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Knights of the Chosen (Spirit of Empire, Book Two)

Knights of the Chosen

Chapter One


The gleason struck so quickly that only a few in the great forest room of Chandrajuski’s home knew it was even there. Most were still shaking off the terrible effects of the Chessori mind weapon. The three Chessori lay dead, killed by Mike and Reba, but Otis, Ellie’s Protector, lay dying with a knife in his side. Ellie, the Last of the Chosen, collapsed with a knife in her heart, dead before she reached the floor.

Jessie, Mike’s Protector and the only remaining Great Cat, leaped to the back of the room, firing repeatedly at the gleason to make certain it was dead.

Mike fell to the floor with Ellie, cushioning her. “Guard us!” he yelled to the room at large. Without waiting for a response, he went internal.

>Jake, I need you. She needs you.<

Jake knew exactly what he meant. >It’s not done like this, Mike. You’re my host.<

>We’re her First Knight, Jake. Find a way. You are her only chance.<

Ellie’s death had come so suddenly that Jake was at a loss, completely unprepared for what Mike asked of him. He had never considered living anywhere but within Mike. Riders always committed to a host and remained with them forever. The thought of leaving Mike devastated him. He wanted to fission a new Rider instead, but he knew his Queen did not have time.

>I’ll try. Give me a minute, then remove the knife.<

Mike closed his hands around Ellie’s neck, providing skin-to-skin contact for Jake, feeling for a pulse as he did so. There was no pulse at all. He closed his eyes, oblivious to all other activity within the room, feeling intently, waiting for a pulse. Still nothing. He waited the full minute, then pulled the knife from her chest and immediately went back to feeling for a pulse.

After a time, he thought he felt a faint pressure. The pressure gradually increased until he was certain there was a pulse, though it remained weak.

“Thank you, Jake,” he whispered and was momentarily surprised that there was no response. But there could be no response. Jake was no longer a part of him.

His attention widened to take in his surroundings. All eyes were on him and Ellie. Vorst, the replacement Sector Commander, lay bound hand and foot. Jessie crouched beside Otis who was unconscious. “Is he . . . ?” Mike struggled to ask.

“Not yet,” she growled in response. “But it will not be long. The knives are almost certainly poisoned.”

Mike turned to Reba who stood at the ready, her blaster trying to cover the whole room.

“Jake has gone to Ellie. It seems to be working.”

Her eyes closed as she went internal to her Rider. When her lips thinned and she holstered her blaster, Mike knew the two of them had reached agreement. She went to Otis and laid her hands on him. After a time, she removed the knife from his side.

She turned back to Mike, the sparkle that was always evident in her eyes gone. “Let’s get out of here.”

Jeffers, the leader of Chandrajuski’s underground, spoke into a communicator, then ordered everyone outside to the assembly point. One of Serge’s freighters was just setting down. As they struggled to get Ellie and Otis aboard, the freighter was struck by fire from above. It quickly responded with its own weapons but could not move until the entryway closed. Its upper shields glowed from hits, and several of Jeffers’ men beside the ship were struck by dissipating energy streaming from the shields. There was no hope for them.

Jeffers boarded and quickly ran for the bridge. When he arrived, the ship was just lifting. Captain Palmetier, though busy, immediately lifted his visor and raised a blaster toward him.

Jeffers raised his hands, shouting, “I’m on your side.” He set his own blaster on the floor and slid it toward Palmetier, then submitted as two crewmen pinned his arms to his sides. A glance at the screens showed a full squadron of fighters engaging the freighter.

A loud, “Time to boogie, Jer,”  came over the speakers as another freighter appeared on the screens headed directly into the fray, its weapons firing nonstop. Serge Parsons had come in person.

“On the way, boss,” replied Palmetier curtly. He slid his visor back over his face to cover a grin.

Moments later, a cruiser came into view from over the horizon, moving fast.

“That one’s on our side,” yelled Jeffers. “So are a couple of others. Be careful who you shoot at. Get me into the net so I can help.”

The two crewmen were uncertain until Sir Val showed up. “Let us both into the net,” he ordered.

It didn’t take long before they were clear of the fighters and headed for space. In fact, by the time they reached space there wasn’t a single Rebel fighter left. The cruiser followed, delaying its engagement as was standard policy, but its weapons soon opened up on Jeffers’ approaching squadron. When two more squadrons of Jeffers’ ships came over the horizon, it was no contest. The Rebel cruiser retreated.

They reached the edge of space, but they didn’t have to wait three weeks to jump as did Jeffers’ ships. Use of the micro jumping capability might give away a closely held secret, but Ellie’s life hung in the balance. Joline’s beacon went silent, and it was likely the Rebels would not even see the ship amidst all the confusion. As Palmetier prepared jump computations for the first micro jump, Val contacted Serge and gave him a set of coordinates, explaining to him that three heavy squadrons loyal to Chandrajuski and the Queen would head for that point in space. Admiral Chandrajuski wanted those ships, but none of them knew the location of the Queen’s secret base.

Serge, when apprised of the Queen’s condition, grimly advised Val that he’d take care of it.

Joline’s sickbay carried no life support tanks, only a medic and basic supplies. Jake and Celine, the two Riders, had their work cut out for them.

From his own experience Mike knew that, at the very least, food was essential to their survival. The healing process used by Riders consumed large amounts energy. The medic attached two IV’s to each of them and pushed all the nourishment she could into the comatose bodies.

Her principle concern for her patients was not the physical damage caused by the knives – the Riders seemed to have that problem well in hand. Her greater concern was whether the Riders could cope with whatever poison had been on the blades. She took blood samples, then had to wait while a computer worked on the samples.

Mike remained by Ellie’s side. She couldn’t hear him, but he believed his presence might somehow help. She and Otis each contracted high fevers despite their Riders’ best efforts.

The computer only partially resolved the issue of the poison. It was there, and its molecular structure had been analyzed, but it matched no known compound. The medic made an educated guess that it was from the home world of the gleasons. Any wrong attempts to treat it might make Jake and Celine’s jobs harder.

It didn’t take Mike long to make the logical connections. He called Captain Palmetier.

“You carried Otis on his research mission to study the gleasons. Do you have his notes?”

“I do.”

“There might be some mention of poisons used by the gleasons. Can you get everyone you can to review the records for us?”

“We’ll get on it immediately.”

It took a while, but Val and Reba eventually showed up with printouts in hand. “We have a number of possibilities, Mike,” Val advised. “We’ve discarded most of them as being so lethal that they kill instantly. Neither Ellie or Otis would still be alive if they had been used. We’re down to three that are a little slower acting but just as deadly.”

They showed the printouts to the medic who studied them intently. She then went to work on her computer.

“Of the three, I can synthesize antidotes for two,” she announced after some study. “An antidote for the third is unknown. I cannot say which of the remaining two is most likely. I’m going to take samples for testing.”

“How long will the testing take?” Mike asked wearily.

The medic worked while she talked, taking new samples of blood from Ellie and Otis and placing those samples on a number of test dishes. “A day or two, minimum. I have to let the growths get started, but I can work on making both antidotes while that’s going on. Then we test the antidotes on the test growths. Another few hours to a day or so.”

“Let me know the minute you have the antidotes ready,” Mike ordered. “It doesn’t look to me like we have days. They’re burning up with fever.”

The antidotes were ready in a few hours. Mike pushed the medic as hard as he could. “Is there any sign of growth yet in the test samples?”

“Only microscopic. Not enough to test.”

“You have lots of samples. Test a few right now.”

The medic did as ordered, but she was not happy about it. “The tests results will not be valid, Sire.”

“I know. You can run complete tests on the other samples later.”

Mike then reached both hands down inside Ellie’s hospital gown, placing both hands flat against her stomach. With his eyes closed, he willed his thoughts to Jake. “Come on, Jake. Come to me,” he whispered.

It didn’t take long for Jake to sense his presence. Though he couldn’t feel anything, Mike felt Jake’s presence.

>Hello, Man,< he heard faintly, as if from far away.

>Hi, Jake.<

>I’m too busy for idle chatter. I don’t think we’re going to make it this time.<

>Yes you are, and I’m going to help. I need you to pass me a sample of the poison.<

>You already have samples.<

>No, Jake. I need you to pass a sample into my body. We don’t know which antidote to use. We’ll test one of them on me.<

He felt Jake’s presence strengthen in him. He had Jake’s complete attention for the moment. More, he sensed Jake’s suffering. The poison was clearly killing him as well as Ellie.

>Not a good idea, Mike. This is a bad one.<

>I know, and from the looks of things you can’t save her by yourself. Please let me help, for both of your sakes.<

>You understand that if I lose her, I am lost as well?<

>I kind of guessed that.<

>Okay, here you go. This stuff hurts.<

>Make it a strong sample, Jake. If we guess wrong, if we use the wrong antidote, it will kill both of you.<

>Okay. I have to go. See you on the other side.<

Mike felt Jake’s presence withdraw. He pulled his hands from Ellie and turned to the medic who was staring at him with a shocked expression.

“Any results yet?” he asked.

“No, Sire. I just started the test. What were you doing?

“Communicating with her Rider. The poison is in me now, and it’s already working. I think you’d better get another bed ready.”

The medic’s eyes rose to the ceiling. With a frown, she bustled Mike off to a bed. Reba started to chew Mike out, but Val put his arm around her waist and leaned toward her ear.

“You know it’s the right thing to do. I’d do it for you in a heartbeat. In fact, I’m surprised I didn’t think of it myself. He’s doing it for her, not just for the Empire.”

“Of course he is. My god, it could all fall apart right here,” she breathed.

“No. One Heir remains, if she proves to have the Touch. I’m staying the course. Will you?”

“I choose to stay with you no matter what course we follow,” she whispered into his ear.

Mike’s body arched. He groaned, “Someone better make a decision.”

The medic turned frightened eyes to him. “It’s too soon, Sire. I can’t be certain.”

Chandrajuski’s long, jointed legs inched his bright green body farther into sick bay, the wise old eyes of the giant praying mantis swinging toward the medic until they were on a level with her own.  Speaking like a father rather than the queen’s senior military commander, he said, “You must decide, child. If you choose wrong, it will not be held against you. We understand.”

She returned to her test dishes, taking samples and placing them under a microscope for visual inspection. The computers had so far been inconclusive. Switching samples back and forth, still peering into the eyepiece, she eventually said, “I believe it is most likely this one, but I can’t be certain.”

“Then the decision is made,” Chandrajuski said to her. “Administer the antidote. If this one fails, we will administer the other to Otis.”

Twenty minutes later Mike stirred, then opened his eyes. Chandrajuski took charge, turning to the medic. “Were both knives poisoned with the same chemical?”

“Yes.”

“Then administer the antidote to both of them, at once.”

Both Ellie and Otis’ fevers broke hours later. Both remained in a coma as the Riders did their work, but the immediate danger had passed.

Mike was able to leave his bed the following day, though he remained weak. He found Jessie sitting by Ellie’s side, her tail curled around her feet, her body wrapped in massive bandages.

“How are they doing?”

“About the same. No worse. The poison damaged multiple organs. They’re beyond help from the medic, but she believes the Riders have a chance. They both need tanks, but the ship doesn’t carry a tank.”

“You’ve been here a while, haven’t you?”

“I have my responsibilities. I will have to answer to Otis when he recovers.”

“Can’t you share the job with the other cats?”

“What others?”

“You mean . . .” He paused, suddenly aware that the rest of the Great Cats were missing. They must have perished in their battle against the gleasons.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” After a time, he asked, “Were any of them special to you?”

“We were team members. I grieve for them.”

“Why don’t you take a break, get some rest. I’ll stay.”

“You couldn’t protect her from a feather right now.”

“Neither could you.”

“You’d be surprised, Sire.”

“Okay, I’ll get Val or Reba to spell you. Will that be acceptable?”

“Bring both of them, and be certain they’re armed. We cannot guarantee the loyalty of the crew. She is not to be left unguarded even for a moment.”

 

* * * * *

 

He joined Chandrajuski and Jeffers in a planning session the following day. Reba and Val attended, as well. Jeffers started the meeting, briefing them on the sizeable underground organization he had built on Centauri III. During the months of planning Chandrajuski’s rescue, he had managed to transfer his supporters to ships commanded by individuals he was certain would be loyal to the Queen. He had also managed to send most of the families of those sailors to other worlds where retribution would be slow to follow.

Chandrajuski had high hopes that his senior staff had made it aboard the Empire ships at the last moment, but there was no way to communicate with those ships after the first jump. He hoped to fan these leaders out across the Empire to recruit more ships and more men.

Everyone agreed that the ultimate demise of the coup would have its roots in the political arena, and the Queen would surely lead that effort when she recovered. Their job was to support her political agenda with appropriate military force, and they would have to move fast to gather those forces. The Rebels became more entrenched with every passing day.

As Mike listened to them talk, it dawned on him that their plan ignored a vital component. He waited, sure it would come up, but it did not. As the meeting wound down and chairs scraped back preparatory to everyone leaving, he held up a hand.

“Wait. We’re not done yet.”

He looked to each of them as he considered his next words. Reba nodded her head, knowing his concern. Val looked worried, clearly understanding that Chandrajuski’s plan was flawed, but he had no solution to the flaw. Jeffers raised an eyebrow to his First Knight and waited for him to speak. Mike’s gaze ended up on Chandrajuski, a creature he barely knew. The wise old eyes of the Gamordian that so reminded Mike of Albert Einstein stared back at him, expectant and patient. Mike studied those eyes, wondering what was going through the Admiral’s mind.

There was no question in Mike’s mind that, with Chandrajuski aboard, his own responsibilities, the responsibilities of the Queen’s First Knight, were changed. Not diminished, just changed. The rebuilding of Empire military forces would be accomplished by Chandrajuski, and Mike had no doubt that the job was in good hands. His own responsibility in that regard had metamorphosed to one of oversight. Chandrajuski’s presence did not push him to the sidelines – there were no sidelines for the First Knight. Instead, he was free to focus in other directions, and his immediate focus was on the big picture: what good were Chandrajuski’s forces going to be against the Chessori mind weapon?

“Your plan is exactly what the Queen had in mind, Admiral, and I hope you can pull it off. She believes that you can.”

“You don’t?”

“I do, so far as it goes.”

“It’s already well underway.”

“It is?”

Chandrajuski considered him for a time. He knew almost nothing about the new Queen’s First Knight, but after what Mike had done to save the her, he held no doubts concerning his loyalty.

“I have not revealed every detail of my plan, to you or to Captain Jeffers.” His gaze went to Jeffers. “There was too much risk in informing you, my friend.”

Jeffers nodded, and Chandrajuski’s steady gaze moved to Val. “I told you in our first meeting that your sister was out on assignment. I did not tell you what that assignment was.”

Val nodded grimly, and Chandrajuski’s head swung back to Mike.

“The Queen’s Seer revealed to me that one Chosen still lived after the Rebel strike on the Palace. She had no idea where Daughter was, but she knew that Daughter lived. That was enough for me to act. She is on a mission to inform certain other individuals that the Empire is not dead.

“Sire, If she is successful, a limited number of senior military leaders are, even now, awaiting word from the Queen.”

Chandrajuski paused, then added, “There’s more. These leaders have been instructed to hold as long as they can. When holding becomes untenable, they are to retreat with as many forces as they can muster and wait for further instructions.”

Mike stared at Chandrajuski in awe, his mind attempting to grasp the concept of serious military forces already at the beck and call of the Queen. For so long they had been just one ship, then a few more damaged ships from Admiral Jon’s squadron. Suddenly, there might be fleets in the wings just waiting to be commanded.

“A masterful stroke, Admiral. The Queen chose well in you.”

“Perhaps. I have heard nothing back from the Queen’s Seer. I have no idea if she has been successful or not.”

“Do the Rebels know of this plan?”

“They don’t from me. During my incarceration, I was subjected to questioning under the influence of certain drugs that force truth, but these drugs do not make one forget the questions.” His mouth opened to display many tiny, wickedly sharp teeth, and Mike leaned away from him, suddenly reminded that this creature was a warrior.

The mouth closed abruptly. “Sorry, First Knight. I did not mean to frighten you. It is my equivalent of your smile.”

“And what is there to smile about?”

“They failed to ask the right questions, Sire.” Again, the mouth opened, and Mike recognized the smile this time.

“They might not have learned about it from you, sir,” Val said softly, “but there are others.”

“Too true, Sire. Krys is as frightened as she is determined. I believe that in her own mind she has accepted the same call to duty that you did as a child when you saved Daughter from assassination.”

Val’s look of horror was not lost on Chandrajuski.

“We covered her tracks thoroughly on Centauri III. She has a civilian ship with a number of military upgrades, and she has a military crew. Her captain is a Rress, and her pilot is a Schect.”

Val nodded grimly. “Not all her contacts will be successful. Her purpose will become known.”

“It will, Sire. Let us hope it is not too soon. Her contacts were carefully chosen.”

“Admiral,” Mike said, “you’ve been held prisoner and might not be aware of all the issues. Our concern is not just the Rebels. They have partnered with the Chessori.”

Chandrajuski’s eyes blinked, then blinked again. “You’re certain of this, Sire?”

“Pretty certain, and the consequences are staggering. Only one ship survived Daughter’s treaty mission to the Chessori, one ship out of two squadrons. As well, the Rebels, with the help of the Chessori, nearly took Resolve on Earth and again in space on a number of occasions. A limited number of Chessori observers took over Val’s squadron from within, allowing Rebels to take command. I was mortally wounded by a Chessori aboard that ship, surviving only because of my Rider. The Chessori were moments away from killing the Queen in your home when Reba and I gunned them down, and you personally experienced the effect of their mind weapon even if it was only for a few moments.

“According to Jessie, the Chessori mind weapon was the cause of the lone gleason escaping the Great Cats outside your home, giving it the opportunity to mortally wound the Queen.

“In hindsight, we should have known better than to let the Queen come to Centauri III at all, not so much because of the Rebels, but because we failed to factor the Chessori into the equation.”

Chandrajuski’s gaze remained on him, but Mike sensed that he was not the focus of Chandrajuski’s thoughts. Wheels were turning within that great mind.

When he sensed those wise eyes focused on him again, Mike said softly, “The Chessori are out to get the Queen, and they’ve come within a hair’s breadth of succeeding on too many occasions. Furthermore, they’ve partnered with the Rebels. In every case, so far as I know, everyone but Reba and I, and to some extent the Great Cats, are completely powerless against this mind weapon.”

Chandrajuski backed away from the table and turned sideways to them, a long, delicate leg moving gracefully, then freezing in position while another leg moved, one after another, the pattern repeating itself. He stared at the far end of the room, then swung his long neck back toward Mike. “That explains what happened to the ships I sent to Dorwall to rescue Daughter.”

“You tried to rescue her? How did you know?”

“Krys knew. She accompanied the rescue party and was the sole survivor. She returned with an unbelievable story of a small number of Chessori ships destroying my three squadrons with barely a shot fired. I considered it an exterior threat, and my focus remained on the internal issues of trying to hold the Empire together. I see now that I was short-sighted.”

“She was there?” Val asked in alarm.

“She was. She observed events from afar, from aboard a small fighter. It was the only ship to return.” He moved back to the table, his eyes on Jeffers. “What do you know of these Chessori?”

“Chessori traders show up from time to time, as they have been doing for a long time. Their presence has increased since the coup, but I paid them no mind. To the best of my knowledge, they’re just trading.”

“There were three Chessori with Admiral Vorst,” Mike corrected him.

Jeffers’ lips compressed. “They’re our enemy, and I paid them no heed. I’m sorry, Sire.”

“There’s no fault here, but you’re right: they’re our enemy just as much as the Rebels are our enemy. And if they were invisible to you, they’re probably invisible to any other forces you’ve cobbled together.”

He leaned forward, his gaze on Chandrajuski. “You can’t fight them, Admiral.”

Chandrajuski met his gaze. “You did not fall to this mind weapon when the Chessori activated it in my home.”

“Reba and I have experienced it many times. It does not affect us.”

Chandrajuski turned to Val. “Is it something to do with the knighting process?”

“No, sir. I, too, suffer, as does the Queen. As fighting units, we are completely incapacitated.”

“No political mechanism exists for dealing with them, and you’re telling me there is no military solution either?” Chandrajuski demanded.

“There is a military solution, Admiral, but I don’t think you’re going to like it.” Val said, nodding to Mike to continue.

“You knew?” Mike asked him in surprise.

“Reba and I talk. We are in agreement that it’s necessary, but we are not in agreement that it can be done.”

Mike turned to Reba with raised eyebrows. She nodded. “It’s a stretch, Mike. No argument there, but we can do it. I know we can. A few hundred front line warriors would be a good beginning. We don’t need any support staff, the Empire can provide all of that. You know as well as I do that it takes ten or more people to support one front line warrior. A few hundred volunteers could do the job of a few thousand. A thousand could do the job of many thousands. Their only purpose is to neutralize the Chessori. After that, regular Empire forces can deal with the Rebels.”

He nodded agreement, his lips compressed, and turned back to Chandrajuski. “The Chessori have to be met head on, and they have to be defeated. Until they are, the Queen will not be safe, and her military and political agendas have no chance of success. We believe our people, the people of Earth, are immune to the Chessori mind weapon. Reba and I definitely are, and others on Earth who have been in the presence of the mind weapon were, as well.

“We have to go to Earth, Admiral. We have to recruit soldiers and sailors and bring them back with us to fight the Chessori.”

Chandrajuski made a noise that could only be described as clearing his throat. “Besides the fact that Earth is classified as an emerging world and thereby off-limits, the obvious difficulties of language and technology such recruits would have to overcome make such a plan . . . questionable.”

He turned to Reba. “This plan could also be dangerous to Earth. Have you considered that?”

“It could also be rewarding,” Reba replied, her eyes filled with excitement at the possibilities. “There will be challenges, but we will deal with them. Do you have a better idea?”

Chandrajuski stared at her, and it turned into a long stare. Clearly, he did not.

Mike was a little more subdued than Reba. “If we do this, we probably owe it to Earth to ask their permission, though I’m inclined to go ahead even if they refuse. But asking could be difficult. If we invite one nation, we have to invite all nations. If we don’t, we’ll disrupt already fragile political relationships around the globe. Language differences among the recruits would make it even more difficult to get them all working together, at least in any reasonable time frame.”

“Not so, Mike. I’ve met lots of foreign officers who speak English,” Reba countered. “We could make that a prerequisite for the first batch of volunteers. And we don’t have to start big. We need help aboard ships, and we need help protecting the Queen. We can do it.”

“Whether we can or not, do we have a choice?” He turned to Chandrajuski. “It’s been in my mind for quite a while to do this, but we’ve had no resources. If you do, indeed, have an organization in place, it’s time to act.”

“I hope I have something organized, but I’ll have to find out. You’re breaking all the rules as they relate to our treatment of emerging worlds, and ordinarily the Queen would have to decide. In her absence, it’s your call as First Knight. The idea has merit. Would you have us pursue it further?”

“Everyone in this room has experienced the effects of the Chessori mind weapon,” he responded without hesitation. “We don’t have any choice, nor do I think the Queen will rule differently when she’s back on her feet. Your responsibility is to fight the Rebels, Admiral. Mine is to fight the Chessori. I’m going to Earth.”

 

* * * * *

 

They landed on Shipyard two weeks after leaving Centauri III, demonstrating the power of Serge’s fast ships.  A ten week trip had been reduced to only two weeks. Had Shipyard not been located so incredibly far beyond the border, the trip would have taken as little as one week. As soon as they landed, Ellie and Otis were placed into restoration tanks to complete their healing under the guidance of full teams of medical specialists.

Serge had not yet returned. Assuming he was not micro jumping, he was probably still on his way to the rendezvous with Chandrajuski’s ships. Someone there would have to decide what to do with those ships, and Serge would have a big say in it. Would he let them come to Parsons’ World, or would he renege on his agreement with the Queen now that it had become reality? Allowing three squadrons of fully operational ships into his domain was a far cry from giving permission to Jons to bring his few ailing ships in for repair. And, loyalties had to be sorted out. How reliable were the men from Centauri III? Serge was not the one to make that decision, at least not on his own. He needed help.

Mike brought it up to Chandrajuski soon after their arrival on Shipyard.

“Jeffers is here, and he’s the logical choice. He just needs a ship, preferably a fast ship. He can catch them at the rendezvous if he gets going, and he knows the men as well as I do. He’s perfect for the job,” Chandrajuski responded.

“Who’s to be in charge out there? Jeffers is a captain, but admirals reported to him on Centauri III.”

“Hmm. Good point, Sire. Jeffers is still the right man for the job. The organization we developed on Centauri III worked well enough for an underground, but we’re trying to reestablish normal Empire chain of command now. He’s seriously outranked.”

“Promote him.”

Chandrajuski gave him a piercing look. “It would take two promotions. Such an action can only be approved by the Queen.”

“He’s the man you want?”

“Yes.”

“Then promote him. I’ll sign whatever papers you need signed. I, too, think he’s the right man for the job.”

Mike detected a twinkling in Chandrajuski’s eyes, those bright, wise eyes that so reminded him of Albert Einstein. “I do believe you’re getting this job of First Knight figured out, Sire.”

Mike smiled, but the smile changed to a grimace. “This is the easy part. I think it gets harder from here on.”

 Mike, Reba, and Val were reunited with Admiral Jons who took them on a tour of Shipyard. Mike was surprised to learn that Shipyard was a fully developed, vibrant world with cities, farms, universities, entertainment, and lots of industry. It was not just an outpost as he’d been led to believe by Serge. In most ways, according to Jons, Shipyard was more civilized than Parsons’ World. Parsons’ World focused more on the clandestine end of things. Shipyard was fed by the largess of Parsons’ World, and in return it provided research, innovation, and heavy industry. Most of Serge’s ship modifications, indeed entire ships, were manufactured on Shipyard. From here had come the science and engineering behind the micro jump, the modified beacons on every one of Serge’s ships, and the improved weapons Serge had displayed briefly as they left Centauri III.

Jons was certain Serge hadn’t laid all his secrets on the table. He strongly suspected advanced communications capabilities and faster ships’ drives among other things.

Jons proudly led them on a tour of a reconditioned Resolve. The ship had received the full attention of Shipyard’s master craftsmen and had been restored in record time. Resolve gleamed from head to toe, the battle scars completely eliminated. He led them to the bridge and invited Mike and Reba to plug in.

To their utter amazement, George appeared, welcoming them back. “And I’ve had an education, too,” he added mischievously. “You’ll like the new me.”

“George, we thought you were dead,” Mike said in wonder.

“So did I. The engineers here were able to resurrect me. I was there, just turned off.”

“That was an incredibly brave thing you did. You saved us all.”

“I think you all get some credit for that, too,” said George as he basked in the praise. “I’ve heard most of the story, second hand of course. We made a good team, didn’t we! Are we going to be together again?”

“I’m certain we will, though maybe not real soon. You need to teach me the trick of resurrecting you in case I have to do it again. Uh, I’m sorry about what I asked you to do. I hope you won’t hold it against me forever.”

“I accept your apology, I won’t, and I think we can just put it behind us, Mike. We’ve both grown from the experience. Besides, I’m smarter now. It won’t happen again. Trust me. Where’s Jake?”

Mike winced as a deep pain sliced through him. “He’s with Ellie. I’m sure he’ll look you up as soon as he can.”

“I don’t confuse easily, Mike, especially since I got educated, but I’m confused. He’s with Ellie?”

“She almost died back on Centauri III. I had to give him up to save her. They’re still recuperating.”

George remained silent for a time, an eternity for a computer. “I’m sorry, Mike. I’m sure he misses you as much as you miss him.”

“I’m not sure it works that way with Riders, George. I think they grow to like whomever they’re with. I’m sorry it had to happen, but I have no regrets. She’s worth it. My hope is that they’ll both stay a part of my life.”

“And you, Reba? We didn’t get to meet properly last time. Welcome aboard!”

“It’s good to finally meet the real you, George. I’m glad you made it.”

“You seem changed. More mature or something.”

“Well, besides the fact that I’m fully checked-out on the net, there’s a man in my life now. I’ll have to introduce you.”

“If it’s possible for a computer to be happy, I’m happy for you, Reba. And thank you for letting me sense that happiness.”

“George, you’re more than a computer. Admit it. Have you met any others of your kind?”

“Many, here. We talk all the time. Would you like to talk with Joline?”

“Not at the moment. I just left her. I’m sure she hasn’t forgotten me yet.”

“Definitely not. She says you’re a natural starship commander. She’s happy to serve with you any time.”

“Who knows,” Reba mused. “Maybe you’ll both get the opportunity.”