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Wisdom of the Chosen - Spirit of Empire, Book Five

Chapter One

 

 

Lady Akurea’s gig slipped silently from the void into the hangar bay of the command ship, steam rising from its hull from the sudden temperature change. When the ramp lowered, Akurea disembarked with three of her crew, then the gig lifted and left as silently as it had come. When it reached her cruiser, her great ship would join the fight, just another of the many cruisers battling the Chessori horde as it screamed toward Earth.

She stepped onto a brightly lit, nearly vacant deck, but her insides fluttered when she saw the burnished disk of Resolve resting nearby. She had spent months aboard Resolve while translating Chessori plans for the hypercom. Was Resolve’s pilot, Tom O’Brien, aboard, she wondered? She had not seen him for the better part of a year.

Seeing Resolve here did not surprise her—the amazing ship somehow always managed to find itself in the thick of things—but the numerous data cables connecting Resolve to the cruiser were unusual. Her brow furrowed as she turned toward Resolve’s ramp.

Lex, her senior Protector, loped ahead to alert Resolve’s security. By the time Akurea, Stor, and Protector Harriman reached the ramp, two additional Protectors greeted them.

“Welcome back, Lady Akurea,” Borg said, greeting her with lifted lips that displayed wicked teeth, the Great Cat’s method of smiling.

“It’s good to see you, old friend,” she said.

“I have not informed him of your presence,” Borg said, his lips lifting again in a smile. “He’s on the bridge. You should know that we have a few other visitors besides yourself.”

Akurea blinked. “The Queen?”

Borg nodded. “And Sir Mike, Imperial Senator Truax, and a few others. I don’t believe you’ve met Sir Val and Lady Reba?”

Akurea’s eyes brightened. “Only by reputation. In truth,” she said, turning and motioning with an arm to include Stor and Protector Harriman, “we’ll know very few here besides the Queen.”

“She’s in the lounge, My Lady.”

“Thank you, Borg.”

Akurea left Lex behind with Borg. She suspected it would be crowded in the lounge, and one less Great Cat would make a difference. Besides, she needed no protection here—there was probably no safer place in the Empire right now even though a major battle raged in nearby space. She knew the ship well and led the way up the central shaft, then through warmly decorated corridors to the lounge.

Her entrance to the lounge might have gone unnoticed had Stor not been with her. The shiny, ebony-skinned Llaska, seven and one-half feet tall, towered above everyone except Senator Truax, the yellow-scaled dragon. Stor’s lithe grace and beauty drew everyone’s attention. Even Ellie, conversing amid a small group of advisors, stopped in mid-word to stare at the Llaska, a rare sight anywhere in the Empire. Protector Harriman, standing right beside Stor, went unnoticed.

A smile lit Ellie’s face when she saw Akurea. She stood up and motioned to her. Akurea, Stor, and Harriman all approached and went to a knee before their Queen.

“We’ll have none of that here, not today,” Ellie commanded. “Stand.” She embraced Akurea, saying loud enough for everyone in the room to hear, “Lady Akurea, welcome. Your reports have been encouraging.” She motioned with one arm to the rest of the people in the room. “We have lots of introductions to make, but they’ll have to wait. We’re in the midst of a crisis here.”

“Anything I can help you with, Your Majesty?” Akurea asked.

“Not at the moment.” Ellie smiled, though worry pervaded her features. “I have more help than I need. Can you stay long enough to visit?”

“Yes.”

Ellie nodded. “In that case, Tom O’Brien is on the bridge. It’s crowded there, but I believe there might be room for one more.” She nodded to Stor and Harriman whom she had met during her visit to the first power plant facility with Akurea. “I’m anxious to hear about your progress. We’ll get you settled into quarters and meet later.”

Akurea left for the bridge. Mike stood up, and a Great Cat across the room rose to all fours as well. “I need a break,” Mike said. “I’ll get them settled.” He motioned for Stor and Harriman to follow him. His Protector, Jessie, fell in behind them, her four hands silent as she crossed the deck. When Mike reached the corridor, he spoke into the air, “George, do you have any spare rooms left?”

“I do, Mike. A-level is starting to fill up. I suggest B-13 and 14.”

“Very well. Assign B-13 to Protector Harriman.” He lifted questioning eyes to Stor.

“My name is Stor, sir.”

“George?” Mike asked.

“Done, Mike. Welcome aboard, Protector Harriman, Ms. Stor. I don’t believe I’ve ever had the pleasure of welcoming a Llaska.”

Mike stopped and held a hand up to her. “Let me welcome you as well. I’m Mike Carver.”

She took his hand in her own, her gaze sliding momentarily to the Great Cat following them. “My pleasure, sir.”

Harriman coughed into his fist. “Uh, he’s your First Knight, Stor.”

The presence of a Great Cat suddenly made sense to her. After a moment of reflection, she dropped her hand and gracefully lowered herself to a knee. “Of course you would be, Sire. I’m honored to meet you.”

With Stor on one knee, Mike found himself staring down only slightly into golden eyes set wide in a shiny, black, hairless head. He found the experience—being face to face with such an enormous person—intimidating for an instant, but then he looked deeper. What he found almost took his breath away. Not only did this woman carry herself with comfortable elegance, she exuded vibes of confidence and intelligence. Here was a person he knew he would pay attention to whenever she spoke.

He took her hand and lifted. She took the hint and stood back up, seemingly without any effort at all. “We’re not big on the formalities around here, Stor,” he said. “We’d never get anything done if we were.” He motioned to his Protector, saying, “Let me introduce Jessie.”

Stor nodded to the Great Cat. “A pleasure to meet you, Protector.”

Jessie nodded but remained mute.

Mike turned to Harriman. “It’s been a while, Sergeant.”

“I’m surprised you even remember me.”

Mike smiled and looked to Stor. “I don’t remember everyone, but I always remember the best ones. We went through Protector training together. Whatever you’ve been up to, you’ve been in good hands.”

Harriman corrected him. “It’s more like I’ve been in good hands, Mike. Stor has more PhD’s in nuclear physics than probably everyone in the fleet, and she’s stronger than you and I put together. Do you know our story?”

Mike shook his head. “Josh and I have been underground on Triton for the past year. We just came from there.”

Harriman’s eyes narrowed, but Stor’s widened. “Triton?” she asked in amazement. “Rebel headquarters?”

“Our Queen had a speech to make,” Mike said.

“Had?” Harriman instantly queried.

“It’s done. The Rebels don’t know it yet, most of them, but they’re done as well. Her presence and her words before the Imperial Senate defeated them. It doesn’t hurt that we captured Struthers and Juster in the process.”

“Oh, well done, Sire,” Harriman breathed, then he turned to Stor with a grin. “Sounds like our job’s done as well.”

Mike resumed walking down the corridor, and they followed. “A lot happened while I was gone, and I’m still catching up. What have you been up to?” he asked them.

“Uh, I think that’s Lady Akurea’s story, Sire,” Harriman answered.

“She and I have never actually met,” Mike said with a frown, “and I need to rectify that. How about a condensed version?”

“We’ve been trying to keep the Chessori from upgrading their ships.”

“Oh. I guess you weren’t very successful, huh?”

“What?”

“They have quite a few upgraded ships here, big ones. It’s looking bad for us. The Queen is preparing an announcement to the public on Earth. She’s going to tell them to prepare for the worst.”

Stor’s hand found Harriman’s as she turned to him, her golden eyes suddenly brighter in alarm. “James?” she asked.

His demeanor softened as he reached a hand up to her face. “Earth is one of the four,” he said. “You know that.”

“What if we were wrong?”

“We were not wrong.”

Mike studied the two of them and knew without having to ask that there was more to their story. “What’s going on?” he asked.

Harriman turned to him with his hand still in Stor’s grip. “I’m no admiral, Mike, so I’m not able to advise the fleet, but I’d suggest you consider pull your ships back from the upgraded Chessori and just focus on the regular ones.”

Mike considered what he knew about the progress of the battle and said, “I think we already have. They’re formidable. We’re conserving our resources so we can gang up on them after we’ve taken out the easier targets.”

“The Queen might not have to make that speech,” Harriman said. “When I told you we were trying to keep the Chessori from upgrading their ships, I oversimplified. What we really did was encourage them to upgrade.”

Mike’s forehead furrowed in confusion, and Harriman held up a hand to forestall the coming outburst. “They don’t have the technology to do it themselves, Mike. They had to come to the rebels for the work. Akurea came up with the idea of supplying the rebels with defective powerplants. We Trojan horsed them. Some or all of those ships will blow up before reaching Earth.”

Stor stepped in. “Only upgraded military ships, Sire. Our work has not affected any of the standard Chessori ships.”

Mike’s forehead furrowed further as he considered the ramifications of what he had just heard. Too, he wondered why he was just learning about something so important. What else had he missed during his year on Triton?

“This is huge!” he exclaimed. “When?”

“We programmed two criteria,” Stor said. “One is time. The drives will self-destruct after 7,000 hours of continuous operation. The second criterion is position. Serge Parsons’ engineers programmed four locations into the drive software. If the drives operate within ten A.U.’s from the any of those four locations, they will self-destruct. Earth was one of the four.”

Mike’s gaze lifted to the ceiling and lost focus as he considered the meaning of those words. Four locations? Earth, Parsons’ World, and Shipyard must be three of them. What was the fourth? He decided he did not need to know at the moment and returned a piercing look to Stor. “What’s an A.U?”

“Sire?” she replied, uncertain.

“Stor,” Harriman interjected, “he and I are both from Earth. Neither of us knows what an A.U. is.”

She stared at Mike in disbelief, so Mike confirmed Harriman’s words. “Yes, your First Knight is from an emerging world.”

She continued to stare at him as her head tilted to the side in amazement, but she answered his question. “Sire, the distance of an A.U., an Astronomical Unit, varies depending on the star system. One A.U. is the distance from the primary world to that world’s sun. Your star is tiny, so I would estimate an A.U. here to be five to ten hours of travel at standard interplanetary speeds.”

Mike did some quick mental calculations. “You’re saying those ships will blow up at ten times that, at a point some 50 to 100 hours before reaching Earth?”

“Yes, Sire.”

“Come with me,” he said, turning on his heel and heading back to the lounge. He stopped there briefly to advise Ellie to hold off on her speech, then he made his way to the bridge. When he stepped from the central shaft, he first noticed Lady Krys holding an arm out with her eyes closed, supported by Protector Washburn. Tarn, Stven, and M’Sada were all engrossed in the net. Stven’s body lay sprawled on the deck with his tail occasionally twitching. M’Sada’s upper hands were preening his antennae even while his mind was in the net. To Mike’s utter amazement, Lady Akurea was just leaning back from Tom O’Brien with her arms around his neck and a warm smile on her face.

Washburn shot Mike a harsh glance and held a finger to his lips indicating silence. Clearly, he and Lady Krys were up to something significant. O’Brien separated himself from Akurea and herded everyone back into the central shaft. They dropped down one level, then Akurea introduced O’Brien to Stor and Harriman.

“We’re off to see Trexler,” Mike said. He looked to O’Brien. You’re welcome to join us.”

O’Brien shook his head. “Mike, I’m Resolve’s only Terran pilot, and we’re surrounded by Chessori. The little sleep I get is right here on the bridge.”

Mike nodded grimly, remembering back to his year aboard Resolve when he was the only pilot. “You’re right.” He looked to Akurea and held out a hand. “I’m Mike, your First Knight. I just learned about what you’ve been doing. Admiral Trexler needs to see you right away. He’s fighting some seriously upgraded Chessori ships.”

With a sharp intake of breath, she nodded. “Very well, Sire.” She squeezed O’Brien’s hand, then led the rest of them back into the central shaft, through the hold, and down the ramp to the deck of the hangar.

“I take it you have some history with Resolve’s pilot?” Mike asked her as they flagged down a transporter.

“Him and Resolve’s regular crew,” she said.

“Have you met Admiral Trexler?”

“Yes.”

“You probably saw the battle on your way here. He’s up against a bunch of Chessori ships. Based on drive signatures, he’s estimating some 3,000 of them have seriously upgraded shields and weapons.”

“We saw very little of the battle, Sire. My ship is not equipped to see drives, and there are very few beacons operating here.” She shot a furtive glance to Harriman, then she locked her gaze on Stor. “Three thousand! They moved faster than I expected. They must have brought all of them here.”

Stor’s eyes narrowed. “I wonder if their commanders selected the best ships for themselves?”

 

* * * * *

 

Mike led them into Trexler’s command center. He had already gotten over his amazement at the place, but Akurea and Stor stopped just inside the doors in surprise. The double-wide door opened onto a vast, all-white room barren of everything except lounging crewmembers seated before a hundred or so consoles, the consoles themselves essentially unused since the crew was in the net. Clearly, walls and maybe a bulkhead or two had been torn down to create this place.

Mike put a helmet on, but only briefly. When he removed his helmet, so, too, did five other senior officers. Mike led all of them to a glass-walled conference room. None of them sat—they were in the midst of fighting a great battle—but all of them gave Mike their full attention.

“Lady Akurea, I believe you know Admiral Trexler?” Mike asked, looking between the two of them.

“Lady Akurea!” Trexler exclaimed, the stress of battle making his cheeks even more gaunt than normal. “Last time we met,” he said looking at her, “you brought us a great gift, the gift of the hypercom. Have you come bearing more gifts today?”

“In theory, yes, sir,” she said, her gaze moving between him, the enormous praying mantis Sir Chandrajuski; the insect-like Grand Admiral M’Coda whose upper hands stopped momentarily, then returned to preening his whiskers; Admiral Buskin; and Admiral Godfries, all of whom she had met at some point in the past. When her gaze settled back on Trexler, she said, “Last time we met, I did not fully appreciate the awesome scope of your duties. That horde out there I’m hearing about defies defeat.”

“We might not prevail this time,” Trexler said, the anguish in his eyes shared by the other officers. His gaze moved to Harriman, stopped briefly, then settled on Stor. “And you are . . .?”

“Stor. I’m honored to meet you, sirs,” she said, deferring the rest of her answer to her Knight.

Akurea took the hint. “Stor is our expert on ships’ drives, gentlemen. The Chessori do not have the technology to manufacture the large drives required for shield and weapons upgrades, so Struthers agreed to refit Chessori ships at our overhaul facilities. My team, with her guidance, has been supplying the Chessori with specialized drives that meet those requirements. They are not aware that those drives, all or nearly all of them, are about to self-destruct. I hope.”

Mike watched with great interest as the admirals traded confused looks, then as one, five sets of eyes bore into Akurea.

“How is that possible?” Buskin asked. “I have never heard of a drive failing. They’re built to standards bordering on perfection.”

“That’s the heart of our project and why we thought it would work, sir,” Akurea said. “The Queen approved the project and personally helped get us started. The rebels installed some upgraded drives in Chessori ships before we got to them, but I believe most of the upgraded ships here will self-destruct anywhere from three to five days before reaching Earth. Stor can give you more precise timing if you’ll let her into your net.”

“I don’t need the net,” Stor said. She looked to the Empire officers, knowing that Godfries and Trexler might not understand since they were from Earth. “The modified drives are set to destruct after 7,000 hours of operation or if they approach closer than 10 A.U.’s to Sol, whichever comes first.”

Buskin was the first to smile. “Oh, well done! We’re talking about some 3,000 enemy ships dying without a shot fired by us.”

Stor was not done yet. “Yes, sir, but it’s not quite that simple. The 10 A.U. sphere is centered on Sol, Earth’s star. I would imagine the Chessori are approaching in a pattern centered on Earth, not Sol. If that’s true, the ships attacking from the far side of the system will be the first to reach the plane of that sphere, perhaps as much as 15 hours before the last Chessori ship. Their early destruction might alert the rest of their forces.”

Buskin’s eyes moved to the ceiling, though his thoughts were far out in space. His eyes narrowed, then he nodded. “I see what you mean.” He looked sharply at her. “We can deal with that. We can attack them lightly as they approach the activation plane, making it appear as if it was us who destroyed them. The surviving Chessori will be none the wiser.”

When she nodded her agreement, he said, “This is important. Will you stay with me and advise me while we develop a plan?”

“Of course, sir.”

Akurea held up a hand. “Sir, I have a few things to discuss with the First Knight and Admiral Trexler before she leaves. We won’t be long.”

After the admirals cleared the room, Akurea sat back against the conference table and folded her arms across her stomach. “I was aboard Resolve during the last battle for Earth. This one sounds far more challenging.”

Trexler glanced briefly toward Mike, then back to her, and said, “Off the top of my head, the gift you’ve given us will make a difference, but it’s still going to be close.”

“And if you lose, humanity dies.”

Mike’s stomach turned over, and a sour taste reached his mouth. What she had said was always at the forefront of his and Trexler’s thoughts, but they rarely voiced it out loud. They just stared at her.

Akurea stared back, shifting her gaze between them. “I hope things don’t get so bad that what I’m going to tell you comes into play, but as the two senior Terran leaders, you should know.” She looked to Stor and gave her the tiniest of nods.

Stor wasted no time, knowing Admiral Buskin was waiting for her. “Protector Harriman is a Terran,” she said. “We had to don space suits during our first mission. When I checked his settings, I discovered that his breathing mixture was precisely identical to my own. I commented on the fact and asked him where he was from. Earth’s location was, at the time, an Imperial Secret. It might still be, I don’t know. He cleverly misled me by telling me he was from a world called Atlantis.

“Months later he was wounded. As I attended to his wounds, I discovered marks on his chest.”

Harriman unsealed his tunic, talking to Mike and Trexler as he did so. “I’m from Australia. Most people call me an Aborigine, a source of great pride to me. My people consider body markings a form of art. I received my markings when I reached adulthood and have maintained them ever since.” With his tunic pulled away from his left shoulder and chest, he displayed a double row of white dots that arced down from near his shoulder, around his nipple, then almost to the center of his chest. “Anthropologists believe that the Aborigine people might be the most ancient of modern people on the planet. We date our settling of Australia back at least 50,000 years.”

Stor took up the story again. As she spoke, she unsealed her own tunic and pulled it away from her left shoulder, displaying a set of body markings similar to Harriman’s.

“My people never joined the Empire. A consequence of that choice is that we do not receive Empire protection. Slavers call from time to time, and I was sold into slavery as a young girl. I received this marking on the day I was taken from my world. For me, it is not a mark of adulthood. It is a brand that prevents me from returning, ever.”

Mike sucked in a breath, never having met a slave. Trexler had never met one either, but Stor’s words did not come as a complete surprise to him. His lips compressed as he nodded.

“Our ancient tales tell of us being taken from one world and resettled on what is now our home world,” Stor continued. “Knowledge of why we were taken was lost to the ages, but I clearly recall an ancient tale that speaks of Atlantis.”

She stopped talking and let them put the facts together. Trexler stared at her but said nothing. Mike was a little more verbal. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying? We don’t . . . well, heck, we’re both humanoid, but the resemblance stops there.”

“Does it?” she wondered aloud. “How long have the Chessori been around? Might they be why some other star-faring civilization relocated my people, possibly genetically altering our appearance to help us hide? Might our racial fear of discovery by the Chessori be the reason we refuse to join the Empire?”

“Why would someone want to hide you?” Mike asked.

“Of the hundreds of thousands of civilizations in the Empire, only Terrans are immune to the scree. Oh—and my people, the Llaska.”

Mike and Trexler stared at her in awe, then at each other. Mike decided they would have to do some research, clearly, but in the meantime, he said, “You, young lady, are now an Imperial Secret. The potential implications are both wonderful and enormous on so many different levels.”

 

 

Chapter Two

 

 

Stor left to join Admiral Buskin on the net. Trexler led Akurea, Harriman, and Mike on a hunt for vacant work stations, planning to invite them into the net for a briefing on the battle. On the way, Trexler began the briefing, saying, “We modified five space tugs to act as command vessels. They are unarmed, and they are shielded only enough to keep the crew safe from radiation. We outfitted them with extremely delicate sensors that, among other things, can see ships’ drives as far out as standard ships see beacons. The Chessori have finally wised up to our technique of attacking without beacons.

“The ship we’re on is our sixth command vessel. It’s a highly-modified cruiser with the same sensing capabilities as the tugs. We carry shields and weapons, but they are deactivated now to allow our sensors to see without hindrance.

“Empire cruisers have, historically, been used to show the flag—their very presence was enough to frighten the staunchest enemy. This cruiser will never be used in that capacity. We designed it to run large battles and nothing else. Notice the bare walls. We do everything from inside the net, so we don’t need the distractions of screens. We even hold most meetings inside the net. We’ve outfitted the ship with multiple tightbeams, so we are not limited in our ability to talk privately with our fighting ships.”

He shifted his gaze to Harriman. “Have you heard of Parsons’ World?”

“I have, sir,” he answered. “Parsons’ World engineers developed the altered software we installed in the Chessori drives. Stor tells me the design is amazingly complex and well thought-out. She doesn’t think anyone will ever stumble upon the Trojan horse they inserted.”

Trexler shook his head with a twinkle in his eyes and the hint of a smile on his face. “Figures,” he said, looking at Mike. “Serge has his fingers in everything.” Focusing back on Harriman, he said, “Parsons’ World also built the AI for this ship. Its name is Gomer. It’s not a George, but it’s far more capable than AI’s on standard cruisers.”

An Empire lieutenant commander approached them and addressed Trexler. “Sir, Admiral Godfries is asking for you.”

“Very well, Commander. Do you have time to help these three get into the net?”

“Of course, sir.”

“If you can spare the time, stay with them long enough to brief them on what’s happening.”

“Yes, sir.”

Trexler took his leave and went off to do whatever it was that admirals do. Commander Tealae, a petite but athletic looking young black woman with a full head of tight curls, beautiful, expressive eyes, and bright white teeth when she smiled, introduced herself, then waited for someone to introduce the rest of them.

Mike did the honors. “I’m Sir Mike, your First Knight. These two are Lady Akurea and Protector Harriman. Jessie is my Protector. What’s your job here, Commander?” he asked.

She stared at him, speechless, then she went to a knee.

Among all the things he was still getting used to since returning to the Empire from his year underground on Triton, the constant bowing and fawning over the royal family and his Knights was the most tiring. There was little he could do about it, the formalities seemed ingrained into everyone in the Empire, but he did not have to like it. Terrans rarely troubled themselves with kneeling before him and his Knights, though in fairness, most of the Knights were Terrans themselves and did not like the tradition any more than he did. As someone new to the Empire, he was not out to change centuries of tradition, but he could and did limit those traditions when he could.

He reached down and lifted Commander Tealae’s chin. “Stand, Commander. There will be no more of that around me in the middle of a battle. Understood?”

“Yes, Sire. I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

He looked sternly into her eyes. “You do know who else is on this boat, don’t you?”

“I . . . heard rumors, Sire.”

“She takes a very personal interest in what we do. Don’t be surprised to find her in here from time to time. So . . . what’s your job?”

“I’m newly appointed to Admiral Buskin as one of his aides. I mostly run errands. I’m probably the most junior person in the room and one of just a handful of Empire officers. This is almost entirely a Terran operation.”

“I guess that makes sense. It’s their home world they’re trying to protect.”

“It’s way more than that, Sire. I’ve spent my fair share of time aboard a cruiser. We Empire sailors are useless against the scree. The Terrans do nearly all the fighting.”

“Hmm. I would imagine that’s a sore point, eh?”

“Very much so, Sire. We have a saying among ourselves: ‘Better useless than dead.’ We’ll get our fleets back some day.”

Mike nodded. “Just so we’re clear here, I’m from Earth, and so is Protector Harriman.”

Tealae paled. “Thank you for telling me, Sire. Is that general knowledge?”

“I don’t know, but I’m not big on unnecessary secrecy. It’s only a secret insofar as Earth is a secret.”

Tealae nodded thoughtfully. “I understand, Sire.” She led them to a table with several unused net connections, and all of them donned helmets, then they met inside the net. “Would you like a tour of the ship?” she asked.

“Maybe another time,” Mike replied. “We’re here to study the battle.”

“Yes, Sire.”

Tealae thought a command to Gomer, the ship’s Artificial Intelligence, and an instant later they found themselves looking down on the solar system from a point high above the plane of the ecliptic. The scale was so tiny that details were hard to decipher.

“This is the big picture,” Tealae said. “The Chessori showed up all around the periphery of the system, essentially simultaneously. We have not detected any organization to them. They’re each following individual trajectories toward Earth, like it’s every man for himself. They’re inbound to Earth with their beacons off. Because of the long distances involved here in the outer system, the Chessori drive signatures take anywhere from a few minutes to an hour to reach the sensors on our command ships. Gomer, our AI, is correcting everything to keep the view as up-to-date as possible, but information from the far side of the system can be hours old by the time it reaches us. Everything you see here is based on predictive algorithms which are quite accurate for this large view. They suffer when we move closer to the action.”

Six umbrella-shaped areas encapsulated the solar system, all of them 3-dimensional. “What are these?” Mike asked, pointing to them.

Tealae lifted an arm and moved a finger along an outlined wedge of space. “We have six command ships—five tugs and this cruiser. Each of them commands one of these sectors.”

She issued a command to Gomer and each of the sectors filled in with a different color. Mike suddenly saw the pattern. The sectors connected to each other in a pattern that resembled the surface of a soccer ball, a ball with Earth at its center. Together, the six sectors enclosed all the attacking Chessori ships. Seen from this distance, the Chessori fleet occupied the surface of a shrinking sphere just inside the orbit of Neptune. Since the Chessori did not have fast ships, the fighting would reach Earth in about two weeks.

“Out of curiosity, Commander, does anyone use this presentation? It doesn’t give much detail,” he asked.

“Certainly, Admirals Trexler and Godfries do. Trexler is in overall command and always keeps the big picture in mind.”

“I thought this was Godfries’ battle.”

“It is, Sire, but he reports to Trexler who has final say on the battle plan. Admiral Godfries executes the plan. Admiral Steve Brinson commands the sector we are in, one of the six sectors. Commanding a sector places him in direct, intimate contact with our fighting ships, whereas Godfries and Trexler manage the big picture. Admiral Buskin is our senior Empire admiral. He has responsibility for all the Empire crews in the system, and he stays available for technical advice since the Terrans are neophytes when it comes to space travel.”

Her eyes widened and a look of chagrin filled her face. “Sorry, Sire! That came out wrong.”

A grin found its way to Mike’s face. “Don’t be sorry. You’re right—we are neophytes. Around me, Commander, I insist you call things the way you see them. No sugar-coating.”

Tealae, still looking chastened, replied, “Yes, Sire.”

“So, what are the numbers here?” Mike asked.

“The Chessori started with 30,000 ships. We have 1,500 fast ships, so each of our ships needs to take out about two Chessori each day.”

Mike lifted an eyebrow. “I’ve seen us do way better than that.”

“The problem is finding them, Sire. Our ships spend most of their time searching. They were designed to hunt beacons, but the Chessori beacons are off.”

Tealae shifted the display to a schematic of one of the five command ships. Seen from the side, the ship resembled a shiny, gold scimitar. From above, the ship resembled a golden teardrop.

“This used to be a space tug,” she explained. “It was converted on Earth into a command post. It’s outfitted with sensors in place of weapons, sensors that are too sensitive to see through a shield, so the ship is completely unprotected. In addition to its crew and senior staff, it carries 50 controllers who coordinate the activities of its fleet, and it fields numerous tightbeams for private communication with that fleet. Without the sensors on these command posts, we would not even know about the Chessori attack since they’ve kept their beacons off since arriving.”

Mike did not say anything, but the concept of these listening posts as he thought of them was his own. Serge Parsons had fleshed out Mike’s simple concept and created a vital command tool.

“The ship we’re on is also a command post,” Tealae continued, “but it’s a converted cruiser. It, too, operates without weapons and shields, but in addition to the tugs’ capabilities, this ship houses our senior commanders and their staffs. Our commanders devise strategies, then their staffs hand those strategies down the line to the various command levels until they reach specific fighting ships.

“So, we have six command ships, each of them unarmed or minimally armed, each of them operating without defensive shields, but all of them fast ships. If we sense a nearby threat, we will jump away. Each command ship is geometrically positioned inside its sector to minimize the transit time of messages to and from its fleet of fighting ships.” With a thought from her, communication lines that resembled an umbrella sprung into place connecting the command ships to their fleets, giving Mike the impression that the command ships were drawing the battle to themselves as they flew backwards toward Earth.

Mike pointed to four tiny spheres and one large sphere on the display, all of them well inside the attacking Chessori fleet. Another tiny sphere popped into position as he watched. “What are these?” he asked.

Tealae zoomed in on the large sphere just inside the orbit of Saturn. “It’s labeled Event Horizon,” she said with a furrowed brow. “I don’t know why. Event horizons are generally associated with singularities.” She looked up sharply at Mike. “I believe they’re called black holes by you Terrans, Sire.”

Mike nodded absently, saying, “Yes, I know what a singularity is.” He looked a question to Akurea.

She knew exactly what he wanted to see and asked Tealae, “Commander, will you add a 10 A.U. sphere to the display, please?”

Tealae issued the instructions to Gomer. Instead of a new sphere popping into existence, the existing sphere just blinked, then steadied, indicating it was already depicting 10 A.U.’s.

Akurea nodded. “It’s our 10 A.U. boundary, Mike.” When Tealae looked a question to her, Akurea lifted her own eyebrows in response. “I’m not sure you have the appropriate security clearance, Commander.”

“If it has anything to do with the battle, I do, My Lady. Admiral Trexler relaxed all such requirements as they relate to the battle.”

“Hmm. Can you move us in a little closer? I’d like to look at some of the enemy ship dispositions.”

“Yes, My Lady. Do you mind if I check out these other areas first?”

“Please do.”

Tealae highlighted a tiny sphere located much closer to Earth. It was labeled Ballistics/Radar. So, too, were four similar spheres.

“Sorry, I don’t have a clue. If you have a moment, I’ll find out,” she said.

Akurea held up a hand. “No need, Commander. They’re almost certainly groups of canisters carrying toxin on ballistic trajectories to Earth.” She looked to Mike. “That will be Krys’ doing. You saw her on Resolve’s bridge. That’s how she does it.” Mike nodded grimly, and Akurea turned back to the display. “How long before they reach Earth, Commander?” she asked.

Tealae mentally fiddled with controls, then said, “A few hours after the main fleet of Chessori.”

Akurea nodded. “It’s their fail-safe. They have no idea we know about them.”

Tealae clearly hoped for further explanation, but when none came, she expanded the scale of the presentation, bringing one of the six sectors into full view. “This is what our command ship sees with its sensors,” she said.

Two hundred fifty Empire ships and thousands of Chessori ships spread across space before them. “We’re seeing Chessori drives, but those ships are constantly altering their trajectories to throw us off. The images we see are anywhere from a few minutes to many minutes old by the time they reach us, so the positions are not precise. The AI is correcting these positions to its best guess as to where they are right this moment.” She moved in on a nearby Chessori cruiser which had a small sphere around it. “Because of the uncertainty factor, the ship can be anywhere within the sphere boundary. Here in the Outer System, vast distances separate enemy ships. As they approach Earth, that distance will shrink logarithmically. If I was to assign one of our ships to this target, the location I send it is already minutes old. It will take a few more minutes for my message to reach our ship, then it will take more minutes for that ship to approach the area of its target.”

She spoke to Gomer, and the sphere around the target ship expanded significantly. “This would be the size of the search area if I assigned one of our ships to that target. The farther away our target is from us, the older the data is relating to it, meaning the search area is larger. As I said, our fighting ships, cruisers and frigates, can fast-ship, but they were designed to find beacons, not ships’ drives. They have to get very close to sense Chessori drives.”

“So, there’s a lot of time spent searching before engaging the target,” Mike said.

“Yes, Sire. We’ve never fought a battle of this nature. It’s taking a maximum effort from each of us. Everyone knows the stakes, so there’s no hesitation or complaining. If anything, our commanders are having to force us to take breaks.”

Mike switched gears and considered what the battle would be like from the bridge of a fighting ship. He had never had the opportunity to attend formal training schools, but he had captained Resolve through several battles and knew what it was like.

“Our command ships are operating without shields to improve the range of their sensors,” he said. “Do you know if our fighting ships are doing the same?”

Tealae continued staring at Mike, but Mike sensed correctly that her thoughts were elsewhere. She mumbled something that sounded like, “These are fighting ships. It’s completely against doctrine,” then she blinked a few times and brought her focus back to Mike.

“I don’t know, Sire. We never go into space unshielded . . . well, not until you Terrans developed these command posts. I doubt if our crews have considered the idea.”

“Would you be willing to forego shields if you were captaining one of those ships?”

“I would during the search phase. It’s a risk, but I would say it’s an acceptable risk. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll discuss it with my boss, Admiral Buskin. It could make a difference.”

Mike held up a virtual hand. “Hold on. You only get so many opportunities to interrupt admirals when they’re engaged in battle. Let’s make sure we’re ready. What else can you show us?”

“We haven’t looked closely at the Chessori yet. And we have several last-ditch defenses in orbit around Earth. It will be bad if the Chessori ever get that far though.”

“Let’s save Earth’s defenses for later. I’d like to focus on what we’re doing right now.”

“Very well, Sire.” Tealae zoomed the image in on a Chessori military ship. “They only have a few types of ships, Sire. This one is their equivalent of our cruiser. They also have many frigate class ships. About 10% of their ships carry upgraded shields and weapons. They’re formidable, Sire. We’ve lost several ships to them, and Admiral Trexler made the decision to leave them for later. Targets are targets, and he wants to take out the largest number of targets in the shortest amount of time. I believe the plan is to send super squadrons of multiple cruisers against the upgraded Chessori when the time comes.”

Stor chose that moment to join them on the net. Her presence was a shock to Tealae who, along with most of the rest of the Empire, had never seen or even heard of a Llaska. Stor stood behind Harriman with her virtual hands on his virtual shoulders, towering over everyone.

“It’s as I thought,” she said. “There will be a 14-hour interval during which the upgraded Chessori ships will reach the event horizon as we’re calling it. That’s a long period of time—they might figure out what’s happening—so we’ll attack every upgraded ship as it approaches the horizon. We won’t have to attack hard, just hard enough to convince the rest of the Chessori that it’s us who are taking them out, not their own drives.”

Tealae looked from face to face, clearly not understanding a word of what had been said.

Mike brought her up to date. “Commander, everyone here will know soon enough, so I guess we can let you in on the secret. Lady Akurea, Stor, and Protector Harriman have been secretly selling upgraded drives to the Chessori, drives that power the upgraded shields and weapons that you mentioned. The drives on most of those upgraded ships out there are going to self-destruct when they reach a point 10 A.U.’s out from Sol, the event horizon you showed us earlier.”

It only took Tealae a moment to process the words Mike had spoken. As soon as she did, her gaze moved to each of the three, then she went down on a virtual knee with her head bowed. “I’m honored to know you, My Ladies, Protector Harriman. You have made an enormous difference to the outcome here.”

“On your feet, Commander,” Akurea said. “It wasn’t that long ago I was a commander myself. I ran an overhaul facility when Lady Krys found me.”

Mike added his own thoughts. “Do you know about the hypercom, Commander?”

“Of course, Sire.”

Mike nodded his head toward Akurea, and Tealae got the message.

“You are truly a Great One, My Lady. The hypercom has opened entirely new avenues of opportunity to our commanders as they position our fighting forces. As for our civilization . . . well, I’m sure you appreciate the impact it will make.”

Akurea looked off into the distance before saying, “Not entirely. What’s next?”

Mike spoke up before Tealae had a chance to dive into something else. “I’ve been out of touch for quite a while. Did my little round spaceships ever become a reality?”

Tealae was approaching her limit of amazement. “They’re your jawbreakers, Sire?”

“Jawbreakers?”

“Uh, small, four-man gun platforms. Each one mounts the equivalent of two heavy cruiser guns. We’re operating them in flights of four. I hear they’re effective.”

“What about the scree? I haven’t felt it here.”

Tealae shuddered. “Nor have I, Sire. We have reports of sporadic scree. It’s been unpredictable, so our Terrans have had to stay at the helm. We can’t afford to let the Chessori take out a whole ship without a fight.”

As a Protector, Harriman usually stayed in the background, but he did not hesitate to jump into conversations when he felt it appropriate, as he did here. “Mike, walk through this with me,” he suggested. “We know that the Chessori . . . well, actually the K’tiri guild of the Chessori . . . consider themselves far superior to everyone else. Waverly has killed a bunch of them, and we took out a whole bunch of them during their last attack on Earth. They don’t strike me as the sort to throw themselves on their swords. If I was them, I doubt if I’d be willing to sacrifice the lives of another 30,000 shiploads of K’tiri. I’d think of a better way. I’m wondering if maybe the K’tiri are just on the upgraded ships.”

Mike stared at him while his mind wrapped itself around the concept. “Who would be flying the other ships?” he wondered softly to himself.

Harriman heard him. “Regular Chessori? The ones with weaker screes? It sounds like our guys are hitting them from fairly far away, maybe beyond the range of a weak scree.”

“Mike, I agree with him about the K’tiri,” Akurea said. “They are not physically strong, and they’re not the best fighters, but we’ve always given them high marks for cleverness. It’s reasonable to figure they’re learning from their mistakes just as we are.”

“You know more about them than anyone in the Empire. How would you structure this attack if you were in their shoes?” Mike asked.

The display suddenly disappeared, and they found themselves standing on a seashore with the waves lapping up against the shoreline just below them. Tealae stood frozen in place, dumbfounded, wondering if the ship had taken a hit that damaged the AI. Mike, on the other hand, felt a strong sense of déjà vu. A pounding sounded in the distance, then a knight dressed in shiny armor, with a white cape fluttering behind him and a white feather streaming from his helmet, emerged from the mist riding a white stallion. He pulled up before them and dismounted, then he went to one knee.

“Sir George at your service.”

Mike frowned. “Come on, George. What’s up?” he demanded.

The Knight stood up. “I’ve been monitoring your conversation. Well . . . I’ve been monitoring lots of things. Protector Harriman’s idea got me to wondering—the K’tiri might very well only be on the upgraded ships. Those ships will offer superior, possibly unbeatable protection. That leaves the question of who is flying the other ships.”

George paused, then said, “I don’t think anyone is flying them, Mike. I ran a quick review of how they maneuver when under attack from our ships . . . well, I’m still running it . . . and I believe those ships are automated.”

“How could you possibly know that?” Mike asked.

Stor and Tealae both spoke up at the same time. “Random maneuvering.”

George turned to them. “I’m not easily impressed, but I’m impressed! Are the two of you mathematicians?”

“Yes,” Stor answered.

“Among other things,” Tealae said. “Who are you?”

“Sir George.” George turned back to Mike. “Pilots try hard to maneuver in random patterns so attackers cannot prejudge their positions, but pilot’s brains are not random. Consequently, their maneuvers are not strictly random. Patterns become predictable to some extent. That’s how AI’s provide projected movements to our gunners. The standard Chessori ships here are maneuvering in completely random patterns, meaning there is no pattern at all. You might want to adjust the AI’s on your ships to compensate for this automated randomness.”

“Okay. Anything else going on I should know about?”

“Lots, but it can wait. Krys completed her task. I’ve forwarded the information to Trexler. I believe he’s going to pick up a canister for analysis.”

“Are you confident of your projections?”

“Childs’ play, Mike—they’re on simple, ballistic trajectories. We’ll get close, then locate them precisely with our radars.”

“Are you going to do it yourself?”

“Not this time.”

“I want to set up a hypercom link to Serge Parsons. Can you have it ready when I get back?”

“I can’t activate my hypercom inside the cruiser. I either exit the ship, or you use one of the cruiser’s hypercoms.”

“Very well. I’ll let you know. Thanks, George.”

George evaporated. Mike turned to discover Stor and Tealae staring at him with wide, questioning eyes.

He shrugged, but inside he was smiling. Leave it to George to make an entrance . . . again. “That was Resolve’s AI,” he informed them.

When they remained speechless, he added, “It’s not generally known, but George is a Knight of the Realm, knighted by the Queen herself.”

Tealae’s eyes narrowed, uncertain, but Stor, after a moment’s reflection, smiled. “I like him!” she said.

Mike read the uncertainty in Tealae’s eyes and understood it. “There’s a lot of history to him and the Queen, Commander. Bear with us for a while and maybe we’ll bring you up to date.”

She shook her head, then said, “Sire, if he’s right, it opens up a whole lot of possibilities.”

“Tell me.”

“It means the upgraded ships are their command and control. We’ll eventually take all of them out, which means there will be no one left to call off the attack, if that is, indeed, even an option. Admiral Trexler definitely needs to know.”

Mike nodded with narrowed eyes, his expression encouraging her to continue.

“If we know which ships do not have Chessori, it means our Empire crews can help with the fighting. We won’t have to pull our ships back while the Terrans rest, which translates to improved efficiency.” She thought for a moment, then added, “Sire, it’s always very bad on our fighting ships. The Chessori are highly capable, and the fighting challenges us on all levels. However, on the command ships we look at things from a different perspective. For our senior commanders—Trexler, Buskin, and Godfries—everything comes down to the math, to attrition rates. To improve the attrition rate, we have to improve our efficiency. Not resting crews could be a start. Next, we need to keep our capital ships engaged as continuously as possible. Right now, they’re spending most of their time searching. Sire, we have lots and lots of fast fighters sitting idle. We pulled all the crews from them because they’re not effective against capital ships. We have plenty of Empire pilots who would jump at the chance to use them for searching provided they won’t run into the scree. When they find a target, they can activate their beacon, allowing a cruiser or frigate to fast-ship to them. The fighter would not have to stay around for the engagement—as soon as our capital ship has its target, our fighter can start a new search.” She paused for a moment, then added, “We might even want to send your jawbreakers out individually to search in the same manner.”

She considered the whole picture, then added, “We might have other ships, cargo ships and such, that we could use for searching, as well.” She peered hard at Mike. “As long as they won’t run into Chessori. That’s the key.”

“Are we done here?” Mike asked the group.

When everyone nodded, he exited the net and removed his helmet. The others followed his example.

He turned to Tealae. “I think you have enough to take to Buskin now.”

“Sire? Me?”

“Yes, you. Perhaps you can point me in the direction of a hypercom on the way?”