Welcome to Spirit of Empire!

Voice of the Chosen - Spirit of Empire, Book Three

Chapter One

 Krys awoke with a start and sat up, her black hair in disarray. Blind eyes instinctively searched the room while other senses strove to fill in the blanks. She felt the bed under herself, and her nose identified the antiseptic smells of a hospital.

“Who’s here?” she called.

“I’m here,” Terry Washburn, her personal Protector, answered.

“Call the ship. We’re leaving.”

He lifted a communicator to his lips and spoke to M’Sada, their pilot. Krys was climbing from the hospital bed when he finished.

Resolve will be here in a few minutes. What’s going on, My Lady?”

“Your home world is under attack. Where are my clothes?”

“I don’t know! Tarn can’t be moved, Krys. Is our presence there necessary?”

“It is.” She bit her lip, frowning as she turned toward the sound of Washburn’s voice. “We’ll come back for him.”

“Captain Stven and Borg are in tanks, too. Stven has a fractured leg and a broken wing, and Borg has some bad gashes from a gleason.”

“Stven! What happened to him? Please tell me he wasn’t part of our fight against the gleasons, too.”

“He was, My Lady. He grabbed the last gleason and jumped out a window. Well . . . he flew out, I guess, but the landing was hard. I didn’t know dragons had it in them, but he killed the creature single-handed.”

She leaned back against the bed for support and asked, dreading the answer, “Did we lose anyone?”

“No. Tarn and Borg are the worst. A few more are walking wounded.”

She lifted a shaking hand and ran it through her hair. “I’m sorry.”

“What did you expect? They were gleasons, Krys.”

She shook her head, then her lips compressed into a thin line. “I hate to break up the crew, but we have to go, now. I won’t leave Tarn without Protection. Will you see to it, please?”

It took longer than she wanted, but three hours later Resolve lifted from the front lawn of the hospital. Captain Stven limped aboard in a cast beside the Great Cat, Borg, who lay on a floater. Borg went directly into the tank in sick bay. Two Terrans and two Great Cats, all of them wounded, remained behind in the hospital with Tarn for protection.

M’Sada and O’Brien, Resolve’s pilots, fast-shipped all the way to the outskirts of Earth’s system. When Resolve dropped from hyperspace days later, M’Sada’s upper hands began a rapid preening of his whiskers and two long antennae.

A great battle raged. The one thousand Chessori ships of Admiral Buskin’s vision had arrived.

 

 

Chapter Two

 

Trexler’s foot came out of the tank three days after leaving Aldebaran on his way to Earth. His doctor forbade walking on it for two more weeks, and Trexler was forced to move around the great cruiser on a floater with his foot stuck straight out in front of him. He hadn’t collided with anyone or anything yet, but he’d had some close calls.

This was his first visit back to Earth since he’d gone into space. So much had happened that it seemed like a lifetime ago. He and his men had learned to function in this amazing Empire, they’d fought great battles and won, and he had been invited to join the Queen’s Inner Circle as one of her closest advisors.

He shook his head as he lowered the helmet into place and joined the net. He had never seen Earth from space – his initial departure from Earth had been as a passenger – and he wasn’t going to miss this for anything. He anticipated a lazy arrival on the outskirts of his home system.

When they dropped from hyperspace in the far reaches of the system, it took a while for his screens to refresh. When they did, the scene before him took his breath away.

“Beacons off!” he ordered his own and the accompanying squadron.

The inner system was too far away to distinguish detail, but the Artificial Intelligence enhanced the view as much as it could. A great battle raged with the attackers positioned about a week out from Earth and headed inbound. The AI displayed friendly ships as white, Rebel ships in red, and Chessori ships in blue. Every ship here was either white or blue.

From this far out, radio messages would take hours to make the round trip. Fast-shipping was much quicker. He ordered the two squadrons to close in with their beacons off, but not to join the battle. When they neared the battle, he had no way of knowing which ship Godfries, the local commander, was on, so he made a general broadcast.

“Stu, the cavalry has arrived. Call me.”

His tightbeam lit up a moment later. “About time, Ray.” The relief in Godfries’ eyes was clear to Trexler. “How many are you?”

“Two fast squadrons at the moment. You can expect a few more, but it will be a couple of days. We had no idea you were in trouble.”

The relief in Godfries’ eyes disappeared. “Just two? It’s bad, Ray. These are Chessori military ships – big ones.” His eyes shifted to the side. He spoke briefly to someone, then he turned back to Trexler. “Give me five minutes and I’ll be back to brief you.”

 Trexler nodded, but he kept the tight beam connection in place. He set his own staff to studying ship displacements and tactics, something he was certain Godfries had already done.

At first blush, there seemed to be little order to this battle. A number of fast frigates and fighters were fully engaged against the flanks of the Chessori. They seemed to be effective even though they fought hardened military ships flown by all-Chessori crews, something he had not yet encountered. His hopes went up a notch, but those hopes would need a lot more notches, and soon. Slow ships from the planet were just now merging with the leading edge of the approaching Chessori horde, and the battle was heating up.

Godfries returned, and Trexler directed his staff to sit in on the briefing.

“We’re up against 1,963 Chessori ships,” Godfries said. “These are not squadrons – they don’t seem organized in any manner at all. Most of them seem to be equivalent in size to a frigate, though there are 65 larger ships, probably equivalent to our cruisers. We haven’t engaged any of the large ships yet, so we’re not certain.

“I have 56 cruisers, recent arrivals who have answered Krys’ call, but none of them are fast. I’ve accumulated 193 frigates, of which 29 have been modified here on Earth into fast ships. They have the upgraded shields, but not the upgraded weapons.

“My fast frigates have been engaged for days. I’m pulling them back for a breather while our slow ships complete the engagement process. We just got here, and we’re still deploying.”

“How’s the attrition rate?”

“Too soon to say. The fast frigates have been effective, very effective. I’ll know how the unmodified ships perform in a few hours.” He looked hard at Trexler. “I’m trying to force the Chessori to stay in a group. I don’t want one of them to break away and head for the planet. Their purpose here is unknown, but I’m assuming this is a bioweapon attack. With a fleet this size, they’re likely bent on wiping out all life on Earth.”

“Okay. We learned a few things at Aldebaran I. We won by the way.”

“What did you learn?”

“I’m not sure it applies here. We discarded all of our fighters and just used cruisers and frigates. The fighters were completely ineffective.”

Godfries frowned. “I’m not ready to do that. We’ve separated the fighters from their squadrons, so they’re no longer support for the capital ships. We’re operating them as attack units in flights of four, and I have 140 flights. I’m holding the few fast fighters that I have in reserve in case some Chessori break away from the main battle and try to go around us. It’s too soon to say if these flights will be effective, but I think they will be. Reports are that the Chessori shields and weapons are not up to our standards. As for my capital ships, every one of them is fully manned. We’ve done a lot of recruitment, Ray. Our gunners don’t have to manage a battery all by themselves. Each gunner has just one gun, so the batteries are fully capable.”

“Hmm. This should be interesting. I have not had the pleasure of seeing what our guys can do with a fully-manned ship. The other thing we did at Aldebaran I was to pair up cruisers. They lasted a lot longer that way, and their combined firepower overwhelmed their opponents. Additionally, we assigned minimum readiness levels that required them to disengage before they got too damaged. In some cases, we managed to bring in fast ships to hold off the enemy while they disengaged.”

Godfries’ eyes narrowed. “We’re so outnumbered here that we’ve assigned each ship its own target.”

“You might want to experiment. Two-ship units will reduce the number of simultaneous engagements, but in the long run I think it will lead to better results, and it’s safer for them.”

“We’ll give it a try, Ray.” His lips thinned. “The odds are not on our side here. At best, it will be close. I’ll have projections in a few hours.”

“Okay. We’re trying to discern Chessori tactics.”

“We’ve been working on that for days. We haven’t seen anything but full ahead from them. Each ship seems to be on its own.”

“Hmm. That’s strange.”

“Not if you consider the fact that the Chessori have never needed to really fight. I think they’ve counted on this scree to disable their opponents, so they’re probably accustomed to just coming in to clean up at their leisure. They won’t have a leisurely time of it here.”

“Where do you want me?”

“For the moment, I’m assigning all fast ships to you. My fast frigates have been at it for days. Give them a rest before you put them to work. Your assignment is to work the flanks with fast ships while I focus my slow ships on the leading edge of the attacking forces. I might take back some fast ships if my guys need help disengaging for rest or repairs. I’ll let you know. Be on the lookout for anyone breaking away.”

“I won’t need to combine cruisers. Stu, they’re fully modified with the stronger shields and weapons. What they did at Aldebaran was amazing. I’ll see about combining your frigates when they come back from break, but I might not have to. With full Terran crews, they’ll be formidable, more so than my own. You can expect reinforcements from Aldebaran in a few days, and they’ll be fast squadrons.”

Godfries signed off, and Trexler made assignments. He had a tremendous volume of space to cover, and he had to spread his forces thinner than he wanted. Each cruiser would act alone, and each of his four frigates would act alone. His 24 fighters would be divided into 6 wings of 4 each. All told, he had 12 individual fighting units, but when Godfries’ fast cruisers finished their break, he’d have 29 more. He might end up combining ships into flights of two, thereby reducing the number of flights but improving their effectiveness. He would make that decision after he had a better feel for the battle.

His forces split up, and his job now was to monitor results. It wasn’t long before the guns on his own cruiser began pounding away. As he studied their progress, a grin found its way to his face. The Chessori mounted multiple weapons on each ship, but his gunners had a longer reach, and their shots quickly overwhelmed Chessori shields.

His ship waded in, taking on multiple targets simultaneously. Chessori ships fell, but others regrouped and attempted to engulf him. When the going got too demanding, his captain jumped away, then focused on another area.

Godfries’ fast frigates joined him six hours later. They had just finished their break and were anxious to get started. Most important, they had become experienced fighters. No longer were Earth’s forces a big question mark. Their training had worked, and they presented a formidable force. The flanks of the approaching Chessori were slowly but constantly shrinking.

 

* * * * *

 

Stven brought Resolve closer to the battle, but he remained outside the effective range of the scree. For most, the mind weapon of the Chessori simply disabled, but for Krys, the scree caused physical damage. No one knew why, but it was the scree that had blinded her. He would do everything in his power to keep her away from its effects. 

He studied the battle through the net. Never before had he seen so many ships in one place. To him, the battle looked like a total free-for-all. The Chessori, vastly outnumbering Earth’s forces, had formed into a ball-shaped formation, a ball that had noticeably flattened at the front where it met the oncoming defenders. Around the periphery of the Chessori battle group, shields winked on and off constantly, and Chessori ships fell to the onslaught. Along the forward edge, fighting was so intense that the AI displayed a solid region of brightness.

He studied the beautiful gem of a world not far in the distance, a world whose place in all this defied description. So important was Earth to the Empire’s fight against the Chessori that he knew he and his crew would have to do everything they possibly could to help it survive. From his current perspective, survival looked like a longshot. These people from an emerging world were in the midst of a battle that defied management, a battle that would have defied belief had he not been seeing it with his own eyes.

And according to Krys, this enormous battle was just a decoy for the main Chessori thrust against Earth.

He described what he saw to Krys. She stood with her hands on the back of a crew seat, but she did not face the battle in front of them. She was angled slightly to the right. When he finished his briefing, she raised her arm straight ahead of herself. “Our target is there. Do you see it?”

“I think you’re pointing to the far side of the system, on the other side of their sun,” Stven said. “There’s no one there.”

“I see a group of thirty Chessori traders. They’re headed for Earth. Their beacons must be off.”

“My Lady, we are not going to take on thirty Chessori.”

“No, we are not. We have another purpose. Find me someone in command.”

Stven tried, but he could not get through on the tight beam to anyone. “George,” he said to his AI, “give me general broadcast.”

“Established, Captain.”

“Activate our beacon,” he ordered George. Over the radio, he announced, “Resolve calling. Whoever is in charge, respond via tightbeam.” His transmission went out to every ship in the system. The tight beam communicator signaled three incoming calls. It could only accept one at a time, and George activated one at random.

“Krys, is that you?” Admiral Buskin asked.

“It is,” Krys answered. “Where are you?”

“I’m in a ship orbiting the planet. I’m afraid I’m not much help here against the scree.”

“No, none of us is,” she answered. “The main Chessori force is a decoy. There is a small group of Chessori traders coming in from the other side of the system. Do you see them?”

He blanched and turned to his staff. When he turned back to her, he said, “No.”

“My eyes are blind, but my mind is not. They approach without beacons, Admiral. I see them.”

Buskin starred long and hard at her. “How is it you are blind?”

“A consequence of scree.” Her blind eyes stared into the pickup wishing she could see this great man who had become her friend. “My skills have improved, Admiral. I see the enemy clearly. I can lead you to them. If I can get you close enough, your own sensors will see them.”

“And place you in range of the scree, as well,” he said grimly. “There might be an alternative. Give me a few hours, My Lady. Do nothing until I get back to you.”

She nodded. “Clearly, time is of the essence.”

He signed off and contacted Admiral Jons. A fighting man, Jons had led the squadron that saved Mike and Ellie at Gamma VI. His procurement skills had so impressed everyone that he had been forced into the job of senior procurement officer for the Queen’s forces. Jons had been working closely with Serge Parsons and his engineers for years now. His latest projects were focused on developing manufacturing facilities on Earth.

When Jons answered the call, Buskin did not waste words. “What is the status of your space tug project?”

Jons wrinkled his nose. “We just finished converting the first one. We haven’t begun testing yet, so it’s not operational.”

“Do you have a crew?”

Jons scowled. “Terrans only. None of our guys would even consider going out in an unarmed, unshielded ship. Certainly not with that horde approaching.”

“Well, someone has to. Lady Krys is here. She claims the main force of Chessori is a diversion. Thirty Chessori traders are headed this way from the other side of the system. Their beacons are off. She’ll take us to them if necessary, but it might kill her. The scree causes her physical damage.”

Jons lips firmed. “I’ll have the tug ready in an hour. We’ll know within a couple of hours if it works. It is completely untested. You’ll have to provide protection.”

“I will. Step on it, my friend.”

The name space tug conjured visions of an ungainly but powerful workhorse. The reality couldn’t have been farther from the truth. Jons’ space tug was half a mile long. From above, it looked like a teardrop, but from the side it looked like a scimitar. Long and sleek, it had never tugged ships in space. It had either swallowed them or attached itself to them. It carried enormous quantities of spare parts within its hull, and it even had small scale manufacturing capabilities.

This particular tug had been modified. All means of protection had been removed, replaced by sensitive detectors and instrumentation that could not function through shields. Numerous tight beam communicators had been installed as well. Mike’s plan had called for listening posts scattered throughout Earth’s system, but Serge Parsons had taken it a step farther. He envisioned ships of this type traveling with fleets and becoming command centers.

Well, Jons mused, the time had come. He boarded a fighter at Area 51, one of his first modifications centers on Earth, and raced to California. The trip in broad daylight would add to world tensions, of that he was certain, but he had no choice. Today, Earth’s survival rested in the balance. He could not wait for darkness to hide his approach.

His would not be the first recent report of a flying saucer. Beginning two weeks earlier, Buskins’ ships had been springing from hiding all over the planet, and Admiral Godfries, the Terran commander, had not concerned himself with waiting for darkness. World leaders were aghast, and fear dominated global headlines. Governments were doing their best to quell the fears without admitting prior knowledge, but it was a losing effort.

That was not Buskin’s concern. For the next few weeks, his fleet had only one purpose: to save Earth.

It was a typical sunny day at Moffett Field, an old NASA airport on the south shore of San Francisco Bay. Jons brought the UFO-shaped fighter right up to the new hangar housing the modified tug and hit the ground running. The tug’s Terran crew was already living aboard. He gave them a quick briefing, then it was time to go. His eyes gleamed at the thought of going into action once again. It almost made it worth going into space in an unprotected ship.

The space tug had slipped into its hiding place in the deep of night six months earlier and had never been seen by locals, but today that changed. Giant hangar doors began sliding open. Traffic along the 101 Freeway slowed, then came to a halt as the nose of the ship edged into view, its broad surface gleaming in the bright sunlight. Ten lanes of traffic became twenty as cars edged their way closer. Drivers abandoned their vehicles to stare with open mouths.

More of the ship emerged, then more. To the spectators, it seemed like it would never end. But it did. The immense craft cleared the hangar and lifted into the air, banking to its right as it crossed the freeway. It threaded its way between aircraft landing at the San Jose and San Francisco Airports, but once clear, it nosed up and whooshed silently upward, gone in the blink of an eye.

Jons, in the net with the Terran crew, felt their unease. The departure of this ship would be another major item of world news, and the world was already reeling from reports of flying saucers. But they understood the stakes: Earth was even less ready for an alien invasion, an invasion that would likely wipe all life from the face of the planet. The stakes were that high, and these sailors knew it.

They reached space, and Captain Lieu Ming turned the ship over to a pilot. Her concern was no longer the ship, it was the ship’s mission.

Her crew was just completing a power-up checklist on the multitude of systems. “Anything yet?” she asked her chief scientist.

“You know better than that,” Shun Tai responded. “We’re still too close to Earth. If I open the gates this close in, I’ll overwhelm the sensors. I need at least an hour.”

Lieu opened a tightbeam to Resolve, and Admiral Jons joined her. When Stven answered, she gasped. Never before had she imagined meeting a real dragon, let alone the beautiful, purple creature staring at her from within his own net.

“Who are you?” she asked in wonder.

“Commander Stven at your service,” he replied, his lips lifting into a smile. She focused more on the teeth those lips revealed. Stven winked at Jons whom he had met on Parsons’ World, but he also understood the unease of this woman from an emerging world. “May I ask who you are?” he said, directing his question to her.

“Captain Lieu Ming. I am in command of an experimental ship. I understand the mission, but I hope you understand that this ship is untested.”

A small puff escaped from one of Stven’s nostrils. “I did not know,” he said, directing his gaze to Jons.

“We’re pretty confident, Captain,” Jons responded. “The sensors are extremely sensitive. We’ll need more distance from Earth before we activate them. Can you give me a general location?”

“Only general directions. Your target is, as near as I can determine, directly opposite the main Chessori fleet but on the far side of the sun. Are you a fast ship?”

“We are. And we have the latest beacon capabilities.”

“Then transit times are inconsequential. Do not approach them. Our attack must remain a surprise.”

Captain Lieu issued orders to her pilot who set an approximate course, but he had to delay his first jump until all the talking was done. There was no way to communicate with ships during jumps.

Stven completed his briefing. “Admiral Trexler will send 30 fast frigates, one for each target, as soon as you give him coordinates. They should make quick work of the traders.”

“It will have to be quick. You understand their purpose here?” Jons asked.

“One of us knows their purpose here, sir. The attack will be in the form of thousands of canisters released from these ships. Those canisters will not have beacons or drive signatures, and they will be extremely difficult to find once released. I do not know what they contain, but does it matter?”

“It does not.”

Captain Lieu began a series of short jumps, then the scientists aboard the tug began activating sensors. With the information Stven had provided, they knew approximately where to look. Jons gasped when the information appeared on the net. The drive signatures of thirty Chessori traders were as clear to him as the beacons of the ships engulfed in battle. The detectors were so sensitive that he could count individual signatures of ships’ drives, not just see an area of targets. Serge Parsons had done well.

He turned to Captain Lieu who returned a grim but triumphant look. “Oh, you’ve done well, sir. This is a gift, a timely gift. Your work might have saved our home.”

He shook his head. “I’ve been up against the Chessori before. We’re not done saving your home yet. These Chessori are smart, and they’re cagey. Finding them is just the first step. The rest is up to Trexler.”

Jons sent the tightbeam feed to Trexler, reminding him that the data was hours old by the time the drive signatures traveled all the way from the ships to the sensors, so the Chessori were not exactly where they appeared to be. The AI’s could calculate the shift, and as the tug’s sensors got closer to the Chessori, the positions would become more real.

Trexler pulled 30 fast frigates from the conflict. They turned their beacons off,  joined up with his cruiser, then turned toward the Chessori traders.

Jons led, sending updates periodically. Resolve, too, approached the battle with the beacon silenced. When Trexler discovered Resolve’s position from the feed sent from Jons, he called Stven.

“What are you doing here?”

“Orders from Lady Krys, sir. Just a moment.” He shifted the pickup to Krys. George was still unable to connect her to the net.

“Wait until I’m in position,” she ordered. “Do not attack until then. Understood?”

“No, My Lady, I do not.”

“Then I must ask for your trust, Admiral. Close the gap, but do not let them know you are there until I give you the word.”

Trexler stared at the image of this tall sprite of a woman. What would the cost of his trust be to Earth? He cut the connection without a reply.

She issued orders to Stven. “I want you as close to the leading edge of the traders as you can get without being detected.”

“My Lady, you do not have a Rider. I can’t let you come under the influence of the scree.

“It won’t be for very long, but we must be between them and Earth.”

M’Sada fast-shipped to the traders, then matched trajectories out in front of them. “We’re in position, Krys.”

“Notify Admiral Trexler to commence his attack. George,” she announced to the AI, “do you understand what’s going on?”

“I do, My Lady.”

“The trajectories of the canisters will be fixed once they leave their ships. Am I correct?”

“If they do not have drives, yes.”

“You need to plot as many of those trajectories as you can, all of them if possible, just as soon as they leave the ships. Once the trajectories are known, the canisters have to be destroyed. Can you do it?”

“I don’t know, My Lady. I will do my best.”

“No, George. In this case do as we do: give it all that you are. Find every one of them. Earth is depending on you. So, too, is the Empire.”

Stven started to clarify her instructions to George, but just then Trexler’s ships dropped into the midst of the Chessori traders and the shooting started. The scree started up, canisters began streaming from the traders, then all the screens on the bridge went blank. The net died with them.

Captain Tom O’Brien, Resolve’s Terran pilot, and Major Terry Washburn, Krys’ senior Terran Protector, removed their helmets and looked around in confusion. Washburn saw Stven and M’Sada writhing on the floor and stunned them to ease their pain, then turned the stunner on Krys. An eerie silence descended upon the bridge.

Aboard the tug, Admiral Jons instantly collapsed at the first sounding of the scree. Captain Lieu studied her screens and saw the canisters. She screamed at her crew, “Record everything! Shun Tai, can you track the canisters?”

“I’m recording. This is bad. There are too many. Once they have left the ship, they are on fixed trajectories. I cannot see them, but I will be able to predict their positions mathematically.”

“Are they headed toward Earth?”

“They are.”

“Can you direct our ships to them?”

“I can give them general directions, but they won’t be able to see them. The canisters have no beacons and no drive signatures. Everything will have to be computed mathematically. We never anticipated needing radar, Captain. I don’t think we will be able to help.”

Captain Lieu had been having a good day – no, she had been having a great day. Her wonderful ship had proven itself. Now, all of a sudden she wondered if she would have a home to return to.

Aboard Resolve, the scree lasted only minutes. Stven and M’Sada recovered fairly quickly, and Krys was not far behind them. She had a headache, but she did not seem to be any worse for the experience.

She spoke into the silence. “What’s going on, gentlemen?”

O’Brien answered her. “We have no idea. I wish you had worded your instructions a little differently, Krys. George has taken you literally. He’s giving it everything that he is. He’s cut us off. This ship is entirely under the control of George right now.”

A hand went to her throat. “The net is dead?”

“And all the screens. We’re completely blind.”

 

* * * * *

 

As usual, everyone had forgotten about Commander Akurea Skvechavka’a, the underground leader on Grnlee who had helped steal the Chessori hypercom plans. She came into the bridge to discover everyone just hanging about. All the screens were dead. “What’s going on?” she asked. “My computer shut down, the central shaft is not working, and the only lighting is emergency lights.”

“George is pretty busy right now, Ma’am,” Stven answered. “He’s apparently shut down all unnecessary systems.”

“I’m a pretty good mechanic. What can I do to help?”

“Nothing. We’re not broken. He’s just otherwise engaged.”

“Where are we?”

“In another system.”

“Another system! We just left Orion III a few days ago.”

O’Brien got up and guided her to his own seat. “Have a seat, Commander. Let’s just say we’re a little faster than standard ships.”

“A little faster?” Everyone was staring at her, and her gaze shifted from one to another. It ended on Krys. “My Lady?”

“We’re a ship full of secrets, Akurea. I know it’s hard for you, but it’s necessary.”

Akurea stood up. “So many strange things. Are you from the Empire?”

“This is an Empire ship, and some of us are from the Empire. Some are not. We are all, however, fighting the same enemies.”

Akurea’s hands balled into fists on her hips. “How can I be sure? I can’t possibly keep working on a project that might fall into the wrong hands.”

“I am a Knight.”

“So far as I know, your proof is incontrovertible, but it is no longer enough. I’m suddenly concerned that my efforts are not in support of the Queen, but of someone else. I will not allow what I know to fall into the wrong hands.”

“Well spoken, Commander. Your project is critical, and your demand for information is appropriate. In your place, I, too, would prevent the hypercom from falling into the wrong hands. It seems the time has come to explain. We have little else to do for the moment. Let me tell you our story, or at least part of our story.

 

* * * * *

 

George’s guns suddenly began firing - without intervention by the crew, a first in everyone’s experience. Hour after hour, the guns kept up a constant pounding. The better part of a day passed, then the firing trailed off and finally ended. The screens came back to life, and everyone went into the net except Krys and Akurea.

Krys called George. “Are you done?”

“Yes, My Lady.”

“Did you get them all?”

“All but five.”

“Why did you leave five?”

“For study. There might be other attacks later, and it’s possible the main fleet has more of them. We should learn what is inside them. I chose the five at random.”

“I thought your programming prevented you from operating the ship’s guns?”

“That was before I got an education. I still cannot fire at intelligent life, but I detected no intelligent life forms aboard the canisters. The slight possibility that I was wrong seemed outweighed by the certainty of saving a world. Did I choose poorly?”

“No, George. You chose well. Tell me, are you alive?”

“I don’t know, but Mike gave me a name. It’s enough.”

“I think it’s time you started calling me Krys.”

“Thank you, Krys. I much prefer names. Don’t you?”

She smiled. “I do, George. Are we going to pick up the five canisters?”

Stven answered in alarm. “No! It’s too dangerous. Admiral Trexler can send someone else.”

Krys nodded. “A wise choice, Captain. George, thank you. You’ve done well.” She couldn’t see him beaming, but she knew that he was. “Uh, how many were there?”

“1,352,116. I think there would have been more, but Admiral Trexler destroyed the traders before they finished launching.”

 

* * * * *

 

Aboard his command ship, Trexler watched in awe as Resolve took out the canisters one by one. No one on the bridge had ever seen anything like it, non-stop firing for hours, each shot precisely aimed, and oftentimes multiple shots taking place simultaneously. Clearly, Resolve had managed to track every single canister, something his squadron had failed to do. His men took out the few they could find, then just backed off and went into a search mode while Resolve did their work for them. It took a full day, and he was anxious to get back to the main battle, but winning the main battle would serve no purpose if the canisters got through to Earth. He sent the rest of his ships back to Godfries while he and the tug shadowed Resolve.

He was waiting anxiously for news when the tight beam signaled a call from Resolve. Krys’ image resolved, and he stared into the face of the young woman. Her eyes remained closed, and it made him wonder.

“The canisters have been destroyed, Admiral. We left five of them for study. Are you willing to pick them up?”

“We’ll have to figure out how to do it, but yes. Send me the trajectories and I’ll take care of it.”

“Captain Stven is sending them now. We’re going to keep an eye on the main battle, looking for more canisters. You can return to the fighting, sir.”

“We haven’t met, and I’m sorry. You’ve done us all a very great service.”

“Do you know who I am?”

“I do, My Lady, and  I am most pleased to meet you. Are you well?”

“Well enough. I’m blind, but it might only be temporary.”

“What happened?”

“The Chessori are what happened. I seem to be more sensitive to the scree than most. We’ll stay well clear of them here unless things become desperate for you.”

“They won’t. We’ve established attrition rates, and we’ll prevail. My getting back into the battle will help. Will you meet with me later?”

She bit her lip. “I have to return to Orion III. I left Tarn there in a tank.”

“The battle there is over. I stayed for a month just to be sure.”

“Struthers sent gleasons, and behind them he sent a fleet to take back the planet. The gleasons were dealt with, and a fast messenger was sent to Chandrajuski, but we didn’t wait around to see if he sent a response. Do you have word?”

“No, but don’t worry. I’m sure he responded. Do you know the strength of the enemy?”

“A hundred or so Rebel ships.”

“His response will be sufficient. In fact, the Rebels will probably flee as soon as they see our ships. Our fast ships have beaten them badly. I doubt they’ll be given the opportunity to escape. They might be allowed to surrender.”

“Surrender!”

“They’re not all our enemies, My Lady. The leaders are, but not all the crewmembers. The Queen has so ruled.”

“She’s wise. I hadn’t considered it that way.”

“Nor had I. I have to get back to work. I’ll count on you to keep an eye out for more canisters. Until later, My Lady.”

He assigned the tug to pick up the canisters, then fast-shipped back into the battle.

Aboard the tug, Captain Lieu had a problem: her training had brought her up to speed on the ship’s listening equipment, but she had no idea how to use the ship as a tug.

Admiral Jons smiled when he recognized her dilemma. “So . . . I’m actually going to be useful for something,” he announced with delight. He located and captured the five canisters, then attached them to the belly of his ship. The contents of the canisters would have to be studied in orbit by someone else, but the threat posed by the small group of Chessori traders was over.

Trexler’s personal presence wasn’t needed at the main battle as much as his ship was needed. Stuart Godfries had things well in hand. Godfries detailed Trexler to join a rear echelon who’s purpose was to prevent any Chessori from escaping. The rear of the invaders was forced to continue inbound, straight into Godfries jaws.

When three more fast squadrons dropped from hyperspace the next day, Godfries engulfed the Chessori.

Trexler had so far seen a distinct lack of tactics from the Chessori, and small fighters were even penetrating their shields. His own squadrons had taken no disabling damage at all yet.

He was worried about a Chessori surrender. It seemed likely, and he had no idea how he was going to handle it. He called Godfries. “We’re probably looking at a surrender here. How do we do it?”

“I don’t have a clue, and I’m not of a mind to accept it after what they tried to do with those canisters.”

“Nor am I. They’re without conscience, but I hesitate to stoop to their level.”

“I, too, prefer the high ground, Ray, but we’re talking about the survival of our species here. We can’t let a single ship, or even a single Chessori, reach the planet. We have no idea if those canisters you destroyed were the only ones they have. And what will we do with the Chessori if they surrender? We can’t board their ships - our guys might become contaminated. We can’t incarcerate them on the surface, they might bring whatever germs or toxins they have with them. We can’t transport them somewhere else for the same reason, and we can’t let them stay here to telegraph everything we’re doing back to their home world.”

“We could let them go home.”

Godfries paused. “You know the comeback to that.”

“I do. They live to fight us another day. I wish I knew more about their psychology. Maybe they’d decide we weren’t so bad after all.”

“I know all I need to know about their psychology, at least for the present state of our relationship with them. This was genocide, pure and simple

“It was. I wonder if we could work out some kind of a trade? I'd give anything for the interstellar communicator. Mike thought he had one a while back, but it didn't pan out.”

“And more information about their empire. They might bargain, but I don’t know, Ray. I’m not convinced they have any respect for life at all, including their own.”

“Okay. No matter what happens, we’re full ahead until the scree stops. That’s the ground rule, learned the hard way during our first encounter with them. Until the scree stops, we accept no quarter. If it does stop, we’ll consider options, but not until then.”

“I concur. It’s time to rotate our ships. You’re due for a rest with the next group.”

“We rested while Resolve took out the canisters. We can wait until the next cycle if you’d like.”

“No. Take your break now. It will be a short four hours. The numbers are working, we’re going to win this thing, though it will be close. When you come back, we’re going after them with everything we have.”

Godfries began pulling squadrons back, one at a time for four hours each, and he ordered the remaining squadron commanders to stop pressing as hard until they, too, were rested. He didn’t, however, give the Chessori any rest. They probably had sufficient crewmembers to run shifts, but even resting crewmembers would be aware of their grim circumstances.

After all Godfries’ forces reengaged, attrition numbers increased. Before long, Chessori ships started dropping like flies as they became seriously outnumbered. Trexler was not surprised when a Chessori face showed up on his communications screen.

“I would like to discuss a surrender,” the diminutive creature stated calmly.

“After what you tried to do here? You must be joking.”

“I am not joking. You have won. I surrender.”

“You have a third of your fleet left. It’s too soon to surrender. Call me back when you’re down to a hundred ships.” Trexler cut the connection.

The Chessori returned a little while later. “This is senseless. You are destroying my men for no purpose.”

“Oh, it’s okay to wipe out my civilization, but it’s not okay for a few Chessori to die? Go away.”

When the Chessori were down to some 400 ships, the Chessori admiral returned. At least Trexler thought of him as an admiral. He had no idea what the Chessori called themselves.

“You must stop killing my people. We are superior members of the Chessori. You invite severe retribution if you continue.”

“Do I look like I fear retribution? You could send ten times this number of ships and I would prevail. How can you consider yourselves superior?”

“I am not a common Chessori. I demand to be set free.”

“I thought you wanted to surrender?”

“Surrender and be set free. That is my demand.”

“You make no demands here. What’s all this superiority stuff?”

“I am K’tiri. I am superior to all other beings. That is common knowledge.”

“Can you believe it’s not common knowledge to anyone but yourselves?”

“No one else matters. I demand you cease fire. I will then withdraw.”

“No. Do you understand the word no? Call me back when you’re ready to deal.” He cut the connection.

When the Chessori returned, he was a little less full of himself. “What is this ‘deal’ you speak of?”

“You speak my language. You must know what the word means.”

“You’re stalling.”

“I’m winning.”

“What deal?”

“To start with, I want the plans to your interstellar communicator.”

“Impossible.”

“So die. It’s all the same to me.” He cut the connection.

The Chessori came right back. “What you ask is not possible. I don’t have the plans.”

“Oh. Sorry.” He cut the connection and turned to one of his communications officers. “Can you tell where he’s calling from?”

“As near as I can tell, he’s right at the center of his remaining ships.”

“Hmm. I’m not surprised.” He called Godfries. “We’re going after their leader. I don’t want to take him out, but I want to shake him up. Break time is over for everyone. Get all your ships back in and make a maximum effort. We’ll all work toward the center of the Chessori formation, try to split them up.”

Godfries issued commands, directing his squadrons to make a push on the center of the Chessori formation. The fighting became more intense as his ships stayed engaged, but his plan had to be apparent to the Chessori commander. It was. He called back, clearly agitated.

“I demand you accept my surrender.”

“I have demands of my own. To start with, send me the plans we discussed.”

“I don’t have them.”

“Then there will be no surrender. I’m coming for you, and I’m not far away.” He cut the connection and waited as his fast ships moved closer to the center of the Chessori formation. Godfries, with his greater number of ships, reached the center first. He opened up on the ship at the very center of the formation until it was holed twice, then he backed off.

The Chessori commander appeared on the communicator again. Trexler didn’t know what panic would look like on the face of a Chessori, but he figured it might look like this. “I have the plans. I will bring them personally.”

“Along with your germs and chemicals? I don’t think so. Send them electronically, and be quick about it if you value your life.”

“My life is worth more than all of yours. The plans are on the way.”

“I will cease fire only when the scree stops, not before. It’s going to take me a while to check out the plans. Do not proceed closer to Earth.”

“I have sent the plans. I am free to withdraw.”

“I made no such agreement, nor have I accepted your surrender. When the scree stops, we’ll talk further.” The scree stopped almost immediately and the Chessori commander returned.

“I will hold fire,” Trexler said. “If a single Chessori ship fires a single shot or if the scree resumes, the fighting will resume, and there will be no further talk of surrender. Do you understand?”

“I do.”

“It’s going to take me a while to determine if the plans you sent are complete. Maybe days. Maybe weeks. Move your force out to the orbit of the fourth planet, and remain in your present formation while you do so. Any further progress toward Earth, and any single ship that moves beyond the orbit of our fourth planet will be considered an act of aggression. We will take our aggression out on all of you.”

Trexler cut the connection and leaned back in his seat with his eyes closed. Did he have the plans, he wondered? It would take the Empire crewmembers aboard his ship hours to recover from the effects of the scree. Even then, he didn’t know if they would be able to confirm the validity of the plans. He considered the Chessori commander and decided he wouldn’t trust him for a moment. Until he was certain the plans were valid, the Chessori would have to remain here.

He pulled his ship back from the battle area and ordered Godfries and Buskin to join him aboard his ship. Then he called Krys. “Have there been any more canisters launched?”

“No, sir.”

“Will you join me on my ship? I’ll detail my own ships to keep an eye out for any more canisters.”

“The fighting is over?”

“Maybe. I’ve agreed to a temporary cease fire and maybe a surrender. You’re the only Knight here in the system. I’d appreciate any input you might have to what we do with the surviving Chessori.”

Stven called him a few minutes later. “Admiral, would you mind pulling back a little further? I don’t want to risk any more damage to Krys if the scree starts up.”

“It will be my pleasure, Captain. Please have your crew accompany her to the meeting. There are a number of people here who would like to meet you.”

 

Chapter  3

 

He, Godfries, and Buskin were waiting in the conference room when Krys arrived with her crew. The room filled quickly as the thirteen newcomers entered, a number of them bearing wounds. Terry Washburn led Krys to Trexler who went down to one knee. “I’m honored to finally meet you, My Lady.”

Her blind eyes looked in the direction of his voice. “It is my honor to meet you, Admiral Trexler. Are you kneeling?”

“I am, My Lady.”

“There will be none of that around me, Admiral. My name is Krys. Please rise. It appears that you have fought another great battle and won.”

“We might have won the battle, but you saved a world, Krys. My world.”

“We have yet to save the Empire, Admiral, and Earth remains in grave danger. This will not be the last Chessori attack.”

“Agreed, but we’ll focus on this one for the moment. Admirals Godfries and Buskin are here with me. Will you introduce us to the rest of your crew?”

Tom O’Brien did the honors, starting with Stven.

“I see you’re injured, Captain,” Trexler said to Stven. “What happened?”

“Uh, just a bad landing, sir. I’m better at flying ships.”

O’Brien coughed into his fist. “He forgot to mention that he had his claws sunk into a gleason at the time, Admiral.”

“Gleasons!” Buskin exclaimed in alarm. “They’re using gleasons now?” A moment later, said with true amazement: “You took on a gleason?”

Trexler and Godfries exchanged glances, then Trexler addressed Krys. “We have some time before the regular crew recovers from the scree. I for one would like to hear your story, and it would be appropriate for you to hear ours, as well.”

The rest of the story came out, all of the story at Trexler’s insistence. His admirals needed to know and trust this young woman in whom the Queen held so much trust, and so did he. She remained silent as Stven, Borg, Washburn, and O’Brien told various parts of the story, beginning with Ellie pulling her from the orphanage on Hespra III. He stared at her with some incredulity as he envisioned this blind sprite of a girl standing tall and firing a blaster amidst all the carnage in Korban’s sector headquarters, then transferring her Rider to Sir Tarn.

“You know, I had thought Mike’s story amazing, but I think yours is right up there with his, Krys.”

“Without the man of dirt, there would be no Empire, Ray.”

“Too true. Did you know I was involved in his escape from Earth?”

“I did not. You have heard our story. It’s time we heard yours.”

Trexler told his story, briefly, then focused on what was happening on Earth at the moment. Stuart Godfries had made great strides with his recruiting, and centers for modifying ships were running day and night. Earth would likely become the primary training ground for Terran crews and for Waverly’s recruits. Serious political implications still remained, and they were being addressed.

“You should expect to encounter Chessori with improved shields soon,” Krys said, bursting their bubble, though Trexler was not surprised. Struthers was not idle, not by any means, and upgrading the fighting abilities of Chessori ships was probably high on his list.

Trexler’s communicator buzzed. He listened for a moment, then said, “Put it on the display here, but keep him waiting a few minutes, and make sure I’m the only one in the pick-up. I don’t want him to know any more about us than he has to.”

He hung up and activated the screen at the opposite end of the room, saying, “You’re about to meet our adversary. Let me do the talking.”

The Chessori commander appeared on the screen, and though no outward evidence showed of his anger or fear, Trexler sensed both. “It has been two hours. I demand you release us.”

“Demand? Isn’t that a little strong?”

“I am K’tiri. You cannot hold me.”

“You’re a prisoner, K’tiri. I have nothing but contempt for you. Had you been a warrior, I would treat you with respect, but you’re no warrior. You’re a coward who attempted to decimate an emerging world.”

“I am K’tiri,” the Chessori said, clearly not understanding. “K’tiri are not treated in this manner. I have complied with your request and should be freed.”

“I don’t think you understand. After your actions here, all K’tiri are my enemy. I kill my enemies. Do not concern yourself with a quick release. Better you concern yourself with whether you will ever be released. Until I have convinced myself that the information you sent is complete, you will not leave.” He cut the connection.

“What information, Ray?” Krys asked.

“The plans for their interstellar communicator.” A puff escaped from Stven, and M’Sada began a refreshing preening from the other end of the room. “I won’t accept his surrender until I’m assured that the plans are what we need.”

“I have the plans aboard my ship, Admiral. We were taking them to Chandrajuski when we diverted to Orion III, then here.”

Trexler leaned back in his chair, staring at her in amazement. “Are you certain?”

“Yes. I would ask you to reconsider your demand of this Chessori. You are insisting on proving that the plans are true. Actually, it’s better if the plans are not true. The Chessori do not know that we have the system. Think about the possibilities that implies.”

Several pairs of admirals eyes stared back at her in awe. Yes, the possibilities were enormous. They might be able to listen in on Chessori and Rebel communications.

“May I ask how you got the plans?”

“Major Washburn and Borg put together an operation to steal a Chessori computer that held the plans. We are still attempting to decipher the plans, but my expert believes that they are, indeed, a full set of plans.”

“And they don’t know you have the computer?”

“Probably not. We destroyed the facility on our way out.”

Trexler’s eyes narrowed. “I thought your job was to carry a message?”

“I am a Knight of the Realm, Admiral, and together with my crew we are a sword for the Queen. We do what we must.”

“A sword. Hmm, I believe you’re right, My Lady. We’ll discuss this computer business later. For the moment, I need to figure out what to do with these Chessori. We can’t bring them to Earth, and we can’t let them stay. We can kill them, and it would be fitting, but I am uncomfortable with the idea. Any thoughts from any of you?”

Godfries spoke. “It’s customary to disarm prisoners before letting them go. We can’t do that either.”

Krys turned her head toward Stven. “Captain, you are a Rress, one of the most ancient and revered civilizations in the Empire. Your people guide the rest of us as we muddle through our daily crises. What do you say?”

Trexler raised a hand palm out to get their attention. “Before you answer, Captain, you should know that we believe not all the Chessori are bad.”

“Indeed? How do you know, sir?”

“It’s a long story. The short version is that Sir Val met with a crew of six Chessori traders. When they learned what was going on, they claimed they were affronted by the actions of these K’tiri. They have agreed to help us find a means to stop them.”

“They did?” He did?” Krys asked in surprise.

“He did. He’s off on another mission right now with Mike, Reba, and a Colonel Dade whom I don’t think you’ve met.”

“Yes!” Washburn blurted out, raising his fist.

“Actually, I have met him, but only briefly,” Krys responded. “What is their mission?”

“I prefer it remain a secret for the moment.”

She frowned and turned back to Stven.

Stven stared at her for a time, then his long neck swung slowly around until he faced Trexler. Light glinted from his purple scales, and the black, diamond-shaped pupils within his purple eyes contracted as he considered Trexler. Here was the admiral chosen to lead all of Earth’s space forces. He was the best Earth had to offer, but how knowledgeable was he of Empire history and policies? His gaze rested on Trexler for a long time as he considered, his large nostrils flaring and contracting with each breath. When he spoke, he spoke as a teacher.

“My crew has had some nasty brushes with the Chessori, sir, and I can never forgive their indiscriminate use of the scree. I will do my best to kill any Chessori using it. These Chessori deserve to die.”

His long neck shook as he cleared horrible memories from his immediate thoughts, then his gaze settled back on Trexler. “That said, sir, I would caution against such an action, caution strongly. The Queen will never condone it, nor will my people.” He paused, then added, “Nor will I. We hold to a higher calling. Throughout our long history, the Empire has always held to that higher calling. Even with the gleasons, we did not resort to genocide, and we could have. Instead, we blockaded their world and prevented their leaving. We have born that cost for some 2,000 years. There are many different beliefs among the stars. The Empire strives mightily to encompass all of them. We sometimes lose sight of that purpose, but the Chosen and their Knights have never failed to remind us. They are what make Empire work.”

Silence descended on the room for a time, then Godfries rose to his feet, his gaze locked on Stven. He bowed to Stven, then placed his hands on the table and leaned toward him. “Captain, I’ve had a niggling doubt in the back of my mind ever since I heard of the Empire. I’ve wondered if I’d chosen the right side in all of this. Because of that doubt, I’ve focused on what’s best for Earth, and I know the Chessori are not best for Earth, so I’ve supported you.”

He stood up, still facing Stven. “That doubt is gone. The purpose of Empire is my purpose now. I, too, have held to a higher calling throughout my career. Your words please me, sir.”

Stven bowed back to him, then lifted his head high. “That is the philosophical side of it. As warriors, we must never forget those philosophies, but it is our job to temper them with reality. The reality as it relates to these Chessori, who are really prisoners, is two-fold. I would imagine that Earth hopes to join the Empire someday. Am I correct?”

Godfries sat down with a frown. “Not everyone on Earth is of that opinion, Captain. In many ways, we’re a lot like the Empire in miniature. We have many different beliefs on our world, and many of our people cannot accept the very concept of aliens.”

“There’s a reason you’re classified as an emerging world, sir. That might be one of them.”

“Well, we’re emerging whether we like it or not. You saw what almost happened here. Our very survival demands we emerge, but the process is sometimes ugly.”

“I hope you figure it out, sir. From the Empire’s point of view, if you massacre these Chessori, you might not be invited to join with us. At the very least, it will be a major setback.”

Silence descended on the room again. Trexler broke it. “Massacre. A strong word, Captain.”

“But appropriate, sir.”

Trexler sighed, then nodded in defeat. “It is.” He turned and locked gazes with Godfries, the room silent as both of them considered Stven’s words, both of them looking for alternatives. There were none. Trexler turned back to Stven. “You said something about a second issue as it relates to our position as warriors?”

“I did, sir. You say that not all Chessori are bad, that some might even be helping us. Consider the cost to them. They’re turning against their own people.”

“They claim their actions will benefit the majority of their people in the long run. They have disowned these K’tiri.”

“And when word of this massacre leaks out, as such things always do? How will they feel then? What impression of our Empire will you send to the Chessori people?”

Trexler stared at him for a long time. “You speak wisely, Captain.”

“The Rress do not speak so much with wisdom as they speak from the heart.”

More silence, a long silence. “If we free them, we free them to return and fight us again. What say you to that, Captain?”

“I can’t fight them, sir, but you can. I say you fight them again, and you win again. Is the price so high?”

“The price of failure is the annihilation of my world, of my people. One single canister getting through might have been enough. One single Chessori ship getting through might have been enough. How high a price should we pay to hold to the high road?”

“I know how the Empire would answer that question, sir. I cannot say how an emerging world will answer it.”

Trexler frowned and turned to Krys. “What do you say, My Lady? You are the Queen’s representative here.”

She reached across the table toward Stven. He took her hands in one of his own, and she said, “As the Queen’s representative, I say I have been blessed with one fine captain. Thank you, Stven.”

She released his hand and turned to face Trexler, though she could not see him. “She speaks highly of you, Admiral, and in her eyes you have played a major part in winning two great battles . . . now, three great battles. I’m wondering . . . have you been invited into her Inner Circle?”

“Her Inner Circle is made up of Knights, Krys.”

“Usually, but not always. I was invited into her Circle before I was Knighted.” A puff escaped from Stven, but she ignored it. “Have you, sir?”

He nodded, then realized she could not see the nod. “I have.”

Another puff escaped from Stven. “Are you a Knight, Ray?” she asked softly.

“I am not. I turned her down.”

“Why?”

He turned to Godfries and Buskin who were both staring at him with wide eyes. “Earth is not ready for their senior commander to swear allegiance to the Empire. They might never be. Our people must know that I speak for Earth.”

“A Knight’s word is the Queen’s command on all worlds of the Empire,” Krys reminded him. “If you were a Knight, how would you speak? To what command would you bind her today?”

“That’s not an answer.”

“Then let me put it another way. To what command will you bind her?”

Trexler felt his face reddening as his blood pressure rose. Silence held the room for a long time.

Godfries leaned toward him and broke the silence. “To what command will you bind us, Ray?”

“I can’t report to two masters, Stu. There are a lot of people on the planet who wouldn’t hesitate to destroy these Chessori.”

“No one ever said it would be easy. And you’re wrong. You have three masters: the Queen, Earth, and us. By us, I mean the men of your command. There aren’t many men who can fill those shoes, but you can. What is your command, sir?”

Trexler closed his eyes. It wasn’t really a hard choice, his decision had been made long ago, but the repercussions of that decision might return to haunt him. In his mind he held a vision of Earth devoid of life, all the result of failure by him. One single Chessori ship could, potentially, sow the seeds of destruction over the whole planet. How could he speak for the teaming billions of people who would die? How could anyone?

In the end, it boiled down to what Stven had said. To kill the remaining Chessori out here would be, plain and simple, a massacre. It was wrong even if it was necessary. He would hold to the high road.

He opened his eyes to Godfries who was waiting. “Let them go,” he said.

Godfries’ lips thinned, and he nodded. “But not right away, eh?”

“No. Not right away. They’re getting away with all their weapons intact, but we’ll squeeze them for everything we can before they go. We’ll tell them we’re satisfied with the plans for the hypercom. Are you ready to carry the baton?”

“I’ll have to. You have bigger fish to fry.”

“I do. I need to get back to Chandrajuski.”

“Uh, that’s not what I meant, Ray. The President’s been hounding me. Actually, a number of national leaders have been hounding me. My ships left the planet in a hurry, and lots of people saw them. Every telescope on the planet has been focused on this battle, and some of them have seen a lot of detail. There are lots and lots of questions flying around the globe. The cat’s out of the bag, my friend. They need a response.”

“Then deal with it.”

“I would if I could, but I have ships to build and troops to train and battles to fight. I don’t have the time.”

Trexler retorted angrily, ”I have an Empire to free.”

Godfries smacked his hand on the table. “I knew you’d say that. Not a chance, Ray. I’m a fighting man, not a politician. Besides, the planet needs to be addressed by our commander, and that’s you. You can’t pass the buck on this one.”

 

* * * * *

 

O’Brien stuck his head inside Akurea’s doorway, open as always. She was head’s down with two computers, a frown on her face.

“More problems?” he asked.

“Oh, hi! Come in. I’ve made a lot of headway, but it’s not all contiguous,” she said, pointing to the screens. The figures she pointed to held no meaning to O’Brien. “I’ve run into some symbols that I can’t figure out, and neither can George. We’re going over them to see if we can work them backwards.”

“Backwards?”

“Well, if we know what’s supposed to come out of the circuit, and if we know what’s gone into it, we might be able to figure out how to manipulate what’s in between.”

“Ugh. Sounds complicated.”

“It is. Very. Are you inviting me to dinner?”

“Not at the moment. I’m a messenger. George will receive a Chessori file shortly. It’s supposed to be plans for the hypercom, sent from the Chessori fleet. Admiral Trexler has asked that you look at them and tell us if they’re the right files.”

“Who’s Admiral Trexler?”

“My boss.”

“Finally, someone you report to that outranks you.”

“He outranks me a lot. He’s in charge of all Terran forces.”

George’s voice filled the room. “The files are here, Akurea. Do you want me to send them to your computer?”

“Definitely not. I don’t want to take any chances of infecting what I have. Have you protected yourself?”

“I’ve isolated the file, and I have not opened it.”

“Good! Give me a few minutes.”

They borrowed a computer from an unoccupied room, and Tom carried it back for her. As she was hooking it up, she said, “So we’re in your home system. Are you getting any time off?”

“I have no idea. We seem to stay pretty busy around here.”

“Am I getting off?”

“Probably. Admiral Trexler will want to get you and these plans to somewhere that you can get them into development, and you need to see the Queen.”

“I’m not ready to leave. George has been a lot of help, and I don’t want to give him up. I’ll miss you, you know.”

His eyebrows rose. “Well, to be honest, I’ve been thinking about that. I’ve enjoyed our time together. If I get any time off here, maybe I can show you around.”

“I’d like that, and I could use a break. Is it a date?”

He hesitated. “Let’s see what happens. We don’t stay anywhere for long.”

“If you have to go, I’d like to stay in touch,” she said, her gaze straying to the side.

His eyes seemed to sink back into his head as he stepped back from her. “I can’t make any promises. We’re in the middle of a war, and you know what we do. How can we possibly stay in touch? Besides, we can never be more than friends. We’re alien to each other.”

Her mouth dropped and her eyes rose to the ceiling. She turned to him slowly, thoughtfully. “Is that what’s been holding you back?”

He reached a hand out to caress her face. “I’ve enjoyed traveling with you, and I’m sorry it’s coming to an end.”

She placed her hand over his, then to his amazement she leaned forward and kissed him on the lips. “So am I. I’ll do my best to keep tabs on you, and I’ll find you if we’re on the same planet. If you’re interested.” She took his hand and led him to the door. “Come back when it’s time for dinner. We need to talk about this alien business. It’s not exactly what you think it is.”

His eyebrows rose in an unspoken question, and a knowing look came into her eyes. “Our species,” she said, waving a finger back and forth between the two of them, “just happens to be the most prevalent species in the Empire.”

He frowned. “What do you mean?”

She pushed him gently out of the room. “I have work to do. We’ll talk at dinner, and maybe afterwards. I’m just a mechanic, but I’m pretty good at mechanics.”

 

Chapter 4

 

Buskin’s vision of a thousand ships had come to pass, though it had really been closer to 2,000 Chessori ships. The battle for Earth was over, but it carried a high price: public knowledge that a galactic Empire existed. Governments, news media, religious organizations, and civilians across the globe clamored for explanations.  

The President called and was put through to Trexler’s conference room. The meeting with Krys and her crew had not yet adjourned, and everyone was still there. Six other world leaders surrounded the President when his image materialized in the center of the conference room.

The President’s gaze went around the room, pausing when he reached Stven and M’Sada, but he gathered his wits about him and continued on. When he completed the circle and again faced Trexler, he said, “The secret is out. Too many have seen too much. We’ve considered all kinds of responses, Ray. None of them work very well. We have riots, and we have people jumping out of buildings. The best thing we can do is to come clean, tell the world what’s going on, and it can’t be an abstract message. They need something concrete to focus on, and we think it’s you. We want you to come in a spaceship, let them see the new reality. It’s going to be brutal no matter what we do, but if we can give the press some great pictures, we might be able to jump the focus from fear of aliens to something spectacular, something wonderful, something positive. You’ve done a great job out there, and it’s you they need to see.”

“I’m no politician, Mr. President.”

“I’m not asking you to be a politician. I want you to be what you are, our commander. We need you to pull us together, Ray. We need the world to focus on its enemy, not itself.”

“I have a war to fight, Mr. President.”

“You’ll have to let others do the fighting for a while. If you hope to continue what you’ve started here, you have to get the planet behind you. We want you to come in a spaceship, and you’ll have to visit as much of the planet as you can with that ship.”

Trexler stayed silent. The President blinked a few times, then said, “No one ever said it would be easy, but it has to be done, Ray, and it has to be you.”

Trexler considered for a time, then responded, “If I do this, I will speak as a man of Earth, not an admiral in the United States Navy.”

“Agreed. This has to be seen as a global thing. We’re thinking Geneva. It has a history of neutrality.”

“You’re talking about the airport? They’ll have to close it.”

“This is big, Ray. They’ve agreed to close it for whatever amount of time you need. Trucks are already rolling with grandstands, sound equipment, big screens, and all that stuff. We’ll back you all the way on this, but it has to be you.”

Trexler took a deep breath and sighed. “Very well, Mr. President. I’ll need a few days. We still have a lot of enemy out here.”

“I’ll give you three days, but that’s all. Just let us know what you need. You have a blank check, Admiral.”

The connection was cut, and Trexler’s gaze moved around the people at the table. “I guess I have to organize a show. You don’t have to stay for this, but I’ll take all the help I can get.”

He turned to Godfries and Buskin. “We need to get our fast squadrons back to Chandrajuski, all but one or two of them.”

“And I’m going to pull our guys back from the Chessori, give them a chance to stand down,” Godfries said. “We’ll let the Chessori stay together, and we’ll keep an umbrella around them.”

“Okay. I need a ship, probably a fighter. I’d rather have something a little bigger for effect, but frigates and cruisers are too big. I don’t want to scare people.”

“They’re already scared, Ray. Trust me,” Godfries said. “I’ve been dealing with this issue for months while you’ve been out gallivanting around the galaxy. You’re thinking too small again. You need to show them who we really are, who they’re jumping on board with. This is the big opportunity I’ve been waiting for. It’s our chance, maybe our only chance, of focusing everyone on the war instead of on themselves. If you pull this off, national interests might finally take a back seat to survival.”

“You’ve clearly given it more thought than I have. You do it.”

“Not a chance. I’ll take up the baton later, but like it or not, you’re the chosen one. Suck it up and get the job done, sir.”

“Showing up with a squadron will scare everyone off.”

“So start with a fighter, but you need to give the people hope. A squadron, particularly one flown by our guys, will impress the heck out of them.”

“Sir,” Washburn spoke up, “you can’t do this without protection. This is a perfect opportunity for terrorists, and whole governments are going to oppose you. In fact, they’re the ones that are going to require most of your attention. You’ll be visiting some real hot spots.”

“Actually, it’s worse than that,” Trexler said thoughtfully. “Consider the Middle East. Oil is king there, and they’re going to see an end in sight for that oil. Empire technology is going to put them out of business eventually, and it’s going to put a lot of other big companies out of business, as well.”

“No, it’s not,” Godfries stated. “I’ve had this conversation with a number of world leaders. They’re ready to convert to new things, but they need time. It’s your job to let them know it’s not going to be immediately, and we’re not going to ditch them. Whatever new technologies arise, we’re going to spread them around to the rich and poor alike.” His eyes narrowed. “Unless they decide to opt out of supporting the war.”

“That’s the plan?”

“Nothing is set in stone. I have a lot of Great Cats here. We’ll get you whatever protection you need.”

Washburn looked at Krys thoughtfully. “My Lady?”

She turned her head toward him. “I know, Terry, but I have to get back to Tarn. My job is done here.”

“Is it? Tarn won’t be leaving that hospital for quite a while. What happens here in the next few weeks is critical to my people, and it’s critical to the Queen’s war effort. Resolve has nearly a full complement of Protectors, and she’s a beautiful ship. She’ll make a great first impression.”

Krys was clearly not happy with the suggestion. She turned toward Trexler. “What does the Queen need from me?”

“Actually, I think that more than anything she needs you back by her side.”

“Not without Tarn. He is an integral part of what I do. As soon as he is well enough to travel, we must be away. You can have Resolve for two months, no more.”

 

* * * * *

 

Crowds lined the miles of fence surrounding the perimeter of the airport. Others jammed streets and roof tops. So many boats filled the lake that the famous fountain had to be turned off. Geneva, Switzerland was accustomed to hosting world class gatherings, but nothing like this had ever been contemplated.

Runways were closed. A grandstand had been erected between the two main terminals on a taxiway. Fences had been relocated to allow the public onto portions of the airport itself, and portions of the terminal roof had been prepared for spectators. A severely restricted number of Swiss dignitaries had been organized as a welcoming committee, but no other world leaders attended. The only licensed participants were from the press, and with the exception of a very few, most of them were relegated to positions off to the side. Directly in front of the podium and lining most of the fence, guests positioned themselves on a first come, first served basis.

This event was not intended for world leaders. They already knew about the Empire. Its purpose was to introduce the Empire to a frightened world.

 
* * * * *

Resolve appeared first as a tiny black dot high in the sky . . .