Book: The Invasion Begins



The Invasion Begins

The Invasion Begins





The Invasion Begins


A Galaxy Unknown® series – Book 12


Copyright ©2017 by Thomas J. DePrima


18.f.26



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-13:   978-1-61931-034-1


ISBN-10:   1-61931-034-6


Cover Image from       : Shutterstock.com


Photo Manipulation by : Thomas DePrima


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







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


Changing of the Guard


The Invasion Begins



AGU:® Border Patrol…


Citizen X


Clidepp Requital


Clidepp Déjà Vu



AGU:® SC Intelligence…


The Star Brotherhood



Other series and novels by the author:



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

Appendix

Map












Chapter One

~ March 28th, 2292 ~

Chief Petty Officer Franklin Dorithy’s eyes darted nervously back and forth, scanning the faces of the four individuals standing in front of him. A look of complete bewilderment shrouded the countenance of the engineering noncom, and he was unable to prevent his body from trembling slightly. After several visual sweeps, his gaze came to rest on the visage of the Space Command senior officer. “Wha— wha— what do you mean, I’ve just soared over the rainbow?” His voice quivered as the words spilled from his lips. Just seconds earlier he had been indifferently examining a large booth in a severely damaged section of a Denubbewa warship at the reclamation yard that orbited Lorense-Four in the G.A.’s Region Two. Now, a senior officer in Space Command— one with an unassailable reputation— was telling him he was standing in a ship thousands of light-years away in Region Three. “What rainbow are you talking about, Commander?”

“It was a metaphor, Chief,” Commander Christa Carver replied to the engineering noncom. A hint of a smile appeared on her face as she said, “It’s a quotation from a children’s book written on Earth several centuries ago. What do you know about the booth you were examining?”

“Know? Uh, all I know for sure is that I was tasked with preparing a brief report after I evaluated its general physical condition. I’ve been doing this for weeks now, and I guess I’ve been pegged as the most experienced noncom performing the booth evaluations. Every time one of these units, or any part of a unit, has been found in the wreckage being brought to Lorense-Four, I’m the one sent out to prepare the report. Then the booth and all attached apparatus are immediately taken to the Lorense-Three Shipyard. I have no idea what happens to them after they leave here.”

“Do you know the booth’s purpose?”

“Its purpose? The booth? Uh— well— some of the other chiefs at the yard have speculated about it, but no one really knows for sure what it is or why they seem to be so important to Admiral Plimley. Some of the chiefs think it’s how the cyborgs aboard a ship communicate with cyborgs on other ships since every Denubbewa warship seems to have at least one of these booths, and the motherships appear to have about a dozen. We can’t be entirely sure about that last part, ma’am, because your taskforce has clobbered them so hard it’s often difficult to know where one ship ends in the rubble and the next begins.”

“Chief, there’s no way to keep you from learning the truth now, so I’m not going to try. However, you must understand that this information is an order of magnitude above top secret. If you reveal any part of what I tell you now, you will probably spend the rest of your life in an isolation jail cell on Saquer Major. Here’s why I said…”

“Uh, excuse me for interrupting, Commander, but I think I’d rather not know. I don’t wish to know something so secret that it could result in my spending the rest of my life in a penal colony if I happened to talk in my sleep.”

“It’s too late, Chief. I can’t prevent you from learning or deducing the truth about what just happened. That booth is a Personnel Cosmic Jump Gate.”

“Excuse me, ma’am? A cosmic what?”

“I’m sure you’re familiar with the term ‘wormhole.’ This booth generates an artificial wormhole and sends whoever or whatever is in the booth to an identical booth in a remote location. Apparently, the booth you were examining in that damaged ship had the address of this booth as its last transportation destination.”

As Christa spoke to CPO Dorithy, her Executive Officer and a Marine corporal—the only other Terrans in the small group—had moved to flank the chief petty officer slightly. They were positioned far enough in front of Christa that she could see them in her peripheral vision, so she saw their jaws drop and their facial expressions change to reflect their apparent shock. But Christa continued to stare directly at the chief.

CPO Dorithy grinned slightly and said in an even more nervous voice, “This is a joke, right, Commander? I mean, wormholes are just theoretical nonsense. Uh, aren’t they?”

“No joke, Chief. When you arrived you commented on the condition of this room. I believe you said it looked like a disaster scene before but now looks brand new. There’s a very good reason for that: It’s because this isn’t the same room you were in at Lorense-Four, and this ship is fairly new and undamaged. At Lorense-Four, the booth you were examining was located in a severely damaged ship that was open to space. You needed an EVA suit to be there. As you see, that isn’t required in here.”

Dorithy’s nervous grin had slowly melted from his face as Christa spoke, and now he began to hyperventilate. “I don’t understand. This isn’t supposed to be possible. Uh, maybe the booth has done something to me, or maybe I’ve hit my head and I’m unconscious.”

“You’re not unconscious, Chief, but the booth has definitely done something to you. It has sent you thousands of light-years from where you were minutes ago.”

“What you say is just not possible, Commander,” Dorithy said insistently.

“Why do you suppose they’ve had you writing a condition evaluation report every time one of these booths has been found? And why do they immediately send the booth and its attached support equipment to the shipyard? Chief, you’ve stumbled onto the most secret of secrets in Space Command. You can never discuss this with anyone. Not even if anyone asks what happened to you. Do you understand?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Dorithy said, his face now reflecting the dread he felt about possibly living out the remainder of his life in a penal facility.

“That goes for everyone else here as well,” Christa said to the three members of her original group. “XO, Corporal, and Lucky, you must never mention this incident to anyone. If you do, you could be subject to the same penalties I’ve just recounted to Chief Dorithy. Understand?”

“Aye, Captain,” XO Mollago said.

“Aye, Captain,” the Marine corporal echoed.

“Of course, Captain,” Lucky, the SCI cyborg, muttered.

“I knew the Denubbewa had this capability,” Christa said, “but I didn’t know what the equipment looked like. If I had, I would never have allowed anyone to enter this room.”

“But— but— how could this happen?” the engineering CPO asked. “Nothing like this has ever happened to me before, and I followed the same procedure I’ve been following for weeks. I didn’t do anything in the booth to initiate a wormhole process.”

“You said you turned on the light to examine the booth?”

“Yes.”

“If it wasn’t merely a light switch, that could have triggered the equipment. We had also activated the internal light just before you appeared. We used the switch on the outside of the booth or we might now be standing in a damaged Denubbewa warship at Lorense-Four— without EVA suits.”

Dorithy just stood there with a strange expression on his face. His mouth was partly open and his lips moved slightly as he again reviewed the events of the last few minutes in his mind. Finally, he said aloud, “What do I do now, Commander? How do I get back to Lorense-Four?”

“You don’t. At least not right away. To begin with, we don’t know how to operate this equipment. Second, we don’t even know if it’s working properly. It might malfunction. It would be too dangerous to use it until it’s been tested.”

“But it just brought me here. We know it works.” His face filled with fear as he said, “Commander, I’ll be charged with being AWOL if I don’t return. I’ve had a spotless record until now.”

“We know it works when sending someone from Lorense-Four to this location. But it may not work in the opposite direction. You could be sent to some other location, one that might be a crushed booth in the wreck of a Denubbewa warship, or you might simply be lost forever. I can’t allow anyone to use this equipment until Cosmic Jump Gate travel has been approved by Quesann and this booth has been tested and verified safe to use. I’m afraid you’re stuck out here at the extreme end of Region Three with the rest of us until we can sort this out. I’ll send a report to Quesann regarding this incident as soon as we return to the Koshi, but you’ll probably be reported missing until they get my report. That will take almost a month, given the great distance, but your record will be amended as soon as they hear from me. I promise that you won’t be penalized for being AWOL. Until you can begin the trip back to Quesann, you’ll be assigned work either on this ship or aboard the Koshi.”

Turning to Mollago, Christa said, “XO, I need you to immediately organize a search for other CJ Gate booths. If the chief is right, we might have a dozen— or even more— on this ship. Should any be found, I want two Marines posted inside the room. No one other than assigned guards is to be allowed into the room or any of the other Gate rooms unless I specifically order it. And the guards must confirm the identity and access privileges of the person seeking entry before allowing anyone in. We must be sure that every possible booth location aboard this ship has been searched.”

“Aye, Captain. I’ll get on it right away.”

“That may not be necessary, ma’am,” CPO Dorithy said. “We only speculated that there might be more than one Gate per ship. We believed only Denubbewa motherships might have multiple booths.”

This is a Denubbewa mothership, Chief. Correction, a former Denubbewa mothership. We were able to commandeer seven motherships without damaging them, and they have now been designated as our first bases in Region Three.”

“This is a mothership?” Dorithy said loudly. “Oh my God! Oh my God! Commander, there may be cyborgs hiding aboard this ship.”

“Relax, Chief. It’s been thoroughly searched and declared free of cyborgs, but we haven’t been searching for booths. Corporal Firth,” Christa said to the Marine from her original group, “I want you to remain inside this room until relieved. We’re heading back to the Koshi. No one is to be allowed to enter this room unless I’ve ordered it and you reconfirm it with me. Understand?”

“Aye, Captain.”

“XO, Chief, Lucky, we’re heading back to the ship now.”

As the group turned to leave the room, Dorithy got a good look at Lucky for the first time.

“Oh my God, it’s a Denubbewa!” he exclaimed loudly as he stopped dead in his tracks. Being an engineer, he had immediately realized that Lucky was encased in prosthetic skin once he took a good look.

“He’s a cyborg, but he’s working for Space Command.”

“Working for us, Commander? A cyborg— working for us? Incredible! Uh, are there any more here, ma’am?”

“There are quite a few at Lorense-Three, but that’s top secret as well.”

“I guess it’s still a secret because I haven’t heard about it, although I heard there were strange things going on at the shipyard.”

“What kind of strange things, Chief?”

“Uh, just that one of our largest enclosed docks was off limits to practically everyone, but that there were yard shuttles coming from and going to it continually.”

“What’s unusual about that?”

“All yard personnel have a Top Secret clearance. We’ve never had our access restricted with any of the enclosed docks unless there was something going on that was way above our pay grade.”

“Keep that to yourself also, Chief. Although the crew of the Koshi knows much more than the yard crews at either Lorense-Three or Lorense-Four, all of this has to be kept quiet until it’s time to reveal it to the public.”

“Aye, Captain. I’ll never mention it again— unless ordered to do so by a senior officer.”

“Not even then, Chief,” Christa said. “Not until the information has been released publicly. Until then, if a senior officer demands the information, you refer him or her to Admiral Carver. Okay, men, let’s get to the Koshi.”

~     ~     ~

“Captain, a Priority-One message has just arrived,” Gavin heard via his implanted Cranial Transducer after touching his Space Command ring to acknowledge the page. He continued walking towards his quarters as he said, “Send it to my queue, Chief.”

“Already there, sir.”

“Acknowledged. Gavin out.”

As Gavin entered his quarters aboard the battleship Ares, he walked directly to his office and activated the computer terminal there. Since it was a Priority-One message, he had to submit to a retinal scan before he could open it. The message had been sent by Commander Christa Carver, and Gavin was immediately concerned because a Priority-One message from a ship’s senior officer usually meant severe problems or threats to the safety of a ship or crew. He tapped the contact point to play the message, and Christa’s image appeared on the vid monitor.

“Captain, it’s urgent that we meet to discuss something of vital importance to the G.A. and Space Command,” the image of Commander Christa Carver said. “It’s not something I feel comfortable mentioning in a communication— not even a Priority-One message. I will say that were it within my power to do so, I would immediately dispatch a CPS-16 with three full platoons of Marines— representing a total force of not less than one hundred twenty— to each of the seven new bases in Region Three. That would still leave the Ares with a full company of Marines for shipboard duties, given the extremely large force presently aboard your battleship. Please respond as quickly as possible.

“Christa Marie Carver, Commander, Captain of the GSC Scout-Destroyer Koshi. End of message.”

Gavin replayed the message again, twice, and then thought about the possible dangers that might be facing the G.A. He had known Admiral Carver and her two sisters, both of whom were clones, for decades. All three women were among the best and brightest of all the officers who had ever worn a Space Command or Space Marine uniform. None were prone to hysteria, so if Christa reported the situation to be of such importance that it couldn’t be mentioned in a Priority-One message, it had to be something so critical that he couldn’t even consider ignoring her advice regarding the deployment of additional Marine support to the seven bases.

Gavin touched his Space Command ring to establish a carrier signal, then said, “Commander Eliza Carver.” A couple of seconds later he heard “Carver here, sir,” via his implanted CT. It was the second watch so Eliza was on the bridge, performing her duties as Watch Commander. She would be the only one who could hear his instructions.

“Eliza, go into my office and contact Major Endicott. Have him assign three full platoons of Marines, for a total complement of at least one hundred twenty, to each of six CPS-16s for immediate deployment to six of the new space stations. Then have our navigator plot a course to the seventh station, the one where Christa was assigned. As soon as the six CPS-16s are ready to deploy, halt the ship and allow them to depart. Then I want to proceed to the new base where Christa is stationed with all possible speed. Send an announcement to all other ships to remain here and continue to guard the Denubbewa wreckage until the reclamation vessels have removed all of it and departed for Lorense-Four or until they receive new orders.”

“Armament and special equipment for the Marine deployment, sir?”

“Personal armor and standard-issue weapons. The Scout-Destroyer posted to each base will have whatever extra they might need.”

“Aye, Captain. Are there any special orders for Endicott or the CPS-16 captains?”

“The CPS-16s are each to proceed to their designated base with all possible haste. I’ll fill you in when I know more, Eliza.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Gavin out.”

Captain Gavin leaned back in his office chair while staring at the Priority-One logo that was still displayed on the vid monitor. The only thing he could imagine was that Christa had learned of a plot by the Denubbewa to recover the seven motherships. But how had she learned of it before a recovery mission had been attempted? Or had it already been attempted? No, she would have reported that. He reached out and tapped the contact point on the keyboard that would allow him to record a response to her Priority-One message.

“Priority-One message to Commander Christa Marie Carver, Captain of the GSC Koshi.

“I’ve given orders that six CPS-16s, each carrying several full platoons of Marines with armor and light weapons, deploy as soon as possible to each of the other new space stations. The Ares will be underway to your location within the hour.

“Lawrence Frederick Gavin, Captain, Captain of the GSC Battleship Ares. End of message.”

The new space station currently under command of Commander Christa Carver was roughly one hundred fifty light-years from the present position of the Ares. Gavin estimated that the communication would take about forty-eight hours to reach the Koshi. Travel time to the station at Marc-One would be about three days and seventeen hours. Without more information, there was nothing else to be done after ordering the com chief to transmit the recorded message, so Gavin shrugged, stood up, and left the office in his quarters. Dinner was still waiting so he walked to his dining room and took his customary seat at the table. His steward saw him enter the dining room via the small closed-circuit monitor in the kitchen and immediately brought out the appetizer and a cup of steaming coffee. The message from Christa would weigh heavily on Gavin’s mind throughout dinner and afterwards.

~     ~     ~

“Any word about that missing engineering noncom, Loretta?” Jenetta asked Admiral Plimley during a closed session of the Admiralty Board. They were meeting in Jenetta’s office, and only the Admirals and the Jumakas were present.

“Not a whisper, Jen,” Plimley said. “We don’t know if he went AWOL, got caught up in trash being moved, or— perhaps something else happened.”

“It’s the ‘something else’ that bothers me most. You said he was preparing a condition report on one of the Gate booths, and they found the unit powered up when they went looking for him at the end of the watch. If he somehow activated it, he could be anywhere in the galaxy. He might even be in another galaxy. I’ve been thinking about having one of our cyborgs come take a look at it to see if he can determine where our CPO might be.”

“We haven’t moved that Personnel CJ Gate yet because of the ongoing investigation, so if we do as you suggest, the genie will be out of the bottle. Someone is bound to see the cyborg at Lorense-Four. But— perhaps it is time to let staff with a Top Secret clearance or above know about their presence at Lorense-Three. We don’t have to tell them what the booth does. Someone is bound to spread that secret soon anyway. We’ve managed to keep all this somewhat secret so far with threats of long imprisonment, but I don’t know how much longer we can keep it bottled up, even with that threat.”

Somewhat secret?”

“Someone has to have talked about seeing cyborgs at Lorense-Three by now. And there was the cyborg that Roger’s people reprogrammed to perform as an SCI undercover agent for us. I heard he was allowed to roam around the halls of the SCI complex on Quesann at will. Hundreds of people had to have seen him.”

“Everyone at SCI was ordered to never talk about it,” Admiral Bradlee said.

“But we know that eventually someone will talk unless we keep them all sequestered and isolated,” Admiral Woo said. “Imagine how many top secrets have been revealed during pillow talk between service members down through the ages.”

“You’re right, Lon,” Jenetta said. “And sooner or later someone is bound to mention it where someone without the proper security clearance can overhear. Loretta, if we can’t bring a cyborg in, how about having some of your students examine the Personnel CJ Gate to see what they can learn.”

“Students? Are you referring to those highly-trained Space Command scientists who are working with Sywasock?”

“Yes. You’ve said they’ve been learning everything possible about the Denubbewa booths so they can design a new Personnel CJ Gate booth for Space Command use. This might be a good exercise for them. Let’s put them to the test and see if they can figure out where our engineering noncom went, or was sent. We’ll get to see how well they understand the technology and the processes they’ve been studying, and they’ll get a little hands-on experience.”

“They already have hands-on experience. All of the recovered CJ Gate booths have been brought to Lorense-Three for them to evaluate, with the exception of the one being evaluated by the missing noncom. So far, we’ve been able to rebuild more than a dozen using parts from damaged units that are beyond repair.”

“Is that safe, Loretta?” Admiral Burke asked.

“Yes, Raymond. For testing, we’re using an extremely weak power supply that Sywasock says should barely be adequate to send someone a billion kilometers. That’s less than the distance from Earth to Saturn at their closest conjunction.”

“That’s still a considerable distance,” Admiral Ahmed said.

“It’s enough for very limited travel within this solar system, but no farther. When we’re ready to test the first Gate, I want to send some biological material to this base from Lorense-Three. Once we can do that without any problems, we’ll be ready to experiment with live specimens.”

“Live specimens?” Admiral Yuthkotl echoed.

“Not sentient beings, Lesbolh,” Admiral Plimley said. “Initially, it will be laboratory creatures, such as single-cell organisms only visible under a microscope, then insects, and then small rodents once the initial tests prove successful. We’re going to make sure the transfer process is perfected before we attempt to send a sentient lifeform.”

“Do you have any projected date for the first Gate attempts, Loretta?” Jenetta asked.

“We’re hoping to have several of the repaired Gates ready for transfer testing within thirty days. The first of the newly designed Gates might be ready for testing in as soon as— six months. They’ll be powered by a redesigned power unit.”

“What benefit is there to redesigning a proven product?” Admiral Bradlee asked.

“We believe the power unit used by the Denubbewa is far larger than necessary— not in terms of power but in size. We can produce the same level of stable power with a unit that’s a tenth the size of the Locculo-designed unit. Sywasock was impressed when he saw the engineering stats. He says it represents a tremendous step forward over the one used by the original builders of the CJ Gates. Our new booth, with all of its support apparatus, will still accommodate three travelers at once, but it will be one-third the size of the Denubbewa booths overall. Rigorous testing will be required before we attempt to actually send a person in the newly designed Gates. One mistake and that person might be lost to us forever, without us even knowing what happened to him— or her.”

~     ~     ~

“Admiral,” Jenetta heard her aide say excitedly via the intercom channel on her desk viewpad the next day, “a Level-Five alert has just been broadcast on all secure military information channels. It warns that Lorense-Four has been invaded by hostile forces.”

Usually, her aide just paged her with a single beep on the viewpad when she wanted to get Jenetta’s attention. But Jenetta was alone in her office and this announcement certainly had the desired effect of getting her immediate attention.

Jenetta tapped the contact spot that would initiate two-way communication capability and said, “Has this been confirmed by Quesann Central Command?”

“The announcement message was made by Admiral Holt, personally. He was connected with all other broadcast channels to ensure the emergency warning about the invasion went out to all Space Command personnel.”














Chapter Two

~ April 1st, 2292 ~

“Lt. Commander Mollago calling,” Christa heard via her CT. Currently working in her office, she paused to touch her Space Command ring and listen. “The Ares is requesting permission to enter the base,” she heard her XO say. It was second watch so naturally he was in the command chair on the bridge.

After glancing up at the chronometer on the wall of her office Christa said, “They’re a little early, aren’t they?”

“They’re not here yet, ma’am. They expect to arrive right on time, which should be about twenty minutes from now. They assumed the port doors would be closed and they’re giving us time to open them in preparation for their arrival.”

“Permission granted. Notify them that the port doors will be open when they arrive and that they may enter the port immediately. Instruct them to dock on the larboard side of the pier where the Koshi is docked. Open the doors, XO.”

“Aye, Captain. I’ll order Port Operations to open the doors and then notify the Ares that they have permission to enter as soon as they arrive. Their docking assignment will be Pier A-7. Mollago out.”

“Carver out,” Christa said as she stood, straightened her tunic, and checked her overall appearance.

~

Twenty-one minutes later, Christa received a message that the Ares had entered the port and was presently docking at the designated pier. “Captain Gavin requests your immediate presence aboard the Ares, ma’am” Mollago said.

Christa touched her ring and said, “Inform the Ares I’m on my way. Carver out.”

~

An escort was waiting when Christa entered the Ares through a starboard airlock near the bow of the battleship. Naturally, the port had no atmosphere, but the docking platform and piers were all enclosed and airtight. When a ship had completed its docking procedure and the docking clamps had been engaged to hold the ship motionless, an enclosed ramp was extended out to the ship. Once the ramp tunnel was securely affixed against the ship using vacuum seals, pressurized, and declared airtight by the dockmaster, the airlock doors on the pier and the ship were opened.

The young ensign assigned escort duty saluted Christa as she entered the ship, identified herself, and gave her reason for entering the ship. The ensign then identified himself and welcomed her aboard before turning to lead the way to the captain’s quarters. Christa had spent enough time in Ares-class battleships that she could have found her way to the captain’s quarters while blindfolded, but an escort was common practice with visiting officers. The Marine at the captain’s door braced to attention and held it while Christa knocked once, then entered Captain Gavin’s quarters when the two doors slid open. The ensign waited outside until the doors had closed, then returned to his regular duties.

As Christa entered the quarters, she saw Gavin and her sister Eliza relaxing on overstuffed chairs in the living room, so she walked over and braced to attention.

“At ease, Christa,” Gavin said before she had even given the standard identification address. “Have a seat. Coffee?”

“No thank you, sir. I just finished a cup in my office.”

“Then let’s get right down to business. What’s so critical that you couldn’t state it in a Priority-One message and which prompted you to suggest that I send several additional platoons of Marines to every one of the new SC stations?”

“Are we alone here, sir?”

“It’s just the three of us. I sent my steward out to have a walk around the ship until I summon him to return.”

“Okay, sir, here it is. We have a visitor aboard the Koshi. He arrived via one of the Cosmic Jump Gate booths that are scattered about this station.”

“A visitor?” Gavin said loudly as he sat up straight in his chair.

“Yes, sir.”

“A Denubbewa?”

“No, sir. An engineering chief from the reclamation operation around Lorense-Four.”

“One of our people?” Gavin remarked in complete surprise.

“Yes, sir. He was examining one of the booths from a wrecked warship in preparation for filing a report on its condition, and he wound up— here.”

“How in God’s name did he accomplish that?”

“You do know about the booths, don’t you, sir?”

“Admiral Holt briefed me on the wormhole capability the Denubbewa acquired from a civilization they conquered. Isn’t that what you’re referring to?”

“Yes, sir. The civilization was known as the Locculo. They’re credited with developing the technology used in the Cosmic Jump Gate booths we’ve found in all Denubbewa warships and motherships. Unfortunately for the Denubbewa, the minds of the Locculo scientists assigned to the massive project had already been wiped clean of memories by cyborg drones before a cyborg supervisor learned of the Gates. However, the Denubbewa were able to learn enough from the scientific records and production schematics and reports to expand the system throughout their conquered space. The Denubbewa later tasked a group of scientists from a different world to study and learn the technology, then construct a Jump Gate large enough to transfer a mothership. The catch is that there must be an operational Gate at each end, and the only way to accomplish that initially is to send a CJ Gate booth to the new location using normal space travel.

“Eons ago, the Denubbewa allegedly deployed warships in every direction from their established territories. Each ship reportedly contained one or more of the small CJ Gates we now refer to as Personnel CJ Gates. According to the scientists we’ve recovered, the plan was to have those ships waiting everywhere when the proposed Armada Jump Gate technology was finally ready for dissemination. Scientists could then, in the blink of an eye, be sent to each CJ Gate location to begin assembly of the equipment that would create the Armada Gate. When the new Gates were tested and ready, Denubbewa Command could send an entire armada of ships across the galaxy, or even the universe, in minutes. Since every ship has at least one Personnel CJ Gate, Denubbewa officers still return to their command structure to report directly whenever they’ve learned something of importance in their travels. When we initially confronted the small warship force that had arrived here after possibly centuries of space travel, and defeated them handily, we allegedly became the number one target for the home world rulers. In their command structure, it’s probably imperative that they immediately destroy anyone capable of putting up significant resistance to their domination of the galaxy.

“A decision was apparently made by Denubbewa Command that the first Gate large enough for an invasion force should be assembled here in Region Three. As you can imagine, the new Gate system requires enormous power if it’s to send motherships across virtually unlimited space, so construction of special ships that would anchor the wormholes at each end were also necessary. The scientists arrived here via a Personnel CJ Gate and began work on the Armada Gate in the new ship intended solely for that purpose. But— upon completing their assignment and successfully testing the new Gate with a small fleet of motherships, the scientists rebelled and escaped from their Denubbewa overlords, taking the special ship and new Armada Gate generating equipment with them. My taskforce of CPS-16s just happened across them, and we immediately took them and their ship into custody. Now they’re working for us in exchange for freedom and transportation to a new, unpopulated planet suitable to their corporeal needs where they can reestablish their original race when the developmental project is complete.”

“Then it’s not possible for a full Denubbewa invasion fleet to arrive right now?”

“That’s the situation as I understand it, sir. It can’t happen until they have a ship capable of supplying the power needs for the wormhole. They would also need to send replacement scientists trained in the construction of an Armada Gate who can supervise construction of the special equipment necessary to create a Gate large enough to accommodate motherships.”

“So then, what’s the emergency? We’ve destroyed all their ships in Region Three, and they can’t start building the new Gate equipment until they get new ships into this part of space.”

“That’s just it, sir. They have ships here already.”

“What? I thought we destroyed all of them.”

“We believed we did, sir. All but— seven.”

“You mean…”

“Yes, sir. Exactly.”

“And you believe the Denubbewa can take over this base?”

“Sir, I was always perplexed by the apparent abandonment of seven enormous motherships in pristine condition. It just didn’t make sense. We know that every Denubbewa ship has self-destruct capability. That was confirmed by one of the cyborg scientists we captured. But our attention was so focused on the thousands of warships that were still in Region Three, I never put two and two together until the CPO from Lorense-Four stepped out of the Personnel CJ Gate right in front of my eyes. Even then, the realization didn’t hit me for a few minutes because I was so surprised by his appearance.

“Once I realized that someone from another Region could activate the Gate without any participation from this end, why not from somewhere else in the galaxy or from wherever it is the Denubbewa fleet calls home? I believe now that the Denubbewa weren’t abandoning this mothership, they were secreting it where it could be accessed when they were ready to return to Region Three. That’s why they never employed the self-destruct mechanisms. They might have thought we’d never find a Dakinium-sheathed mothership if no traffic could be followed from or to the ship. And they might have been right if the cyborgs hadn’t left the port doors open on the ships during their departure.

“When our vessels approach a mothership from the correct direction— one that allows our regular sensor signals to penetrate into the port area and bounce back— we get a strong return signal with our DeTect systems. If the port doors are closed, the only way to detect them is with the neutrino measurement device. And while we appreciate having the device, there are severe limitations when using it. It’s likely the cyborgs might have believed that any civilian craft that happened upon this enormous ship wouldn’t wait around to see if it was occupied. And the Denubbewa might never have counted on our occupying it even if we did locate it.

“This is all speculation, of course, but when I realized the enormous danger one Personnel CJ Gate represented, I knew I had to send that Priority-One message immediately. So I assigned the Marine with my party to remain there to prevent anyone from entering or exiting the room. I didn’t truly believe anyone would go in and start tinkering around with alien technology. I really just wanted someone there to watch for anyone arriving via the Personnel CJ Gate without expressing the potential danger in front of a Marine corporal. And I knew that whoever was left in the Gate room had to be armed. After I returned to the ship, I assigned all of my available Marines to commence search operations. We needed to locate every Personnel CJ Gate aboard this mothership. We’ve found a total of fourteen, including the first one. I believe we’ve found them all, and there’s always at least one well-armed Marine stationed at each location. With the platoons supplied by you, there will be at least four Marines on duty around the clock at every Personnel CJ Gate location.”

Gavin had listened in silence as Christa explained her rationale for requesting the additional Marine forces. When she finished, he stood and began pacing around the room. Neither Christa nor Eliza said anything to disturb the captain’s thoughts as he pondered Christa’s verbal report.

Finally, Gavin stopped and turned to face Christa. “And you did nothing that might have precipitated the transfer of the CPO from the Lorense-Four reclamation operation to this ship?”

“At first I thought I might have. But I dismissed that idea later.”

“Explain.”

“One of the individuals in my group was the cyborg that SCI reprogrammed for our attempt to capture a high-level Denubbewa supervisor. You actually had him aboard this ship for a time. He was the cyborg that had been asking to see me.”

“Yes, Eliza told me about him. You took him back to your ship.”

“Yes. I named him Lucky rather than addressing him by the number SCI assigned. I had some of my engineering people replace his damaged limbs using parts from cyborgs that were destroyed during the attack. Lucky’s vital components had been spared, so with new arms and legs, he regained complete mobility. The engineers also replaced his chest armor. Then, I had them cover his body in an artificial skin to make him appear more Terran-like. They removed the two extensions on the sides of his skull that made him appear more ferocious because those extensions are only for improved radio communications over significant distances and were no longer needed. As we’ve learned, few cyborgs actually have them. The engineers also altered his eye color from the glowing red normally seen on the Denubbewa cyborgs to a muted blue.”

“So he looks like a Terran now?”

“From a distance you could mistake him for a Terran, but if you’re close and you look at him, you’ll immediately realize he’s a cyborg.”

“Why have you chosen to make him look like a Terran?”

“He’s one of us now, sir, even though he’s a cyborg. SCI completely overwrote all his former Denubbewa programming and created a new persona. He thinks of himself as one of us, even though he knows he’s a cyborg rescued from the Denubbewa. His appearance might cause great consternation among the crew if he looked like a normal Denubbewa cyborg. I felt it would help him fit in better.”

“I see. Continue with your explanation of events in the mothership. Why did you change your mind regarding your initial suspicion that you had a hand in bringing the CPO here?”

“After I had initiated the Marine effort to locate all of the booths, I called in my chief engineering officer. I told him I wanted a small surveillance camera placed in every room where a Personnel CJ Gate was located so we could watch it 24/7 for signs of any activity. He suggested construction of a small box that would contain a miniature camera like the ones used on the Marine helmets while disguising its purpose. In addition to the helmet cam, he suggested mounting tiny sensors to detect movement and record energy readings and temperature fluctuations to a hundredth of a degree in the room. I told him to proceed and assemble at least fourteen units.

“A day later he and his staff began to mount the first of the newly assembled devices. They were tied into our ship’s systems so they could be monitored by either our bridge crew and/or a team in engineering.

“The search by the Marines moved along very quickly because they weren’t looking for hidden Denubbewa cyborgs. That search had been completed when we first took over the ships. Whenever a Personnel CJ Gate was located, the engineers were immediately notified so they could install one of the new monitoring devices in that room. We only completed the work last night, but— we’ve already discovered something interesting from the data collected since the first observation cameras were installed. I brought a data ring with me that contains a brief vid. If you’ll permit me, I’d like to show you what we found.”

“Of course. You can put the ring on the coffee table spindle and we’ll watch it on the wall monitor.”

Christa walked to the table and placed the data ring on the indicated spindle, then picked up the remote control and touched the play sensor. The monitor came on, but the image was black.

“The room lights are normally off. The Marines on duty must always wear their full armor, and we get a constant readout from key medical sensors to ensure he or she hasn’t dozed off or left their post. While wearing their helmet, they naturally see everything in the room clearly, even with the room lights off.”

For about twenty seconds, the image remained completely black.

“Watch carefully now,” Christa said. “Here it comes.”

A couple of seconds later, there was brief flash. Then all was dark again.

“What was that?” Gavin asked.

“You can see it clearly if I replay it frame by frame and stop the playback. I wanted you to see it in real time first.”

Christa backed the images up slowly until she passed the flash, then moved ahead a frame at a time until the flash was visible. In that one frame, the interior of the booth was visibly illuminated.

“What is that?” Gavin asked as he stared at the still image on the monitor.

“Something inside the booth is activating for just a fraction of a second. It’s not the interior lights, so with the room lights on, you’d never see it.”

“Why is it doing that?”

“We— don’t know, sir. But I have an idea.”

“I’m listening.”

“I, personally, don’t have any specific knowledge of how the Cosmic Jump system works. That’s what Space Command personnel at Quesann are attempting to learn, with help and instruction from the cyborgs who rebelled and came over to our side. But I’ve given it a lot of thought from a layman’s perspective. It seems likely that in order to send someone or something from one CJ Gate to another, the sending CJ Gate must first be able to make contact with the receiving CJ Gate. So the sending Gate must have an idea where in the universe to direct a query signal. Ships with booths probably move about regularly, so they’re rarely in the same physical location for long. The same is true for planets that continually orbit a star. So the question seems to be: How does a sending Gate locate a specific receiving Gate in this universe?

“I think that flash tells us how it does it. I think the Gate system is one giant, interconnected network, and each Gate broadcasts its location periodically so the system has a general idea of where that Gate is presently located. With ships, the system might be able to plot a course of travel using several reports. When attempting to send something or someone, the Gate sends a signal to the estimated vicinity of the receiving Gate and requires a confirmation signal before proceeding. I’d love to know how it sends a signal across the universe and receives an answer in the blink of an eye, and hopefully we’ll be able to learn that one day. Anyway, that’s my interpretation of the flash we see every eleven hours, sixteen minutes, and thirty-eight seconds— exactly.”

“Do all of the booths flash like that?” Gavin asked.

“We know that three of them do, so there’s no reason for us to suspect the others are any different. We only had three of the special monitors in place and operating during the last cycle. For the next cycle, we’ll have eleven in place. And by the cycle after that, all fourteen monitors will be in place and operating.”

“So what will this tell you about the booths?”

“First, it will prove that the booths are all operational. Second, I’m assuming that the Denubbewa might be able to send troops through any Personnel CJ Gate location without our participation or approval. I had visions of Denubbewa pouring out of those booths to retake possession of this mothership. That’s why I’ve stationed Marines inside each of the rooms. While they prevent curiosity seekers from entering, they’re really there in case cyborgs suddenly appear in the room. If that happens, the Marines can engage the enemy and hopefully prevent them from establishing a foothold in the station.”

“So why did you initially think you were responsible for bringing the CPO here, and what changed your mind?”

“When my group discovered the Personnel CJ Gate, we didn’t know what it was. Lucky had relearned the Denubbewa language after SCI wiped his memories of his time with the Denubbewa, so he was able to identify a contact point on a panel outside of the innocuous-looking booth as being an on/off switch. I decided to see what the booth was for and turned it on. When I did, an interior light inside the booth illuminated, but we never entered additional commands or data. A few seconds later, the CPO arrived. When I questioned him, I learned that just before he was transferred to this base, the damaged ship at the reclamation center— shifted. He said that happens frequently when working on salvage heaps in space. He also said he had put out his hand to steady himself, touching the interior control panel at that time. Since we didn’t enter any data, I’m assuming he initiated the transfer accidentally when he touched the control panel.”

“But you turned the booth on?”

“I believe now that the booths are always powered on because they must report their locations periodically. I believe that all we did was activate a light inside the booth so a user could then enter destination data into the interior control panel. To touch the interior panel in a darkened booth would be foolish, even if you’re only attempting to turn on the interior light.”

“Can’t we just deactivate the booths?”

“We’re unsure how to do that, and I didn’t want to take a chance of damaging them irreparably. If you order it, sir, we’ll find a way to shut them down. But they may be rendered permanently unusable.”

Gavin began pacing around the room again as he thought. Christa joined Eliza on the sofa and the two women sat in silence so as not to disturb Gavin’s deliberations. After about five minutes, he said, “No, we shouldn’t risk damaging any of the booths. The opportunity they present in offering us everyday travel is too significant. I think you’ve taken the right action. But at the same time we must be constantly vigilant if a flood of Denubbewa could suddenly come streaming out of that device. The additional platoons of Marines have been assigned to this station as security personnel, and you can use them as you see fit. I agree with all of your actions to date. Now I have to figure out how to notify the ship captains placed in temporary command of the six other bases without sounding like a paranoid fool. Have you notified Quesann that we have one of their CPOs here?”

“No, sir. I intended to immediately following his arrival, but then I decided it might be better coming from you. I was preparing to send the report to you so you could notify Quesann when we received your message that you were on your way here. I decided to wait, believing that a few extra days didn’t matter.”

“Have you considered trying to send a message via the Personnel CJ Gate?”

“Uh— no, sir. I nixed the idea of using the booth when the CPO wanted to return to Lorense-Four via the Gate. We really don’t know how to operate it, and I feared we’d lose him. And we don’t even know if it’s safe for outgoing travel. The Personnel CJ Gate at the other end was part of the rubble sent to Lorense-Four. It might have failed at any time. I didn’t want to use it for sending either people or vitally important messages that might fall into the wrong hands.”

“I suppose that’s the safest route. It’s too bad your cyborg wasn’t able to deliver a cyborg supervisor. We might have been able to convince him to teach us how to use the Personnel CJ Gate.”

“We have a number of willing cyborgs at Quesann who might have that information. We just never anticipated having dozens of these operational booths fall into our laps.”

Until then, Eliza had sat on the sofa, quietly listening to the conversation without interrupting. “We have some of the brightest engineers in Space Command aboard the Ares,” she said. “Perhaps a team could figure it out. I’m not suggesting they could ever design such a device, but how difficult can it be to operate it?”

“It only takes one tiny error to lose a person forever, sis,” Christa said.

“So we don’t send a person. We try sending an object. Communication time to Quesann is about twenty-five days. Think how great it would be just to have virtually instantaneous communication.”

“If we send something and a Personnel CJ Gate at the other end receives it, it could wind up in a pile of rubble.”

“So we put a beacon on it to attract attention.”

“I suppose that might work, but it’s for Captain Gavin to decide.”

“Sir?” Eliza said, looking at Gavin.

“Did you have someone in mind for this project, Eliza?”

“No, sir. But on reflection, Lt. Holloway seems to have an absolute genius for diagnosing problems with electronics. He might be able to come up with something.”

“Okay, give him a crack at it. But only with the stipulation that he never enters the booth or allows anyone else to enter the booth.”

“Aye, sir. The interior of the booth is strictly off limits.”

“I’m feeling a little hungry. Eliza, have Benjamin notified that the Most Secret discussion has ended and he should return and serve dinner. Ladies, would you care to join me? Benjamin has a superb dinner planned. The main entrée is chicken cordon bleu casserole.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Christa said. “I’d love to join you.”

“As would I, sir,” Eliza said.












Chapter Three

~ April 1st, 2292 ~

After initiating a call to Admiral Holt, Jenetta waited anxiously on the line for almost two minutes before he was able to talk with her. When he finally responded, she said, “What’s the situation, Brian?”

“Sorry to keep you waiting, Jen. We’ve been invaded by Denubbewa soldiers. They’re apparently climbing out of the wreckage of their former ships.”

“Armed?”

“Of course. But light weapons only— just laser pistols and rifles so far. Most importantly, they have limited mobility at present. They managed to commandeer a few yard shuttles from surprised reclamation crews before the yard was alerted to the situation, and the cyborgs now seem intent on reaching our reclamation ships. I’ve ordered all ships to pull back to a distance of one hundred kilometers and issue warnings to any yard shuttles or other small vessels trying to reach them without authorization that the vessel will be destroyed if it persists. We can’t take a chance that any of them have Denubbewa cyborgs on board, so the ships have authorization to destroy any shuttles that fail to heed repeated orders to stay away. All yard shuttles are equipped with emergency food supplies, water, and oxygen-recycling equipment similar to that of escape pods, so if it’s just our people inside, they can survive on their own for weeks. But we’ll get to them long before that. Ships from our Harbor Fleet at Quesann have begun arriving, and I’m confident we can prevent the Denubbewa from expanding beyond Lorense-Four.”

“But how did the Denubbewa get to Lorense-Four in the first place, Brian?”

“We know for a fact that they didn’t come by ship, and the accessible areas of the wreckage were checked for cyborg bodies prior to being loaded into the reclamation ships for transport here. I can only think of two ways the Denubbewa got here: they might have been trapped in inaccessible areas when the transports were loaded, so we brought them here and they eventually cut their way out, or— and this seems to be the most likely avenue so far— they’re coming through CJ Gates that are still buried in the wreckage. God only knows how they’ve been able to make them function, how they manage to get out of the rubble, or where these cyborgs began their journey.”

“I suppose any Gates that haven’t been crushed or blown apart during the bombing runs are still usable. So far, we’ve brought an estimated one thousand wrecked Denubbewa warships to Lorense-Four, and we’ve recovered a significant number of Gates in good condition. Potentially, there still might be a significant number of intact CJ Gate booths in those floating mountains of scrap.”

“What about the Gates that have already been taken to Lorense-Three, Jen? I haven’t heard any reports of Denubbewa there.”

“The Gates are supposed to be powered down and partially dismantled before being moved to Lorense-Three. As soon as the yard people complete their initial evaluation of a Gate’s condition, the standing orders call for disconnection of the power supplies. Sywasock showed our engineers how to do that while causing only negligible damage that’s easily repairable afterward.”

“Then once we clean up the situation here, we should be in the clear. Even so, I’m estimating we might lose as many as a hundred of our yard personnel who were caught by surprise as they went about their duties.”

“Let’s hope your estimate is high, Brian. I’m going to contact Loretta now and tell her what we’ve hypothesized. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.”

“Of course. Holt out.”

“Carver out.”

~

“Loretta?” Jenetta said about thirty seconds later when she made contact with Admiral Plimley.

“Yes, Jen. I just heard about the invasion.”

“Brian thinks they’re coming from Personnel CJ Gates buried in the wreckage. Is there any danger there at the shipyard?”

“The power supplies of all the Gates brought from Lorense-Four were disconnected before they arrived, so they’re not operational. The new Personnel CJ Gates our scientists are building are incomplete, so they can’t be accessed by the Denubbewa.”

“What about the Armada CJ Gate intended for the invasion force of Denubbewa motherships and warships?”

“We’ve witnessed no activity at all. One of the Elobian scientists and several of our people are monitoring the control panel in the engineering section. There hasn’t been any indication the Denubbewa have even tried accessing it.”



“That’s strange. Their people designed it, and it was used for the initial test to bring in a number of motherships and thousands of warships.”

“We’re looking into it. Sywasock says it doesn’t appear to be operational, but so far he has no idea why that is. He promises to let me know as soon as he learns or even suspects why it appears to be non-functional.”

“I’d be interested to hear his evaluation as soon as he arrives at a determination. And I certainly don’t want him to make it operational during testing if it’s not presently accessible by the Denubbewa.”

“No worries, Jen. If it appears that someone is trying to establish a Jump Gate using that new Gate technology, I’ll give the order to shut down the power. And we have charges rigged to remotely destroy the power couplings as a last resort if it’s the only way to stop it. How is Brian doing with the situation at Four?”

“He seems to have a handle on things, but we’re all concerned about the possible loss of yard personnel caught in the crossfire. It could have been much, much worse. If the Denubbewa had emerged inside a usable ship instead of a pile of wreckage, we could be looking at major losses. Thank heaven they didn’t know the Gates were buried in wreckage. I’m sure the ones who arrived never expected to find themselves floating in orbit around Lorense-Four without a spaceship. Even if they don’t need oxygen, they need an artificial gravity to fight properly and a way to advance their position. They have neither.”

“Yes, it would be a different situation entirely if they had emerged inside a functional ship— especially a functional warship.”

“Okay, Loretta. I’ll let you get back to work. I have to send messages out to the reclamation ships still involved in bringing the wrecked ships to Four and everyone else involved with Denubbewa technology, warning them of the potential situation with CJ Gates. Most don’t even know about the Gates yet. The secrecy surrounding Cosmic Jump Gate technology is definitely going to be split wide open after this.”

“Enormous secrets like the CJ Gates are very hard to keep hidden. I’m surprised we’ve been able to keep it under wraps until now.”

“Once the public knows, the corporate suits will be lining up to take advantage of it— and make money from it. I have no doubt that major companies in the Galactic Alliance will be offering billions of credits in bribes to the politicians they have in their pockets so their companies get exclusive control of the capability. It could be worth tens of trillions of credits every year. I was really hoping we could find a way to protect it from being abused by the so-called captains of industry.”

“Perhaps this invasion will make that possible, Jen. If we hadn’t been in control of the Gates, the situation could easily have gotten out of hand and the G.A. could now be just a memory. Only Space Command and the Space Marines are in a position to prevent such a tragedy, and prevention is only possible if we control all that technology.”

“I guess only time will tell if we’ll continue to have full control over CJ Gate technology, Loretta. I’ll be as forceful as possible when I make the case to the Senate Council that the operation and security of all future Gate construction and activity must remain with us exclusively for the safety of the G.A. And it won’t hurt if I can convince the Senate that Space Command will one day be able to collect enormous fees for allowing private companies to send cargo and passengers through the Gates that we’ll be managing and safeguarding for the G.A.”

~     ~     ~

“Following our meeting yesterday to discuss the potential for danger here at this new base and the other six new bases,” Captain Gavin announced to his senior staff, “I sent messages to the other Scout-Destroyer captains who have temporary responsibility for the security of the former Denubbewa mothership presently designated as their home port.”

Other than Captain Gavin, only XO Commander Eliza Carver and Commander Christa Carver were at the meeting.

“I outlined what they had to do to constantly monitor activity in the CJ Gate rooms, using the system your people developed, Christa,” Captain Gavin said, “and that they must have at least four armed Marines on duty in every Gate room around the clock. I also ordered them to remotely monitor Gate room activity at all times and informed them that once every twelve hours, the Gate would flash very briefly, but that was normal. That’s all I can do for them at the present.

“I also sent a message to Admiral Holt that an engineering CPO from Lorense-Four has arrived at this base via the Gate system and that he has no obvious health issues according to our doctors. I alerted Brian to the possibility that the Denubbewa might try to infiltrate Quesann using the CJ Gate system and sent him a copy of the messages I sent to all of the new Space Command bases in Region Three. I requested that he send information on ways to block Denubbewa access to our Gates, if such information is available.”

Gavin paused to take a breath before asking Eliza, “Has Lt. Holloway had an opportunity to examine the equipment?”

“Yes, sir. He’s fascinated by the complexity of the design and the components, and he’s been working on the problem of how to shut it down without damaging it. I understand he spends every minute of his watch time working on it, as well as every minute of his free time other than brief breaks to grab some chow at mealtime and, of course, sleep time.”

“But no progress yet on how to disconnect the power without damaging the equipment?”

“He hasn’t yet reported that he’s found a solution. I know he understands the urgency of shutting them down.”

“I can’t sleep soundly knowing that at any minute Denubbewa soldiers could come pouring out of those booths. I’ll allow a little more time, but I’m getting ever closer to the point where I’ll just order engineering to rip out the connections to the power supply systems and the hell with trying to preserve the equipment.”

“I understand your frustration, sir,” Eliza said, “but I think that would be a terrible loss to the G.A.”

“I’m more concerned with the lives of the men and women aboard this vessel, and the others under my command.”

“Yes, sir. Of course.”

~     ~     ~

“Good morning, Admiral Carver,” the G.A. Senate President said a bit brusquely as Jenetta was escorted to a seat at a table facing the center of the raised dais where the fifteen-member Senate Council held their sessions. The senators were only visible from their chests up, their lower bodies being hidden by the one-piece, enclosed bench that extended almost to the wall on either side of the room. Cayla and Tayna sat on the floor on either side of Jenetta.

“Good morning, Mr. President,” she cordially replied as she sat down.

“I requested your attendance here three days ago, but you declined. Explain your failure to appear.”

“I’ve been rather busy, President Fluessa, attending to extremely urgent Space Command business.”

“Business so urgent you felt you could ignore our order to appear here until now?”

“Yes, Mr. President. I was unable to appear until now.”

“Then enlighten us with the reasons for your absence.”

“Of course, Mr. President. But first you must clear the room of everyone except the senators in attendance today.”

“Not this again,” Senator Urhelect, the elected representative from the planet Sebastian, said. “I protest— again!”

“Be quiet, Durnek. If the admiral needs the room cleared to discuss matters of a sensitive nature on par with her last request for clearing the room, it will be cleared. Is this matter as sensitive, Admiral?”

“Even more so, Mr. President.”

“Then clear the room,” Fluessa said loudly. “Everyone out except senators, Admiral Carver, and… uh, Admiral, do your uh… companions… know what you’re about to report?”

“Yes, Mr. President, but that shouldn’t matter. According to the laws of the G.A. they present no danger in that regard because this body has not declared them to be sentient.”

“Yes, uh, well, that may change.”

When the room was cleared, Jenetta took a deep breath and said, “Mr. President, four days ago the Lorense system was invaded by Denubbewa soldier cyborgs.”

“Invaded!” Fluessa practically screamed. “Why weren’t we told?”

“I’m informing you now. This has been the earliest opportunity I’ve had to report to the Senate Council.”

“What’s the status of the invasion?”

“We’ve managed to contain them in the reclamation yard around Lorense-Four.”

“You have them contained? Does that mean you’ve defeated them?”

“No. It means that so far their movement is limited to that one area.”

“Why weren’t we informed immediately?” the senator from Sebastian screamed.

“Are you a military veteran, Senator?”

“Uh, no.”

“Then what advice could you have offered in the defense of the G.A that might have escaped us?”

“Well— uh— I guess— Well, I couldn’t have helped you plan your defense, but I could possibly have negotiated with the Denubbewa.”

“I thank you for your generous offer, Senator, but the Denubbewa aren’t interested in negotiating. I apologize for not being here sooner, but I felt the defense of this base and this august body took precedence over a Council discussion of the invasion.”

“How did the Denubbewa accomplish this invasion?” Fluessa asked loudly. “I recall no advance warning.”

“I warned some time ago of their intent to invade.”

“You’re speaking of when we authorized an enormous increase in your annual budget appropriation for defense?”

“Yes, sir. And I do thank the Council. We have already ordered the materials necessary to build the ships you authorized and begun recruitment efforts for the Space Command manpower required to man those ships and the Space Marine forces needed to help defend our populations and our planets.”

“And the Denubbewa?” Fluessa asked. “What of them?”

“So far we have them completely contained at Lorense-Four, but the fighting continues. That’s all I’m able to report at this time. The situation is still fluid.”

“How large a force are you fighting?”

“We’ve been told that the Denubbewa have sextillion cyborgs. Perhaps half of them are soldiers.”

“You’re surely not saying you’re currently engaged in fighting trillions of cyborg soldiers.”

“That’s exactly what I’m saying. I’m sure the Council remembers what I said about the Denubbewa having Cosmic Jump Gates that allow them to travel across almost limitless expanses of space in the blink of an eye. When we destroyed the enormous fleet of Denubbewa ships recently, we believed we had ended the threat of an invasion for at least a couple of years and that the increased budget appropriation the Council approved would help us prepare for their next thrust. We estimated that the fleet we crushed should have contained as many as one point one million cyborgs as crew. But the number of cyborg bodies we recovered from the destroyed ships was negligible. Our hypothesis is that when the Denubbewa discovered we had developed a method for locating their ships and destroying them, they began sending the soldiers home using their Personnel CJ Gates. We believe now that the hundreds of ships we destroyed were manned only by skeleton crews sufficiently adequate to move the ships but not fight. They lost those ships but saved their troops to fight another day.

“Further, we believe they’ve developed a revised attack plan where they’re hoping to use their Cosmic Jump Gate technology to release hordes of cyborgs directly into our presence after we’ve dragged the wreckage back here. They knew we couldn’t simply leave the crushed ships where scavengers could get to them because there was so much Dakinium and so many weapons and ordnance in the wreckage. We couldn’t allow that to fall into the hands of anyone in the G.A. or outside the G.A.”

“But I thought Dakinium had to be molded to a specific form during the manufacturing process. Isn’t it useless for any other purpose afterwards?”

“Not useless. It still possesses all of the properties of the material. The Denubbewa have an acid that can cut through Dakinium as easily as a hot knife slices through butter. They used that acid when they attacked and destroyed our two Scout- Destroyers during our first contact with their species. Our chemical scientists here have learned how to replicate it, and we can now use it to cut scrap into pieces that can be repurposed for uses other than sheathing ships. The acid used to cut the Dakinium is receiving a lot of attention because a number of scientists believe a similar chemical reaction can be used to fuse Dakinium sections together through a sort of melting procedure. Other scientists have been testing new methods that might allow them to temporarily soften and then reform, or even remold, salvaged Dakinium, just as we do with other materials.”

“Getting back to the Denubbewa situation, how many cyborg soldiers do you estimate have arrived at Lorense-Four?”

“It appears they haven’t stopped sending them. Cyborgs continue to emerge from the depths of the rubble hourly. We slay them as fast as they emerge, but we have no way of stopping them unless we can gain access to the power units supplying their CJ Gates. Our worry now is that they might be trying to rebuild ships within the rubble to escape their— prison. If they manage to break out and reach a planet, they might be unstoppable. That’s always been the worst-case scenario. We have no way of stopping them without incredible loss of life if they make it down to an inhabited planet. The Marine Ground Force Initiative would give us ways to combat enemy troops that have landed on a planet, but that’s still an unsupported plan. It appears the Denubbewa have found an indefensible way to attack us without using ships.”

“So you’re back asking for another appropriation increase?”

“Basically, right now all I need is authorization to initiate the GFI operation. I absolutely will not do that unless you first approve. Eventually, we will need an increased appropriation in support of that initiative. At Lorense-Four, we’ve destroyed thousands of cyborgs that have emerged from the rubble in places where our gunners could target them. But they keep coming. I have no idea how long they’ll continue to emerge from the rubble piles. There are pieces of cyborgs— arms, legs, heads, torsos— floating everywhere. And, as I said, I’m worried about what must be happening down inside the mountains of rubble. We know there are broken ships in there. The cyborgs might be trying to cobble one or more of them together. If they do, they’ll no doubt head for an occupied planet. Quesann is the nearest.”

“You think they’d come here?”

“I have no way of knowing what their plans are.”

“But we have a full brigade of Marines at Harrat Island Marine Base. They must be brought over here immediately to protect us— and, of course, the administrative employees.”

“We had a full brigade at Harrat Island. We took every Marine that could be spared and sent them to Region Three to support the campaign against the Denubbewa invasion fleet. We also reduced the Marine forces on the ships here in the Fleet Harbor by half and sent them as well.”

“So you’ve left us defenseless?” Council President Fluessa said nervously.

The faces of the senators reflected the fear in their hearts.

“Our ground forces are— limited. But then we’ve never had adequate ground forces because the Senate Council believed we didn’t need them.”

“And we haven’t needed them.”

“Being prepared is having adequate forces to meet almost any emergency before you actually need them. We in Space Command and the Space Marines do our best with what we have, but sometimes we find ourselves in a position like this one where we just don’t have the resources for the task that faces us. We try our best to anticipate our needs, but there’s nothing we can do when the funds aren’t there to acquire the manpower and equipment we need.”

“So you’re saying this is our fault?”

“No one could have anticipated a problem like this one. But approval of the GFI proposal would help with future situations like this one once we get past this crisis.”

“So what are you going to do to handle this crisis?”

“We’re developing strategies to use in ending this second thrust into G.A. space. My real worry is for the next and the next after that. We thought that with the destruction of the invasion fleet, we had destroyed all of the Denubbewa ships in G.A. space. But what if we haven’t? What will happen if just one warship— just one— manages to get a Personnel CJ Gate down to an inhabited planet and they start sending a river of soldier cyborgs that will eventually subjugate the entire population? When the Tsgardi invaded Region Two, they began sending troops down to populated planets to enslave and control the people of the planet, and we had no way to combat the situation. Fortunately, we were able to defeat the Tsgardi in space, and as part of their surrender, they withdrew all forces from G.A. space and planets. That won’t work with the Denubbewa. It doesn’t appear we can completely defeat them in space. According to the defectors we now have working with us and teaching us about Gate technology, the Denubbewa have been at this for many centuries. Their resources might simply be too enormous for us— or anyone else— to overcome.”

“So you’re saying our cause is lost? That we should simply surrender and be turned into cyborgs ourselves?”

“No, never. All I’m saying is that we may not be able to defeat the Denubbewa. Perhaps the best we can hope for is a situation where taking the G.A. is so costly to them that they finally decide we’re not worth the effort and pass us by.”












Chapter Four

~ April 6th, 2292 ~

“There’s no end to them!” Admiral Holt exclaimed loudly. “My ships now completely encircle the planet and the recycle debris, ready and able to destroy any cyborgs that stick their heads up out of the rubble, so you’d think they’d wise up and end their attack. But our guns are never inactive for more than a few minutes throughout the day. I have no idea how long the Denubbewa can keep this up.”

“Indefinitely, I would say,” Admiral Bradlee mused. “They reportedly have sextillion cyborgs, after all. Eventually, we may find ourselves unable to even see Lorense-Four because of the dead cyborg bodies, or pieces of bodies.”

“But they have to realize the cyborg deaths are accomplishing nothing,” Admiral Woo said.

“They’re accomplishing one thing,” Jenetta said. “They’re keeping a good part of the Second Fleet tied up here when they should be out on patrol looking for other cyborg forays now that we know a new campaign has begun. How’s the morale among your crews, Brian?”

“Our people are well protected from laser weapons while inside our DS ships or when wearing personal armor, so there’s no immediate concern for their safety. And I understand they’re treating the situation like some kind of shooting competition. I imagine there’s some gambling going on, but I suggested that my officers look the other way as long as it doesn’t appear openly. I wonder if the cyborgs have sent word back to their masters and informed them that they can’t make any headway here.”

“If they have sextillion cyborgs, they can continue to waste them until they develop a new plan,” Admiral Ressler said, “if they even have a plan at present. Right now it seems like their cyborgs are just being used as cannon fodder to wear us down.”

“So far we’ve been on the defensive,” Jenetta said. “We must go on the offensive.”

“What do you have in mind, Jen?” Admiral Holt asked.

“We need intelligence information, Brian. We believe they might be building something inside that mountain of trash, or perhaps I should say that ‘mountain of potentially valuable resources,’ and we need to know what it is.”

“Valuable resources?” Admiral Ahmed said. “It’s trash.”

“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” Jenetta replied. “That mountain of trash contains the remains of an estimated one thousand warships. If any of us were stuck on a deserted planet with such a pile of valuable materials all around us and we had an unlimited labor pool available, wouldn’t we be trying to cobble together a warship or two? In any event, we have to find out what they’re building.”

“You really think they’re building something inside that scrap heap?” Admiral Hillaire said.

“I do. Because that’s what I would be doing in their place. And I credit them with superior intelligence, even if they stole most of the technology they possess from the nations they’ve conquered.”

“Then why are they sacrificing those cyborgs?”

“As Shana said, they’re cannon fodder. They’re a diversion. It keeps us from burrowing into the piles to see what’s going on. I’m sure they don’t want us looking in there. If they hadn’t climbed out and begun sacrificing their drones, our yard people would eventually have begun investigating the strange movements of trash as the cyborgs collected what they needed and cleared an area in which to work.”

“I’ll be damned, Jen,” Holt said. “I think you might be onto something. So how do we go about learning what they’re doing?”

“We use our secret weapon.”

“Um, which weapon is that?” Admiral Plimley asked. “Are you talking about using our cyborg scientists as agents?”

“No, they’re far too valuable doing what you have them doing.”

“You want me to have my people create another undercover cyborg? Or perhaps a team of cyborg agents?” Admiral Bradlee asked.

“You’re all over-thinking the problem and the solution. All we do is send in a CPS-16 that’s enclosed in a double envelope. It flies around and takes images every place there seems to be activity. We can fly at any speed now within a double envelope, so the CPS-16 can stop if necessary to get better images.”

“But the cyborgs might see it,” Admiral Plimley said. “To a Terran’s mind, it wouldn’t register because the ship is operating slightly out of phase. And it may only appear like a shadow to the cyborgs at first, but they’re machines and it might occasionally register as a clear image in their electronic memory that could be accessed later and examined closely. It could give away the existence of our secret weapon, even if they can’t harm it.”

“I think we have to risk that. I certainly don’t want them to learn about it, but we absolutely must know what’s going on down there and what progress they’ve made.”

~     ~     ~

“I’m becoming concerned,” Captain Gavin said. “As you know, after receiving the message from Christa about a serious condition here and her recommendation that I send Marines to all new space stations, I did as she suggested. I followed that up with messages to each of the other temporary administrators, informing them of the pending arrival of increased base security support and ordering them to acknowledge the message and then report the status of the base every day until ordered otherwise.

“After arriving here and being fully briefed, I sent messages to each commander warning them of the potential danger and instructing them to employ the system in use here for monitoring the CJ Gate rooms. I also ordered them to always have a minimum of four armed Marines inside every Gate room.

“All six stations reported receiving the initial messages, and four of the six have responded with two daily reports, but two have not. Those two are the farthest bases from this location, and the problem might simply be one of communication distance. I’ve also informed Quesann about everything I’ve learned since my arrival here. Admiral Holt must be prepared to deal with similar CJ Gate transfers to the destroyed ships being brought to Lorense-Four. Unfortunately, that special report won’t reach Quesann for another nineteen days.”

The meeting, being held in Gavin’s private office in his quarters, was only attended by his XO, Eliza Carver, and Commander Christa Carver, captain of the Koshi. Christa would remain as administrator of the station until the permanent administer arrived.

“I understand your apprehension, sir,” Christa said. “But there are always two destroyers in orbit around Quesann for planetary protection, and when we’re not officially at war there’re almost always at least ten percent of the Second Fleet ships in the Fleet Harbor for downtime, making minor repairs, equipment upgrades, and restocking food and other supplies. They’re only four billion kilometers from Quesann so they can be in planetary orbit within minutes in the event of an attack. They should have adequate protection.”

“It depends on how much the Denubbewa throw at them. I’m sure those cyborgs know that Quesann is home to the G.A. Senate.”

“We might be getting upset over nothing, sir,” Eliza said. “The messages from the stations, as you said, might simply be tardy owing to the great distances that separate us. And I don’t know if the Denubbewa would be foolish enough to attack Quesann with their entire fleet of warships having been recently destroyed. They’d have no tactical support.”

“I hope you’re right, Eliza. But these metal-headed monsters are damn unpredictable. They don’t value lives or fear for their own because most of them are just mindless drones, performing whatever task they’re assigned. If their masters tell them to perform some meaningless task that will result in certain death, they’ll do it without hesitation.”

“I agree with their unpredictability,” Christa said. “The Denubbewa seem to be on a quest to control the universe. I doubt they’ll find any price too steep.”

“Okay, if we don’t hear from Grumpy and Sneezy space stations by this time tomorrow, the Ares will depart for Grumpy to investigate.”

“Would you like the Koshi to proceed to Sneezy, sir?” Christa asked.

“No. The Koshi must remain here to safeguard this station until the first trio of destroyers arrives. And if the new administrator isn’t aboard, you’ll remain here until he or she arrives.”

“Yes, sir.”

“We still have a sizable force at the battle site protecting the rubble until the reclamation fleet can pick it up. I’ll send a ship from there to check on Sneezy.”

“Um, those names sound like the names of the dwarfs in the tale of Snow White, sir,” Christa said, “Is that a coincidence?”

Gavin chuckled before saying, “I never told you?”

“Not that I recall, sir.”

“Eliza came up with the names. They aren’t the official names, of course, but we needed to call them something until the G.A. Senate and the Admiralty Board announced the official designations at a big public ceremony. Right now, relatively few individuals are even aware of the existence of the new bases.”

“I see,” Christa said, glancing over at Eliza, who seemed to be trying to suppress a laugh. “And what is the name of this station, sir?”

“We’ve decided to call this station Doc.”

“Doc? Well, that’s not bad. I was afraid you might have named it Dopey.”

“I wanted to,” Eliza said with a smile as wide as her face, “just to see the expression on your face when you learned.”

“And I said that I’d never name a base Dopey where a Carver was in command,” Gavin said. “Not even as a temporary code name.”

“Thank you, sir,” Christa said with a smile that matched Eliza’s. “By the way, which station is named Dopey?”

“None, actually. I thought it might follow an SC officer around as a nickname, and I didn’t want anyone to be saddled with that for the rest of their life. So we named it Friendly.”

“So we have Doc, Grumpy, Sneezy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, and Friendly,” Christa said. “Who’s Snow White?”

Gavin seemed at a loss for the moment so Eliza said, “That should probably be Quesann.”

“They’d also make good code names in case the Denubbewa manage to break our encryption,” Gavin said. “I believe the leaders of the metal-heads are a lot more devious than some in Space Command give them credit for.”

~     ~     ~

“We’ve now all seen the images produced by repeated flights of CPS-16s through the massive rubble piles around Lorense-Four,” Jenetta said as the enormous monitors in the Admiralty Hall darkened. The A.B. was in executive session, and only aides and clerks with a Most Secret clearance were in the large room. “So we must decide on a course of action. Any thoughts or questions?”

“I sort of lost track as we were watching,” Admiral Woo said. “Exactly how many different locations in the rubble have the Denubbewa cleared so they can begin rebuilding ships?”

“My SCI teams have identified thirty-eight locations where ship reconstruction efforts have begun in earnest,” Admiral Bradlee said. “We know they have all the resources they need to rebuild ships, and you can’t deny their apparent determination to get the job done. In addition to having all the ship components they need, we’re quite sure they have thousands or even tens of thousands of those missiles with the nuclear warheads. The undamaged ship that Commander Christa Carver located and brought here from Region Three had more than seven thousand missiles in its storage holds. I’m sure we can depend on there being such quantities buried in every damaged ship in that rubble pile.”

“There’s only one thing we can do,” Admiral Holt said. “We drop a WOLaR bomb off at every one of those thirty-eight locations.”

“Right now those rubbish piles are floating peacefully in orbit around Lorense-Four,” Admiral Plimley said. “But if we start bombing them, we’ll have trash flung out in every direction. We might also detonate some of those thousands of nukes. It’ll take years to collect it all and clean up the area around Lorense-Four.”

“Better to spend years recollecting trash than have one dead member of the military because we waited too long to deal with these cyborgs,” Admiral Holt muttered.

“Cyborgs. That’s it!” Jenetta said, then stared at the ceiling.

When she didn’t say anything further for half a minute while all of the admirals stared in her direction, Admiral Yuthkotl said, “Do you have an idea, Jen?”

“Yes. Sorry. I was lost in thought for a moment. Roger, I understand you had excellent success with reprogramming a cyborg to function as an undercover agent and attempt to kidnap a Denubbewa supervisor.”

“Yes, my people were able to completely wipe the memories implanted by the Denubbewa, then replace them with a set of memories we created to make the cyborg loyal to the G.A. It would then perform undercover operations as our operative. It’s what they called ‘brainwashing’ centuries ago. Why?”

“I recall Sywasock saying that the Denubbewa communicate exclusively by telecommunication.”

“Yes, they have speech capability built into their chassis but only communicate vocally with species that require it.”

“Can we access their programming via telecommunications?”

“I don’t know. I’ll have to ask the people involved with the test subject. I know it’s not like programming a computer. The cyborg brain is biological, not a mass of electronic components. Are you thinking we might be able to issue orders for them to stop work on rebuilding warships?”

“Something like that. When your experts were working with the cyborg, were they able to determine if the cyborg’s original memories were always destroyed? The scientist cyborgs working with us appear to have all of their original memories. Apparently, the Denubbewa couldn’t destroy memories of their pasts without destroying their training and therefore their ability to function as scientists.”

“Again, I don’t know, but I can find out easily enough. I’ll have the team leader brought over here and we can have him brief us after lunch.”

“In that case, I move that we adjourn for lunch.”

~     ~     ~

“Commander Ellingford is in command of the section where the cyborg was reprogrammed,” Admiral Bradlee said following the resumption of the session.

A senior Space Command officer, the only individual in the gallery seating area, rose from his front-row seat and moved to stand in the opening where the two ends of the horseshoe-shaped table came to within two meters of one another. He could be clearly observed by all seated members of the A.B.

“Commander,” Admiral Bradlee said, “Admiral Carver has some questions to ask pertaining to your work with the cyborg.”

“Yes, sir.” Looking at Jenetta, he said. “Ma’am?”

“Commander,” Jenetta said, “I’m interested in learning if the cyborgs retain any memories of their lives before being— absorbed— into the Denubbewa collective. We know the Denubbewa don’t tamper with the memories of the ones they need for scientific work, but what about the others? I’m referring to the cyborgs we call drones, which are merely programmed to perform repetitious acts.”

“I’m sure you appreciate, Admiral, that our knowledge so far is limited by the small number of living test subjects we’ve had for study. We have ascertained that the Denubbewa use the brains of numerous intelligent species they’ve conquered. That information comes from the biologists who’ve been able to examine dead cyborgs found after engagements with the enemy. As I’m sure you realize, the biological brains of different species are naturally quite different— incredibly different in some cases. The Denubbewa bodies may have a standard configuration, but the brains can be very unique.”

“Yet you were able to reprogram one of the cyborgs.”

“Yes, ma’am. We lucked out, so to speak. The brain of that cyborg was very similar to the brain of Arrosians and Selaxians. I believe you’re very familiar with those two species.”

“Yes, I became very well acquainted with them when I commanded Stewart Space Command Base. Are you suggesting that our cyborg’s brain came from one of those sister planets?”

“No, the cyborg’s brain didn’t come from either species. However, its physiology was close enough that we were able to use equipment developed on Arrosa for patients with cranial injuries to map the brain patterns of the cyborg used for this assignment. In most intelligent species we’re familiar with, the brain uses minute electrical signals and chemical reactions to process, store, and retrieve data while monitoring all bodily functions on a constant basis. The Denubbewa have developed an— interface box— that handles most functions of the body autonomously and only requires limited interaction on the part of the biological brain to perform such chores as walking. New memories are also stored and retrieved from a small device that’s part of the interface unit. The interface with the biological brain seems to be unique to each species, but we were able to make great headway in understanding its operation because of the brain-mapping work we performed. Since the cyborg’s brain has been freed from so much activity normally required of a host’s brain, only about ten percent of the cyborg’s brain is actually being used. The rest has been separated from normal activity. We believe the cyborg’s memories might still be in there, but they can no longer be accessed by the host brain. We liken the situation to what happened in the brains of Terrans suffering from Alzheimer’s disease before it was finally eradicated about two hundred years ago. With Alzheimer’s patients, the links between the different parts of the brain slowly disintegrated, first cutting off memories, then the ability of the patient to function in a normal environment, and finally the patient’s brain lost control of the bodily organs required to keep the patient alive. We believe that the Denubbewa found a similar way to disconnect the memory areas of the brain.”

“I’ve read about the disease you mentioned,” Jenetta said. “It was terrible. So you believe the memories might still exist in the cyborgs, but they just can’t be accessed?”

“Yes, Admiral. If we could learn how to restore the severed links, the cyborgs might regain access to all of their memories, but there’ll have to be a lot more research done before any advancements can be made in that regard. Since the Denubbewa have literally exterminated entire species, there’s no way to study any living members of those species.”

“How were you even able to communicate with the cyborg’s biological brain?”

“We couldn’t— at least not directly. So we discovered a way to communicate with the cyborg’s interface box. That’s really an electronic brain of sorts, although the higher level of control rests in the biological brain. In order to communicate with the cyborg’s biological brain, we had to first crack the encryption code that prevented interference with its orders from superiors. Once we managed that, we were able to remove all of the programming in the interface box and install our own while the biological brain remained untouched.”

“So once you cracked the access codes, it was like deleting an operating system in a computer and installing a different operating system?”

“Exactly, Admiral. I’ve heard that you were once involved with cryptology with SCI so I’m sure you understand the difficulties we faced.”

“Does your success mean you can now also alter commands that have been sent to a cyborg by its supervisor?”

“I— suppose so, although that wasn’t our goal with the cyborg we worked with. We wanted to completely realign his loyalty. Once that was done, he was receptive to whatever new commands he received from us. We also created a new, more sophisticated encryption system to block any changes from the Denubbewa. We believe they would now have to remove and replace the interface box to regain control.”

“But the cyborg you altered was still able to hear all of the electronic chatter aboard a Denubbewa spaceship?”

“Correct. But nothing could alter the programming we had uploaded. While pretending to follow new directions from Denubbewa supervisors aboard the ship, he could make decisions regarding the actions he believed were necessary to complete his mission. We made him loyal to us but gave him the ability to think for himself as long he performed in line with the policies and ideals of the Galactic Alliance. We tried to give him decision-making abilities as close as possible to that of a live person. His mission was dangerous, and we believed the odds of him surviving and completing his mission were about one in ten thousand. But we wanted him to have a semblance of life for as long as he lived.”

“So we can override commands given to Denubbewa cyborgs by their supervisors now that you’ve broken their encryption scheme,” Jenetta said in a thoughtful manner. “Commander, could it be done remotely?”

“I don’t see any reason why it couldn’t, as long as the Denubbewa haven’t changed the encryption system that controls access to the interface boxes. If they haven’t, we can issue new commands at any time, just as if we were the cyborg’s supervisor. However, the command cannot disagree with their basic programming.”

“You mean that if we were to issue an order to a cyborg still under the influence of the Denubbewa to kill their supervisor, it wouldn’t be carried out?”

“Most likely not, Admiral. To accomplish that with any certainty, we’d first have to delete their basic command system and install a new one.”

“How long would that take?”

“To do it remotely, we’d have to learn the individual’s identification number. If we knew that, it could be done in a matter of minutes.”

“And how would you learn their identification number?”

“We’d have to poll the cyborg with new numbers until it responded.”

“I know you don’t want to tie yourself down with a time that may not be accurate, so give me the shortest possible time and the longest time you suspect might be required to achieve that.”

“I would have to say it would take anywhere from ten seconds to— ten minutes for each cyborg. That’s assuming a direct line-of-sight contact so we would know when we were successful.”

“Thank you, Commander. That’s all I needed to know. The other members of the Board may have questions for you.”












Chapter Five

~ April 6th, 2292 ~

Several hours later, the A.B. members were relaxing in the comfortable seating section of Jenetta’s enormous office to conduct a closed executive session. No aides or clerks were present, and all recording devices were turned off.

“Did Commander Ellingford’s responses answer all your questions, Jen?” Admiral Bradlee asked after taking a sip from his coffee mug.

“Yes. Although it’s not what I’d hoped for.”

“What were you hoping for?” Admiral Holt asked. “Did you expect that we could simply turn the cyborgs off with the flick of a switch?”

“Turn them off? No. I originally hoped that if we could make them remember who they had been before they’d had their memories taken from them, we might be able to realign their sentiments with ours. I believed the possibility was slim, but it was worth asking. When that seemed to be ruled out, I hoped that we might be able to take control of the drones and order them to destroy their supervisors before laying down their arms.”

“That’s not entirely out of the question,” Admiral Woo said, “if I understood the commander’s response. We merely have to learn their assigned individual identifier.”

“According to what we heard in my sister’s initial conversations with Sywasock, their identifier is seventeen digits long, and it’s composed of numeric and alphabetic characters. Assuming an alphabetic value of just twenty-six characters and base-10 mathematics, the number of possibilities have to be in the thousands of sextillions. It’s not something we can really guess at with any hope for real success. Either the drones would have to tell us what their Denubbewa ID is, or we’ll never know in time for it to do any good.”

“Then the only thing to do is fall back on the idea of bombing each of the thirty-eight locations where those cyborgs are rebuilding warships in the rubbish piles,” Admiral Hillaire said.

“There’s no real hurry,” Jenetta said. “At the moment, they can’t escape from the rubbish ring around Lorense-Four, so we can continue to monitor their progress with CPS-16 flights. If we can’t come up with another solution by the time they near completion of the first warship, we’ll still have time to blow them to hell.”

“Do you have another idea, Jen?” Admiral Bradlee asked.

Jenetta took a deep breath and expelled it quickly in a sign of frustration with herself. “Not at the moment, Roger, but I’m going to concentrate on finding one. There has to be a better solution than one that requires us to fill space in this solar system with garbage because we scattered those weightless mountains of rubbish in a million different directions. The stored missiles aboard Sywasock’s ship were all unarmed so we felt safe transporting the destroyed ships without separating all the rubbish at the battle site. But if we begin detonating WOLaR bombs in those piles, who knows what else might be detonated? I’m hoping I can find a less dramatic solution.

“Oh, and I just received a message from the Senate Council. They’ve approved my request to establish a Marine Ground Force Initiative. They’ve decided they have the power to approve the initiative under existing Senate rules without taking it to the full Senate. That way, the expansion remains a closely guarded secret— for now— and prevents mass panic among Galactic Alliance citizens. They’ve released funds from their discretionary-allotments account, which will be fully adequate to get the program started, and they’ve promised that the GFI will be fully funded in our next annual budget.”

~     ~     ~

Just seven hours after departing from Doc on its way to Grumpy, the Ares received a Priority-One message from Commander Burl Kalborne, the temporary base administrator. Gavin naturally played it immediately, leaning in for the retinal identification scan and then sitting back to listen to the message from the captain of the Scout-Destroyer Ottawa.

“Captain, the base is under attack from within,” Kalborne said. “Cyborgs have gained a foothold in three of the fourteen CJ Gate rooms. We’ve managed to stop them at the other eleven Gate rooms because Marines immediately open fire with laser rifles as soon as cyborgs materialize in any of those booths. When a new group of three appears, the dead ones disappear. I don’t know if they’re being returned to the sending location or if the process vaporizes their bodies. I’ve just given orders to take whatever steps are necessary to power down those eleven booths. If the booths are rendered permanently non-usable in the future, I take full responsibility. I can’t fight a war on fourteen fronts with such meager Marine forces.

“At the three booths where the cyborgs first began to appear, our forces were overwhelmed before they knew what was happening. They pulled back out of the room to regroup and then were unable to reenter the room because new cyborgs were arriving every few minutes. As you instructed, we had installed the video monitors so we can observe the activity in the room. At present, the cyborg strategy seems to be to bring as many reinforcements into the room as possible in preparation for a massed attack. They’re packing them in against the four walls, but the room only appears large enough to accommodate about forty-five to fifty. All seem to be armed with laser weapons. Our Marines are wearing their personal armor so we believe we can hold the station. My people have moved away from the doorway now and are positioned at either end of the corridor outside the Gate rooms. As they wait for the Denubbewa to emerge for the expected assault, they’re constructing barricades using whatever they can find. I’ve also positioned people in the access tubes behind the rooms and in the rooms on either side of the Gate room in case they try to break out by cutting through the rear or side walls. The cyborgs apparently haven’t yet realized there’s a camera mounted on the wall.

“We could sure use some support but know it will be days before any can arrive. Please send reinforcements as soon as possible.

“Burl Kalborne, Commander, Captain of the GSC Ottawa and temporary administrator at the new Space Command base. End of message.”

Gavin sighed quietly. The Ares was already traveling at its maximum speed of Light-14,685.7 so there was nothing Gavin could do to get there quicker. But he could alert the other base administrators.

“Priority-One message to the Administrators of the five Space Command bases identified in the computer as Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy, and Friendly.

“The new Space Command base where Commander Kalborne was assigned is under attack by the cyborgs from within. They’re entering the base via the fourteen CJ Gates located in that former Denubbewa mothership. You have all received information regarding the Gate rooms, and I’m sure you’ve heeded it and taken the ordered actions.

“Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security if your station hasn’t been attacked yet. The cyborgs may appear at any time. I suggest you immediately triple the forces assigned to the rooms. We will reinforce you further as forces become available.

“Stay alert!

“Lawrence Frederick Gavin, Captain, Captain of the GSC Ares. End of message.”

After Gavin had sent the recorded message to the five bases, he then sent messages to all ships still at the former battle site. Most were ordered to proceed to one of the seven new bases with all possible speed. The chore of protecting what was left of the Denubbewa ships from scavengers fell to a handful of CPS-16s. Although small when compared to a destroyer, each CPS-16 had multiple habitat containers loaded with deadly ordnance attached to its keel. In a brief fight, it was almost the equivalent of a Scout-Destroyer. Its main limitation was the amount of ordnance it could carry.

Although Gavin didn’t know that Quesann was presently fighting an army emerging from Gates not destroyed in the earlier attacks by Space Command vessels, Holt had previously told him that Quesann was harvesting all Gates it found in the wreckage. To Gavin, it made sense that some might still be operational. He couldn’t inform anyone not already in the know about the Cosmic Jump Gates, so he merely appended a message to the CPS-16s that Quesann continued to find live Denubbewa cyborgs in the destroyed ships returned to Lorense-Four for recycling. He warned all ships remaining to guard the mountains of rubbish because cyborgs could emerge from the debris fields and attempt to reach the picket ships, entering though an airlock or merely attaching themselves to the hull until an opportunity presented itself.

With his messages sent, Gavin sat back in his office chair and thought about the fight ahead. No matter how much he willed the Ares to travel faster, it wasn’t going to happen. He would just have to trust that his people would still be alive and in control when the Ares reached Grumpy.

~     ~     ~

“Sywasock and his people have discovered why the Denubbewa were unable to open an Armada CJ Gate and so had to resort to barely usable Personnel CJ Gates,” Admiral Plimley said to Jenetta.

Jenetta looked up at the monitor in her office and replied, “You have my undivided attention, Loretta.”

“During our investigation of the ship Christa brought back, one of the ORDER engineering teams removed an unknown device from a console on the ship’s bridge. Lt. Daminchic and Lt.(jg) Stiddant believed they had found an ultra-small long- distance communications device. So, in keeping with the orders to all Observe, Remove, Disassemble, Evaluate, and Report team members, they removed the object from the console and turned it in for further inspection in the lab. We found it with the other pieces of equipment that had been logged in and stored for later intensive scrutiny. Of course, since most of the people who would have normally examined it were totally occupied learning about Gate technology, the disassembled equipment is still waiting for proper examination. Anyway, Sywasock says the unit from the bridge is a long-distance communications device. It’s a transponder unit capable of being activated remotely. There’s one in every Personnel CJ Gate. If that device had been in place, the Denubbewa could have opened a massive Gate right here in our backyard. We could have found ourselves suddenly facing thousands of motherships and hundreds of thousands of warships. All ships in the fleet capable of establishing a double envelope would have been safe, but Quesann would have been lost for sure.”

“Thank heavens for lucky breaks. This is extremely disturbing news, Loretta.”

“Disturbing? It’s great news. The Denubbewa probably tried to open a Gate large enough for an armada to suddenly appear here, but failed. They must have initiated a backup plan to send cyborgs here that could occupy captured enemy ships right under our noses, never realizing the Gates they were using were buried in masses of material being recycled.”

“It’s extremely disturbing because it raises a lot of other questions, such as did we really find that Denubbewa ship by accident, or was it left there purposely for us to find?”

“You’re saying that Sywasock and his people are really Denubbewa double-agents?”

“Not necessarily. They might truly believe they were escaping and taking a highly dangerous weapon out of the hands of the Denubbewa. But what if they had been programmed to think that? What if they were placed where Christa found them? Remember, they never would have been found if they hadn’t been so close to that derelict ship. And why was that supervisor cyborg equipped with Dakinium armor? We’ve never seen any other cyborg wearing armor, much less Dakinium armor. But that was the only way he could hitch a ride on the outside of the Koshi. It enabled him to come here, pick up all kinds of intelligence information, and return to Region Three where he passed it along to his superiors. The Denubbewa then knew exactly where the Second Fleet could be found and where the G.A. leadership met.”

“But would they risk losing an entire team of scientists with advanced knowledge of wormhole physics?”

“They’d have to. They knew we’d never buy it if they tried that scenario with a bunch of mindless drones. By using some of their best and brightest, we fell for it completely and brought a ship with Armada Gate hardware right into our most important solar system. On Earth, around 25 B.C., a Roman poet named Publius Vergillius Maro is reputed to have written: ‘Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.’ He was referring to the Trojan Horse filled with soldiers that led to the downfall of the city of Troy after a fruitless ten-year siege by the Greeks in the eleventh century B.C. Tactics change slightly, but we must never forget the lessons of the past. That goes double for military strategists. And the Denubbewa might have believed they had a good chance of recovering their scientists after the battle was over.”

“That’s a pretty devious plan, Jen. Do you really think the Denubbewa are capable of coming up with something like that?”

“I’d like to believe that the Denubbewa are all mindless drones religiously following an archaic plan for domination of the universe— but I can’t. According to what we’ve heard from Sywasock and his people, the Denubbewa have been at this for eons. I doubt they could have lasted this long and progressed this far if there wasn’t a higher form of intelligence behind all of it. So yes, I believe the Denubbewa are capable of coming up with a plan this intricate and cunning. We’re still in the fight only because we’ve been fortunate to have a long history of warfare.”

“Having a history of warfare is fortunate?”

“Anything that prepares us for the worst an enemy can throw at us is beneficial. The war with the Raiders, the war with the Milori, and the war with the THUG pact have all helped prepare us for this moment. Imagine if we were just a peaceful society with no enemies to have kept us sharp when the Denubbewa arrived. I just hope we’re up to the task of taking on a society as malevolent and powerful as we believe the Denubbewa to be, and destroying them.”

“Or at least fight them to a draw,” Plimley said.

“If the best we can do is fight them to a draw, they’ll come back at us again as soon as they feel powerful enough, just as Maxxiloth did. Barbaric minds with inglorious visions of conquest and unlimited power don’t ever give up. You have to beat them into submission if you ever hope to have peace and a decent life without oppression from overlords.”

“So what do we do about the Denubbewa transponder? We obviously can’t install it and have them open a CJ Gate for their armada, but without installing it we can’t use it either.”

“Sywasock and our people must find a way to modify it so the Denubbewa are blocked from ever establishing contact with it while establishing one that allows us to open such a Gate.”

“He says he doesn’t know how. It wasn’t something he or his team built. They carried it with them when they were sent here and simply installed it as instructed. The group that builds the transponders is part of another development team.”

“You said the transponder is the same as the ones in the booths.”

“No, I said there’s one in every Personnel CJ Gate. I meant there’s a transponder, not an identical transponder. The design of this unit is considerably different, although the basic function is probably quite similar. It might have something to do with the size of the Gate being opened.”

“So, if I understand you correctly, we must redesign the transponder in every Personnel CJ Gate or they can never be secure from the Denubbewa?”

“That seems to be the situation, Jen.”

“And the cyborg scientists have no knowledge of the transponder construction and operation?”

“They understand the basic operation.”

“And they know how to disconnect the transponders without damaging the Gate booths?”

“Yes, of course.”

“That information must be transmitted to Captain Gavin aboard the Ares immediately for dissemination to the administrators in the bases we just established inside former Denubbewa motherships. Brian should actually send the information since he’s the Second Fleet Commander.”

“I’ll convey the information to Brian as soon as we’re done here so he can transmit it to Larry.”

“I realize you’re stretched pretty thin these days, Loretta, but do you have anyone we can put on this transponder project? We urgently need to learn exactly how it operates and then find a way to accomplish the same goal in a unique way that won’t allow the Denubbewa to control our Gates. We have a working unit of the Armada Gate transponder, so our people should be able to reverse-engineer it and produce a few dozen copies.”

“A few dozen copies?”

“Yes. My goal is to place them throughout G.A. space so we can move our fleets into position to defend our nation no matter where an enemy attacks. Ideally, our fleet could jump to a location that’s no more than two days’ travel time from any part of our territory at Marc-One.”

“Jen, I think the people already working on the Gate construction should remain on that project. I understand they’ve written volumes about the construction and operation. I might be able to assemble a team for the transponder research by skimming off a few people here and there from other projects. But Jen, I desperately need more scientists. Because of the Denubbewa threat, things have sped up dramatically in recent years. We were terribly shorthanded before Christa found that Denubbewa ship and these new projects were dumped in our laps.”

“I’ll see what I can do about getting you more people. Our main difficulty is they must have the highest security clearances possible before we can allow them into the labs.”

“Please do what you can, Jen, and I will also.”

“Okay. Thanks, Loretta.”

“Talk to you later.”

“Later,” Jenetta said as she touched the control that terminated the connection.

As Jenetta sat staring at the Space Command logo on the wall monitor that indicated the connection was closed, she sighed. The Denubbewa cyborgs at Lorense-Four were still working furiously to rebuild warships destroyed in Region Three. There was no way Space Command could allow any of them to be completed, but Jenetta still hadn’t come up with an idea, brilliant or otherwise, for ending their efforts short of using dozens of bombs.

If her new hypothesis about the Denubbewa ship having been intentionally placed where Space Command was likely to find it was correct, it would prove there was an intelligent mind or minds behind the mindless drones. If she couldn’t come up with a better plan to end this initial invasion attempt, she at least had to predict their next move.

Jenetta rose from her office chair and walked to her beverage dispenser where she filled her coffee mug with her favorite blend before walking to her informal seating area and sinking into the soft comfort of an overstuffed oh-gee chair. She tried to clear her mind of all thoughts except what she would do were she directing the Denubbewa invasion.

~     ~     ~

The Admiralty Board was in executive session the following day when Jenetta chose to reveal her latest thoughts regarding the current Denubbewa situation. The gallery seating had been emptied at the end of the regular session, and all reporters and session observers had left the building. Jenetta had even exempted the clerks from this session, although they all held a Top Secret clearance.

After pounding the gavel to start the executive session, Jenetta said, “I know some in the military have come to believe that the Denubbewa are the least intelligent enemy we’ve ever faced. I’m sure that idea is rooted in the fact that cyborgs are largely drones whose ability to think and comprehend has been stolen from them. Those same people believe that the Denubbewa have only been able to achieve victory over all previous opponents, as far as we know, because of the size of their military and the weapons they’ve inherited with each victory over a lesser civilization. While I agree that both are factors in their successful military campaigns, I’ve come to believe there is significant intelligence in their high command.

“Everyone presently in this hall is a military officer or enlisted person. And military men and women are taught from the very beginning of their careers never to underestimate an opponent. So I hope that everyone here will properly evaluate the situation and stop thinking of the Denubbewa as an inferior military opponent. I’m convinced they aren’t led by incompetent leaders. You have only to remember that the Denubbewa are operating at nearby Lorense-Four.

“Yesterday, I spoke with Loretta about our situation. I’m half convinced that finding the intact Denubbewa warship in Region Three wasn’t a case of dumb luck. It appears that it was a Trojan Horse of sorts, although it was not filled with soldiers simply waiting for an opportunity to emerge within our midst. I also don’t believe the cyborg scientists were complicit in the plan. It appears they’ve been unwilling dupes, used by a superior intelligence that was well aware of their desire for freedom. That’s how SCI was fooled. The cyborgs working for us now honestly believe they were responsible for their escape when, in fact, the goal all along was to have the Armada CJ Gate located here in our midst. It had been tested by sending three motherships and thousands of warships to Region Three. Rather than having the rest of the armada make the trip from Region Three, the Denubbewa decided to let us bring the Gate here. At the right moment, a full armada could suddenly appear in our midst and immediately destroy the Second Fleet, after which it would level all of Quesann, killing the G.A. leadership and Space Command leadership in one quick attack.

“The Denubbewa used the thousands of warships brought to Region Three as bait to have us send a significant portion of our fighting forces almost forty-five days away from Quesann, knowing it would take a month and a half for them to return when they were needed most. And that doesn’t even take into consideration the many weeks it would take for them to receive the recall orders. We sent every CPS-14, 15, and 16 we could spare, along with most of our Scout Destroyers. We didn’t send the warships, but most of them are out on patrol to cover for the absence of the smaller patrol ships.

“The plan was nearly perfect. The one thing they didn’t count on was the removal of what is perhaps the most necessary component required for the Armada CJ Gate to operate. A small transponder mounted in a console on the ship’s bridge intrigued the senior officer of the ORDER team so he and his assistant removed it for study. Without that component, there was no way for the Denubbewa to establish a link to form the Armada CJ Gate. The Gate equipment couldn’t even be located by the Denubbewa, much less opened, so their armada was left ‘standing at the altar,’ so to speak. Or perhaps more appropriately, for want of a nail the Denubbewa were denied their victory and we’re here to fight another day.”

When Jenetta paused to take a breath, Admiral Yuthkotl said, “‘For want of a nail,’ Jen? I don’t understand.”

“It refers to an old military proverb said to have originated on Earth as far back as the 14th century. You can find a fairly well-known version in a book titled ‘Poor Richard’s Almanac.’ It goes like this:

‘For want of a nail, the shoe was lost,

For want of a shoe, the horse was lost,

For want of a horse, the rider was lost,

For want of a rider, the message was lost,

For want of the message, the battle was lost,

For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost,

And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.’

“In the fourteenth century, and for many centuries thereafter, horses were used as the most common form of transportation on Earth. Horses are four-legged animals that were either ridden directly or hitched to wagons and coaches. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that automation replaced the horse. Prior to that, the horse’s hoofs had to be protected from chipping and shattering by a formed piece of iron called a horseshoe. Horseshoe nails were used to hold them on. When a rider’s horse lost a shoe, it had to be replaced immediately or the horse could become lame without it.”

“I see,” Admiral Yuthkotl said. “So the proverb is saying that losing the smallest component in a sophisticated war machine can bring the entire process to a halt.”

“Exactly, Lesbolh,” Jenetta said. “And that seems to be the case here. That tiny piece of equipment, the transponder, that was removed from the bridge for study put an end to the Denubbewa’s master plan to decimate Space Command and destroy the G.A. Senate in one swift attack.”

“You really believe that was their plan all along?” Admiral Burke asked.

“I do, Raymond. And until someone can show me evidence to the contrary, I will continue to believe that. And I will continue to believe that the individuals pulling the puppet strings attached to the mindless drones are brilliant tacticians, not just ‘lucky fools,’ as some believe. When they learned they couldn’t plant an armada in our front yard, they immediately came up with the alternate plan to have cyborgs reconstruct warships from the detritus in the scrap piles. I think we all believe their plan is to attack Quesann and place Personnel CJ Gates everywhere possible so they can quickly subdue populations while they work to construct another Gate capable of sending an armada of ships here.”

“Do you still feel we shouldn’t attack the Denubbewa in the scrap piles and blow them to a million pieces?” Admiral Holt asked.

“I’ve been thinking about that a great deal. Here are my present thoughts: I suspect the Denubbewa believe they have fooled us into thinking the cyborgs emerging from the scrap piles were the original crews of the destroyed ships. That way we wouldn’t discover what’s really going on within the floating mountains of trash. After all, there’s no need on our part to rush the recycling efforts so we would just destroy the remaining cyborgs as they emerge.

“But we do know what’s going on, thanks to the images we’re receiving as a result of daily trips made by CPS-16s operating in a double envelope. I think that rather than using WOLaR bombs as we do when we attack an enemy ship, perhaps we should be considering the use of much smaller payloads. We could make as many trips as necessary to drop small bombs wherever work seems to be progressing. With each tiny bomb dropped, they would be forced to start over. Even if we didn’t kill the cyborg soldiers, they might eventually be recalled to wherever their base is.

“Just as they changed their focus when they couldn’t access the Armada CJ Gate, we can force them to change it again.”

“Where do you think they’ll strike next?” Admiral Bradlee asked.

“If I was part of their war planning effort, I’d recommend Region Three in the hope that the enemy would commit maximum resources to locations as far from Quesann as possible. We will naturally remain the real target, but we’re inaccessible at present. They left seven motherships just sitting at the far end of Region Three. If they were to reoccupy those ships, they could raise a lot of hell. And since we know they can remotely engage the CJ Gate booths, they could fill those motherships with troops overnight.”

“Haven’t we already assigned ships and people to occupy those vessels?” Admiral Woo asked. His face was masked with concern.

“Yes, Lon,” Admiral Holt said. “All of the new bases have been occupied.”

“Late last evening I took it upon myself to send warning notices to each of the seven temporary administrators about the possibility of an incursion by Denubbewa cyborgs via the Personnel CJ Gates. I strongly suggested that they assign as many Marines as possible to each of the CJ Gate rooms. Unfortunately, it will be almost twenty-nine days before all of the messages arrive. That’s why I didn’t wait until today to take a vote on how we should proceed.”

“I would have given my full support to such an action,” Admiral Holt said, “especially after hearing your views on the military planning capability of the Denubbewa high command.”

“I’m also glad you sent that warning,” Admiral Bradlee said. “In times like these, we can’t stand on formal lines of communication and protocols. Lives are at stake.”

The other admirals all voiced their approval of Jenetta’s action.

“It’s imperative,” Jenetta said, “that we make every effort to learn how those CJ Gate transponders work and see if we can determine where the collected information is being sent.”

“You still want to visit them at their home location and destroy their world?” Admiral Bradlee asked.

“I think that, eventually, it will take a visit to their base of operations to stop them and ensure they never again venture into this quadrant of the Milky Way Galaxy. And if we should learn they originate from a different galaxy, we’ll teach them they must leave this galaxy and never return.”












Chapter Six

~ April 12th, 2292 ~

“There’s still no response to our hails, Captain,” the com chief said to Captain Gavin.

It was first watch and Gavin was seated in the command chair on the bridge. The Ares was less than an hour from arrival at the new Space Command base presently known as Grumpy, and after hours of attempts, they still hadn’t been able to contact anyone at the station.

Gavin scowled as he stared at the front bridge monitor. There was nothing to see while traveling at Light-14,685.7 except streaks of light as the ship passed innumerous solar systems. The only good news was that the other six bases were all sending daily reports to the Ares, and all was well.

~

“Helm, why have we stopped?” Gavin asked as the helmsman cut the power.

“We’re here, sir.”

“What do you mean?”

“We’re at the provided coordinates.”

“We can’t be. The space station housing the new base is a former mothership. It’s enormous. Gigantic. It’s impossible to miss its exterior lighting. Tac, where’s the base?”

“It should be right here, sir,” the tac officer said.

“Well, it’s obviously not here. So find it! That order applies to all bridge officers.”

“There’s nothing on the screens, sir,” the tac officer said. “The base is gone.”

“The base is sheathed in Dakinium,” Gavin said. “It won’t show up on our screens. You’ll have to locate it by its exterior lighting or by observing where the light from distant stars is being blocked.”

“According to the navigation computer,” the navigator said, “all light originating from stars that should be visible from this location is visible. There are no extra lights anywhere. The station is simply not in this vicinity, sir.”

“Then where is it! Anyone?”

“If the station began moving away at maximum speed after sending their last message,” the helmsman said, “it could be as much as eighteen hours away from here at our Marc-One speed. The station is only capable of achieving single-envelope travel.”

“It could have been towed in a double envelope since the hull is sheathed in Dakinium,” the tac officer said.

“I’m assuming a hostile takeover from within,” Gavin said. “And as far as we know, only Space Command has double-envelope capability. If the Denubbewa managed to overcome our people and move the station, it would have to be with the mothership’s original single-envelope propulsion.”

“If we get within ten kilometers, the Neutrino Measurement Sensor would reveal its presence,” the helmsman said.

“If we get within ten kilometers, the enormous size of the station would be obvious by the absence of light from numerous stars,” the tac officer responded.

Gavin sat back in his chair and stared at the large monitor at the front of the bridge. “If we were anywhere within a million kilometers, the absence of light from distant stars would be noticeable.” Now that the Ares had dropped out of double-envelope travel, the image of space on the bow monitor appeared normal, except for the fact that the space station wasn’t where it should be.

“Com, notify the crews assigned to the Scout-Destroyer in the docking cradle and the five CPS-14s in the bays to man their ships. We’re going to commence a search.”

“Aye, Captain,” the com chief said.

“Tac, prepare a search pattern for seven participating ships. We know the station was here twelve days ago, and the maximum speed of a Denubbewa mothership is less than Light-500, so set the maximum search distance to sixteen days’ travel at its maximum speed. We should be able to find it within four days.”

“Aye, Captain.”

“Nav, you have the bridge,” Gavin said as he stood up. “Com, summon the XO to my office.”

“Aye, Captain,” the navigator and the com chief said almost in unison.

~

The doors slid open as soon as Eliza approached the captain’s office a few minutes later.

“Come in, Eliza,” Gavin said as she reached the doors.

“I heard the news, Captain. Are we preparing to search for Grumpy?”

“Yes. It can’t be too far away. It doesn’t have double-envelope travel.”

“It’ll still be difficult to locate. We can pass right by it and never see it. The Neutrino Measurement Sensors are almost useless over ten kilometers, and the navigation computer can only be relied upon to identify a ‘hole’ in space when we’re not traveling faster than light.”

“I know, but what alternative to FTL do we have?”

“None, I guess,” Eliza said.

“We know the maximum speed of that ship and we know it was at this location twelve days ago, so we’re going with the maximum possible range for our search grid.” Gavin took a deep breath and released it slowly before saying, “The station must have been taken over by Denubbewa coming through the CJ Gates. Commander Kalborne would never have taken it upon himself to move the station unless it was in imminent danger.”

“I agree, but if he wasn’t responsible for the move, why hasn’t he left someone behind to point the way to the ship?”

“He may not have been aware we were on our way to assist and needed all his resources inside the station and available. It depends on when they lost access to communications.”

“Or there may not be anyone left to communicate with.”

“That’s a possibility— but not one I’m willing to consider just yet,” Gavin said. “Assemble the commanders of the other six ships that will participate in the search and we’ll brief them on the situation and the search-pattern routes we’ll follow.”

“Yes, sir.”

~     ~     ~

“Not a chance, sir,” the Marine PFC who was functioning as a message runner said to Marine Captain Samuel Lee. “There are too many cyborgs holding the corridor where the Gate room is located, and they have RPGs. We can’t even get close to the room anymore.”

No electronic communications were being used because it was common knowledge that the cyborgs could pick up every word transmitted. Captain Lee was the senior officer in command of all Marine forces and he had set up his command center about a kilometer from the front lines in this part of the space station.

“Have any of the cyborgs progressed beyond RPGs?”

“Negative, sir. Lt. Evaridge believes they can’t bring larger weapons through the Gates.”

“At least not until someone thinks to break them down and then reassemble them once they get here.”

“The L.T. thought we had a chance of recapturing the Gate room when the only weapons the cyborgs had were lasers. But she doesn’t think we can take it now that they have rocket-propelled grenade weapons unless we also get better weapons. And we may not even be able hold the corridor there much longer.”

“At least our forces were able to destroy most of the Gates before the cyborgs got a foothold in those other Gate rooms. The three we’ve surrounded are the only ones still operational. We just have to keep them corralled until more forces arrive.”

“Uh, is there really a chance we’ll be reinforced, sir?”

“I expected reinforcements long before now, so they should arrive at any time. The day we deployed, the Ares was headed in the other direction. I’ve learned they were on their way to the base commanded by Commander Christa Carver.”

“Was that station under attack also, sir?”

“I don’t know. But if the Ares was able to handle the situation there and Captain Gavin received Commander Kalborne’s message, it should be on its way here by now. Marine, grab the pile of MREs you came for and get back to your squad. They need you back there.”

“Yes sir, Captain.”

~     ~     ~

“This situation is insane,” Commander Burl Kalborne, Captain of the Scout-Destroyer Ottawa and temporary administrator of the SC base known as Grumpy, said to his XO. “I can’t even get recent information from Major Lee unless he sends a runner.”

“I understand, sir, and I agree,” Lt. Commander Maria Sanduska said, “but we have no choice. We’ve been told that the cyborgs pick up every single electronic transmission. Outside the ship, no one can even record a message on a viewpad because they might be able to intercept it as it’s being recorded.”

“Thank heaven we can use our CTs aboard ship since the hull is Dakinium-sheathed. I’d be ready to do something drastic if our cranial transducers weren’t usable. Has there been any word from the Ares?”

“No, sir, not yet. And I’m beginning to wonder if there will be.”

“Captain Gavin won’t desert us. He might be as occupied with cyborgs as we are.”

“I wasn’t thinking that he hadn’t tried. I was thinking that maybe the cyborgs have managed to block all transmission signals. We know they’ve managed to prevent us from opening the port’s entrance doors. Perhaps they’ve cut the antenna we need to get the signal outside the mothership’s Dakinium hull.”

“Space Command Base perimeter,” Kalborne said.

“Yes, sir. Outside the Space Command Base perimeter.”

“You might have a point, XO. Any suggestions on how we can we find out if that’s the case?”

“I don’t know, sir. We have no idea if any of the cyborgs managed to escape the containment areas we’ve established. And our engineers can’t wander around looking for where a break might have been made unless they’re accompanied by at least a full squad of Marines.”

“Well, there might be another way.”

“Sir?”

“Send a runner to one of the CPS-16s to inform the captain I want to speak to him.”

“Uh, yes, sir.”

~     ~     ~

The piers and platform area where the four CPS-16s were docked was secured by two squads of Marines, so runners could travel between ships without worry.

The runner sent by Lt. Commander Sanduska had to wait to enter the CPS-16 Alamo until the airlock was opened and he was passed by the Marine guard stationed there. In order to ensure that no CT communications could be overheard by the cyborgs, the airlock door remained closed whenever possible.

The runner hurried to the captain’s office first and knocked. When there was no answer, he proceeded to the bridge. The captain was seated in the command chair.

“Excuse me, sir,” the runner said. “Captain Kalborne requests that you come to his office.”

“Inform him that I’ll be right over, Private.”

“Yes, sir.”

The runner was gone in a flash as Lieutenant Gorcy assigned the helmsman to perform as watch officer in his absence. Although all ships were docked at piers located along the platform, they still observed the regulation that all ships’ bridges must be manned 24/7. When docked, the bridge crew was permitted to talk among themselves and even move around the bridge occasionally.

Lt. Gorcy stopped by his office for a moment to check his appearance, then left the Alamo.

~     ~     ~

“Lt. Gorcy is at the door,” the annunciator in Kalborne’s office said.

“Come,” Kalborne said.

When the doors opened, Gorcy walked to Kalborne’s desk, braced to attention, and said, “Reporting to the captain as ordered, sir.”

“At ease, Gorcy. I’ve got a little mission for you.”

“A mission, sir?”

“Not aboard the station. I want you to leave the immediate vicinity of the station and send a message to the Ares. We should have heard back from them by now. I think the cyborgs might have done some damage to our connection link to the exterior hull antenna arrays. I want you to go outside and send a message, and then wait for a reply. If you can’t raise the Ares, try contacting any ship at the former battle site. There should be a number of vessels still there.”

“The battle site is four days away by communication, sir.”

“Is there a reason you can’t wait outside the station for a reply?”

“Uh, no, sir. I just thought you might want an update sooner.”

“Until you get a reply, there’s not much to report.”

“Yes, sir. Will someone be opening the port doors?”

“The cyborgs have definitely interfered with their operation. You’ll have to go through them.”

“Though them, sir?”

“Using a double envelope.”

“Yes, sir. That’s as I suspected, but I wanted to make sure you didn’t intend for me to make a hole.”

“They’re sheathed in Dakinium, Lieutenant. I doubt if you could make a hole, even with a WOLaR.”

“Yes, sir.”

“That’s all, Lieutenant.”

“Yes, sir.”

Gorcy braced to attention, turned on his heel and left the office, silently cursing himself for looking like a fool in front of Commander Kalborne with his comment about making a hole.

As the door closed behind Gorcy, Kalborne smiled and shook his head once, remembering the times he had looked a bit foolish in front of a commanding officer. His nervousness in the presence of senior officers finally ended when he made commander.

~     ~     ~

When Gorcy returned to the bridge of the Alamo, he immediately made a ship-wide announcement that the Alamo was leaving port within minutes and that the ship should be secured.

All over the ship, crewmen began stowing loose gear as noncoms took head counts of the people in their charge. When all hands were accounted for, that information was reported to the bridge.

“Tac, is the ship secure?” Gorcy asked after confirmation came that all hands were accounted for.

“Aye, Captain. The ship is secure, and the docking ramp has been retracted.”

“Helm, release the docking clamps and back us away from the docking platform.”

The helmsman released the docking clamps that held the ship to the pier and engaged the larboard and bow thrusters just enough to begin moving the ship gently away from the docking pier.

“Backing out of the slip, Captain.”

“As soon as we’re clear, swing us around so the bow points to the port doors.”

“Aye, Captain.”

When the ship was well clear of the pier, he disengaged the larboard thrusters and slightly increased the thrust from the starboard bow thrusters to slowly turn the ship ninety degrees while still backing it away from the platform.

“Sir,” the tac officer said, “the port doors are still closed.”

“I’m aware of that, Tac. We’ll be going through them.”

“Aye, sir,” the tac officer replied nonchalantly.

“We’re clear of all ships and piers, Captain,” the helmsman said after a couple of minutes.

“Very good. Begin building a double envelope, Helm.”

Two minutes later the helmsman said, “Envelope built, Captain.”

“Very good. Take us out, Helm.”

“Departing the station,” the helmsman said.

As the Alamo exited the base, the image on the front monitor, until then a dark and dreary image of the station’s interior hull, was suddenly filled with stars. Gorcy smiled. It was nice to see the stars again.

“Captain, the station is gone,” the tac officer said.

“What do you mean, gone?”

“It was there a few seconds ago, but as soon as we emerged, it disappeared.”

“Helm, what’s our speed?”

“Dead slow, Captain. Basic maneuvering speed used in ports and space stations.”

“Navigation, can you identify the space station?”

“I have an object blocking starlight some distance away.”

“Give the helm a heading to that object.”

“I have it, Captain,” the helmsman said a few moments later.

“Take us there.”

“Aye, Captain.”

With a top speed roughly thirty times that of the space station operating under its own power, the Alamo caught up with the station within seconds.

“It’s the base, Captain,” the tac officer said. “Someone has established an envelope.”

“Navigation, can you determine its course?”

“Aye, Captain. It’s been computed.”

“Send its course and our present position to the com. Com, I’m going to my office. Prepare to send a Priority-One message to the Ares with the new coordinates attached.”

“Aye, Captain.”

~

“Captain Gavin,” Gorcy said after initiating the Priority-One message and identifying himself, “our base has been invaded by cyborgs who entered via the CJ Gate booths. They’ve established a foothold and we’re barely hanging on. We need immediate assistance. The cyborgs have managed to engage the envelope drive so the base is no longer where it was originally parked. Our current coordinates and course are attached to this message. I’ve been ordered to stand by for a reply before returning to the base, no matter how many days that takes. For now, we’re following along as we wait for word from the Ares.

“Lieutenant Gorcy, Captain of the CPS-16 Alamo. Message complete.”

~     ~     ~

Gavin was working in his office when he was alerted to receipt of a Priority-One message. After completing the retinal scan, he listened to the audio-only message received from the Alamo, one of the CPS-16s sent to support the base identified as Grumpy. Gavin immediately contacted the navigator on duty and gave her the coordinate information.

“How long will it take to reach the space station?”

“I’ll have that info for you in— one second, sir.” After entering the information into the computer, the navigator said, “Assuming we’ll be traveling at our maximum speed and the base will also be traveling at its top speed without a course change, we’ll catch them in six hours and twenty-three minutes at Marc-One.”

“Send the course and rendezvous information to the helm console.”

“Aye, sir.”

Next, Gavin contacted his XO, Commander Eliza Carver. She was already on the bridge because it was second watch and she was the watch commander.

“Eliza, I’ve just received a message from one of the CPS-16 ships assigned to Grumpy. The base has been hijacked by cyborgs and the engines have been engaged at maximum power. Our navigator and helm have the new information for a rendezvous. Proceed to that location with all haste. Notify the ships involved in the search to cancel their activity and head to that location as well, continuing on the reported course until we all reach Grumpy. We’ll coordinate our activity when we catch up with the base. That should be in less than seven hours.”

“Aye, Captain.”

“Also, notify Commander Rob Delanci of the Scout-Destroyer Purus that we need all the support he can spare from the battle site. Two CPS-16s are really all that’s needed to watch over those mountains of wreckage. Give him the coordinates we just received and tell him to have the ships contact us when they arrive at that location. Let him know the base is probably moving at roughly Light-500.”

“Aye, Captain.”

“That’s all. Gavin out,” Gavin said and then recorded a vid message to the captain of the Alamo in which he stated they had been searching for the base using the last known coordinates and now expected to reach it within seven hours. He forwarded the message to the com with orders to send it immediately. He then sat back in his chair and thought about the situation.

So far, they had really only fought the Denubbewa in ship-to-ship engagements. Once they learned that the Denubbewa weren’t friendly visitors but rather that they were in G.A. space to conquer it, Space Command had always had the advantage in those encounters. There had been one brief encounter between the G.A. and cyborgs where the action took place aboard a Denubbewa mothership. Space Command engineers and Space Marines had entered a mothership under construction, believing it to be empty. Two engineers violated standing orders and went exploring a few days after entering the ship. Venturing into an area not yet cleared, they awoke a small army of cyborgs in a storage area. Marines were sent in to investigate and briefly exchanged fire with the cyborg soldiers. The Marine lieutenant in command was killed, and the engineers and Marines pulled back and returned to their ships. The taskforce then attacked and destroyed the motherships under construction. Most of the pieces were then dragged to a nearby sun and pushed towards it so gravity would eventually pull in what was left of the Denubbewa vessels and complete the destruction.












Chapter Seven

~ April 18th, 2292 ~

Of the seven vessels involved in the search for the Space Command base known only as Grumpy, the Ares was the third to arrive in the growing faster-than-light retinue. After receiving the message from the Ares, the Alamo had reentered the base so Lt. Gorcy could report to Captain Kalborne. Kalborne had then sent the Alamo back outside the station to await the arrival of the Ares. This was also to ensure the Denubbewa didn’t change course without their knowledge. If the course had changed, the Alamo would have immediately reported that fact to the Ares.

Since exiting the base for the second time, the Alamo had followed along with a separation of just a thousand kilometers. There was no danger of collision with the base should the cyborgs suddenly cancel their single envelope because the Alamo was enclosed in a double envelope and would simply pass through the base.

“Captain, the Ares is asking for you,” Lt. Gorcy heard via his CT as he sat as his office desk.

“Put it through to my office, Chief.”

“Aye, Captain. Go ahead, Ares. The captain has your transmission.”

“Captain Gorcy, this is Commander Eliza Carver.”

“Yes, Commander. We’re very glad to welcome you to the new Space Command base.”

“Captain Gavin wants you to brief him on the situation inside the base. I’m with him now in his office.”

“Aye, Commander. But we shouldn’t do that in a ship-to-ship communication. We understand that Denubbewa cyborgs are capable of intercepting all electronic signals.”

“That’s correct, Captain, but they can only pick up wide-band signals. This signal is narrow-band laser communication. It’s impossible for them to intercept it.”

“I see. Very well, Commander. You say the captain is there with you now?”

“Yes. Our signal contains both audio and video. Can you patch it through your vid system so we can see you?”

“Give me ten seconds, Commander.”

About nine seconds later the image of Captain Gorcy retaking his seat appeared on the monitor in Captain Gavin’s office.

“We have you on our monitor, Captain,” Eliza said.

“And I can see Captain Gavin. Greetings, sir. Your arrival here is very welcome. Our Marines are about out of steam from fighting those damn machines day and night.”

“Give me a quick rundown first, and then we can get into details.”

“Yes, sir. We had moved the base to the coordinates specified by Quesann and were getting set up at the new location when we received your warning about assigning Marines to guard the Gate rooms. Captain Kalborne did as you ordered and the Marines had begun organizing the sentry duties. Unfortunately, three Gate rooms weren’t fully staffed when the cyborgs began arriving, and they were able to establish a foothold in the base. We held the other eleven Gate rooms and restricted movement of the cyborgs to the immediate vicinity of the three Gate rooms despite their growing numbers. We knew we didn’t have adequate resources to suppress a large-scale invasion, so Captain Kalborne ordered that all other Gates be incapacitated. We had no choice, sir. Unfortunately, the three Gate rooms were pumping out three new cyborgs every few minutes.

“We thought we had them basically contained to one part of the base until we learned we no longer had the ability to open and close the port doors from the port office. Or at least what we had identified as probably being the port office. That meant the Denubbewa had somehow managed to take control of base operations. While we were still learning our way around this enormous base, they came in knowing exactly where to go and what to do in support of their invasion.

“We held our ground for days, waiting for a message from the Ares in response to the messages Captain Kalborne had been sending twice daily while we tried to hold back the cyborgs— but none arrived. Captain Kalborne thought that perhaps the cyborgs had found some way to prevent us from actually transmitting and receiving messages, such as cutting our connection to the antenna array mounted on the outside surface of the base, so he sent my ship, the Alamo, out to transmit a message.

“When we arrived outside, we learned the base was no longer at the coordinates we expected and was, in fact, under power. The Denubbewa had somehow managed to activate the FTL system. I followed my orders from Captain Kalborne and sent the message to the Ares. I was most relieved when you replied that you’d been looking for us at our original location because it meant you were close. I then took my ship back inside so I could report to Captain Kalborne. After listening to my report, he ordered us to return outside and remain there to help you find us in case the cyborgs altered course.

“That’s about it, sir. None of the Space Command personnel has seen any action against the cyborgs because no one has personal armor except the Marines. Some Space Command pilots are issued personal armor because they fly fighters or shuttle Marines down to hostile planets, but that activity is limited to destroyers and larger warships so no one aboard a CPS-16 or a Scout-Destroyer has the armor.”

“Space Command has never foreseen an occasion when personal armor would be required for personnel on ships the size of yours,” Gavin said. “I can only think of one individual on a CPS-16 who has the personal armor.”

“You know of someone in Space Command who’s assigned to a smaller vessel than a destroyer and was issued personal armor?”

“Yes, just one. There’s a lieutenant in the First Fleet who commands a CPS-16. She only has personal armor because she was a pilot aboard a destroyer. Her name is Sydnee Marcola.”

“The officer for whom Marc-One was named?”

“Yes, that’s correct.”

“If we’re going to be fighting cyborgs in ships and on planets, I hope Space Command will begin issuing personal armor to everyone who deploys from Quesann.”

“It may come to that. It’s obvious we’ll have to develop new tactics to fight this new enemy. Have your Marines suffered many casualties?”

“The first cyborgs only carried laser weapons, so the Marines were able to destroy them almost as fast as they arrived. But then they began arriving with RPG weapons. We’ve lost two Marines to those. But the worst enemy right now is fatigue. I understand some Marines can barely keep their eyes open because they’re getting so little sleep.”

“Nothing more powerful than RPGs?”

“Not yet, sir.”

“The Ares and the two ships that arrived ahead of us will enter the base now. I want you to remain out here until the other four ships arrive. Send them in when they get here, and then come in yourself. More help is coming but won’t arrive for several days because of our distance from the former battle site. You’ll probably have to come back out in a couple of days if we haven’t been able to reestablish communications outside the base.”

“Aye, Captain.”

Ares out,” Gavin said, and the connection was terminated.

“Eliza, instruct our two CPS-16s to enter the base. Then follow them in and dock the ship.”

“Aye, Captain,” Eliza replied and left the captain’s office just off the bridge.

Gavin appeared on the bridge after the Ares was inside the port and slowly approaching a docking pier. Eliza continued to direct the approach without offering to surrender command of the bridge. She knew Gavin was there simply because it was protocol for the captain of the ship to be on the bridge during all docking operations. Eliza had his full trust and confidence in handling the ship.

~

Commander Kalborne was waiting to enter the Ares as soon as the docking procedure was complete. Since the Dakinium-sheathed hull prevented any and all internal communications from being intercepted outside the ship only when it was completely sealed, the Space Command lieutenant and Marine corporal posted to the airlock had already been ordered to keep the outer hatch closed and locked when no one was entering or leaving the ship. They would, of course, open it to admit the Ottawa’s commanding officer as soon the maneuvering was complete. Anyone else seeking entrance would have to rap on the hatch to get the attention of the two individuals inside.

Kalborne was immediately escorted to Captain Gavin’s office just off the bridge, and he braced to attention after entering Gavin’s office, saying, “Commander Kalborne reporting, sir.”

“At ease, Commander,” Gavin said. “Have a seat. You know Commander Carver, don’t you?”

“We’ve met a couple of times. I know Commander Christa Carver quite well. Hello, Commander.”

“Hello, Commander,” Eliza said, “Welcome aboard the Ares.”

“Thank you. I’m very glad you’ve arrived. I was beginning to think we might have to abandon the base and then destroy it. Our Marines are about to drop from exhaustion.”

“We have a full company on board and they’re preparing to deploy. I want you to point out where your Marines are currently posted, as well as the additional Marines I sent in to support this base when I became aware there might be a problem developing.”

“Yes, sir. The reinforcements you sent were the only thing that kept us from abandoning the base. Without them, we wouldn’t have lasted more than a few hours. Uh, if you don’t mind, could I be told how you anticipated the situation? I mean, how did you know the cyborgs would be able to come through the Gates?”

“Commander Christa Carver gets the credit for that call. She had an incident where an engineer from Lorense-Four was accidentally transported to her base and appeared while she happened to be in the Gate room. She immediately realized that if someone from Lorense-Four could accidentally initiate a transfer, the Denubbewa could do the same, intentionally. She alerted me and advised that I send all available Marines in support of the limited protection forces already assigned.”

“Christa? I’m not really surprised to hear she’s responsible. She’s incredible. As I’m sure her sister Eliza is,” he said as he glanced in her direction.

Gavin had uploaded a floor plan map of the station on the large monitor in his office. Handing Kalborne a laser pen, he said, “Show us where you’ve positioned your people.”

“Yes, sir. There might have been some slight movement of positions that I’m unaware of because I’ve been unable to visit the locations, and the officers are too involved to come to my ship. I’ve had to rely on runners because we can’t use our com systems.” Pointing to the ship diagram with a red dot caused the image location to expand. The wrong deck level expanded so he lowered the pointer dot and the image changed back to the original image until he stopped at the correct level. He pressed a button on the pointer and the dot color changed to green. Pointing to the spot again opened up a floor plan of that area. He changed the color to blue so the diagram wouldn’t change as he simply pointed to different corridor locations.

“Here’s the first Gate room where cyborgs gained a foothold. We’ve created barricades using everything we could move to either end of the corridor where the room is located. Here and here,” he said as he pointed to the two locations. “As soon as the cyborgs try to rush these positions, our people open fire and cut them down. We’ve been able to hold them so far, but we’ve lost a couple of Marines to RPG fire. I understand the corridor is filling with Denubbewa corpses.”

Kalborne went on to show two other corridor locations where the situation was about the same. Manned barricades had so far prevented the cyborgs from breaking out of containment.

“So if the cyborgs are contained at each of the three locations, how did they manage to seal the port doors and build an envelope to move the base?” Gavin asked.

“We don’t know, sir. We thought we had them bottled up. When the Alamo reported that the base was underway to some unknown destination, we started viewing video history logs of the corridors. We saw no Denubbewa movement, but there were a number of corridor vids that were blank. Somehow, the cyborgs had gotten control of the cameras to prevent us from seeing what they were doing. They obviously know this base a thousand times better than we do.”

“It seems like a fairly straightforward operation, other than that there may be some cyborgs we’ve lost track of. I’ll order all of the Marines on the Ares to proceed to the three corridors to support those operations, and we’ll play the rest by ear.”

“Sir, may I offer a suggestion?” Eliza said.

“Of course, Eliza. What is it?”

“Before the Marines deploy there’s something we might try.”

“Go on,” Gavin said.

“We suspect the Denubbewa might be listening to all our communications since we know they have that ability. How about if we make an announcement to the Marines at the three corridor fortifications that we’re about reinforce their positions?”

“Give the enemy our plans?” Kalborne said with a shocked expression.”

“Yes. Sort of.”

“Explain, Eliza,” Gavin said.

“We’ve come to believe that when the Denubbewa cyborgs expected to see the reminder of their fleet destroyed at the recent battle site, the cyborgs aboard the warships returned to wherever they had come from via their Personnel CJ Gates, leaving just a skeleton operations crew in each warship.”

“Another company of Marines isn’t going to scare the cyborgs into leaving this base, Eliza,” Gavin said.

“No, sir, a company of a hundred or two hundred Marines isn’t going to do that. But if they have the freedom to control the port doors, they must also be able to view what happens in the port and know that the Ares has entered. But they can’t know how many Marines we have on board.”

A slow smile spread across Gavin’s face. Kalborne was a little slower to catch on, but he started to smile also.

“How many do you think we should send in?” Gavin asked. “Two full battalions?”

“I’d say a full brigade, sir. Let’s send a thousand Marines to each of the three corridor locations. Five hundred Marines converging on the Gate rooms from each corridor barricade should be more than enough to overrun the enemy positions. And we’ll hold back a thousand until we learn where the most resistance will be encountered and then send them to that location.”

“I’d have to agree with that,” Kalborne said. “It would be like trying to hold back the water after a dam has just broken. But how do we go about this? The Marines have all turned off their com units so they can’t be overheard. That means they’ll be unable to respond.”

“It’s not necessary for the Marines at the barricades to hear us,” Eliza said. “It’s only necessary that the cyborgs intercept what seems like a legitimate series of orders sent in preparation for a concerted attack on the three active Gate rooms.”

“That’s going to be the most difficult part,” Gavin said, “since they have to know the Marines have had their com units turned off until now. If they suddenly hear logistical data coming over the com frequencies, that information will be suspect.”

“We’ll have to make it appear legitimate, sir. How about if we move our Marine company outside the ship and communicate with them while they’re out on the platform? The cyborgs must be watching the port area. There have to be ten thousand cameras in this base, and the Denubbewa are certainly tapped into them. So we make a big show for them.”

“Captain,” Kalborne said, “you probably have a crew size of about three thousand five hundred in this battleship. How about if we dress your Space Command crew in Marine fatigues and send them onto the platform? They won’t have personal armor so they’ll have to remain out on the pier and docking platform, but they can put on a show of preparing to deploy into the areas where the fighting is taking place. With thousands of Marines visible to whatever cyborgs are watching, they’d have to believe we’ll be coming at them in overwhelming force.”

“Yes, that might work. Okay, Eliza, issue an order that Marine personnel should bring all of their clean fatigues to one of the gyms and stand by so our people can judge if the clothing from a particular individual will fit them. Then have all off-duty personnel and those not involved in essential activities proceed to the gym and find fatigues that fit them properly. They must appear like the fatigues are their normal daily attire. When we’re ready to begin, all Marines will proceed to the docking platform in their personal armor while SC personnel wearing the fatigues will proceed out onto the pier. Once outside, everyone must look like they’re preparing for battle. The Marines can be checking their weapons and equipment while the SC personnel can be assembling into platoon-sized groups. Make everyone understand that this is deadly serious, and any SC personnel not exhibiting a professional demeanor will be accompanying the Marines into battle— without personal armor. And have all Marine officers report to one of the conference rooms so we can practice what we’ll say in this little stratagem.”

“Aye, Captain.”

~     ~     ~

“Listen up,” Gavin said as he entered the conference room where the Marine officers were waiting. “We’re presently fighting cyborgs inside this base. Two of our people have already died and I want to make sure no more make that ultimate sacrifice today. The cyborgs are basically contained at three locations, but we suspect a few may have broken out of containment at the start of the conflict and are now able to move around surreptitiously while they sabotage our efforts. At each of those containment locations— we refer to them as Gate rooms— there’s special equipment that allows someone, or something, to instantly travel to another location in the universe.” Gavin paused for a couple of seconds for that news to take effect. “I know how that sounds, but it’s true. And it’s been the most closely guarded secret in the G.A. until now. It’s how the cyborgs entered this base in the first place, and it’s why they’re able to keep increasing their numbers as we speak. Until this secret is released to the public by the G.A. Senate, you are not to talk about it— not even among yourselves. Just know that it’s possible.

“We’ve come up with a plan that we hope will make the Denubbewa believe they’re about to be attacked by a full brigade of pissed-off Marines. If we can convince the cyborgs that they’re about to be destroyed by an overwhelming force, we think they’ll abandon their positions and travel back to wherever it was they came from. This is role-play as in war games, but it’s very real, and you must be totally convincing for it to succeed. While inside this ship, our communications are secure. But once outside, the cyborgs can hear every word spoken by every person with access to a com unit. That includes being able to hear communications inside the ship while any exterior airlock hatch is open. Every time we have to open an exterior hatch, we briefly shut down the CT system aboard ship. So be careful with what you say. Assume that the enemy can hear you at all times, just as if they were standing next to you.

“Now, the cyborgs know that the men and women on this base stopped using open communications when the invasion began. We want them to believe that we no longer care if they can hear us because we’re on our way to end their lives. We want them to believe that I’m sending three thousand Marines to crush them out of existence. We’re depending on you to sell that story. Plant the idea in your own minds that you control a thousand Marines rather than a platoon, and talk and act accordingly. We wouldn’t have first lieutenants commanding a battalion, so for the duration of this— war game— , your Marine captain is now a colonel, your first lieutenants are now lieutenant colonels, and second lieutenants are now majors.

“Commander Carver will now take over the briefing. She’ll give you your specific assignments and outline the attack plan.”

~     ~     ~

The plan called for the only Marine Company aboard the Ares to divide into three platoons and immediately deploy to the three confinement locations to support the weary Marines there. Each platoon was divided into four squads so two squads could proceed to each barricade position while the other squads waited in reserve. Communications between the barricades and the Ares began when the three platoons all reached their assigned locations. The weary Marines at the six locations had cause to smile for the first time in days. The Marines manning the barricades were told to activate their com systems because the brigade would begin their attack soon and it was no longer necessary to prevent the cyborgs from overhearing com chatter since the cyborgs would all be dead very soon.

Communications between the confinement areas and the ship intensified considerably after that. The Ares notified the locations that the remainder of the three-thousand-Marine brigade was expected to deploy in two to three hours. The brigade would divide into three battalions and storm the Denubbewa at each confinement location with instructions to cut every last cyborg to pieces. The Marines at the barricades were ordered to begin disassembling the barricades so the arriving Marines could plow through when they arrived.

The Marines at the barricades didn’t know it was all a bluff and began dismantling the fortifications with gusto.












Chapter Eight

~ April 18th, 2292 ~

“Admiral,” Jenetta heard her aide say via the intercom channel on her desk viewpad, “Admiral Holt is calling. He’s says it’s top priority.”

Jenetta tapped a spot on her viewpad and said, “I’ll take it.”

After tapping another spot, the large wall monitor facing her desk illuminated with the image of Brian Holt.

“Jen, the Denubbewa are gone.”

“Gone? Gone where?”

“Just gone. We noticed that no cyborgs had popped up out of the rubbish for over an hour, so I sent a CPS-16 in to see what was going on. They reported that there’s not a single living cyborg anywhere in the floating mountains of scrap— at least none that are moving. There are innumerous bodies and pieces of bodies.”

“How did you accomplish that, Brian?”

“Darned if I know. They’re just— gone.”

“There must be a reason. They wouldn’t have just left. Do you think they learned we were going to blow those rings of scrap into smaller pieces soon?”

“They couldn’t have learned that. I’ve given no orders to prepare or even told anyone of our plans. It has to be something else.”

“So all the work of rebuilding the destroyed warships has stopped?”

“All of it, Jen. According to the skipper of the CPS-16, there’s not a sign of Denubbewa activity anywhere. The 16 made three complete passes around Lorense-Four. They entered every single scrap pile, slowing down when they came to the warships the cyborgs had been trying to rebuild, and they had their cameras running the entire time. Our experts have verified that there’s not a single cyborg moving anywhere in those piles.”

“But why, Brian? Why now?”

“We may never know. But I’m not complaining.”

“I don’t like mysteries like this. We have to figure out why they’ve left. They must have hatched a new plan. We have to learn what they’re up to now.”

“I have no idea where to start, but maybe Roger will have some ideas.”

“I’m going to call an executive meeting for tomorrow morning to discuss this new development. Make that a closed executive meeting in my office. Perhaps someone will have an idea.”

“I thought you’d be pleased.”

“I am pleased, Brian. But I also begin to worry when unexpected events like this occur without some perceived causality. I don’t know if I’ll be able to sleep tonight.”

~     ~     ~

“Command, this is Charlie-One. They’re gone. The cyborgs at the barricades in the corridor have retreated into the Gate room. The monitors in the Gate rooms show them getting into the Gate booths and disappearing.”

“Command, this is Able-One. They’re gone from this Gate room location as well.”

“Baker-One confirming that the cyborgs have all disappeared from our containment area and Gate room also. All we have left are hundreds of cyborg corpses and thousands of pieces of mechanical body parts covering the deck of the corridor between the barricades.”

“Attention, this is Major Tarnel. The senior officer at each containment location will assign a fire team to the Gate room. Their job will be to watch the Gate and see that that no cyborg returns to the room. No single member of that fire team may leave the room until a replacement has arrived, and the fire team as a whole will not leave until a full replacement fire team has arrived to take the team’s place. All other Marines will remain in the containment area until a plan has been prepared to begin an exhaustive search of this entire base to locate any possible cyborg stragglers. Clear the barricades and pile up the cyborg bodies. If you suspect that a cyborg isn’t dead, fry the brain module in its chest with your laser rifle. New orders will be transmitted shortly. Tarnel out.”

~     ~     ~

“Congratulations, Eliza,” Captain Gavin said, “your plan was inspired, and it worked even better than I expected.”

Commander Carver, Commander Kalborne, and Captain Gavin were sitting in his office after listening to all the reports.

“Thank you, sir. It worked better than even I expected. It actually worked too well.”

“Yes, congratulations, Commander,” Kalborne said. “Uh, too well?”

“I hoped we could plant enough indecision in their minds that they would leave, but I expected a bit more resistance. I fear now that it might not have been my plan that worked so well.”

“Explain,” Gavin said.

“Well, sir, they left without even firing a shot at our Marines as we fortified the positions in the corridors.”

“They believed they were about to be overrun by a brigade of Marines,” Kalborne said.

“Perhaps,” Eliza said. “And perhaps not.”

“What makes you doubt their motivation?” Gavin asked.

“It’s simply that they were able to clear out so quickly. It seems like they were already leaving before we began sending our phony communication messages.”

“We should be able to verify that easily enough,” Gavin said. Tapping a point on his viewpad, he said, “Com, I want to review the records from the cameras in the three Gate rooms where the Denubbewa made their stand. Begin with the time one hour before our company of Marines first left this ship and include a timestamp on the images. Send that to my office system so I have control over the playback. Gavin out.

“Okay, Eliza, we’ll have that in a few minutes. While we wait, tell us what you suspect. I know you well enough to know there must be something other than the rapidity of the departure on your mind.”

“Uh, yes, sir. I realize this wasn’t intentional or avoidable, but I suspect we’ve allowed the Denubbewa to learn information we’ve wanted to keep secret. I suspect that the new information was responsible for them beginning to leave long before our little gambit began.”

“You have our full attention,” Gavin said, “Continue. What new information?”

“Well, sir, when the Alamo needed to leave the base to contact us and was prevented from doing do because the Denubbewa had gotten control of the port’s doors, they built a double envelope and left the base without needing to have the door open.”

“Oh, good Lord!” Kalborne said. “This is my fault?”

“No, Commander. As I said, it wasn’t intentional or even avoidable. You had to get a ship out of the base to contact us so we could locate you and come help. This is not a criticism of your actions.”

“So you’re saying,” Gavin asserted, “that when the Alamo initiated the double envelope process, the Denubbewa were watching.”

“It’s merely a speculation, sir, but to the eyes of anyone or anything that happened to be watching a port monitor, the ship would have seemed to simply disappear. So that was evidence we had special capabilities the Denubbewa had previously been unaware of. And when the Alamo returned, then left again and we arrived, I imagine the Denubbewa couldn’t report that information back to their command fast enough. So, from having heard after our arrival here that the Denubbewa were arriving in the booths every several minutes, we know there’s a lag in the transfer time that prevents them from amassing troops as quickly as we originally believed. And, therefore, it should take just as long to evacuate. Ipso facto, the cyborgs must have begun leaving before we even began our operation.”

Captain Gavin’s viewpad beeped once to indicate that his requested information was ready. He activated the large monitor on the wall facing his desk and began to play the file. The timestamp showed that the images started one hour before the company of Marines left the Ares. Gavin pressed a contact point on the viewpad and an image of a Gate room appeared. As they watched, three cyborgs arrived every several minutes. The arrivals then left the Personnel CJ Gate and joined others in the Gate room, packing themselves in as tightly as possible.

“It’s like I said,” Kalborne noted, “the cyborgs seemed to be bringing as many as possible in and massing for an attack.”

“It appears that way,” Gavin said.

The trio of officers continued to watch as cyborgs arrived exactly three minutes and forty-one seconds following the previous arrivals. Seventeen minutes and thirty-six seconds into the process, a cyborg entered the room and walked to the Personnel CJ Gate where he pressed several touch spots on the outside display panel. When the cyborg turned around for several seconds, the three Space Command officers were able to see that it had three blue dots on its forehead, indicating that it was a mid-level supervisor cyborg.

Two minutes and eighteen seconds later, the booth beeped several times. The cyborg with the blue dots on its forehead entered the Personnel CJ Gate and pressed several contact points on the interior display panel to enter data. A second later, the booth flashed and the cyborg was gone.

Seven minutes and three seconds passed without any arrivals. Then a single cyborg appeared in the booth. He stepped out and stood as still as a statue for a few seconds. Only one blue dot was visible on his forehead. He stepped aside to allow three of the cyborgs who had arrived last to reenter the Personnel CJ Gate. One of them touched the display panel inside the booth and waited. Seconds later, the three cyborgs disappeared in a flash of light. Three more cyborgs then entered the Personnel CJ Gate and likewise disappeared after three minutes and forty-one seconds. Then, every three minutes and forty-one seconds, three more cyborgs left the Gate room via the booth.

Gavin shifted to a different Gate room and watched a similar event take place with respect to arrivals and departures. The only difference was that no supervisor cyborg entered the room and traveled via the Gate. Apparently, the cyborgs all received instructions to leave after the one cyborg had arrived through the Gate where the supervisor left.

“It appears your theory was correct, Eliza,” Gavin said. “They were already leaving before we began our little show of force.”

“I wish I wasn’t correct.”

“It’s all my fault,” Commander Kalborne said.

“Stop that, Kalborne,” Gavin said. “It wasn’t your fault. If you hadn’t sent the Alamo out to contact us, we’d still be hunting for this new base light-years from here. We can deal with this. It was bound to happen sooner or later. And they don’t really know what happened. They only saw our ships disappear. They don’t know it’s part of our incredible light-speed travel capability or even that we can travel almost thirty times faster than they can.”

“Learning even a small amount about the phase shift means they’ll have a new mission,” Eliza said. “They’ll want to learn how we did what we did. The one advantage I can see in all this is that they’ll probably suspend all invasion plans while they try to discover our out-of-phase secrets. It might give us a bit more time to prepare for them before they initiate a massive invasion of ships and cyborgs. The downside is that they’re going to be working on ways to detect our presence when we’re out of phase. If they manage that, they’ll know when we’re surveilling them and when we begin our bombing runs on their ships.”

“At this moment in time,” Gavin said, “I’m grateful for a bit of a respite. We need to get these bases secured and occupied by our forces. We need to learn every square centimeter of the base layout, how everything operates, where to go first to find the cause when something stops working, and how to prevent deliberate sabotage.”

~     ~     ~

“Whadda ya think?” PFC Rayan Purdis asked the Marine on his right, Cpl. Petrice Whilobby.

“About what?” she asked.

“About that,” he said, pointing with his chin as they sat on the deck against the wall across from the Gate they were guarding.

“I’m trying not to.”

“I’d like to attach a detonator to a chunk of Corplastizine and toss it in.”

“Are you crazy?”

“I wouldn’t really do it. I’m only thinking how great it would feel.”

“You’d destroy the opportunity of a lifetime in order to feel good for a moment?”

“Opportunity of a lifetime? What are you talking about?”

“Don’t you know what that is?”

“Yeah, it’s some sort of an entry portal for Denubbewa cyborgs.”

“Wrong! It’s a gateway to the universe.”

“What universe?”

“There’s only one universe, numb-nuts.”

“Uh, yeah, I know that. I thought you were talking, uh, figuratively. Like with different universes for the Denubbewa, the Terrans and the other G.A. species. Whadda ya mean by gateway?”

“Just imagine for a second that you could travel anywhere in the entire universe in an instant.” She snapped her fingers in emphasis.

“Impossible.”

“Not with that booth because that’s exactly what it lets you do. That’s what ‘gateway’ means.”

“How do you know that?”

“I overheard a couple of officers talking about it. They said Space Command still has no idea where the Denubbewa come from. They could even be coming from another galaxy. Can you imagine? You step into a booth like that one in another galaxy and a few seconds later you step out here.”

“Bullshit!”

“Then where do you think those cyborgs came from? And how did they leave here?”

“I don’t know! And that bothers me.”

“Is your family from Earth?”

“No. We’re from Sebastian. My great, great, great, great, grandparents emigrated from Earth after they were married.”

“How long did it take them to get to Sebastian?”

“My dad once told me they spent four years in a spaceship for the trip.”

“Four years. Do you know how long it would take now in a GSC transport ship?”

“I don’t know.”

“About four days.”

“Yeah, well, the ships are a lot faster now.”

“Do you know how long it would take to get to Sebastian from here, right now?”

“Uh, in a GSC ship, about three months, I guess.”

“How would you like to step into that booth and be home on Sebastian in fifteen seconds?”

“You’re crazy.”

“No, I’m serious.”

“That’s not possible.”

“But traveling from Earth to Sebastian in four days is possible?”

“Well, yeah. We know that’s possible.”

“So is traveling from here to Sebastian in fifteen seconds, if you use that booth.”

“Really? Fifteen seconds? Wow. I could go home when I get liberty instead of just getting drunk.”

“Yes, you could.”

“Uh, do you know how to work it?”

“Me? Hell, no.”

“Who do you think does?”

“Well, I’d wager a year’s pay that the XO could figure it out, if she had the time.”

“Commander Carver is super smart. If anyone can do it, she can.”

“If she had the time. But in the GSC, XOs work harder than anyone else aboard ship. The captain has the most responsibility, has to make all the tough calls, and takes the heat whenever anything goes wrong, but the XO’s work duties never end.”

“Who else then?”

“Maybe a few of the engineering officers. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. They’ll never let us use it. I sure would love to go home though. I haven’t seen Earth since I completed basic training eight years ago.”

“Are you going to leave the Corps when your enlistment time is up in two years?”

“Leave the Corps? Never. This is my home. And all of you are my family.”

“How about you, Sitwell?” Purdis asked, addressing one of the other two fire team members. “Would you like to be home in fifteen seconds?”

“Who wouldn’t? But there’s no way I’m gonna step into that thing— unless I’m ordered to.”

“Clark?”

“Ditto for me. There’s no way I’m getting into that thing without orders. One little glitch and poof, you’re gone forever. Even if you don’t find yourself floating out in space somewhere, imagine suddenly finding yourself in another galaxy, surrounded by cyborgs.”

“I’d like to try it,” Purdis said.

“A few minutes ago you wanted to toss a hunk of Corplastizine into it.”

“A guy can change his mind.”

“Yeah, well just don’t go near that thing while I’m part of the same fire team. I don’t intend to spend a month in the brig for being an accessory to your stupidity. If you want to be a lab rat, I’ll tell the Sarge you’ve volunteered to take the first trip.”

“Hold on. I never said the first trip.”

~     ~     ~

“The cyborgs tried to activate the self-destruct mechanism while they were aboard the base,” Gavin said to Eliza during their morning briefing a few days later. “Our engineers have confirmed they made several attempts. Fortunately, our people had deleted the old computer instructions and installed a new set of programs consistent with the systems used aboard all of our ships. Also, our engineers have included a hardware requirement that the individual trying to initiate the process must have a CT or ID chip recognized by the system, and the individual must be authorized to initiate the self-destruct. Without that, the computer completely ignores them.”

“Were their efforts made before or after they began their evacuation?”

“After,” Gavin said, with a curious expression. “Does it matter?”

“Yes, sir. If it was before, then they never intended to occupy the ship for long. If it was after, then the goal all along had been to commandeer the ship, and they only sought to destroy it when they were unable to take it over.”

“You think they might not have intended to fully occupy this base as a mothership?”

“As we attempt to understand their motives and methods, we must consider all possibilities.”

“What possible reason could they have for trying to take the base if they never planned to use it?”

“In the absence of supporting information, I’d have to assume they intended only to deprive us of a valuable defensive platform in this part of Region Three. That would seem to justify the hundreds of cyborgs they lost in the attempt.”












Chapter Nine

~ April 27th, 2292 ~

“Good morning, Jen,” Admiral Holt’s image said from the large monitor that faced her office desk.

“Good morning, Brian. You look a bit— troubled.”

“Yes and no. I’ve just learned what happened to the CPO who disappeared from Lorense-Four. Larry Gavin sent me a vidMail with the information. Very soon after he disappeared from his assignment here, the chief showed up at the base where Christa is the temporary administrator. About a month ago, as Christa and a small team were exploring the new base, they stepped into one of the rooms where a Personnel CJ Gate was located. They didn’t know what it was at the time, but as they stood looking at the booth, the interior suddenly illuminated with a bright, white light, then dimmed to normal light levels. Someone in an EVA suit— someone who hadn’t been there seconds earlier— was then observed standing in the booth.”

“Our CPO I take it.”

“Exactly. The cyborg that SCI reprogrammed to work for us was part of Christa’s team exploring the new space station at the time. His internal chronometer is set to G.A. time, and according to Larry’s report, the CPO actually appeared in the booth at the new base eleven seconds after a flash was recorded by a yard shuttle in orbit at the reclamation yard there. The flash came from the vicinity of where the chief was examining a Personnel CJ Gate. It wasn’t discovered until they began checking all logs while looking for clues to his disappearance.”

“Is he healthy?”

“The doctors aboard the Koshi have reported he appears to be in perfect health.”

“Perfect health? No lingering aftereffects such as dizziness or difficulty sleeping?”

“Perfect health.”

“So then it would appear the CJ Gates are suitable for Terran travel.”

“Did you have doubts?”

“Not doubts, exactly,” Jenetta said. “Just concerns. The cyborgs are mostly machines, after all. And their brains are encased in a sealed metal container. Knowing that the CJ Gates aren’t deadly to biological beings is— important. It means that we might actually be able to adapt them for our travel use. Until now, I was really only confident they could eventually be adapted for sending messages and inanimate matter instantly. I didn’t want to count on them for travel until we knew it was safe.”

“I’m sure a lot more testing will have to be done before we establish that conclusively.”

“Yes, but this is a positive first step. Did Larry have anything else to report?”

“Yes, he said Christa was deeply concerned that the Denubbewa might be able to use the CJ Gates to infiltrate our new bases. She sent him a message as soon as the CPO appeared on her base. In that message she suggested very strongly that he immediately deploy most of his Marines to the seven new bases so the fourteen Gate rooms in each base could be well guarded around the clock.”

“And did he follow that suggestion?”

“He reports that within the hour he had deployed as many Marines as he could spare to six of the seven bases. He said the Ares then brought several platoons to the base where Christa is the administrator. Upon his arrival, Christa briefed him and Eliza fully. And following that briefing he sent new orders to each of the other new bases, warning them of the threat from the booths and ordering them to build and install a camera and sensor unit designed by the Koshi engineering staff in every single Gate room and to monitor the Gate rooms continuously from either the bridge or engineering. Larry sent a copy of the construction specs with his message.”

“I take it that cyborgs haven’t appeared on the bases, or you would have mentioned that first.”

“No, no cyborgs,” Brian said. “At least not when the message was sent several weeks ago. It looks like they chose to concentrate their efforts here, but if their arrival at the stations was timed to agree with the arrival here, that might no longer be true.”

“Has Loretta made any progress with the Gate transponders?”

“No, not yet. Raymond sent a few of his top people from SCI to see if they could help. They say it’s like nothing they’ve ever seen before. That’s certainly no surprise. Loretta has provided them with a number of damaged transponder units removed from smashed Gate booths, and they’ve been disassembling them and trying to understand the component functions. Loretta also has them studying the notes our people made while learning about Gate construction from Sywasock. Hopefully, they can provide us with some answers soon. When I mentioned to Loretta that I’d be speaking to you about the CPO matter, she said she’d like you to call a closed executive season of the A.B. for sometime next week to discuss progress on the CJ Gate issues.”

“Which day?”

“Whatever works in the schedule.”

“I’ll schedule it for as soon as possible. You told Loretta about the CPO winding up in Region Three?”

“Of course. He’s part of her staff.”

“What did she say?”

“She was naturally surprised, and glad that he was safe and healthy. And I— sensed— a satisfaction on her part that the booths seem safe for travel by biological beings like Terrans.”

“Safe for Terran travel isn’t enough. We must understand exactly how the system works and know that our travel can’t be compromised by Denubbewa traveling at the same instant. There can be no chance that the signals could somehow intersect and be altered.”

~     ~     ~

“I’ve just received information from Quesann,” Captain Gavin said to the small group of senior officers and ship captains assembled in the conference room aboard the Ares. “As you know, the great distance separating us from Quesann means that all communications are weeks old because we’re limited by S-Band speeds. The message contains a warning that cyborgs may be able to use the CJ Gates in the stations and suddenly appear in our midst at any time. It would have been nice to receive that message the same day it was sent. Most importantly, the message includes proper procedures for deactivating the Gates by disconnecting both a transponder device and the power couplings. The procedures do no damage to the booths and they can be reactivated at any time in a matter of minutes. We’re ordered to deactivate all Gates until further notice. By now, all of the other space stations have received the message and begun deactivating their Gates. We can only hope that Quesann develops a procedure for using the Gates soon. Even if we can’t travel through them anytime soon, simply having instantaneous communications by sending a viewpad with a recorded message would have tremendous benefits.

“Since the last of the attacking cyborgs left this base, there’s been no indication they intend to return using the Gate booths, and in the daily reports I’ve been receiving, all seems well at the other bases. The ability to disconnect the transponder and power down the Gates will provide that extra layer of protection we’ve needed. As we all know, it’s one thing to be attacked from outside the base where we have defenses capable of repelling almost any attack and quite another to be attacked from within. We’ve been thinking of those cyborgs as mindless robots, but Admiral Carver wants us to remember that intelligent military strategists appear to be pulling the strings of these mechanical puppets. And those strategists don’t seem to mind wasting cyborgs if they believe it will wear us down and lead to our defeat.”

“Sir,” Commander Kalborne said, “have we learned why they chose to attack this base and ignore the others?”

“We’re speculating that the attack occurred here because, of all the former motherships, this base was the closest to Quesann. When the cyborgs got control of the ship’s envelope propulsion system, they immediately set a course that would have eventually brought this former mothership to Region Two. We believe Quesann was the target. There might be a different reason, but that’s the best we can come up with so far.

“Three destroyers will be arriving here within a few days. They represent the first warships to call this base their homeport. They will not patrol farther out than one day’s travel time until additional ships arrive, and there will always be at least one ship in port. The new base administrator is aboard one of the destroyers and he or she will accept responsibility for the base, relieving Commander Kalborne of that duty and allowing him to return his full attention to captaining the Ottawa. I don’t know who’s been named as administrator of this base, but they will certainly hold the rank of Captain and will serve a full duty tour of five years.”

“Will the Ottawa report to the new base commander or remain as part of your command, sir?” Kalborne asked.

“Given that we’re under sporadic but persistent attacks by a powerful alien race bent on arrogating this entire galaxy, or perhaps the universe, all ships other than the ones specifically assigned to the Base Protection Detail will report to me as the commanding officer of the Region Three taskforce. I may, at my discretion, temporarily assign ships to be part of the Base’s Protection Detail, but I will keep that to a minimum because we don’t know where we’ll be needed next. Once the three destroyers arrive at each of the new bases, all other ships will resume patrol duties. The ships still assigned to security at the former battle site will continue to guard that area against thieves and predators until all of the salvageable and hazardous material has been collected and transported to Lorense-Four. Any other questions?”

“When can we disconnect power from the three active booths here on the base, sir?” Major Lee asked.

“It’s already being done. Commander Carver has assigned an engineering team to each of the three booths that have been reported as still operational. When they complete that task, they’ll examine the eleven booths that were deactivated in the early hours of the attempted takeover and disconnect the power supplies to those booths.”

“Is that even necessary, sir?” Lee asked. “I regret that we had to damage them if Space Command intended to make use of them in the future, but my people did a real number on them. They aren’t useable.”

“You did what you had to do, Major. No one blames you for damaging the booths. It was necessary to prevent the cyborgs from bringing additional forces into our base. The reason for the engineering teams being assigned to disconnect the power to those eleven booths is that we’ve learned that the booths report their location twice each day. This means the Denubbewa are probably able to track our position with that information. As we begin the voyage back to where the base was located before the takeover, we want to ensure that the Denubbewa don’t have any idea where we are. Once all Personnel CJ Gates are disconnected, the rooms will be sealed to prevent anyone from entering and possibly reactivating a booth. And once the rooms are sealed, there will be no further need for Marine sentries at the doors. All Gate rooms still have the cameras and sensors we installed there so they can be monitored should movement be detected in the room.”

“Couldn’t we just disconnect the booths from the antenna on the exterior surface of the base?”

“They’re not connected to the exterior antenna array. Quesann has learned a great deal about the booths, but there’s still much we don’t understand. We know the Dakinium hull doesn’t interfere with Gate travel, but we don’t understand how the signals are able to pass through it without being hindered in any way. In time, we’ll learn all the secrets and then we’ll be able to use this new technology to our advantage. But first we have to show the Denubbewa that attacking us was the biggest mistake they’ve made in the thousands of years they’ve reportedly been conquering nations far less powerful than their own.”

~     ~     ~

“I wanted to brief you on the findings and speculations of the teams researching the transponder devices associated with the CJ Gates,” Admiral Plimley said to the members of the A.B. meeting in closed executive season a few days later. “By studying damaged units from destroyed booths, we’ve been able to construct precision engineering documents so we can begin manufacturing our own at any time. However, we shouldn’t really do that until we’re sure we won’t be opening a door the Denubbewa can enter at will. As we witnessed recently around Lorense-Four, they’ll exploit any Gate they can contact. However, a full and complete understanding of the operation of the equipment still eludes us. The language used by the Gate transponders is the original Locculo. We really have no idea who the Locculo were, where their territory was located, or anything about their language, so we’re working to reverse-engineer the instruction set.

“With the invaluable help of the scientist cyborgs working with us, we’ve developed a working hypothesis regarding the system operation. It appears that the transponder units installed in the Gates are capable of self-identifying their location in this galaxy. That’s not a difficult task. The tiny satellites long used by SCI to monitor traffic and communications in areas under observation and report back to their HQ have that same capability. The SCI satellites can even move slightly to maintain their assigned location or a revised location as needed. Sywasock believes that when Denubbewa ships arrive in new sectors of space, they immediately begin seeding tiny satellites that act as collection points for the data being transmitted by any nearby transponders. The data is then transmitted to a master satellite via a minute artificial wormhole close to their base of operations. The new data then updates the previous information in a master computer. Sywasock believes the galaxy is filled with these tiny satellites, giving the Denubbewa an amazing network that’s protected against malfunctions and enemy attacks through redundancy because there are always other satellites to accept and transmit all received data. The Denubbewa therefore have the ability to maintain contact with all stationary CJ Gates on a planet and all operational Gates on ships. This is important because the wormholes require a specific direction for transmission and acknowledgement by the receiving unit.

“We’ve learned that in support of this operation, the booths report their location every eleven hours, sixteen minutes, and thirty-eight seconds. This ensures the system always has an approximate location for the Gates. When a jump is initiated, the system first establishes contact between both locations. Once the two Gates are in contact and have completed what’s called ‘handshaking,’ the transfer process can begin. Both ‘send’ and ‘receive’ Gates become interlocked until the transmission is complete. It’s an excellent system design, and accidents are minimized.”

“Clever,” Admiral Woo said.

“Yes, Lon,” Admiral Plimley said.

“And necessary if they’re to effectively send their cyborgs to any ship or Gate instantaneously,” Admiral Holt said.

“Yes,” Admiral Plimley said.

“So if Sywasock is correct,” Jenetta said, “finding one or two of those tiny satellites and destroying them wouldn’t interfere with their use of Gates and the movement of cyborgs?”

“No, apparently not,” Admiral Plimley said. “We’ll have to establish our own network of satellites with encrypted access codes and a unique instruction set if we’re to establish a CJ Gate system in G.A. space that prevents the Denubbewa from gaining access while ensuring they can’t interfere with our transfers.”

“It should probably have a randomizing code that changes occasionally,” Jenetta said. “Do we know if the Denubbewa code system is static or if it changes?”

“We don’t know— yet. We’ll know once we crack the Locculo instruction set. The number of Gates available to us means that we can prepare a great number of tests to discover which code is best. I’m just leery about using them for testing until we have a secure place because we don’t want the Denubbewa popping in while we’re testing.”

“We can test them inside a Dakinium bunker, can’t we?” Admiral Burke asked.

“No, Raymond,” Admiral Plimley said. “CJ Gate wormholes occur in subspace, so they pass through Dakinium just as easily as neutrinos pass through it.”

“So where do we perform the tests?” Admiral Yuthkotl asked.

“I can think of one place that’s safe,” Jenetta said.

“Tell us,” Admiral Plimley said.

“Lorense-Four. We simply seal a few of those wrecked hulls the cyborgs were working on to make them airtight. It’s unlikely the Denubbewa will return to that location after learning there was no advantage to being in a gravity-free sea of rubbish. And if they do, we simply pick up where we were before they left.”

“What happens if the Denubbewa send an explosive device through the Gate instead of sending cyborgs?” Admiral Bradlee asked.

“We’ll have to ensure that no personnel are in the area while testing.”

Silence fell over the room as everyone thought about Jenetta’s proposal. After a minute of complete quiet she said, “Well, let’s think about it. I guess that’s all for today. We’ll conduct a regular A.B. meeting tomorrow. Before we end this meeting, is there anything else to be discussed in a closed session?”

“I have something I’d like to mention,” Admiral Holt said. “I received a vidMail from Captain Gavin this morning. He’s left the station where Commander Christa Carver is performing as temporary administrator, and the Ares is proceeding to the station where Commander Burl Kalborne has been assigned as temporary administrator. After Larry learned of the potential danger of a Denubbewa attack from the Gates, he immediately sent messages to all temporary administrators and ordered them to file daily reports. When he sent the vidMail to me, he hadn’t yet received any reports from Kalborne.”

“None?” Jenetta asked.”

“None when he sent the message, but that was a month ago.”

“So it might simply have been a time-lag problem owing to the distance between the two new bases.”

“That might be the case, but he’s concerned.”

“That’s understandable. Since the distance from Christa’s base to Kalborne’s base is about three days at Marc-One, we should know shortly.”

“Yes.”

“Okay. Anything else? Anyone?”

After making eye contact with everyone, Jenetta said, “Then this closed executive session is over. I’ll see all of you tomorrow at the regular A.B. meeting.”

Admiral Holt was last in the line funneling out the door. Before exiting the room, he stopped and returned to where Jenetta was sitting. The office doors closed when the sensor detected no one queued to leave.

“Something else, Brian?” Jenetta asked

“I didn’t want to alarm the others, but I’m really concerned about the bases because of the attack we endured at Lorense-Four. Commander Kalborne is a ‘by the book’ officer, and if he was able, he would have filed the daily reports.”

“Yes, but the distance might really be the problem. It depends on when Larry sent the orders for them to report on a daily basis.”

“And if the Denubbewa have actually attacked Kalborne’s base, what do we do?”

“Larry is in command of every SC ship in that part of space. You’ve deployed three destroyers to each of the new bases as the first steps in building a Base Protection Detail. They should be arriving at the bases shortly, and Larry has the authority to assign them where needed if he feels reassignments are necessary. What more can we do until we know the situation?”

“You’re right, Jen. It’s just so damn frustrating trying to manage a territory as large as Region Three without having faster communication that allows us to keep one step ahead of the Denubbewa.”

“The Denubbewa are unlike any race we’ve encountered before. I don’t know if we’ll ever be one step ahead of them.”

“You don’t mean that, do you?”

Jenetta shrugged. “Have we been ahead of them even once so far?”

“We did destroy the motherships they were building in Region Two.”

“We found them by accident, not because we expected to find them there. The same holds true with the fleet we recently destroyed. We were reacting to an existing threat, not awaiting their arrival.”

“So how do we get ahead of them?”

“I don’t know— yet. I guess we just have to keep dancing with them until we find an edge too enormous for them to overcome.”

“And if we don’t, Jen?”

“Then we keep responding to their threats until one or the other of us gives up, or is dead.”

“Well, it won’t be us.”

“I feel the same way, although I’m confident their response would be the same.”

~     ~     ~

“You look tired, dear,” Annette Carver said to her daughter as Jenetta entered the nursery with Cayla and Tayna. “Rough day?”

“They’re all rough lately, Momma.”

“That’s too bad. Oh, I received a vidMail from your father today.”

“Wonderful. What did Daddy say?”

“Just small talk mostly. He sends his love to everyone, of course. But he added something I didn’t understand.”

“Oh? And what was that?”

“He told me not to worry because he’s safe. He says there have been no attacks in his sectors. What attacks was he referring to, dear?”

“Oh, it’s just another day in Space Command, Momma. Daddy is perfectly safe. Everything is normal. Don’t worry about it.”

“Mommy, Mommy,” Jenetta heard as Kaycee and Kyle ran towards her with Ruby and Jake close behind. The twins would be celebrating their third birthdays in a few months, and while still a bit unsteady on their feet at times, it seemed that they never walked when they could run. Ruby and Jake were always alongside or behind them to protect them and keep them from getting into trouble.

“Hello, my darlings,” Jenetta said with an enormous smile as she knelt down to hug her children.

“Hi, Jenetta,” Jake and Ruby said in unison.

“Hi, Jake. Hi, Ruby. Did you have a fun day today?” Jenetta asked as she stood up, holding the twins in her arms.

“Oh, yes,” Ruby said. “We played hide-and-seek and a bunch of other games with Kaycee and Kyle. We can’t wait until they’re big enough to play out in the gardens so we can teach them some of the things Momma’s taught us.”

Jenetta smiled. She could imagine Ruby and Jake teaching Kyle and Kaycee how to sneak up on prey before pouncing on their quarry as they snarled menacingly.

As Jenetta sat down with her children, Cayla and Tayna sat down with Ruby and Jake to perform a little interpersonal grooming. It was one of the things the Jumakas had in common with felines on Earth. Since they could converse in either Amer or their native language, Cayla and Tayna were able to hear about everything the four playmates had done throughout the day.

The family scene played out every evening, but there was one thing missing. There were no males in the household. Jenetta naturally missed Hugh, her husband, but the weekly and sometimes twice weekly exchange of vidMails helped considerably. Kaycee and Kyle were always on her lap when vidMails were made or received. Cayla and Tayna also sent vidMails to their spouses and other children once or twice a week, and they were always excited when a vidMail arrived from Obotymot for them. Jenetta had promised the four Jumaka parents that they would all get together on Quesann now that the cubs were old enough to act like mature adults— most of the time. Even their parents still enjoyed racing around the grounds occasionally and playing Jumaka games in the gardens.

Having enjoyed an exhausting day of fun and games with Jake and Ruby, Kaycee and Kyle were content to rest quietly in their mother’s arms— for about fifteen minutes. Just as they were beginning to get a bit restless, Celona, the Nordakian nanny, entered the nursery and announced that dinner was ready to be served. She took Kyle from Jenetta as everyone headed towards the dining room.

Following dinner, the clan collected in the family room on the third floor. Kyle and Kaycee resumed play with Jake and Ruby as Celona looked on and Jenetta conversed with her mother. When it was bedtime for the twins, Celona took them down the hall to the nursery. Ruby and Jake naturally followed along. The two young Jumakas took their roles as playmates and protectors seriously and were rarely very far from the children. Normally, the children were only out of the young Jumakas’ sight when Jenetta arrived home and came to the nursery to be with the children. They were then free to spend a short time racing around outside the house and playing a few slightly rough games they could never play with the children.

At bedtime, Celona always took the children to the nursery, with the four Jumakas following along. Jenetta and her mother usually took some time to talk about the day before heading to the nursery themselves.

When the menagerie had left the family room and the door was closed, Annette turned towards her daughter and said, “Okay, dear. Everyone is out of earshot. Now tell me what’s really going on. Your father would never have mentioned he was safe if the threat of danger wasn’t significant.”

“It’s nothing, Momma.”

“Okay, it’s nothing. Now tell me why your father thinks it’s something.”

Jenetta smiled at her mother before saying, “Okay, here it is. Brian Holt issued a Level-Five alert a few months ago.”

“A Level-Five? That’s the highest alert level there is. What happened?”

“You know we’ve been using Lorense-Four as a reclamation area for the Denubbewa ships we’ve destroyed?”

“Yes.”

“Well, it seems a large number of undamaged Denubbewa cyborgs emerged from the wreckage. They attacked some of our yard workers and presented a threat. Brian felt that an alert was called for. We managed to contain them and destroy them before they could threaten any of our ships or Quesann. The threat level is back at One again. That’s all. There’s nothing to worry about, but when a Level-Five alert goes out, it’s sent to all vessels and bases, so the First Fleet also received the alert notification even though there was never any danger there.”

“So there’s no more danger here?”

“I would tell you if there was. The alert has been cancelled and everything is back to normal here.”

“But it’s not normal everywhere?”

“As I said when I arrived home, things are normal. Space Command is always alert to new dangers throughout the entirety of Galactic Alliance space, but as far as I know at this moment, things are normal— everywhere.”












Chapter Ten

~ May 1st, 2292 ~

“It’s been almost two months since the Denubbewa disappeared from the Lorense-Four reclamation piles,” Jenetta said in a closed executive session of the A.B. “We know now, or at least strongly suspect, that their departure was owed to their having learned of our double-envelope technology. At almost the same time as they retreated from Lorense-Four, they terminated their attack and withdrew all forces from Highcap SCB, formerly known as Grumpy by the Ares-led taskforce because we hadn’t yet adopted official names. Our people there suspect that the cyborgs witnessed our ships entering and exiting Highcap SCB without first opening the port doors. Or the cyborgs might have learned through detection of one of the CPS-16s we used to collect intelligence updates within the scrap piles during the cyborg ship-rebuilding efforts. Although they might know of our ability to phase-shift our space vessels, which makes us able to pass through solid matter, it’s doubtful that the Denubbewa have any idea how we do it. And if that’s the case, they probably don’t know of our great speed advantage.

“Each of the seven bases has now been occupied by our forces and each are protected by three destroyers on permanent assignment to the base. Although the destroyer captains normally report directly to the base administrators, Captain Gavin has the authority to override the administrators’ orders and summon the destroyers in support of his operations, if absolutely necessary.

“The question uppermost in our minds has been when and where the Denubbewa will strike next. I learned the answer to that question this morning. I’ve received an urgent appeal for help from the Ruwalchu Confederacy, saying that cyborgs have invaded their space and destroyed at least half their Space Fleet to date. They say that cyborgs have landed on several of the worlds with limited population, not hesitating to kill anyone who resists. They’re beseeching us to help. The question I have now is this: Is this a fake message intended to draw our forces away from their assigned patrols and positions; is it a genuine emergency but it’s from the Denubbewa in an effort to distract our attention away from protecting the G.A. by drawing down our forces here; or is it a genuine plea for help from the Ruwalchu?”

“I thought it was the Ruwalch Confederacy,” Admiral Hillaire said.

“The home planet of the civilization is named Ruwalch, but all reference to the people or their territory is Ruwalchu. If you were talking about the atmosphere around the planet, it’s the Ruwalch atmosphere, but the government is the Ruwalchu Confederacy.”

“I see.”

“I realize it’s very confusing, and don’t worry if you use the wrong nomenclature. We’ll all know what you mean.”

“The Denubbewa might have decided that while they plan their next attack against us, they should take over all surrounding territories to use as bases of operations,” Admiral Holt said.

“Yes, I considered that, but with their wormhole technology, they don’t need to be near us to assemble their forces in our territory.”

“Perhaps they want to ensure that no one can come to our assistance,” Admiral Bradlee said.

“That’s possible, although our neighbors aren’t very much of a threat to the Denubbewa.”

“Perhaps it’s as Sywasock once said,” Admiral Ressler speculated. “They do it because they can.”

“Yes, that’s possible. So what do we do?”

“You approached the Ruwalchu Confederacy once and offered to establish diplomatic relations,” Admiral Woo said. “They had no interest in establishing friendly relations, but now they want us to come to their rescue.”

“Should we refuse to assist a neighbor in a fight against a common enemy who would delight in conquering both of us and who will come at us again when he feels ready simply because the neighbor rejected our overtures of friendship in the past?”

“No, Jen, you’re right,” Woo said. “We’re more powerful together than we would be fighting the Denubbewa separately.”

“If the Denubbewa have already destroyed the Ruwalchu Space Fleet, we won’t get much help in space,” Admiral Holt said, “but they can provide distractions on the ground.”

“How much of a force do you propose sending, Jen?” Admiral Ressler asked. “If this is a plot to drain our forces in preparation for a massive attack on us here, our fleet could be an additional five or six weeks away from our border when they attack.”

“I was thinking that we send the Ares battle group. The new bases are secure from an internal invasion via the CJ Gates, and each base has established their Distant Detect Grid. Now that each base has at least a basic warship-protection fleet in place, the entire Ares taskforce that attacked the first Denubbewa armada is available. From its present position near the far edge of our Region Three territory, they could cross into Ruwalchu space in little more than a week and arrive at Ruwalch within three weeks.”

“The battle group will have to be restocked with ordnance and food before they can depart, won’t it?” Admiral Burke said.

“All ships have already been provisioned and had their WOLaR ordnance resupplied,” Admiral Holt said. “Every available Quartermaster ship and Ship Transport vessel has been traveling out to the site of the Denubbewa battle to collect and return the scrap to Lorense-Four. On their outbound trips, the ships have been filled with supplies for the new bases. Once they’ve unloaded, the ships proceed to the site of the battle and fill their holds with scrap. Raihana assures me that everything the new bases need has already been sent, so by now, all six space stations and all the battle-group ships are ready for whatever action comes their way.”

“We know our warships are capable of destroying the Denubbewa motherships and warships with little danger to themselves,” Admiral Hillaire said, “so I believe we should undertake this mission. While it’s true that the Ruwalchu rejected our offer of diplomatic relations, that’s not a good reason to ignore their plea. I second Admiral Carver’s proposal that we send the Ares battle group to the Ruwalchu Confederacy with orders to destroy all Denubbewa vessels they discover there and to offer whatever other assistance is possible.”

“What about reclamation vessels?” Admiral Ressler asked. “Just as we can’t leave scrap in our territory because the Dakinium and CJ Gates might fall into the hands of scavengers, we can’t leave it in Ruwalchu territory either.”

“I think we can wait until we see what transpires there,” Jenetta said. “We can always assign a few CPS-16s to stand guard duty until a reclamation vessel can arrive.”

“I agree,” Admiral Holt said.

“Is there any more discussion?” Jenetta asked after a minute of silence.

When no one spoke up, Jenetta said, “All in favor of sending the Ares battle group to assist the Ruwalchu Confederacy in their fight against the Denubbewa, signify by saying ‘aye.’”

After everyone voted, Jenetta said, “It’s unanimous. Brian can send orders to Captain Gavin to proceed into the Ruwalchu Confederacy and destroy all Denubbewa vessels they find there. It will take roughly three weeks for the orders to reach the Ares. I sure wish we had a working Personnel CJ Gate.”

“Yes. Speaking of which, can we get an update on efforts to develop our own system?” Admiral Yuthkotl asked.

“We’re making progress,” Admiral Plimley said, "but it’s slow going. We’ve learned an enormous amount about wormhole physics since we first started, but there’s so much more we need to learn before we can hope to put the system into operation. The system must be so secure that there’s absolutely no chance the Denubbewa or anyone else can block or interfere with our transmissions. At the same time, we’re working on ways to block the Denubbewa system from working in G.A. space. We have successfully made a few small transfer tests with inanimate objects between Lorense-Three and our headquarters here. So far, our new system seems to be working perfectly, but there are no safeguards in place yet. And we must still seed CJ satellites throughout G.A. space before the system can be operational and dependable for everyday use.”

“So how long are we talking about?”

“A year— or maybe ten. We can’t quantify the unknown. We just don’t have the data yet. But what we have accomplished so far is promising— very promising.”

~     ~     ~

“Come,” Captain Gavin said when the annunciator system informed him that his XO, Commander Eliza Carver, was at his office door. Normally, the door would open for her whenever she approached it, but Gavin had just finished transmitting a response to a message from Quesann and he hadn’t wanted any distractions until he was done, unless he received a Priority-One message.

“I understand we’ve received a communication from Quesann, sir?” Eliza asked as she entered and took a seat next to the captain’s desk without being invited.

“Yes. We have a new mission.”

“Denubbewa?”

“Yes.”

“Local?”

“No. We’re heading for the Ruwalchu Confederacy.”

“Ruwalchu? They rejected our offer to establish diplomatic relations.”

“Well, they’ve changed their minds since the Denubbewa attacked.”

“I guess an invasion by superior hostile forces can do that.”

“Yes. According to Admiral Holt, they’re pleading for us to help them. The request said the Denubbewa had destroyed half of the entire Ruwalchu Space Fleet and cyborgs were landing on some planets.”

Were landing?”

“Well, the request is over two months old. It had to travel to Quesann, undergo discussion by the A.B., and then get sent to us after a decision was reached. I imagine that by now most of their fleet has been destroyed and the Denubbewa have landed on a lot more planets.”

“And what are our orders, sir?”

“Our orders state we are to enter the Ruwalchu Confederacy, along with most of the Scout-Destroyers and the dozens of CPS-16s assigned to them, and destroy every Denubbewa ship we see.”

“My kind of orders,” Eliza said with a smile. “Short and direct.”

“Mine too. I’m going to order Christa to stay behind in G.A. space. She’ll assume command of all taskforce ships remaining here and continue patrolling the border areas with unclaimed space until we return. Umm, you ever seen a Ruwalchu?”

“No, but Jenetta has. She says they have thick humanoid bodies with two spindly arms ending in eight fingers. They don’t have shoulders— exactly. Or definitive necks. Their torsos just narrow into a rather large head. They have no visible nasal cavity or nose, but they do have ears, a mouth, and two eyes. Jenetta has never met one in person, but she has communicated with them over a vid line.”

“They sound prettier than the Uthlaro. But their looks don’t matter. Let’s crank up the battle group and move out.”

“Which ships will be accompanying us, sir?”

“There’s a complete list in your computer queue.”

“Time to departure?”

“Let’s see—,” Gavin said, looking up at the chronometer on the bulkhead. “It’s fourteen thirty-two, so we’ll move out at twenty hundred hours. That’ll give everyone time to recover any engineers who might be performing maintenance outside their ships and stow all gear.”

“Aye, sir. We deploy at twenty hundred hours. Our destination is the Ruwalchu Confederacy, and our orders are to destroy all Denubbewa ships we encounter.”

~     ~     ~

“Good morning, Jen,” Admiral Plimley said. “Welcome to our first real test of the Space Command CJ Gate system.”

Real test?” Jenetta echoed.

“Don’t worry, we’re not sending a sentient lifeform. We’ve been successful with single-cell organisms and insects, so now we’re advancing to a higher lifeform.”

“How high?”

“Small rodents. Specifically, two mice— a black one and a white one from the SC Research Facility on Quesann. Both are healthy specimens. If the test appears to be successful, we’ll return the mice to the facility afterwards and they’ll determine if the mice are in the same prime condition as when we received them this morning.”

“This booth looks exactly like the ones from the Denubbewa ships. I thought you were working on a revised configuration for our booths?”

“Actually, this is one of the Denubbewa booths. We’ve recovered an enormous quantity of them, so using their booths saved us time and effort during this initial testing stage. However, the Gate is completely different where it counts, such as the new power supply we’ve designed and all of the control circuitry. The computer that drives each Personnel CJ Gate is ten times faster than the one the Denubbewa use, and the operating system is as different as night and day.”

“Does that make the travel faster?”

“No, we use the same wormhole science, but our computer system allows us to incorporate more checks and safeguards. Once someone initiates contact with our Personnel CJ Gate, it rejects attempted contact from all other sources until the transfer is complete. If the incoming transfer doesn’t take place within two minutes, the Personnel CJ Gate alerts the sending booth that the transfer should not be initiated, but it waits another full minute before actually canceling the transfer and proceeding to the next caller in the queue. We’re doing everything possible to ensure that all travelers arrive safely.”

“Does the person or object being transferred bounce from satellite to satellite on the way to its destination?”

“No. We track the location of booths in the system via the satellites, but the individual or object travels directly from departure point to destination via an independent wormhole transfer in subspace because by then the exact locations of the sending and receiving booths have been established by the satellite communication system.”

“So the location signals never travel by wormhole?” Jenetta asked.

“Yes and no. There are two different formats that can be used in a signal, and they aren’t mutually exclusive. The Personnel CJ Gate first sends a query signal to the satellite in closest proximity to the Gate, which then forwards that signal to the nearest master satellite. Now, there may be half a dozen satellites in orbit about a densely populated planet, and the signal may travel through several until it gets a clear path to a master satellite. To this point, the signals are S-Band. There’s only one active master satellite in a solar system. We’ll have backups available in case something happens to the master, but they’ll have to be activated by a technician only after determining that the previous master is out of commission. If the transfer is being sent to another location in the same solar system, the master forwards the signal without involving a second master. In that case, no wormhole is opened as part of the handshaking process.

“If the transfer involves a destination outside the solar system, the signal is forwarded to another master. All signals from a master satellite to another master satellite are transmitted via a miniature wormhole and take just seconds to reach the master satellite closest to the final destination, regardless of the distance within G.A. space. The second master satellite then communicates with a satellite closest to the receiving CJ Gate using S-Band, and that satellite communicates with the destination CJ Gate. It took me longer to explain it than it takes to send a signal from here to where the Ares battle group is right now. When all of the handshaking is complete, a wormhole path has been identified and is about to be established directly from the sending booth to the receiving booth. The handshaking is required to guarantee the safety of the traveler. The actual travel will take place in the blink of an eye and far faster than the preparation activity.”

“When the cyborgs were invading Highcap SCB, a new group of three was reportedly appearing in each of the booths every few minutes. Do you think that indicates they were coming from a very great distance?”

“It was more likely owed to the ancient computer hardware in the booths. As I’ve reported, our new computer hardware is ten times faster than the hardware we replaced. That means the handshaking process can be completed significantly faster than before and additional travel to the same destination can be processed much quicker.”

A lieutenant commander entered the room and said, “We’re ready to conduct the test, Admiral.”

“Proceed.”

“Aye, Admiral.” The officer touched his Space Command Ring and said, “Commence the test.”

Several seconds later the Personnel CJ Gate booth glowed brightly, then immediately dimmed to a normal light level. On the floor of the booth was a small cage with two mice inside. Both mice seemed extremely agitated and scurried around the cage for fifteen or twenty seconds before calming down.

“It looks like it was successful, Jen,” Admiral Plimley said when the lieutenant commander picked up the small cage and held it out for the two women to see the mice. “We’ll let the folks over at the RF check them out and tell us if the condition of the mice is the same as when they loaned the pair to us this morning. Tell them we want a top-to-bottom checkup, Commander. Each test after this one is going to be increasingly important as we move towards transferring sentient beings.”

“Are you sure the actual transfer process is identical to that of the Denubbewa transfer, Loretta?”

“As far as I know, the actual transfer part of the process is identical in every way. We’ve added frontend and backend computer safeguards to ensure that our signals can’t be compromised, we’ve upgraded the electronics to speed the transfer of preparation and verification steps, and changed the power supply as we’ve discussed previously rather than using the ancient model developed by the Locculo. But the actual wormhole transfer process is identical.”

“Wonderful. You and your people have done an excellent job so far, Loretta. I’m really looking forward to the day we can put the system into actual operation. Tell me, would it be possible to send a signal using the same basic process but without a physical transfer between the CJ Gates?”

“I don’t see why not. But what’s the point of establishing a Personnel CJ Gate connection if you’re not going to send something?”

“I was thinking of sending something— just not a physical form.”

“Not a physical form?” Admiral Plimley said. The perplexed look on her face slowly turned into a smile. “You’re thinking of a wormhole communications system again, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“It’s definitely possible, and our people have discussed it among themselves. But we can’t accomplish that until we have the satellite network in place. It’s strange that the Denubbewa ships don’t have such a communication system.”

“Perhaps they prefer direct-contact reporting. All their commanders have to do is step into a booth and they can be back at their headquarters in minutes. We had a report from Highcap SCB that a supervisor cyborg entered a booth shortly before our Marines were set to attack the three CJ Gate rooms the cyborgs held. A different cyborg returned about seven minutes later and then the cyborgs began to evacuate the base. So perhaps communications are only made during face-to-face contact.”

“I suppose. And it ensures that no one can intercept messages that contain vital and strategic information.”

“Yes. But however they choose to handle their communications is aside from the issue we’re discussing. As much as I want the CJ Gate booths to be operational and available, of far more importance to us right now are timely communications. I know you and your staff are spread really thin, and we’re making every effort to find qualified people to expand your teams, but perhaps you could assign a couple of people to look into merging the wormhole capability into our communications system.”

Admiral Plimley sighed before saying, “I’ll see what we can do, Jen. I can’t promise any more than that right now.”

“I know, Loretta. And thanks. We’re fortunate and most grateful to have someone with your intelligence and dedication to the Galactic Alliance in such a key position.”

~     ~     ~

“We only have basic star charts for the Ruwalchu Confederacy,” Captain Gavin said to the assembled Space Command officers, “although they do have references that point to all of the occupied planets.” The captain and first officer of every Scout-Destroyer and CPS that would enter Ruwalchu space occupied a seat in the large meeting hall aboard the battleship. Gavin was giving the initial presentation and would announce the overall mission objectives. Then, Commander Eliza Carver would take over and announce the specific assignments for all ships. The battle group had halted roughly one light-year from the Ruwalchu border to make the final preparations before entering the foreign nation.

“The Ruwalchu Confederacy has appealed to the G.A. and Space Command for help. According to the message the Admiralty Board received, the Ruwalchu Space Fleet has been completely destroyed and the Denubbewa are now attempting to subdue the population. We all know what that means— the Denubbewa are preparing to turn them all into cyborgs. We don’t know how long it will take the Denubbewa to complete the medical investigation and develop the proper transition procedure for the Ruwalchu brain physiology, but we’re confident the Denubbewa are already experimenting. Once they refine the process, they’ll begin converting the entire population as quickly as possible. Our entrance into Ruwalchu space is intended to stop that from happening. We should maintain a double envelope at all times. Never drop your double envelope until this fight is over unless it’s absolutely necessary to complete your mission. Following this meeting, each ship will head to its assigned territory, either independently or as part of a team. Once there, you will immediately destroy all Denubbewa ships in the tried-and-true method of depositing a WOLaR bomb inside each ship before moving on to the next target. Any questions?”

“What if there are Ruwalchu citizens aboard the Denubbewa ships, sir?”

“They are to be considered lost. We’ve established that once the Denubbewa take captives aboard their ships, they begin the transition process immediately. We can best serve the Ruwalchu Confederacy by destroying the enemy wherever and whenever we find them. Any other questions?”

When no one spoke up, Gavin said, “Okay. I’ll now turn this meeting over to Commander Carver. Good luck and good hunting.”

As Captain Gavin turned to leave the large meeting hall, the entire assembly jumped to their feet and braced to attention, then retook their seats as the corridor door closed behind him.












Chapter Eleven

~ June 22nd, 2292 ~

Captain Gavin was working in his office just off the bridge when he received a page on his CT. The computer advised him the call was from Commander Carver. It was second watch so she would be on the bridge. He touched his Space Command ring to make contact.

“Gavin.”

“Sir, we’ve reached a point one light year from the planet Ruwalch, and I’ve ordered the squadron to stop. Do you wish me to send in the scout vessel?”

“Affirmative, Eliza. Alert me as soon as they return with the data.”

“Aye, Captain. Carver out.”

“Gavin out.”

~     ~

Roughly three hours later, the CPS-16 sent to reconnoiter the area around the home world of the Ruwalchu Confederacy had returned and transmitted the images to the Ares via laser transmission signal. The scout had identified a Denubbewa mothership a few million kilometers from Ruwalch and two dozen warships in stationary orbit around the planet. A quick pass through the mothership showed over a hundred warships still inside the cavernous interior. The mothership was partially clad in Dakinium, but none of the Denubbewa warships appeared to have any Dakinium sheathing. While insufficient to hide the mothership from the DeTect system, the sheathing did reduce the overall return signal size, giving the impression of a much smaller ship until it was visible. Five WOLaR bombs dropped inside the mothership and one in each of the orbiting warships should ensure no Denubbewa survived the attack.

Each ship in the Ares squadron dropped its double envelope just long enough to launch a shuttle. The captains of the ships were making their way to a conference room where they would learn their ship’s role in the upcoming fight once Gavin and Eliza had established the attack plan.

“It’s a turkey shoot,” Eliza said as she and Captain Gavin viewed the recorded images on the large monitor in Gavin’s office.

“None of their ships are fully sheathed with Dakinium, and they’ve conveniently left most of their warships inside the mothership,” Gavin said in a low voice as if he was thinking aloud. “It’s too easy. The Denubbewa can’t be that obtuse. We just destroyed their armada in Region Three.”

“The Denubbewa may be aware we have no diplomatic agreements for mutual defense with the Ruwalchu and therefore believe we would never come here to help. We’ve never even established formal diplomatic contact with the Ruwalchu leaders. There was just that one time when Jenetta came here because a Ruwalchu warship was cruising around in Region Two. When she confronted the trespassing ship, the captain seemed eager to provoke a war.”

“Yes. But the Ruwalchu leader apologized and recalled the ship, blaming the incident on a senior military officer acting without permission.”

“But when Jenetta offered to establish a formal diplomatic relationship, they refused.”

“Yes,” Gavin said in agreement. “And we’ve had no contact until now. They had to be in a desperate position before they’d contact us.”

“Now that they need help, they call us.”

“It’s been my experience that it often works that way. But it’s an opportunity to strike a blow against the Denubbewa. Even if the Ruwalchu ask us to leave their space and not return when this is over, we have to do this because we’re doing it as much for ourselves as for the Ruwalchu people.” Standing up, Gavin said, “Okay, XO. Let’s go brief the ship captains and get this ‘turkey shoot’ underway.”

~     ~

“There’s someone missing,” Commander Shawn Fischer, Captain of the Scout-Destroyer Yukon said. The small force of CPSs led by Fischer in the GSC-SDD056 Yukon had stopped just inside the four-billion-kilometer DeTect Range to check out the targets before moving in. The Scout-Destroyer and CPSs were all sheathed in Dakinium so the Denubbewa couldn’t see them, but they could clearly identify the unsheathed Denubbewa ships. The Yukon had established a conference linkup using laser communication rather than wide-band so the Denubbewa would never be able to intercept a word.

“It appears to be one of the ships my crew was to take out,” Lieutenant George McIntosh of the CPS-16 Space Witch said, “unless they’ve shifted all their ship positions.”

“No,” Fischer said. “The other ships all appear to be in the same orbit as when the recon was performed. Okay, Space Witch, you still have three other targets to destroy, and everyone else has their four. Any questions?”

When no one spoke up, Fischer said, “Okay, the Yukon will lead off since we’re taking out the mothership. If this goes as planned, all twenty-three warships and the mothership will meet their end within a ten-second window. The attack will commence in— eighty-four seconds. Okay, let’s do this.”

~     ~

“Do you ever wish you were in the thick of action again?” Captain Gavin asked as he and Eliza sat in his office awaiting the results of the attack.

“You mean I’m not, sir?”

Gavin chuckled. “You know what I mean.”

Eliza smiled and said, “Yes, sir. I understand what you mean. There are times when I wish I was aboard one of the ships attacking the enemies of the G.A., but I know my role is important and contributes as much to the final outcome as that of the captains aboard each of those attacking ships.”

“More so, Eliza. I rely on you and your advice a great deal. I know that one day you’ll receive your own command, and when that happens, I’ll miss you greatly.”

“Thank you, sir. I’ve learned a great deal from you. I hope that if I do get a command one day, I can perform in a way that will make you proud.”

“I have no doubt.”

Gavin was about to add something when he received a page via his CT. He touched his ring to establish a carrier and said, “Gavin.”

“Sir, the attack group is returning,” Lt. Commander Delgora, the watch officer, said, “All ships have signaled their return via laser signal. They report complete success with no damage to their ships or crew.”

“Transmit the combat reports to my computer as soon as they’re received, Commander.”

“Aye, sir. Delgora out.”

“Gavin out.” Looking at Eliza, Gavin said, “The attack force is returning. All ships have reported mission complete with no damage to their ships and no injuries to crew.”

“Wonderful. What’s our next move, sir?”

“After we ensure that the Denubbewa ships are completely destroyed, we’ll try to evaluate the situation on the planet.”

“I think it’s a pretty safe bet that the Denubbewa have established a solid foothold on the planet. It’s been almost three months since the Ruwalchu government sent that message requesting our intervention.”

“I have to agree, but we’ll need to confirm that before we can proceed further.”

Their conversation was interrupted by a CT message to Gavin from the watch commander. After listening to the message and then canceling the carrier wave, Gavin said, “The combat vids have arrived from the ships sent to destroy the Denubbewa ships encircling the Ruwalch home planet. Let’s take a look.”

The attacking ships had properly coordinated their attack and multiple WOLaR bombs were detonating inside the mothership at the same instant the individual bombs were detonating inside the warships encircling the planet. In the space of just ten seconds, all Denubbewa ships were reduced to scrap.

After viewing the vids of the action on the large monitor in Gavin’s office, Eliza said, “A real turkey shoot. All enemy ships totally destroyed. It was like the action against the Denubbewa armada in Region Three, except much more limited.”

“I like it when things are easy,” Gavin said, “but I start getting worried when they appear too easy. Every time we start to take the Denubbewa for granted, they do something that shows they had a devious plan behind the simplistic appearance of their actions. We’ve been lucky so far in that we also have more sophisticated planning behind our efforts, but I worry that we won’t always have the better plans.”

Eliza took a deep breath and slowly released it as she stared at the monitor. The last of the vids was playing. “I understand, sir, and don’t disagree, but I can’t see any intelligent planning behind the way they left themselves wide open.”

“I don’t see anything either, and it’s possible there’s nothing to see— but— I’ll worry anyway until we know for sure.”

“Aye, Captain.”

~     ~     ~

“There’s been no response to our messages, Captain,” the com chief said the next day after the entire squadron had moved to take up orbital positions around the planet Ruwalch.

From the Command Chair on the bridge, Gavin said, “Nothing at all?”

“Nothing, sir.”

“Damn,” Gavin said. “The Denubbewa must have destroyed their communications systems so they couldn’t call for more help. At least they were able to get the one message out before it was destroyed.”

“Were they, sir?” Eliza said from the first officer’s chair.

“Of course. The message was received at Quesann and— ”

Eliza said nothing when Gavin looked at her, then lapsed momentarily into silence.

“You might be right,” Gavin said, continuing his thought. “Perhaps the Ruwalchu weren’t able to get a message off at all. It may have all been a ruse by the Denubbewa to get Space Command to send a taskforce out here. From what we know, the Denubbewa will sacrifice as many cyborgs and ships as necessary to achieve their goals. The mothership, warships, and cyborgs we’ve destroyed might have been bait to draw us in.”

“Because they want to get their hands on someone who can tell them how our ships can slip in and out of phase?”

“Exactly. That must be what they’re after. I knew this was too easy.”

“So how do we respond, sir?”

“First, we have to find out how far they’ve progressed with turning the Ruwalchu populace into cyborgs. It’s possible they’ve been here for some time, perhaps even before their armada showed up in Region Three.”

“How do we find out, sir?”

“We play our hole card.”

“Our hole card?”

“The hole card that allows us to make a hole without making a hole.”

Eliza smiled. “You mean to send in one of our CPSs cocooned in a double envelope?”

“Exactly. It can fly around near the planet’s surface, passing through buildings and even going underground without revealing its presence. In a message from Jenetta, she told me how they used that capability at Lorense-Four to track the progress of the Denubbewa cyborgs trying to reassemble destroyed warships within the scrap.”

“I think it’s a wonderful plan, sir. It may not give us all the data we want— or need— but it’ll put us far ahead of where we are right now by answering a number of questions.”

“Select a ship for this task and have the captain report here to discuss the assignment.”

“Just one ship, sir? It’s a big planet. I suggest we send at least six ships, assigning them to the large land masses and major cities where most of the citizens are reported to reside.”

“Good idea, Eliza. See to it.”

“Yes, sir.”

~     ~     ~

“I wish we knew what was happening in the Ruwalchu Confederacy,” Jenetta said during the closed session of the A.B. in her large office. “The battle group must have reached Ruwalch by now. Loretta, any progress on the wormhole communication system?”

“So far all I can really announce is that our intense recruitment efforts have allowed us to establish a number of new teams and that they’re working really hard to come up to speed on the CJ Gate system communications. While we verified their security clearances, we had only told them that the project involved a new form of space communications. They know now they’re working on a system that will change space communications forever. I can also say that they’re all extremely excited and were astounded when they met the cyborg scientists.”

“So no idea when we might have something to test?”

“Not yet, but one of the new people has suggested a way that we can use the Denubbewa satellites already sprinkled throughout Regions Two and Three for our own communications.”

“In a way that prevents the Denubbewa from intercepting and decoding the messages?”

“Prevent interception? No. It will only prevent them from decoding the messages. That’s really all we do now with S-Band communications. We can’t prevent an enemy from intercepting the signals, but our complex encryption system, as far as we know, prevents anyone from ever decoding the signals.”

“So what’s unique about this new system?”

“Normally, the Denubbewa satellites accept messages from the Gate booths and send them to a location that we assume is a central system for recording booth-location data. But we’ve discovered that we can forward data anywhere using the system as long as the header and trailer have a valid Denubbewa ID and we have a booth address as the destination. The suggestion now is that we bury a hidden message in a transmission that merely appears to be a Personnel CJ Gate location report. It will have a legitimate Denubbewa header and trailer that conforms to Denubbewa encoding requirements, but it will be sent to a booth address of our choosing.”

“But we’d only be able to send a single message twice a day,” Admiral Holt said.

“Not at all, Brian. The booths only transmit their location twice a day, but we believe the Denubbewa have hundreds of thousands of booths sending update messages. We should be able to send dozens of messages each day without them ever catching on. I can’t guarantee that, but it doesn’t seem likely they would be tracking all update messages as long as the format was correct.”

“And if the Denubbewa discover the hidden messages?” Admiral Hillaire asked.

“They might be able to change the encoding requirements and block our messages, but they still wouldn’t be able to decode the previous or current messages. And the intermediate step would give us the next best thing to instantaneous communication while we’re working to establish our own satellite network and CJ Gates.”

“I believe you said these new satellites are quite small,” Admiral Ressler said.

“Yes, they’re very small. They're like the Dakinium-sheathed satellites we use for surveillance.”

“Then once we have a few of the new satellites, we can start distributing them via the new CJ Gates using the Denubbewa Gate system?” Jenetta asked.

“Uh, well, yes.”

“And if we send the satellites to our new bases in the former Denubbewa motherships, they can then be distributed via our ships in Region Three?”

“Yes. But that would really only save us the few weeks it would take to actually send a shipment via our Quartermaster vessels.”

“A few weeks can sometimes be critical. I’m thinking that if we begin to use this new communication system and the Denubbewa learn of our use and block us, we could be left high and dry during a critical operation.”

“The task of designing, programming, and constructing our own satellite system is underway with a top priority. I only raised this issue as a very temporary communications solution until we get our own system in place.”

“I think it’s a splendid idea,” Jenetta said, “and worth the effort to implement.”

“I agree,” Admiral Holt said. “Not having timely communications with my deployed ships is maddening at times, considering the dangers we’re facing with the Denubbewa.”

“Let’s vote on the issue,” Jenetta said. “All in favor of Loretta’s people establishing a communication system via the Denubbewa satellites while our own satellite system is built, signify by saying ‘aye.’”

A chorus of “ayes” was heard.

“Opposed, signify with ‘nay,’” Jenetta said.

There were no negative votes.

“The ‘ayes’ are unanimous. If possible, Loretta’s people will create a new communications system capable of almost instantaneous contact anywhere in G.A. space using the Denubbewa CJ Gate system satellites, although purely as a temporary measure until our own system is available.”

~     ~     ~

“We’re entering atmo above the planet, Captain,” Lt.(jg) Lori Jareski said. The helmsman was stating the obvious because everyone on the bridge could see the planet below as it appeared to be growing in size on the bow monitor, but it was protocol to announce the ship’s position when first entering the outer atmosphere of a planet because that was where Space Command’s authority technically ended.

The CPS-16 Pursuit had been assigned to see if any sentient life still existed in the planet’s capital city and site of the Confederacy’s government.

“Helm, take us through the city at one hundred meters above ground level,” Lieutenant Percy Citaglia ordered. “Tac, scan for any movement by cyborgs or heat signatures from biological bodies.”

“Aye, Captain,” both junior officers replied.

The CPS-16 was encased in a double envelope that kept it slightly out-of-phase with normal space so it passed through the city’s skyscrapers as if they weren’t there.

After making numerous sweeps around the city, the captain ordered the ship down to fifty meters and retraced their former routes. When the results were again negative other than some slight movement of curtains and loose papers as the result of a light breeze, the captain ordered the ship to retrace the previous route at just three meters AGL.

“Absolutely nothing observed that could be sentient or mechanical life,” Lt.(jg) Simon Emorosa, the tac officer, said as the Pursuit completed the third full search sweep. “Even stranger is that there’s no visible damage. The citizens must have evacuated so the Denubbewa didn’t bother to destroy the city.”

“The Denubbewa would want the infrastructure intact, so they wouldn’t bomb the city unless there was no other alternative,” Citaglia said. “It appears likely that the Denubbewa have substantially increased the size of their cyborg army and taken them off-world already. Or the residents could have left the planet before occupation forces arrived.”

“Should we begin to search the countryside, Captain?” Jareski asked.

“Negative. Helm, let’s perform three sweeps below the surface at five meters, twenty meters, and fifty meters. Perhaps they’ve established underground bunkers.”

“Aye, Captain,” Jareski said. “Dropping to five meters below the city’s ground-level elevation for the first sweep.”

As the three below-ground sweeps were completed, the tac officer said, “No sign of sentient life, Captain.”

“I didn’t really expect to find anyone,” Citaglia said, “but we had to try so we can declare that there doesn’t appear to be anyone alive and that the cyborgs haven’t taken up residence beneath the city.”

“There was one peculiar thing noted, Captain,” Emorosa said.

“A possible lifeform?”

“Negative. The computer noted the presence of an inordinate number of large vertical pipes.”

“Sewer pipes? Or water-supply lines from underground reservoirs?”

“I don’t know, but sewer seems unlikely because of the depth. I suppose water supply is a possibility.”

“How deep do they go?”

“They were present at the fifty-meter depth. We didn’t search lower.”

“Helm, take us down to one hundred meters and perform the same search pattern.”

“Aye, Captain. Descending to one hundred meters below ground level.”

“I’m still seeing those same pipes, sir,” the tac officer said ten minutes later as the Pursuit traveled horizontally, following the established search pattern.

“Helm, take us down to three hundred meters and continue the search pattern.”

“Aye, Captain. Descending to three hundred meters.”

As the Pursuit descended, Citaglia suddenly said, “Helm, hold at this depth.”

“Aye, Captain.”

The eyes of everyone on the bridge were fixed on the front monitor.

After about twenty seconds, Citaglia said, “Helm, take us up to the Ares immediately.”












Chapter Twelve

~ June 23rd, 2292 ~

“Another day of searching for Denubbewa,” Commander Lori Ashraf said to her XO as they sat in her office aboard the Scout-Destroyer Seeker. “Another day of nothing found but empty space.”

“What happened to ‘no news is good news’?” her XO quipped with a grin.

“It sort of lost its applicability when we learned we weren’t going to be immediately overrun by a million Dakinium-sheathed Denubbewa warships with new weapons that can destroy us even when we’re inside a double envelope. Now I just want to eradicate them as soon as possible— or at least send them permanently packing back to wherever they came from.”

“Uh, have they developed new weapons that can destroy us while we’re in a double envelope?” the XO asked with concern in his voice.

“If I’d learned of any, you’d have been briefed at our first meeting after I was briefed. I think we still have the edge in weapons, although they certainly have numerical superiority. But we have to be constantly on alert because we’ve been told how adaptive they are.”

“So where do we go next?”

“We head to the next location on our territorial assignments list and commence a new search for Denubbewa.”

“Is it possible that this was all a Denubbewa plot to have us devote most of our resources to a fruitless hunt in the Ruwalchu Confederacy while they make a move on G.A. space?”

“It’s possible that was their intent, but we really don’t know. We just have to be alert to all possibilities and follow our orders. If G.A. space is threatened, we’ll be recalled immediately.”

“But it will take us five weeks to get back to Quesann from here.”

“Admiral Carver and the Admiralty Board know what they’re doing, and I’m sure they’re on top of the situation.”

~     ~     ~

“It’s incredible,” Gavin said as he and Eliza viewed the vid made while the Pursuit was searching the area beneath the capital city on the planet below.

“It’s enormous,” Eliza said. “It appears to be half as large as the city on the surface.”

“It must have taken decades to construct.”

“Perhaps even a century, sir. No part of the cavern appears to be natural.”

“I agree. And they obviously didn’t begin constructing this when the Denubbewa entered their space.”

“We have to make contact.”

“How soon can you leave?”

“Me, sir?”

“Of course.”

“I think you would be a better choice. And you have the seniority to make major decisions.”

“But I can’t leave the Ares. This is an active warzone.”

“But we’ve destroyed all of the Denubbewa ships that were in this solar system.”

“It’s still designated as an active warzone. And all warship captains on destroyers and larger vessels must remain with their command at all times unless given different orders by a superior officer in the chain of command. Only Admiral Holt can grant me permission to leave my post.”

“Yes, sir.”

“So how soon can you leave?”

“I just have to coordinate with my staff and make sure every post is covered in my absence. I could be ready in about thirty minutes.”

“Then get to it, Eliza.”

“Uh, what do I say when we reach the planet?”

“I suppose you should play it by ear. Listen to what they have to say and see if there’s any way we can assist them.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And be careful. First-contact situations are always the trickiest— and frequently dangerous.”

“I’ll be careful, sir.”

~     ~

As Eliza entered the bridge of the Pursuit, all bridge officers jumped to attention.

“As you were,” Eliza said. “Okay, Captain, take us down to the planet and show me what you found.”

“Aye, Commander.”

Eighteen minutes later, the Pursuit was two hundred forty meters below the surface of Ruwalch. The CPS-16, enclosed in a double envelope, was hovering near the very top of an enormous cavern reminiscent in size of the interior of Stewart Space Command Base. The ceiling, like that of Stewart, was constructed of plasticrete, although the task here must have been far more difficult because it had to have been constructed in a gravity environment. The cavern was as brightly illuminated as the planet surface during the noon hour on this part of the planet.

“Incredible, isn’t it?” Lieutenant Citaglia said to Eliza, both as a comment and a question.

“Yes. It’s quite a feat of engineering. Take us down closer to the base of the cavern.”

“Aye, Commander. Helm, take us down closer to the cavern floor.”

“Any particular location, Captain?”

“Commander?” Citaglia said.

“Take us down to that area off the larboard side that looks like a park.”

“You heard the Commander, Helm.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Hover about ten meters above the surface of the park,” Eliza said.

The captain didn’t bother to repeat the orders since the helmsman heard the order, and a few minutes later, they were floating motionless over the park. There were a number of Ruwalchu citizens walking or running in the park, and two teams seemed to be playing some sort of game with an oblong object that might have been a ball.

“Okay,” Eliza said after ten minutes of observation. “It’s time to let them know we’re here. Cancel the double envelope.”

As the envelope dissolved, the small ship’s Opposed Gravity system took over. The CPS-16 was now completely visible to the Ruwalchu citizens below.

Suddenly, somebody in the park noticed the floating ship and people began screaming and running away in every direction.

“Do we land, Commander?” Citaglia asked. “There’s plenty of room down there now.”

“No, let’s hover for a while. Perhaps they’ll get the general idea that we’re peaceful.”

“Somehow, I don’t think that will be the reaction.”

Within five minutes, half a dozen armored vehicles rumbled into the park. They took up positions and a turret-mounted weapon was raised so that it pointed directly at the Pursuit.

“I think they mean to shoot us down, Commander,” Citaglia said.

“It certainly appears that way, Captain. Not very hospitable of them if they open fire.”

After several minutes, Citaglia said, “Shouldn’t we try to contact them, Commander?”

“Let’s give it a try. Send a message on all frequencies that we’re from the Galactic Alliance and we’re here in response to their call for assistance.”

“Got that, Chief?” Citaglia said.”

“Got it, Captain.”

“Begin sending.”

“Aye, sir.”

As the first words of the message were spoken by the com chief, the armored vehicles opened fire on the Pursuit. The com chief completed the message calmly and without apparent concern for the barrage now peppering the exterior of the ship.

“Message sent on all active frequencies, Captain,” the com chief said. “I set it to repeat five times.”

“Very good, Chief.”

The barrage by laser and explosive weapons ceased after several more minutes.

“I guess they realized the barrage wasn’t accomplishing anything,” Citaglia said.

“Or someone in an authoritative position was made aware of our message and ordered them to stop,” Eliza countered. “We should know shortly.”

As if she had been overheard, the com chief said, “We’re receiving a message, Captain.”

“Activate the overhead speaker, Chief.”

The com chief tapped a few contact points on his panel and a voice could be heard. It was an un-translated message in the language of the Ruwalchu people.

“Translate it into Amer, Chief,” Citaglia said. “And replay it from the beginning.

“Aye, Captain.”

The message started anew, this time in Amer.

“Will the ship trying to contact the Ruwalchu Confederacy please identify itself?”

“Activate the overhead microphone system, Chief.”

The com chief tapped a single point on his panel and said, “It’s now live, Captain.”

“Attention Ruwalchu Confederacy. This is Lieutenant Percy Citaglia of the Space Command vessel Pursuit. We are currently hovering above a park in the underground city beneath your nation’s capital city.”

“This is Prime Minister Pemillisa. I am the senior member of the Ruwalchu Gilesset, the ruling body of the Confederacy.”

“I’ll speak to the Prime Minister, Captain,” Eliza said to Citaglia.

“Mr. Prime Minister, this is Commander Eliza Carver.”

“Carver? I spoke to you some time ago. Do you remember our conversation?”

“You spoke with my sister, Admiral Jenetta Carver, at that time, sir. She’s currently at our base on the planet Quesann near the center of G.A. controlled space.”

“Yes, I recall now that her first name was Jenetta. Uh, why are you here?”

“You sent a request for assistance, and we’ve come to help. Although we have no diplomatic treaty, we couldn’t deny assistance to a neighbor under attack by the Denubbewa.”

“We sent that request for help months ago.”

“Our base is thousands of light-years away. It took time for the message to reach Quesann and even more time to move forces into your space in preparation for engaging the Denubbewa.”

“Are the Denubbewa still encircling our planet?”

“Yes and no. The warships are still circling your planet, but they’re no longer a threat because we’ve reduced them to very small pieces of floating debris. They pose no further threat to this planet or any other.”

“You destroyed them? All of them? How many ships did you lose?”

“Our forces are intact.”

“I guess I can believe that as I view the live images of your ship. You appear not to have sustained any serious damage from our barrage. I’m grateful for that. The attack was ordered by a military officer who believed your ship was a Denubbewa vessel.”

“We suffered no damage at all, sir.”

“I was astounded when your sister was able to approach our planet without being observed and then leave without a single report from any of our border forces who had, by that time, been put on alert to watch for her departure. Uh, how did you get into this cavern? All access tunnels were sealed once all of our citizens were inside.”

“You managed to get all of your citizens to come down here? Voluntarily?”

“Yes, those who resided in the Capital Region. Most came voluntarily. Some were so frightened about living underground that they had to be— rendered unconscious.”

“Unconscious?”

“Drugged. It was necessary. We couldn’t allow them to remain on the surface because the Denubbewa would torture them to learn where the rest of the population had gone. Once we were all down here, we collapsed the tunnels and access tubes. They had been created with concealment in mind so we were confident the Denubbewa would never find us. Your appearance gave us quite a start. Exactly how did you manage to get your ship into our cavern?”

“This ship has the ability to— transcend the normal properties of three-dimensional physics.”

“Uh, I see. Well— actually I don’t see. But of course, it had to be something like that. But I must warn you, Commander, there’s a Denubbewa mothership somewhere in this solar system. It was spotted by one of our Space Fleet ships just before that ship was destroyed.”

“That mothership has now been destroyed, along with over a hundred warships that were inside her hull when our ship attacked.”

“Destroyed? You destroyed a Denubbewa mothership? That’s unheard of. Our fleet couldn’t even fend off the warship attacks. That’s why we’re hiding down here.”

“The danger has passed, Prime Minister— at least the danger from the Denubbewa forces in this solar system when we arrived. You can recall your military forces and then return to the surface of the planet, if there are no Denubbewa hiding out there.”

“Our entire force of spaceships was destroyed while battling the Denubbewa, and we cut off all contact with the surface so the Denubbewa couldn’t locate us down here. Perhaps you could scan the land masses to see if there are any Denubbewa left on the planet?”

“We don’t have any special sensors that allow us to detect Denubbewa cyborgs, but our ships have already performed surface scans in an effort to detect movement or the presence of biological life. They saw no Denubbewa on the planet.”

“Commander, are all your ships as small as this one?”

“No, Prime Minister. This is one of our smallest warships. But this small ship is fully capable of destroying a Denubbewa mothership, or multiple motherships.”

“Without the support of other ships?”

“Yes.”

“Fascinating. Would it be possible for me to get a tour of your ship?”

“Of course, Prime Minister. Do we have permission to land?”

“Absolutely. You may land in the open area of the park below your hull. I’ll get there as soon as possible.”

“Very good, Prime Minister. I’ll see you when you arrive.”

Lieutenant Citaglia looked towards the com chief and indicated that the communication link should be closed by sliding his open right hand across his throat. The com chief immediately closed the frequency connection, then nodded.

“Captain,” Eliza said, “set the ship down.”

“Aye, Commander,” Citaglia said and passed the order to the helmsman.

~     ~

Although the Ruwalchu basically resembled Terrans, they had no necks. That is to say, they had no point between their heads and bodies where the area was distinctly different. The torso just sort of slowly narrowed until suddenly the Terrans realized they were looking at a very wide face. With their average height being just under five feet, most adult Terrans were taller, and some Terrans towered over them. But their height wasn’t as much of a problem as it was with Arrosians and Selaxians, whose height was between three and four feet, and who were referred to as munchkins by some Terrans.

A motorcade of seven vehicles finally arrived near where the Pursuit had settled onto the cavern floor. Although this wasn’t technically a first contact, it was the first fact-to-face contact. Eliza and Lieutenant Citaglia had left the ship and were waiting a few meters from the ramp. With no knowledge of the customs of Ruwalch, Eliza would follow the lead of the Ruwalchu Prime Minister.

As the motorcade came to a halt about ten meters from where Eliza and Citaglia stood, the doors on the lead vehicle opened and several Ruwalchu emerged. All three approached Eliza and Citaglia, both of whom were wearing a tiny device on their belts that would translate the spoken Ruwalchu language and send the Amer translation to their CTs.

When the trio of Ruwalchu stopped about two meters from Eliza, the one in the center said, “Raise your arms so you can be searched.”

Eliza calmly said, “No.”

“If we cannot search you for weapons, the Prime Minister will not meet with you.”

“Fine,” Eliza said. “We’re done here.”

Turning back towards the Pursuit, Eliza began to walk towards the ship. Citaglia turned and followed.

“Commander, wait,” Eliza heard in her CT. She stopped and turned back towards the trio.

The one in the center said, “It’s just protocol.”

“It’s an insult at this level of diplomatic contact for one party to be so untrusting of senior military personnel. If I wished the Prime Minister harm, my ship could destroy this cavern in seconds and then destroy the entire planet as we left.”

“Uh, please wait while I talk with the Prime Minister’s personal security detail. They’re the ones who insisted we check for weapons.”

The Ruwalchu turned and hurried back towards the motorcade. As he approached the sixth vehicle, a door opened and another Ruwalchu— one wearing a uniform similar to the ones the trio wore except he had a lot of gold braid on his shoulders— stepped from the vehicle.

After a brief discussion, the guard with the gold braid opened the rear door of the vehicle and spoke with someone inside. A few seconds later, a Ruwalchu not in uniform stepped out. The two uniforms stepped out of his way as the new man walked unhurriedly towards where Eliza and Citaglia stood.

When the Ruwalchu reached Eliza, he said, “I apologize, Commander. The damn fools wouldn’t let me out of the vehicle until they first checked you out. The security protocols are the only things I can’t change, and the security personnel actually order me about at times.”

“I understand, Prime Minister.”

“The security guard said you threatened to destroy the cavern and the planet when you left.”

“No, that’s not correct. I said that if I wished any one of you harm, I had the ability to destroy the cavern and the planet. I never intended to do any such thing. I was just trying to make him understand that I would hardly be carrying a weapon into a diplomatic meeting if my goal was to harm you.”

“I see. Well— security personnel are very brave and willing to put their lives on the line to protect their charges, but they’re not always the most intelligent members of our species.”

“I understand. Would you care to come aboard the ship?”

“Very much. But first, please tell me,” the Prime Minister said as he looked at the undamaged hull of the small ship, “how was it able to ward off the attack by my forces? They threw everything they had at it and yet I don’t see any damage or even a minor scar.”

“All of our warships are sheathed with a special material that’s resistant to most forms of attack. The only species who has anything that can damage it are the Denubbewa. When they first entered our space, two of our ships went to greet them and welcome them to G.A. space. Without warning, they destroyed the two ships. Since then, we’ve initiated attacks against them whenever and wherever we encounter them. We understand their intent, and we don’t allow them the opportunity to carry out their mission.”

“How many ships have you lost to them?”

“Just the first two— and only because the captains didn’t anticipate a hostile attack without warning.”

“And how many Denubbewa ships have you destroyed?”

“I don’t know exactly, Prime Minister. There’s probably someone who attempts to keep such statistics, but it’s not really important. I know the number of kills is in the thousands.”

“Thousands? Of ships? Or Denubbewa cyborgs?”

“Ships. I have no idea how many cyborgs were aboard, and there’s no way of determining that.”

“I see. Impressive.”

“We’re not proud of what we’ve been forced to do. We just wish they’d stop attacking us and our allies.”

“Tell me, would it be possible to purchase the material you use to sheathe your ships?”

“I’m afraid a decision like that is far above my pay grade. And since we don’t have diplomatic relations with the Ruwalchu Confederacy, I doubt the request would even be considered.”

“We’ve always feared that getting too close to other species would open us up to attack.”

“But by remaining too distant, you deprive yourself of valuable shared information and products that could improve the lives of your citizens. I can only say that the G.A. has no imperialistic desires.”

“That would make you truly unique in this galaxy— at least as far as our experience is concerned.”

“Is that why you’ve built this cavern? It’s obviously not natural.”

“Yes, we built this as protection from other races bent on conquest.”

“It appears to be quite old, so you weren’t building it as protection from the Denubbewa.”

“No. We feared the Milori.”

“Maxxiloth?”

“No, Maxxiloth’s grandfather. He vowed that one day Milor would rule this galaxy.”

“I see.”

“Yet you defeated them.”

“Yes. Twice. The first time we merely chased him out of our territory with a warning to leave and never return. We thought Maxxiloth would have learned his lesson, but as soon as he had rebuilt his forces, he attacked us again. We knew then that he would never stop, so my sister led the attacks that defeated them and reduced military targets on their home world to rubble. We absorbed their territory so they could never attack us again.”

“And you quelled their imperialism by welcoming them into the G.A.?”

“It was one way of keeping an eye on them. There’s a very old saying among some in our culture that goes, ‘Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.’”

“And yet it was your absorption of the Milori Empire and then Tsgardi space and Uthlaro space that made us so distrustful of your motives.”

“We absorbed those territories because it was the only way to watch them closely and prevent them from attacking us again. The Uthlaro still haven’t learned their lesson, and we’re aware that they continue to plot ways to first recover their territory and then take over the galaxy.”

“They said you held that ambition.”

“And you believed them?”

“Yes, I’m sorry to say we did.”

“And now?”

“I’ve begun to believe we were wrong about your ambitions. From what we’ve seen of your military power, it’s obvious that you could have taken our territory any time you chose. You’ve defeated enemies who presented infinitely greater resistance than we could. Is it too late to establish formal diplomatic relations, and uh, mutual defense agreements?”

“It’s never too late while you control your territory.”

“And do we?”

“If you’re asking whether we intend to absorb your territory now that we’re here, the answer is no. We came to help and will leave when the job is done or we’re ordered back because we’re needed in G.A. space. Of course, we’d also leave if you requested it.”

“We appreciate everything you’ve done so far on our behalf, and I hope you can remain until you’ve driven the Denubbewa from our territory.”

“My captain asked me to invite you to come to our ship if you’re agreeable. You can make a formal request to establish diplomatic relations at that time.”

“Invite him to come down. I’ll arrange for a state visit.”

“I would, but unfortunately regulations prevent it. You see, the captain of a large warship isn’t permitted to leave the ship while it’s in an active war zone. I’m sorry.”

“I see. I don’t think my security detail would allow me to visit your ship.”

“You’re welcome to bring them with you, as long as they trust we mean you no harm and don’t keep demanding to search everyone they encounter.”

The Prime Minister smiled widely. “I think I can prevent that. Yes, I’d like to visit your ship. How long will the journey take?”

“Roughly eighteen minutes. A little longer if you wish to view the remains of the Denubbewa ships we destroyed.”

“Very well. And I’d love to see what’s left of the ships you destroyed. Just give me a few minutes to argue with my senior security person and convince him that we’re in no danger.

“Take all the time you need, sir.”












Chapter Thirteen

~ June 23rd, 2292 ~

“Incredible!” the Prime Minister mumbled as the Pursuit emerged above the planet’s surface and climbed through the atmosphere. “This ship can actually pass through solid matter. We’ve never even dreamed of such capability. Is this the only ship you have that can do that?”

The Prime Minister had requested to view the departure from the bridge, and Eliza couldn’t think of a valid reason for denying the request. She would have preferred not to answer the question, or not to answer truthfully, but she could neither evade the question nor lie to the head of a foreign government. “No, all ships in this class have that capability. This form of travel is top secret, by the way, so please don’t discuss it with anyone else.”

Eliza hadn’t lied but neither had she been completely honest since all Space Command warships and many support vessels were sheathed in Dakinium and so had the capability of establishing the double envelope that gave a ship the ability to pass through solid matter. Eventually, all Space Command vessels, including the lowly space tugs, would have a protective outer skin of Dakinium.

The Prime Minister’s security detail had objected to being separated from their charge, but the bridge of a CPS-16 wasn’t large enough to accommodate more than a couple of visitors. So the P.M. had ordered them to go to the mess hall as suggested by Eliza and wait for him to join them there. They went grudgingly, but they went.

“If we establish diplomatic relations, can we acquire such capability?”

“Again, a decision like that is well beyond my pay grade, Prime Minister.”

“I understand. Does anyone else other than Space Command have this capability?”

“In the G.A., only Space Command has this capability. It was developed by Space Command personnel and has never yet been shared with anyone else. As the sole law enforcement organization outside planetary rule, we must maintain a slight edge over lawbreakers.”

“No exceptions?”

“None I’m aware of, sir.”

“If we were to combine our territory with G.A. space as you did with the Milori, Tsgardi, and Uthlaro, what would happen?”

“Happen?”

“I understand you’d then be responsible for protecting our planets, but who would be responsible for law enforcement on the planets?”

“Our authority begins where a planet’s sensible atmosphere ends. Space Command does not interfere with law enforcement on the planets unless the planet’s government breaks G.A. law.”

“So the planets that are affiliated with Ruwalch could continue to be affiliated with Ruwalch?”

“Of course. My family’s estate is on the planet Obotymot, and our planet is affiliated with Nordakia. We are subjects of the Nordakian King and Queen, and as citizens of Obotymot and Nordakia, we are also citizens of the Galactic Alliance.”

“I see. Could Obotymot and Nordakia secede from the Galactic Alliance?”

“Yes, but while they would no longer be responsible for supporting the G.A. government and military with funding, they would still be required to obey the laws of the G.A. in all off-planet matters since the planet is physically located in G.A. space. Additionally, the two newly non-aligned planets would be barred from trading or interacting with any planets that remained a member of the G.A. In effect, they would be ostracized. But— they would still maintain their own governments and would be able to trade with each other and any other non-aligned planets.”

Are there any non-aligned planets?”

“There were many when the G.A. was first formed. Eventually, most learned that the benefits of supporting the G.A. far outweighed the planetary contribution required for the support of Space Command and the Space Marines by aligned planets. There are still a good number of non-aligned planets in Region Two and Region Three. Some, like Uthlarigasset, the home world of the Uthlaro, and Tsgardia, the home world of the Tsgardi, are non-aligned because they attacked the G.A. If they were to request inclusion, they would be accepted, but while they would be a member planet able to trade with all other member planets, and they would have a seat in the Senate, they would have no voting rights in the Senate until they proved themselves worthy of such privileges.”

“What of the Milori? Do they have voting privileges?”

“Not yet, but I believe that will happen in the not-too-distant future. They are an aligned planet. They— deposed— Maxxiloth, and they’ve made great strides toward proving they’re worthy of a representative vote. Many of the planets they dominated under the rule of Maxxiloth and his grandfather have joined the G.A. and immediately received voting rights in the Senate.”

“I see. That’s most interesting.”

“Are you comparing the G.A. with the Ruwalchu Confederacy?”

“No, I’m considering a possible merger of our Confederacy with the G.A. Although the Denubbewa threat has been ended for now, we’re still very vulnerable. Our Space Fleet is gone and it will take many years to rebuild it to a point where we feel comfortable that they can again protect our space. Or at least protect it from everyone except the Denubbewa. During that time, lawlessness could run rampant. Joining the G.A. could solve many potential problems, not the least of which is another invasion by the Denubbewa.”

“Yes, that’s true. But you must remember that should you merge with the G.A., it can’t be undone. The planets can secede, but they’ll always be in G.A. space following an annexation.”

“Yes, I understand. Do you think the G.A. would accept our petition to join?”

“I don’t see why not. You’ve never attacked the G.A. or threatened its authority in our own space.”

“And we’d have the full protection of Space Command even if the member planets chose not to become active participants in the G.A.?”

“Of course. But I’m confident that if you take steps to annex your space with the G.A., you’ll find the benefits of being a full member far outweigh the benefits of remaining non-aligned.”

“Would we have non-voting seats in the Senate if we annex our space but don’t join the G.A.?”

“No, I’m afraid not. You can only get a place in the Senate when you’re a contributing and participating member of the G.A. You’re generally either a fully participating member of the G.A. or you merely occupy a planet in G.A. space.” Pointing to the front monitor, Eliza said, “We’re coming up on one of the Denubbewa warships we destroyed.”

As they got closer, Citaglia ordered the Pursuit to a full stop. Naturally, he didn’t cancel the envelope. The detritus was visible because it was illuminated by the system’s sun.

“There’s nothing left that’s larger than this small craft, even though their warships are hundreds of times larger when intact,” the Prime Minister said. “And you say this Denubbewa ship was destroyed by a ship the size of the Pursuit?”

“Yes. After we discovered them around your planet, we sent in a small force of ships identical to the Pursuit with orders to destroy all Denubbewa ships. One of our other CPS-16s was assigned to destroy the mothership we found.”

One small ship like this one really destroyed the mothership?”

“That’s all it takes.”

“After your sister visited us, we knew Space Command was powerful, but we had no idea you were this powerful. You could have annexed our space eons ago.”

“As I’ve said, Prime Minister, the G.A. has no designs on anyone’s territory. If you wish to join us, I’m confident you’ll be welcomed, but you need never worry that we’ll take your space without you filing a petition for annexation. We’re content to have a peaceful neighbor on our border.”

“I’ve begun to believe you, Commander. We were very wrong about your confederation. We listened to Uthlarigasset representatives and foolishly accepted what they told us.”

“I’m glad we were able to set the record straight. If you want to confirm anything I’ve said, I won’t be insulted.”

“What you’ve said is consistent with everything we’ve been able to learn since your sister visited us. I wish now I had invited her to land her ship and have a face-to-face meeting.”

“At that time you believed us to be a warlike nation bent on making conquests. Now I think you know we’re not. Do you wish to see additional Denubbewa ships or the destroyed mothership?”

“No, that’s not necessary. I believe you’ve destroyed them all.”

“We’ve destroyed all we could find. Most of our taskforce is still out searching Ruwalchu space for additional Denubbewa ships.” Glancing at Citaglia she said, “Okay, Captain, you can take us to the Ares.”

“Excuse me, Commander. Why do you call him lieutenant some of the time and captain at other times?”

“His official military rank is lieutenant, so when we were in the park it was proper to address him by his military rank. But this ship is his command, so when we’re aboard, he’s addressed as captain.”

“Ah, I see.”

~     ~

Twelve minutes later, the Pursuit was docking with the Ares via an airlock. Eliza and the Prime Minister had previously moved to the mess hall in the CPS-16, but they sat at a table away from the security detail so they could continue their conversations in relative privacy.

“Excuse me, Prime Minister. My captain is calling me.”

Looking away slightly, Eliza said, “Yes, sir?”

When her conversation was over, Eliza looked at the Prime Minister and said, “The captain welcomes you to the Ares and invites us to join him in his office.”

“You spoke to your captain? How?”

“Every Space Command officer has an extremely tiny device known as a CT implanted under their skin against the outside of their skull when they enter the Space Command academy. It allows us to converse with all other officers who are within a certain range. The small translation device I’m wearing on my belt sends your translated words directly to my CT also. Our CT is powered by our bodies so we never have to worry about recharging it.”

“How tiny is it?”

“So small it would appear like a speck of dirt if I had one in the palm of my hand.”

“How do you call someone?”

“I touch my Space Command ring and name the person with whom I wish to speak. The ship’s computer does the rest, completing the call and connecting us if the person is available.”

“I see. My security people all carry extremely bulky radios to converse. They’re as large as the translation device I’m wearing on my belt.”

“Our Cranial Transducers, or CTs, are wonderful. We’re never without them, and we can tell the computer not to call us when we’re off-duty and want privacy. At that time, only the captain or the watch officer can override our privacy request.”

“I see. Shall we go visit your captain now?”

“Yes. Escorts will be waiting for us at a lift. Because the lifts aren’t large enough to accommodate your entire security force, we’ll split into two groups, and you can select which four you want to remain with you. When we reach the captain’s office, they can remain outside the door. I assure you, you’re in no danger aboard the Ares.”

“If you meant to harm me, you’ve had ample opportunity to do so. I trust my safety is secure, Commander.”

“Thank you, sir. Shall we go?”

~     ~

“Captain,” Eliza said, “I’d like to introduce Prime Minister Pemillisa of the Ruwalchu Gilesset. Mr. Prime Minister, this is Captain Lawrence Frederick Gavin. Captain Gavin is the most senior ship’s captain in Space Command. He was also the ship’s captain when the Ares brought my sister, Admiral Jenetta Carver, to contact you following the incursion of your Space Fleet ship into G.A. space.”

Captain Gavin had been standing in front of his desk when the Prime Minister and Eliza had entered his office just off the bridge. “Welcome, Prime Minister. We were delighted to hear that you had survived the Denubbewa attack on your confederacy.”

“Thank you, Captain. I want to thank you for responding to our call for assistance and for your destruction of the Denubbewa ships in our solar system.”

“Believe me, sir, it was our pleasure. The Denubbewa are our mortal enemies, as they should be to every independent nation that still exists in this galaxy, and in fact, in the universe. When we detected no life on the surface of Ruwalch, we feared they had already turned you into cyborgs. Fortunately, the captain of the Pursuit chose to investigate the unusual presence of pipes that extended well below the surface and discovered your enormous cavern. Is that the only such cavern on the planet?”

“We have a dozen more of varying sizes on planet Ruwalch, but this one is the largest. When the Denubbewa first attacked our Space Fleet ships, all civilians were immediately ordered into the caverns and the entrances were sealed. We have many such caverns on the other heavily occupied planets in our territory as well, so we believe that most of our species has survived. We ordered a complete blackout on all communications with other caverns until they first receive a special all-clear signal, so we don’t know the status of those other locations.”

“I applaud your preparedness.”

“We can thank Maxxiloth’s grandfather for incentivizing us to create the caverns. He was the one we first believed intended to attack our Confederacy. We’ve continued to maintain the caverns and even expand the network as the decades passed, especially when we learned Maxxiloth was preparing for war. We were glad we did.”

“We’re also glad you did. Military people normally believe we can never be too prepared, but we always hope we never need all the preparation.”

“Captain,” Eliza said, “the Prime Minister has expressed a desire to establish diplomatic relations with the G.A.”

“Wonderful,” Gavin said. “When I contact Space Command, I’ll forward a message to Admiral Carver. I’m sure she’ll be delighted and will arrange for diplomatic envoys to come to Ruwalch to get the discussions started.”

“I’ve changed my mind,” the Prime Minister said.

“You have?” Eliza blurted out. “Was it something I said?”

“Actually, it was everything you said. I’ve decided that the Ruwalchu Confederacy would not be best served by establishing diplomatic relations with the Galactic Alliance. Instead, I want to apply for annexation with the Galactic Alliance.”

Gavin was shocked but managed to say, “Annexation? You want to merge your nation with ours and become part of the G.A.?”

“Exactly. I want us to become part of the G.A. with Senate seats and full trading privileges.”

“That’s a major step, Prime Minister,” Gavin said. “I’m sure that everything my Executive Officer told you is accurate, but there may be many more details to be discussed and options considered before we can start that process.”

“Commander Carver has been very forthright, but I never mentioned to her that I had already been briefed on everything she said. Her shared information was simply confirmation of everything my intelligence service has been able to learn about the G.A. Following your visit to the Ruwalchu Confederacy with Admiral Carver, we began absorbing all information we could uncover about the G.A. We were delighted when you conquered Maxxiloth’s invasion forces but feared that we might be your next target. Our contacts with the Uthlaro warned us about your plans for conquering the galaxy. However, everything our intelligence people were able to learn after you defeated the Uthlaro told us that you would never take over our nation unless we first attacked you. I even sent an envoy to visit the King of the Hudeerac Order. He confirmed that your government only fights to protect your people and never initiates warfare.”

“That’s true, Prime Minister. When we’re not defending our nation from outside attacks, our Space Command and Space Marine forces are principally engaged in overseeing the trade practices and enforcing the laws of the G.A. concerning currency counterfeiting, slavery, and smuggling.”

“Yes, that’s what we’ve been told. Captain, our protective forces have now been destroyed, leaving us defenseless if the Denubbewa come again. And all available information tells us they will come again and again until we’ve been turned into cyborgs and they control our territory. We would much prefer to annex our nation with yours and become citizens of the G.A. We offer a nation of industrious and intelligent people, as well as many planets rich in resources that will enhance life in the G.A. In return, we assume that Space Command will protect our planets and our people. We’ve witnessed the power and technology you wield and know you will do your best to protect us from the Denubbewa and all other outside threats.”

“Uh— yes,” Gavin muttered as he organized his thoughts. “If the G.A. agrees to annex your nation, Space Command will certainly protect you, your people, and all of the planets in the expanded territory to the best of our ability.”

“So then, what’s next? How do I make a formal application to annex our territory to the G.A.?”

“Have you presented this idea to your people? And if so, are they in agreement?”

“We have discussed it at length in the Ruwalchu Gilesset. The arguments for and against have consumed most of our sessions since the Denubbewa first arrived and began attacking our Space Fleet. It was obvious from the outset that we were overmatched, and indeed the Denubbewa proved to be far too powerful for us to overcome. We began to believe we were destined to become cyborgs unless we committed mass suicide. Then someone reminded us of Space Command’s entry into our space and your peaceful departure without any of our forces ever witnessing your travel. That began a discussion of seeking help from the G.A. When the remainder of our Space Fleet was destroyed, the talk evolved into a discussion of offering you payment to protect our territory, which evolved into a discussion regarding the annexation of our territory and becoming part of the G.A.”

“I see. And the vote about becoming part of the G.A.?”

“Unanimous.”

Gavin nodded.

“So what’s the established procedure for annexation, Captain?”

“Well— there is no established procedure, Prime Minister. The G.A. was originally created by laying claim to previously unclaimed space in areas where people from the planet Earth had established colonies on planets unoccupied by intelligent lifeforms. Since then, there have been two expansions to Region One where the G.A. again laid claim to previously unclaimed areas of space. The next expansion occurred following the second war with the Milori. As part of their unconditional surrender, Admiral Carver required that they cede all of their territory to the G.A., which they did. She believed Maxxiloth would come at us again once his forces were rebuilt if we simply allowed him to end the hostilities. The G.A. Senate agreed and the territory was annexed.

“The fourth annexation occurred after the Uthlarans, combined with the Tsgardi, Gondusans, and Hudeera, tried to wrest the former Milori territory from the G.A. We knew for a fact that the Uthlarans would continue their efforts to drive us out of our Region Two territory, so Admiral Carver required them and the Tsgardi to relinquish their entire territories as part of their unconditional surrender. The Hudeera situation was unusual in that members of the nobility had temporarily usurped power from the King, so when they backed out of the THUG pact, we didn’t hold their brief association against them. The Gondusan situation was similar in that when they backed out, we only required they give up the territory they had reacquired during their previous support of the G.A. The G.A. Senate again concurred with Admiral Carver’s recommendations. The Tsgardi territory became part of Region Two, and in Space Command, we refer to the area encompassing the former Uthlaro territory as Region Three. Technically, all of the space adopted and annexed by the G.A. Senate is the Galactic Alliance. The regional nomenclature is used to identify how military resources are allocated. Our last annexation was to lay claim to previously unclaimed space between the three regions to give us a more contiguous area of space.”

“So the Ruwalchu Confederacy might be defined as Region Four?”

“Perhaps, Prime Minister. That will be up to the Space Command Admiralty Board— if the Senate approves the annexation.”

“So while we wait to learn if our application for annexation is accepted, can we count on Space Command for continued protection?”

“As soon as you deliver a written petition for annexation, along with a vid of the entire Gilesset where every elected member of the body is identified and independently states their desire for annexation, I will request permission from Space Command to keep my taskforce in the former Ruwalchu Confederacy. I expect that the annexation process will take some time. As a politician, I’m sure you understand how things like this can drag out.”

“Yes, Captain, I understand completely. Perhaps I can offer something to sweeten the negotiations.”

The Prime Minister reached into his pocket and produced a small device. Activating it, he handed it to Gavin. It was a small vid device and an image appeared on a tiny screen. It showed a Denubbewa cyborg chained to a wall in a prison cell.

“Is this cyborg still in your custody— and still intact?” Gavin asked.

“He is. We haven’t yet dissected him. We’ve dissected others, and they all seem to be built the same way, so there was no urgency. This one claims to be a supervisor and keeps threatening us with destruction if we harm him. It’s not much of a threat though, since they intend to make all of us cyborgs anyway.”

Gavin handed the vid device to Eliza. Eliza examined the image for a second, then zoomed in for a close-up of its head before smiling widely. The Prime Minister appeared confused by her smile.

“What is it, Commander?” the Prime Minister asked.












Chapter Fourteen

~ June 23rd, 2292 ~

“He has three blue dots on his forehead,” Eliza said. “How did you capture him?”

“In one of our very few victories, our people managed to severely disable the warship he was in. When our people entered the ship to take prisoners, they discovered this one trapped beneath a collapsed bulkhead. He was uninjured but unable to free himself.”

“Wonderful,” Eliza said. “This is absolutely wonderful.”

“Why?”

“He has three blue dots on his forehead.”

“And what does that mean?”

“It means he’s a mid-level bigwig.”

“I don’t understand that term. What’s a bigwig?”

“I’m sorry. It means he’s a mid-level supervisor. Most cyborgs have a single red dot on their forehead. That indicates they’re just workers or soldiers. Supervisors have from one to five blue dots on their foreheads. The more blue dots, the higher they place in the Denubbewa hierarchy. Three dots indicate a ship’s captain or an operations director. We’ve been hoping to get our hands on one of these higher-level cyborgs for some time so we can pump it for information about the Denubbewa. This is a very, very valuable cyborg. Please don’t disassemble him or harm him in any way.”

“I’ll make sure he’s not damaged. How will you learn what information he has? He has refused to talk to us, other than to threaten us with death.”

“Our intelligence people have been studying them for some time. We actually have cyborgs working with us, and for us. We even managed to plant one of our converted cyborgs in a Denubbewa ship in the hope that he could get us a mid-level cyborg like this one. Our intelligence people should be able to extract the desired data from it.”

“You have cyborgs working for you? How did you accomplish that?”

“After installing the brains of biological prisoners into new cyborg bodies, the Denubbewa somehow wipe their minds clean of all memories from their past lives, or at least suppress all previous memories. They then program the cyborg with new information and skills so it can perform as a worker or soldier. Our intelligence people have succeeded in reprogramming some of the cyborgs we’ve captured with new data. The difference between the Denubbewa and us is we don’t treat them as mindless robots. We haven’t yet learned of a way to restore the memories of their previous lives, but we can give them the gift of free choice that all free sentient beings enjoy.

“I see. And once reprogrammed, they choose to work for you?”

“Yes. Since they have no memories of their former lives, they choose to begin— anew, for lack of a better word.”

“And you have many cyborgs working for you now?”

“No. We only have a small number working for us. But the ones we do choose to work for us have so far proven to be very loyal. You said you were sweetening the negotiations. Does that mean you’ll turn this cyborg over to us now?”

“Yes.”

“Wonderful,” Gavin said. “We’ll send him back to Quesann with the annexation application as soon as you can arrange that.”

“Can’t you simply transmit the application?”

“Yes, and we will, but the Senate will probably want the formal document. And the ship carrying the application and the cyborg will arrive just a week behind the transmission.”

“A week behind an S-Band transmission? Great Protector! Is this ship that fast?”

“Yes.”

“I’m beginning to really appreciate now just how advanced you are in so many respects and how you were able to destroy all of the Denubbewa ships in our solar system so quickly. It would have taken our fastest Space Fleet ship more than three full annuals to reach Quesann. And we never had a chance against the Denubbewa.”

“Our speed is what allowed us to get here in time to help,” Gavin said. “Even with our speed, we feared you and your entire race might be only a memory when we arrived. We’re always looking to improve our capabilities. We have to stay one step ahead of the enemies who covet our territory and the criminals who try to evade our laws.”

“And do you ever share any of the incredible technology with the people of the G.A.?”

“Of course. But not all of it. That would be foolish. We’ve shared the technology that allows commercial traffic to travel at speeds up to Light-450. And soon, I expect, information will be freely available that will allow them to increase their travel to speeds up to Light-675 at almost no expense. But that’s still a far cry from our military ship speeds. I doubt that your government shares all of your technological advances with the people of your nation.”

“That’s true, and I can understand why you withhold information on new advances. What will you do now, Captain?”

“How soon do you think you’ll have the necessary documentation ready for the G.A. Senate?”

“By this time tomorrow, if all goes well. Every member of the Gilesset has agreed that annexation is our only option. But now that it’s time to fully commit, we may have some who want more discussion. However, I don’t think it will drag on too long.”

“Very well. We’ll remain here until we hear from you. When the annexation petition is ready, I’ll assign one of our CPS-16 captains to bring it to Quesann.”

“A CPS-16? Are those tiny ships able to make the trip in just five to six weeks?”

“Yes.”

“I’m even more impressed now. I thought you were only referring to the full-sized ships like this one when you spoke of such speed.”

“Each of our CPS ships is as powerful as our full-sized ships. That’s how we’ve been able to control the Denubbewa in G.A. space.”

“I look forward to the day when we become part of your Alliance.”

“As do we. Commander Carver will see you back down to your cavern.”

“Thank you, Captain. This visit has been most enlightening.”

~     ~

The Prime Minister requested that he be allowed to view the return from the bridge and Eliza complied.

As the ship descended straight towards the planet like a meteor on a direct collision course, the Prime Minister commented to Eliza, “There’s no heat reaction as we enter the atmosphere?”

“No, these ships are designed to immediately absorb the heat and store it as energy in power cells to power the craft’s internal systems.”

The Prime Minister took a deep breath and released it slowly as the planet grew closer. He actually took a step backward just before what would have been the impact point if the ship hadn’t been out of phase.

As the ship entered the cavern, the helmsman cancelled the envelope and flew the ship to the same park used as a landing area previously. The people below the ship hurried to get clear, but there wasn’t the panic that was exhibited during the previous visit. The populace must have been told that there was no danger from the small ship.

Once Lieutenant Citaglia was assured the area was completely clear, he ordered the helmsman to gently lower the ship to the ground.

As Eliza and the Prime Minister stepped from the ship’s ramp, occupants of the underground city began to crowd around the ship, but the P.M.’s security detail, assisted by other uniformed security guards who had raced to meet the ship, kept the curious at least ten meters away.

“Commander,” the P.M. said, “thank you for a most enlightening and interesting flight. As soon as I have the annexation documentation Captain Gavin requires, I’ll contact the Ares. And thanks again to Space Command for coming to our assistance and destroying the Denubbewa murderers in our territory.”

“You’re most welcome, Prime Minister. I hope the Gilesset unanimously supports your desire for annexation and that you will one day, in the not too distant future, all be citizens of the G.A. I can promise you that if you annex your space to the G.A., you’ll never regret it. And if the Gilesset refuses to support you, we’ll part as friends.”

“They will support it. If any of them are having second thoughts, they’ll once again support the motion one-hundred percent when I tell them all the wonderful things I’ve heard and experienced since first entering the Pursuit.”

“And the supervisor cyborg? Do we receive him now?”

“I think I should discuss the entire matter with the Gilesset first. If I turn him over to you now, some members may think I’ve already made an agreement without their approval and reflect their anger by voting against the measure.”

“I understand, Prime Minister. I’ll return to the Ares and await the decision of the Gilesset. But please don’t let your people disassemble the cyborg. They could cause irreparable damage if they don’t truly understand everything they’re doing. Our intelligence people have had a great deal of experience.”

“Don’t worry, Commander. I’ll make sure our people don’t damage it. And even if the Gilesset refuses the annexation, the cyborg will still be yours as a small down payment on the enormous debt we owe Space Command.”

~     ~     ~

“So— what do you think?” Captain Gavin asked Eliza when she had returned to the Ares and responded to his summons to come to his office just off the bridge.

Eliza sat down in an oh-gee chair facing the desk without being invited because that was where their relationship stood and because of the familiar manner in which the question had been posed. As XO and just one step away from the captaincy of the ship, she had many special privileges not afforded to other crewmembers.

“At first, I was astonished by his request, sir. Jenetta told me how totally unreceptive they’d seemed to the idea of establishing simple diplomatic relations when she visited their solar system. But— it does make perfect sense if they were being fed misinformation by the Uthlaro government. Since then, they’ve had time to investigate on their own, and most importantly, they find themselves unable to protect their territory from even the weakest attack now because their Space Fleet has been destroyed. The question I have is this: If the Gilesset rejects the annexation proposal, will Space Command remain here indefinitely to protect them from the Denubbewa?”

“I’m not in a position to promise years of Space Command protection to a foreign government in their own territory. Should the A.B. order it, we will naturally remain here and guard the Ruwalchu territory, but I really can’t see that happening. We have the G.A. planets and populations to protect and not nearly enough ships to watch over Regions Two and Three as it is.”

“So if the Gilesset declines the annexation, we just leave?”

“As soon as this taskforce has completed our present assignment, I’ll make my final report and ask Quesann for new orders. It’s up to them.

“On a related matter, I just received a report from the Scout-Destroyer Mekong. Commander Cody Morrow reports that when his force arrived at the Ruwalchu Confederacy planet Buwalke, they found fourteen Denubbewa warships in orbit. They also found a mothership a few billion kilometers away. Morrow sent his CPS-16s to take on the warships while the Mekong took out the mothership. He reports that all Denubbewa ships have been destroyed. He also says they’re not getting any response to messages directed at the planet.”

“Hopefully, the residents are ensconced in nearly inaccessible underground shelters, as they are on Ruwalch.”

“Yes, hopefully. I replied to Commander Morrow that we’ve made contact with representatives of the Confederacy on Ruwalch and that he should leave any contact with citizens hiding in underground shelters on Buwalke to the Ruwalchu Confederacy.”

~     ~     ~

“Hello, Loretta,” Admiral Carver said as she entered a large laboratory at the Weapons R&D center. The chronometer on the wall chimed once to indicate it was 0800 Local Time.

“Good morning, Jen,” Admiral Plimley said. “You’re right on time.”

“On time for what? Your message only said I should come at 0800.”

“Is Brian with you?”

“No. Is he supposed to be?”

“I wanted both of you here. He said he was coming.”

“Don’t start without me,” Admiral Brian Holt called out as the dual pocket doors slid quickly back to admit him and he hurried into the room.

“Never, Brian,” Admiral Plimley said with a grin.

“Good morning, Jen,” Admiral Holt said. “Good morning, Loretta.”

After both women had returned the greeting, Jenetta said, “So what is it you’re going to start, Loretta?”

“We’re about to make the first long-distance test of your new communications system.”

My communications system?”

“The one you asked me to develop.”

“The one that uses a wormhole?”

“Yes.”

“You have that ready for testing already?”

“I assigned two of my best people to the task, along with six of the new scientists you got us. I divided them into two teams and installed the experienced people as the project leaders supervising the new people. One team took responsibility for the transmitter and the other for the receiver.”

“I can’t believe you’ve completed it already.”

“We gave it our top priority, and the teams have been working around the clock, seven days a week, stopping only long enough to eat a meal or get some sleep. We already had the technology working in the new CJ Gates. We just had to separate the circuitry from the Gates’ electronics and mount the components in communications consoles. All that was left to do after that was to mount them in the ship Brian provided. The consoles may not look too pretty right now, but if the test works, we’ll get a couple of designers involved, along with some engineers.”

“I don’t care what they look like. I just want them to work.”

“We tested them locally and they worked. Today, we’ll be testing them at a distance of eighty light-years. The GSC Destroyer Nome, with Captain Anita Rolereo in command, left two days ago. She was to take up a position roughly eighty light-years from here and hold position until she heard from us. Using S-Band communications, an outgoing signal would reach the Nome in about twenty-six hours. We’re hoping for a considerable improvement over that time.”

“So what are we waiting for?” Jenetta said anxiously. “Let’s not keep Captain Rolereo waiting.”

Admiral Plimley smiled and said, “Brian, would you like to ask the com officer of the Nome to tell us the time and date according to their chronometer?” She gestured towards the com unit.

“Me? I don’t know how to use that gizmo you developed.”

Plimley smiled and stepped over to the laboratory counter where the console sat. Picking up a microphone shaped like a laser pointer, she lightly pressed a contact point on the console and said, “Nome, this is Quesann. When you receive this message, respond with the exact GST time of your response.”

Admiral Plimley removed her finger from the contact point and placed the microphone on the console cover before she turned towards Jenetta.

“How long before we hear?” Jenetta asked.

“If we did our job correctly when installing the com unit, it shouldn’t be very long.”

Thirty-six seconds later, a voice said, “Quesann, this is the Nome. Com Chief Griffiths responding.” Griffiths then gave the GST time and date. The current time on Quesann was eighteen seconds later.

“Yes!” someone said loudly from behind Jenetta.

As she turned to see who had spoken, a technician said, “Sorry, Admiral. I got carried away.”

“No harm done, Lieutenant,” Admiral Plimley said. “We’re all excited about the success.” Turning to Jenetta, she said, “Well?”

“I’m as excited as that lieutenant. Well done, Loretta. I assume we can send vid-mails as well as strictly voice communications?”

“Of course.”

“Extend my congratulations to your teams. Now, how soon can we have eight units with full installation instructions ready for shipment?”

“Eight?”

“Seven for the new bases in Region Three and one for the Ares. We’ll need many more, of course, plus replacement parts for repairs, but this will get us started.”

“I suppose we can have eight of them ready for shipment in about— three days, if you don’t want to wait until we have a chance to redesign the consoles.” Pointing to the com unit, she said, “This unit was jury-rigged and isn’t very attractive or compact.”

“It looks pretty compact to me.”

“You’re only seeing about five percent of the hardware. The rest of the equipment is on the floor below this one.”

“We’ll have to go with what you have for now. After the first eight are on their way, you can have your designers work on a permanent console design. We desperately need these first units in operation.”

“Okay, Jen. They will probably look a little better than this one, but not by much. We’ll have them ready for shipment in three days.”

“Great. Brian, you’ll make sure they get to the new bases and to the Ares?”

“Of course, Jen. I’ll use this new com system to recall the Nome. As soon as the shipment is ready, they’ll make the deliveries to the seven stations and then contact the Ares and make arrangements to deliver the eighth unit. Loretta, would it be possible to make a ninth system?”

“As a backup?”

“No, I was thinking of having it installed on the Nome so we’ll have instant communications until the stations and the Ares can install theirs.”

“The Nome already has the prototype installed. Let’s leave that unit in the Nome until the new design is ready. They’ll get a replacement unit when production ramps up.”

“Wonderful,” Holt said.

“Loretta,” Jenetta said, “I never expected you to have it ready this soon. I imagine your teams have been working on this around the clock, and they deserve a rest. But—”

“I know, Jen. Work first, rest afterward. Once the eight consoles have been completed and tested, the two teams will get leave time.”

“Thanks, Loretta. And extend my thanks to them for their efforts. I’ll sleep a lot better once we have instant communications. I’ve worried almost constantly that the Denubbewa will overrun our forces in Region Three and begin attacking the populated planets without our knowledge. Without this new system, it would have been months before we learned of their advance. And Brian, please have the Nome deliver the first unit to the Ares. We really need quicker communications with the ships in Ruwalchu space. Then the destroyer can work its way back here as the seven systems are delivered to the new bases.”

“Okay, Jen.”

“Loretta, thanks again. The G.A. owes you a great debt for this effort.”












Chapter Fifteen

~ August 12th, 2292 ~

“How much longer before our new com system is installed?” Gavin asked Eliza during their morning briefing.

“Lieutenant Ryerson told me they should have it operational by 1400 today, if everything continues to go smoothly.”

“It’s going to be great to have nearly instantaneous communication with Quesann. And in a few weeks, we’ll also have almost immediate communication capability with all of the new bases in Region Three. No more waiting days or weeks for a message to reach them and a response to arrive.”

“In the message we received from Jenetta, she said to keep communications to a minimum until we have our own satellite system in place. We don’t want the Denubbewa catching on that we’re piggybacking our communication messages on their CJ Gate system functions. They might attempt to shut us down, even if they can’t decrypt our communication messages.”

“Yes, we’ll use it sparingly. No messages home to loved ones and all that. We’ll continue to use the S-Band for all non-military communications. My first message with the new system will be to ask Quesann if we can leave Ruwalchu territory.”

“We’re not going to wait for the annexation petition from the Prime Minister and the Ruwalchu Gilesset, sir?”

“Other than a brief trip to meet up with the Nome in Region Three and pick up the new com system, we’ve been sitting here waiting for more than six weeks. Pemillisa told us it was all settled, but they still haven’t delivered the petition and verification vid I asked for. In the meantime, I’ve had our taskforce ships searching for any sign of Denubbewa to the farthest reaches of this territory. We found Denubbewa ships around all of the more heavily inhabited planets and destroyed them, but no others. And none of the ones we detected had Dakinium sheathing, so we should have been able to spot others with our regular DeTect capability. I have to assume there are no other Denubbewa ships in Ruwalchu space at the moment. I hate to say it, but this annexation discussion may have been a ploy to have us remain here and clear their space for them. Perhaps they never intended to seek annexation.”

“It’s possible, sir, but they have to know they’ll be defenseless the minute we leave.”

“They might believe that once we eliminate the Denubbewa here, no more will be coming for a while.”

“I suppose that’s possible, sir.”

“I sent a message to Quesann announcing the annexation interest. I’m going to look damn foolish if the Ruwalchu have been playing us. But when I sent the message, it still took a month each way for communications, and I wanted Quesann to know where things stood out here.”

“I would have done the same, sir.”

“Once we get the new com system installed, the first message will probably be a response to my message.”

“Have you asked the Prime Minister about the annexation petition delay since the last query you told me about?”

“Yes, and the answer is always the same. He says that when there was little likelihood of them actually seeing their space annexed to the G.A., the Gilesset was all in favor. But now that it could really happen, a few of the representatives are reluctant to announce their support of the initiative. He says they’ve been arguing the merits of the annexation every single day in the Gilesset.”

“Politicians!” Eliza said with disgust. “The breed is the same wherever you go.”

“Yes, dealing with them can be incredibly frustrating at times. You elect them for the promises they make, and then once the election is over, they conveniently forget everything they promised. Their fence-sitting positions can drive you crazy.”

“If they don’t follow through with the annexation petition and we’re ordered to leave, they’ll possibly have signed their own death warrant.”

“Perhaps they believe they can simply remain underground until we clean up their neighborhood and make it safe for them to come out.”

“Sir, suppose we warn them we might not be able to return if the Denubbewa appear in this territory again. We must naturally devote our full attention to the G.A. territory. They happened to catch us just after we completed a major engagement with the Denubbewa, so our taskforce was fairly close. They may not get that lucky again.”

“That’s certainly not untrue. Why don’t you take a trip down to their underground location and apprise them of the realities of the situation?”

“Yes, sir. I’ll go right after I complete my morning duties.”

~     ~     ~

The underground park was busy with pedestrian traffic when the CPS-16 dropped its envelope and became visible over the spot they had used as their landing zone on previous visits. The people in the park scurried to get out of the ship’s way, but there was no panic.

Before landing, Eliza contacted the Ruwalchu communication center and requested to speak with the Prime Minister. The ship hovered ten meters above the park while the call was routed to his office.

“I’m sorry, Commander,” P.M. Pemillisa’s executive secretary said when Eliza requested to speak to Pemillisa. “I’m afraid he’s terribly busy and probably won’t be available for the rest of the day.”

“That’s a shame,” Eliza said. “I wanted to say goodbye before our taskforce left Ruwalchu space, but I certainly don’t want to disturb him. Tell the P.M. that if we ever return to the Ruwalchu Confederacy, I’ll check in with him.”

“You’re leaving?” the Ruwalchu on the com connection asked in surprise.

“We’ve completed our mission here. For the moment we can certify that your territory appears to be completely free of any Denubbewa presence.”

“What if they return?”

“If we’re close to your border and not otherwise engaged, we’ll ask permission from Quesann to come help you again, if they haven’t already ordered us to come.”

“But even if you’re near our border, it could take many weeks to get permission to assist us.”

“Yes— if at all. Our first duty is naturally to protect the worlds and citizens in Galactic Alliance space. If there’s a danger of attack by the Denubbewa, we can’t leave our own planets unprotected to come protect a neighbor. I’m sure you understand.”

“Yes, I understand fully. You’re saying that if we don’t become part of the G.A., you have no obligation to assist us at all.”

“Uh, that’s the gist of it, as it would be for any nations that haven’t established binding ties. The planets paying to support the Space Command fleet or nations with whom we have reciprocal defense agreements must receive our first attention.”

“And what of the planets in G.A. space that aren’t a member of the G.A.?”

“We protect all space for them as well, down to their sensible atmosphere.”

“And if the enemy has already landed on the planet?”

“We’ll destroy the spaceship or spaceships of the invading force.”

“But what of the attackers who are already on the planet?”

“It sounds like you’ve been listening very closely to the questions and arguments being raised in the Gilesset.”

“That’s part of my job. So what of worlds that are within G.A. space but haven’t agreed to be part of the G.A. government?”

“G.A. law forbids us from landing on any non-aligned planet, even if they request it. The planetary leaders must understand that before making the decision to be aligned or non-aligned.”

“So you wouldn’t assist them?”

“If they declined to become a member planet, they’re on their own in all matters inside their sensible atmosphere. We are not allowed to interfere in the internal politics or law enforcement of a non-aligned planet. The exception would be where the planet’s occupants are breaking G.A. law with respect to certain restrictions on G.A. currency counterfeiting, narcotics distribution, slavery, etc.”

“So they’d be on their own once the invaders landed?”

“Essentially, yes. But the invaders would have to be on the planet to be safe from us, and we would destroy their means of escape.”

“I understand.”

“Well, since the P.M. won’t be available today, I’ll take my leave. The Ares could be leaving orbit very shortly. I just wanted to say goodbye before we left. Please extend my best wishes to the P.M., and I hope everything works out for you and your nation.”

“Can you hold on for just a minute, Commander? I want to check with the P.M. to see if there’s any message he wishes to convey.”

“Yes, I can stand by for a minute or two.”

Less than forty seconds later, Eliza heard a familiar voice say, “Commander, you can’t desert us. We’re defenseless.”

“Prime Minister?”

“Yes, it’s me. P.M. Pemillisa. You can’t leave us.”

“We can’t wait around here indefinitely, sir. And we have no valid excuse for delaying our departure. We’ve destroyed all the Denubbewa ships we could find in Ruwalchu space. It’s time for us to leave.”

“But what about our annexation petition? That should be reason enough to remain.”

“What annexation petition is that, sir? We’ve seen and heard nothing since the discussion aboard the Ares where you mentioned that annexation with the G.A. might be possible and desirable.”

“I’ve been working day and night on making that a reality, Commander.”

“It’s been more than six weeks since you opened the dialogue, sir. You informed us that the Gilesset had unanimously approved the annexation before we arrived.”

“They had. But now we have several members demanding outrageous concessions for their planets in exchange for their agreement to the annexation.”

“Isn’t survival enough?”

“You’d think it would be, but some are never satisfied unless they’re getting a better deal than everyone else in the Gilesset.”

“That’s unfortunate. But now you’ll have the privilege of telling them that their reluctance to sign the annexation petition when they had the chance means that the Space Command taskforce has returned to G.A. space. And with us goes your protection umbrella. I’m very sorry, sir. I really wish it could be otherwise, but we have to obey orders.”

“Can’t you delay it somehow?”

“Well— I might be able to convince Captain Gavin to delay our departure briefly if you were to offer something.”

“What would it take?”

“If you were to turn over the Denubbewa supervisor you promised us, I think I could buy you a couple of days. But no more than a couple.”

“Land your ship and we’ll bring the Denubbewa to you.”

“Has it been damaged?”

“No, it’s intact. I gave strict orders it was not to be touched.”

“Very well, Prime Minister. I’ll have the ship’s captain land while I begin planning what I’m going to say to delay the Ares’ departure for a couple of days.”

“You feel confident you can convince the captain to wait two more days?”

“I’m the ship’s Executive Officer. I’m sure there’s a mechanical issue or two that must be checked thoroughly before we depart. That would let him off the hook with Space Command but could put me on it if the real reason ever became known. However, receiving the Denubbewa prisoner makes me willing to risk it. It’ll buy you two more full days. Can you convince the Gilesset to approve the annexation by then?”

“I’ll get them to agree even if I have to refuse to suspend the current Gilesset session indefinitely. Members can’t leave the floor and must sleep at their desks in the rotunda until the session is suspended. After two days of that, they’ll be ready to give me anything I demand. I reserve that action for only the most critical issues.”

“The annexation petition has to be voluntary, and every member of the Gilesset has to agree, without reservation, on the vid. We won’t accept it if anyone shows the slightest doubt about the annexation.”

“I understand, Commander. I’ve been putting up with their nonsense for weeks now. It’s time to roll the carpet.”

“Excuse me? Roll the carpet?”

“It’s just an expression we have. You don’t roll up the carpet until your business is concluded.”

“I see.”

“I’ll arrange for the prisoner transfer. It’ll be at the landing site within thirty minutes.”

“We’ll be waiting. And the Ares will be waiting to hear from you regarding the annexation petition documentation.”

~

Twenty-eight minutes and twelve seconds later, a vehicle transporting the Denubbewa prisoner arrived. The cyborg, strapped to an oh-gee table, continued to scream, struggle against its bindings, and threaten everyone involved in the transfer as it was taken aboard the CPS-16.

As the head guard held out an electronic tablet to record Eliza’s palm print as proof of her acceptance of the prisoner, he said, “I’m glad to be rid of that awful thing. Good luck.”

Eliza smiled and said, “Thanks. We’ll take good care of it.”

“I don’t care if you fire a laser through its brain. It’s been screaming at us for weeks and demanding that we release it immediately or it was going to kill every one of us. You have no idea how hard it was to restrain ourselves from damaging it. But the Prime Minister ordered us to make sure it remained intact.”

“After it’s served its purpose and we’ve learned everything it knows, we’ll erase its memories. I promise it’ll never even remember it was here.”

“That’s good. We don’t want the Denubbewa to know about these underground caverns.”

“They’ll never learn from us or this cyborg. You have my word.”

“Good luck, Terran.”

~     ~     ~

“P.M. Pemillisa handed over the Denubbewa supervisor, sir,” Eliza said to Gavin after entering his bridge office.

“He did? Did you have to make any commitments?”

“I promised that we’d remain in orbit for at least two more days.”

“That’s not a problem since we haven’t been ordered to leave yet.”

“I sort of— implied— we had received orders to leave Ruwalchu space. If he relates that to the Gilesset, it might prompt them to finalize the petition.”

“Or cancel it.”

“That’s a possibility, sir. But even if they do, we have the supervisor cyborg. And we never really promised them we would annex their territory to the G.A.”

“Actually, we have far more territory than we can handle right now.”

“The instantaneous communications will help substantially.”

“Have you heard from Lieutenant Ryerson?”

“Not yet. But we were out of CT range, being below the surface of the planet. Give me a moment.”

Eliza touched her ring and said Ryerson’s name. A second later, the lieutenant responded.

“The component in engineering is almost installed, Commander. Give us another five minutes to tie it into the new communications console on the bridge.”

“Keep me posted. Carver out.” Looking at Gavin, she said, “Almost ready, sir. Ryerson said five more minutes.”

“We’re supposed to send an acknowledgement to Quesann as soon the new system is operational.”

“Yes, sir. The com chief on duty is ready with the prepared message.”

~

“We have a reply message from Quesann, sir,” Eliza said as she entered Gavin’s office a short time later.

“Voice or vid?”

“Vid, sir. It’s been forwarded to your queue.”

Gavin shook his head and smiled widely. “This is going to take some getting used to. It’s been what, two minutes since we sent our message?”

“About that, Captain.”

Gavin leaned in towards the scanner so it could confirm his identity with a retinal scan. The Priority-One message from Admiral Carver began playing immediately once his identity had been confirmed.

“Larry, congratulations on a highly successful eradication operation of the Denubbewa invaders in Ruwalchu space. It’s interesting that the ships weren’t sheathed in Dakinium. It raises the question as to whether they were there before the armada entered G.A. space since we’ve been assuming that all Denubbewa vessels we see in the future will be Dakinium sheathed.

“And we were stunned to hear that the Ruwalchu Confederacy was interested in becoming part of the G.A. I haven’t yet presented the matter to the G.A. Senate Council. We must have firm confirmation of their intent before I do that. It’s been weeks since you sent your message, so I’d like an update on that issue. I’m not expecting to hear that they’ve already presented a formal application for annexation. Politicians have a predilection for dragging even the simplest and most critical matters out to unimaginable lengths. You’ll probably have to hold their feet to the fire to get an actual commitment from them. I’ll support you in whatever actions you choose to take.

“And if they decide not to proceed with the annexation or they simply can’t reach a consensus, you should return to Region Three and begin patrolling for any signs of Denubbewa. As each day passes with no reports of cyborgs in G.A. space, we get more worried. We’re sure they’re not gone and doubly sure it will only be a matter of time before they strike again. Not knowing where and when they intend to strike next is keeping us all awake at night. Keep up the good work, Larry.

“Jenetta Alicia Carver, Admiral of the Fleet, Quesann. End of message.”

“There you have it, Eliza. We have orders to return to Region Three and resume patrols, but we also have permission to take whatever actions we decide are best, so what we tell the Prime Minister regarding our departure is up to us. We’re covered either way.”

“Yes, sir. So how do we play this if the P.M. asks for more time?”

“Use your judgment. I trust you completely. You know how important this is and what we can afford to give. I’ve had enough experience to know that politicians don’t always do what’s best for their constituents. Too often it comes down to what will give them an easier road to re-election or what will put the most credits into their own pockets. Perhaps they need a little more encouragement, so I should order all ships farther inside their territory than we currently are to head back and wait for the rest of the taskforce an hour inside G.A. space. You promised the P.M. that the Ares wouldn’t leave, but you probably never said anything about the rest of the taskforce.”

“No, I didn’t. Will the Ruwalchu Gilesset even know about the withdrawal? The P.M. said their entire Space Fleet was destroyed.”

“The reports from our taskforce ships mention seeing freighters along established trade routes now that the Denubbewa threat appears to be over. If there was no reason to suspect they might be Denubbewa, our ships ignored them. And we should be able to take for granted that the Confederacy has automated observation systems on moons and manned observation posts on uninhabited planets throughout their space, just as Space Command does. However, our ships are invisible while cocooned in a double envelope, and if we were to drop the double envelope, the Ruwalchu would most likely understand that we intentionally wanted to be seen. I’m open to any suggestions.”

“Well, we could have any ship that passes a freighter circle back to a point beyond DeTect range, drop their double envelope and build a single, then pass the freighter slow enough and close enough to be clearly identified as Space Command heading for the border. Once beyond DeTect range again, they could drop the single and build a double envelope before continuing their journey.”

“The Ruwalchu could question why the ship was traveling so slowly.”

“We could say it had slowed to identify a DeTected ship so as to ensure it wasn’t Denubbewa. The Ruwalchu don’t know how our propulsion system operates or that they can’t see us when we’re in double-envelope travel.”












Chapter Sixteen

~ August 13th, 2292 ~

“The new com system is amazing,” Jenetta said to the admirals relaxing in her office during a closed meeting of the Admiralty Board. “It’s worked to perfection so far. Loretta and her people deserve a month off. Unfortunately, we need them here so desperately that we can’t afford to let them take any time off for a while. We must get the new com system installed in every warship, every Quartermaster ship, every ship transporter, and on every Space Command base. And we must get our new satellite system in place and then install the CJ Gates.” Jenetta stopped to take a breath and a sip from her coffee mug. “Oh, and one last minor task. We still have to build the thousands of com system consoles, satellites, and gates before they can be put into service.”

“Is that all, Jenetta?” Admiral Holt said with a wry grin.

Jenetta smiled and said, “Well, I didn’t want to put too much pressure on the Board, but there are a few dozen other things we need to do immediately.”

“Seriously?” Admiral Ressler asked with a shocked expression on her face.

Jenetta chuckled and said, “No, Shana. I’m joking.”

“Whew, you had me going for a few seconds.”

“Gee, what are you going to be doing with all your spare time, Loretta?” Admiral Hillaire asked with a grin.

“We all know the importance of the tasks I mentioned,” Jenetta said. “We can’t leave the full weight of this effort on Loretta, so we’ll all have to pitch in anywhere we can to get the work done. We all know it will be worth the effort.”

“We’ll naturally help in any way we can, Loretta,” Admiral Woo said. “Just tell us what you need.”

“Thanks, Lon,” Admiral Plimley said.

“Did Larry send an update regarding the Ruwalchu interest in annexation, Jen?” Admiral Holt asked.

“Yes, he did, Brian. He says the Gilesset is deadlocked at present because of several members. A few have been holding out for special— considerations.”

“From the G.A.?”

“I imagine it’s some concession they want from the Ruwalchu Confederacy. Since they haven’t even filed an official annexation petition yet, they can’t be asking us for anything.”

“We can’t take this matter to the Council until we have the formal petition,” Admiral Yuthkotl said. “How long can we keep an entire taskforce idle in their territory?”

“The Gilesset know that as long as we’re there, they’re safe from the Denubbewa,” Jenetta said. “I’m not saying that’s the reason for the delay, but it’s understandable if it is. I consulted Brian before I sent the Priority-One message to Larry in which I told Larry that if the Gilesset should decide not to proceed with the annexation petition or simply cannot agree on a course of action, he should return to Region Three and resume the search for any sign of Denubbewa.

“There’s something I haven’t mentioned yet. The Ruwalchu have turned a cyborg over to us. According to Larry, it’s a supervisor cyborg with three blue dots.”

“Wonderful,” Admiral Bradlee said. “I, uh, trust it’s still intact?”

“As soon as Larry learned the Ruwalchu had it, he asked that it not be damaged in any way. Larry says that it curses anyone who comes close and immediately threatens to kill them.”

“Wonderful,” Admiral Bradlee said.

“Wonderful?” Admiral Woo said. “Roger, it’s certainly not going to be cooperative.”

“It doesn’t have to cooperate, Lon. If Larry can get it back here— intact— my people will be able to learn most of its secrets. Even the ones it doesn’t want to tell us. This might be an opportunity to learn where the Denubbewa race originated.”

“That alone would justify whatever we have to do to bring it back here,” Jenetta said.

“I agree, Jen,” Admiral Burke said. “Larry should load the cyborg aboard one of his CPS vessels and get it on its way to us as soon as possible.”

“I agree also,” Jenetta said. “Let’s see a show of hands. All in favor of having Captain Gavin send the cyborg back here immediately?”

“The proposal carries unanimously,” Jenetta said. “Brian, will you see that Larry is notified that we’d like to have the cyborg sent back as soon as possible, regardless of any action by the Ruwalchu on an annexation petition?”

“I will.”

“Thank you.”

“Jen,” Admiral Burke said, “we’ve discussed the possibility of the Ruwalchu annexation briefly, but we’ve never discussed how we feel individually. Do you favor the annexation of such a large area of space?”

Prefacing it with a smile, Jenetta said, “Since I was largely responsible for adding Regions Two and Three to the G.A., I’d be a bit of a hypocrite if I opposed it.”

“That was different,” Admiral Ahmed said. “We were looking for avenues to prevent further war. Absorbing Regions Two and Three following the surrender of the Milori and the Uthlaro was almost an imperative. But here we have a situation where we’re just expanding the area we have to cover. I’m having difficulties supplying the three regions we already have, and our fleet is stretched to breaking limits.”

Jenetta thought for a few moments in silence and chose her words carefully. “It’s very true that this is a totally different situation, so let’s examine the facts. Absorbing the Ruwalchu Confederacy will place significant additional burdens on Space Command. Their territory is slightly larger than the Milori Empire was, and they shared a long, common border, so it’s not surprising that Maxxiloth had designs on annexing it. He never attacked it simply because the Ruwalchu military forces were equally matched, but he would have gotten around to it once he felt he had built his forces to a point where he could crush them quickly. Unfortunately for him, he believed he could crush us much more easily so he chose us as an intermediate target.

“Perhaps we should be looking at this from a different perspective. To wit, what if we were to refuse to absorb the Ruwalchu Confederacy? We know the people there can’t defend themselves against the Denubbewa. They don’t have even the slightest chance now that their Space Fleet has been destroyed. So we appear to have three options. One, we take on the responsibility of protecting their people and their territory with no support funds to help keep our military strong. Two, we allow them to be destroyed by the Denubbewa. Or three, we append them as part of the G.A. If their territory became part of the G.A., the people there would be protected and we’d have an expanded territory that offered new resources and opportunities for G.A. citizens to establish mining and food-production operations. Even so, they wouldn’t be able to trade with or interact with any inhabited, non-aligned planet in the present Ruwalchu territory, and non-aligned planets wouldn’t be allowed to interact with our aligned planets. Once the Ruwalchu realize it’s more beneficial to be a full member of the G.A., with Senate voting rights and trading capabilities with other G.A. planets and citizens, they’ll most likely want those benefits for their own citizens.”

“But what if they want to remain apart and are simply applying for annexation for protection?” Admiral Burke asked.

“It’s been our experience, based on the situation in Regions Two and Three, that planets eventually come to realize they're far better off as a full member of the G.A. than remaining apart. Yes, as members they must help support Space Command and the G.A. government, but it dramatically improves the protection they receive, and they’ll reap a lot of other benefits in the long run. And the Ruwalchu have already been supporting their Space Fleet, so they understand that military protection isn’t free.”

“I support their being appended to the G.A. territory, even if they don’t wish to become a full member with senate voting privileges,” Admiral Yuthkotl said. “It may not be that different from the relationship the G.A. has with Nordakia and Obotymot. Both became full members of the G.A. after a time.”

“What if Ruwalch becomes a member with voting privileges, but none of the other planets in the system do?” Admiral Burke asked.

“Then Ruwalch can’t share any commerce with the other planets,” Jenetta said. “It’s as simple as that.”

“I think it sounds simple, but can we disrupt their form of government like that?” Admiral Ahmed asked.

“All we can do is specify the terms for annexation,” Jenetta said. “It’s up to them to decide which road they choose to travel. I’m sure Larry and my sister Eliza have explained all of the options. It’s just a matter of waiting to see what they decide.”

“And if they decide not to request annexation?” Admiral Hillaire asked.

“Then we pull our forces out and use them to patrol and defend the G.A., just as we’ve always done. If we hear from the Ruwalchu again regarding an incursion by Denubbewa into their territory, I’m sure we’ll return— if we can afford to free up the assets and assuming this Board agrees that returning is the best course of action.”

“There’s another small issue here,” Admiral Hillaire said.

“What’s that, Arnold?”

“The Hudeerac territory. If we accept the Ruwalchu territory in annexation, the Hudeerac territory will be entirely surrounded by G.A. space.”

No one spoke for several minutes while they thought about the galactic territorial positions.

“We’ve always had good relations with the King of the Hudeera and most of his subjects,” Jenetta said. “I really don’t think it’s a problem.”

“The Hudeera were part of the THUG pact that tried to boot us out of Region Two and take it for themselves,” Admiral Bradlee said.

“That was a small but powerful group of nobles who managed to seize control of the government for a short time. The king tried to stop them, but they had amassed too much power through the support of other nobles greedy for new territory. It was they who signed that agreement with the Uthlaro and displaced the king. He eventually reclaimed power and ended the association with the Uthlaro before the Hudeera engaged us in combat. We had an excellent and valuable relationship before that event, and afterwards as well.”

“So we’ll allow them free travel through our space?”

“As long as they continue to obey G.A. law— yes.”

“Okay,” Admiral Bradlee said. “I have no problem with that.”

“Any other comments or suggestions?”

When no one spoke up or showed signs that they wanted to add to the topic, Jenetta said, “Then we’ll resume this discussion when and if the Ruwalchu petition for annexation.”

~     ~     ~

“Commander, I’ve just learned that your forces are pulling back towards the G.A. border.”

“Yes, Prime Minister,” Eliza said. “We’ve received orders for all ships to return to Region Three of G.A. space and resume patrols to locate any possible Denubbewa ships. I mentioned that.”

“But you said you’d give me time to resolve our issues with the members of the Gilesset who still refuse to endorse the annexation petition.”

“I said I would make sure the Ares remained here for at least two more full days. Prime Minister, it’s been three full days now, so I’ve met my commitment.”

“But we’re defenseless.”

“As are many of the planets in G.A. space. Our patrol area was Region Three. We were ordered to come here and aid you in fighting the Denubbewa. We’ve done that. But now we have to return to Region Three to protect the planets there.”

“I can pay you to stay and protect us.”

“It’s not up to me, Prime Minister. Once our engineers complete their assessment of an issue I reported as requiring investigation and file their report with my captain, we’ll be leaving as well.”

“But I gave you the cyborg.”

“And we’ve destroyed all of the Denubbewa we could locate in the Confederacy. I’ve given you several more days to complete your annexation petition, and now it’s time for us to leave, unless there’s something that Quesann agrees is reason for us to delay our departure. The promise that you’re trying to prepare an annexation petition has worn thin over the many weeks since we first discussed it. I’m sure the G.A. Senate will evaluate the petition fairly should you ever get a consensus on that action.”

“How much longer can you wait?”

“It’s really out of my hands. Once the engineers complete their investigation of the potential problem I reported and find that the equipment is working fine, the captain will order the ship to depart your space.”

“How long do you believe that will be?”

“Hours. Perhaps as long as one day. Then we’ll be gone. I’m sorry, Prime Minister. We’ve explained that the only way we can give you uninterrupted protection is if you’re a member of the G.A., or at least that you’ve submitted a binding petition for annexation.”

“Promise me one more full day and I’ll deliver it, or I’ll have the heads of the three Gilesset members who are preventing the unanimous approval of the petition mounted on a spike.”

“I’ll do my best, Prime Minister. I’ll plead your case with my captain. I can’t promise anything other than that I’ll do my best.”

“Thank you, Commander. I do appreciate everything the G.A., Space Command, your captain, and you have done for my people. I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.”

“I hope you can convince the Gilesset holdouts to see things your way. Good day, Prime Minister. Carver out.”

Eliza looked at Captain Gavin and shrugged. She was sitting in his office, across from him at his desk.

“I guess he’ll either convince the Gilesset to go along or we leave tomorrow,” Gavin said.

“Yes, sir. And if he comes through with the petition?”

“Then a small part of our taskforce will remain here to patrol this territory until the G.A. Senate either adopts or rejects the petition. At that time, the Space Command forces in this part of space will either increase or leave completely. In any event, the CPS designated for transporting the supervisor cyborg to Quesann leaves tomorrow.”

“Too bad we can’t simply transport him via a CJ Gate,” Eliza said. “I hate to lose the use of the CPS-16 for almost six months.”

“I agree. We don’t have the Gates available yet, but they’re coming. As I understand it, the wormhole/subspace technology used for the new com system is basically the same as that used for the Gates. The Gates that will send people are undergoing much more rigorous testing. If a message gets lost or corrupted, they just send it again. With people, the system must be perfect. You know, it’s hard to believe we can now send a message to anyone in G.A. space— and beyond— in under twenty seconds. We’ll never again have to sit around for weeks waiting for a report or a response from Quesann.”

“It’s too bad we can’t have direct conversations, but I guess the artificial wormhole can only forward the data stream as an outgoing signal in one direction.”

“Are you sure?” Gavin asked. “Or are you just assuming that because it’s the way the Locculo crafted their system?”

“I guess I was assuming it, which is something you should avoid in physics. Although Jenetta was trained as an astrophysicist, wormhole physics only came up in theoretical discussion back then.”

“If I know Admiral Plimley, she’ll start working on a way to establish two-way communications once the Gates are working. If a wormhole can only transmit in one direction, perhaps a new system can have two different wormholes in operation at the same time.”

“Sort of like dual frequencies?”

“Exactly.”

“It would be nice, sir, but there’s still the eighteen-second lag.”

“It’s fun to think about, but I’m damn grateful for what we’ve got right now and I won’t push for more— at least for a while.”

Gavin punctuated his statement with a wide smile, which immediately found its way to Eliza’s face.

~     ~     ~

“Admiral Holt is calling, Admiral,” Jenetta heard her secretary announce via the com.

“Put him through,” Jenetta said as she activated the wall-mounted monitor that faced her desk.

“Good morning, Brian,” Jenetta said as the pixels that represented Admiral Holt’s appearance ocoalesced into an enormous head-and-shoulders image.

“I wish it was, Jen. I just received a message from one of our destroyers in Region Two near the Gondusan border. The com chief on second watch picked up an S.O.S. message in the clear to anyone who was listening.”

“From one of our ships?”

“No, it seems to have originated in Gondusan space. It appears that a freighter was under attack by an unknown warship. The report states that at first it seemed like the rockets fired at the freighter were duds because upon striking the ship there was no explosion. But then something ate though the hull everywhere a rocket had impacted with the ship and small nuclear blasts peppered the vessel.”

“Denubbewa. That’s how they destroyed the Yenisei and the Salado. Open the hull with acid and then fire small nuclear charges to kill the crew through loss of atmosphere, concussive force, or radiation.”

“It sure sounds like that. Jen, the Gondusan sending the message claimed to be a freight handler. He said he was performing maintenance inside a small tug parked in the maintenance bay amidship. When an alarm sounded about the attack, he sealed the tug. The attacking ship only targeted the freighter pulling the load. The com message said that all crewmembers in the freighter appeared to be dead because no one had responded to his repeated efforts to contact the rest of the crew.”

“First the Ruwalchu, then the Gondusans. I wonder if the Hudeera are next.”

“It sounds like we should move more assets from Region Three to Region Two.”

“That may be just what they want. It might be a diversion. They may intend to attack us in Region Three and expect us to pull— or at least reduce— our forces there even further in response to this attack.”

“The message wasn’t directed at us, and we have no diplomatic relationship with the Gondusans.”

“We’ve never felt predisposed to establish any after they joined the Tsgardi and the Uthlaro in the plan to boot us out of Region Two and take it for themselves.”

“So you’re saying we owe them no assistance.”

“Owe them? No. How many warships do we have close to the border with Gondusan space?”

“Within roughly a thousand light-years, we have one battleship, the Pholus, three destroyers, the Duluth, Stuttgart, and Lima, two Scout-Destroyers, the Atrato and the Magdalena, and a dozen or so CPSs performing various assignments.”

“Are the CPSs all carrying bombing containers?”

“Yes, I’ve issued standing orders that all CPSs should always be armed with bombing containers, unless they’re carrying out some special mission that makes those containers a liability. They only receive fighter aircraft containers or other special containers if their mission calls for it.”

“If it was my decision at this early juncture, I’d send the CPSs into Gondusan space to where the signal from the freighter seemed to originate and have the destroyers and Scout-Destroyers patrol along our border with Gondusan space.”

“And if our CPSs should encounter Denubbewa?”

“Destroy them without warning or hesitation.”

“Okay, Jen, we’re on the same page. I’ll issue those orders. Anything else?”

“I’d be extra alert to anything that might be reported, however innocuous, which indicates the Denubbewa are making a move on us while we’re distracted with the problems in Gondusan space and Ruwalchu space.”

“I’ll put Regions Two and Three personnel on high-alert with orders to report anything suspicious— or at least highly unusual.”

~     ~     ~

“What is it, Cezloom?”

Cezloom, who was staring out the window at the front of his house, said, “It’s a spaceship.”

“A spaceship? What’s it doing?”

“It appears to be landing.”

“Here? The nearest spaceport is on the other side of Oweta.”

“I know. I work there, remember?”

“Why would a spaceship be landing here?”

“How should I know?” Cezloom asked his wife.

“You work at the spaceport, remember?”

“Mussela, I’m just a repairman, not a pilot.”

“Call Tuzhom.”

“His house is closer to that ship’s landing location than ours. I’m sure he already knows.”

“No, I mean call him to ask if he knows who they are and why they’d be landing here.”

“It might be Space Command.”

“Our world isn’t a participating member of the G.A. so Space Command isn’t supposed to land here unless invited.”

“Space Command can land wherever and whenever they want. Maybe they’re here to talk with the Grand Princess.”

“Oh, no,” Mussela said. “You don’t think the Grand Princess has invited them to come here, do you?”

“The Grand Princess doesn’t confide in me. I don’t know if she did or didn’t.”

“Wait, what’s that noise?”

“What noise? The noise from the engines has stopped.”

“Shush.”

After straining to hear for several seconds, Cezloom said, “I don’t hear anything.”

“You were talking. It sounded like people screaming and yelling for a few seconds.”

“It’s quiet now.”

“It’s too quiet. It’s never this quiet at this hour.”

“I see something moving outside the house.”

“What is it?”

“I can’t tell. It looks like a…”












Chapter Seventeen

~ August 31th, 2292 ~

“I’m pleased to announce that we’ve completed the redesign of our new communications system consoles and actually begun retrofitting equipment in ships that are currently in the Fleet Harbor,” Admiral Plimley said at the closed A.B. meeting in Jenetta’s office. “The redesigned system is just one-tenth the size of the jury-rigged systems we sent to the Ares and the seven Space Command bases in Region Three. In our haste to implement the new system, we totally disregarded size considerations in favor of operability. Priority is being given to those ships scheduled to leave first for patrol or other duties.”

The new com system was still top secret so the A.B. hadn’t wanted to discuss it in the meeting hall just yet.

“As we gear up,” Admiral Plimley continued, “we’ll be sending new consoles out in Quartermaster vessels so ships won’t have to return to Quesann to get the new com systems. We’ve prepared full documentation so the engineers aboard each ship can handle the retrofit in a matter of hours.”

“That’s wonderful news, Loretta,” Jenetta said. “You and your people are to be congratulated. You’ve moved this project along far faster than anyone could have expected. There’s no doubt in my mind that this new system will revolutionize Space Command operations. Being able to send messages and receive replies across thousands of light-years in what is virtually real time provides us with a whole new dimension in our efforts to protect the people and planets of the Galactic Alliance. I applaud your redesign efforts, but I also have to state that having the bulky, initial systems installed in the Ares and the bases in Region Three was well worth the effort. Those systems have given us tremendous peace of mind.”

Admiral Plimley smiled and said, “Thank you, Jen. And I expect you now want to ask me about the status of the CJ Gate project.”

“I didn’t want to take attention away from your important com system announcement, but an update report on that other project would likewise be appreciated,” Jenetta said, returning the smile.

“Okay, here it is. As everyone here knows, we had working CJ Gate booths, so we only had to reverse-engineer the booths developed by the Locculo civilization, may they rest in peace. I say only because to create this incredible apparatus from a proposed conceptual design could have taken decades or longer. So the biggest task in this project has always been the design, development, construction, and placement of satellites throughout G.A. space. I estimate that it will optimally take over two years to establish a very basic system throughout G.A space, and could take ten if we don’t devote every possible resource to the endeavor.

“With regard to the satellites, the most difficult effort on our part was developing an encoding system that, indisputably, both protects our system while ensuring maximum safety for travelers and prevents the Denubbewa from piggybacking on our system the way we’ve temporarily piggybacked our communication system onto their satellites. We believe we have that part of the project resolved now, but we continue to test the system. I’ve promised my staff that anyone who manages to find a way to crack the system code without using insider knowledge will receive a six-month paid vacation in addition to their regular vacation time once the project is complete. And once the new system is in place, they’ll be able to travel back to Earth, or whatever other planet they prefer, in the blink of an eye.”

“Loretta,” Admiral Holt said, “what happens if the Denubbewa, or someone else, manages to crack the code once the system is operational?”

“We simply update the code algorithm. We’re already preparing a backup code that will be available in every ship or Gate location. The activation code will be stored in the captain’s safe or that of the base commander. In less than a minute’s time, the code modification can be installed throughout the satellite network. Should someone crack the code and we learn about it, they’re going to be quite upset to suddenly discover that we’ve just sent them back to square one. In other words, all their effort was wasted and their information is now useless.”

“So you’re saying the system protection is foolproof?”

“Not exactly. I could never guarantee that because nothing is foolproof. What I’m saying is that we can immediately change the code if we learn that someone has cracked the original. But short of an enemy tracking down all of our Gate satellites and destroying them, the system is as safe from tampering as we can make it.”

“Thank you, Loretta. You and your people have given us a tremendous new tool to aid in our defense of the G.A. Is there any other business we have to discuss in closed session?” Jenetta asked.

“What’s the story with the Ruwalchu?” Admiral Hillaire asked.

“Until now, the Ares has been patiently waiting for the Prime Minister to deliver the annexation petition. Larry Gavin has informed me there were three holdouts on the Gilesset, but the P.M. had promised he would deliver. We have the supervisor cyborg given to us by the Ruwalchu under lock and key in the Ares. Larry was waiting for the petition before sending a CPS to deliver the cyborg to Quesann. He didn’t want to tie up two CPSs for delivery runs of six months because he needs every ship he has. Larry promises that the Denubbewa will be on its way here within twenty-four hours, regardless of whether the petition has been delivered to the Ares or not.”

“And the situation that we’ve just begun to hear about in Gondusan territory?” Admiral Yuthkotl asked.

“Brian?” Jenetta said.

“As soon as we learned of the incident, I ordered a number of ships in Region Two to proceed to the border and investigate,” Admiral Holt answered. “We have one battleship, three destroyers, and two Scout-Destroyers currently searching for Denubbewa ships in G.A. space there. Additionally, five CPSs have been sent to search for and find the attacked freighter in Gondusan space, if they can, and destroy any and all Denubbewa vessels they encounter. To date, I’ve received no reports of any battle activity or even of any ships having reached their assigned territory. Of course, we’re still relying on S-Band communications for our contact with all of these ships. Once the battleship Pholus and the three destroyers, Duluth, Stuttgart, and Lima, receive their new com systems, we’ll have much more timely information, and they can relay messages from the Scout-Destroyers and CPSs. Loretta, we all know of the demands on your time and resources, but if you could try to have at least four of the new systems sent out with the next Quartermaster ship headed that way, it would really help.”

“They’re already on their way, Brian. Raihana, can you tell us when they’ll arrive at the Pholus?”

“I’ll check as soon as I get back to my office,” Admiral Ahmed said. “Has the Gondusan government been apprised of our incursion into their territory?”

“No,” Admiral Holt said, “our ships are cloaked in a double envelope so they can’t be detected, and at this point we don’t even know if this was a legitimate call for help or an attempted diversion by the Denubbewa who might have hoped we’d send all of our forces to the Gondusan territory, or at least enough to leave us short-handed. In a separate matter, I received a message just before I left my office that reports a possible incident in Region Three. We intercepted a message from a freighter who was reporting that he’s unable to get a response from anyone on the planet Husteus.”

“As I recall,” Admiral Burke said, “their Grand Princess refused to even consider becoming a G.A. member planet after we annexed the Uthlaro Empire, so they have no representation in the Senate. We don’t even have diplomatic contact with them. They wanted no part of the G.A.”

“Whether they desired it or not, they are part of the G.A. now so we owe them the basic protections from outside invasions afforded to all non-aligned planets within G.A. space,” Admiral Woo said, “even if they don’t contribute to the military funding of Space Command.”

“We’ve never had an incident where we stepped in to help a non-aligned planet,” Admiral Ressler said.

“We just stepped in to help protect a neighbor nation that rejected our efforts at diplomatic contact,” Admiral Woo said. “If we can help the Ruwalchu, we must help Husteus.”

“Lon is right,” Jenetta said. “We should help Husteus— if the problem deserves our attention.”

“What do you mean by ‘deserves our attention,’ Jen?” Admiral Woo asked.

“If the planet has been attacked by outside forces, we must step in. If the planet is engaged in internal strife, such as a civil war, they’re on their own. That’s not my rule. It’s part of the Galactic Alliance Charter. The first thing we must do is learn what’s going on. Do we have any ships in the area? Brian? Raihana?”

“Let me check,” Brian said as he activated his CT to contact his office.

“No Quartermaster ships within a thousand light-years at present, Jen,” Admiral Ahmed said. “Husteus is one of the most remote occupied planets in Region Three.”

“It’s the perfect target for an attack by the Denubbewa,” Admiral Holt said as he completed his call to his office. “It’ll take weeks for our ships to get there. The nearest ship we have right now, the destroyer Miami, is about ten to twelve days out. But it will take a month to get new orders to them to investigate. The next closest assets are a patrol group led by the Scout-Destroyer Koshi.”

“Christa’s ship and group?” Jenetta asked.

Admiral Holt nodded.

“For the Miami, it will be a month before they receive the orders, ten to twelve days of travel, a day to learn what they can, and then another month to report back,” Jenetta mused. “Two and a half months for the present system. Just thirteen days total once the new com system is in place. I’m not criticizing you or your people, Loretta. You’ve done an incredible job. I was just thinking aloud about what an incredible change the new com system is going to make. Brian can have the ship investigate and then report back to us. In two and a half months, we’ll know the story on Husteus.”

“In a couple of months the Denubbewa can have thoroughly subjugated the population and begun turning them into cyborgs,” Admiral Hillaire said. “Don’t mind me, I’m also thinking out loud. I have no better solution. I’m just frustrated that we’re often so impotent when dealing with the Denubbewa.”

“We’re making progress, Arnold,” Jenetta said. “The Denubbewa know how powerful we are, so they’re working to divide our forces and our attention. We mustn’t allow them to get the upper hand. The new com system will help tremendously, and we can still whip them in battle if we can get them to attack us directly.”

“I think they’ve learned their lesson in that regard,” Admiral Plimley said. “I think they’re going to keep nipping at our heels to wear us down while they try to learn the secrets of how our ships can go in and out of phase by using the double envelope.”

“We have to use the same battle plan against them,” Jenetta said. “We have to confront them and destroy them on multiple fronts wherever and whenever we can while working to learn all the secrets they’ve acquired in their centuries of taking over civilizations throughout the galaxy, or even the universe. What we really need is that Cosmic Jump Gate capable of sending an armada. With that, we’d be able to move our forces around to wherever we needed them, like chess pieces on a board. I know it’s going to take time because we have to crawl before we can walk and walk before we can run. But I refuse to entertain the idea that those metal-heads will ever beat us.”

“We already have the new com system in operation at the extreme limits of Region Three,” Admiral Plimley said. “You ordered it.”

“Of course,” Jenetta said as she remembered her request to Admiral Plimley. “We may not have ships with the new com system in that area, but we have seven new space stations that were designated to receive the new com system. Are they all operational, Loretta?”

“All seven of the original bulky com systems are fully operational. Newly designed hardware is on its way, but the original equipment works just as well as the new equipment.”

“Wonderful. Then let’s route the message to the new base closest to Husteus with instructions to forward it to the Miami. Perhaps we’ll have an answer to what’s happening on Husteus in under twenty days.”

“Since the Koshi is the next closest patrol group,” Admiral Burke said, “perhaps we should notify Christa of the situation with orders to stand by and be ready to jump in if needed.”

“That’s sounds like a good idea, Raymond,” Jenetta said. “Brian?”

“I’ll send a notification to her regarding the situation but inform her that it may be nothing.”

~     ~     ~

“Mr. Prime Minister, I regret to inform you that the Ares and our entire taskforce have been recalled from Ruwalchu space. The Denubbewa are allegedly attacking ships in Gondusan space and planets in Region Three. Space Command doesn’t want us sitting here waiting for a petition that may never come to us.”

“But Commander, you can’t leave us defenseless.”

“We have no choice. While we have no commitment to the Gondusans, we must protect the planets that are part of the G.A., even if they aren’t G.A-aligned planets. We must leave within the hour.”

“But I have all of the Gilesset members except one committed to the annexation on video, and they’ve signed the petition.”

“I’m sorry, but the requirement is that all members be committed to the annexation. That one member might as well be twenty. A petition with missing signatures and a vid with missing member allegiance promises will not be considered by the G.A. Senate.”

“How much time do I have?”

“None. We’re preparing to depart.”

“If I get the last Gilesset member to sign on, will you stay?”

“We’re out of time. We have to leave. I wish you well.”

“Commander, wait. Give me just one hour.”

“Do you really think that will make any difference? We’ve been here many weeks already after you told us all of the Gilesset favored the annexation.”

“If I deliver the petition and required supporting documentation, will you stay?”

“That’s up to Quesann. But they approved our waiting once.”

“So you’ll stay for the twenty weeks it will take for the message to reach Quesann and the answer to return?”

“It doesn’t take that long anymore. While we were waiting, we installed a new com system, so we don’t use the old S-Band system anymore for urgent communications.”

“It’s quicker? How long does it take with this new system?”

“No more than eighteen seconds in each direction.”

“Excuse me, I think I misunderstood— or perhaps my translation device is malfunctioning. Did you mean eighteen weeks because it sounded like you said eighteen seconds.”

“I did.”

“Great Protector, you mean it takes less than a third of a minute for a message to reach Quesann?”

“Yes, Prime Minister.”

“That’s unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable. Uh— can we get such a system?”

“Right now, only a handful of ships have the brand new system installed. All of the most remote bases and the ships stationed in the most remote areas of G.A. space received the very first units.”

“Aren’t we the most remote area of G.A. space?”

“This is not G.A. space, Prime Minister.”

“Give me one hour and I promise you I’ll have the documents you require. You can even send your ship to the park so I can deliver it to you personally as soon as it’s ready.”

“You’re that confident?”

“I am.”

“Okay, I know I can talk my captain into waiting just one more hour, but that’s all. We don’t want to be court-martialed for failure to follow orders.”

“I promise you on the book of the Great Protector that I will have the petition and supporting documentation ready for you.”

“Very well, Prime Minister. I’ll see you in one hour. Commander Eliza Carver out.”

Eliza took a deep breath and sighed as she leaned back and relaxed into the oh-gee chair, then turned the desktop screen back towards Captain Gavin.

“Good job, Eliza,” Gavin said.

“Thank you, sir. He sounded desperate. I think he’ll finally deliver.”

“If he does, then whether we stay or go will be up to Quesann.”

“What’s your best guess?”

“I think Quesann will tell me to assign one Scout-Destroyer and half a dozen CPS-16s to patrol Ruwalchu space, and order the rest of us back to Region Three.”

“That sounds like a safe bet. Do you think I should head down to the planet now?”

“Yes. If this falls through, we don’t want them to be able to blame us for failing to make the meeting. We said an hour, but give him ninety minutes. If he fails to show up, come on back and we’ll leave orbit. This is his last chance to come through. Personally, I’m not all that excited about taking on a new chunk of territory as large as the Uthlaro Dominion when Jen annexed it. And we’ve added all the unclaimed space between Region One, the Milori Empire, the Tsgardi Kingdom, and the Uthlaro Dominion so we have one contiguous section of space. We have so much territory to patrol now, it’s not getting the coverage it should. And we don’t have nearly enough ships and crews to improve the situation.”

“We couldn’t ignore the Ruwalchu calls for help before, and we can’t leave them defenseless now.”

“We can— if they fail to present the annexation petition.”

“Well, there’s only one way to find out if that’s going to happen. I should be back within two hours, sir.”

~     ~     ~

“How much longer are we gonna keep searching, Skipper?” Helmsman Lieutenant (jg) Ving Villobo asked the captain of the CPS-16 Freedom’s Child.

“Until Quesann tells us to stop searching,” Lieutenant Jules Harford responded.

“But there’s nothing out here. We’ve completed a dozen search grids in the past two weeks and we haven’t seen a single ship, moving or stationary.”

“We look until they tell us to stop looking, Ving. Period.”

“Okay, Skipper.”

“Skip, I just got a hit,” the tac officer said, “but it was at the extreme edge of our DeTect range so I’ve lost it already.”

“Was it a ship?”

“I couldn’t tell what it was. It might have been a ship— or it might have been a small asteroid. It popped onto the screen and then popped off when we went out of range an instant later.”

“Helm, take us back along our previous route at half speed. Tac, tell Helm when to change course so we can check out the contact.”

“Yes, sir,” both officers said.

A minute later the tac officer said, “There it is on our starboard side down sixteen degrees. The range is about four billion kilometers. Uh, it’s gone again— out of range. It appeared to be stationary.”

“Helm?”

“Changing course to intercept, Skipper.”

Two minutes and five seconds later, after correcting their course twice, the bridge crew of Freedom’s Child was looking at a freighter with half a dozen large holes in its hull.

“This has to be what Quesann sent us to find,” Lt. Harford said. “Or one just like it.”

“But there’s no cargo section,” the tac officer said. “Weren’t we told that the message came from a freight handler who was reported to be in the maintenance section amidship?”

“I suppose whoever attacked the ship stole the cargo section.”

“Weren’t the Denubbewa doing that in Region Two at one time?” the helmsman asked.

“I believe it was in Region Two— but it might have been in Region Three. I can’t remember exactly.”

“So do we board her, Skip?” the tac officer asked.

“No. First of all, the ship is probably glowing with radioactivity. Secondly, we’d have to drop our double envelope, which would make us visible to anyone else who happens by. Let’s just report the find and see what they want us to do. Com?”

“I’m on it, sir.”

A minute later the com chief said, “Message sent to the Pholus.”

“Now we just relax and wait,” Lt. Harford said. “The message will take about six days to get to the Pholus just over the border in Region Two G.A. space. If they’ve got the new com system installed, it’s eighteen seconds to Quesann, then eighteen seconds back to the Pholus once HQ makes a decision, then six days to reach us via S-Band.”

“Why can’t we have the new com system, Skipper?” the helmsman asked. “It would save twelve days.”

“We’ll get it, Ving. It’s brand new and they can’t possibly retrofit the entire fleet overnight. Since we’re just a CPS-16, we’re a bit further down the priority list than the big warships like Pholus and the destroyers. But everyone’s going to get it. Imagine talking to the folks back home on Earth like we were calling from Mars. I’m as anxious as you.”

“I’ve heard we won’t be able to use the new system for personal messages,” the com chief said. “Space Command business only.”

“That stinks,” the helmsman said.

“Relax, Ving,” Harford said. “It’s probably just until they work all the bugs out of the new system. Eventually, the S-Band system will be retired and become as antiquated as AM and FM signals.”

“I’m sure you’re right, Skipper,” the com chief said, “and that day can’t come soon enough.”












Chapter Eighteen

~ September 3rd, 2292 ~

“I’ve received a message from Captain Gavin aboard the Ares,” Admiral Holt said during the regular meeting of the A.B. underway in the large Admiralty Board Hall. “He reports that the Ruwalchu Prime Minister has finally delivered the annexation petition. All Gilesset members have signed the document and, in a brief one-minute interview, each member has confirmed their unwavering support of the annexation request on behalf of the citizens they represent. The documentation has been placed aboard a CPS-16 to be delivered here to Quesann, along with a cyborg to be delivered to the Intelligence Section. Additionally, the ship is transporting a representative of the Ruwalchu people who’s prepared to answer any questions we or the G.A. Senate might have. The ship should arrive here in about five and a half weeks.”

“Excellent,” Jenetta said. “We’ll have to arrange diplomatic quarters for him or her for the length of their stay.”

“I’ve issued orders to Captain Gavin to assign one Scout-Destroyer and half a dozen CPSs to patrol duties in the Ruwalchu territory until the G.A. Senate makes a decision regarding their annexation petition. The remainder of the taskforce will return to Region Three and perform patrol duties.”

“Seven ships to patrol a territory large enough to justify two hundred,” Jenetta said, shaking her head.

“It’s the best we can do.”

“I know, Brian, and I’m not putting any blame on your head. You’re doing a fantastic job. We must simply get more ships and more people. Since the Denubbewa appear to have been completely decimated in Ruwalchu space, the small force of seven ships should be adequate for the time being. And if the Senate approves the annexation, they’ll have to approve an appropriation increase so the territory can be properly protected in the future. We can’t possibly take responsibility for guarding a territory of that size with our present resources. We’re stretched so thin now that I fear any attack by the Denubbewa.”

“Not to change the subject, but I want to remind the Board that Shana suggested sending reclamation vessels to the Ruwalchu Confederacy when we decided to get involved there. Might I echo her suggestion that we divert the next reclamation efforts to collect the destroyed ships in the Ruwalchu territory?” Admiral Burke said. “None of that waste should fall into the hands of the Ruwalchu or scavengers, should it?”

“Good point, Raymond,” Jen said. “Shana did suggest that previously. It would be better if scavengers didn’t get their hands on any of the technology that’s sure to be mixed in with the rubble, such as CJ Gate booths.”

“We still haven’t received any word regarding the attack in Gondusan space,” Admiral Holt said. “We believe the ships have reached their assigned patrol areas, but so far they’ve reported no evidence of a Denubbewa attack.”

“Any update on Husteus?”

“Husteus?” Admiral Holt echoed. “It’s too early to hear anything back from the Miami.”

“I wasn’t referring to the Miami situation. I meant have any other reports been made by freighters or by anyone who’s been trying unsuccessfully to reach a contact on the planet?”

“No word at all, Jen,” Admiral Holt said.

“I have an appointment with General Winslow Scott at Harrat Island Marine Base this afternoon. We’re going to discuss the Marine Ground Force Initiative. Following approval and funding of the program by the Senate Council, response to our recruitment efforts has been very positive.”

“Has Marine Command limited recruitment to Terrans and Nordakians?” Admiral Yuthkotl asked.

“Not at all, Lesbolh. Terrans are the most dominant species in the new battalions, just as in Space Command, but that’s because Terrans are so numerous from having populated so many planets during the past two centuries. Nordakians also make up a substantial part of our military family. They’ve been strongly invested in space travel for many generations, which is why we opened a Space Command Academy on Nordakia. It’s helped increase the numbers in the service as the G.A. grew. You’re the sole Nordakian on the Admiralty Board, but that’s only because we don’t want to increase the size of the Board, and we couldn’t very well drop existing members to balance species. But once retirement begins to open seats here, every consideration will be given to bringing additional Nordakians on board. The selection, as always, will be based on ability, not species. In addition to Terrans and Nordakians, recruitment for the MGFI has been open to Dakistians, Flordaryns, Arrosians, Selaxians, Milora, Elusions, and Cheblooks.”

“Milora!” Admiral Ressler exclaimed in surprise.

“They’re part of the G.A. now and no one can dispute their ferocity as fighters. Under Maxxiloth and his predecessors, Milora were bred to be soldiers, so fighting is all some of them know. They’ve felt almost disenfranchised on Milor since Maxxiloth lost his bid to take over the galaxy. Even those in the Region Two Territorial Guard have talked of feeling useless because the main emphasis has been on peaceful law enforcement since we defeated the Uthlaro armada. I assure you they are loyal to the G.A. now, and becoming part of the Space Marine Corps will hopefully rekindle their spirit.”

“I naturally understand why being a fierce fighter is a desirable trait in a Marine,” Admiral Bradlee said, “but why Arrosians and Selaxians? Are they going to be protecting Munchkin-land? What’s next, a battalion of Jumakas?”

Jenetta smiled and looked down at Tayna and then Cayla, who were sitting quietly at her sides. Their heads had risen slightly when their species was referenced and they made eye contact with Jenetta. “Why not? Every species has valuable skills, Roger. Yes, Arrosians and Selaxians are short in stature, but they’re highly intelligent, and there are many times where short stature is prized. They might be at a severe disadvantage in hand-to-hand combat, but it doesn’t take a lot of strength and size to man a gun emplacement on a battlefield or fire a laser weapon at a cyborg. It will be up to the Marine commanders to decide if the recruits can bear up and contribute to our military operations. As for Jumakas, I think they would make a wonderful addition to the MGFI. Their abilities in stealth and reconnaissance are unparalleled among sentient species. And with the translation collars, they wouldn’t need another sentient being along as a ‘handler’ the way militaries needed handlers with K9 units. I’d really like to use this opportunity to coalesce the various species into a united force dedicated to protecting the G.A. We’re all threatened by the Denubbewa, and the species other than Terrans and Nordakians have every right to fight to protect their homes and their home nations. Although we’ve done our best to downplay the deadly serious threat posed by the Denubbewa because we didn’t want the public to panic, the news media has managed to learn the true situation and spread that word throughout the G.A. We have a hundred times more people trying to volunteer for military service than our budget appropriation allows.”

“You’re correct, Jen,” Admiral Burke said. “Those other species are a part of our nation and deserve an opportunity to fight for the protection of their homes and families, just as we do. It was just a bit of a shock at first. Most of the applicants from those species haven’t been able to pass the entrance examination for the academies, so I guess I sort of dismissed their fighting skills as well. I sure wouldn’t want to face a Milora in battle. They’re probably strong enough to rip a cyborg apart with their bare hands and tentacles.”

“They may have to if we’re forced to fight the cyborgs in a ground war,” Admiral Bradlee said.

“I just want to say that I wasn’t suggesting Nordakians were being discriminated against on this board, Jen,” Admiral Yuthkotl said. “Everyone here knows you’re a member of the Nordakian royalty, although a member of the genus Terran. So actually, there are two Nordakians on the Admiralty Board.”

~     ~     ~

“Good afternoon, General Scott,” Jenetta said as she exited the CPS-14. These smaller ships, predecessors of the CPS-16s, were used for transporting dignitaries around planets where a trip in a limo wasn’t feasible. Jenetta had long ago returned the CPS-14 assigned to her for her private use while she was on an extended leave of absence. A special limo assigned for her exclusive use was now her usual form of transportation around the Space Command base and G.A. government complex, but for longer trips, including off-world trips, an unmarked CPS was her preferred form of transportation. The CPS-14 might be considerably smaller than the newer CPS-16s, but they were every bit as effective in all endeavors.

“Welcome to Harrat Island Marine Base, Admiral,” General Winslow Scott said as he extended his hand. “It’s been awhile.”

“Yes, it has,” Jenetta replied as she took the hand and shook it warmly. “I seem to spend most of my life at my desk or at a conference table these days.”

“I know what you mean. I feel the same way. I’m always looking for an excuse to get outdoors. Shall we head right over to the training area?”

“Love to.”

As they entered the limo, Jenetta asked, “How’s your wife and family?”

“Everyone’s healthy and as reasonably happy as military families ever are. How about your family?”

“The kids are healthy, getting big, and everyone seems to be happy. I’m hoping I get a chance to see my husband before the end of the year. We share vidMails a couple of times a week, but it’s certainly not the same as being together.”

“Military relationships are even more difficult when both husband and wife are in the service.”

“You’re not kidding.”

“How goes the battle to have your Jumakas declared sentient?”

Jenetta reached down and gently stroked the fur atop Cayla and Tayna’s skulls before saying, “The Senate is still procrastinating, but the entire G.A. knows the truth, even if they aren’t yet required to treat Jumakas as sentient beings. An increasing number of planets have forged ahead of the Senate and declared them sentient. It will happen throughout the G.A. eventually. The Senate hasn’t been able to dismiss Jumaka sentience— they just haven’t declared it a reality.”

“What will happen to your two friends when it does?”

“What do you mean?”

“Right now they’re considered pets and protectors, so it’s not a problem. When their sentience is officially acknowledged, will they still be able to accompany you into top-secret meetings and such?”

“I’ve given that a bit of thought. They can always accompany me if I make them my official security team and assign them a Most-Secret security rating.”

General Scott smiled before saying, “Rank has its privileges.”

Over the next three hours, Jenetta and General Scott toured the base and viewed numerous field training sessions and classroom instruction.

“Winslow, I’m impressed,” Jenetta said as she prepared to leave the base. “You’ve done a magnificent job in a short period of time.”

“Our new Space Marines are well motivated. If they didn’t know just how serious the situation was before they arrived, they certainly do now. I promise you they’ll fight as if the fate of the G.A. rests upon their shoulders because to a degree— it does.”

“Thank you for the tour, Winslow. Thank you for all you’ve done here to advance the Ground Forces Initiative and prepare these Space Marines for the onerous engagements we know are ahead. And thank you for all you and your Marines will do when called to action.”

~     ~     ~

Aboard the destroyer Miami, GSC-D1369, Captain Arthur Benjamin Caldwell was just beginning lunch in the private dining room that was part of his quarters when he received a call via his CT that a message had just arrived for him.

“Route it to my queue, Chief. I’ll view it after lunch.”

“Uh, it’s a Priority-One message, Captain.”

“Priority-One? Why didn’t you say so?”

“Because it’s very unusual, sir.”

“What do you mean?”

“The message appears to be from Quesann Command— but it has yesterday’s date. And it was sent from Ellask SCB.”

“Ellask?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then, how can it be from Quesann?”

“It appears to have been routed through Ellask.”

“That’s most unusual. Why would Quesann route a Priority-One through Ellask?”

“I don’t understand it either, sir.”

“Quesann is four weeks by S-Band from here. Sending it to Ellask first would add at least six hours. Are you sure you’re reading that right?”

“Yes, sir. And the origination date is definitely yesterday.”

“Send it to my queue, Chief.”

“It’s already sent, sir.”

“Caldwell out.”

Caldwell stood up and walked to his office where he activated his computer and leaned in for the retinal scan. When the process was complete, the screen lit up with a head-and-shoulders image of Admiral Holt. Caldwell plopped back into his chair to listen.

“Hello, Captain Caldwell. If everything goes smoothly and our understanding of your approximate location is accurate, you should receive this communication in roughly six to eight hours. Our brand new com system is capable of sending a message from any point in G.A. space to any other point in G.A. space in roughly eighteen to twenty seconds. Yes, you heard that correctly. We are retrofitting the com systems in all Space Command ships and bases with all possible speed, but it will take time. Priority is being given first to bases, then larger warships from battleships down to destroyers, then smaller warships such as the Scout-Destroyers and CPSs, and finally all support vessels. At present, the system is only to be used for important Space Command transmissions where speed is critical. As the system is expanded and proven infallible, it will be used for all communications by Space Command and Space Marine personnel. The S-Band com systems will continue to be used but only for commercial and civilian shipping contact. For the time being, the new com system is to remain a Space Command secret.

“Since Ellask Space Command Base is the location nearest you with the new system already in operation, that should be your routing location for the present. Your report on this upcoming mission should be forwarded through Ellask with a Priority-One designation.”

Caldwell’s mouth was hanging open slightly as he thought about communications with Quesann, which was about five weeks away at Marc-One, taking just eighteen seconds.

“Now, for your mission. We’ve received a report that all attempts to make contact with anyone on the planet Husteus have failed. Since Husteus is a non-aligned planet, we naturally have no presence there. But they’re still part of the G.A. and we have an obligation to protect them from outside interference. Your mission is to travel to Husteus and investigate. If they report that all is well, you’re not to send down any landing parties. If you get no response, send down a couple of your CPS-14s to investigate while cloaked in a double envelope. They are not to land unless the planet has definitely been subjected to outside attack.

“We estimate that the voyage will take approximately ten days at Marc-One, so we expect to have some word back from you in roughly eleven days when you route your report through Ellask.

“Be extra vigilant because we have no idea what you might be facing, if anything. Good luck.

“Admiral Brian Holt, Quesann Command. End of message.”

Caldwell sat back and took a deep breath. He had heard everything Admiral Holt had said, and absorbed it, but his mind was focused on the claim that a message could be sent from one end of G.A. space to the other in under twenty seconds. He wasn’t a scientist and had no idea how this might be accomplished, but he didn’t doubt Admiral Holt’s statement that it was now possible.

As he rose from his chair, he touched his Space Command ring and said the name of the officer on Watch duty. When he got a response, he issued orders that they were to head for Husteus at Marc-One. Then he returned to his dining room, still thinking about the new com system.

~     ~     ~

“Skipper?” the tac officer aboard the CPS-16 Freedom’s Child said aloud, “There’s someone headed this way.”

“Someone?” Lieutenant Jules Harford queried. “A ship— not an asteroid?”

“It’s definitely a ship, Skipper, and it’s definitely headed right at us.”

“Helm, is our double envelope still in place?”

“Yes, sir, Skipper. You said it was to remain around us at all times while we were in Gondusan space.”

“Good. Okay, no one can see us. Let’s just see who’s coming for a visit.”

“It’s probably someone else that’s been searching for the freighter,” the navigator said.

“I don’t know,” the tac officer said. “It’s big, whoever it is.”

A few minutes later, the tac officer said, “Holy moly, it’s a Denubbewa warship.”

“Denubbewa?” Harford said. “Are you sure?”

“Just as sure as I can be. I’ve seen images of Denubbewa warships from every angle. They all look basically the same. It’s like once they got a design that worked, they decided to turn out a billion of them.”

“Standing orders are to destroy every Denubbewa we see,” Harford said, “but let’s wait and see what it does before we pull the trigger. Tac, do we have a WOLaR ready?”

“Ready and waiting in the ejection tube. All I have to do is arm it, Skipper. That takes one second.”

“Good, stand by. We’re going to use it. But first I want to see why they’re coming back, assuming they were the ones that killed the freighter crew.”

The Denubbewa warship came into view, approaching the freighter slowly, and then came to a full stop. As the bridge crew of Freedom’s Child watched, a small yard tender appeared from behind the enormous warship, dragging a freighter section loaded with containers.

“What are they going to do with that?” the tac officer wondered out loud.

As the crew watched, the tender pushed the freight section into place and attached it to the freighter.

“They’re putting it back together,” Helmsman Lieutenant (jg) Ving Villobo said. “I wonder if those containers are still loaded with whatever they were transporting.”

“I don’t get it,” the tac officer said. “They killed the crew of the freighter to get the cargo, and now they’re bringing it back?”

“There’s no mistaking the fact that the freighter was attacked by Denubbewa,” the tac officer said. “Those holes and the nuclear charges they use are clear evidence of their guilt.”

Once the freight section was attached, the yard tractor returned to the warship and entered though a side port.

“There they go,” the helmsman said.

“Follow them, Ving.”

“Aye, Skipper,” the helmsman said as he applied power to the envelope generator.

“You know where the best places are to place the WOLaR, Ving?”

“Aye, Skipper. I’ve studied the Denubbewa warship vids so many times I could do it in my sleep.”

“Okay, but I want your eyes open this time. You call the shot. Tac, arm that WOLaR.”

“Aye, Skipper. It’s now armed.”

“Okay, Ving, you say when.”

Freedom’s Child caught up with the Denubbewa ship and entered through the stern. When it reached amidship, the helmsman said, “Drop.”

“It’s away,” the tac officer said.

The helmsman applied power and Freedom’s Child cleared the bow of the ship a second later. The tac officer changed the view on the front monitor to a view from the stern, and the bridge crew was able to watch the Denubbewa ship blow apart like a balloon filled with too much air.

“Gotcha,” Harford said. “You’ll never kill another innocent freighter crew.”

“What now, Skipper?” Lieutenant (jg) Ving Villobo asked.

“We found the freighter and destroyed the Denubbewa ship that did the deed. I guess we should head back to G.A. space.”

“Aren’t we going to investigate further?” the tac officer asked. “We still don’t know why they brought the freight section back.”

“And maybe we never will,” Harford said. “Our orders are not to drop our envelope unless it’s an emergency.”

“How about if we fly though and just kinda stop?” the helmsman asked.

“Well, that doesn’t violate our orders. Okay, take us back to the freighter.”

A few minutes later, they were sitting next to the freighter.

“I’m just going to slide us in slowly when you give the word, Skipper,” Villobo said.

“Tac, all cameras should be running,” Harford said.

“Aye, Skipper, all cameras are running.”

“Okay, Ving, take us through.”

As the ship emerged from the other side, Harford said, “It was too dark for me to see anything.”

“Give me a few seconds to check the footage with different filters.”

About ten seconds later, the tac officer said, “Holy moly!”

“What is it, Tac?” Harford asked.

“I’ll put it up on the front monitor.” All eyes on the bridge watched the front monitor as the image appeared. It was a bit dark, but there was no disguising the fact that the containers were filled with Denubbewa cyborgs.

“It looks like they’re hoping to infiltrate a port somewhere,” Harford said. “The freight containers get taken down to a planet and out pop hundreds of cyborgs.”

“But why?” Villobo asked. “They could just land and take over.”

“Perhaps they wanted to ensure the fight was over quickly— with limited damage.”

“Yeah, well, what are we going to do about it?” Villobo asked.

“Well, while we have standing orders to destroy any Denubbewa ship we find, we don’t have permission to destroy Gondusan freighters.”

“Well, technically,” the tac officer said, “the freight containers are now owned by the Denubbewa since they’re filled with Denubbewa cyborgs and there are no other lifeforms aboard.”

Harford looked around the bridge. The navigator, com chief, and Villobo all nodded in agreement as his eyes stopped on them.

“If we destroy the freighter, the Gondusans might think we killed the freighter crew and started all this.”

“We have a few non-WOLaR bombs,” the tac officer said. “We don’t have to destroy the entire freighter.”

“Could we open up enough containers so that anyone investigating would see the cyborgs?”

“Sure. We could scatter pieces of them all over this area while leaving some containers almost intact so they can figure out what the Denubbewa intended.”

“Okay, let’s do it.”

“It’ll just take a few minutes to get the light ordnance loaded.”

Five minutes later, the tac officer said, “All set, Skipper. If you can get us near the cargo section, say within a meter or two, I’ll drop a bomb. If one doesn’t do it, we have nineteen more.”

“Okay. Helm, take us over near the cargo section.”

When the ship was close enough so the explosive effect should rip open a few of the cargo containers, the tac officer said, “Bombs away.”

“Bombs away?”

“It’s what they used to say in those old Earth war movies from several centuries ago. I’m only ejecting one. It should explode at one meter from the containers.”

As the bomb moved out of the double envelope, it continued to drop slowly and exploded within a meter of a cargo container. Since there was no atmosphere, the force of the explosion was minimal, but it was enough to rip open two of the containers.

“Maybe I should have used a WOLaR,” the tac officer said.

“I think that should be enough,” Harford said. “There are a few Denubbewa bodies floating out through the openings. In fact, take us away from here, Helm, before they try to climb aboard Freedom’s Child.”

When the ship was away from the freighter, Harford said, “Tac, use the exterior camera to check the hull. See if there’re any stowaways on board.”

“The exterior cameras can only see about twenty-eight percent of the hull area, Skipper.”

“So let’s look at that twenty-eight percent.”

“Aye, Skipper.”












Chapter Nineteen

~ September 14th, 2292 ~

“All stop,” Captain Caldwell said from his command chair on the bridge of the Miami as they approached the planet Husteus. “Maintain the envelope. What does that look like to you, XO?”

“It looks like three Denubbewa warships in orbit around the planet, sir,” Commander Isaacs replied.

“That’s what it looks like to me. Helm, turn us around and get us away from here.”

“We’re leaving, sir?” XO Isaacs asked.

“Of course not, XO. We’re going to prepare for battle. But first, I’ve got a message to prepare. Halt the ship when we’re about five hundred trillion kilometers away from the planet.”

“Yes, sir. About one-point-three seconds at Marc-One should give us that.”

Caldwell nodded, stood up, and walked to his office. As the doors closed behind him, the Miami accelerated back the way it had come for one-point-three seconds.

Caldwell sat at his desk and said to his computer, “Priority-One message to Admiral Brian Holt, Quesann Command. Message to be routed through Ellask SCB. Begin message. Admiral, we’ve just reached Husteus and found three Denubbewa warships in orbit around the planet. We’ve pulled back so we can launch our CPS-14s. As soon as they’re ready, I’m going to send them in to destroy the three warships. Following that, I’ll have them overfly the planet at low altitude while cloaked in a double envelope. I’m not sure how you’d want me to handle this whole engagement, but standing orders call for us to immediately destroy every Denubbewa ship we encounter. I promise these three won’t get away. I wish we had one of those new com systems now because it will take days for this message to arrive at Ellask and then more days for the reply to reach us here.

“Captain Arthur Benjamin Caldwell, Captain of the destroyer Miami, GSC-D1369 near the planet Husteus in Region Three. End of message.”

He appended a note that it was to be held for transmission until the attack on the Denubbewa had been completed and sent the message to the com chief on the bridge. He then sat back as he thought about the situation. He couldn’t know what was happening down on the planet, but he knew that if there were any Denubbewa down there, they wouldn’t be happy about his destroying their transportation. Of course he didn’t actually know if they were ever happy or sad. Some species caught in this situation might take it out on their prisoners, but he couldn’t know if there were any prisoners still alive.

After initiating a CT carrier signal, he said, “XO Isaacs, come to my office.” He closed the connection by saying, “Caldwell out.”

“You wanted to see me, sir,” Isaacs said as he entered the captain’s office.

“Yes. Launch three of our CPS-14s armed with a habitat container of WOLaR bombs. Then send them in to destroy those three Denubbewa warships.”

“Aye, sir, right away,” Isaacs said. “Is that all?”

“For now.”

“Yes, sir,” Isaacs said and then turned and headed back out to the bridge.

While traveling, the CPS-14s were housed in a bay inside the ship so maintenance could be performed more easily. Habitat containers with ordnance were always attached to the keel of the destroyer. Each of the three CPS-14s would launch and then wait as small cargo tenders attached weapons containers to each craft. When all were ready, the three small ships would build their double envelopes and head to the planet Husteus where their coordinated attack on the Denubbewa warships would see all three destroyed at almost the same instant. The Denubbewa cyborgs in the ships would never know what hit them.

Ten minutes after departing the vicinity of the Miami, the senior-most officer of the three CPS-14s reported that the three Denubbewa ships had been destroyed. Caldwell issued orders to take the Miami back to the planet Husteus.

“We’re orbiting the planet, sir,” Caldwell heard in his CT a couple of minutes later.

“Acknowledged,” Caldwell said. “Caldwell out.”

As Captain Caldwell stepped out of his office, he could see the remains of one of the Denubbewa ships on the bridge’s front monitor. “Good job, everyone. XO, extend my compliments to the crews of the three 14s and send them down to check out the planet. They are not to land. I just want them to have a look around and report back. They should pay close attention to any signs of life.” Caldwell then took his seat in the command chair.

“Aye, Captain.”

After XO Isaacs had completed his task, he sat down in the First Officer’s chair next to Caldwell’s command chair and said, “I’m not holding out much hope for survivors, sir. We have no idea how long the Denubbewa were on the planet, and this planet was pretty backward to begin with.”

“I agree. But the people of Husteus chose to remain a non-aligned planet, so our contact with them was sporadic. I understand the desire for independence, but sometimes it’s better to work with your neighbors instead of ignoring them. It’s true they would have had to pay taxes to the G.A., but they would have gotten so much in return in the way of protection and the ability to trade with other aligned planets. And they would still have had their independence. Quesann is very adamant in that regard. Even with aligned planets, our powers end at their sensible atmosphere unless they request help with a problem they can’t handle and the G.A. Charter allows us to lend a hand.”

~     ~     ~

“We see no obvious evidence of sentient life at all, sir,” Lieutenant Mikura of the lead CPS-14 said several hours later. “We performed a full scan of the planet’s temperate zones using a standard search pattern for three ships. If there’s any life left down there, they’re staying undercover. Our charts don’t indicate large-scale underground bunkers, but they could easily be hiding indoors in one of the cities.”

“Very well, Lieutenant. All three ships should return to the Miami for now. I need permission from Quesann before we perform precision thermal flyovers or land anyone on the planet.”

“Aye, sir. We’ll head home.”

~     ~     ~

“Admiral,” Jenetta’s aide said via the com connection in their respective offices, “the CPS-16 dispatched by Captain Gavin to deliver the representative from Ruwalchu, the annexation petition, and the cyborg has landed. The Ruwalchu representative, Rero Dakinti, is demanding that you be brought to him immediately.”

“What? Why?”

“He won’t say. He says he will only talk to you and demands that you be brought to him immediately.”

“Tell him my calendar is full and I’ll see him in three days as scheduled.”

“He’s already been told that. He says that if you don’t see him immediately, he’s going home.”

Jenetta took a deep breath and released it slowly before saying, “Tell him I wish him well and hope he has a relaxing trip. Tell him you’ll arrange for passage on a freighter. It should get him to the border in about three years. He’ll have to arrange for his own transportation from there.”

Ten minutes later, her aide called again. “He demands that the same ship that brought him here return him.”

“Tell him he’s welcome to make his own arrangements if what we proposed isn’t adequate.”

“He says that if he goes, he takes the cyborg with him.”

“Tell him the cyborg was handed over to us as a gift for destroying the Denubbewa ships in their territory and ceased to be Ruwalchu property at that point.”

“Aye, Admiral. I’ll tell him.”

When her aided called again, Jenetta groaned and then put on a pleasant expression before answering the com.

“Admiral, I’m sorry. He insists on seeing you immediately and won’t say why.”

“Tell him I’m busy. He can either wait until the scheduled time or begin his trip back home. I don’t want to be disturbed again on this matter.”

“Aye, Admiral. I’ll tell him. What do I do if he refuses both options?”

“Tell him that if he makes any more demands, we’ll reschedule his meeting for an additional ninety days from the original date. And if he starts trouble, have him locked up.”

“Lock up an ambassador?”

“No, lock up a troublemaker who refuses to be either cooperative or to leave as he’s promised he would.”

“Aye, Admiral.”

~     ~     ~

“This is the way we found the freighter, Senior Commander Sylqucosta,” the Gondusan Junior Commander said.

“With all those cyborg bodies floating around in space out there?”

“Yes, sir. We fired no missiles at the freighter or the destroyed Denubbewa warship we found nearby.”

“Then who attacked the freighter?”

“We believe it was the Denubbewa warship.”

“And then they cleaned out the freight containers and filled them with cyborgs before someone destroyed their warship?”

“It’s the only thing that makes sense. We know from the manifests that those containers were filled with mined ore.”

“Then who destroyed the warship? The freighter was unarmed.”

“Judging from the degree of the damage, it had to be Space Command.”

“Traveling in our territory without permission?”

“We’re speculating that they might have spotted the Denubbewa ship traveling through their own territory and decided to follow it to see where it was headed. When they saw it destroy the freighter, they held back to see what it would do next. After they saw what it was doing, they destroyed the warship and fired on some of the cargo containers so we’d know what was inside before we simply took the cargo containers in tow and delivered them to a freight depot.”

“You’re saying you think Space Command did all this for us?”

“It’s the only scenario that makes sense.”

“It doesn’t make sense at all. We are enemies of the G.A. and Space Command. They took part of our territory.”

“That was only after we declared war on the G.A. and tried to seize their territory.”

“You’re talking treason, Junior Commander.”

“No, sir, I’m talking common knowledge. Our government made a deal with the devil and we lost. We’re very lucky the G.A. didn’t seize all of our territory, as they did with our partners, the Tsgardi and the Uthlaro. The Denubbewa is our common enemy.”

“The G.A. is the only enemy you need be concerned with.”

“As a loyal Gondusan Military Officer, I will follow all orders given to me by a senior officer, but as a free Gondusan citizen, my thoughts are not subject to being changed to agree with political propaganda when we know the truth.”

“I didn’t hear that, Junior Commander.”

“Yes, sir. But we still owe Space Command thanks for this action.”

~     ~     ~

“Admiral Carver, I spent three days in a jail cell because you ordered it,” the Ruwalchu citizen, Rero Dakinti, screamed when he was brought into the A.B. hall to attend an executive session of the Board.

“I ordered that we arrange transportation so you could return to Ruwalch if you wished. You were locked up because you were irrational and refused to wait until this scheduled meeting time.”

“I am the official representative of my country. I deserved the immediate attention of some minor military drone when I arrived.”

“You’ve done nothing to deserve special considerations not extended to anyone else. Now, either calm down and present whatever you wish to present, or you’ll be escorted out.”

“I represent the Ruwalchu people. You can’t talk to me like that.”

“Do you have something to present to this Board or not?”

“I demand you return the petition to me and give me transportation back to Ruwalch. We will not be annexing our territory with the G.A. And I demand a ship with the same speed as the one that brought me here.”

“I see. You claim to speak for all of the Ruwalchu people and that you are the only one authorized to speak for your people?”

“I do and I am.”

Jenetta looked over at the head clerk and nodded.

“I expected that to be your position. Our clerk made a recording from the moment you entered these chambers. It has just been sent to one of our ships in orbit around Ruwalch where the P.M. is standing by.”

“And I’m supposed to wait for four months for that communication to travel to Ruwalch and a response to come back?”

“No, not at all. Our communication system is a bit faster than the ones in your nation. The response will be here very shortly.”

“How shortly? Two months?”

“Our system is quite a bit faster than that. Since you claim to represent the Ruwalchu people, I’m surprised you haven’t been told about it. P.M. Pemillisa knows.”

When the clerk cleared her throat, Jenetta looked in her direction. The clerk nodded.

“The response from P.M. Pemillisa has arrived. Let’s view it, shall we?”

The large monitors around the walls of the hall all lit up with an image of P.M. Pemillisa.

“Admiral Carver,” the image said, “I apologize most sincerely. The individual we sent does not represent our government. His only role was to answer questions about our form of government and our history. Please ignore any demands he makes. He’ll be dealt with severely when he returns.”

“It’s a trick,” the Ruwalchu representative screamed. “There’s no communication system that fast.”

“Please ask the P.M. any question you wish that you believe no one in the G.A. would know.”

“Okay,” Dakinti said confidently. “In the Gilesset anteroom, there’s a large scar on the side table. Why?”

Dakinti smiled as the clerk ended the vid and transmitted it.

“Well?” Dakinti said with a smile. “Can’t find a reference in your computers?”

“I said the communication is fast. I never said it’s instantaneous.”

Just then the monitors lit up again and the image of the P.M. began to speak.

“The scar on the side table in the anteroom was made a few months ago when Gilesset representative Peero Konicle demonstrated a new invention that he said would revolutionize water purification. He powered up the small machine and it exploded. It was quite embarrassing and we told him we wouldn’t publicize it. Admiral, I apologize again.”

Dakinti just stood there with his mouth hanging open.

“Admiral, please take this fool into custody and return him in chains. We’ll deal with his seditious efforts when he’s returned to us.”

As the sergeant-at-arms and his assistant moved towards Dakinti, the Ruwalchu citizen began shouting. “I don’t know how you learned about the scar on the table, but I know this was all a giant hoax. I alone represent the Ruwalchu people, and if you dare touch me, you’ll rue the day.” He continued screaming threats as he was dragged from the room.

As soon as the doors slid closed, Jenetta nodded at the clerk, who then sent the latest recording.

Roughly four minutes later another message arrived from Ruwalch. Jenetta had the clerk play it on the monitors.

“Admiral, I’m so sorry. I’ve just been informed that Rero Dakinti is affiliated with one of the ultra-radical-left political parties who have failed to have any of their candidates elected to office in the last three election cycles. I believe he hoped to get personal financial benefits by sabotaging the annexation process. I assure you that the Gilesset very much wishes the process to proceed and hope that you’ll continue with the presentation of the annexation petition to the G.A. Senate. If the Senate has any questions, perhaps you can record them and send them directly to me. This new communication system is absolutely incredible, and we want very much to become part of the G.A. Thank you.”

“I’ll do my best to convince the G.A. Senate of your genuine desire to have Ruwalchu space merged with the Galactic Alliance. I know it’s the very wee hours of the morning in the time zone you’re in. Thank you for making yourself available today for this confrontation. I’m sure we’ll be talking again soon. End of message.”

Jenetta looked over at the clerk and nodded. The clerk then ended the recording and sent the vid out.

“Well, that was interesting,” Admiral Woo said. “Jen, how did you know the representative was an agent for one of the political parties who were trying to use the talks for their own purposes?”

“I didn’t, but I knew something was seriously wrong in this picture. The man was obnoxious and seemed to be trying to pick a fight from the minute he arrived at Quesann. He wanted to be expelled. That’s not a trait you’ll find in a new diplomat.”

“But how is it that the Ares was available in Ruwalchu space?” Admiral Hillaire asked.

“Jen requested that I make the Ares available when the CPS-16 carrying the petition was due to arrive at Quesann,” Admiral Holt said, “so I asked Larry Gavin to orbit Ruwalch and request that P.M. Pemillisa be aboard when the A.B. met today to welcome the new diplomat.”

“It’s obvious that adding the Ruwalchu territory will place huge new demands on our resources,” Jenetta said, “but I also believe it’s a worthwhile effort. We share a common work ethic, a common code of morality, and a devotion to individual freedoms. It’s a better mix than I experienced on Obotymot with people coming from the Clidepp Empire. Those folks are devoted to a form of governance that they mistakenly refer to as a religion. They wanted desperately to escape from that lifestyle while bringing it with them at the same time. They believed they could leave the bad behind and bring only the good, never understanding that their lifestyle is so integrated with their religion that they can never be separated, and they can never properly assimilate unless they surrender previous beliefs.”

“It’s been some time since you mentioned them,” Admiral Yuthkotl said. “How has opening up your planet to them worked out for Obotymot?”

“It’s been extremely difficult. My chamberlain has been doing his best to deal with it, but it’s his most frequent topic of complaint. Before the refugees were allowed to settle on Obotymot, they had to agree that while they were free to worship whatever god or religion they chose, all worship must be kept within their abode when it’s not the officially recognized religion of Nordakia. Those who refused to agree to that condition weren’t allowed to settle on Obotymot or Nordakia. They were taken to other planets where the rules regarding radical religions weren’t so strict. The agricultural land and crop-growing climates on Obotymot and Nordakia are far superior to that on those other planets, but on those other planets they’re free to worship however they choose. The standard of living is a quarter that of the standard of living on Obotymot, but that was their choice.

“Lately, my chamberlain has had to evict a number of tenants who, once settled, began to unequivocally demand that they now be allowed to revert to their old ways. They insisted that their religion gives them the right to have massive outdoor prayer sessions regardless of our established laws on Obotymot. They’ve been blocking the main streets in local towns for hours as they lie prostrate in the streets on their prayer blankets thrice a day. They insist on following the religious laws they obeyed when in the Clidepp Empire instead of obeying the civil laws of Nordakia and Obotymot.”

“Where do they go when you evict them from the planet?”

“Where they go is their business. We just want the troublemakers gone, so we send them off-planet. I’ve heard that most join the people who weren’t allowed to remain on Obotymot or Nordakia originally. It’s sad because those colonies quickly developed a reputation for extreme violence, mayhem, and poverty. But if that’s what they choose, that’s what they’ll have. We don’t try to run the private lives of our tenants on the planet, but disruptive behavior is not permitted. Everyone benefits when tenants are not pressuring other tenants to worship the same god or to follow archaic rules from a distant past that have been masked as religious tenets solely to keep the ‘faithful’ in line. The official religion of Nordakia teaches its followers to be fully accepting of all people who have different religious beliefs and viewpoints, but our people are not required to tolerate having the religion of others forcefully shoved down their throats. The major religion from the Clidepp Empire demands that everyone accept and obey only their religious leaders and blindly follow all laws passed down from centuries past where the religion was mainly used as a way to control the peasantry.”












Chapter Twenty

~ September 30th, 2292 ~

“Good Morning, Jen,” Admiral Holt said when Jenetta responded to his call and the image of her seated at her office desk appeared on the wall monitor in his office.

“Hi, Bry. What’s up?”

“I received two messages overnight. One is from Larry Gavin. He says P.M. Pemillisa has requested that he be allowed to send a replacement for the fool who first arrived here as representative of their government.”

“I have no objection other than that it will take another CPS-16 away from the force left to protect the Ruwalchu Confederacy.”

“Yes, but the first ship is already on its way back. It should arrive there in about four weeks.”

“The decision is yours, Brian. If we have questions about Ruwalchu history and geography, we can use the new com system, but having a knowledgeable and diplomatic individual here at Quesann could have benefits.”

“Okay. Since you have no objections, I’m going to approve it. Now, for the other issue. This is a serious one so I wanted to get the easy one completed first.”

“I’ve got a fresh cup of coffee so I’m ready for almost anything. Lay it on me, Brian.”

“Okay, here it is. The Miami has reported that upon coming into DeTect range of Husteus, they found three Denubbewa warships in orbit. They pulled back to prepare their CPS-14s for an attack and to send a message of their discovery. As you know, if they had opened their bay doors to launch the CPS-14s without pulling back, they might have shown up on Denubbewa DeTect screens.”

“Yes, that’s how Christa discovered the seven abandoned motherships.”

“The attack by the CPS-14s was successful and all three warships were completely destroyed in the first seconds. Captain Caldwell then sent the ships down to perform a simple reconnaissance of the planet from altitude but with strict orders not to land. When they completed that task, the lead ship reported that they’d observed no indication of sentient life on the planet. They complied with the Space Command directive that they not land on any non-aligned planet unless invited, but they noted that there are a number of cities on the planet where people could be in hiding. Captain Caldwell is waiting for instructions on how he should proceed.”

“You said they saw the warships at the edge of their DeTect range. So the ships weren’t sheathed in Dakinium?”

“That’s correct.”

“So that means they are either new to G.A. space, or— they were never part of the invasion force. Those ships may have been in orbit around Husteus for some time— easily long enough to convert all the inhabitants to cyborgs.”

“If there are cyborgs there, they weren’t detected. Of course, they don’t show up as lifeforms on our thermal sensors, so if they stop moving, we can’t distinguish them from a road sign.”

“We’ll have to put boots on the ground to learn what happened.”

“In violation of the G.A. Charter?”

“From what’s been reported, the planet appears unoccupied. Correct?”

“Yes.”

“The Charter only pertains to inhabited planets. Since Husteus appears to be uninhabited, for whatever reason, it seems that the restriction about landing should be lifted.”

“Very well. We have Marines in all seven of the new Space Command bases, but I really hate the idea of pulling them out, given what we’ve just been through.”

“No, I don’t want to pull our Marines from the bases. That would play right into the hands of the Denubbewa.” Jenetta took a deep breath and released it slowly as she thought. “I guess we’re going to be needing the new GFI forces sooner than we expected. Many have completed their basic training, so this will be their ‘trial by fire.’ We’ll need transportation from the Second Fleet.”

“I can have a taskforce of destroyers and cruisers ready to go in forty-eight hours. We just need time to cancel all leaves and get all personnel back aboard, replenish all supplies and ordnance, and prepare the ships for the cruise. If necessary, I can have them ready to go in twelve hours, but I prefer to give them the two days so they’re properly prepared.”

“This is important so prepare your taskforce properly. I’ll notify General Scott that we have a need for all the people who’ve completed their training, as well as those very close to completion.”

“Okay, Jen. The ships will be ready.”

“If you can spare any of the ships currently patrolling in the sectors out near Husteus, you might want to send them down to support the Miami.”

“I don’t want to reduce patrols in the other areas too significantly, and we’re already greatly shorthanded because of the Ruwalchu operation, but I’ll see who I can send.”

“Thanks, Brian.”

~     ~     ~

“You sent for me, Captain?” XO Mollago said as he entered Christa’s office just off the bridge of the Koshi.

“Yes, we have new orders from Quesann. They were routed through Ellask Space Command Base because Ellask has one of the new com systems like the one installed on the Ares.”

“I really wish we could get one of those new systems. We’re out here on the tip of the spear and could really use near-instant communication with Command.”

“We’re just a Scout-Destroyer. The first systems are being installed in the bases and in the larger warships like the Ares. We’ll get the new system when it’s our turn and they have enough units available for Scout-Destroyers. In the meantime, the new system has saved almost four weeks off the S-Band time by routing the message through Ellask. But I agree with your sentiment about getting the new system. I’m looking forward to it.”

“Aye, Captain. So what do they want us to do now?”

“We have orders to head for Husteus.”

“Husteus? That’s a non-aligned planet.”

“Command says the Denubbewa have landed there. We’re being sent in to support the Miami, which has already destroyed three Denubbewa warships that were in orbit around the planet.”

“Damn. I thought we took care of every Denubbewa in G.A. space when we destroyed their armada.”

“As did I, but no one believes we’ve seen the last of them. That’s why we’re out here on patrol. These ships were probably not part of the armada we fought because none of the ships destroyed by the Miami were Dakinium sheathed. They likely represent a separate force and may even have been outside G.A. space when we took the armada down. There’s no way of knowing now that they’ve been totally destroyed. We have no idea if there are more of them, but we’re being routed to that area in case the Denubbewa have managed to bring in another armada.”

“Do you think they got that massive CJ Gate in operation?”

“No idea. But we have to be prepared in case they have. Quesann is also sending in a new Marine unit that’s part of the Ground Force Initiative my sister’s been fighting for. It was finally approved by the Senate after the Denubbewa tried to invade Quesann by using workable Gates in the refuse piles at Lorense-Four.”

“How soon will they get to Husteus?”

“It’ll take at least five weeks. Too bad we don’t have our own Armada CJ Gate.”

“I don’t know if I ever want to travel that way. Just the idea of having my body broken down into energy particles and then reassembled at the destination isn’t number one on my list of things to try.”

“Scared?”

“Damn right, Captain.”

Christa smiled before saying, “Our engineering CPO was no less worse for wear despite his Personnel CJ Gate trip from Lorense-Four to Jussento SCB.”

“We can’t know that for sure. We didn’t know him until he arrived at Jussento. Maybe he was another Albert Einstein before he was transferred.”

“I’m sure the system won’t be approved for use until it’s been checked, double-checked, triple-checked, and quadruple-checked. We’ve already had the technology for some time, so if there was going to be any rush to implement it, we’d already have it in use. Contact our squadron of CPS-16s and get everybody on our six as we head for Husteus.”

“Aye, Captain.”

~     ~     ~

“Hey, Billy, you awake?” the Marine PFC whispered to the Marine corporal in the bunk next to his.

“Yeah.”

“You heard anything about where we’re going?”

“A sergeant told me he overheard a couple of staff sergeants talking this morning. He says they were discussing the different planets in Region Three that are close to the far border with unclaimed space. According to them, those planets could be where we’re heading. That’s all I know.”

“Region Three? Hey, maybe we’re going to land on one of those pleasure planets so we can free all the beautiful female slaves.”

“Dream on, Romeo.”

“No? Then maybe we’re going in to take over a planet the Raiders have been using for one of their bases like when Carver took Stewart SCB.”

“Come on. Are you serious?”

“No? Well then what do you think we’re doing out here?”

“What’s the biggest problem facing the G.A. right now?”

“Uh— I don’t know. Wait, you don’t mean cyborgs, do you?”

“Bingo!”

“Then it’s no big deal. We have Dakinium armor and they don’t. We’ll wipe the floor with them.”

“I like your confidence, kid.”

“Kid? Hey, you’re only a few years older than me.”

“It’s not the years, kid. It’s the battles you’ve been in.”

“Are you saying you’ve fought cyborgs?”

“Just once, but that was enough to give me a healthy respect for their fighting abilities.”

“You fought cyborgs? Really? When?”

“It was back in November of 2289.”

“That was almost three years ago.”

“Yeah, but it seems like yesterday. I was almost as green then as you are right now.”

“Well, tell me about it.”

“Space Command located some partially completed Denubbewa ships under construction in Region Two. They appeared to be deserted, so we were sent aboard to provide protection for a bunch of eggheads who were tasked with learning everything they could about the Denubbewa. We’d go through an area of the ship and verify it was clear of cyborgs before the eggheads were allowed in. It was all going pretty smooth until a couple of eggheads got tired of waiting for us to clear sections of the ship they wanted to investigate. They snuck away and began examining areas that hadn’t been cleared. My team had ended our work for the day and were having chow when we got a call that the two eggheads were screaming excitedly about seeing Denubbewa cyborgs.

“So we got suited up again and headed for that area. The eggheads were so rattled that they didn’t know exactly where they had allegedly seen the cyborgs, so the lieutenant had us checking every room in a corridor that seemed to stretch on for kilometers.

“We’d been searching for a while when one of the squad leaders opened a door to a room full of alert cyborgs. A brief firefight began, but we were badly outnumbered. We jumped into the transport carts and tried to bug out as the cyborgs began to pour out into the corridor. Most were carrying laser weapons. We were almost clear when one of the cyborgs fired an RPG at us. The grenade exploded on contact with the lieutenant’s chest and he was killed.”

“Why wasn’t he wearing his armor?”

“He was. We all were. But while the armor will absorb energy beams without a second thought and most small projectiles just bounce off, grenades and large-scale concussive-force weapons are a different issue. An RPG round that hits you just right can rip you apart because the armor isn’t a one-piece suit. That’s what happened to the L.T.”

“So what happened?”

“We bugged out and managed to reach our shuttles. The pilots wasted no time getting us as far away from that ship as needed. Then Space Command moved in and blew it to pieces. The tugs dragged what was left into the gravity well of a nearby sun. Eventually, the pieces would be reduced to individual atoms.”

“Wow!”

“Yeah. So don’t ever underestimate the cyborgs, kid. They don’t care if they get killed so they’ll just keep coming at you until they’re either dead or wounded so badly they’ve lost all mobility. Or you’re dead. When you find a wounded one, you fire your laser weapon into its brainpan until its eyes stop glowing.”

~     ~     ~

“The Miami has acknowledged our message predicting our arrival in less than an hour, Captain,” XO Mollago said in a message to Christa’s CT. “Captain Caldwell has extended an invitation for you to join him for dinner at 1700 hours.”

“Respond that I’ll be there at 1700, XO.”

“Aye, Captain.”

~     ~     ~

“Welcome aboard, Commander,” the young officer said after bracing to attention. “I’m Ensign Davis Decress. The captain is waiting in his quarters. I’ll show you the way.”

Seven minutes later, the Marine at the entrance to the captain’s quarters braced to attention as the doors opened so Christa could enter. Bracing to attention herself after stepping into the salon, she said, “Commander Christa Carver reporting, sir.”

“At ease, Commander. Welcome to the Miami. Let me introduce my officers.”

After reciprocal introductions with the senior staff were complete, Christa and the Miami officer cadre took seats as the steward served non-alcoholic beverages. Christa chose coffee.

“It’s nice to see a new face at dinner,” Captain Caldwell said. “Welcome to the end of the G.A., Commander.”

“The end, sir?” Christa said tentatively.

Seeing the look of misgiving on her face, Caldwell laughed. “I didn’t mean that the G.A. was ending, Commander. I was referring to the location. Perhaps I should have said, ‘Welcome to the tail-end of the G.A.’ Husteus is the last populated planet before you enter unclaimed space. The next nearest populated planet over the border, from what I’ve heard, is about two hundred light-years from here. And reportedly there are very few planets between here and there that aren’t either balls of ice or cauterized because of close proximity to their star.”

“That’s a relief, sir,” Christa said with a grin. “I thought you meant we’re all going to our deaths tonight.”

“No, not at all, although I suppose anything’s possible. During the weeks we’ve been in orbit around Husteus, we haven’t seen a single sign of life on the planet. I’m sure they never expected to meet their end so soon.”

“Have you sent any landing parties down, sir?”

“No. Absolutely not. It’s a non-aligned planet and we’re not allowed to land without either an invitation from their government or specific orders from Quesann. Command has told me to wait until the taskforce from Quesann arrives. So here we sit.”

“I was told you destroyed three Denubbewa ships when you arrived. And none were sheathed with Dakinium.”

“Yes. We spotted them as soon as we got within DeTect range. If they had been sheathed with Dakinium, we couldn’t have seen them until we were in visual range. The result would have been the same though because we were in a double envelope and we would have left the area and prepared for battle without having revealed ourselves.”

“I can’t help but wonder where they came from and if there are more of them hiding in our space.”

“Perhaps they’re just over the border somewhere. Even for the slow ships of the Denubbewa, the border is less than two days away.”

“Perhaps, sir. If they are, we may never know. We don’t have nearly enough ships to search G.A. space so we certainly can’t begin a search of the area outside our territory. But we really have to learn where they come from so we can take the fight to them. There must be a way to find their home base.”

~     ~     ~

“Admiral, the new representative from the Ruwalchu Confederacy has arrived.”

“Yes, the new diplomat was expected to arrive at Quesann today.”

“I mean that the representative is here in the office.”

“Oh. Okay, give me ten minutes to wrap up the report I’m working on.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Ten minutes later Jenetta signaled her aide and told her to send the new representative in. She stood behind her desk, hoping this one wasn’t as obnoxious as the last. She was surprised when a female Ruwalchu citizen entered and walked over to the desk with a huge smile on her face. As she extended her hand, she said, “Admiral Carver, I’m so honored to meet you. I’ve heard so much about you.”

Jenetta took her hand and shook it gently, smiling politely. “And your name is?”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Where are my manners? My name is Willanza Bokarra.”

“Welcome to Quesann, Ms. Bokarra.”

“Thank you, Admiral. I’m so happy to be here. I still can’t believe we made it all the way to Quesann in just six weeks. It would have taken us annuals in one of our fastest ships. Your technological advances are so incredible. I heartily approve of the annexation of our territories. We can learn so much from you that will improve the lives of our citizens. And we owe you so much for coming to our rescue and destroying the Denubbewa fleet that attacked us. My people have begun to return to the surface of Ruwalch. It’s so wonderful to feel the real sun on our faces again, to enjoy the fresh air with the many fragrances of nature, and to hear the sounds of the birds and animals. I didn’t realize how much I had missed all of those things until the first day I rode up to the surface and stepped out of the lift. Thank you so much for all you’ve done.”

“You’re most welcome, Ms. Bokarra. I’m very glad we could help.”

“Do you have any idea when the annexation will take effect?”

“I’m afraid I don’t. That’s up to the G.A. Senate. I just represent the military.”

“I understand. Have they begun discussing it yet?”

“Yes, I understand they’ve discussed it at length.”

“Can I help in any way? Is there anything I can do to help advance the process?”

“I doubt it. As with all governmental expansions, the main issue seems to be one of funding. During the past few years, I’ve returned to the Council repeatedly with requests for more funds. They always groan when I appear. But in the end, they approve the funding because they know a strong military is the only way to protect our nation from our enemies, both foreign and domestic. Only fools believe that all other nations want only peace and that illegal enterprises don’t damage attempts to have an orderly and efficient society.”

“You believe the main impediment with a speedy annexation of the Ruwalchu territory is funding?”

“Yes. I’ve worked up a proposed budget to cover the costs of the additional ships, supplies, and personnel required to protect the territory, owing to the situation with the Denubbewa. The amount is substantial. It would increase our military budget by twenty-five percent because the Ruwalchu territory is so expansive, and it will literally take years to produce all the ships we’ll need to fully protect the new Region.”

“The Gilesset has authorized me to tell you that the Ruwalchu people will bear the full cost of the new military hardware and initial supplies. If Space Command isn’t going to be protecting us, we’d only have to fund the rebuilding of our Space Fleet. And no one believes the new fleet will be capable of surviving encounters with the Denubbewa, so we’d prefer to put the funds into expanding the Space Command fleet. Our Space Command fleet.”

Your Space Command fleet? What does that mean?”

“We require that the Region Four ships— that’s how the P.M. is referring to them— be exclusively devoted to protecting the planets and people only in Region Four.”

“I can’t promise that. Our fleet must be available to defend whatever part of the G.A. is threatened. We have to have the freedom to move our ships to wherever they’re needed whenever they’re needed there.”

“Then I can’t agree to fund the ships. We must have some assurance of protection.”

“If the current Ruwalchu territory is annexed, you’ll become part of the G.A., and it’s our sworn duty to protect all of our territory.”

Ms. Bokarra said nothing, but Jenetta could see she was thinking about the declaration, so she decided to expound.

“I can promise this,” Jenetta said. “All ships built using funds provided by the occupied planets in the present Ruwalchu territory will call bases and Fleet Harbors in Region Four their home port. They may be dispatched to handle emergency situations in other Regions, or even outside G.A. space when required, but when the emergency is over, they will return to their Region Four duties and/or home ports.”

Ms. Bokarra smiled and said, “I can accept that. We understand that there could be times when a ship or ships must travel outside the Region, such as when the Ares and the smaller warships left Region Three to come rescue us from the Denubbewa threat. How many ships do you anticipate needing?”

“I estimate we’ll need at least two hundred ships to adequately patrol the new territory.”

“Two hundred? That’s far more than we estimated. Our Space Fleet only consisted of one hundred eight ships.”

“Two hundred is the minimum. I’d like to have three hundred fifty.”

“Oh, my. I don’t think the Gilesset would agree to that.”

“Your Space Fleet was composed mostly of destroyer-class vessels, wasn’t it?”

“Yes. Plus support vessels.”

“The ships we’ve found most useful for fighting the Denubbewa are the CPS-16s. Three hundred ships of that class would cost about the same to build as about a hundred destroyers like the ones you had in your Space Fleet.”

“You’re referring to the same class of ship as the one that brought me here?”

“Exactly.”

“And that ship is capable of destroying a Denubbewa warship?”

“Yes, or even a Denubbewa mothership. In addition to those patrol ships, the Region Four fleet would need two dozen Scout-Destroyers, five Destroyers, and twenty support vessels such as Quartermaster ships, Ship Transporters, and reclamation vessels. The total cost would probably be the equivalent of replacing your previous fleet of mostly destroyers.”

“Really? Then I have no objection. When you mentioned the number of vessels, I expected a cost three times that of replacing our Space Fleet.”

“Then you’re willing to bear the expense of all the ships required to protect you?”

“Yes. And we’ll also supply personnel to help man the ships, should you wish. Our former Space Fleet couldn’t compare to the Space Command fleet in technology or capability, but our people are highly capable and able to learn new technology. I know that many will welcome an opportunity to serve in Space Command.”

“At some point in the future, we’d establish a Space Command Academy in the new region. In the meantime, your best and brightest would be welcome to take the entrance exam for one of the three existing academies. All officers in Space Command and the Space Marines must be Academy graduates. All enlisted must complete training at one of our technical or combat schools. We’ve recently created a Space Marine training center here on Quesann.”

“I know that our people would welcome an opportunity to be trained by Space Command or the Space Marine Corps.”

“Those promises of support might improve the chances of annexation considerably. The people in opposition would lose a lot of their arguments.”

“We have only one other requirement.”

Jenetta could hear the sound of the other figurative boot dropping. “And what is that requirement?”

“That the Region Four ships be built in our territory, or at least what is presently our territory.”

“I see. So the main reason for that requirement is because you’re hoping to learn our advanced technology.”

“Do you blame us? Admiral, you are so far ahead of us technologically that you make us feel positively— primitive. Yes, we do want to advance our technological capability. And we feel the best way to learn is to have contact with your most able people as we help build the ships for Space Command. You get the ships and all the personnel you’ll need to patrol the new territory in the G.A. without spending a G.A. credit while we get an education that will help us become a more productive member of the G.A. Plus, many of the raw materials and supplies for the ships that we’re funding will be purchased from contractors in Region Four, so it would help our economy as well. Is there a downside?”

“You should understand that we don’t share all of our technological advancement secrets with the citizens of the G.A. In fact, we guard some of them most zealously. It’s imperative that we maintain a definitive edge over criminals, and even more importantly, an edge over enemies such as the Denubbewa. If the Denubbewa were to learn that private citizens in our nation had access to our most advanced technological military secrets, they would do whatever was necessary to acquire those secrets. When Space Command makes a leap forward, we evaluate the potential impact to determine if the advancement can be shared without compromising the advantage we require for law enforcement and our nation’s safety. We do want our society to keep moving forward, so you would learn new technology and metallurgy to the same extent that non-military scientists and engineers in the G.A. presently enjoy. But you would not have open access to everything you wish to know or acquire. And anyone involved in the design and manufacturing of Space Command ships and equipment would have to swear an oath of allegiance to the G.A. and Space Command, and promise never to reveal top secret information. Violation of that oath would have severe consequences for all involved.”

“I’m sure that what we would learn and were legally able to share with our people and industries would change our lives forever— and for the better. Building the ships is an investment in our futures and is appropriate because we want to be a permanent member of the G.A. And the G.A. would benefit as well.”












Chapter Twenty-One

~ November 2nd, 2292 ~

“Captain,” the Miami’s com chief said to Caldwell, “we just received a Priority-One message.”

“Put it into my queue,” Caldwell said as he rose from his command chair.

“It’s there, sir.”

“Lt. Commander Reilly, you have command in my absence.”

“Yes, sir,” Reilly said as he stood up from his chair at the tactical station. He was seated in the command chair within seconds of Caldwell disappearing into his office.

Caldwell leaned in for the retinal scan and then sat back to view the message. It was from Captain Rebecca Critarian of the Artemis GSC-BD382, an Ares class battleship and one of the newest in the fleet.

“Hello, Arthur,” the image of Captain Critarian said. “This is just a heads-up that the Artemis and the other taskforce ships should reach Husteus within two hours of the time this message arrives. I hope you can join myself and the other senior officers for dinner this evening aboard the Artemis. Please arrive by 1800 GST. If you’re unable to make it, please let us know you won’t be coming.

“Captain Rebecca Critarian, Captain of the Battleship Artemis, end of message.”

Although phrased as an invitation, it was actually an order to appear at her quarters by 1800 or explain why he couldn’t make it.

Captain Caldwell shut down the open link and walked back out to the bridge where he relieved Lt. Commander Reilly.

~     ~     ~

Christa was surprised by the number of ships that arrived with the Artemis. Jenetta had informed her that a taskforce was under way during their weekly vidMail but hadn’t told her there were six destroyers, a heavy cruiser, and a battleship accompanied by a Quartermaster ship and Ship Transporter. It looked like a battle fleet from earlier times. During the most recent decade, taskforces had been comprised mostly of Scout-Destroyers and CPSs. As everyone in Space Command knew, the smaller vessels had proven themselves to be superior for the kind of warfare most effective against the Denubbewa.

Since Christa commanded a force of twelve CPS-16s, she had also been invited to the dinner aboard the Artemis. When she arrived, she learned that Captain Critarian had established a rule that all discussion about the current situation on Husteus was to be delayed until after dinner. Two of the captains at the table had to be reminded, once, during the meal.

~

“Thank you for delaying discussion of the situation we’re facing until we’d completed our meal and my steward and the mess attendants had cleaned up and left these quarters. There’s a great deal to discuss, and I want to be able to speak openly without every word being repeated below decks overnight. They’ll all learn soon enough.

“Following its arrival here, the Miami immediately destroyed three Denubbewa warships. We don’t know how long those ships had been in orbit here, but the Miami has reported that no overt signs of life have been observed on the planet below. Our task is to discover what happened down there, determine if any residents are still alive, and where other inhabitants of Husteus may have gone or been taken. The planners at Quesann have divided the planet up into eleven sectors for our investigation. Each of us will take responsibility for searching the area assigned to him or her, remaining in contact with the command center aboard the Artemis via the satellites my people are already placing in orbit.

“You have all been briefed regarding the Personnel CJ Gates used by the Denubbewa. We’ve recorded vids of supervisor cyborgs stepping into a booth, disappearing, and then reappearing a short time later. We believe they use the Personnel CJ Gates to travel to their home base for all communications with their superiors because there have been no radio communications capabilities on the bridges of the ships we’ve met in battle. While within the ships, cyborgs use personal communication capabilities rather like our CTs, except they can literally hear everything said by all other cyborgs within the ship at all times. Perhaps that’s why they don’t use radio communications with their base. Every cyborg aboard the ship would hear the exchange.

“I’d be very surprised if most of you haven’t heard the rumors of cyborgs working at the Lorense-Three shipyard. I tell you now that they are true, thanks to Commander Carver and her people.”

All heads swiveled to look at Christa for a moment. Her only response was a Mona Lisa smile.

“In fact, I understand she has one aboard her ship at present. The cyborg, Lucky by name, was an attempt by SCI to create a spy. It was successful, although the mission failed— through no fault of Lucky’s. We acquired Lucky when Christa’s taskforce discovered a Denubbewa vessel floating in space near a derelict ship. She sent a team into the vessel to investigate. They found numerous cyborgs in a suspended state of sleep, so they towed the vessel back to Lorense-Three where SCI took over. A number of the cyborgs aboard that ship hadn’t had their minds wiped because they were scientists and wiping their minds would have destroyed much of their usefulness. They claimed to have escaped from the Denubbewa, and following a careful screening, they came over to our side and now work with us. They form the nucleus of our Cosmic Jump Gate study and development programs, and their work has been invaluable. They’d spent many decades studying Gate artifacts and recreating the scientific data lost when the Denubbewa wiped the minds of the race that developed the travel method. That research has evolved to give us the ability to send a vid message from one end of G.A. space to the other in less than twenty seconds. It’s revolutionizing our communications systems. And one day we may be able to travel just as quickly via our own CJ Gates.

“I’m telling you all this so you’ll understand what I’m going to tell you next. We believe there may be CJ Gates on the surface of the planet below us. The Denubbewa couldn’t have transferred the entire population of Husteus using just three warships, but they could have sent all of the people somewhere else if they used the CJ Gates. One of our main objectives is to look for and collect Gates while we’re on the planet, so make sure the Marines assigned to each of your ships are well aware of that.”

“Captain,” Captain Stephen Wilcox of the Quartermaster supply ship, GSC-QD424 McHenry, said, “are you saying you want us to collect these Gates and bring them aboard our ships? I heard they were responsible for us almost losing one of our new Space Command Bases when cyborgs began pouring out of them.”

“All we want— initially— is for the people sent down to the planet to alert us if they find any Gates. They are not to damage them in any way, or even touch them. The Marine officers and noncoms have already received that order. We’ll then make a determination as to their disposition. We’ve learned how to disable them without damaging them since that incident aboard the base, so they can’t be used that way again.”

“Okay, Rebecca,” Captain Wilcox said, “we’ll alert you immediately if any Gates are found.”

“The specifics of your assignment will be sent to each of you aboard your ships after we finish up here. Each ship has at least one battalion of Marines trained for the GFI. The ships responsible for larger landmasses with more cities have multiple battalions. These Marines have been trained for exactly this kind of operation. Their officers know their stuff, so all you really have to do is transport them down to their sectors and let them go to it. Each ship will coordinate with their Marine commander on the ground.”

“Is that it?” Captain Wilcox asked.

“Everything is explained in the information packet sent to your ship. If you have any questions after studying the materials, my command center can answer them. Basically, this is a Marine operation. Deliver them to their drop zones and let them take over. The Marine officer in command of the Division is Brigadier General Peter Burr.”

~     ~     ~

At 0700 the following morning, shuttles filled with Marines who were representative of most sentient races in the G.A. began to deploy to Husteus, making trip after trip until every Marine was on the planet. While the command staffs established their main command base in each sector and then established forward operating bases near principal cities, companies of Marines began to spread out across the landscape. Checks of farms and farmhouses as the companies converged on cities from every direction yielded no signs of sentient life. The areas around the farms were littered with the corpses of domesticated animals, and wild animals could be seen feeding on the carcasses.

When the 4th Marine GFI platoon of Company Bravo in the 34th Brigade’s Second Battalion on the Remozzeon Peninsula began to enter the city of Anorpho, all was quiet. The Marines used whatever cover was available to its maximum advantage as they slowly converged towards the center of the city. There had been no resistance, and it had begun to seem like the city was deserted until the street suddenly lit up with laser fire. The Marines were all wearing their armor so laser weapons presented no danger. But where there were lasers, there were usually more dangerous weapons such as RPGs and mortars, so they moved forward even more carefully, returning fire as they advanced.

They had traveled two city streets without seeing their attackers when the first RPG flew at them from a building entranceway. All of the Marines on the ragged front line returned fire and no more RPGs came at them from that location. When it seemed clear, they moved in slowly, finally locating a cyborg soldier crumpled into a ball, still clutching his RPG launcher.

“At least now we know what we’re fighting, Sergeant,” Private Ewullo Wstaber, a Cheblookan, said. “They’re not Husteans.”

“It might have been— once. Dress it and take the rest back to the oh-gee sled.”

“Dress it?”

“That means cut off the head, arms, and legs, Private. We just want the torso.”

“Why are we bothering, Sergeant? This cyborg looks just like all the others in the pictures I’ve seen.”

“Outwardly, they all look the same, but the brains are different. SCI wants to know what species these brains came from, and the brains are in the torso. They also want to know where we encountered them. Now follow your instructions for this one and all others we locate. Dress ‘em, tag ‘em, and bag ‘em.”

“Understood, Sergeant. One bag of burnt cyborg torso coming up.”

~     ~     ~

The situation on the ground was the same all over the planet. The population centers seemed like ghost towns, but when the Marines entered the cities, they immediately drew fire from cyborgs. It was difficult to estimate how many cyborg soldiers they were fighting because the cyborgs usually retreated when the Marines advanced on their positions.

By the tenth day of fighting, estimates of cyborg deaths were approaching three thousand planet-wide. The Marines had lost eight of their people with twenty-six wounded, two of whom were listed in critical condition.

“Almost any biological soldier in their position would surrender,” Captain Rebecca Critarian of the Battleship Artemis said to the collected group of ship captains. “But these cyborgs keep fighting until they’re either dead or so disabled they can’t fight.”

“They never give up, ma’am,” Commander Christa Carver said. “We’ve seen that time and again. And the cyborgs that have come over to our side all tell us the soldier cyborgs have been programmed to complete their assignments or die trying. They can no more disobey that instruction than the main computer on this ship could suddenly decide on its own to take a month-long holiday.”

“Perhaps we should just fall back and crater each city with a WOLaR weapon,” Captain Caldwell said.

“That would take care of the cyborgs,” Critarian said, “but it would also kill any Husteans that might still be alive, whether prisoners of the Denubbewa or in hiding. Commander, of all the senior officers here, you’ve had the most experience by far with fighting these things. What would you do if you were in command?”

“With all due respect to Captain Caldwell, the one thing I would not do at this stage is destroy all of the cities with WOLaR weapons. Aside from the fact that it would probably end our chances of ever learning what happened to the Husteans, it would both anger and frighten the populations of every planet in G.A. space. They’d all be afraid we would do the same to them if the Denubbewa invaded their planet. I suppose that were I in command of this operation, I’d continue as we’ve been doing. Every Marine life is precious, but our casualties have been moderately light so far, and the outer perimeter of cyborgs in all the cities has been shrinking— rapidly. We have to make the message clear to the Denubbewa that we can defeat their ground troops as easily as we can defeat their space armadas.”

Captain Critarian took a deep breath and then slowly released it before saying, “We have one vote for destroying the planet and one for staying the course. Any other suggestions?”

“I might have one other suggestion,” Christa said.

“Toss it out for consideration, Commander.”

“We have a pretty good idea where the HQ operation centers are in every city, based on the fortified outer perimeters built by the cyborgs. How about if we send in a shuttle, cloaked in a double envelope, to reconnoiter the cyborg HQs? If they find an area large enough to accommodate the shuttle, they can drop their envelope and open fire on the cyborgs using the shuttle’s guns. Since the shuttles are sheathed in Dakinium, they can’t be damaged unless the cyborgs have some of those acid/nuclear missiles they use against ships in space. And we should be able to visually determine if they have any of them set up in or around their headquarters before the pilot drops the envelope.”

“I wonder if we’ll find any place large enough to accommodate the shuttle,” Captain Caldwell said.

“It can’t hurt to take a look,” Captain Critarian said, “even if the shuttle team finds it’s impractical to drop their envelope.”

“If one site proves impractical, they shouldn’t give up, Captain.”

“Of course, Commander. I’ll order them to examine the cyborg HQ in every city on the planet. In fact, I’ll send every shuttle in the taskforce down to reconnoiter and order them not to start anything until we have the data on all cyborg HQs.”

~     ~     ~

Over the next two days, shuttles from the taskforce visited every cyborg HQ on the planet and completed a report on each location. The commanding officers met again aboard the Artemis, this time in the planning center.

“We have a problem,” Captain Critarian said. “At the heart of each location, our pilots found that the cyborgs are using large assembly areas, such as arenas, warehouses, or convention centers, as internment centers. There are multiple pens full of Husteus civilians at every location.”

“Pens?” Captain Caldwell repeated. “Approximately how many Husteans are in those pens?”

“Here, I’ll put some of the images up on the monitor.”

A few seconds later, an enormous population of Husteus citizens, corralled in half a dozen makeshift pens constructed of wood, metal, and stone detritus, appeared on the screen.

“There must be five hundred Husteans in each of those pens!” Caldwell said.

“My staff estimates there could be as many as a thousand pens like that one in over a hundred locations around the entire planet. That means the current population is about half a million.”

“Good Lord! I’m glad my suggestion that we level every city on the planet wasn’t implemented,” Captain Caldwell said.

“It may still come to that,” Critarian said thoughtfully.

“What do you mean?” Caldwell asked.

“Our ship’s database puts the original population at fourteen million plus, so we have no idea where the rest of the population is. They may have died fighting and been buried, or they may have been processed already and we’re now fighting them on the surface.”

“And there’s nothing we can do?”

“We’re already doing it. But it’ll take weeks for our Marines to break through their lines and rescue the prisoners— if there are any left by then. And we might reach them only to find them opposing us— as cyborgs.”

“Let’s play a game of leapfrog,” Christa said.

“What’s leapfrog?” Captain Critarian asked.

“It’s a game played by children. One hunches down while another leaps over them.”

“So you’re saying we should leap over their lines to fight the cyborgs at the holding facilities immediately instead of pushing our way through to the captives.”

“Exactly.”

“But then the cyborgs will be in front of our Marines and behind them,” Caldwell said.

“I didn’t see any sign of those rockets the Denubbewa use, so let’s use the shuttles. They pop in, drop their envelope, and open fire on the cyborg guards. When most have been killed, the shuttle lands and cleans the remainder of the vipers out of the nest. The Marines can then protect the Husteus prisoners and keep them at their back while they prepare for a counter-attack. Another way to look at it is that we’ll be both in front of the cyborgs soldiers and behind them.”

Captain Critarian chuckled. “I like it. What do you think the cyborgs will do when they find themselves caught between us?”

“Technically, they’re already caught between us. It’s only a matter of time before we close the circles. The Miami destroyed their three ships and probably most, if not all, of their command structure with it. I would have expected them to bug out by now. Perhaps there’s no one left who can order them to leave. They can’t leave on their own, and they’re not allowed to report to higher ups.”

“Report how?” Caldwell asked. “We blew their ships into tiny pieces.”

“I’d be willing to bet they have some of those CJ Gates on the surface. There should be at least one in every HQ internment center.”

“But their ships were all destroyed,” Captain Wilcox of the McHenry said. “They have no ships to jump up to.”

“The CJ Gates aren’t limited to just ships in orbit, although I’m sure they travel to and from nearby ships often.”

“Where would they jump to then?” Captain Critarian asked.

“With adequate power, the jump distance of those Gates seems unlimited. They could possibly travel to the nearest base outside this planet or even outside G.A space to whatever base they came from originally. Even to another galaxy. The point is, I can’t imagine them being stranded on Husteus— not when they have the entire CJ Gate system at their disposal. It has to be the lack of a command structure that can give them permission to leave this planet.”

“If they haven’t already left, what makes you think they’ll leave at all, Commander?”

“There might be some last-ditch emergency plan in their brains that requires them to leave when certain conditions exist, such as if they’re completely surrounded, the opposing forces are closing in, and the situation is hopeless. But— and I’m stretching here— they might have an agenda we haven’t discussed today.”

“What agenda, Commander?” Captain Critarian asked.

“We strongly believe that the cyborgs are using the Husteus population to increase their cyborg population. They’ve obviously been on the planet for some time because it has to have taken many, many months to round up all the inhabitants and herd them into those internment center pens. I’m sure they don’t want to give up on that potential cyborg army now, but they also probably don’t have enough time to perform the complex work necessary to convert them all to cyborgs because our Marines are getting closer every day. The cyborg bodies may be lined up and ready to accept host brains, but installing the host brain into the interface box has to be a delicate and time-consuming operation. And then every brain must be programmed to make the new cyborg compliant. I believe they lack the time to complete the process. So they might decide to transfer the Husteans to some other planet and complete the process there rather than losing all the work they’ve already done. Now— we know they can transfer up to three subjects every three minutes and forty-one seconds. That’s three point six-eight-three-three-three minutes, roughly. Assuming five hundred Husteans per pen, it will take at least ten hours to clear each pen once they start sending them if they only have one Personnel CJ Gate per location. We haven’t seen any sign that they’ve started yet, so they might be waiting for permission to begin the transfers. In any event, we can’t delay further. We must hit those pen locations as soon as possible if we’re to save at least part of the planetary population.”

“We don’t have enough shuttles to hit all of the pens at once,” Caldwell said.

“Then let’s hit all of the pens in every city we can where all pens get attacked at the same instant. To ensure the word doesn’t travel to other cities, we scramble all communication frequencies just before the first strike and maintain that communication noise until our people have hit every internment center and there are no more cyborgs left to sound an alarm. We’ll have everything scheduled before we begin so we won’t need communications.”

There was only quiet in the room as the senior officers in the planning center considered the attack plan Christa had suggested.












Chapter Twenty-Two

~ November 13th, 2292 ~

The operation was coordinated down to the millisecond. The rear cabins of the shuttles were standing room only. Filled with as many Marines and their weapons as could be stuffed into the area, the shuttles were poised to attack every internment center selected for Phase One at the same instant.

The shuttle piloted by Lieutenant Dwayne Carmoody was high above the prisoner pens in a domed sports coliseum. Upon entering the coliseum while the shuttle was cloaked in a double envelope, copilot Brad Newscome activated the targeting systems and identified the location of all visible cyborg shapes.

As the seconds ticked down, Carmoody announced to the Marines in the rear cabin, “One minute to go.”

Ten seconds before the action would commence, Newscome had the targeting system verify the previously identified cyborg locations. Two cyborgs had moved, but the system had already tracked them to their new location.

One second before the attack began, all communications frequencies around the planet were filled with static. At the same instant, Carmoody canceled the double envelope and Newscome retracted the covers over the shuttle’s lasers, allowing the guns to rise up through the roof, front and rear.

All hell broke loose as the shuttle’s guns were activated by Newscome. Laser beams shot out too fast for the human eye to follow as the guns loosed a barrage at the system’s preselected targets. If a target moved during the barrage, the guns tracked it and continued firing until the target stopped moving.

When all targets were down, Newscome had the targeting system again search the coliseum, but it found no new cyborg shapes.

Carmoody quickly lowered the shuttle to the chosen landing location and punched the control button that would drop the rear cabin ramps. Marines poured out of the ship, with the first squads taking a knee as the entire platoon searched for any signs of danger. No fire came their way, so they spread out in pairs to search the area and check the downed cyborgs to make sure they weren’t about to get up— ever again.

The situation remained tense until the coliseum had been thoroughly checked. When the “all clear” was given, the shuttle crew was free to build their double envelope and return to an assembly point where other Marines were waiting.

~

Roughly fifteen minutes later, the shuttle returned with another full load of Marines and set down in the coliseum. After the Marines had disembarked, the pilots were free to relax— for a moment.

“All done here!” Carmoody said as the ramps in the rear cabin area retracted.

“Then let’s head to our secondary target.”

Eighteen minutes later, the shuttle landed to pick up Marines near the next cyborg HQ to be cleared. When they couldn’t squeeze another body into the rear cabin, the ramps were closed and the shuttle rose into the air, building its double envelope in preparation for entering the next internment center in the nearby city.

Twelve minutes later, they were inside another large sporting-events building.

“It appears they haven’t gotten the word over here,” Carmoody said.

“Perfect,” Newscome said. “Give me a few seconds to locate all of our targets.”

Once the targeting system had done its job, Newscome said, “Ready to go, Skip.”

“Okay, here we go.”

As the double envelope dissolved and the shuttle lowered slightly, Newscome opened up with the shuttle’s guns. When the targeting system indicated that all targets were down, Carmoody lowered the shuttle and dropped the rear cabin ramps.

As the last of the Marines piled out, Carmoody withdrew the ramps and raised the shuttle, building the double envelope as they went.

After returning with another full shuttle of Marines and opening the ramps, Carmoody asked, “How long until the fecal matter hits the rotary cooling device?”

“Uh, about eighteen minutes. The captain wanted to give us plenty of time to take control of the Hustean prisoners before we let the cyborgs communicate with each other again. By now, the Marines have had time to check every cyborg body we took down and finish off any that were still functioning with a kill shot to the brainpan.”

“Doesn’t it bother you that we’re killing so many?”

“Nah! They’re not really alive, even if they once were. They’re just mechanical bodies controlled by a biological brain that’s basically brain dead. They can follow their programming, but that’s all. I sure wouldn’t want to live like that. That’s not life. I’d rather be finished off.”

“What do you think will happen when the cyborgs learn they no longer control the internment centers around the planet?”

“Anybody’s guess. Some might foolishly attack, giving us a chance to further reduce their numbers. I’ve also heard some speculation that they might be able to escape the planet using those booths they have, if there are any booths outside the internment areas.”

“You don’t think any will surrender? I mean, the matter is pretty much settled.”

“Nah, I’ve been told they never stop until they’re dead. The Marines will slowly mop ‘em up. I wish they’d let us fly though the streets and help clean up the cities. Now that the remaining Husteans are safe, it’s clobbering time.”

“Maybe they will. We’ll know soon enough.”

~

“The communication frequencies are all clear,” Newscome said. “And we’re getting a message from the Artemis Command Center. It’s going out to all shuttle crews.”

~

“Now that’s what we wanted to hear,” Carmoody said after they had listened to the message and received new orders. “We now control every internment center on the planet and we’re free to support the Marine operations outside. Let’s head out.”

Carmoody had to build a double envelope in order to exit the coliseum, then drop it so they could assist in destroying the cyborgs.

As the shuttle flew through the streets in the city’s center, Newscome manned the weapons while Carmoody concentrated on flying the ship and avoiding obstacles. For the first ten minutes, the shuttle’s laser guns never stopped blazing for more than an instant.

~

After they had been flying for twenty minutes without seeing a live cyborg, the shuttle crew requested permission to return to their ship orbiting the planet. They were told instead to return to the city of their first assigned internment area and aid the Marines in clearing the city streets of cyborgs outside the sports coliseum.

~

With a renewed sense of accomplishment, Carmoody again requested permission to return to his ship in orbit. He was told to remain where they were and wait in their ship for new instructions.

“What do you think this is about?” Newscome asked.

“Beats me. Maybe they need us to ferry injured Husteans up to the fleet for medical attention.”

“I heard the Marines were setting up mobile hospitals at all of their Command Centers.”

“Oh. Maybe there’s a reason they can’t provide medical care to Husteans aboard the ships. Maybe it has something to do with the species, or maybe it’s because Husteus is a non-aligned planet. We’ll find out eventually. Right now they say wait, so we wait.”

~     ~     ~

“It appears to be over,” Captain Critarian said to the senior officers in the planning room as she entered. “It was even more successful than I dared hope. None of our shuttles were damaged, and no Marines were lost or injured in the assaults on the internment locations. There are a half dozen reports of injuries sustained by Husteans inside the internment areas when they were caught in crossfire situations, but only one death. Our medics are doing their best to patch them up, but we know little about their physiology so they’re doing the best they can to staunch blood flows and close wounds while we try to find medical personnel among the prisoners. Congratulations all around and especially to Commander Carver for an excellent attack plan. Today we saved over half a million people and may have prevented an entire species from becoming extinct.

“One of the Marine units has reported that a woman identifying herself as the Grand Princess and ruler of the planet wants to speak with whomever is in charge, so she’s being brought up here on a shuttle. Does anyone know what she looks like?”

When no one spoke up, Captain Critarian said, “No? Then I’ll have someone check our database to see if they can find an image and history. Thank you for your efforts and that of your crews. You can all return to your ships now. Once we have a plan for how we’re going to help these people get reestablished, we’ll have a conference call. That’s all.”

The officers stood and walked out of the room, but as Christa started to pass Captain Critarian, the captain put out a hand and lightly held Christa’s arm. “Stay a moment, Commander. I’d like to speak with you.”

As the doors to the planning room closed, Critarian said, “I’d like you to join me in the meeting with the Grand Princess.”

“Of course, Captain.”

~     ~

The meeting was to be held in one of the smaller reception rooms aboard the enormous battleship. Captain Critarian and Christa were standing when the person identifying herself as the Grand Princess was escorted in. Her clothes were a bit dirty and ragged, but she matched the image pulled from the ship’s database so there was no reason to doubt her identity.

“Welcome aboard, Grand Princess,” Captain Critarian said as she extended her hand. The Grand Princess looked down at it, then walked past her without taking it. Critarian lowered her hand without expression. It was possible that the Grand Princess wasn’t familiar with the custom of shaking hands. She preferred to believe that rather than assuming the woman was being rude.

Christa got a good look at the woman. She was about five feet, six inches tall with pale, yellowish skin. She was thin, and her small hands had just four fingers on each. Her clothes were a bit dirty, no doubt a testament to her captivity.

The woman who had identified herself as the Grand Princess took a good look around the room before turning to face Captain Critarian. Critarian had set her translator to the main language reported to be used on Husteus.

“You are the leader of these people?” the Grand Princess asked.

“I’m the captain of this ship and in command of the taskforce sent to assist you.”

“How could you wait so long? Millions of my people are gone— probably dead.”

“We came just as soon as we heard there might be a problem and were able to get a taskforce out here.”

“This is the G.A. You’re supposed to protect us.”

“You chose to be a non-aligned planet when the G.A. took over this space after the war with the Uthlaro. You have no regular contact with the G.A., and we’re not permitted to have anyone stationed here to provide regular updates on activity. As a non-aligned planet, you’re free to do what you wish as long as you break no G.A. laws. Self-isolation does sometimes create other problems, but that was your choice.”

“You’re blaming this holocaust on me?”

“I’m not assigning blame, Grand Princess. I’m merely stating the facts.”

“I demand you establish an observation satellite in orbit around our planet so you’ll know immediately if those creatures return.”

“That’s not my decision to make, Grand Princess, so I cannot make any promises in that regard. Should you become an aligned planet, we’ll certainly establish a small outpost here and you’ll receive better protection.”

“But the G.A. will charge us a fee if we do that.”

“Ships and personnel cost money, Grand Princess. The fee goes to pay for the equipment and the salaries of the people who will protect you on a regular basis. You can remain a non-aligned planet and not pay a share of the military cost, but we can’t station people and ships out here. However, if we become aware of another invasion by Denubbewa cyborgs, we’ll get here as soon as we can.”

“But by then they might have taken the rest of the population.”

“That’s the best we can offer to planets who choose not to help cover the costs of their military protection.”

“And what of helping towards reconstruction of my planet? The enemies of the G.A. have devastated our lands, killed off most livestock, and massacred whole families. It could be years before we’re self-sufficient again.”

“I’m sorry. The G.A Charter does provide for limited humanitarian assistance and provision of emergency food, medical attention, and clean-up, but that’s as far as I can go. For the record, the species that did this are not just enemies of the G.A. They’re the enemies of every living, sentient species in the galaxy. It didn’t matter to them that you’re in G.A. space. If you’d like to record a message to the G.A. Senate, I’ll be happy to forward it.”

“If I want to send a message, I can do it myself.”

“That’s true. I merely offered because our new com system can reach Quesann in days now.”

“Days? Not weeks?”

“Days. With faster speeds to come. Within a few years we expect the transmission time between all aligned planets and Quesann will be measured in minutes.”

“Minutes? I must have one of those com systems. How many G.A. credits are required?”

“I’m sorry. They’ll only be available to aligned planets.”

“This is blackmail.”

“It’s nothing of the sort, Grand Princess. No harm will come to you from not having such a system.”

“No harm? And no help either.”

Captain Critarian just shrugged before saying, “There’s nothing I can do about that. I promise we’ll come as soon as we know of an attack and are able to respond.”

“But aligned planets get top priority?”

Captain Critarian just shrugged again. “I don’t make the rules, Grand Princess. You should direct your demands to the G.A. Senate.”

The Grand Princess snorted in anger, turned, and stormed out the door as it opened in response to her approach.

After the door had closed, Captain Critarian said, “What does she expect? That we’ll simply ignore the planets that pay to support the military so we can come here first?”

“She understands, Captain. She might simply be attempting to create an incident in an effort to achieve better terms.”

“Her planet is largely agrarian and has a low GDP. That’s taken into consideration when the tax levies are established. And now, with their population reduced by possibly eighty percent, the tax would be very low and definitely within their means if they chose to protect their planet.”

“Are we permitted to tell civilians about the new com system now?”

“No one said it was restricted information when I learned about it. And so many people know about it now that it’s not much of a secret. Oh, by the way, speaking of secrets— ”

Captain Critarian removed a gold band from the index finger on her left hand and handed it to Christa. “This is from Admiral Holt. He ordered me to give it to you personally if we were successful out here and there were CJ Gate booths that hadn’t been destroyed.”

“CJ Gate booths?”

“That’s all I know. The data ring will probably tell you everything. Holt said that you were to have authority over this entire taskforce if you needed it to complete this mission.”

“The entire taskforce, Captain?”

“Yes, including me.”

“I don’t understand.”

“It’s simple. You’re the boss if you need anything to complete this new mission. All of the answers should be on the data ring, Commander.”

“Aye, Captain. I’ll review it as soon as I return to the Koshi.”

~     ~     ~

“Hello, Christa,” the image of Admiral Holt said after Christa had completed the retinal image verification required by the recording. “Captain Critarian was ordered to give you this data ring only if the mission there was successful. Since you’re viewing this data, at least one Personnel CJ Gate booth survived the fighting. You are being given complete authority on this project and can call for any resources you require.

“Now to the heart of the matter. Our people here continue to make excellent progress on the CJ Gate project. We’ve now mastered the programming of the control unit that operates each Personnel CJ Gate. We can enter a location code into the Gate destination field and activate a transfer, although we naturally haven’t initiated any transfers yet. Once we do that, the Denubbewa might learn of it and begin making changes to the code that would render our current decipher useless. We need to learn much more before we initiate any activity with the booths. Our principal effort at this time is to create a map of where the location codes will send a Denubbewa traveler. As you can imagine, that could be anywhere in the universe, depending on the amount of power available to the Gate.

“SCI has been able to get some data from an undamaged three-dot supervisor we acquired from the Ruwalchu. He hasn’t provided the information willingly, which makes us that much more sure the information is accurate. His information was that of a user, not a technician, so while we believe it to be accurate, it’s limited. To develop a map of the Gate system, we need much, much more information— reliable information. Unfortunately, once a Personnel CJ Gate is powered down, the send-code and receive-code cache information is cleared. All the booths we have at Lorense-Three and all the booths we inherited in the new space stations were powered down to keep them from being used by the cyborgs, so all the travel information has been lost. What I need you to do immediately is to make sure that any booths that haven’t yet been powered down are not powered down. Issue orders that a squad of Marines should be standing guard 24/7 to make sure no cyborgs emerge from any Gates. We don’t want our Marines to risk their lives but greatly prefer they incapacitate any incoming travelers without damaging the booth. And under no circumstances are they to tamper with the Gate or disconnect the power system.

“Next, I want you and a few of the best engineers you can round up from the taskforce ships to review the appended data manual and learn how to operate the booths. This is necessary so someone doesn’t accidentally send themselves into another galaxy while trying to download the cached information. Then, knowledgeable individuals must visit each and every one of the booths on the planet and make a record of the last send-codes and receive-codes in the booth’s memory areas. This information could be invaluable in helping us track down the locations of Denubbewa bases or even their main headquarters. Once we feel secure that our information is accurate, we may be able to launch an attack on the Denubbewa for a change. I’d love to turn the tables on those metal-heads.

“I realize this places an incredible burden on your shoulders, Christa, but I also know you’re up to the task. If anyone refuses to follow your orders— even ship captains— report that to Captain Critarian. I briefed her personally, and she knows that, regarding this effort, you are in complete charge. This is a monumental task, but I couldn’t have found anyone better equipped to handle it.

“Good luck.

“Brian Devon Holt, Vice-Admiral - Commander of the Second Fleet, end of message.”

Christa took a deep breath and released it slowly. She was now personally responsible for every Personnel CJ Gate booth on the entire planet. And it was a planet where the leader of the people appeared to be upset with Space Command and the G.A. in spite of the fact that they had just saved their lives, at a cost in Marine lives. Talk about a having a huge problem dropped in one’s lap.

Without waiting further, Christa had the Koshi’s com chief make contact with the general in command of the Marine forces on the planet. It was nighttime where he was and he had to be awakened. At first, his aide adamantly refused to wake the general for the com chief, so Christa took over the call and told the aide exactly where he, the aide, would be within an hour if he refused to wake the general immediately. It certainly wasn’t a secret that Commander Carver was Admiral Carver’s sister, and the aide knew he should do as requested or he could depend on being exactly where she said he would be before he even had a chance to pack his duffel.

“Brigadier General Burr here. What in blazes is the idea of waking me in the middle of the night, Commander?”

“I’m operating under direct orders from Vice-Admiral Brian Holt. I need your full attention, sir.”

“Holt?” Burr said. The tone of his voice had changed considerably when he said, “Of course, Commander. What is it you need?”

Christa then related the exact instructions Admiral Holt had given in the message.

“Booths? Is that what this is all about?”

“Yes, General. Those booths represent Space Command’s ability to control the movement of Denubbewa in our territory, and they’re our best chance of locating the base from which they’re operating. That last part is top secret. You must immediately order your Marines to protect those booths from all damage and contact by anyone. This is imperative, and I speak as the officer appointed directly by Admiral Holt to handle this issue on Husteus. If you want verification, contact Captain Critarian. She’ll tell you that on this issue, my authority supersedes even hers.”

“Uh, that won’t be necessary, Commander. I apologize for being a little gruff. I was only half awake.”

“I understand, General. I wish you could just roll over and go back to sleep, but this matter is urgent. You must issue orders immediately to prevent anyone from tampering with those booths and to protect your own forces from a counterattack, which is a definite possibility. In the past, we disconnected the power to the booths following an attack, but we can’t do that this time. We need to examine the cache memory in each Personnel CJ Gate booth to see if the info can help us locate the Denubbewa’s off-planet base before the unit is powered down and the cache is cleared.”

“I’ll take care of it immediately, Commander.”

“Thank you, General. And I am sorry to have disturbed your sleep.”

“Don’t give it a second thought, Commander. I’m glad you alerted me to this issue and explained the reasons. I agree with the requested action one hundred percent. Good night.”

“Good night, sir.”

Christa took a deep breath and relaxed against the back of her chair for all of thirty seconds. As she sat up again, she began performing a personnel search on her computer for engineers presently assigned to ships in the taskforce. Christa had been in Space Command long enough to have met many of the senior engineers who were listed there. And of the ones she hadn’t met, she’d heard of their abilities and areas of specialization. After creating a list of the best and brightest, she sent instructions to their captains to have those engineers report to her as soon as possible. She told the captains that she was operating under direct orders from Vice-Admiral Brian Holt and informed them they could verify her authority by checking with Captain Critarian.












Chapter Twenty-Three

~ November 17th, 2292 ~

“Welcome to the Koshi,” Christa said to the two dozen senior engineers crowded into the room chosen by Christa for her first meeting with the group. The room was only designed to comfortably accommodate half that number of personnel, but it was the largest meeting room on the Scout-Destroyer, so Christa had no choice.

“I’m sure all of you have heard of the new communications systems being installed in Space Command ships and on our bases that allow us to send a message from one end of the G.A. to the other in under twenty seconds.”

“I’ve heard the rumors, Commander,” one of the engineers said, “but I’m not sure I believe it. Isn’t it just engine room talk?”

“Uh, you’re Lt. Commander Wilonne, aren’t you?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“We haven’t met before, but I’ve heard good things about you. I like it when engineers are skeptics until the technology is proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. In this case, it has been proven, and you’ll all get to experience it for yourselves very soon. The bases and ships at the farthest locations had the greatest need for the new technology and they’ve been receiving the equipment first, but your ship will be receiving it very soon.

“The new capability was developed from the technology used in the Denubbewa CJ Gate booths that you’ll be learning about today. It originated with an extinct species called the Locculo, a race the Denubbewa crushed eons ago. Unfortunately for the Denubbewa, they’d already wiped the minds of all the scientists involved in the development before learning of the great scientific discovery they’d stumbled across. So, even though they had the booths, they had no one who could explain their operation. I suppose that was lucky for the sentient species in the Milky Way or the Denubbewa might have overrun this entire galaxy while Terrans were still living in caves and painting crude images on the walls.

“The Denubbewa finally found a race intelligent enough to understand the science and advance its use, but the inherent animosity towards a culture that had overrun and destroyed their world left little incentive for those scientists to assist the Denubbewa. Eventually they were convinced to study the equipment and document everything they could learn. They were then tasked with improving the system for the Denubbewa. This vessel was fortunate enough to come across a ship in space that contained many of the scientists who had spent decades studying the devices created by the Locculo. The Denubbewa had separated the scientists into teams that worked on different areas of investigation, so the scientists we found didn’t have as complete a background in the discipline as we would have liked. Since they’ve come on board, our people have teamed up with them and we’re now working together to understand every nuance of the Locculo technology. The Denubbewa don’t have ship-to-ship communications like ours. They literally travel between their ships and their bases when they need to report in or ask for guidance. Our new com system actually gives us an edge over their system because we can get answers from our command centers almost immediately.

“Okay, each of you has been given a viewpad with a copy of the Personnel CJ Gate booth manuals sent to me by Admiral Holt so you can view the material at your own speed. That data is the Most Secret data you’ve ever been privileged to view. Guard it with your lives and do not share it with anyone who’s not in this room right now. There’s another meeting room the same size as this one next door so half of you can go over there where you’ll be less cramped. Mess attendants will be bringing coffee and breakfast snacks around very soon. When everyone has completed a basic review of the materials, we’ll get together again to discuss the chores ahead. I don’t expect you to be experts in CJ Gate technology after your review today. That would take many months of study, and the information is limited to the people working at Lorense-Three for Admiral Plimley. But you’ll need to understand the basics so we can accomplish the fairly simple tasks ahead of us. That’s all for now.”

~     ~

As the noon hour approached, the two groups got together again.

“Has everyone had a chance to review all of the materials?”

All of the engineers nodded or made some vocal utterance to indicate that they had.

“Good. So, what do you think?”

Lt. Commander Wilonne spoke up first. “I’m floored, Commander. If everything in this document is accurate, we’re on the verge of breakthroughs not even imagined until now except in sci-fi stories.”

“I can testify to the veracity of everything you’ve read. Every word is accurate, Commander. And yes, we’re on the verge of incredible breakthroughs that represent something wonderful— and something terrible.”

“Something terrible, ma’am?”

“Imagine a situation where an enemy can sneak into your presence without warning and attack you. That’s exactly what this technology represents. Someone could actually ship a booth to some destination where it’s attached to a power source by an accomplice and then out of that booth marches an army of killers. Yet, it’s the very same technology that will allow us to travel between Quesann and any other destination, such as Earth or my home on Obotymot, in seconds. So the technology is, at the same time, potentially both wonderful and terrible. It’ll be up to Space Command to control its access so it’s only used for the wonderful applications.”

“So we’re expected to travel down to the planet and visit each of these Gate booths so we can download their send and receive destination information?” another engineer asked.

“Exactly. Each of you will have a list of locations you’re responsible for, and you’ll be accompanied by an assistant and a squad of Marines as you travel around the planet via shuttle. I shouldn’t have to tell you to keep your assistants away from the booth controls until after the power to each booth has been disconnected. I have a chief petty officer aboard my ship who was working at the Lorense-Four scrap heap until he accidentally triggered a booth he was examining. While he was in the booth evaluating its condition for a report he was required to complete, the floating scrap yard shifted. He extended his hand to steady himself and touched the booth’s control panel. Twelve seconds later, he was aboard one of the new Space Command bases here in Region Three. He was unharmed but very confused.”

“Twelve seconds?” one of the engineers said.

“That’s what they’ve said. The com system requires eighteen seconds to send a message, but as I understand it that’s because it’s a different process, although it uses the same basic technology.”

“I’d heard that a CPO in engineering had gone missing, Commander,” one of the other engineers said. “They spent days turning the yard upside down searching for him. Couldn’t you have told them he was at the base?”

“That event happened before we had the new com system available. When using S-Band from out here, a signal takes a month to reach Quesann.

“Getting back to the chore ahead— after you’ve recorded the required data, you’re to disconnect the transponder and the power source using the procedure outlined in the manual. Another shuttle will then arrive to pick up the deactivated booth and bring it to the Quartermaster ship McHenry in orbit so they can be brought to Quesann on their return trip. I don’t think you will, but should you run into any resistance by the locals, make them understand that if the booths are not removed, the Denubbewa could return at any time.”

“But not if we disconnect the power,” Wilonne said.

“What’s disconnected can be reconnected. And keep your ears open for any chatter about other booths we might not know about. When we’re finished here, we want to have every Personnel CJ Gate booth the Denubbewa put on this planet in a cargo hold on the McHenry.”

~     ~     ~

Admiral of the Fleet Jenetta Alicia Carver entered the empty Senate Council meeting room with Cayla and Tayna and walked to the table facing the dais where the G.A. Senators sat while the Council was in session.

As Jenetta collected her thoughts and prepared for the session, the Senators began entering the Council Chambers and took their seats behind the one-piece desk that extended across most of the room. They were only visible from their mid-sections upwards, and because Jenetta was seated close to the dais and at a lower level, she could really only see heads and shoulders. But that was more than adequate.

“Good morning, Admiral,” the chairman of the Senate Council said after he had called the session to order.

“Good morning, President Fluessa.”

“You requested this meeting because you have news for us?”

“Yes, sir. We recently became aware that contact with the planet Husteus was impossible because no one was responding. We—”

“Excuse me for interrupting, Admiral,” Senator Urhelect, the elected representative from the planet Sebastian, said. “I’m not familiar with that name. Is Husteus in G.A. space?”

“Yes, Senator. It’s at the extreme far end of Region Three. It’s actually the farthest inhabited planet in Region Three. They are non-aligned, so we’ve never had a presence on the planet. But they are within the borders of G.A space, so Space Command has an obligation to protect them from outside attack.”

“I see. Please continue.”

“Thank you, sir. As I was saying, one of our listening posts in Region Three overheard a communication on open space channels that a freighter was unable to establish contact with a shipper on Husteus. Fearing a natural calamity— or worse, an attack by an outside force— we dispatched the destroyer Miami to investigate. The orders to the captain of the ship were to simply make contact with the planet’s government and determine that all was well. Upon approaching the planet, the Miami detected the presence of three Denubbewa warships. Since our warships are all sheathed in Dakinium, the Denubbewa ships were unable to see the Miami’s approach. Before the Miami entered visual range, the captain ordered the ship to reverse course. Once an adequate distance had been achieved, the captain followed standard protocol and launched three CPS-14s. Each was outfitted with a WOLaR weapons habitat container and they were tasked with destroying the Denubbewa ships. Their attack was coordinated so that all three enemy ships were destroyed almost simultaneously. That kept them from notifying their Denubbewa superiors or even anyone on the planet. The captain then notified Second Fleet Command of his actions.

“Following the successful destruction of the three Denubbewa warships, the captain sent ships down to the surface to overfly the land masses and determine the situation as best they could. They had orders not to land, as per our promises to non- aligned worlds. The pilots reported back that there was no evidence of any sentient life remaining on the planet.

“When we received that information, we prepared a convoy of ships that included a Division of GFI Marines. Virtually all Marines who had completed their basic training were sent…”

“All of them!” Senator Urhelect shouted.

“Be quiet, Durnek,” the council president said. “Continue, Admiral.”

“Yes, sir. If I might, I’d like to respond to the senator’s remark first. Senator Urhelect, we were faced with policing all of the landmasses on an entire planet. You can’t begin to do that with a few platoons or even a few battalions. If we begin to see more situations like this, we’ll need full divisions of GFI-trained Marines.

“Now, continuing with the Husteus Operation: When the taskforce arrived at Husteus and we were able to fully investigate, we learned that all of the planet’s citizens had been rounded up and were being held in large internment centers in the planet’s cities. The most recent census put the population size at fourteen million, but our estimate of the number of citizens penned in the internment centers was about half a million.”

“My God!” one of the senators exclaimed. “How accurate was that estimate?”

“Very, according to the reports filed by the Marine forces who assisted the survivors after we retook the planet. No one knows for sure what happened to the thirteen and a half million missing citizens, but the people we were able to save believed they had been sent somewhere by the Denubbewa. All we know for sure is that they are no longer on the planet Husteus. At least not in their previous form.”

“You believe they were turned into cyborgs?” President Fluessa asked.

“Yes, we do. The torsos of all cyborgs killed in the action are being brought back to Quesann so our scientists can examine the brains and determine the species from which they were— harvested. When our people examined the brains of cyborgs killed in the Ruwalchu territory action, they determined that no fewer than sixty different species were represented. I understand that the Grand Princess of Husteus survived, and she’s extremely angry that the G.A. allowed the Denubbewa to kill thirteen and a half million of her subjects.”

“She blames us?” Fluessa said in surprise.

“Apparently, sir.”

“That’s ridiculous. As has been stated here today, Husteus is a non-aligned planet.”

“The Grand Princess seems to believe that even though they wanted to have nothing to do with the G.A. government, we were still totally responsible for their protection.”

“If they want protection by Space Command, they can become an aligned member of the G.A. and pay a fair assessment fee for protection.”

“Yes, sir. It might be worthwhile to hold a press conference and let the people of the G.A. know about Husteus before the Grand Princess has an opportunity to release her version of the information.”

“I thought you wanted to keep the Denubbewa situation quiet because you feared a panic.”

“The press has already learned so the word will soon be out. The citizens of the G.A. might as well know the whole truth rather than getting a slanted view from a press that might not be supportive of our endeavors. Perhaps the real news will provide an incentive to non-aligned worlds to join the G.A. as full voting members and pay assessments that will enable us to increase our forces and provide improved protective services to a larger part of the G.A.”

“And yet knowing what you do about the inability of Space Command to protect all of our current territory, you want to add the Ruwalchu territory to the G.A.!” Senator Urhelect shouted.

“If the Senate confirms the annexation, the Ruwalchu will pay all expenses for the construction of a fleet of ships needed to patrol the new region in addition to the normal annual assessment required of all aligned planets in the G.A. I doubt we could find a more generous offer.”

“But they’ve insisted that any ships they pay for never leave Region Four.”

“I’ve made it abundantly clear that the ships built there will call Region Four their home port. But if a need arose elsewhere, they would be sent to where they were needed, just as we sent a taskforce from Region Three to the Ruwalchu territory when it was needed. The Ruwalchu are being very accommodating. They know how much more powerful our ships are than the ships of their Space Fleet were. They have a choice between joining us and allowing Space Command to protect them or rebuilding their own Space Fleet, a fleet that was totally destroyed by the Denubbewa without claiming more than a few kills of their own. They know they stand a far better chance by uniting with us and that we’ll be far stronger with them fighting by our side. I heartily support the annexation, but the decision is for the Senate to make.”

“Then you expect the Denubbewa to hit us again even though we’ve shown we can defeat them both in space and on the ground?” President Fluessa asked.

“Just as with Maxxiloth, I don’t expect the Denubbewa to ever give up unless we can hit them so hard that we either render them unable to wage war or manage to annihilate the leaders behind the effort to control the galaxy, and possibly the universe. Now they might have another thirteen million, five hundred thousand cyborg soldiers to fill in the holes left from the ones we’ve destroyed in the past. They don’t have to grow their replacement military people as we do, they simply have to take biological brains and stick them in a can. As long as they can keep rebuilding their forces like that, they’ll never stop. I’m convinced more than ever that we must find their main base and destroy the leaders if we’re ever going to win this war. We just haven’t managed to locate their main base— yet.”

~     ~     ~

“Hey, Jordie,” the Marine PFC said to his companion as they stood in the shade provided by a shuttle and watched the Space Command engineers work on a Personnel CJ Gate booth about ten meters away, “how many of these things have we done now?”

“I think this is about number eleven, and we’re just one of a dozen teams doing this. It seems like there’s no end to these things. Based on the amount of territory we’ve covered so far, we may be doing this for a year.”

“A year? I’ll go crazy if I have watch those guys do this for a year. Do you believe what they say about those booths, that you can step inside and travel anywhere in the universe?”

“I believe that they believe it. That’s kinda the same thing.”

“Yeah, but how do they control it?”

“By those codes on the control panel. I think it’s some kinda system like the coordinates on a map. You key in where you want to go, and it takes you to that place.”

“Yeah, but how do you know what place you’ll wind up in?”

“Damned if I know. Those engineers probably know.”

“They’re officers. They won’t talk to us. I tried. The one I spoke to just ignored me like I didn’t exist.”

“Maybe he didn’t hear you. They are so focused on what they’re doing, it’s like they’re in their own world.”

“Do you think there’s a danger, like maybe the booth could explode?”

“If there was no danger, do you think we’d be standing here in our armor with our laser rifles? But the danger isn’t from an explosion. These things are gateways or something that the cyborgs use all the time. Any minute, cyborgs could come pouring out of that Gate like fire ants from a disturbed anthill. That’s why we’re here with our weapons. Were you sleeping when the Staff Sergeant briefed us on what we had to do?”

“No. But I thought he was just pulling our leg when he said to watch out for cyborgs. I thought we killed ‘em all.”

“From what I hear, we haven’t scratched the surface. There are supposed to be millions and millions and millions of ’em.”

“Yeah, sure. Hey, it looks like they’re done with the control panel, so now they’ll just disconnect those wires in the back and we can head out.”

“Yeah, I guess. Hey, did you see that?”

“What?”

“The outside control panel just— like— flashed. Shit. It’s three cyborgs. Open fire. Don’t hit the engineers or the booth.”

As soon as the two Marines opened fire, the engineers dove to the ground. They had no weapons so they couldn’t help. Two other Marines who’d been sitting in the shuttle jumped out and opened fire as well. The three cyborgs opened fire with their own laser weapons, but the Dakinium armor of the Marines absorbed the energy. To Dakinium, the laser bolts were no more dangerous than the beam from a flashlight.

The firefight lasted less than fifteen seconds and no one was injured except the three cyborgs. They were all down for the count. The two Space Command engineering officers had been behind the Gate booth when the shooting started. As soon as the firefight ended, they ran for the shuttle and called the Marine Command center for the sector, informing them of what had just happened. Within seconds, every Marine Command Center on the planet knew of the incident and was informing the other teams. The squad of Marines with each team told the engineering officers that there was a danger and that all of them were ordered to get back into the shuttles.

With the shuttles’ ramps closed, the teams were as safe as if they were a thousand kilometers away. The shuttle pilots watched the booths and no more cyborgs emerged.

After fifteen minutes had passed, the two engineers at the site where the cyborgs had emerged asked the pilots to open the ramps. They called for permission, but it was denied.

“Sorry, sir,” the pilot said. “Command says to stay in the ship.”

“Lieutenant, we have to get back out there and find out where those cyborgs just came from. We only need a couple of minutes to get the data and disconnect the power so no more can come through.”

“Sir, it’s my ass if anything happens to any of you.”

“And it’s all of our asses if we never learn where these tin cans are coming from. We need to see the transport codes for this latest batch before anything happens to that booth or it loses power. It’s already shot up quite a bit. We need to go now. This is more important than your bars, Lieutenant, but I’ll make it an order to keep you in the clear.”

“I’m not sure that would save my ass, sir, but go do what you have to do. Just make it quick.”

The two engineers and the squad of Marines were out of the shuttle so fast one would think there was a fire in the rear cabin. One of the engineers plugged a data storage device especially constructed for this operation into a data jack below the booth’s exterior control panel and then touched a few touch-sensitive points on the panel itself. Within seconds, the process was complete. As he removed the data device, he shouted to the other engineer who was presently standing behind the booth. Almost immediately, the control panel dimmed completely and the booth’s interior light winked out. As the second engineer walked out from behind the booth, he gave the thumbs-up sign.












Chapter Twenty-Four

~ November 28th, 2292 ~

“Commander,” Captain Critarian said, “your report is slightly ambiguous. You state that your teams of engineers have completed the process of collecting data from all of the CJ Gate booths located in the internment centers on the planet, plus several dozen you’ve been able to find in outlying areas.”

“Yes, ma’am, we have,” Christa replied, “and we’ve assembled a wealth of information.”

“But the ambiguity is that there may be booths on the planet that we’re unaware of.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“That’s unacceptable.”

“I agree, but most of the original population of the planet is gone. Less than four percent remains. At the food stations we’ve established, we’ve asked for assistance from that four percent to help us locate any unknown booths, telling people that if we don’t find and remove all of the booths, the cyborgs could return at any time they choose. While we have received some useful information from people grateful for our having saved their lives, enormous areas of the planet are now totally unpopulated. Where there are no people, there’s no one to report the presence of a Gate.

“We know that every active Gate reports its location twice each day, Captain, but the transmission is only active for the tiniest fraction of a second, and that’s not enough time to pinpoint their locations. Since we know the precise timing for booth reporting, we’re trying to identify the approximate locations of every signal and then slowly move in to watch a much smaller geographical area every time the booth is about to make a report in the hope that we can better pinpoint the brief signal. However, the engineers tell me that it could take months to track down all the active booths, so we’ve also begun working it from another angle.

“Centuries ago on Earth, they had wired communications devices called telephones. You entered a numeric code to have a telephone at another location ring, alerting someone at the destination that you were trying to contact them. The first few digits of the code told the system where the destination phone was located in a geographic area, and the latter digits identified the phone ID. The first part was actually called an area code. That made it easier for those primitive systems to forward the call to the right location. We’ve gotten away from that now, and every transceiver simply has a unique address with a master computer system tracking where the device being called is located at any instant. That’s the situation we face here. The address of the booth seems to have no relation to its actual location. Two booths, placed side by side, could have radically different addresses, so right now it’s impossible to determine where all of the Denubbewa Gates are in the universe. Only the Denubbewa central database knows for sure.”

“So how are you combating that system in order to locate the booths on the planet?”

“We’ve acquired a great many addresses from the downloads my engineers have completed. We’re now trying to establish patterns from that information. Based on the structure of the address system, it appears that while a small number of the send-to and receive-from addresses are unique, many are identical, and in some cases, transmission to an identical address was performed at the same instant. Technically that’s impossible if there was only a single booth at the destination because access to a destination booth must be allocated to just one sending booth at a time. However, if the address selected connects to a large center with multiplexed booths, the identification of the sending booth can be added to make the transmission ID unique and the signal can simply be routed to any available booth. Say, for example, that a booth with an address of 011 wanted to send something to a booth with an address of CCC, but CCC could be at a location with a thousand booths. So what the system would do is send it to the next available booth and append a unique booth number. The actual receiving address could become something like CCC05302. Another transmission might be coming from a Personnel CJ Gate with an address of 999 and that might be sent to the next available booth in line. So the receiving address might be something like CCC05308. Our difficulty is determining if CCC05302 should simply be referenced as CCC because the appended address data shouldn’t be present in the send-address. It’s a very complex situation that requires much more information to understand fully.”

“How does that help you identify the location of the extra booths on the planet?”

“It doesn’t.”

“Then what good is it?”

“Collecting the data is helpful in two ways. One, it helps us identify travel between local booths on the planet and travel from booths on the planet to either booths in ships or from booths on the planet to the massive indoctrination centers for new cyborgs they must have somewhere in the universe. Two, identifying the addresses of the massive centers identifies a prime target.”

“A prime target?”

“Imagine you’re standing near a booth in one of the massive orientation centers for new cyborgs when that booth suddenly activates. As you watch, one of the most powerful WOLaR bombs Space Command has in its inventory appears inside the booth and the detonation time is set to just twenty seconds.”

Captain Critarian grinned. “I like it.”

“So do I. It’s a shame we can’t do it.”

“Why not do it?”

“Because it would probably anger the Denubbewa leaders enough to retaliate in a similar fashion. Can you imagine hundreds of powerful bombs exploding in the trash piles at Lorense-Four or in booths we don’t know about elsewhere? No, that’s a card we’ll just have to keep up our sleeve and use at a later time.”

“Then you’re saying we’ve reached a brick wall in our effort to locate all the booths on this planet.”

“No, ma’am, not at all. I’m sorry if I’ve created that impression by giving voice to a fantasy of mine. When we feel confident we’ve identified most, if not all, of the booths on the planet with the data we’ve collected, we’ll begin sending locator beacons to each of the unidentified locations. If we try to send to booths that have been deactivated or destroyed, nothing will happen. But if the locator beacon disappears from the booth, we’ll know we have a live one. If we then receive a locator signal from somewhere on the planet, someone will travel there, download the transmission information to increase our collection of booth data, and then deactivate the booth. In that way we should eventually be able to locate all active booths on the planet.”

“And if the locator disappears but you receive no signal?”

“Then we’ll know the Personnel CJ Gate is a valid destination but is off-planet. Since the locator signal only uses S-Band, it’s possible it may not be received in our lifetime. But if it’s received fairly soon, we’ll investigate and try to determine where the booth is— or was.”

“Was?”

“It might be aboard a Denubbewa ship somewhere in our space, and I have no doubt that the Denubbewa will deactivate the locator immediately. Of course, we’ll never receive a signal if the ship is sheathed in Dakinium. That’s another issue. A great many of the ships we destroyed in the first Denubbewa armada were sheathed, but we haven’t seen any lately. We think that’s because the sheathing was being fabricated here. It’s possible the sheathing operation has now been moved to outside our border or even to the home base of the Denubbewa. If they manage to get one of those armada-sized CJ Gates into our space, we could suddenly find ourselves awash in Dakinium-sheathed warships and motherships.”

“As long as we have our double envelope capability, the sheathing won’t protect them from us.”

“No, but it does hide them. We have great difficulty spotting them since our DeTect equipment can’t see the ships.”

“Okay, Commander, thanks for the update. Carry on.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Christa stood, braced to attention, then turned and left the captain’s office. Her shuttle was waiting at an airlock and she’d be back aboard the Koshi within twenty minutes.

~     ~     ~

“Christa and her teams of engineers have provided us with significant amounts of data from the CJ Gate booths on Husteus,” Admiral Plimley said in the closed session of the A.B. being held in Jenetta’s office. “Unfortunately, we still don’t have enough to draw any conclusions regarding where the missing thirteen point five million inhabitants of that planet might have been sent— and it probably doesn’t matter. I feel confident they’re no longer in G.A. space, and they’ve probably been processed already. If we see any of them again, it will be as cyborgs.”

“I fear you’re correct, Loretta,” Jenetta said. “Where do we stand with the new com system?”

“From all reports, it’s been working wonderfully. Being able to communicate with our ships and bases at the extremes of G.A. space in seconds has made an incredible difference. Our capability of responding to problems before they get completely out of control is something we’ve needed for a long time.”

“Yes, but I was referring to the G.A. system you’re manufacturing.”

“Oh, well, we’re making good progress. We’ve already begun shipping satellites to be sprinkled throughout G.A. space. As you know, we’ve used the same basic design of the satellites we created for SCI to keep an eye on rogue planets and monitor traffic in the main shipping lanes that might be used for smuggling operations. The only modifications are the instructional chipsets and the specialized components that create the tiny wormholes in subspace. As with the SCI satellites, the shell is sheathed with Dakinium, which makes them almost indestructible while being able to recharge themselves from solar energy or cosmic energy. They should never run out of power, and if they’re involved in a collision with a ship or asteroid, they’ll simply reposition themselves afterward.”

“How many have you shipped?”

“So far— I think the number shipped is in the neighborhood of three thousand. I don’t know how many have actually been placed at this time, if any. We’re concentrating first on the solar systems in the most remote areas of Regions Two and Three because that’s where the need is most acute.”

“And how many will we have in place when the system is complete?”

“Phase one calls for placing fourteen thousand satellites. Phase two will see a total of forty-two thousand satellites in place. Phase three will complete the placement and we’ll have two hundred six thousand satellites in place. That will cover all of Regions One, Two, Three, and Four to a distance of one thousand light-years above and below the Milky Way median line.”

“Why so many, Loretta?” Admiral Burke asked. “I thought this was a wormhole system rather than an S-Band system.”

“It is, Raymond. Anyone using the system first communicates with the nearest satellite via an S-Band signal, which then sends the message to a master satellite, which creates an artificial wormhole in subspace to a master satellite nearest the destination, which then completes the routing to the target via S-Band signal. If the target is a ship, the sending satellite may have to send multiple signals until it locates the target, but once identified, Space Command ships and Space Command stations in space exchange messages directly with the sending master satellite. Planetary systems will require numerous satellites to reduce the S-Band time to a minimum and cover the anticipated load so wait time is reduced to near zero. Earth, for example, will have a minimum of six satellites around the planet initially, and a total of twenty-four in phase three.”

“That’s wonderful, Loretta. We’re not trying to pressure you. We’re simply anxious to have our own system so the Denubbewa can’t possibly cut our new communication lines if they learn how we’ve been tapping into theirs.”

“No one here is more anxious than me,” Admiral Plimley said with a grin. “I knew there was a danger when we created the temporary system, and I’ve been pushing my people relentlessly to get our own system operational ever since.”

“Loretta,” Admiral Bradlee said, “how difficult will it be to switch over to the new system when it’s available?”

“The conversion of the operating system will take about thirty seconds. And, should there be problems with the new system, a ship or base will be able to switch back to the Denubbewa system in that same time of half a minute. Naturally, we hope everything will go smoothly, but we’ve prepared for initial problems by having the fallback position.”

“Loretta, when do you think we can begin to use the new system?” Jenetta asked.

“Before the end of this calendar year, but that can only happen in areas where satellites have been sufficiently deployed. When they are, we’ll advise the bases and ships in the areas where the new services are available to change their communication operating systems and that we’re lifting the restrictions on communications. Our people will then be able to use it for personal communications, subject to normal time limitations per individual per day.”

“I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Loretta, you and your people are incredible, and you’ve done a fantastic job. Thank you.”

“It’s always nice to be appreciated, but my greatest thrill comes from seeing the fruits of our labor make a difference in the lives of our people in Space Command and on the numerous worlds in the G.A.”

~     ~     ~

“I’ve received official word from the G.A. that the full Senate has voted on our petition for annexation,” Prime Minister Pemillisa announced to the Gilesset. “I’m genuinely delighted and relieved to say our request has been accepted. We are now, officially, part of the Galactic Alliance. The annexation is permanent and can never be revoked. The territory formerly known as the Ruwalchu Confederacy has been designated as Region Four by Space Command for the allocation of military resources.

“I’ve also been informed that in the coming months, at least one new, special satellite will be placed in orbit around every world in Region Four having a population density of at least one million inhabitants. Eventually, every world with a population density of at least ten thousand inhabitants will have more such satellites in orbit around their planet. The satellites will initially enable every planetary government in Region Four to communicate with every other planetary government in the region almost instantaneously, regardless of distance from the other planet. I’ve mentioned this capability before, having personally witnessed the system in use aboard the Space Command battleship Ares when they contacted Quesann. But now, we’ll be getting our own systems. Once the new system has been fully implemented and additional satellites have been placed into orbit around the planets, commercial operations and even private individuals will have full access to the system, although non- governmental users must open an account and pay a fee for each minute of use.

“All aligned planets will also have a manned observation platform in orbit around their planet to watch for the approach of Denubbewa ships. Should any be spotted, Space Command will be alerted immediately, and then the spotters will notify the planet inhabitants to seek shelter. There will be no other involvement in planetary matters by the G.A. as long as no one violates the basic laws regarding counterfeiting of G.A. credits, distribution of narcotics outside the planet’s sensible atmosphere, slavery of sentient beings, etc., etc. We discussed those laws ad nauseam before we signed the petition for annexation. They are not intended to stifle honest trade, only to control illegal actions.

“As an inducement to accept us into the G.A., we have promised to provide all funding necessary to build the ships that will protect Region Four. The agreement is that all ships will be built in Region Four, using citizens and resources from our region wherever possible, and that Region Four will remain that ship’s home port in the decades ahead. In addition to getting the best protection possible to replace our Space Fleet, working with the experts from Space Command will help us acquire firsthand knowledge of the most advanced technologies, metallurgy, and weapons development in the galaxy. Space Command has defeated the Denubbewa at every single encounter since the Denubbewa fired on two of their warships without warning annuals ago.

“Each planet in Region Four will have to decide for themselves if they wish to be aligned or non-aligned. Aligned planets receive the full benefits of G.A. involvement and protection. Non-aligned planets will have no role in G.A. political activity but will still have far better protection than our own Space Fleet was capable of providing, bless their departed souls. Aligned planets and non-aligned planets cannot trade with one another, so I recommend that everyone choose aligned status.

“In the days ahead, we shall have to decide on the role this body will play in the overall management of our planets, if any. Our government is now the Galactic Alliance, so, by the former authority vested in me, I declare the Ruwalchu Confederacy officially dissolved. Each planet is on its own; however, the G.A. allows a group of planets to establish themselves as a political sub-division. The PSD can send just one senator to represent the entire group in the senate, or one from each planet. The subdivision gets one vote for each planet having a population density of over ten thousand and a separate credit based on the total permanent population size as per the most recent census. There are a number of such sub-divisions, such as the Nordakia/Obotymot PSD in Region One and the Milor PSD in Region Two where the home world is the main planet, and planets first colonized by citizens from the home world are part of the PSD. The Tsgardi and the Uthlaro have not made any progress in establishing a PSD because they have made no effort to cooperate with the G.A.

“Whatever we decide regarding a PSD, I feel very confident that our decision to annex our territory to the G.A. was the correct one.

“One last comment before I close this final session of the Gilesset. Although all representatives of the Gilesset had unanimously voted to seek annexation with the G.A., some representatives wavered when it came time to submit our formal annexation petition. The G.A. would not accept it unless it was unanimous, and these representatives knew that. They held up the process and could have ruined our opportunity to become a member before the Denubbewa returned. Their reason was simple. They wanted special considerations that would benefit them personally, both with increased power and influence, as well as the possibility of improved personal finances. In order to get their consent, I agreed on behalf of the Ruwalchu Confederacy to accede to all of their demands. As such, I get much satisfaction in saying here and now that those agreements made in the name of the Ruwalchu Confederacy are now officially null and void since the Confederacy no longer exists. We are not obligated to honor any of those recent agreements.”

~     ~     ~

“Good morning, Jen,” the image of Admiral Holt said from the enormous wall monitor facing Jenetta’s desk.

“Good morning, Brian.”

“Have you seen the morning news on the big networks?”

“No, I’ve been too busy to tune in. Anything important?”

“They’re broadcasting the story about Husteus. I guess the Senate Council issued a lengthy press release. Naturally, several of the networks are blaming us for allowing thirteen and a half million people to be killed by cyborgs.”

“That’s par for the course. They want to stir up the people in order to sell more subscriptions to their services without any regard for the truth.”

“I’ve been asked to comment so my staff is preparing a response. When they’re done, I’ll schedule a press conference. It’s important that the people of the G.A. have all the facts.”

“No matter what you say, Brian, some news people are going to blame us.”

“Why should this news story be any different? But we can’t just ignore it. And it might be a good opportunity to announce that we’re hoping to increase the size of the Marine GFI.”

“The Senate Council hasn’t yet approved the new appropriation request.”

“So let’s light a fire under them, Jen. It takes time to train Marines and Space Command personnel. We can’t wait until the next planet gets attacked. For all we know, the Denubbewa are already culling the population of a non-aligned planet somewhere in G.A. space. Or maybe even a dozen non-aligned planets.”

“It’s possible. Since we don’t have a presence on any of those planets, we won’t hear about it until the Denubbewa are actively decimating the population and someone notices they haven’t been able to contact anyone on the surface, as was the situation on Husteus. The G.A. is just too big for us to be everywhere at once. And now it’s gotten substantially larger. At least no one can blame me this time. I didn’t conquer the Ruwalchu Confederacy and demand the surrender of their territory.”

Admiral Holt chuckled before saying, “But you wanted us to respond to their plea for help, so someone, somewhere, will blame you.”

“I guess it goes with the job. No good deed ever goes unpunished.”

“You’re not upset with the Senate vote to accept the annexation request from the Ruwalchu, are you?”

“No, Brian, of course not. I believe annexation of the Ruwalchu territory will greatly enhance the G.A., although we’ll suffer from growing pains for a while. The Ruwalchu people are industrious and have good moral values. They’re a valuable addition to the G.A. Naturally, there’s a criminal element, just as there is in every society, but the Ruwalchu have kept them under control. The main problem, as I see it, is that it will take a decade to build the ships we need to patrol that new territory properly. In the meantime, we’ll be struggling to guard the new territory from the Denubbewa and maintain law and order. I’m sure the criminal element is hard at work developing plans to expand their crime syndicates now that the Ruwalchu Confederacy Space Fleet is history.”

“Yes, criminals will always be working behind our backs to take advantage of any opportunity.”

“One of my reasons— my numerous reasons— for taking this job was to free all the slaves in the pleasure resorts. The cyborgs have kept us so busy that we haven’t had time to address that issue.”

“And with the new territory requiring me to assign ship assets for patrols until their new ships are built, it isn’t likely we’ll be able to do anything in that regard for some time.”

“It’s distressing, but we must prioritize the use of our assets to address the issues that present the greatest danger, and that means the Denubbewa at this time.”

“Unfortunate but true, Jen. Okay, I have to go get ready for my press conference. I’ll talk to you later.”

“Break a leg, Bry.”

~     ~     ~

Senator Prime Curlekurt Emmeticus, addressing the Gondusan planetary senate, said, “You’ve now seen the evidence with your own eyes. We had suspected that the Denubbewa were behind the attacks on the freighters because the attacks perpetrated here were identical to the way they reportedly attacked freighters in G.A. space. Now we have proof they’re responsible. The freighter was peppered with holes from those small missiles they reportedly use to breach the hull. A small nuclear charge then floods the ship with radiation while evacuating the atmosphere. The destroyed Denubbewa warship was nearby.”

“But how did the freighter destroy the Denubbewa warship?” Senator Neodeet Literamus asked.

“Don’t be a fool, Neodeet. The freighter never destroyed the warship. The freighter was totally unarmed.”

“Then who did destroy it?”

“Obviously, it was Space Command.”

“Space Command? No one’s reported seeing any Space Command ships in our territory.”

“And no one’s reported seeing any Denubbewa ships in our territory either, but you have the evidence in front of your eyes that they’re here.”

“You can’t possibly know that Space Command destroyed that Denubbewa warship.”

“Who else, if not Space Command? We know from very sad experience that they have the most powerful space fleet in the galaxy. We severely underestimated them in the past, and we should never do it again. We know they’re the only ones who’ve ever defeated the Denubbewa.”

“They’ve reportedly destroyed a few Denubbewa ships, but they certainly haven’t defeated the Denubbewa. One of these days the Denubbewa are going to decide to stop playing around with Space Command and finish them off. They’ll invade G.A. space with a million warships.”

“And what happens to us when that occurs?”

“I don’t know.”

“I do. After they finish off Space Command, they’ll finish off everyone else in this part of the galaxy. I think we should make contact with Space Command, apologize for our past crimes against them, and form an alliance.”

“Because some Denubbewa ship blew up in our space?”

Pointing to the vid screen that still showed the image of the destroyed Denubbewa ship, Emmeticus said, “Look at that image. That’s exactly how ships look after they’ve fought Space Command. The G.A. has some kind of a weapon that makes enemy ships explode from the inside. We have intelligence images taken at their scrap yards around Lorense-Four to prove it. They were purchased from someone working there, and our intelligence people have confirmed they’re genuine and un- doctored. And we’re not talking about a few Denubbewa ships. The recycle piles around Lorense-Four contain the remains of thousands of Denubbewa ships. Our intelligence section has confirmed that. It’s not contestable.”

“There has to be another explanation for those scrap heaps. And what would Space Command be doing in our territory anyway? As far as we know, they’ve never entered our space.”

“Yes— as far as we know. But our intelligence service has heard rumors from very dependable sources that they have some sort of cloaking ability. Their ships can appear and disappear at will, and they never show up on DeTect screens. As far as why they’re here in our space? Perhaps they’ve always been here. We have no way of knowing. They might have been watching us since before we signed the pact with the Uthlaro. Or perhaps they simply heard about our freighters being attacked and came to find the Denubbewa ships doing it.”

“Why would they come all this way to see a Denubbewa warship?”

“Not to see it. To destroy it. We know they don’t fear us or our military might. We have no idea how long they’ve been here or how many ships they have here. For all we know, there could be an entire fleet encircling this planet right now. Thankfully, the G.A. has a solid reputation for not attacking its neighbors as long as its neighbors don’t attack them. We have verified information that Admiral Jenetta Carver, in a Space Command battleship, suddenly just appeared in orbit around Ruwalch years ago. They went there to talk to the leadership about a Ruwalchu warship that had been cruising around in their territory and that had refused to leave. They didn’t destroy the Ruwalchu warship and no one saw the Space Command battleship enter Ruwalchu space or approach the planet. The planetary defenses were never able to identify where the ship was while it was in orbit around the planet, but they knew for certain it was out there. And no one ever saw them leave. They just appear and disappear.”

“Impossible! Where did you hear about this ridiculous cloaking ability?”

“It’s all our military intelligence people are talking about. They’ve been in awe of Space Command since Admiral Carver simultaneously fought four powerful nations— and won. I doubt we could even convince our Space Force to take action against Space Command. They know it would be like putting a laser pistol against your head and pulling the trigger. And now neighbors of the G.A. are petitioning them to join the G.A.”

“Since when?”

“You were here for the intelligence briefing about the Ruwalchu Confederacy, weren’t you?”

“Yes. The Denubbewa have destroyed their entire Space Fleet and many of their freighters.”

“And the Ruwalchu then petitioned the G.A. to annex their territory after Space Command came at their request and destroyed all of the Denubbewa ships in Ruwalchu space.”

“The annexation petition is just an unconfirmed rumor. We haven’t been able to confirm that.”

“Or refute it. And by now it might be a reality. If it’s true, we’ll be surrounded on three sides by the G.A. If they lay claim to the open space on our last border that currently has no neighbors, we’ll be surrounded by the G.A.”

“We should lay claim to that space before anyone else does.”

“And do what with it? With the Denubbewa coming for us, we can’t afford to scatter our forces. And we can’t lay claim to space we’re unable to defend and protect.”

“We don’t know the Denubbewa are coming for us.”

“Neodeet, haven’t you been listening to your own warnings? You’ve as much as stated that we can’t defend ourselves against the Denubbewa. Nobody can— except perhaps the G.A.”

“We’re just a small nation compared to the G.A. and even the Ruwalchu Confederacy. Perhaps they’ll leave us alone.”

“We all know there’s little chance of that. I wish I could invite Admiral Carver to come here and talk to us. Perhaps we should send a representative to Quesann. I wish we had better communications with our neighbors. It takes far too long to contact them and get a reply. Our intelligence people have heard rumors that Space Command is working on a new communications system that will allow them to send messages across the length of the galaxy in seconds.

“More unsubstantiated rumors. There’s nothing faster than S-Band. Our physicists say we’ve reached the limits and we’ll never see anything faster. Faster communications are totally impossible, so Space Command can’t possibly have developed anything that sends messages across vast distances in seconds. Trust me.”












Chapter Twenty-Five

~ December 16th, 2292 ~

“Good Morning, Jen,” the image of Admiral Holt said from the large monitor on the wall facing Jenetta’s desk when she accepted the call.

“Good morning, Brian. What’s new?”

“Have you heard about the response to the Senate Council’s press release regarding the G.A. adding a Region Four?”

“I heard that some people like it and some don’t.”

“I’m talking about the latest poll in Galactic News Today.”

“No, I haven’t seen that one.”

“According to the pollsters, people in the G.A. are overwhelmingly in favor of it once they heard the Ruwalchu are going to pay for the entire fleet of Space Command ships required to patrol their territory in addition to the regular assessment all aligned planets pay to cover the costs of Space Command personnel, maintenance, and ordnance.”

“Wonderful. The Ruwalchu Confederacy figured that would ensure their annexation without delay.”

“That’s the good news for today. The bad news is that people in the G.A. are extremely upset regarding the situation on Husteus where thirteen and a half million people are missing.”

“Well, I wouldn’t expect anyone to be happy about that. I’m certainly not happy. Do they blame us?”

“No, that’s the interesting thing. They understand that Husteus is a very remote planet that chose to be non-aligned to avoid paying an assessment for Space Command protection costs. They know it couldn’t happen in Region One because there are few non-aligned planets, and we have a customs ship around every one of them to ensure that the non-aligned planet isn’t trading with aligned planets. If the Denubbewa attacked a non-aligned planet there, we would either be notified by the customs ship when the Denubbewa arrived or by the lack of the daily report required to be filed by the customs agents. But out here in Regions Two and Three, we haven’t had the funding to expand that program.”

“Yes, it would be great if we could afford that, but with more than two-thirds of the inhabited planets in Regions Two and Three being non-aligned, it’s just not possible.”

“That shouldn’t be the case for long. The news about what the Denubbewa did on Husteus has stirred up the population on every non-aligned planet. They’re all afraid they’re going to be next. I understand the Senate offices are filled with legal representatives hired by non-aligned planets to process the paperwork so their planet will be recognized as aligned immediately, and they’re trying to bribe clerks to get a higher place in line on the waiting list so they get their protection sooner.”

“No kidding?”

“No kidding. And the Senate has just this morning pushed through a resolution that once a planet is granted aligned status, they can’t alter that status for at least twenty annuals. I guess the Senators don’t want planets thinking they can change their status in order to be better protected every time there’s a situation like this and then cancel the aligned status to save money when the extra protection isn’t needed.”

“I’m hoping there’s never a situation like this again, Bry.”

“Yeah, well, I concur with that hope, but I have no idea how we’re going to add all these newly-aligned planets to our patrol routes.”

“The new satellites will help a great deal. Since the planets will be aligned, we can have a tiny presence on or around the planet without requesting permission. A daily report will be all it takes to stay pretty much on top of things there. If we don’t receive a daily report, or even an hourly report, we send in the cavalry. Even so, the Senate will have no choice but to immediately approve a new construction effort and major funding for new ships.”

“I’m glad I don’t have to be the one to break the news to them.”

“I’m sure they know, and even if they don’t realize it yet, I doubt they can refuse or even give me a hard time. If all the requests for aligned status are approved, there’re going to be a lot of new senators coming to Quesann. The current Senate is going to need their votes to get anything passed, so they won’t be able to tell those planets that there just aren’t enough credits in the till to produce the necessary ships to protect their home planets.”

~     ~     ~

“We’ve now located every Personnel CJ Gate booth on the planet,” Christa said to Captain Critarian in her office aboard the battleship Artemis. “As the teams finish up their work of downloading all the send-code and receive-code data, the booth is deactivated. And as each booth is deactivated, the signal we were receiving twice a day that an update was being broadcast from that area ceases to show on our scans of the planet. Thankfully, we never experienced any more sudden appearances of cyborgs after that one incident.”

“Why do you think that one event occurred?”

“It’s possible they were coming from somewhere that hadn’t gotten the message about Husteus being restored to G.A. guardianship with Space Command standing by as we performed a cleanup operation.”

“Yes, I suppose that’s a possibility. Battlefields can be pretty disorganized at times.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“The Babbage has completed the work of loading as much of the three destroyed Denubbewa warships into their ship as possible, and they’ll be leaving shortly for Lorense-Four. Another ship-transporter, the Winston, should be arriving soon. We expect it’ll be able to clean up the remainder of the trash floating out there. The McHenry will continue to provide emergency food rations for the inhabitants of the planet until they can get their farms and food-processing operations going, although the ship is preparing to make a trip to the Ellask SCB to restock. We also expect that a number of freighters loaded with fresh food and replacement farm animals will be arriving here over the next year. The rest of the taskforce has received new orders and will be leaving orbit within the next twenty-four hours. You’ll be receiving orders shortly to proceed to your next assignment as soon as you’ve finished here.”

“Do you know where the Koshi is being sent, ma’am?”

“I haven’t been told, but I can tell you that the G.A. is in major turmoil right now. Most of the non-aligned planets suddenly want our presence on their planets and our ships in their space. Things are going to be positively crazy for a while. You’ve heard about the Ruwalchu Confederacy now being Region Four, haven’t you?”

“Yes ma’am. I knew they were asking for help with repelling the Denubbewa, but I admit that their petition for annexation wasn’t something I ever expected.”

“I think it caught all of us by surprise. My information was that they were definitely hostile to our presence and had refused establishing a diplomatic relationship.”

“That’s what I’d heard. But their appeal does make perfect sense. Their Space Fleet has been completely destroyed, so aligning themselves with us is their best chance for survival.”

“The next thing you know, the Hudeera and the Gondusans will be pleading for annexation.”

“I could see the Hudeera because we’ve had a close relationship with them, but the Gondusans? Not so much. For their part in the attempt to arrogate the Milori Empire, my sister made them give up their former territory that she’d allowed them to reclaim after the Milori were defeated.”

“Dangerous times make strange bedfellows. And we’ve never faced dangerous times like we’re facing now.”

“I’ve certainly felt that way, but we’ve kicked Denubbewa butt every time we’ve faced them.”

“For all we know they might also be fighting wars in a dozen other galaxies. I suspect that if they ever get their act together and come at us with a million warships, we might not fare so well. They’re damn smart and they might just be holding back while they develop new weapons that will negate our present advantage. Never underestimate them, Commander.”

“No, ma’am. You’re absolutely correct. And they might have something new that we’re not expecting. We must never become too complacent.”

~     ~     ~

“Do you know what those engineering officers are doing, Jeff?” PFC Shonora Gullstile asked.

“They’re examining the Denubbewa transfer booth,” PFC Jeffrey Stilcox said.

“No, I mean specifically,” Gullstile said.

“Uh, I don’t understand all that alien technology stuff. If I did, I’d probably be an officer.”

“I asked the lieutenant working at the control panel on the outside of the booth. He showed me how they’re downloading all the codes from the booth so they know the addresses of the booths where the Cyborgs came from and where they went to.”

“So?”

“So— if we have that information we’ll know where they went.”

“So?”

“Don’t you see? We can go there also.”

“Go there? Why would we want to go there? There are probably millions of those metal-heads there.”

“Exactly.”

“What? Are you nuts?”

“Look, those machines are coming for us. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but it won’t be long. So if we can show them that we’re not the pushovers the Husteans were, maybe it’ll slow their advance down enough for the G.A. to find a way to destroy them.”

“Hey, wait a minute. Are you suggesting we go there on our own— without approval from Command?”

“Yeah.”

“You are nuts.”

“I don’t mean just us. I mean the whole platoon. Hey, I just don’t want to sit around waiting for attacks from cyborgs while our officers collect data that will probably never be used.”

“Command knows what it’s doing. If they say go, we go. If they say wait, we wait. If they say jump, we jump, just as high as we can, and never ask how high.”

“We can’t just wait around until the cyborgs come for us.”

“We’re not just waiting around. We’re protecting the engineers so they can concentrate on collecting the data Command needs for the G.A. defense, and we’re also protecting the engineers as they deactivate the booths so the cyborgs can’t suddenly show up and start blasting away.”

“I think we’re missing an opportunity here.”

“What would happen if you did manage to go wherever the target booth is and you discover it’s been crushed flat but is still operational after having been in one of the ships the Miami destroyed? Or how about the control pad doesn’t work so you can’t enter a return address and you’re stuck in some other galaxy?”

“Uh—I haven’t worked out all the details yet.”

“Then you’d better work on them if you hope to have a chance to get back from your mission. But don’t look to me to join you if the operation isn’t supported by Command.”

~     ~     ~

“We’ve received a report from my sister Christa regarding the collection of data from the Denubbewa CJ Gate booths,” Jenetta said at the closed session of the A.B. meeting in her office. “I should say that Brian received the report and sent me a copy so there’s no suggestion that Christa isn’t following the proper chain of command. They’ve completed their work and have forwarded all the data to Brian, who will no doubt send it all to Loretta.”

“Already sent,” Admiral Holt said. “I sent it to her at the same time I sent you the cover report.”

“Good. Thank you, Brian. I hope the effort helps us identify the location of the base they came from.”

“I’m afraid not, Jen,” Admiral Plimley said. “The data proves what we had suspected. The address to each Personnel CJ Gate booth is completely unique and probably assigned at the time of construction so the traveler must know the address of the booth before they can travel. It’s the same system we’ve established for our Personnel CJ Gate system so someone can’t simply travel to a Personnel CJ Gate without advance knowledge of its location.”

“That’s a shame. I guess we’ll have to find a new idea for tracking them back to their base. Roger, how are you making out with the supervisor cyborg we got from the Ruwalchu?”

“We’ve gotten a great deal of detailed information from it concerning the construction and operation of a Denubbewa warship. My people are still parsing it. So far, they haven’t found anything ground-shaking, anything that identifies a base location, or anything that gives us a history of the Denubbewa. But we remain hopeful.”

“Okay. Thank you, Roger. Perhaps something will turn up, but it’s beginning to look like we haven’t made much headway. Loretta, how are we making out with the manufacture of the new CJ Gate satellites?”

“When I established our production schedule, I allowed for considerable downtime since this was a brand new product. But so far the assembly process hasn’t broken down, and it’s moving along even faster than predicted. We have a warehouse full of the satellites SCI uses for monitoring situations in space, so I took that assembly process down temporarily and dedicated the line to producing wormhole communication satellites. The internal components of the satellites are different, but the retooling was minor. So, as a result, we’re far ahead of schedule. But it’s still going to take six weeks of travel to get the new satellites out to the farthest points of Region Three and twelve weeks to reach the farthest areas of Region Four.”

“I’ve learned that we’ve very recently acquired a significant quantity of personnel CJ Gate booths in amazingly pristine condition,” Jenetta said with a grin, “and they just happen to already be way out in Region Three. Since the satellites are so small, can’t we use the Gate booths here to get them out to where we need them? You could probably fit a half a dozen satellites in a booth at once.”

“Actually, we could probably send a dozen at once if we removed them from the packing cases. But it’ll still take a week to ten days to get the satellites to the Region Three border area and seven additional weeks to the farthest areas of Region Four.”

“But we’d be shaving five weeks off the transportation time. Since we could send a batch every three minutes, there’s no need to remove the packing materials. Do you foresee any problems with forwarding them that way?”

“Well, eight of the booths in one of the new bases, Highcap SCB, were reported to have been damaged when they were improperly disconnected, and three of their booths were riddled with laser fire when the cyborgs tried to take control of the base, so I wouldn’t count on any of them at all. Booths at the other six bases were also powered down improperly to prevent use by the Denubbewa, although the damage might be minor. We’ve developed full schematics for the booths and would like the engineers in each base to attempt to restore power and run a series of diagnostic tests on each one. If they have at least one booth working, we can send them any parts they need to fix the malfunctioning booths.”

“I thought the Gates lost their ability to function once they were turned off,” Admiral Burke said. “Didn’t you recently tell us that the data in the booths we have here was no longer available?”

“I was referring to the log record of transfers. The booth retains its own identity data, so all you need is the ID of the booth you’re sending someone or something to.”

“All the booths on Husteus have been loaded aboard the McHenry,” Admiral Ahmed said. “I can have her swing by Highcap, drop off eleven replacements, and pick up the damaged booths on her way back here.”

“That would be great,” Jenetta said. “Thanks, Raihana.”

“As long as those recovered booths are already out in Region Three, we might as well store all of them at Highcap,” Admiral Plimley said. “The booths we’ve designed for our new system have very different internal circuitry and operating systems that will prevent the Denubbewa from accessing them, but there was no sense discarding the booths we’d collected. If we leave the booths out there, they can be upgraded to work with our system in the future simply by replacing the internal components. That will prevent them for being accessed by the Denubbewa.”

“Okay, we’ll do that. Raihana, please unload all the booths at Highcap, but pick up the eleven that were damaged.”

“Will do, Jen.”

“Loretta, if we install one or two of the Husteus booths in a ship centrally located in Region Four, we can cut out another five weeks of travel time when transporting the satellites.”

“Jen, I thought we wanted to keep use of the Denubbewa system to a minimum to reduce the chance of them learning we’re piggybacking our signals on their system?” Admiral Plimley said.

“We did, Loretta, but we also expected the satellites wouldn’t be available until months from now. You and your people have done such an amazing job that we can advance the schedule. Now, if we can get these satellites out to where we need them most and activate them, it doesn’t matter if the Denubbewa learn we’ve been using their system and take steps to deny us access. We’ll have the beginnings of our own wormhole communication system in place in weeks instead of months, with satellites in the most remote areas of G.A. space. These expanses are among the most important locations because the new system enables us to be informed immediately of any problems or incursions rather than learning about them months after the fact.” Jenetta took a deep breath and released it quickly. “I feel like celebrating. Anyone want a refill of their coffee or tea?”

~     ~     ~

“I’d gotten used to seeing the taskforce ships on the bridge monitors throughout my watch,” XO Mollago said as he sat in Christa’s office for their morning briefing. “It seems so strange not to see them anymore. Now all I see are the twenty CPS- 16s that are part of our squadron. Quite a difference when you’re used to seeing a battleship, a Quartermaster ship, a ship-transporter, and a handful of destroyers. It was almost like we were in the Fleet Harbor at Quesann.”

Christa smiled and said, “I sort of like seeing the uncluttered view. Get used to it because I don’t expect us to be part of any major operation again for a while. The Denubbewa now know that we can defeat them in space or on planetary surfaces, but— we have to constantly be on the lookout for their next stratagem. We believe they’ve been on a crusade to replace all biological life for centuries, so they must have acquired an amazing amount of warfare experience. So far, they seem to have been testing us with thrusts here and there, which we’ve been able to parry. It’s possible they haven’t been devoting all of their attention towards us because they’re currently at war with civilizations in other parts of the Milky Way, or even in other galaxies. It’s frustrating that our knowledge of the Denubbewa is so limited. Although we’ve beaten them at every encounter, we have no idea what they’re really capable of. For example, do they have weapons that are a thousand times more powerful than our WOLaR ordnance, or have we seen all they have and their only move left is to overwhelm us with cyborgs?”

“I think waiting for the other shoe to drop is the most difficult part of warfare.”

“Yes, but even with their advanced modes of personal travel, the real impediment is the distances involved. We just have to hope that when they get another Armada CJ Gate constructed to transport ships, we’re prepared for them.”

~     ~

“You wanted to see me, Captain?” XO Mollago said as he entered Christa’s office a few hours later.

“Yes. I’ve just received new orders from Quesann. The squadron is to resume patrol along the border from here up to Region Two and then back. Prepare the ship for departure.”

“Yes, ma’am. What about the Marines on Husteus?”

“Most of the Marines left after all the CJ Gates were removed from the planet. They returned to the Artemis before it departed. General Peter Burr is still in command on Husteus, but the size of his force has been considerably diminished. They’re receiving their orders directly from Quesann now, via forwarding by Ellask SCB. The Winston will be arriving here soon to collect the remains of the Denubbewa ships destroyed by the Miami. I understand they’ll also be placing one of the new communication satellites in orbit near here. Once activated, it should be usable immediately, so anyone with an authorization to use the system will have near-instantaneous communications with Quesann.”

“I wish we could get one of the new systems installed in the Koshi.”

“We will. Quesann is manufacturing and shipping the new com systems as fast as they can. We just have to wait our turn. Because we’re so far out, we’re higher on the priority list than Scout-Destroyers operating closer to Quesann. When our new com system arrives out here, we’ll be told to report to one of the new Space Command bases. I understand the installation can be completed in hours. In the meantime, our communications time has been reduced from a month to just seconds when we go through Ellask, plus the time required for our S-Band signal to make the trip to the station.”

“What about our CPS-16s?”

“They’ll all be getting the new system as soon as equipment is available, but they’re at the bottom of the list of Space Command vessels because they aren’t normally that far from us. S-Band is still highly effective for short-distance communications. And they have little need to communicate with anyone other than us until the system is available for personal communications. For the time being, all messages can be relayed through us once we have our new system installed.”

“Sometimes we operate at considerable distances from the 16s so I hope we don’t have to wait too long to get everyone properly equipped.”












Chapter Twenty-Six

~ January 3rd, 2293 ~

“We’re approaching the next search area, Captain,” the navigator said to Christa.

Christa shifted in her chair and then said, “Com, alert all ships to come to a stop and then move out to their designated search positions.”

“Aye, Captain,” the com chief said, then touched a few contact points on his console and relayed the message.

Some fifteen minutes later, the com chief said, “All vessels have reached their positions, Captain, and are ready to begin the search.”

“Give the signal to commence. Helm, let’s move out.”

Both said, “Aye, Captain,” as the Koshi surged ahead.

Christa’s orders were to continue the search routines they had employed when they came across the Denubbewa ship that held the cyborg scientists now working for Space Command at Lorense-Three. Since it was possible that Denubbewa ships in Region Three might be sheathed in Dakinium, the tac officer on every ship had their workstations programmed to watch the stars and alert the tac officer if any of them winked out briefly. If any did and there was no reasonable explanation, such as a planet or an asteroid or space junk, the squadron would stop and investigate. The chance that the computer would even record the absence of starlight given the speed the ships were traveling was slim, but it never hurt to use all available tools.

The squadron had been searching for anything out of the ordinary for several days, so it was a relief from the dull routine when the Koshi received a message from Quesann. Christa rose from the command chair and walked to her office after ordering the navigation officer to take command in her absence.

The message wasn’t a Priority-One so a retinal scan wasn’t required. Christa tapped the spot on the touchpad that would play the message and then leaned back to watch.

“Good morning, Christa,” the smiling image of Admiral Holt said. “I have two items to mention. First, I want to congratulate you on a job well done with the CJ Gate booths on Husteus. Admiral Plimley’s people are busy examining and collating all the transfer information you were able to collect. Hopefully, it will help us identify locations of fixed booths as we accumulate more and more data. As we recycle wreckage at Lorense-Four and find more booths, we immediately turn them over to the experts now and the cache memory information is downloaded before the power is disconnected.

“The other item I have is to inform you that your new com system is waiting for the Koshi at Jussento SCB. We believe that’s the closest Space Command base to the area of space you should be searching at present. In addition to the com station you’ll be receiving, there are four additional stations for four of your CPS-16s. Install them in ships having commanders you trust most because they’re the ships mostly likely to be sent on missions that take them farthest away from the Koshi.

“Eventually, we’ll get every ship in your squadron fixed up with a new system. For the present, use the new system only for military communications. We expect to open the system up to all communications within two months. S-Band communications will naturally continue to be available on all ships because planets and civilian shipping will not have the military com systems available for some time. Ultimately we hope to make the new capability available to everyone, such as freight haulers and passenger liners who have a special account, as well as to telecommunications providers who will pay a fee for each minute of usage.

“That’s all, Christa. Jen says hi.

“Brian Devon Holt, Vice-Admiral, Quesann Command. End of message.”

Christa was smiling as she returned to the bridge. As the navigator yielded the command chair and she sat down, Christa said, “Nav, are we closer to Jussento SCB now than we’ll be at the end of our search route?”

“I’ll check, ma’am. Give me ten seconds.”

Ten seconds later, the navigator said, “We’ll be closer at the end of the search pattern.”

“Okay, we’ll finish this search run. But at the end of the run we want to head to Jussento. Compute a course and forward the data to all the other ships.”

“Aye, Captain.”

~     ~

As the Koshi and its squadron of CPS-16s entered Jussento, Christa was surprised by the number of civilian ships inside the port. Being a former Denubbewa mothership, the port area was enormous and could house a virtual armada of Space Command vessels, so it took quite a number to give a first impression that it was anything other than barren.

The Koshi and the four ships that would receive the new communications equipment were assigned to berths near entrances into the pressurized area of the base in order to facilitate access to the ship by station workers.

After docking was complete and the airlock connections had been tested and certified, the hatch of the Koshi and the airlock entrance to the enclosed piers and docks were opened.

As Christa stepped onto the pier and began walking towards the station, S.C. engineers guiding oh-gee sleds filled with equipment and testing equipment were slowly walking towards the Koshi airlock.

Having been the temporary administer at Jussento SCB when it still bore the provisional name of Doc, Christa was intimately familiar with the layout of the space station and had met the new administrator when he arrived to take permanent command. Her destination now was his office.

Upon entering the office of the station administrator, Christa was surprised to see several individuals seated in the waiting area. The administrator’s secretary/clerk looked up from her keyboard and smiled before saying, “Good afternoon, Commander. Can I help you?”

“I was hoping to see Captain Allanton, but it appears he’ll be tied up for a while. I’ll come back at a different time.”

“Let me tell him you’re here and see when he’ll be able to squeeze you in.”

After speaking the message to her computer screen, she read the reply and said, “He would like to see you now. Please go in.”

Christa walked to the door of the captain’s office without looking directly at the people who were waiting, but from the corner of her eye she could sense they were unhappy about her being seen immediately. She stepped into the room as the door slid open and then closed behind her.

“Christa,” the captain said as he came out from behind his desk and extended his hand, “it’s wonderful to see you again.”

Christa smiled and said, “It’s great to see you again, Captain.”

“Ronald, please.”

“Okay, Ronald. How are you doing out here?”

“It’s been a new experience, that’s for sure. I can say one thing about this job— you don’t get bored. Frustrated, yes. Bored, never.” Gesturing towards his informal seating area, he said, “Let’s sit down and talk.”

After taking seats, Christa said, “I couldn’t help but notice that the port seems unusually busy. Is there a problem?”

“Freighters whose cargo isn’t quite ready for transport at nearby planets prefer to wait here where they’ll be safe from Denubbewa attack instead of sitting out in open space. When they get a firm date for when cargo containers will be ready, they’ll coordinate their travel to pick up the containers and begin their trip. And I’m sure you noticed the people in the outer office. They’re here to lobby me to assign one of our destroyers to safeguard their planet. I keep telling these planetary representatives that I only have three destroyers assigned to this base and two of them are always out on patrol. But they keep coming back to ask again and again. And then there’s the monumental task of getting this station set up with a food court, shopping concourse, and traveler housing. As you know, the profits from those amenities significantly reduce the annual cost of operating a base, so the G.A. Senate is anxious to see them made available as soon as possible. They’re even talking about charging a fee for parking a civilian ship inside the port. I’m sure I’ll eventually get a handle on all of it, but right now— whew.”

“I understand what you’re going through, and I sympathize. I was stuck flying a desk on Dakistee for five years while I was the Space Command Operations Administrator there. I was afraid I might get appointed as administrator here, so I was ecstatic when you showed up to take command.”

“It’s actually not so bad. And I’m sure the job is bound to get easier as everyone settles in and we get the station in shape.”

“You’re not trying to talk me into taking this job again, are you, Ronald?”

Allanton chuckled before saying, “No. I think I’d have an easier task trying to convince a Milora to have sex with a Pledgian.”

“Good, because I love my job as a Scout-Destroyer captain with a squadron of CPS-16s.” After a slight pause, she asked, “Can a Milora mate with a Pledgian? How exactly does that work?”

“I have no idea— to either question. It’s amusing to think about, though.”

“I don’t even know how a Pledgian mates with another Pledgian. They’re like furry balls.”

“Well, its eyestalks, arms, and legs all extend out from its body so its—”

“That’s enough, Ronald,” Christa said with a smile. “I don’t think I want to hear what I think you intended to say next.”

Allanton grinned. “Okay, enough said on that topic. Where’re you headed after you have the com system upgrade?”

“Back out on patrol, I guess. I haven’t received any orders to the contrary.”

“I very recently heard that you were personally responsible for Space Command having these seven new bases. Is there any truth to that rumor?”

“Uh— guilty as charged. But let’s not make a big deal over it. I disobeyed orders and could have been court-martialed.”

“Seriously?”

“I’m afraid so. My official orders were to destroy every Denubbewa ship we found. However, there are times when you’re confronted with situations where it seems more advisable to follow the spirit of the orders rather than following them to the letter. I did violate my orders— technically. That’s something I never do and certainly never recommend. However, in this case I interpreted the orders as meaning we should destroy every Denubbewa we found. These seven vessels in pristine condition were empty of Denubbewa, so destroying them would not have eliminated a single cyborg. I believed it would better serve the G.A. if they were intact. Reducing them to scrap seemed like a waste of a potentially valuable resource. Fortunately for me, the Admiralty Board agreed.”

“I’m not surprised. It would have cost the G.A. trillions of credits if we’d had to build them from scratch. And it would’ve taken perhaps two decades or more to complete them and move them into place if we’d commenced work immediately. I agree that a military officer or enlisted person must never violate their orders, but there may be a few times in our careers when we’re confronted with a situation like the one you faced where it appears more important to obey the spirit of the orders rather than the letter of the orders. As leaders of men and women, officers and noncoms issue orders daily, but we can’t possibly envision every situation our people will encounter when left to their own devices. As a result, our people are expected to exercise a certain degree of judgment as they follow their orders. Quesann Command could not possibly have foreseen that you would find seven empty motherships in like-new condition. I totally agree with the decision of the A.B., except for one point. They should have given you a medal and a promotion.”

Christa chuckled. “It’s nice to be recognized for a job well done, but we don’t do the job for medals. And as for a promotion, I’d have to give up my ship and either take a destroyer or fly a desk again. I have four brothers who have destroyer commands in Region One, and every time I watch one of their vidMails, they sound like they’re bored out of their minds. My dad commands a Heavy Cruiser and his work life sounds just as bad.”

“Medals are a part of the recognition process and show everyone else that you were recognized for superior performance. It actually provides incentive for others to work harder to achieve the same recognition.”

“That’s very true, but I’m not upset that I didn’t receive one.”

“So you never want to move up to a bigger ship?”

“Right now all the action is with Scout-Destroyers and CPS-16s. At some point, I may long for more responsibility and a larger command, but at the present I’m where I want to be. And with a full squadron of CPS-16s, I have as many SC personnel in my command as any destroyer captain. I just don’t have the four bars on my shoulders.”

~     ~

Christa had enjoyed spending almost an hour talking with Captain Allanton before returning to the Koshi to check on the progress of the com system installation. There were at least a dozen engineers on the bridge engaged in discussions about the installation. They stopped talking when Christa entered.

Surprised by the sudden silence, Christa said, “Is there a problem?”

“Uh, no problem, Captain,” the lieutenant in charge of the engineering staff aboard the Koshi said. “We were just discussing the disposition of the old console. I want them to leave it and they say they have orders to bring it back with them when they’re finished.”

“What’s your reason for wanting to keep it aboard ship?”

“This new system sounds great, but it’s still really new and— well— unproven. I’d like to hold onto the old system until we know the new system is totally reliable. If we experience a malfunction, we can change the console in an hour and restore S-Band communications.”

“Your parts inventory will include replacements for everything that might break down, won’t it?”

“Yes, ma’am. But— well— the new technology is quite a bit more complex. If something happens and the new system fails, we could be stuck without any communications.”

“We’ll still have the CPS-16s around us.”

“Yes, ma’am. But if we’re out on patrol and separated from the CPSs, we might not be able to contact anyone. And if the system as a whole goes down, we’ll still need basic S-Band capability.”

Christa looked at the faces of the station’s engineers and then at the faces of the Koshi’s engineers before saying, “The console doesn’t take up very much space, so it won’t inconvenience us to store it in a hold for a short time.” Looking at the engineer from the station who was charged with installing the new com system, she said, “Lieutenant, we’re going to hang onto the old com console until my people feel comfortable with the new system. If Captain Allanton insists that we not store it aboard ship while we’re out on our next cruise, we’ll deliver it to you at the base.”

“Yes, Captain. Then I guess we’re done here. Your new system is installed and we’ve performed a full diagnostic test. It was powered up for ninety-six hours before you arrived, so if any of the components were going to fail prematurely, we would have identified them already. We found no problems or anything that indicates a problem might develop.”

“Fine. And we have the old system just in case. Thank you for installing our new system, Lieutenant.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

~     ~     ~

The Ares entered Widden SCB and was directed to a pier near an entrance into the habitat. As the ship completed its maneuvers, the station’s administrator, Captain Sandra Pettle, waited expectantly on the pier.

Captain Lawrence Gavin was the first to exit via the bow airlock, followed immediately by Commander Eliza Carver.

“Larry, how are you?” Captain Pettle asked, a wide, genuine smile adorning her face both before and after her greeting.

“I’m fine, Sandra. You’re looking very well.”

“Thank you. I am.”

“Sandra, allow me to introduce my XO, Commander Eliza Carver.”

Captain Pettle extended her hand as she said, “Hello, Commander. Welcome to Widden SCB.”

“Thank you, Captain.”

Turning back towards Gavin, Pettle said, “So, do you have time to visit, or do you just want to get your load of satellites and your replacement com system and scoot out of here?”

“I’ll visit while Eliza supervises the loading and engineering work.”

“Good. Follow me. Eliza, nice meeting you.”

“Likewise, Captain.”

~     ~

“The shipment of satellites are all aboard and secure in a storage hold, sir,” Eliza said when Gavin returned to the Ares and they were seated in Gavin’s bridge office. “The new com system console is now in place on the bridge. It’s only half the size of the original one.”

“Very good. Was there any problem with the transfer of satellites via the CJ Gate?”

“According to the officer who supervised the transfer from start to end, it went without a hitch. Quesann sent a message when they were ready to ship, and the engineers here in the base connected the power to the Gate. As soon as the transfer was complete, the engineers disconnected the power again so no cyborgs could sneak into the base.”

“Excellent. I wonder if the Denubbewa know we’re using their own system against them.”

“I think I’d be just as happy if we never learn the answer to that question, sir. They say that ‘no news is good news.’”

“Curiosity always gets the best of me.”

Eliza smiled. “Me, too. There’s something about having all the answers that’s so satisfying because it helps you prepare for most situations.”

“At this point, I don’t know if their discovery could hurt us. We’re already seeding G.A. space with these satellites, so even if they block us from using their system, we’ll have our own system up soon. Sandra said Quesann is still testing the new system and we’ll be notified when to make the switch. But if the Denubbewa cut us off before we’ve switched, Quesann said to change the system over and try to make contact because if we do get cut off, they’ll end their testing and go live.”

“That’s good to know.”

“Okay, Eliza. Let’s get started with the satellite distribution in Region Four. Two of the CPS-16s assigned to patrol the closest areas of Region Four will be meeting us at the border to take on the satellites they’ll be seeding at designated locations. Take us out.”

“Yes, sir,” Eliza said as she stood up and headed for the door.

~     ~     ~

“I just received a message from Widden SCB,” Admiral Holt said when the call went through to Jenetta. “Captain Pettle reported that Larry Gavin picked up the satellites we sent there for distribution in Region Four. By now, the Ares is under way. They’ll link up with all the CPS-16s assigned to the region so the initial batch of satellites can be placed throughout the entire region as they patrol.”

“That’s wonderful, Brian. You know, as incredible as it is that we can now send a message to our ships when they’re thousands of light-years away and get their responses in less than a minute, it’s even more remarkable that we can now send objects. I can understand how Alexander Graham Bell must have felt when he spoke the first message into his recently invented telephone and his assistant Watson heard his words through a receiver in another room.”

“Yes, I feel that way as well, Jen. I have to admit that when you told me you were going to send those new satellites to Widden SCB via the CJ Gate booths, I had my doubts that it would actually work. I guess I thought the Denubbewa would somehow realize what we were doing and stop us.”

“I knew there was always a chance they would stumble across our activity, but they’re not infallible. And we do have them at a distinct disadvantage.”

We have them at a distinct disadvantage? Jen, they’ve been at this for centuries— possibly millennia.”

“We believe that’s true, but there’s one advantage we know we have.”

Jen was silent as Brian waited to hear the rest. Finally he said, “Okay, don’t keep me waiting. What advantage do we have over a race that’s been destroying other civilizations for centuries and absorbing their technology, and who appears to have virtually unlimited resources?”

“We have dedicated, freethinking scientist leaders in our research operations and dedicated, freethinking leaders in command of our military personnel. The Denubbewa rely on what are essentially programmed robots. In my opinion, that gives us an enormous advantage.”

“Okay, I’ll concede that in a one-to-one situation, I’d want the dedicated, freethinker rather than a robot. But they can throw a thousand times the number of soldiers at us than we have available to defend the Galactic Alliance. Perhaps even a hundred thousand times the number we have.”

“Yes, but I’ll still take our people over robots any day, even when the odds are stacked so enormously against us.”












Chapter Twenty-Seven

~ February 16th, 2293 ~

“What’s the count, Eliza?” Captain Gavin asked his XO as they sat in his office for their daily briefing session.

“Just under fifty percent of the satellites have been offloaded to the CPS-16s that will deliver them to their designated locations. The actual number is forty-eight point three percent. And, of course, each CPS-16 has a dozen or so replacement satellites as a reserve in case of failure after the satellite is launched. In that case, they must recover the satellite and launch a new one after updating the positioning information.”

“I guess they don’t have to worry about shipping damage. Kind of hard to damage satellites sheathed in Dakinium.”

“Yes, sir. I’m sure any damage wouldn’t happen accidentally. These satellites could get hit by a stray asteroid and just shrug off the impact. But I’m sure that under the possible damage reference, Space Command is considering intentional destruction and curiosity.”

“Curiosity?”

“Yes, sir. Should anyone somehow spot one of the satellites and attempt to open it to learn our secrets, the satellite will self-destruct without warning. We have classified instructions for handling them that cover internal inspection. But for anyone who doesn’t have those instructions, their attempt to open one of our satellites will be their last act of espionage.”

“Good Lord! I wasn’t informed that the satellites were booby-trapped. Are the Denubbewa satellites booby-trapped?”

“The Denubbewa satellites, like ours, are incredibly difficult to locate, but we’ve found a few. And no, they weren’t booby trapped. And ours are even more difficult to locate because they’re smaller and because they’re covered in Dakinium. But we can’t rule out the possibility that someone will come across one someday. Perhaps it will be their last day.”

“Do they present a danger to anyone deploying them?”

“Only if anyone aboard the ship attempts to open one without accessing the disassembly instructions. The positioning information has already been entered into each satellite, but that can be changed easily through use of a computer probe that plugs into the unit externally as long as the engineer has the satellite’s ID. So there’s almost no reason to ever open one.”

“May God protect any of our people who must open one.”

“Actually, Space Command protects them if they read the disassembly instructions. The satellite can be completely disarmed by using the computer probe that’s provided.”

“What’s the explosive force if they don’t?”

“It has a miniaturized core like that of our WOLaR bombs, and it could easily wreck a large section of a Scout-Destroyer if the satellite was inside the ship when it blew.”

“You’ve alerted all of our engineering people to the danger?”

“Yes, sir, as well as the engineering people on every CPS-16 who’ve received the satellites to date. Actually, I even require them to acknowledge receipt of the disassembly instructions with a thumbprint.”

“Excellent. That last part should really impress upon them the possible danger of toying with these innocuous-looking satellites. Are we underway to our next rendezvous location?”

“Yes, sir, and we’ve received confirmation from the two ships that they’ll be waiting for us.”

“Now that you’ve told me how dangerous those satellites are, I can’t wait to see them all distributed.”

“They’re only dangerous if someone messes with them. And we do already have thousands of WOLaR bombs in our holds.”

Gavin took a deep breath and then released it slowly before saying, with a smile, “Don’t remind me.”

Eliza smiled back and said, “Never again, sir.”

~     ~     ~

“Captain, I have a contact,” the tac officer said to Lieutenant Juliet Wiscarski of the CPS-16 ship Angels 62.

“A freighter?”

“Negative, Captain. It’s really big, but it doesn’t appear to be a freighter. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s a Denubbewa warship.”

“Denubbewa? Navigation, are we still in Region Four?”

“Aye, Captain. We’re close to the extreme outside border, but we’re still at least a light-year inside G.A. space.”

“Tac, is that ship underway or stationary?”

“It’s underway, ma’am— at the reputed top speed for Denubbewa warships. It’s headed directly towards the border.”

“Send the directional information to the helm. Helm, let’s catch up with that ship.”

“Aye, Captain. I have the data. At Marc-One, we should overtake that ship in— eight seconds.”

“When we catch up, match its speed and course.”

“Aye, Captain.”

~

“No doubt now, Captain,” the tac officer said a minute later. “It’s a Denubbewa warship.”

“Should I plan a flight path so we can drop a WOLaR inside its hull, Captain?” the helmsman asked.

“Negative. Go to Marc-One and remain on this course. I want to see where it’s headed at full speed. We can always come back and find it again when it’s time to destroy it.”

~     ~

Some forty minutes later, the navigation officer said, “We’re approaching the border of G.A. space, Captain.”

“Noted,” Wiscarski said.

“Should I stop before we cross the border, Captain?” the helmsman asked.

“The space outside this border is unclaimed so we won’t be trespassing in anyone’s domain. Don’t stop until we either learn where that Denubbewa ship is headed or I decide we’ve gone far enough.”

“Aye, Captain,” the helmsman said.

~     ~

At Marc-One, the ship was covering more than one and a half light-years each hour, and it was more than three hours before the Angels 62 vessel encountered something in their path.

“All stop,” Captain Wiscarski said as soon as the tac officer announced contact ahead. “Holy Piccoli,” she added as the monitor on the bridge revealed what was ahead.

The bridge lapsed into silence as the image filled the monitor.

“Tac,” Wiscarski said after several seconds, “can you estimate the size of that armada?”

“Negative, Captain. It’s too vast. It extends beyond our DeTect range.”

“Start filming with all cameras. Helm, take us to wherever this armada ends. Speed should be Light-1.”

“Aye, Captain. Light-1 speed.”

Because Angels 62 was in a double envelope, the Denubbewa aboard the ships would not be able to see the small Space Command vessel as it filmed the armada.

~

After completing several passes to film the armada from different directions, including a pass through the heart of many of the ships, Wiscarski ordered a halt well away from the Denubbewa fleet.

“Com, how close are we to the nearest com satellite?”

“We didn’t launch the last one after we sighted that Denubbewa ship headed to this location, Captain, so I estimate the S-Band time to a satellite is about seven hours.”

“That long?”

“Yes, Captain. Before crossing the border, we were in a remote area where there are very few inhabited planets. We’d been dropping satellites farther and farther apart because there was little need for them. I suspect Quesann wanted to have the majority of satellites in the first batch closer to the inhabited areas. If we had dropped that last one, the S-Band time would only be about two hours.”

“Damn. Tac, what if we were to drop a satellite here? Could we use it?”

“I don’t think so, Captain. The satellites are already preset with activation coordinates, and it would immediately try to reach those coordinates before accepting transmission information. It only has very limited movement capability that’s designed to keep it in place once deployed very near the preset coordinates. Given the distance to where we should have dropped the last satellite, I’d guess it would take a lifetime for the satellite to get back there on its own. It would go as far as it could and then would have to stop until its power was recharged.”

“Okay. Stand by, Com. I’m going to prepare a message for transmission to Quesann.”

“Aye, Captain.”

“Nav, give the coordinates of that armada to Com. Then you have the bridge command until I return.”

“Aye, Captain,” the navigator said.

~

Wiscarski flopped into the chair behind her desk and began composing a message in her head. When she had organized her thoughts, she tapped a contact spot on her keyboard and began speaking.

“Priority-One message to Admiral Brian Holt, Quesann Command.

“Sir, I apologize for breaching protocol and messaging you directly, but the matter is of such importance that I believed it necessary due to possible delays from the information traveling up through normal channels. My ship, the CPS-16 Angels 62, is presently in unclaimed space outside Region Four. As we were about to deploy a com system satellite, we identified a Denubbewa warship traveling at full speed through G.A. space. It was headed for the border, and I decided to have my ship follow the same course at Marc-One to see where it was headed rather than destroying it immediately.

“We crossed the border without encountering any enemy vessels, so we continued on. After slightly more than three hours of travel time, and having covered roughly five light-years of distance, we encountered a Denubbewa fleet working to sheathe their motherships in Dakinium.

“I’m attaching the surveillance vid we shot during several passes through the armada, including one pass through the center of some of the motherships. We estimate there are roughly two hundred fifty motherships, each of which appear to contain some two hundred warships. Therefore, we’re facing roughly fifty thousand warships in a fleet of motherships sheathed in Dakinium. I’m glad now that we didn’t attack the lone Denubbewa warship we saw in Region Four because it might have alerted the Denubbewa to our presence.

“Sir, by our estimates we are seven S-Band hours from the nearest of the newly deployed satellites. Being just a CPS-16, we haven’t received one of the new communication consoles yet, so we’re limited to S-Band transmissions sent to a satellite for relay via the new system. Therefore, when you receive this message, it will be seven hours old.

Angels 62 will stand by outside of G.A. space until we receive a response to this message. We await a reply from our Region Four command structure.

“Juliet A. Wiscarski, Lieutenant, Captain of the CPS-16 ship Angels 62. End of message.”

Touching her Command Ring and saying “com chief,” she waited until the chief answered before saying, “Append the coordinates of the armada and send that message immediately via the nearest satellite.”

“Aye, Captain.”

“Wiscarski out.”

As long as their ship remained cloaked in a double envelope, the Denubbewa shouldn’t be able to spot it, but she had the ship moved to a location half a light-year closer to Region Four before settling down to wait for a reply. At the earliest, it shouldn’t arrive for about fifteen hours.

~     ~     ~

“Jen, I’m sorry to bother you at home, but we have a situation,” Admiral Holt said when Jenetta answered the call to her CT.

“Hold on, Brian. I’m in the nursery. Give me a minute to go out in the hall.”

A minute later Jenetta was in the hallway with the door to the nursery closed. Cayla and Tayna had followed her out.

“Okay, Brian, I can talk freely now. What’s up?”

“I just received a Priority-One message from a CPS-16 out in Region Four. They spotted a Denubbewa warship in our space. It was headed towards the border so they zoomed on ahead at Marc-One to determine where it was headed. Five light- years outside our border, they came upon a Denubbewa armada that was busy sheathing their ships in Dakinium.”

“How large an armada?”

“About two hundred motherships filled with warships. The captain estimates fifty thousand warships total. They filmed as they flew through part of the armada, and we concur with the captain’s estimate.”

“Did they engage?”

“No, the captain decided it was better to alert us without letting them know we’re aware of their fleet.”

“That’s good thinking. So what are your plans?”

“I want to send everything we’ve got at them, but it will take time to assemble our fleet.”

“I don’t think we can wait too long. If they divide their forces and begin their assault, they might prove unbeatable.”

“I agree, but what can we do?”

“How many ships do you have in Region Four?”

“Only the handful we assigned after the Ruwalchu submitted their annexation petition. And Larry is near there with the Ares. He brought the new com satellites in so they could be distributed and deployed, then headed back to Region Three.”

“If the Denubbewa have that many motherships just outside Region Four, they might have gotten that new Armada CJ Gate capable of transporting vessels built and in operation out there.”

“Yes, I thought of that. But if it’s outside Region Four, that would be the only place where it’s a threat.”

“Unless they’ve got another one outside Region Three or Region Two. Or even Region One.”

“I didn’t feel good before, and you just made me feel ten times worse. What do you think we should do?”

“I need time to think, but for now, perhaps you should get everything within a thousand light-years headed toward that armada.”

“It’ll take forty-five days for the ships a thousand light-years away to arrive.”

“Then we’d better hope the Denubbewa aren’t in a hurry to leave their current assembly location. In fact, I suggest you get everything within two thousand light-years headed in that direction in case the Denubbewa somehow get past us. That way we’ll have a second line of defense.”

“And what if this is just a red herring?”

“A fifty-thousand-warship red herring?”

“We’re talking about the Denubbewa, an enemy with sextillion cyborg soldiers.”

“That’s exactly why it’s probably not a red herring.”

“I don’t follow.”

“They’ve tried to conquer us with small attacks— a few ships here and a few ships there. It’s almost like we haven’t really been an important target.”

“That last armada they threw at us wasn’t a small attack.”

“As you just said, they’re reputed to have sextillion cyborg soldiers. That small armada was under five thousand warships. But now? Now we’re talking a serious effort. I doubt this is just a feint. We’ve believed they’d eventually throw a huge force at us. I think this might be it.”

“Okay, Jen, I’ll do as you suggest. I’ll send everything within two thousand light-years at them.”

“Okay, Brian. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Jen. I’ll talk to you in the morning.”

“Carver out,” Jenetta said to end the call to her CT. She sighed and closed her eyes for a minute. They’d been waiting for the Denubbewa to make another move, and now they had. But fifty thousand Denubbewa warships was ten times the size of the entire Space Command forces, including support vessels. And it was doubtful they could confront the Denubbewa armada with even a fraction of those ships within the next thirty days. With sixty days to assemble a taskforce, they might be able to get a hundred and fifty ships out to where the Denubbewa were gathered.

“Bad news, Jenetta?” Cayla asked. “We heard your side of the conversation.”

“It’s the Denubbewa again. They’ve amassed an invasion armada just outside Region Four. It’s massive.”

“Can we stop them?” Tayna asked.

“We’re going to stop them— somehow. Don’t worry. Why don’t you guys go back into the nursery. ? I’m going down to my office. I have a lot of thinking to do.”

“Okay, Jenetta,” Cayla said.

Jenetta opened the nursery door so the two Jumakas could enter the room, then closed the door gently so as not to disturb the sleeping twins. Before she took the first step towards her office, her mind was totally absorbed by the Denubbewa problem.

~     ~     ~

“Good morning, sir,” Eliza said as she entered the Captain’s office for their morning briefing. “I understand we’re heading back into Region Four. Problems with the satellites we delivered?”

“It’s not satellites this time. It’s Denubbewa.”

“They’re back?”

“More than back. Quesann says we’re looking at two hundred motherships and fifty thousand warships.”

“It sounds like they’re through playing games and intend to confront us with force.”

“It appears that way.”

“And they’re all in Region Four?”

“They’re not in G.A. space this time. They’re in an area of unclaimed space five light-years outside Region Four. Quesann is sending us everything within two thousand light-years for this effort.”

“We’ve verified their presence there?”

“One of the CPS-16 ships deploying the new com system satellites spotted a Denubbewa ship headed out of G.A. space so its captain sped on ahead to see where they were headed. They discovered the armada of Denubbewa motherships five light-years outside the border. They reported that the ships are being sheathed with Dakinium. They also filmed the armada while overflying it from different directions and made a pass through a number of motherships to show the warships inside.”

“I wonder if they think the Dakinium will save them from us.”

“More likely it’s to hide their presence from us as they travel through G.A. space to wherever they intend to launch their attacks.”

“Who will command this operation?”

“That task has fallen to the Ares.”

“It’s going to take time to assemble all the ships that will be coming. Has an assembly area been identified yet?”

“Fifteen light-years this side of the border, just across from where the Denubbewa are sitting at present.”

“Do we have time to stop at Ruwalch, sir?”

“Why?”

“I’d like to alert the Prime Minister to the situation so he can have their civilians move back below ground to be safe.”

“Good idea, but send him a vidMail instead. I want to get to the rendezvous point as soon as possible.”

“Yes, sir. Do we have any other information regarding the Denubbewa?”

“I have a copy of the vid produced by Angels 62. The Captain wasn’t exaggerating with the estimated counts.”

“Lieutenant Wiscarski is a good officer. She’s cool under pressure and she’s very intelligent. I’d trust her to give us accurate information. Where is she now, sir?”

“In the message she sent after discovering the armada, she said she was remaining outside Region Four, but when she sent coordinates for the armada, she neglected to send coordinates for her location.”

“The importance and critical nature of the information she was sending was probably responsible for the small oversight.”

~     ~

After the morning briefing, Eliza prepared the vidMail to be sent to the Prime Minister of the Ruwalchu Gilesset. She sat down at her desk and looked at the camera lens as she said, “Mr. Prime Minister, I have urgent news for you, but it’s for your ears only. If you’re not alone, please pause this message and clear the room or area before proceeding.”

Eliza let the recorder run but said nothing more for fifteen seconds, then began to speak again.

“I hope you’ve cleared the room if you weren’t alone. When you’ve listened to this message, it’ll be up to you how you share the information with others.

“One of our patrol ships has discovered a massive Denubbewa armada in unclaimed space just outside the border of Region Four. We’re attempting to assemble a massive taskforce to confront and destroy them, but should we be unable to destroy all of their ships, we suggest you make use of your special facilities. I’m sure you understand my meaning. Every available Space Command vessel is currently underway to Region Four, but we don’t know if we’ll be able to amass enough to defeat the Denubbewa before they begin their attack.

“Be safe and be well.

“Eliza Kathleen Carver, Commander, aboard the Space Command battleship Ares. End of message.”












Chapter Twenty-Eight

~ May 26th, 2293 ~

“Almost every warship tasked to this operation has arrived,” Captain Gavin said to his XO. “It’s time to attack the Denubbewa before they finish sheathing the motherships with Dakinium and commence their attack on the G.A.”

“The two dozen CPS-16s patrolling along the border haven’t seen any sign of the Denubbewa. I’d expected to see at least a small amount of activity before now.”

“I’m concerned that we’ve heard nothing from the Angels 62.”

“That is unusual, sir. But we didn’t want to send anyone in to look for them on the off chance that the Denubbewa have learned how to spot us when we’re in a double envelope. We know they’re aware of our capability to go out of phase ever since they witnessed it at the Highcap.”

“They may know we have the ability, but they surely don’t know how we do it.”

“I wouldn’t count on that. That might be the reason they’ve been sheathing their motherships in Dakinium. They may know how we’re doing it.”

“If they know Dakinium is the secret to establishing a second envelope, at some point it might happen accidentally, as it did for Jenetta when she commanded the Colorado.”

“I hope they never duplicate that same accident, sir. The double envelope is the only thing that’s kept us in this game. Without that advantage, we’re behind the eight ball.”

“Eight ball?”

“It refers to an ancient game on earth. A player has to knock seven balls into any one of six pockets attached to the sides of a table without knocking in a ball marked with a large number eight. Having your ball sitting behind the eight ball makes it difficult to achieve your goal without knocking the eight ball into a pocket, causing you to lose the game.”

“I see. Yes, without the double-envelope advantage we would indeed be behind the eight ball.”

“And we have to hope that the Denubbewa weren’t able to somehow capture the Angels 62.”

“That could be disastrous.”

“Have you developed a battle plan, sir?”

“Unless you have any alternate suggestions, I thought we should use the same plan we used with the first armada. We attack in waves, trying to create as much damage as possible as early as possible. We want to hit them so hard they can’t get away.”

“If the Denubbewa have emptied the motherships, it’s going to be impossible to destroy fifty thousand warships in one pass, or even in several passes. There were only a couple of thousand at the last battle.”

“So I suppose we should hope the motherships still have the warships inside their hulls.”

“Yes, sir. We could bomb two hundred ships in one pass if we only have to deal with motherships.”

“So the first action to take is to perform some flyovers and map the routes the attacking ships will take for their bombing runs. Select a few of our best CPS-16 crews and send them in to video everything so we can prepare the attack plan. And ask them to watch for Angels 62 while they’re there. I know it’s a long shot that they’ll spot the ship, but you never know. Then schedule a meeting of all captains and helmsmen of the attack ships so we can brief them before they go.”

“Aye, sir, I’ll take care of it immediately.”

~     ~     ~

“Say, Skipper,” Helmsman Lieutenant (JG) Ving Villobo said to the captain of the CPS-16 Freedom’s Child as they crossed the border into unclaimed space, “how come we’re always picked to spearhead these penetration operations?”

“We’re just one of four selected for this mission,” Lieutenant Jules Harford responded. “They obviously want the best for these kinds of missions, so here we are.”

“At times, being one of the best isn’t something I really aspire to. Is it true we’re going to prepare an attack plan for fighting tens of thousands of Denubbewa motherships?”

“No. The planning will be done by senior officers. We’re going in to record the Denubbewa assembly area. Command needs to know the current situation there and how the ships are arrayed. And there aren’t tens of thousands of motherships. The crew in a previous CPS-16 incursion only counted about two hundred.”

“And we’re supposed to be looking for that CPS-16 because they disappeared out here while doing what we’re doing now? Can the Denubbewa see us while we’re in a double envelope?”

“Command doesn’t think they can. And the ship we’re looking for had already completed their mission, including flyovers and flythroughs, and left the area so they could make their report. We have no idea what happened to the ship after that, but there was no report of contact with the Denubbewa.”

“So they got away clean and then disappeared?”

“It appears that way.”

“That makes me feel a little better about this job.”

“I’m so glad you’re feeling better, Ving. Now shut up and pay attention to your flying.”

~     ~     ~

“I’ve just received a message from Larry Gavin,” Admiral Holt said when Jenetta took his call and his image appeared on the large monitor in her office. “He says they’ve begun the operation now that all but two Scout-Destroyers have arrived. Those last two ships should arrive within an hour. In the meantime, four CPS-16s have left to map the present locations of the Denubbewa ships so Larry can establish bombing assignments.”

“I love this new com system. Not long ago it would have taken two months to get that report. I assume Larry is going to wait until the last two ships arrive before they begin their bombing runs. We’re going to need every ship available to take down that armada.”

“I’m sure that’s his plan.”

“It’s too bad the Ares can’t drop ordnance. It’ll be the only ship not in the fight.” With a smile, she added, “Eliza is probably gritting her teeth every time she has to send others into a fight she can’t join.”

“I’m sure. But her role is vital. She participates in the planning, briefing, and strike-assessment stages.”

“Did Larry mention when the attack would begin? I know I’m not going to be able to concentrate on any other work until we hear back.”

“He didn’t say, but it won’t be long now. And there’s still no sight of the CPS-16 that first spotted the armada.”

“That’s a real mystery. If they maintained their double envelope— and I have no reason to believe they wouldn’t— the Denubbewa shouldn’t have been able to spot them.”

“Larry ordered the four CPS-16s to look for the Angels 62 during their flyover, but it’s unlikely the missing ship is anywhere near the Denubbewa armada.”

“Let’s hope that’s the case.”

~     ~     ~

“The scouting party is returning, sir,” Eliza said to Captain Gavin as she entered his office off the bridge.

“It’s about time. They should have been back long ago.”

“Yes, sir. The reason for the delay is that the armada wasn’t at the coordinates given by Angels 62, so they performed a grid search of the area out to one light-year. They found no sign of the armada and no sign of Angels 62.”

No sign of the armada or our missing ship?”

“That’s correct, sir. The armada is no longer there, and we have no idea where the missing CPS-16 might be.”

“We’ve just spent months assembling an attack force that includes every available Scout-Destroyer and CPS in Regions Two and Three— and we’ve come up empty once we’re ready to attack? I must be dreaming.”

“No sir, you’re awake.”

“Damn,” Gavin said with a smirk, then took a deep breath and released it slowly. He took an additional breath before saying, “Any suggestions?”

“Well, I think the key to the mystery rests with Angels 62.”

“I agree, but we don’t know where they are.”

~     ~     ~

The enormous limousine that ferried the Admiral of the Fleet around Quesann set down on the grounds of the Admiral’s home as the invisible energy dome that protected the estate reclosed. Admiral Jenetta Carver appeared at the door of the limo while the ramp was still stretching out and down to the landing pad in front of the mansion.

As Jenetta approached her home with Cayla and Tayna, the two large entrance doors silently slid into their pockets on either side and remained that way until the trio was at least five feet inside the home. There was no evidence of a protective detail, but half a dozen hidden cameras were witness to every area of the entranceway, and a dozen Marines could respond to any difficulty within seconds from hidden observation posts on the main floor. Cameras in the hallways on the upper floors would only be activated if an alarm was sounded, and there were no cameras in any of the rooms. Normally, in the homes of military admirals, protection detail members walked the hallways at night, but they could disappear in seconds if an occupant was about. However, this home had four fully grown Jumakas as full-time residents, so all Marine patrols on the upper floors had been suspended. The acute hearing of a Jumaka allowed it to be aware of any intruders. Its movements were virtually silent when it wished them to be so, and its claws and teeth were as deadly as any laser pistol, although a lot messier.

It was after midnight, so Jenetta’s mother and the children’s nanny should have been asleep as Jenetta stepped into the nursery. Before they were even five feet into the room, the trio was silently greeted by both Jake and Ruby, the young Jumakas who had bonded with the twins and who served as their fulltime companions and protectors. The two young Jumakas had heard the trio approaching the door and silently padded over to greet them. Jenetta rubbed a hand over the head of each Jumaka in silent greeting and then walked to the beds of her children as the young Jumakas greeted their parents.

In three months, the twins would celebrate their fourth birthdays, and they’d moved to twin beds a year ago. Jenetta knew that in the coming years they’d need separate bedrooms, and she wondered how they’d adapt to being apart. Although she had two twin sisters, they’d never encountered such issues as privacy when they were young because her two sisters were clones, born long after Jenetta had graduated from the Space Command Academy. In fact, she was a senior officer at the time.

Jenetta straightened the slightly disarrayed sheets and blankets and re-tucked the children, bending to lightly kiss each child as she finished with the bedding. She wished their father was there, but life in the military imposed certain difficulties and absences not normally encountered in civilian life. She hoped Hugh would be able to come for a visit before the children’s birthdays in August, but she had long ago promised herself that she wouldn’t interfere with his schedule. Once Space Command had completed tests of the Personnel CJ Gates and they’d been approved for biological transports, Hugh would be able to come home much more often, no matter where he was. Jenetta sighed silently and left the nursery, with Tayna and Cayla following her out. She didn’t need to worry about the safety of the twins with Ruby and Jake present in the room. They were safer than if a Terran guard stood nearby or an entire bank of cameras was focused on their beds.

As Jenetta gently closed the door once the Jumakas were out and turned, she came face to face with her mother.

“You’re home very late, dear,” Annette Carver said. “Problems?”

“Always, Momma.”

“Do you want something to eat?”

“No, thank you. We ate at the A.B. mess hall.”

“You’re almost never this late. What’s the problem?”

“It’s nothing.”

“Don’t give me that. I know when you’re hiding something, and I know from your look that this is serious.”

“Okay, walk with me to my bedroom and I’ll tell you once we’re out of the corridor.”

A few minutes later they were in Jenetta’s bedroom and she was removing her tunic.

“It’s the Denubbewa again, isn’t it?” her mother asked.

“What makes you say that?”

“Whenever you’re having problems with the Denubbewa you clam up and I have to get the story from others. Your father’s much more open with me because he knows I can take the news without getting flustered. I’ve been a Space Command wife for a lot of years. You don’t have to shield me. I won’t go to pieces.”

Jenetta smiled before saying, “I guess I tend to forget you’ve seen and heard so much during your marriage to Daddy, and I do try to protect you and the children from bad news.”

“So what is it this time? And don’t tell me someone sent a Level-Five alert and it didn’t mean what we both know it means.”

Jenetta smiled again. “Okay, Momma. Here it is. One of our ships spotted a gathering of Denubbewa ships just outside G.A. space in unclaimed territory. We assembled a taskforce to destroy them, but when the taskforce was ready to move in, the Denubbewa ships had disappeared.”

“And you’re worried because they might be preparing to attack the G.A.?”

“Yes. The A.B. spent the afternoon and evening in closed session while we tried to figure out where the Denubbewa might have gone and what their target might be. They wouldn’t have assembled those ships unless they had a plan. Our taskforce was assembled from every available ship within sixty days’ travel. The remainder of our ships were then reassigned to cover Regions Two and Three as best they could, but coverage in some areas is sparse.”

“There have been no sightings of the Denubbewa since the first one?”

“No. We didn’t want to risk them being alerted to our presence.”

“I understand why you’re worried. What will you do now, dear?”

Jenetta turned and walked slowly to a window. She sighed as she stared up at the stars, and then said, “Every ship in Space Command has been put on Level-Five alert, and we have patrols out looking for Denubbewa. But I fear we may not find them before they strike somewhere.”

She was silent for a minute, then said, “The sky looks so very peaceful tonight. I can’t help but wonder if that’s a reflection of the situation, or if it’s merely the calm before the storm.”

After another minute of silence, she said, “Angels 62, where are you?”



~ finis ~



***     The exciting adventures of the Carver sisters will continue     ***










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I hope you've enjoyed this installment of the AGU series.



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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:

Carver, Jenetta Alicia - 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

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

Holt, Brian D. - Vice-Admiral - Deputy Commander of Fleet Two Operations

Plimley, Loretta J. - Rear Admiral (U) - Dir. of Weapons R&D

Yuthkotl , Lesbolh - Rear Admiral (U) - Dir. of Nordakian Forces Integration



Hyper-Space Factors:

IDS Communications Band - .0513 light years each minute (8.09 billion kps)

DeTect Range - 4 billion kilometers



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

Dbl. Envelope - Light-9790 (9793.48) = 2,936,011,441.57384 kps


                                  26.81308692711052 light-years per day

Marc-1 – Light-14,685.7 = 380,390,005,478,931.8 kps


                      40.2072553045859 light-years per day



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

The Invasion Begins





This map shows Galactic Alliance space when maps were redrawn following the end of hostilities with the Milori, and the war with the Uthlaro, Tsgardi, Gondusan, and Hudeerac. 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 G.A. territory extends through the entire depth of the Milky Way galaxy.







.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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