanara had seen a copy of the immigration policy Carver had established on Obotymot and learned that Carver was now living there full time. That meant that she was separated from Space Command and this was the optimal time to kill her, but since the Upper Council had decreed that the Carvers must be left alone, Shanara couldn't send Raider minions to do it. She would have to do it herself. But she couldn't evade her bodyguards long enough to sneak away and enjoy a private dinner, let alone take care of that one little overdue matter. And even if she could get away from her bodyguards, the Upper Council would know it was Shanara's handiwork if Carver's death happened while she was missing.

Being unable to operate freely made her so angry that she poured another eight-ounce tumbler of whiskey and drank it down like it was water. But to her it was like water since her body immediately neutralized the effects of alcohol. That was another reason she was angry. Back when she, as Mikel Arneu, opted to have the DNA Manipulation Process performed on her male body, she'd thought that not being susceptible to intoxication would give her a great advantage. She could drink everyone under the table and not have the slightest buzz. However, there had been times since then when she'd wished she could drown her sorrows in a bottle but had so far been denied that simple pleasure.

She'd even tried hallucinogenic drugs to escape the pain of reality on occasion but had learned she was immune to their effects as well. Those damn scientists on Raider One had never told her when they mixed the DNA procedure cocktail that it would change her life forever. If they hadn't died when Carver destroyed Raider One, Shanara would track them down and finish them herself for what they did to her. She knew it probably wasn't a fair assessment. After all, they had given her the closest thing there currently is to immortality. But she was feeling angry and upset and would have lashed out at anyone to relieve her inner turmoil.

Things were not going well on Dakistee. Shanara had tried every trick she knew to locate a chink in that planet's executive department armor but had been unable to develop a single contact on the inside. So since she'd been unable to turn even a minor official, the only alternative was to grow her own. Shanara was now funding a number of political campaigns for Dakistians interested in a first run for office. The candidates had no insider knowledge yet, but eventually they might, and that's when the previous campaign support would become invaluable. The close ties also made the candidates vulnerable because once a politician got a taste of real power, they never surrendered it easily and would do almost anything to get reelected.

She'd also begun searching for the best and brightest among the scientists at the Raider Central lab. She wanted to form a cadre of individuals who would begin work on her quest for true immortality. As the head of the Lower Council, she now had a free hand to do as she pleased. The Upper Council would be told that most of the lab was working on developing a cloning procedure, and, in fact, some of them would be, but the primary focus would be the immortality procedure.

Shanara had two main goals in life and no moral scruples to get in the way over how she would accomplish them. First, she wanted to live forever or die trying to realize that dream. Second, she wanted to kill Jenetta Carver and her clones.

~     ~     ~

"Come in, Christa," Madu said, rising to meet her guest.

"Hello, Madu, how are you getting on?"

"I feel like I'm drowning in a sea of problems, Christa."

"What's wrong?"

"I'm missing the people we lost. I never realized how much I relied on them throughout the day. Since they've been gone it seems like I get about three hours' sleep each night."

"It takes time to rebuild a knowledgeable staff with people you can trust."

"You're not kidding. Want a job?"

Christa grinned and said, "Sorry, I have more than enough on my plate right now. So how goes the vetting and hiring work?"

"I've only filled three minister positions so far. My intelligence people always seem to find some reason for recommending I reject candidates I thought would work out. Mostly it's because of business dealings with off-worlders."

"If you ever need me to run a check on some off-worlder, I can ask SCI to look through their files and see if they have reputed ties to a certain large crime organization we both know of."

"Thanks, but I wish it was that simple. The usual claim is that the individual is suspected of taking a bribe or bribes from legitimate companies trying to gain a foothold in Dakistee commercial and industrial circles. It might be as innocent as 'buying' an introduction, but it's not allowed for any government official to profit from such an act, and I have to pass on anyone who has done it."

"I see."

"Anything new on the sterility work being performed by the GA labs?"

"Nothing new. They continue to work on it though. It has the highest priority."

"I keep hoping to hear good news every day. I'm afraid that if you don't find a cure, I won't be reelected. And I still have so much I want to do for my people and my planet."

"Your people love and respect you. They understand the cure isn't going to be developed overnight. Your own people worked on it for decades before the scientists passed away from old age and there was no one to replace them."

"But I promised them I'd find a cure. That's why I was so willing to deal with TGP. I know you and your sisters have special healing powers because of what the Raiders did to your sister Jenetta. I thought we needed the science only they had developed. I really never believed you would survive after you were shot that time."

"No one was more surprised than me, but I'm happy the doctors were able to pull me through. Uh, Madu, there is one thing you could do to improve your chances of success."

"No, don't say it. I refuse to work with the Nordakians."

"You can be so pig-headed," Christa said, her voice showing her frustration.

"What's that?"

"An Earth expression. A pig was a domesticated farm animal people used to eat for food when it matured. Animal rights activists eventually succeeded in having laws passed to protect them from slaughter. I understand it's almost impossible to even see a pig anymore, except in a very few zoos. It's kind of funny, actually. The animal rights activists protected the pig by ensuring that the species has become almost extinct. Billions were never born and never had a chance to experience an existence, even if it was a short one."

"And you think I'm a pig? Or have a head like pig?"

"No, not at all," Christa said with a chuckle. "It's just an expression that means— stubborn."

"Okay, I can live with that. I am stubborn at times. I'm also occasionally unyielding and uncompromising."

"The latter two are not good qualities in a politician but can be wonderful qualities in a friend. And I prefer to use the term—dependable. I'm glad to call you my friend, Madu. I just wish, for the sake of your countrymen, you'd relent on the matter of the Nordakians."

~     ~     ~

Since the technology had already been developed, modifying a CPS-14 to perform as the targeting ship in a pairing with an SDB wasn't a difficult task. The small ship wouldn't carry bombs itself, except as a supply of replacements for its companion SDB. It could carry up to eight of the half-sized cargo containers beneath its hull, but two would always be used for its own defensive and offensive weapons.

In tests with dummy bombs, the CPS-14 worked as well as the lead SDB it would replace. Once the computer was properly calibrated and linked to the SDB with the bombs, every dropped bomb landed within fifteen meters of its target location. It had previously been decided that this accuracy was more than adequate to destroy any Denubbewa warship or mothership.

Initially, the CPS-14— now designated as a CPS-15— would travel alongside its SDB mate. But eventually all SDBs would have a cradle beneath their hull and the CPS-15 would have a new access hatch installed in the sail area of the ship. The CPS-15 crew could remain aboard the SDB until an enemy ship was sighted.

When enough CPS-15s were available, the SDB fleet would effectively be doubled. Searching all of a GA region spanning millions of cubic light-years of space for ships even the size of the Denubbewa motherships was a challenge, so having twice as many bombing teams looking for Denubbewa and being able to destroy them when found might give Space Command the edge it needed to combat the threat from outside GA borders.

Delighted with the results of the SDB bomb tests, the AB immediately issued orders to produce as many CPS-15s as possible, as quickly as possible. All CPS-14s presently attached to the Second Fleet would be modified with the targeting software and link hardware so they could function as targeting ships.












Chapter Twenty-Three

~ October 21st, 2289 ~



It took weeks for Space Command to tow the three incomplete Denubbewa motherships to the Crondezzo system and park them near a frozen planet on the edge of the system where they would be held firmly in the grip of its gravity. Scientists and engineers anxious to get their first real look at an intact mothership had been camped out in the Hayworth, a troop transport ship, counting the days until the convoy arrived. The open hulls had already arrived at the foundry at Lorense-Six and were being recycled and used for the construction of new Space Command ships. The pieces of the destroyed mothership had also been towed to Lorense-Six. Engineers would check it for bodies before adding it to the scrap pile that eventually found its way into a blast furnace.

The first task for the waiting engineers was to prepare a survey of the mothership. They would precisely map every deck to the best of their abilities, with bots following closely behind, creating video images of every meter of the surveyed areas to assist scientists developing theories about the possible purposes of the various sections and equipment. Each day the scientists would collect to review the latest imagery and survey diagrams, and argue about the supposed functions of the equipment. They were anxious to get their hands on the actual equipment but wouldn't be allowed into any section of the mothership until the initial survey of that section was complete.

During the survey work, engineers discovered that the ships were divided into ten self-sustaining sections. Each section had its own fusion reactor for providing power and life support. They also discovered that construction in eight of the sections in the ship that was most complete had reached a point where they could be sealed. So a decision was made to fire up one of the fusion reactors to see if they could establish an atmosphere inside the section. Having gravity and atmo would help the analysis work progress at a much faster pace.

The best engineers spent several days studying the reactor and its control systems before attempting anything. When they felt they understood the systems and the flows, they decided the time had come to attempt a start. To the surprise and delight of everyone, the reactor fired up on the first try. It took awhile and a lot of minute adjustments to get it functioning smoothly at the level they desired because the controls were so different from what they were used to, but eventually it was humming along like fusion reactors everywhere.

While the laws of physics were the same everywhere— for the most part— computers consoles, control systems, and device interfaces were as different among alien cultures as physiology. The section chosen to have power and life support first was selected because the functions of that section seemed to be the most innocuous. Of course, since nobody really knew what they were doing, it was impossible to determine what was innocuous with any degree of certainty. But they felt they had to start somewhere. Only the most knowledgeable and cautious of the scientists were given positions of leadership among the various teams, but that didn't stop mistakes from being made.

One of the more serious of the early mistakes occurred when a brilliant, eager-beaver scientist named Ernest Grassdokker— who would never be considered for a leadership position because of his disdain for adhering to proper safety protocols— engaged a console he believed controlled overhead lighting in a hold, only to have the hold seal and start to depressurize, endangering the eighteen scientists and engineers present. Fortunately, his comrades were able to reverse the process before anyone died. After that, everyone was required to carry an emergency face mask with a rebreather cartridge at all times.

Despite the unavoidable blunders, the investigation teams began to assemble valuable information and see patterns in the way the Denubbewa technology worked, was used, and, most importantly, how it was controlled.

~     ~     ~

"Your Grace, a ship is entering orbit," Captain Pwuhvasqu said when Jenetta picked up the phone. "So far they've failed to identify themselves. How would you like us to proceed?"

"Space Command or the Nordakian Home Guard would have notified us before they even entered orbit, so it's most likely either a refugee ship or a trader unfamiliar with our protocols. I'm betting on the refugee ship possibility. We've been expecting the tsunami of ships headed this way to begin arriving. Don't fire on it unless they attack us first. Let's wait and see what they do. If they send down a shuttle, we'll allow it to land where the last four Clidepp refugee ships were sent. If we don't hear anything from them and they don't send down a shuttle, I'll send my barge up after a bit of time. Alert your forces that they may be needed to handle refugees on short notice, but don't assemble them yet."

"Yes, Your Grace. We'll just wait and see, but I'll put my forces on alert to a possible situation."

Since the first Clidepp refugees had arrived, the size of Captain Pwuhvasqu's security force had been quintupled. Prior to that, his forces had only consisted of some two hundred regulars and a few enforcement agents in each village to handle minor disputes and such. Crime normally came from want and from people who had too much free time on their hands. The system on Obotymot was designed to keep people from going hungry, but it required them to work if they were physically able. If they had no desire to become farmers, they could be used in infrastructure maintenance, such as laying new irrigation pipes or repairing the irrigation system when there was a rupture. They could also be used to help with dam repair, to perform street cleaning in the villages, or any other activity required in support of a population.

Having to work to earn their way gave them a pride not found in welfare situations where the person received money with no requirement to do anything to earn it. It also kept the workers out of trouble because when they were working, they couldn't be robbing houses or enjoying illegal recreational pharmaceuticals all day. If able-bodied people refused to work, they were offered a free ticket off the planet to a world other than Nordakia, if anyone would accept them. They also lost their rights of citizenship and could never return. Their only other option was to go hungry. Those people eventually turned to crime and were quickly caught and incarcerated at the furthest recesses of the peninsula for increasingly longer terms as they became repeat offenders. The justice penalties were stiff for those not considered capable of living among honest and decent people.

Since prisoners were always required to perform very menial and often difficult labor, jail wasn't something anyone aspired to on Obotymot. They wouldn't get to sit on their brains all day while getting fed and sheltered unless they were sent to the prison colony on Saquer Major for committing a seriously violent crime. Convicts sent to Saquer Major were there for life. There was no parole from that colony. As a result of the criminal justice policies on Obotymot and Nordakia, which the populace fully supported while some off-worlders decried as being too harsh, there was very little crime on the two planets and almost no violent crime except for acts of passion.

~

An hour later, a shuttle left the orbiting ship and descended towards the surface. When it became clear that its course would take it over the palace, Captain Pwuhvasqu ordered that two laser cannon bursts be fired across its bow. It quickly changed direction and climbed back up to Obotymot's mesosphere, where the pilot of the shuttle miraculously found his voice.

"Obotymot military, why are you shooting at us?" the pilot screamed into the microphone.

"If we were shooting at you," Captain Pwuhvasqu said, "your ship would now be destroyed. We fired across your bow because you refused to answer our hails and because you were headed towards the royal palace. What's your name?"

"I'm Okarrost Nedeffal, the pilot of this ship. I was headed towards the shuttle pad there, not the palace itself."

"You didn't have permission to land on the palace pad."

"Then I'm requesting it now."

"Denied."

"What? Why?"

"Because Her Grace is not expecting any important dignitaries from the Clidepp Empire. Did you make arrangements for a state visit?"

"I'm carrying refugee representatives, not state dignitaries."

"Then I'll give you the coordinates where you may land without being fired upon. Do not attempt to land anywhere else. This is not Yolongus and our airspace is closely guarded against possible attacks on our Azula and her family."

"I have no intention of attacking your Azula. We're here to negotiate with her."

"Proceed to the coordinates I'm sending and someone will arrive to speak with you. Stay in the immediate vicinity of your shuttle."

"We don't want to talk with somebody. We want to talk with Azula Carver."

"Denied."

"Why?"

"You don't come to a distant planet and demand to speak to the highest member of the nobility. Would you have gone to the capital on Yolongus and demanded to speak with Gustallo Plelillo?"

"Of course not. I'd be arrested and executed five minutes later if I ever did that. That's what we're trying to get away from."

"We don't arrest you here if you simply demand to see the Azula, but if you attempt to get at her without permission, the final result here will be the same, without the bother of arrest. If Azula Carver wishes to speak with you, that will be her decision, not because you demand it. Do I make myself clear?"

"Perfectly. So she might come to the new location?"

"She might. She did with the last group of immigrants. But I can't speak for her."

"Very well. We'll proceed to the coordinates and await her arrival. Uh, sorry for the confusion."

Captain Pwuhvasqu immediately called Jenetta to brief her on the conversion with Okarrost Nedeffal.

"Your Grace, the shuttle is on its way to where the other refugee ships were sent. The pilot was most insistent he speak with you and only you."

"First he tries to land inside the palace grounds, and then he demands to speak with me and only me at the location coordinates you provided. It sounds a bit strange, don't you think?"

"They're Yolongis. I never know how to take those people."

"Yes, well, they've come a long way in cramped conditions so we can expect them to be a bit cranky."

"Yes, Your Grace."

"I'll have Chamberlain Yaghutol make arrangements for some of the new Department of Immigration officials to meet with them. But best be prepared in case the Yolongi pilot's poor attitude gets the better of him. Make sure you have a dozen men standing by in case tempers flare."

"I'll see to it immediately, Your Grace."

"Thank you, Captain."

~

"Your Grace," Chamberlain Yaghutol said rapidly in an animated and grim manner, "I just learned that the Yolongi who landed at the remote site fired on our people. I was talking to one of our immigration people when she started screaming that they were under attack."

"I'll get back to you," Jenetta said as she hung up the phone and hit the speed dial number for Captain Pwuhvasqu. "Talk to me, Captain. What's happened?"

"I'm still trying to get the details, Your Grace. Apparently the crew of that Yolongi shuttle opened fire on our people. The first person came out smiling, and as soon as our people approached him, a dozen more came streaming out of the shuttle with weapons, mowing down everyone in the area. I ordered my people to use whatever force was necessary to stop them."

"Make sure that shuttle doesn't take off, and if it does, you have permission to shoot it down. Out."

Jenetta ran to the wall and hit the alarm that would send everyone scurrying for the underground bunker. She then ran to her bedroom where a maid was watching over Kyle and Kaycee.

"Get the children into the oh-gee stroller and get them down into the bunker."

"Yes, Your Grace," the maid replied as she hurriedly picked up one of the babies, wrapped it in a blanket, and placed it into the tandem stroller while Jenetta picked up the other twin and did the same.

Jenetta then followed the maid out to the elevator and rode down to the first floor with her and the babies. As she stepped out, she hit the button for the underground bunker, then watched as the doors closed and the car descended.

Running out of the palace, Jenetta headed for her barge. As she ran through the gates, the two guards looked at each other for a second, then ran after her. She saw the movement and waved them off. They realized she was headed for her barge, so they slowed and then stopped.

The ramp was down but the hatch was closed, so Jenetta punched in the security code and entered when the door opened. She didn't wait for the lift, which appeared to be at the top of the lift tunnel; she just hiked up her skirts and ran up the five flights of stairs.

Barging into Lieutenant McDonnell's office where he and Lieutenant(jg) Pfeiffer were having a discussion, Jenetta said, "GQ, Lieutenant. Set a new record for getting this ship in the air."

"Aye, Admiral," McDonnell said as he jumped out of his office chair.

Jenetta backed out and away from the doorway so the two senior officers on the barge could get out of the small office and to the bridge. Following them, she sat down in a jump seat by the tac station and belted herself in. The tac officer, navigator, engineer, and com chief were already on the bridge, engaged in conversation, when the three officers rushed in.

McDonnell had once told Jenetta he could have the ship in the air with five minutes' notice. He started shouting orders to his crew and beat that time by two minutes.

"Where to, Admiral?" McDonnell asked.

"There's a ship in orbit. Find it."

"Aye, Admiral," McDonnell said, nodding to the tac officer.

"I have it, Admiral," the tac officer said. "It's a small, single-hull freighter. It looks like it's attempting to leave orbit."

"I want it stopped. If they won't stop, use whatever force you must to stop it."

"You want me to fire on a refugee ship, ma'am?"

"The crew of a shuttle from that ship just attacked immigration officials who went to welcome them to the planet. I don't think there are any refugees in that ship. I believe it was a deliberate attack and I was the target."

"Uh, aye, Admiral," McDonnell said. "Chief, you heard the Admiral. Tell them to heave to or else."

Fifteen seconds later, the com chief said, "They're not responding, sir."

"Admiral, on your orders we're going to attempt to stop that ship."

"Proceed, Lieutenant. I take full responsibility."

"Tac, stop that ship from leaving orbit."

"Aye, Captain. Firing laser cannon across their bow."

After fifteen seconds the tac officer said, "They're not slowing down or changing course. Firing a missile."

The heat trail of a missile could be clearly seen on the monitor as it left the weapons container below the ship and streaked towards the freighter. When it struck, a secondary explosion broke the freighter in two.

"Freighter stopped, Admiral," McDonnell said.

"Good work, Lieutenant. Take me home."

"Uh, you don't want us to check for survivors, ma'am?"

"No. We have no Marines on board, so we have no ability to send over search parties. They had a chance to surrender peacefully, and they made a choice to risk death instead. I'm content to grant them their wish."

"Heading for home, Admiral. Helm, take us back to the palace."

"Aye, Captain. Heading back to the palace."

~

As the barge set down, Captain Pwuhvasqu and a dozen of his men were waiting. They approached Jenetta as soon as she stepped off the ramp.

"Your Grace, I have the unpleasant duty to report that sixteen people, three of them my people, were killed by laser fire at the welcome site. We also have four wounded. We managed to kill nine of the attackers before the shuttle lifted off. Our laser cannon fire from the ground station brought down the shuttle as it attempted to flee. It crashed and burned. There were no survivors."

"It's a sad day, Captain. Sixteen lives lost while we were trying to welcome refugees. The attackers didn't do so well either, though. You took care of the shuttle attackers and my people aboard my barge took care of the freighter. It's safe to say the people who committed this act weren't refugees. This wasn't a meeting that turned ugly. This was a deliberate attack by someone. I want you examine every piece of clothing, weapon, and any papers they were carrying for clues to their identity."

"Yes, Your Grace. I've already given orders to bring their bodies to the morgue where our forensic specialists will examine them and their possessions, and attempt to identify them."

"Very good, Captain. Carry on."

Jenetta hurried into the palace and hit the 'all clear' bell. In minutes elevators were coming up loaded with Terrans, Nordakians, and Jumakas. When the first car opened, all of her family members and the Jumakas stepped out. The maid pushing the oh-gee stroller continued up to the top floor with the twins after the door closed.

"What was it, dear?" Annette asked. "Another false alarm?"

"Not this time, Mama. Let's go out to the garden and I'll tell you about it."

~

"So that's the story as I know it right now," Jenetta said.

Annette, Marina, Regina, Berl, Arturo, and all twelve Jumakas had hung on every word.

"That's terrible," Annette said. "Sixteen of our people dead when all they were trying to do was help those poor people from the Clidepp Empire."

"Yolongi are bad men," Cayla said.

"Cayla said that Yolongi are bad men," Jenetta announced before responding to the Jumaka. "No, Cayla, not all of them. The ones who did this were bad men, but not all Yolongi are that way."

"How do you know which are bad?" Tayna asked.

"Tayna wants to know how we know which are bad." Looking at Tayna, Jenetta said, "Sometimes you can't know until they actually do something bad."

"We'll have to have a service to honor the people who died," Marisa said. "I mean our people, not the Yolongi."

"Would you, Regina, and Mama arrange that? I think I'm going to be kind of busy responding to inquiries and things."

"Of course, dear," Annette said. "We'll take care of it. Do you have a list of the people who were killed?"

"Not yet, but I'll get it for you, Mama."

"Why do you suppose they did it?"

"I believe they were after me."

"You? Then why did they attack the Nordakians? Surely they can tell the difference between a Nordakian and a Terran."

"I think I might know. A lot of women here and on Nordakia have emulated my appearance. It's kind of flattering. Blond hair isn't a natural hair color among Nordakians, so they have to bleach their hair to match the color of mine and then use their chromatophoric cellular control to match my skin color. Since I'm almost six feet tall, the attackers may have become confused. They might have thought one of the women in the welcoming party was me. That's all I can think of."

"Now that you mention it, I think you might be right. I've seen a lot of Nordakian women who look quite a bit like you."

"I don't want to discourage them, but perhaps I should explain that they're in danger if they continue to copy my appearance."

"I don't think that's necessary. Once this is on the news, future attackers will be a lot more leery of jumping to such conclusions."

"Somehow that doesn't make me feel any better. You're assuming there will be more attacks."

"You assumed it first, dear."

"So I did, Mama."

~     ~     ~

"Ernie, we shouldn't be in here," Wilhelm said.

Wilhelm Bensent was a tall, thin man. People joked they always lost sight of him when he turned sideways, and he had a nervous tic in his right eye that always made people think he was winking at them. Many a woman had slapped his face when they thought he was flirting.

"Oh, don't be a 'nervous Willy,' Wilhelm. They got the reactor going, so we'd have power and atmo in here, right?"

Ernest 'Ernie' Grassdokker was short and a little squat. He was always looking for the 'big score,' the one scientific discovery that would make him famous, but in his sixty-three years it had so far eluded him. He wasn't looking for riches; he just wanted a little respect. Most people had no idea how little respect a short man got simply because of his height.

"Wrong, they got the reactor going so the survey people can do their work easier. We're scientists, not Space Command or Space Marines. We're supposed to wait until the surveys are complete before we're allowed in."

"If we just sit by and wait until we have permission, someone else might make the big discoveries instead of us. Just come look at this control console I found. It's unlike anything we've seen before in this ship."

"What's so special about it? It looks like a regular control console to me."

"Look at these characters along the bottom. Have you seen them anywhere else on this ship?"

"They don't look familiar."

"Darn right. They're unique. If we can figure out what they mean we can get written up in the Galactic Scientific Journal."

"If anyone reads such an article we'll lose our jobs because they'll realize we shouldn't have been in this section. I like my job. It's safe, the travel is fun, and it pays well."

"Don't you want to get ahead?"

"You mean climb the ladder and get all the headaches of the supervisors for just a little bit more money? No. Now let's get out of here."

"Just a minute. I was looking at this earlier and I think I might know what it means."

"You've been in here before?"

"Just two times."

"You are really asking to get fired."

"Oh, come on. This ship is so big we could work for weeks and not see anyone else."

"That's what I like about my job. No supervisor with ulcers trying to give me ulcers."

"Just ten seconds more. I think this switch turns on those monster overhead fans."

"What makes you think that?"

"I've seen that model of switch before. It's only used where they have to conduct high current, such as to power those fans."

"I'm getting out of here, Ernie. Are you coming?"

"Just let me test my theory, and then I promise we'll leave."

Without waiting for a response from Wilhelm, Ernie flipped the switch and looked up to see if the fans were turning. They weren't.

"I guess that wasn't it," Ernie said, the discouragement evident in his voice. "They're not moving."

"But something else is."

Ernie turned to look where Wilhelm was looking. An entire wall at one end of the room was slowly rising and disappearing into the overhead.

"Turn it off, Ernie. Now."

"Uh, yeah," Ernie said as he flipped the switch back to the original position."

"Flip it," Wilhelm said loudly.

"I did."

"The wall is still going up," Wilhelm said nervously. "Why is it still going up? Oh, boy, are we ever going to be in it."

Ernie flipped the switch up again and then down. "It's not working."

"Let's get out of here. Now!"

"Don't you want to see what's behind that wall?"

"Not particularly."

"It might be the greatest discovery of the age."

The wall had completed its travel and stopped. The exposed area behind the wall was in complete darkness, and it was impossible to discern anything.

"There. Satisfied. There's nothing behind the wall except empty space."

"No, I see something."

"What?"

"I don't know. Does that look like a red light flickering on and off to you?"

"Let's go closer, and then we'll leave."

As the two scientists approached the now-exposed area, overhead lights in the darkened room suddenly flicked on. With wide-eyed horror reflecting the fear in their gut, the two men turned and raced for the doorway. After exiting the room they found their voices and ran screaming through the corridors like frightened children. Reaching the oh-gee cart assigned to them, they jumped in and Ernie pushed the throttle to the maximum position. The cart, primarily intended for outside use on a planet, raced through the corridor at a reckless speed with the two scientists screaming in fear of what they'd seen, seemingly oblivious of the way the car was weaving erratically and barely staying between the sidewalls. The men didn't stop screaming until they reached the airlock doors at the division wall between ship sections.

Once through the airlock and with the airlock door closed behind them, Ernie pulled a small com device from his pocket and screamed into it, "Marines! We need Marines! Get all of them here now! We need them all!"












Chapter Twenty-Four

~ November 14th, 2289 ~



"Who is this?" a voice demanded. "Is that you, Grassdokker?"

"We need the Marines! We need them now! Get them here!"

"Get them where? Is that you, Grassdokker?"

"Yes, yes, yes, it's me. We need the Marines. Sound QG."

"What's QG?"

"You know. The alarm. No, I mean GQ. Sound General Quarters. Do you hear me? Sound General Quarters."

"I'm not sounding General Quarters because you saw a mouse or whatever the Denubbewa equivalent is. Where are you? Your transponder isn't working. I can't get a fix on you."

"We're in Corridor Eighteen, Deck Three Hundred Ninety-Two of Section Five. We just left Section Six and we're heading for Section Three at top speed."

"Section Six? What's the matter with you, Grassdokker? You know that area is still off-limits until the survey is complete. Is Wilhelm Bensent with you?"

"Yes, he's here in the cart beside me. We need Marines here now. We need them all. Call Quesann and tell them we need all their Marines too."

"Why do you need Marines?"

"Dammit!" Grassdokker said and took his hands off the controls in order to express his frustration and anger against the central station com operator. The cart, left without an operator, swerved into a stanchion against the corridor's left wall and spun around when Grassdokker hit the wheel during one of his exaggerated gestures. The two unbelted passengers were thrown out , and when they stopped sliding along the smooth deck they were unconscious.

The com operator, unable to restore contact with the two scientists, reluctantly pressed the emergency services alarm. There was no way he was going to sound General Quarters merely at the request of two men he considered fools without some kind of corroborating statement from a sane individual.

~     ~     ~

Grassdokker awoke first. In a panic, he sat up and realized he was in a hospital ward. An automated attendant notified the nursing station, and a nurse came in to check on him.

"Awake at last, I see. That was a nasty bump on the head you got. A minor concussion, but you're going to be perfectly healthy again in a few weeks. They've told us you must have been traveling at over forty kph when you hit that pole and were thrown out of the cart."

"Where am I ?"

"In the hospital ward aboard the Hayworth."

"The Hayworth? The troop transport? Did they send all the Marines?"

"What Marines?"

"I told them we needed all of the Marines from Quesann."

"Was that after you hit your head, Mr. Grissdokker?"

"It's Grassdokker, with an 'a.' And no, it was before we crashed." Grassdokker swung his legs over the side of the bed and muttered, "I've got to get out of here. I have to warn them."

The nurse grabbed his legs and put them right back onto the bed. "You haven't been discharged yet, and you're not going anywhere until you are."

"And you're going to stop me?" Grassdokker said with all the bravado he could muster.

"If I can't, all I have to do is nod at the automated attendant there and in thirty seconds you'll be introduced to two of the biggest, strongest, meanest orderlies who ever worked in a hospital. They will strap you down and do it none too gently."

Grassdokker immediately calmed down. He was a wuss when it came right down to it. "But I have to warn somebody," he pleaded. "We're all in serious danger. I have to see the Lieutenant in charge of the science teams."

"You're going to do better than that. The captain told us to alert him when one of you regained consciousness. He's already been called. I imagine he's on his way down here right now."

As if on cue, Captain Dellzon strode into the room with his XO.

"Is this one of them?" Dellzon asked the nurse.

"Yes, sir. This is Grissdorker."

"Grassdokker," Ernie said.

"Well, Mr. Grossdorker, you're in a pile of trouble. You were in an area you had been explicitly told was off-limits until surveyed. What have you got to say for yourself?"

"Captain, we'll all in great danger. We found a room full of them."

"A room full of what?"

"Denubbewa cyborgs. There are thousands of them. Maybe tens of thousands of them."

"In one room?"

"In a hold. As big a hold as I ever saw. It looked like it went on for kilometers."

"And where is this hold?"

"It's in Section Six."

"Section Six is twenty-six kilometers long, eighteen kilometers wide, and eight hundred forty-two floors high. Where in Section Six?"

"Uh, I don't know exactly. It was off the corridor where we— uh— had the accident."

"What's the room number?"

"Uh— I don't know because— it hasn't been surveyed yet."

"The Denubbewa mark all of their rooms. What was the Denubbewa lettering on the door?"

"Uh— I don't remember."

"So somewhere in that twenty-six-kilometer corridor, there's a hold full of Denubbewa cyborgs."

"Yes, sir, Captain."

"And did they chase you?"

"Uh, I don't think so."

"But you don't know?"

"We were too busy running for our lives. If we were allowed to carry weapons, we might have stayed long enough to learn something, but we were unarmed."

"Thank God for small favors."

Grassdokker bristled at the comment but was smart enough not to say anything.

"How do you feel, Grossdorker?"

"I'm well enough to get up, Captain."

"Good. I want you to show a squad of Marines where the room is that leads to a hold full of Denubbewa."

"M-m-m-me?"

"You and Bensent are the only ones who saw it, right? And he's still unconscious."

"N-n-n-n-n-no, C-C-C-Captain. I-I-I-I c-c-c-can-can-can-can't d-d-d-do th-th-th-that."

"You're the only one awake who was in that room. We have no idea where along that twenty-six-kilometer corridor that room is located."

Grassdokker suddenly gasped and flopped backwards onto the bed.

"Nurse?" Captain Dellzon said.

The nurse checked the monitors and said, "He's okay, Captain. He's only fainted."

"Not faking it?"

"No, sir. He is really unconscious."

Dellzon snorted, looked at his XO, then turned and walked out of the room with his XO trailing.

The XO caught up with Dellzon in the corridor outside the sick bay. "What now, Captain?'

"We have several fire teams checking every room in that corridor, right?"

"Yes, but we have no idea how far into that twenty-six kilometers those two jokers went. Do you think they might have actually found Denubbewa?"

"It's possible."

"Really?"

"I'm not suggesting they discovered anything dangerous. It's far more likely they found a fabrication plant where Denubbewa body parts are made and stored. As I understand it, those bodies can be turned out like solar panels. They might have thousands, or even tens of thousands of spare parts ready in case they're needed. They might even have fully assembled but inanimate bodies just waiting for an organic brain to be inserted so it can be brought to life. I think our intrepid adventurers might have stumbled into the Denubbewa machine shop that makes the body parts and saw an inventory of mannequin-like shells."

"So you don't think there's any danger? You don't think we should alert Quesann and request additional companies of Marines?"

"And have us look as foolish as Tall and Squat back there? Absolutely not. I'm not declaring a Stage One emergency unless there actually is a Stage One emergency."

"Yes, sir. But do you think it might be prudent to at least put the rest of the company on alert?"

"The entire company is already bivouacked in storage holds aboard the Denubbewa ship until the survey is complete, aren't they?"

"Yes, sir. But two thirds of them are off duty on each watch. We're running a normal schedule since there's been no sign of danger until now."

"Okay, XO. Take care of putting the entire company on alert. But don't send any more people into Section Six unless we actually need them in there. We don't want to blow this all out of proportion and scare the other scientists, or they'll be seeing Denubbewa cyborgs in the darkened recesses every time they enter a new room."

~     ~     ~

The Marines aboard the Denubbewa mothership were slowly working their way along the twenty-six kilometers of Corridor Eighteen on deck Three Hundred Ninety-Two in Section Six, thoroughly checking every room as they went. A fire team would check and clear a room while the other two fire teams remained on guard in the corridor. When the room was judged to be clear, the fire team returned to the corridor and the door was marked with a big 'X' in chalk. The next fire team would take the next room and do the same, followed by the third team who would check the next room. In this leapfrogging advance method the workload was evenly divided among the three teams. Three oh-gee carts had carried the Marines from Section Three to Section Six, and the drivers were now following along as the Marines advanced.

"What's the count, Staff Sergeant?" Lieutenant Burgess asked wearily.

"One hundred twenty-seven, sir."

"And just about fifty thousand more to go," the officer said sardonically with a sigh. "I hope we get this job done before it's time for me to go on leave. I've been dreaming about spending a week on those beautiful white sand beaches of Quesann ever since we arrived out here."

"I don't think it's fifty thousand, sir. More like three thousand."

"That makes me feel a whole lot better, Staff Sergeant."

Staff Sergeant Cardaro smiled. He liked the young second lieutenant. He knew Burgess was trying to be amusing, not snide. The officer didn't take himself as seriously as most of the newly minted officers he'd been assigned to during his long career. Burgess had repeatedly shown he had a sense of humor and that he wasn't afraid to display it in front of his people.

Burgess required the checks to be performed by the book, so every room checked took as long as the first one had.

~

Two hours later, Burgess halted the operation for a fifteen-minute break. They had seen nothing even remotely like the reported hold containing tens of thousands of Denubbewa cyborgs. The Marines either sat down and rested along both sidewalls of the corridor or just leaned against the walls as they joked about the two scientists who had made the report. One speculated they'd be reporting ghosts next. Another started to say the scientists would probably be on the next ship back to Region One where they'd be assigned work in such a remote lab they'd be lucky to ever see the sun again, when the fire teams heard a set of doors opening in the corridor just ahead. All eyes went to that spot and opened wide when three Denubbewa stepped into the corridor.

"Enemy aliens," Staff Sergeant Cardaro yelled as he dropped to the deck. "Cut'em down."

The three fire teams had already begun to move and reach for their laser rifles before Cardaro got the words out, and a lightning show of laser pulses began emanating from where the Marines had been resting.

The three Denubbewa, as surprised to find more than a dozen Terrans in the corridor of their mothership as the Marines were to have Denubbewa suddenly appear almost in their midst, didn't react as fast as the Marines. The three Denubbewa stumbled backwards as arms were sliced off and legs cut out from under them. Before their bodies even hit the deck, the red glow from their eyes was dimming if not already dark.

Before the Denubbewa had even stopped moving, the three cart drivers had jumped up, climbed into their carts and turned them around in anticipation of a speedy retreat.

As the Marines on the deck continued to pour laser fire into the non-moving Denubbewa, Cardaro shouted, "Cease fire. Save your batteries."

Cardaro shouted, "Stay low," as the Marines started to get up. "Murphy, check those things out. See if there's any glow left in their eyes."

Corporal Murphy stood but maintained a stooped position as she moved cautiously toward the downed Denubbewa. When she reached their position, never having pointed her weapon anywhere but towards the three Denubbewa, she stood a little straighter. "Nothing showing, Staff Sergeant. Does that mean they're dead?"

"That's what I've been told."

"Then they're as dead as that bottle of vodka I brought to the last platoon party on Quesann."

"Fire team Alpha, prepare to check and secure that room," Cardaro said. "Bravo and Charlie, provide cover from your present positions. Let's move, Alpha."

Within seconds, the Marines assigned to check the room were standing on either side of the doorway. When they were ready, Cardaro nodded to Murphy, who tapped the door sensor. The two doors slid back into their pocket, revealing a room bustling with activity.

"Grenades," Cardaro shouted.

Within three seconds, six grenades had been tossed into the room and the door sensor tapped to close the doors. The Marines dropped to the deck as explosions shook the section.

"Squad, fall back," Burgess yelled. "We're evacuating this area. Into the carts, people, and stay low."

The Marines were hardly in the carts before the drivers applied power, but no one was left behind. They had only traveled about a hundred meters before Denubbewa began spilling out of the room. As the enemy aliens opened fire with laser rifles and some sort of weapons like RPGs, the Marines in the third cart opened up as well. The corridor provided no turns or cover, so they would be under fire until they reached the airlock with Section Five.

The Marines continued to fire until their batteries ran out, then changed batteries and resumed their fire. Burgess briefly considered stopping and taking cover in one of the previously checked rooms from which they could fire and have some protection afforded by the walls, but if the number of reported Denubbewa in that room was accurate, they'd soon be overrun. He decided they had to keep going until they reached Section Five.

~

By the time the third cart got to Section Five, all seven Marines in the cart had been hit at least once. Their Dakinium armor protected them completely from the laser fire, but Private Mahoney and Lieutenant Burgess had been hit by an explosive device fired from the RPG-like weapons, and their bodies had been ripped apart. As the third cart passed through the second door in the airlock, Staff Sergeant Cardaro was waiting to jam the doors open believing it would slow any Denubbewa attempting to follow because the first door couldn't open until the second door had closed or the safety controls were overridden.

"Com control, this is Staff Sergeant Peter Cardaro. Put me through to Marine Captain Lockhart immediately."

"Standby, Staff Sergeant."

"Captain Lockhart, Staff Sergeant. Where's Lieutenant Burgess?"

"Dead, sir, along with one of my squad. We found the room those scientists reported. The report was accurate, sir. It's full of Denubbewa, and they're alive. We took down the first three that came at us with laser fire, then gave a second group a grenade lunch as we evacuated. I doubt we took down more than a couple of dozen at most."

"Where's the room, Staff Sergeant?"

"We had cleared one hundred seventy-eight rooms into the corridor from the airlock before we were attacked, so it was the one hundred seventy-ninth door."

"Where are you now, Staff Sergeant?"

"In that same corridor, but in Section Five where the two sections join."

"Can you hold that position?"

"For a short time, sir, if necessary. But they can go to a different floor or corridor and outflank us. We can't stop them, and we can't even slow them for long. Their laser fire has been ineffective, but they also have some kind of RPG weapons."

"How many Denubbewa would you estimate?"

"I only saw about two dozen moving around in the room that faced the corridor, but there was an enormous room behind them and it looked to be filled with them things."

"Do you have any more grenades?"

"Each of my people was carrying two, so we should have about eleven left."

"Good. Booby trap the airlock to slow any Denubbewa that try to follow you. Report in when you reach Section Four."

"Aye, sir."

"Lockhart out."

~     ~     ~

"Captain," Captain Dellzon said when his com buzzed and he saw the caller was his XO.

"Sir, our Marines have come under fire in the mothership. We have two dead, including Lieutenant Burgess. Those two scientists were right. The Denubbewa they reported as being there— are there. The Marines, under the command of Staff Sergeant Cardaro report having downed about two dozen, but there were far too many for them to even consider remaining there. Their position would have been overrun in no time if they'd stayed. Marine Captain Lockhart has ordered them to pull back and is requesting permission to order a full evacuation of the mothership."

"Good Lord. Permission granted, get our people out of there."

"Aye, sir."

"Captain out."

Dellzon paused to take a deep breath, then prepared a vidMail to Quesann HQ. He related the events as he knew them and reported that he had ordered an evacuation of the mothership. He then announced his intention to leave the area as soon as all were aboard, or as many were aboard as could be safely recovered, and detonate the two WOLaR bombs planted inside the hull. Since they were in a different solar system, he expected that the troop transport would already be on its way to Quesann before the vidMail reached HQ.

Once all of the Space Command crew, Marines, and civilians had been evacuated, Captain Dellzon gave the order to denote the WOLaR explosives. When nothing happened he said, "Tac, I told you to detonate."

"I did, sir. Twice. The firing mechanism isn't working. The WOLaRs won't detonate."

"Damn. The Denubbewa must have found them and deactivated them. Get us out of here, Helm."












Chapter Twenty-Five

~ November 15th, 2289 ~



Shanara sat sipping her iced tea as she listened to the evening news story about the Yolongi attack on Obotymot. There was no accompanying video of the attack, but the reporter related the facts in great detail, so someone close to the investigation must have briefed her. The speculation was that the attackers were after Admiral Carver, who had reportedly taken leave from Space Command to give birth to twins and was now living on Obotymot until she returned to active duty. Several of the Nordakian women in the greeting party had worked to make themselves look like Admiral Carver, as many had on Obotymot and Nordakia, and it was generally believed that the attackers thought one of them might be the Azula since they had specifically requested to meet with her to negotiate the immigration of the refugees aboard the freighter. A subsequent investigation in space had yielded just two bodies— those of the pilot and co-pilot— aboard the freighter.

There was a video of the memorial service honoring the people who had been killed in the attack, and in summarizing the events, the reporter speculated that the attackers might have been part of the same criminal organization that had been proven to be responsible for bombing the GA Trade Conference at Earth a few years ago. There was also a vid of Admiral Carver leaving the memorial ceremony with her two children, several relatives, and an entire pride of Jumakas. She refused to be interviewed at that time.

Feeling uncontrollable rage, Shanara threw the glass of iced tea at the vid screen with all the force her anger had spawned. "Fools," she screamed. "If you had waited to make certain of your target before you opened fire, you could have gotten her. Now, with that entire pack of wild animals protecting her, no one will ever get close again. Why oh why is it so difficult these days to find good sociopaths and murderers with half a brain?"

She knew it wouldn't calm her or even dull the throbbing she was feeling in her head, but Shanara ordered the automated servant to bring her a sixteen-ounce tumbler of Scotch with two ice cubes.

~     ~     ~

"Hi, Mama," the image of Hugh said as the vidMail began to play. "How's my favorite wife and mother?

"Well, the christening ceremony is over and the Stockholm is officially the newest ship in Space Command's armada. The only thing left to do is perform the space trials and then leave for active duty. I've got a great crew, and I can't wait to be underway. I know you said you regretted not being able to attend the christening ceremony because you had to attend the memorial ceremony on Obotymot, but that was far more important. The Stockholm's christening ceremony was just a PR event. If I hadn't had to go, I probably would have skipped it myself. I remember you telling me about attending the christening ceremony of the Prometheus and how it was a boring chore punctuated with boring speeches by boring politicians. And I'm sure they were just as bored as everyone else.

"Hey, great news. I got special permission from Space Command HQ to stop at Obotymot for six hours on the way out to begin our space trials so I can see the kids. So that means I'll see you in two days. I can't wait to hold you and our kids in my arms. And now I'll even be able to get my arms around you. Just a joke— don't get angry. I'm sure we're both glad you're back to your wonderfully slim size."

Jenetta laughed at the remark. She hadn't been that big while she was pregnant.

"Oh, and tell that security chief of yours not to shoot down my shuttle when I come down to the palace shuttle pad," Hugh said with a big smile. "Have to go, my love. See you in two days.

"Hugh Michaels, Captain, GSC Stockholm. Message complete."

The news that Hugh was coming for a visit was enough to brighten Jenetta's day considerably. She had been depressed ever since the attack on her people, but this helped ease a little of the pain.

Following the attack, Jenetta had met with her immigration people and announced that under no circumstances would she ever again meet with any more refugee groups. It was the only way she knew to protect the people around her, and it was purposely leaked to the press. If attackers believed they would have no access to her by posing as refugees, they shouldn't make any attempts to use that as cover for their attack.

The size of the Family Carver Estate on Obotymot had once been estimated by the King's Protocol Minister Dtaple Gkibuke as including roughly thirty-six million hectares. From that, Jenetta had calculated that it was about three hundred sixty thousand square kilometers, or almost the combined size of Kansas and Oklahoma on Earth. But the estate had represented just two percent of all vegetation under cultivation on the planet before the meteor struck and an almost insignificant amount of the total arable land on the planet. On the remainder of the planet, it was up to the king and queen to enforce the rules Jenetta had established in her capacity as head of the Refugee Resettlement Program.

The Crown did order that all members of the nobility follow the Family Carver requirements with respect to immigrant acceptance. Further, it designated the Family Carver Immigration Department as the single entity now responsible for maintaining records of all refugees settling on Obotymot and, therefore, the single contact for refugee ships interested in knowing how many refugees Obotymot would still accept. The Immigration Department found themselves suddenly swamped with reports from the other noble families on the planet, especially from the chamberlains of the crown since the king and queen still directly owned about fifty-eight percent of the arable land on the planet.

~     ~

When the GSC shuttle touched down on the palace shuttle pad, Jenetta was waiting to greet her husband. Beside her was the oh-gee stroller with the two babies in it, and on both sides of her were the Jumakas. Behind her were Annette, Marisa, Regina, Berl, and Arturo. And behind them was a small group from the palace security force. Since the attack, they had never been far enough away when she was out of the palace that they couldn't step in front of her in a matter of seconds to shield her from danger.

After passing through the shuttle hatch, Hugh bounded down the ramp. First, he picked up Jenetta and spun her around once before kissing her. Then he smiled, waved, and shouted hellos to the rest of the Carvers. And lastly, he bent over the stroller and looked at Kyle and Kaycee.

"Which is which?" he asked.

"Oh, Hugh," Jenetta said, "Don't you know it's tradition for boys to wear blue and girls to wear pink?"

"Oh, right," he said, snapping his fingers. "I forgot about that. I haven't had much contact with babies during the past half century."

Looking down at them, he said, "But they look so much alike. Are you sure one is a boy and the other is a girl? How can you tell?"

At that point Jenetta knew he was joking around. "Stop being silly and kiss your children."

Hugh bent down and kissed each baby lightly on its forehead. "My children," he said. "I had begun to think I'd never be able to say that. When you first told me I was a dad, I think I walked around on the ship's overhead for a whole day. I'm sure my crew was making fun of me, but I didn't care. I had seen other new dads act the same way."

Jenetta smiled and said, "It's too bad you couldn't be here for their birth, but you're here now and that's all that's important."

"Only for six hours, I'm afraid. And I was lucky to get that."

"Then let's make the most of it."

"First let me greet my mother-in-law, my sisters-in-law, and my nephews," Hugh said with a smile as he stepped around Jenetta. After hugs all around he said, "Okay, I'm ready. What do you want to do?"

"Not what you're thinking of," Jenetta said with a smile.

"You know me so well, babe."

"Let's go out to the gardens and relax a little."

"Okay."

Fifteen minutes later the family was settled in the garden.

"After three months here in this idyllic lifestyle, it was so depressing being back aboard ship. I didn't snap out of it until I got back into the routine of working almost around the clock again." Leaning over towards Jenetta, he said in a lowered voice, "How about an hour of quality time before I have to leave today?"

"I wondered how long it would be before you brought that up."

"You don't want to?"

"Of course I want to."

"Oh, you two go ahead," Annette said. "We'll look after the babies until you get back."

"Thanks, Mother Carver."

"Annette, please, or Mom. I feel so ancient every time someone calls me the Azula Mum."

"Okay, Annette. Thanks. We'll be back in a little while."

~     ~     ~

Admiral Brian Holt was working at his desk when the Priority-One vidMail arrived from Captain Dellzon. He leaned in to prove his identity and then watched the message. When it was over, he leaned back and grimaced. He hoped the intelligence data they had gotten from that Denubbewa mothership was worth the two lives it had cost. There was nothing to be done about it, so he went back to work.

An hour later he received a second message. This one informed him the WOLaR bombs wouldn't detonate. He tapped the com spot that would connect him directly with the Second Fleet HQ via his CT. When the call was answered, he said, "This is Admiral Holt. We have a Stage-One emergency in the Crondezzo system. That damn, nearly-complete mothership has been overrun by Denubbewa cyborgs and the bombs planted inside as a safeguard won't detonate. I want a destroyer and four SDBs sent there immediately to blow that thing apart before they can get it working and take off with it."

"Aye, sir. We'll dispatch the ships immediately."

"I want to know as soon as they report back following their attack."

"Yes, sir, Admiral."

"Holt, out."

Holt leaned back in his chair and grimaced.

~     ~     ~

Jenetta was sad to see Hugh leave— again, and knew they'd have a better chance of getting together occasionally if she were in Region Two, even if she wasn't in the service. She was thinking over her options when her mother said, "I know that look."

"What look, Mama?"

"That how-can-I-make-things-happen-the-way-I-want-them-to-happen look."

Jenetta smiled. "Is it really that obvious?"

"Only to your mother, dear."

"Well, you're right. I was examining my options."

"About babies?"

"I'm not having any more babies— at least not for a while."

Annette smiled. Actually most people would have referred to it as a knowing smile. "I'm sure there will be more babies. Both Jumaka and— Terran."

"Not by me."

"Of course not, dear. I never said you would. I know Regina and Marisa would like to have at least one more child."

~     ~     ~

At Light-9790, the Crondezzo system was just a bit under nineteen hours from Quesann, and it had taken the five ships chosen for the attack a bit over an hour to recall all hands on leave and prepare for departure. So twenty hours after Admiral Holt issued the orders, the GSC Destroyer Calcutta, and the SDBs Ganges, Sepik, Nelson, and Atrato arrived at the Crondezzo system and stopped some twenty billion kilometers from where the motherships had been placed. Captain Ronna Boyd, as senior officer among the small task force, was in command.

"We have a fix on the last known position of the target," Captain Boyd said. "The Nelson will target with the Sepik as the bomber. The other pairing will be Atrato as the targeting ship and the Ganges as the bomber. Form up, people. The Nelson/Sepik will kick off in five minutes from— now, and the Atrato/Ganges will follow five minutes later. Then we'll assess the damage and see if more strikes are necessary. Any questions?"

Boyd waited for ten seconds, and when no one spoke up, she said, "Okay, let's do this."

Aboard the Nelson and Sepik, the tac officers and helm officers were telemetrically linking their systems. It was a required part of their regular training, and they ran simulations all the time to remain ready for this moment.

All preparations were made and the ships were ready a full minute before they were to begin their run. At exactly five minutes, the helmsman of the Nelson assumed control of both the Nelson and Sepik and commenced the attack. The computer had the coordinates and would drop the five WOLaR bombs at just the precise instant.

All seemed to be going smoothly until the two ships arrived at their drop point. The mothership was gone. The tac officer immediately cancelled the drop and Commander Derek Thakett contacted the Calcutta using the five-way conference connection so the captains of the Sepik, Atrato and Ganges were made aware of what was happening.

"Captain, the target is gone. I repeat, the target is gone."

"Do you mean you destroyed it in just your first run?"

"Negative. We never dropped our bombs. The almost-completed mothership is not here. The other two are still here, but not the one we were sent to destroy."

"Damn," Captain Boyd said.

"I can't believe they got that partially completed ship FTL," Commander Moodigon of the Atrato said.

"Well, it was towed here FTL," Commander Oster of the Ganges said, "so we know an envelope could form around it. They only had to get the temporal envelope generator operational."

"That should have been removed or destroyed so this couldn't happen," Commander Thakett of the Nelson said.

"We have to begin a search immediately," Captain Boyd said. "We have to find that ship and destroy it. At most, it's had twenty hours to escape. The top speed of a Denubbewa mothership is supposed to be in the range of Light-450. That means we have twenty times their speed. Assuming they could even get that mothership up to top speed, they're only one hour away at our top speed. We'll begin a standard grid search out to 90 minutes from the previous location of the ship. We have five ships, so let's get busy and find that mother-loving ship. My navigator will transmit the search area where each ship should concentrate its efforts. Good hunting."

~     ~     ~

"Sir," the Priority-One message opened by Admiral Holt said, "Within five minutes of arriving at the spot from which we would launch our bomber runs, the Nelson and Sepik began their run. Upon arriving seconds later at the shipyard, they discovered that the mostly complete Denubbewa mothership was gone. We've begun a grid search of the surrounding area but could use some help if there are any ships available."

"Ronna Boyd, Captain, GSC Calcutta in the Crondezzo system."

Admiral Holt closed his eyes for a couple of seconds and breathed deeply. He wasn't angry at Boyd or the Calcutta crew, but he was greatly upset. What he wanted to know most was if the partially completed mothership was a decoy of sorts designed to draw off the fleet forces from Quesann to search for a mothership that had no warships in it and by all accounts had been empty of Denubbewa until a few days ago when they suddenly came to life. Was the ship a modern-day Trojan Horse designed to be brought in close to Quesann and then distract the attention of the fleet? Was a large force of Denubbewa warships waiting to attack Quesann when he recklessly sent a large force in search of the mothership?

Holt touched the spot on his com unit that would connect him with Second Fleet HQ via his CT.

"HQ. Captain Rakich."

"This is Admiral Holt, Captain."

"Yes, sir, Admiral. How can I help you?"

"That Denubbewa mothership in the Crondezzo system has slipped away. The Calcutta and SDBs are searching for it, but I'm worried it might have all been a planned diversion."

"You think the Denubbewa plan to attack us here, sir?"

"It's not outside the realm of possibility. If that's their plan, I want to be ready for them. Cancel all leaves and put the fleet on alert. See that all SDBs are loaded with WOLaR bombs and ready for action. And triple the patrols around Quesann to a distance of ten light-years."

"Aye, Admiral."

"I want to be notified immediately if anything suspicious is spotted by our patrols."

"Aye, Admiral."

"Holt, out."

Admiral Holt then sent a message to Captain Boyd informing her of his suspicions so she'd understand why he wasn't sending any ships in support of her search effort. The Crondezzo system, at just twenty light-years away, was too close to Quesann for comfort.












Chapter Twenty-Six

~ November 23rd, 2289 ~



Jenetta was working at her desk when a message arrived from the Royal Palace on Nordakia. The message had no subject listed, so she opened it right away, learning only then that it was a private message from King Tpalsh.

"Your Grace, it's urgent that I see you as soon as possible regarding a matter of national security. I can't mention more than that in this message in case it's intercepted. Can you come to Nordakia? I'm assuming you still have use of your barge. If not, I'll send a warship from the Home Guard unit to pick you up.

"Kink Tpalsh, the Nordakian Royal Palace, Nordakia. Message complete."

Jenetta couldn't imagine what could be so urgent that the King would ask her to drop everything and rush to Nordakia, but she knew he never made frivolous requests. She checked her appearance and prepared to respond to his message.

"Message to King Tpalsh, Nordakian Royal palace, Nordakia. Begin message.

"Your Majesty, I shall leave today and arrive at Nordakia sometime tomorrow.

"Azula Carver, the Family Carver Estate, Obotymot. Message complete."

~

Jenetta had no idea how long she'd be away, so she packed enough clothes for a two-week trip. She alerted her barge crew and gave them one hour's notice that she needed to go to Nordakia. Then she told her family she was going away. The twins would remain at the palace.

"What's so urgent you have to leave right away?" Annette asked.

"The King says it's urgent, so it's urgent. I'll find out what the issue is when I arrive."

"Tayna and I will go with you, Jenetta," Cayla said.

"Are you sure you can leave your babies?"

"You are leaving your babies."

"Uh, that's true. But you're busy with their training."

"Thor and Nicky can train them while we're gone. Is time to learn hunting anyway, and Thor and Nicky are good at that."

"Okay, girls. We'll be leaving within the hour."

~

Less than an hour later the barge lifted off on its way to Nordakia. On all previous occasions when she was aboard, Jenetta had spent all her time in a jump seat next to the tac station, but this time she didn't even enter the bridge. Instead, she went directly to the VIP suite in the residence container that hung beneath the main ship. It was as spacious and well appointed as the Admiral's suite aboard the Ares. If you had to travel extensively on business, this was the way to do it, she thought.

She still had some correspondence to catch up on, so she sat at the desk and went to work. Traveling at FTL in a temporal envelope, there was absolutely no sensation of movement, so the ship might just as well have been parked outside the palace walls.

The trip to Nordakia would take less than a day at Marc-1, and the ship would arrive mid-afternoon at the Royal Palace. After completing her work, Jenetta fed Cayla and Tayna, prepared a meal for herself in the suite's kitchen, and turned in to get some sleep.

~

In the morning, Jenetta bathed and had breakfast, then dressed appropriately for the Royal Court. The ship was still several hours from Nordakia, so she sat down to read a number of reports from the various farm managers on her estate.

As the barge set down on the Royal Palace shuttle pad—a significantly larger pad than the one at the Family Carver Estate—Jenetta put her work away and checked her appearance, then moved to the hatchway as the ramp extended down to the ground.

The chief of protocol for their Royal Majesties King Tpalsh and Queen Ckuhah, Minister Dtaple Gkibuke, was waiting to greet Jenetta as she stepped off the shuttle ramp. Cayla and Tayna were, as usual, at her sides.

"Your Grace," Gkibuke said in his usual style as he bowed his head, "it's wonderful to have you back on Nordakia."

"Thank you, Minister, and it's wonderful to be back."

"His Majesty is most anxious to meet with you, so if you're quite ready, we should go."

"Of course, Minister. We mustn't keep His Majesty waiting."

Compared to previous visits where the pace was sedate, it seemed like Jenetta was almost running to keep up with Gkibuke. Whatever it was, the matter had to be most urgent for the minister to hurry like this. Jenetta was glad she had worn a gown that gave her absolute freedom of movement.

Upon reaching the door to the king's study, the minister knocked once and then opened the door just slightly. Listening for just a second and hearing no voices, he opened it wide enough to enter, then announced Jenetta and waved her in. Stepping quickly outside, he pulled the door closed behind him. His behavior was most unusual, reinforcing the idea something highly important was in the works.

After walking to where the king was standing, Jenetta stopped the appropriate ten paces away and bowed her head. The king said almost immediately, "Raise your head, Your Grace, and come join me."

Jenetta looked up and smiled, pointed to the floor with both hands so Tayna and Cayla would know they were to stay where they were, and walked to where the king was standing. The room was empty but for them.

Usually the king or queen would offer a beverage and something to munch on when Jenetta visited, but the king got right down to business.

"Your Grace, I would very much like to hear your opinion of this document." He held out a viewpad to Jenetta. "Can you read this?"

The document being displayed on the viewpad was in what Jenetta usually referred to as Ancient Dakis. While similar phonetically to present day Dakis, the written form was considerably different because the leaders who took their followers away from Dakistee in search of a new home had intentionally altered the written form.

"Yes, Your Majesty. It's been awhile, so it may take me a bit longer than it would have in the past."

"Take your time. I don't want to read it to you because my inflection might give away my sentiments, and I want your unbiased opinion."

Jenetta began scanning through the pages quickly just to get an idea of the length. When she reached page twenty, she stopped. "How long is this document, Your Majesty?"

"It's quite long and quite detailed."

"Then it's going to take me a considerable amount of time. Perhaps I should do this elsewhere so I don't prevent you from conducting other Crown business."

"Nothing is more important than this. And while I trust you with my life, I can't allow this viewpad out of my possession until I've decided with whom I can share this, if I choose to share it. This is the only electronic copy. The original document is in the most secure location in the Nordakian Government Archives. Only myself and my queen can access that document."

"Then may I sit down while I study this, Your Majesty?"

"Forgive me, Your Grace. I'm so preoccupied with this document that I've forgotten my manners. Yes, come over to my informal seating. I'll ring for beverages and snacks— unless you'd care for something more substantial."

"A cup of tea and something to munch on while I concentrate would be most appreciated."

~

It had been some time since Jenetta had tried to read anything in Ancient, so it took her considerably longer to finish than she first expected, but she finally completed her read of the document. The king had waited patiently, never saying a word once she started.

"Your Majesty, I've never read anything so appalling in my entire life. Has this information been verified?"

"To the greatest extent possible."

"This document has the potential to help our people enormously or harm them terribly. It all depends on how the information is presented and how it's received."

"Yes, Your Grace. The presentation of the facts contained in that document will require the most delicate of handling to ensure it's received in such a way as to make the outcome favorable. That's why I've chosen you to handle the matter."

"Me?"

"I can think of no one else who can handle such a delicate issue with the care it requires. I trust you above all my subjects to see that the information helps the Nordakian and Obotymot people rather than harms them. Will you take on the task for us?"

Jenetta poured herself another cup of tea while she thought about the king's request. She owed him and Queen Ckuhah so much that she could hardly refuse.

"Yes, Your Majesty. I would be honored to represent the Kingdom in this matter, if I have carte blanche power to handle it as I see fit."

"Of course, Your Grace. And I know the issue will be handled with the greatest of skill and delicacy. Now that that's decided, it's dinnertime. You'll dine with the queen and myself in the family dining room. I won't take no for an answer."

"I've never been able to refuse you anything, Your Majesty. What shall I do with this viewer?"

"I'll place it in my safe until you're ready to leave. Will you stay the night?"

"Thank you, Your Majesty. I will."

~

The Royal Kitchen had been able to produce two large portions of well-cooked meat for Cayla and Tayna, so Jenetta hadn't had to return to the ship for their food. After eating their meal, the two large cats dozed while Jenetta talked with the king and queen for hours regarding matters other than the reason for her visit.

~

When it was time to leave the next day, Jenetta thanked the king and queen for their hospitality, then walked with the king to retrieve the viewpad from the safe in the king's study.

"You understand the importance of this document," the king said, "and the possible consequences if it were to fall into the wrong hands, so I won't belabor the point further. Our prayers go with you for a successful resolution."

"I'll guard it with my life, Your Majesty."

"My faith in you has never wavered, Your Grace."

~

Once back aboard her barge, Jenetta placed the viewpad in the safe in her suite, although it would have been just as safe if she'd left it on her desk.

Activating her CT, she called McDonnell.

"Lieutenant, we can depart whenever you're ready."

"Aye, Admiral. Back to Obotymot?"

"No. Take me to Earth. Space Command HQ in Nebraska, USNA."

"Aye, Admiral."

Turning to her com unit, Jenetta prepared a vidMail.

"Message to Evelyn Platt, Admiral, Space Command HQ, Nebraska, USNA. Begin message.

"Evelyn, I'm preparing to leave Nordakia en route to Nebraska. It's important that I see you as soon as I arrive on Earth. I can't discuss the nature of the issue other than in a face-to-face meeting.

"Jenetta Carver, Admiral, aboard her barge on Nordakia. Message complete."

w??

Two days later, Jenetta's barge landed at the enormous Nebraska base. The activity there had been diminishing as Supreme HQ slowly moved its operations to Quesann. The Nebraska base would continue to be the home of the Region One Space Command HQ for the foreseeable future.

It was nighttime in Nebraska when the barge arrived, so Jenetta turned in for the night so she would be well rested for her meeting with Admiral Platt in the morning.

~

In the morning, Jenetta put on a Space Command uniform for the first time since arriving at Obotymot all those months ago. Following her delivery of the twins, her body had quickly returned to the shape programmed by Raider scientists decades ago, so the uniform was still a perfect fit.

As she stepped off the ramp of the barge, a greeting party of Space Command senior officers snapped to attention.

At least they didn't bring a band and cheering fans, she thought as she was introduced to the officers. Minutes later she was being whisked away to Admiral Platt's office.

~

"Admiral Carver," Admiral Platt said formally as Jenetta was escorted into the admiral's office, "it's nice to see you again. Please come in and have a seat."

As soon as her aide left the office and the door had closed, Admiral Platt said, "What's up, Jen? Your message sounded so mysterious. Does this have anything to do with that attempt on your life?"

"No. I'm quite sure that was an unrelated incident."

"Have you discovered who was behind it?"

"Not yet. I'm not sure I ever will. It wasn't the first attempt on my life, and it probably won't be the last. I've made a lot of enemies over the years."

"All successful people have."

"Yes, but not all successful people are the target of assassins. Anyway, the matter I need to discuss with you concerns the Nordakians. A document was recently discovered in the Nordakian archives which clearly outlines the plans of a fanatical group to kill every man, woman, and child on Dakistee."

"When is this to take place?"

"It already has. The attempt was put into motion twenty centuries ago."

"Are you talking about the fanatics who sterilized the population so they couldn't reproduce?"

"Yes."

"Thank heavens. I thought you had uncovered a new plot."

"I've read the document, and hatred for the people of Dakistee is expressed in such vitriol that it makes you wonder about the sanity of the so-called religious leaders of the time."

"And is this document to be made public?" Admiral Platt asked.

"No."

"Then there's really no problem. Simply bury it so deep in the musty old archives that it can never see the light of day or—better yet—destroy it."

"I don't think destruction of such documents should even be considered an option. The poet and philosopher George Santayana, a Spanish national, is credited with writing in 1905, 'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.' Even if this document is never made public, it should remain intact so archivists can produce it if it's ever needed as a reminder of the despicable behavior of certain Nordakians. The Dakistians know the source of the sterility, and some of them despise the Nordakians living now simply for being the descendents of the fanatics. While most hold no malice towards the current generations on Nordakia, if this ever became public it could incite new hatred among the Dakistians who are trying to forget the ills of the past."

"I don't see the problem."

"No, I haven't made it clear yet. The problem is that there is an addendum to the document which might help our researchers find a cure to the sterility."

"That's wonderful!"

"Yes, it is if it turns out to be as helpful as I think it will. But I know the Dakistians would question where the solution came from, and if told, they'd want to know how long the Nordakians had been holding back the information. Some will choose to believe the worst and assume the Nordakians had the solution all the time but kept it hidden because they still hate the Dakistians. That's foolish, of course, but sometimes people have such uncontrollable hatred that they're rarely capable of objective reasoning."

"Ah, I begin to see your dilemma. You want to produce what could possibly help the Dakistians cure their sterility but never let them know about the main document. What is this addendum you've mentioned?"

"Don't laugh, okay. The addendum is a research paper by a pharmaceutical company on Dakistee. They were searching for a cure to insomnia and discovered that the drug actually caused sterility in test subjects."

"Good Lord. And they then used it to sterilize the population."

"No. They were frightened out of their minds at the possible repercussions if anyone ever learned about it. They would have destroyed the formula, but they had already distributed too many research documents to ever put the evil djinn back in the lamp. So they prepared the document we have now in which they claim no responsibility for the distribution of the experimental drug. They state that the formula was stolen by an employee and turned over to a group of ideological fanatics."

Admiral Platt giggled and then apologized. "I'm sorry. I couldn't stop the way my mind went."

"I know. You're thinking that either the sterility problem will actually cause insomnia rather than cure it, or that once the drug is distributed, insomnia will never be a problem again after the current generations expire."

"Yes, the latter."

"I thought of that also. But the matter is so serious that we can't allow silliness to intrude in our effort to solve the problem."

"So once the fanatics got their hands on the formula they proceeded to poison the entire population?"

"From what I've deduced, they waited until they were ready to leave the planet and then dumped huge volumes of the drug in all reservoirs and water systems. The drug was odorless and tasteless, and all traces of it were supposed to disappear in a hundred years. Then the descendants of the fanatics could return and inherit a vacant planet with a ready-made infrastructure. The ships were built as generational ships so they could live in space for the one hundred years and then return. But something happened— and they were unable to return. Or perhaps they decided not to return. Eventually they discovered Nordakia. But by then, inadequate radiation shielding had caused mutations to alter their physiology, so they look decidedly different than their ancestors."

"With regard to your problem, why not simply tell the Dakistians we've found a cure, providing the addendum does actually allow our researchers to solve the problem. We don't have to explain how we found the cure."

"That would work, but— I want the Dakistians to know the cure originated with the Nordakians so they're grateful enough to finally forgive the descendents of those monsters who died out twenty centuries ago."

"Well, then that could be a problem. But the first step is to see if our people can even develop a cure from the new data. Why don't we take it one step at a time."

Holding out a viewpad, Jenetta said, "I've edited the original document to remove all non-pertinent information. All that remains is the scientific data related to the development of the formula used to create the insomnia drug. And I've included a copy that I've translated from Ancient Dakis to Amer."

"Can you stay for a few days and attend the initial meetings with the top research people assigned to the Dakistee fertility effort?"

"Of course. I want to make sure they have all the data they need to start work on this approach."

~     ~

Jenetta remained on Earth for another week and attended all of the high-level meetings with doctors and researchers working on the cure. To make sure the translation was correct, she went over every word with a researcher who had studied ancient Dakis. The researcher and Jenetta had a couple of long discussions about the precise meaning of several words and both felt better for the extra effort when it was over.

The sterility project would now focus on learning how the insomnia drug caused sterility so the scientists could hopefully reverse the effect.












Chapter Twenty-Seven

~ December 2nd, 2289 ~



"Captain Boyd, we've found it," Lt. Commander Oster, the captain of the Ganges reported. "It's heading is maximum post-median from the Crondezzo system. There's nothing on that heading."

"Nothing?"

"My navigator says the charts show no star systems within ten light-years of that course from here to the defined border of the galaxy."

"There must be something down there. Perhaps they know of a rogue planet whose travel has never been mapped."

"I figure it's trying to get somewhere where there's no chance of running into anyone else."

"Perhaps. Or perhaps there's simply a rendezvous point down there. Where are you, Commander?"

"We're about ten billion kilometers off their track. Once we spotted them we kept going until we were sure there was no chance of them seeing us."

"Send your coordinates to my navigator. That will be our RP. Stay there until we all meet up."

~     ~

Some eight hours later, the five ships had assembled at the RP and the Calcutta had established a five-way conference call among the captains.

"Ganges," Captain Boyd said, "you found the mothership, so you get the honor of checking out what might be ahead of it. I want you to fly on ahead for up to a week to see if there's anything down there at all. If you spot other ships, get some images and send them to me. Otherwise, return here and we'll go destroy the mothership you found and then head for Quesann.

"The other ships will perform a flyby at maximum range every six hours to ensure we don't lose sight of our mothership. Nelson will go first, Sepik next, then Atrato. And continuing in rotation until we hear from the Ganges."

"And what happens if more Denubbewa ships are found on the Ganges course?" Commander Pashick of the Sepik asked.

"Then we'll probably go after the larger and better armed targets first and come back for the uncompleted one later. But I can't make that decision until we have the facts. Any other questions?"

When no one spoke up, Boyd said, "Okay, Ganges, good hunting. Report in once a day at the end of the first watch."

"Aye, Captain," Oster said.

~     ~     ~

Three days later, Captain Oster of the Ganges sent a message before the end of the first watch.

"Message to Ronna Boyd, Captain, GSC Destroyer Calcutta. Begin message.

"Captain, your hunch was right. I've located three motherships along the course the uncompleted mothership is traveling. I shall await your arrival, unless you wish me to return. My navigator will append our location to this message.

"Leslie Oster, Lt. Commander, GSC SDB Ganges. Message complete."

~

Upon receiving the report from the Ganges, Captain Boyd sent an immediate reply telling Commander Oster to hold his position. She then informed the other ships of the Ganges' report and ordered them to proceed to the new RP at full speed. She also sent a message to the Second Fleet HQ informing them of the Ganges report. In that message she told HQ that the Calcutta, Nelson, Sepik, and Atrato were presently underway to the location of the three motherships and they intended to destroy the three motherships, along with as many Denubbewa warships as possible.

~     ~     ~

Upon reaching the RP, the crews were anxious to engage the Denubbewa immediately, but Captain Boyd ordered the Ganges to drop a Distant DeTect Buoy first. Like the WOLaR bombs, it would be ejected while the ship was traveling at Light-9790. But unlike the WOLaR bombs, the DDB would be ejected from the ship at a distance of several billion kilometers. It would provide information useful in navigation during the initial bomb runs because it would give the position of each mothership.

Temporal envelopes could stretch slightly, but once the gap between the ship and any other object exceeded fifteen-point-two-eight centimeters, the envelope around the ejected object dissolved and the envelop around the ship closed. Once outside the envelope, the object was immediately back in normal space at a dead stop.

Since there were only four SDBs in the small task force, they could only attack two motherships per run, with five WOLaR bombs being dropped by each pair of ships on each pass. If any of the motherships moved after the first attack, the DDB would help them correct their approach on the next run. The ships would attack almost simultaneously, then immediately turn and attack again from the opposite direction.

In addition to the WOLaR bombs, each bomber would also drop two sensor buoys— one before they dropped their bombs, and one after. If accurately timed, the sensor buoys would appear in normal space within a thousand kilometers of the targets.

~

When the Ganges returned from its task, the Nelson and Sepik were already lined up for their run, with the Nelson as the lead and the Sepik as the bomber. The Ganges immediately fell into position behind the Atrato and began the work of synchronizing its tactical station and helm with the lead ship. When the ships were ready, they informed Captain Boyd.

"Okay, we're ready to go," Captain Boyd said. "The Nelson will take a run along the left flank while the Atrato, two seconds later, takes the right. Your navigator and helmsman should have the track you're to follow. Following the run, you'll swing around and attack again. Nelson, regardless of the effect of your first run, you'll attack the third mothership on your return run. We'll be watching the sensor data and inform the Atrato which of the first two ships it should attack on the return pass.

"We'll kick off in 60 seconds from— now. Good luck. Let's send those bots to hell."

~

The Nelson and the Sepik disappeared in a synchronized blur as the helmsman applied power when the countdown reached zero, and the Atrato and Ganges disappeared two seconds later. From that point, the computers were actually flying the ship and dropping the sensors and bombs because the required nanosecond timing was too precise for humans.

As the crew aboard the Calcutta watched the attack on vid screens throughout the ship, the Nelson's target seemed to jump, then great holes appeared in the hull, but it maintained a sort of integrity. The Atrato's target seemed to break almost in half, but the pieces clung together. There was no doubt that the ship was incapable of further FTL flight.

"Atrato," Captain Boyd said, "hit the Nelson's first target on your return pass."

"Atrato acknowledges," Lt. Commander Moodigon said.

~

The bombs dropped by the Nelson on its return pass had better effect on its target than those of its first run. The third mothership, which had not yet begun to move after the first pass of the SDBs, broke into four pieces when the five WOLaR bombs exploded within its interior, but the pieces stubbornly clung together in a loose fashion, despite the many thousands of small explosions in what had been the interior. It was speculated that the lesser explosions were from the small missiles that Denubbewa warships carried on their hulls.

The Atrato's return pass successfully broke the back of the first mothership targeted, and the pieces began to drift apart as small explosions also filled the void. There was no doubt that the three motherships weren't going anywhere soon.

As the four SDBs returned to the RP, everyone was watching the vid screen images transmitted by the sensor buoys.

"Good work, people," Captain Boyd said. "Those ships are done for. I don't even see a single surviving warship, as was the case with previous attacks by our forces. I guess using five WOLaR bombs instead of three has made all the difference. But just in case there are any cyborgs picking themselves up, dusting themselves off, and trying to get their warships moving, let's hit the motherships that only received one pass so far."

"Three WOLaR bombs or five, Captain?" Lt. Commander Thakett asked.

"Five," Boyd said. "A little extra power now might save us further effort."

"Aye, Captain," Thakett said.

"The run will commence sixty seconds from— now."

Sixty seconds later, the Nelson and Sepik began their run. Two seconds later the Atrato and Ganges followed.

Where the WOLaR explosions had mostly been inside the motherships on the first passes, they were clearly visible on the third pass because of the incredible damage already sustained by the motherships. Following the third pass, the motherships didn't look much like ships anymore.

"What now, Captain?" Lt. Commander Moodigon of the Atrato asked. " Do we perform any salvage operations?"

"Negative. We'll watch and see if we need to make any additional runs and then use the Calcutta's tugs to push the mothership pieces into the nearest sun. We're not going to lose another Marine to those cyborg bastards if I have any say in it. Whatever intel the scientists got from that uncompleted mothership before it came alive with cyborgs will have to serve."

~     ~

There wasn't any need for additional runs because no warships were seen in the twenty-four hours following the bombing runs. Boyd didn't know if the warships usually found inside the motherships were destroyed or if they had never been there in the first place. But it didn't matter. The three motherships would never be home to a warship again.

"The job here is mostly done," Captain Boyd said to the other four commanding officers during a five-way vid conference. "But there's still that uncompleted mothership to take care of. We know it doesn't have any warships in its belly, but we have to destroy it before the Denubbewa can put it into service. The Calcutta will stay here for as long as it takes and clean up the mess so no one can salvage anything. I want you four to go intercept that mothership that's on its way here and lay five or ten WOLaR eggs in its belly. Lt. Commander Moodigon, you're senior. You'll have command. Report to me after you've finished our work out here."

"Aye, Captain."

~     ~     ~

Two days later, Lt. Commander Moodigon sent a message to Captain Boyd that said, "The mothership is not where it should be based on previous speed and course. I believe it may have learned of our attack from one of the three motherships we destroyed and subsequently changed course. We're beginning a new search."

Captain Boyd sighed. She had hoped they were done with this assignment, but it had started to seem like it would never end. She notified Moodigon that the Calcutta would continue to clean up the battle site unless the four SDBs needed the destroyer. She told him to keep her briefed daily on the search efforts.

~     ~     ~

It took almost two weeks working three full watches each day for the Calcutta's two tugs to drag the major pieces of the Denubbewa ships to the nearest star and push them into a position where the star's gravity would do the rest of the work. Anyone foolhardy enough to try to salvage anything once the star had started to pull it in was foolhardy indeed and would be lucky to escape with their lives.

Captain Boyd had breathed a sigh of relief when she was at last able to have the Calcutta join the search, but they had barely arrived at the start point for their search when the Sepik announced it had found the mothership.

All four of the other ships immediately headed to a new RP from where they would launch their attacks.

~     ~

It took two days for the five ships to converge at the RP, and they didn't waste any time preparing for the attack. The mothership was traveling FTL at just over Light-467, so the Sepik had twice verified it's precise course and speed. Dropping WOLaR bombs on a moving target was a little trickier than on a stationary target, but if the target didn't alter their course at the very last second, it didn't present a major problem.

As before, the four SDBs aligned their ships and then linked their tac and helms so each pair would operate as one ship when they began their run. The Nelson and Sepik took the first pass and the mothership immediately dropped out of FTL as its temporal envelope dissipated. The ship was badly damaged by the attack and wouldn't be going anywhere again unless it was being towed.

As soon as the mothership lost its envelope, it was back in normal space at a standstill. When the Atrato and Ganges began their run, most of the variables were gone and all five of its WOLaR bombs were placed exactly where intended. Thousands of small explosions occurred within and among the broken pieces of the hull after the Ganges laid its eggs.

After completing their pass, the Nelson and Sepik had separated their connection and moved to a point where they could view the final pass without interfering with the attack route. They sent their images to the Calcutta so the destroyer crew could see as well.

"Calcutta," Lt. Commander Thakett of the Nelson said after the Atrato and Ganges WOLaR torpedoes had finished the mothership, "did you notice those objects floating in the detritus that looked like pieces of Denubbewa warships just before the second pass?"

"Yes," Captain Boyd said. "We were just discussing that. Perhaps that's why we didn't see many warships in the detritus of the three motherships we destroyed. They may have come to meet this uncompleted mothership and offer assistance. When we saw those small explosions, I thought at first that an armory had been hit, but they might have been from small missiles mounted on Denubbewa warship hulls. I guess we'll have to wait around for a while to see if any of the warships come to life before we start the cleanup."

~

After twenty-four hours of watching for any movement in the detritus and seeing none, the tugs began the cleanup by dragging or pushing everything larger than a shuttle into the gravity well of a nearby star. When there was nothing left worth salvaging, the five ships were finally able to head for Quesann.

~     ~     ~

"I'm happy to announce that the uncompleted Denubbewa mothership we brought to the Crondezzo system for study has finally been destroyed and its remnants pushed into a star," Admiral Moore said at the regularly scheduled meeting of the Admiralty Board. "That makes four motherships that were far closer to Quesann than we ever imagined. Although this chapter with the newest invaders to come into our territory has ended, it by no means ends the conflict. Admiral Holt's decision to put the fleet on alert was a good precaution. We don't know if those three motherships destroyed by the Calcutta task force intended us as a target, but the imminent danger seems gone for now.

"With each discovery of more and more Denubbewa motherships in Region Two, we've learned that their presence in GA space is far greater than we ever suspected. We have no idea how many remain in Region Two, and we have no idea how many are in Region Three. We've begun compiling statistics from all sources regarding missing vessels in Region Three, and the numbers are staggering. How many should be attributed to the Raiders or other pirates and how many should be attributed to the Denubbewa, we don't know, but it's obvious that we have a major problem. I hope Admiral Carver returns. We need her ability to think outside the cube and help us with these problems."

"Have you had any word from her, Richard?" Admiral Hillaire asked.

"We regularly exchange vidMails, but she hasn't spoken of her return, and I'm not pressing her. I live in hope that she will return. Her husband has taken command of his new ship, and by now I'm sure Jenetta realizes he'll be out here in Region Two."

"She knew that long before now," Admiral Ressler said. "Evelyn told me Jenetta was aware of it the minute she learned Hugh had been moved up on the promotion list."

Admiral Moore chuckled. "I never expected to sneak anything past her. I've never been able to do that in the past. That's why we need her out here so badly. Her suggestion that we use CPS-14s as the lead ship in the bombing passes is now well underway. All new CPS-15s being built at Mars incorporate the linking technology developed for the bombers, and the retrofits of our CPSs from 14s to 15s here are well underway at Lorense-Three, along with replacement of their temporal generator so they'll be capable of Marc-1 speed. And now that the small ships can travel faster than the warships, we're scheduling upgrades for them so they can keep up. The new SDBs being built at Mars already have a docking collar for a CPS-15, and we're about to begin retrofits of our SDBs out here.

"In the most recent vidMail I got from Jenetta, she posed an interesting question. She had been reading the technical papers regarding the Marc-1 advance and knew the speed was possible because of the ripple effect on the double temporal envelope. Knowing that the double envelope causes a ship to be completely out of sync with normal space/time, she asked if the wave length of the ripple effect could be altered and still maintain the speed advantage."

"I don't understand," Admiral Bradlee said. "What's the point?"

"I guess Loretta should be the one to answer that. I turned the question over to her since she directs Weapons R&D."

"Jen is wondering if by altering the wave length of the ripples," Admiral Plimley said, "ships operating in close proximity can be put out of phase with one another, thus eliminating any danger of collision. One of our main concerns has always been that two ships operating at extreme speeds will collide, especially ships that are participating in bombing operations. It was a relief to learn that ships with a double envelope don't have to worry about a collision with ships using a single envelope, but the possibility of a double envelope disaster is always present."

"And would altering the wave length put ships out of phase with one another?" Admiral Hillaire asked.

"No one knows— yet. The brightest scientific minds at R&D are looking at it. But I can tell you they were quite intrigued by the suggestion."

~     ~     ~

Your Grace," her butler said, "A large package has just been delivered for you. Security says it's been checked and is safe. It's from a company named Star Cluster Electronics."

"Wonderful. Have it brought to my office."

"Yes, Your Grace."

When the package, atop a small oh-gee cart, was pushed into her office by a handyman, it was followed in by the entire family of Terrans and the entire family of Jumakas.

"What's that, dear?" Annette asked.

"Some time ago I asked Mr. Wilkerson to design a speaker for the Jumakas so they could all communicate with non-Jumakas all the time. He drew up plans that combined a microphone, translation chip, and speaker into one miniscule package but said manufacturing it was beyond his ability here because he didn't have the right equipment. So I sent the plans to the patent office with the application fee and then contacted some electronics companies and sent them a copy of the plans with a request for bids. Star Cluster Electronics had the lowest bid."

"That huge box has one collar in it? Does it come with an oh-gee cart to hold the speaker?"

"No, of course not, Mama. I had to order a thousand."

"A thousand?" Regina said incredulously. "Are you expecting a sudden explosion in the Jumaka population?"

"The cost of manufacturing two dozen was almost as much as a hundred. And the cost of a hundred was almost as much as a thousand. It was all because of set-up costs, according to the manufacturer. Since two dozen would have cost almost as much as a thousand, I ordered the thousand."

"Open the box, please," Jenetta said to the handyman.

Pulling a utility knife from his belt, the handyman sliced through the tape holding the box closed and then stepped back. Jenetta lifted the flap and removed a small box that resembled a jewelry box for a bracelet. Lifting the cover, she looked at the collar and then passed it around.

"It looks good," Jenetta said. "They did a nice job."

"Good?" Annette said. "It's gorgeous. It looks more like a jeweled choker than a pet collar. I might wear one myself."

Removing another from the large carton, Jenetta opened the box and said, "Come here, Cayla."

When the Jumaka moved to Jenetta, she bent down and removed Cayla's old collar. Then she put a new one around the Jumaka's neck and stepped back.

"Cayla, activate the collar as if you're going to talk with me alone."

While Cayla gave the command, Jenetta depressed a small button on the range extender she wore so it would learn the collar's transmission and receiving frequencies.

"Say something to me, Cayla."

"Something."

Jenetta chuckled when she heard Cayla's response via her CT.

"Good, now activate the speaker using the instruction Mr. Wilkerson taught you."

"What do I do now?" Cayla asked. "Wait, is that coming from me?"

"Yes, the tiny speaker built into the new collar allows everyone around you to hear what you're saying if they don't have a CT. It seems like the words are coming from your mouth. And when I need you, I can call you using my CT if you're not close. You'll hear my voice coming from the speaker. If I'm up here and you're in the garden, I won't have to shout from the balcony."

"That's amazing," Annette said. "Now we can all hear what Cayla says, and you won't have to repeat it."

"You'll be able to hear what all the Jumakas are saying because I have enough collars for everyone. Eighty-three times over," she added with a smile.












Chapter Twenty-Eight

~ January 15th, 2290 ~



Christmas '88 had been wonderful because so many SC members of the family had been able to come for the holiday, but this year found everyone but Christa unable to get away. Hugh was out on space trials, Billy's XO had requested leave at Christmas months earlier, and the massive influx of Clidepp refugees meant that dad couldn't leave his command. Even so, the family enjoyed a wonderful holiday season at the palace.

But by the middle of January, Jenetta had been pensive for several days. She let it be known that she'd received an extremely important message from Region One HQ but that she couldn't elaborate. Since then she'd been walking the halls of the palace alone late at night and was barely communicative the rest of the time. Even without knowing of the message, it would have been obvious to everyone that she had something extremely important on her mind.

When she informed everyone at breakfast that she wished to see all of them in the garden at ten a.m., it seemed she had reached whatever decision or decisions she had been wrestling with.

~

At ten a.m., Jenetta emerged from a rear door of the palace. The entire family was already seated in the garden. Even Arturo and Bert were sitting calmly rather than engaging in their preferred activity of racing around like little madmen.

In addition to the family, the entire population of Jumakas were present. Over the past couple of months, the cubs had learned to use the new speaker collars, and there were times when one might have wished for a little of the old quiet. There was one other person present in the garden as well. Celona, a maid in the house, had become increasingly helpful with the twins. It was she who had always looked after them when Jenetta or Annette had other things to do. She was presently standing on the periphery of the group next to the oh-gee stroller where the twins were sleeping.

"Thank you for gathering," Jenetta said. "It will be easier if I'm able to tell everyone at once and answer the questions I know are sure to come." Jenetta took a deep breath and said, "I've decided to return to Region Two and resume my career with Space Command."

"Is that all?" Regina said. "Everyone here knew you'd be returning eventually. We've all been amazed you've been able to stay away this long."

"What about the Clidepp refugees?" Marisa asked. "What happens when they get here?"

"I've established the rules required for immigration and set up a team large enough to handle it, and the security forces have been increased to a size where they should be able to handle any unruliness from people who don't like the farm choices they're offered. Additionally, the king has promised that once the ships begin to arrive he'll send a Home Guard destroyer to Obotymot. Space Command has also agreed to send a destroyer to watch over things and keep order up in space. Their presence alone should have a certain calming effect on newly arriving refugee ships. Beyond that, Chamberlain Yaghutol should be able to handle most anything. He's very capable."

"What will you be doing in Region Two?" Annette asked.

"That's still undecided, but I'm sure they'll find something for me to do. Officially, I'm still listed as the Commander of the Second Fleet, although Admiral Holt has been handling that job since I left. The Senate has taken full responsibility for the political situations in Regions Two and Three, so I will no longer have the duties of a military governor."

"When are we leaving?" Annette asked.

"We?"

"You don't think I'm going to let you run off with my grandchildren and then spend your days conducting military business while you leave them with some nanny, do you? Until they're of a certain age, I'll be there to watch over them."

"Mama, are you sure? You'll be leaving everyone behind, including dad."

"Your father and I have survived this long using vidMail as an exchange medium. A few more years won't make much of a difference. He's not coming home to stay until they force him to retire, and I wouldn't have it any other way. The first time he retired, he nearly drove me crazy. He couldn't sit still for a minute and quickly tired of playing golf every day. With vidMail it doesn't matter if you're two kilometers away or two thousand light-years."

"If you're sure, I'd love to have you out there."

"I'm going also," Ruby said. "I want to be with Kaycee."

"Ruby, I've told you that you can't pair with Kaycee until she's old enough to make that decision also."

"You once told me that if I love her, I should get her to love me by being her companion, her friend, and her protector, as my mother has been to you. How can I do that if she's not here?"

Jenetta knew Ruby had doted on Kaycee ever since that day.

"I want to go also," Jake said, "and be with Kyle."

Suddenly, all the Jumaka cubs were saying they wanted to go.

Jenetta held up her hands and they quieted down.

"You know I love each and every one of you, but I simply cannot take all of you with me. Here, you have a lot of room to run around and play. I can't guarantee you'd have that where I'm going. I will take Ruby and Jake because they asked first."

"I want to go also, Your Grace."

Jenetta looked up from the cubs and realized that Celona, the maid, had spoken.

"You want to go, Celona?"

"Yes, your Grace. The Azula Mum will need some help with the babies, and I love them as if they were my own."

"But this is your home. I can't promise I'll be back anytime soon. You won't be able to see your parents or your brothers."

"I never see them now, Your Grace, except in vidMails. Their home is too far from here to travel to on my days off. My place is with you now. I want to stay with you and the babies, if you'll allow it. Besides, this might be my one opportunity to see something outside of this planet. No one in my entire family has ever been off-world. Please let me go with you. I promise you won't regret it."

"Very well, Celona, you can come along. And if you ever get homesick, I'll arrange transportation back to Obotymot."

"Thank you, Your Grace."

"So when do we leave?" Annette asked again.

"With a month. I'll let you know as soon as I have a firm date. I have an extremely important matter to take care of in Region One before we go, and I'm waiting for messages from Quesann. But once we leave here, we won't be coming back for a while."

"Where else are we going first? Earth?"

"No. I have to make a stop at Nordakia, then to Dakistee, and then back to Nordakia again. Then we'll head for Quesann."

"Does this have something to do with Christa?"

"We'll see her, but the matter is an errand for the king. I can't say any more because it's highly confidential Nordakian, Space Command, and GA business."

~     ~     ~

Over the following weeks, Jenetta sent and received dozens of vidMails. She spent most of her time in her main office, either with paperwork or deep in thought. In addition to the business she had mentioned, she was also trying to establish procedures and policies for problems that might arise on the estate in her absence.

The six Jumaka cubs who weren't coming to Region Two knew that the next time they saw Kyle and Kaycee, the twins might be fully grown, so they seemed to take every opportunity to watch the twins as they slept or ate, which is all they ever seemed to do except fill their diapers.

Celona was given time off to travel home and say goodbye to her immediate family and the relations who lived nearby. Her brothers and cousins were a little jealous that she was going off-world with the Azula.

When she was ready to return to the palace, one of the security teams picked her up. As happy as she was for the opportunity to travel off-world, the parting with her parents and brothers was a time for tears.

When all of Jenetta's business was concluded at the palace and it was time to leave the estate, the family remaining at the palace, the Jumakas who weren't going, and entire staff turned out to wave goodbye and watch the barge lift off.

~     ~     ~

Arriving at Nordakia, all passengers aboard the barge disembarked and were shown to a suite where they would stay until Jenetta's business was concluded.

After settling in, Jenetta was escorted to the king's study. As always, she waited in the corridor with Cayla and Tayna until announced and then walked to where the king was standing and bowed her head.

"Please lift your head, Your Grace. You've done splendidly so far and I want to show my appreciation. In the future, when you come into my presence, or that of my queen, you need not hold your head bowed. It will be sufficient merely to bow it slightly as a token sign of respect."

"Thank you, Your Majesty," Jenetta said, "for this great honor."

And it was a great honor. In the Nordakian Royal Court, only the closest of relatives, such as the king's and queen's siblings, and of course the three Princes of the realm, had ever been granted that same privilege.

"Thank you, Your Grace, for your many services to the crown. Now, how do things really look for a successful reunification with our cousins on Dakistee?"

"I can't imagine they'll refuse our offer, Your Majesty, but the president is a very stubborn woman. I've gone over my strategy for weeks, planning every word for maximum effect based on what I believe her reaction might be to whatever I say. Lady Christa has made an appointment but has not informed Madu that we'll be bringing a group of Nordakian delegates. If I know Madu, she'll immediately eject them from her office— if they even get into her office. The delegates you've chosen must be prepared for that and never display the merest hint of anger or embarrassment."

"The people I've chosen are the best in the diplomatic core. You could stand in front of them for hours, cursing them, their families, their heritage, and even myself and their queen, and they would never do anything except smile pleasantly. They wouldn't even do anything such as clenching their hands."

"Excellent, Your Majesty. That's exactly what we need. I'll do everything else. And before we leave Dakistee, I'll have a signed treaty and promises that will make the citizens of Dakistee stand, applaud, and begin making plans for celebrations."

"Wonderful. I won't ask exactly what you'll say because we can't predict the president's reactions, but I know it will play out as you say."

"Thank you, Your Majesty."

"Will you and your mother join the queen and myself in the family dining room for dinner tonight?"

"We'd love to."

"And perhaps you could bring the twins so we can see them."

"Of course. May I bring the nanny along in case the twins start crying? She can take them back to our suite so they don't ruin the mealtime."

"Of course."

"Thank you, Your Majesty. If I'm excused, I'll see you this evening."

"Yes. Until this evening, Your Grace."

~

"We're going to have dinner with the king and queen?" Annette asked, slightly shocked.

"Yes, Mama. You'll like them. They're very nice people."

"It's just that I've never dined with royalty before."

"Of course you have. I'm the Azula and you're the Azula Mum. We're royalty, Mama."

"Oh, you know what I mean. They're real royalty."

"So are we, Mama. The only difference is that they were born into their position while ours was bestowed by royal proclamation. When we're escorted into their presence, you must stop where I do, bow your head, and hold it down until the king or queen tells you to raise it. Don't take your cue from me because I've been granted the great privilege of bowing my head and then looking up. You have to hold yours down until told to raise it. After that, simply be cordial. You'll like them, and they'll like you."

~

As Jenetta had instructed her, Annette bowed her head and held it. Celona, so nervous she was shaking, did the same. The king and queen came over to the stroller after telling Annette and Celona to raise their heads and looked down at the twins, who were sleeping.

"Your children are beautiful, Your Grace," the queen said. "They look very much like you."

"Thank you, Your Majesty. All I ever hoped for them is that they be healthy, but being somewhat attractive has its advantages in life."

"That's true," the king said. "Shall we dine?"

Celona wasn't invited to eat and hadn't expected to be, so she had eaten before leaving the suite. She stayed with the twins while the royals enjoyed their meal.

When the meal was over, Jenetta thanked the king and queen for their hospitality and returned to their suite with Annette, Celona, the babies, and Cayla and Tayna. Ruby and Jake had remained in the suite."

"See, Mama, I told you how nice they were," Jenetta said once they were back in their suite.

"Yes, dear. They were very nice. By the end of the meal I had almost forgotten they were the king and queen."

"They've always made me feel at home here. They've never acted pretentious in the slightest."

"Yes, dear. I know you like them. And I do also, now that I've met them."

~

The following morning, with everyone aboard, including the Nordakian delegation to Dakistee, the barge lifted off and headed towards the original home world of the Nordakian ancestors.












Chapter Twenty-Nine

~ February 15st, 2290 ~



"Madam President," her secretary said when he buzzed her office, "Admiral Jenetta Carver and Lt. Commander Christa Carver are here to see you with a group of— um— delegates. But there doesn't seem to be an appointment listed for them."

"Yes, I made an appointment with Commander Carver a week ago. I guess I forgot to tell you so you could log it. Send them in, Doresru."

"Uh, all of them, Madam President?"

"Yes, all of them."

Madu smiled and stood up as the party, led by Admiral Carver with Cayla and Tayna at her sides, entered her office. But her smile quickly disappeared when she realized there were Nordakians in the party. "Out!" she screamed as she pointed at the Nordakians. "I don't allow you people in here. Get out!"

Minister Dtaple Gkibuke stopped so abruptly that the Nordakian behind him walked into him. Without expression, he looked at Madu, bowed his head, then turned and left, shooing the others out ahead of him without a word.

Madu extended her hand towards her desk and tapped a button. The doors to her office closed quickly and silently.

"That wasn't very nice, Madam President," Jenetta said. "They came a long way to see you."

"I don't have to be nice to them. I'd ban them from the planet if I could, but the People's Congress voted to allow them free movement here since Nordakia is a member planet of the GA. I may have to tolerate their presence on the planet, but I don't have to allow them into my private office. They should know they aren't welcome here."

"Oh, they know. Everyone on the planet knows. Everyone in Region One knows. Probably everyone in the GA knows. I can't speak for the people outside GA space, but they probably know also."

"Did you come here to insult me, Admiral Carver?"

"Have I insulted you , Madam President, by agreeing with you and innocently stating common knowledge?"

Madu stared at Jenetta for a few seconds before saying, "It's nice to see you wore your own uniform this time."

"I'm sorry for deceiving you that day, Madam President, but it was necessary if I was to evaluate the situation properly."

"No harm done."

"No, no harm done, thanks to your quick response in cancelling the contract with TGP."

Madu was seething on the inside. Admiral Carver had only been in her office for two minutes and she was already ready to scratch her eyes out. She calmed down and asked, "To what do I owe the honor of a visit by Admiral Carver?"

"I came to extend an offer."

"What kind of offer?"

"An offer to end the sterility plague among your people and restore fertility."

"You've found a cure?"

"We believe a cure has been found."

"Well, where is it?" Madu asked anxiously.

"With the people you just ejected from your office."

"What? They have the cure?"

"We believe so. In every test the GA scientists have been able to run, the test was positive."

"What do those green-blue monsters have to do with it?"

"The Nordakians are responsible for the cure."

"They were responsible for the plague."

"The people responsible for the plague died twenty centuries ago, and you know it."

"They are their descendents."

"And they are your cousins. They come from the same bloodlines as yourself."

"I won't deal with them." Narrowing her eyes slightly, she asked, "Exactly who developed the cure?"

"The doctors, scientists, and researchers at the GA labs actually developed the cure, but they might never have found it if not for the research provided by the Nordakian government."

"Then you can give it to me as a representative of the GA."

"No."

"No?"

"No."

"You have to. The GA must have spent millions of credits to develop it for us. You have to give it to us."

"No. If you want the cure, you must apologize to the people you chased out of your office. Then you must make a formal announcement thanking the Nordakians for their efforts and accepting them as cousins who will always be welcome on this planet as if it were their home."

"Are you insane? You think I'm actually going to do that?"

"Do you want the cure or not?"

"This is blackmail."

"Blackmail. Such a terrible word for what this really is."

"And what do you call it?"

"Peacemaking."

"I warn you that I'll file a formal complaint against you with Space Command if you don't give me that cure."

"Fine. Would you like to say it to me verbally or give it to me in writing?"

"I'm not giving it to you. I'm going over your head."

"Perhaps you aren't aware of what different rank insignias in the military represent, but if you look at my shoulder boards, you'll see five stars. That means my rank is Admiral of the Fleet. My predecessor, Admiral Richard Moore, wanted to retire last year, so the Galactic Alliance Senate voted on a nomination that I replace him when he retired. The vote was unanimous in favor of my appointment. But I needed some time off for personal business, marriage, and having children, so he delayed his retirement until two days ago. He's cleaned out his quarters and his office, and is presently underway for Earth aboard the GSC Battleship Artemis. I officially became Admiral of the Fleet two days ago. I am now the highest ranking officer in Space Command. Effectively, I am Space Command. So if you want to forward a complaint to me, feel free."

Madu hadn't paid attention to the number of stars on Jenetta's shoulders. Military people notice that immediately but not civilians who have never been in the service. But it could be another uniform gambit, such as when Jenetta had visited in Christa's uniform, so Madu looked at Christa, who raised her eyebrows and nodded slightly.

"So you're not going to give me the cure?" Madu asked, returning her gaze to Jenetta.

"I don't have the cure. The Nordakians have it. The question is— how bad do you want it? Didn't you once say you'd do anything to get the cure, even give your life? Surely making peace with distant relatives is better than giving up your life, spending the rest of your life in a prison cell for sharing restricted information with a criminal organization, or watching your entire race die out."

"And all I have to do is make a public speech thanking them?"

"Essentially, but— with a bit of displayed warmth as they share the stage with you, even if you don't feel it. You have to embrace them as former Dakistians and tell them pointedly, on camera, that Nordakians will always be welcome here on the planet, in your office, or in the president's mansion. And you must sign a formal treaty with Nordakia declaring your intention to work with them on common matters of interest and an agreement that establishes them as a trading partner."

Madu snorted slightly. "If you expect me to hug them, you're pushing it."

"How important to you are the lives of the one hundred forty-two thousand citizens that were awakened and the future of your entire race?"

Madu walked around the office trying to think of a way out, or another alternative, while Jenetta remained impassive. She knew Carver was playing hardball and appeared perfectly willing to condemn the people of Dakistee to death if Madu didn't relent. She knew her last thought had been overly dramatic, but hatred for the Nordakians had been a part of her life for so long she was having trouble surrendering it up. However, as Admiral Carver had said, forgiving the descendants of the ancient people responsible for the plague was better than dying.

"Okay," Madu said. "You leave me no choice. I'll do it." Leaning over her desk, Madu tapped the com and said, "Doresru, send in the delegates that arrived with Admiral Carver."

"All of them, Madam President?"

"Yes, all of them."

As the door opened, Minister Gkibuke led the way in. He was calm and smiling. He hadn't been upset when he and the other delegates had been ejected from Madu's office because Jenetta had explained it was very likely to happen. And Azula Carver had been correct, as she always was. She had also told him that he would be invited back in after Madu had a chance to review her actions and options.

"Madam President, I would like to introduce Minister Dtaple Gkibuke, the Chief of Protocol for their Royal Majesties King Tpalsh and Queen Ckuhah. He will present the sterility cure at the press conference you will arrange by telling the press you have something to tell the populace that will affect the lives of every Dakistian on the planet."

"Then I don't get the cure now?"

"At the press conference, Madam President, as I've said. The sooner you hold the press conference, the sooner you'll have the cure."

If Madu had been hoping to get the cure now and then never seem to find the time to conduct a press conference, she was disappointed. And if she expected to have a conference that was lightly attended, she would likewise be disappointed because Jenetta had told Christa to contact every correspondent known to her office and inform them that if they missed the press conference they would miss the biggest story of the millennia.

"Welcome Minister," Madu said, smiling warmly and extending her hand.

Gkibuke smiled pleasantly and shook the proffered hand. "Thank you, Madam President. As a representative for the nobility of Nordakia and Obotymot, I extend the hand of friendship to the people of Dakistee. The king and queen in particular have asked me to state how delighted they are that the people of Dakistee survived the criminal acts perpetrated by our dishonorable ancestors so many millennia ago, and they hope the efforts they've made to find a cure for the plague will be just the first step towards complete normalization of relations between our nations."

"Thank you, Minister. I share your hopes. Do you have a particular date and time you'd like for the press conference?"

"We'll leave that entirely up to your office, Madam President. We are available at any time. Lady Carver has made arrangements for accommodations at the North Pendleton Marine Base. We shall wait there until the day of the press conference."

"Lady Carver?"

"Lt. Commander Carver is officially a Lady of the Royal House on Nordakia, and that is the title we normally use when addressing her."

"I see. Very well, my secretary will contact you when the press conference arrangements have been made."

"Thank you, Madam President. We bid you a good day."

Madu tapped the button that opened the doors to her office and the Nordakian delegation began to leave, but Minister Gkibuke paused when he realized Jenetta wasn't leaving yet.

"I'll join you in the outer office in a few minutes, Minister."

Gkibuke nodded, then turned and left Madu's office.

As the door closed behind the delegation, Jenetta said, "Now that wasn't too difficult, was it, Madam President?"

"You'll never know how difficult it was for me to get the words out and smile while doing it."

"It's the mark of a successful politician. On a personal level, I know that once you cleanse old hatreds from your heart, your mind is opened to new and richer relationships with the people around you."

"Yes, well, if there's nothing else, I have a great deal of work to do."

"Then we'll get out of your way, Madam President. Thank you for your time today."

~     ~

Once the Nordakian delegation was settled in the guest quarters at North Pendleton, Jenetta and Christa returned to Jenetta's barge. After checking in on the twins, Annette, and Celona in the smaller suite next door that was intended for the admiral's aide, Jenetta and Christa went to Jenetta's suite to have dinner and relax.

"That didn't go too badly," Jenetta said later, as she sat on the floor brushing Cayla's thick fur.

Christa was grooming Tayna as the Jumaka purred in contentment. Alex and Ruby, having eaten their supper within the past hour, were fast asleep on the carpeted sitting room floor.

"For a few minutes it seemed like Madu would refuse to accept the cure from the Nordakian delegation."

"No, there was never any chance of that happening. I just had to back her into a corner and leave her with no other choice but the correct one."

"She seemed so determined to avoid any contact with the Nordakians. So tell me, what's happening here? You've brought Ruby to be a companion to Kaycee and Jake for Kyle?"

"I've told them that the arrangement isn't permanent until the babies get old enough to decide, but Ruby and Jake were so upset when they learned that Kyle and Kaycee were going away, I decided to allow a temporary pairing."

"Jake and Ruby want very much to be paired with Kyle and Kaycee," Cayla said after activating her collar speaker, although both Jenetta and Christa could have heard what she said via their CTs, "but they know the babies will have the last word."

"I was hoping one of the cubs would like to come with me," Christa said.

"Any of the cubs would probably go with you in an instant, Christa," Tayna said. "You are exactly like Jenetta and they all love her. They are old enough now to make the decision to leave home, but you will have to go to Obotymot and stay there for a week or so. That will give you time to get to know them and give them time to decide as well."

"I'm sure I can take some time off once the press conference is over. I only need a ride."

"Let me know when you want to go, and I'll arrange for your ride. You have a highly placed friend now."

"I'm still amazed you took the job. I really never thought you would. When I saw the five stars on your shoulder today I nearly fell over. Why didn't you tell me?"

"I've been kind of busy the past few weeks, so I haven't sent out any announcements. The boys don't know yet, but they will soon, even if I don't tell them. The media knows now, and it'll be all over the news today or tomorrow."

"But why did you decide to take the job after being so adamant that you never would?"

"Motherhood and marriage made the difference. I'm certainly not looking forward to flying a desk for the next twenty years or so, but it will allow me to be home with the twins almost every night. And I'll be in the same Region as Hugh, so we'll be able to get together whenever he comes to Quesann rather than waiting until he retires and comes home to stay."

"Only twenty years?"

"Maybe. Maybe not. We'll have to see what happens. I want the kids to have as stable a home life as possible through their teen years, given both parents are in the military."

"And will there be more babies?"

"Mama believes so. I don't know. You know my concerns for how the health of our offspring will be affected by the DNA Manipulation and Age Prolongation Procedures."

"They're almost four months old now, and they appear to be growing properly. They're the right size for their age, have the right number of digits on their hands and feet, and appear perfect in every other way as well."

"So far so good. I just hope they don't get to a certain point and stop growing."

"The scientists who messed with your body couldn't be that cruel."

"They worked for the Raiders. Who knows how cruel they were. But Space Command has the best doctors in the galaxy and they'll keep monitoring the twins. That's one major advantage to being in Space Command."

"In Space Command? As you told Madu, you are Space Command. And you may not like the job, but Space Command couldn't be in better hands. Now, how about freeing me from this command?"

"You've done a wonderful job here, Christa, and you've learned a great deal."

"You're not going to tell me I have to stay here, are you?"

"Guiding this fledgling nation without seeming to guide it, as you've been doing surreptitiously through your influence with Madu, is still an important job and will require someone with your talents for some time to come. But— I also know how much you want to get back aboard a ship. A normal tour of duty is five years, and you've been here four. We'll start looking for a replacement to take over from you next year, and I'll get you a ride on a battleship. You've earned it. There's a new battleship set to be launched in the fall of next year. Perhaps the captain would like a Carver as XO."

Christa smiled widely. "Thanks, sis."



~ finis ~



~~~      The exciting adventures of the Carver sisters      ~~~

will continue





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Appendix



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)

Captain


Commander


Lt. Commander


Lieutenant


Lieutenant(jg) "Junior Grade"


Ensign



Space Marine Officer Hierarchy:



General (4 Star)


Lt. General (3 Star)


Major General (2 Star)


Brigadier General (1 Star)

Colonel


Lt. Colonel


Major


Captain


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-hour 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

Bradlee, Roger T. - Admiral - Director of Intelligence (SCI)

Ressler, Shana E. - Admiral - Director of Budget & Accounting

Hillaire, Arnold H. - Admiral - Director of Academies

Holt, Brian D. - Vice-Admiral - Deputy Commander of Fleet Two Operations

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

Yuthkotl , Lesbolh - Rear Admiral (U) - Dir. of Nordakian Forces Integration



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

Light-450 - 134,906,606.1 kps

Light-9790 (9793.48) - 2,936,011,441.57384 kps

Marc-1 – Light-14,685.7 – 4,402,662,100.4506 kps



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








TOC

Map

Azula Carver





This map shows Galactic Alliance space after maps were redrawn following the end of hostilities with the Milori, and the war with the Tsgardi, Hudeerac, Uthlaro, and Gondusans. Unclaimed territories between the three regions were claimed in order to have one contiguous area. Regions Two and Three are so vast that exercising control and maintaining law and order has been largely impossible to this date.





The only purpose of this two-dimensional representation is to provide the reader with a basic feel for the spatial distances involved, and the reader must remember that GA territory extends through the entire depth of the Milky Way galaxy when the galaxy is viewed on edge.







.jpg and .pdf versions of the maps created for this series are available for downloading at : http://www.deprima.com/ancillary/maps.html


should the names be unreadable in your printed or electronic media, or if you simply wish to gain a better overall perspective.










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