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Emperor Karga studied the chess board for a few minutes in silence, picturing and considering the multitude of different outcomes arrayed before him. It was early in the game with most of the pieces still in play, which offered all sorts of risks and opportunities. He always enjoyed the game but it gave him even more joy now that he had a competent human opponent to play with. While the simulation was interesting, it wasn’t the same as going up against a living, breathing adversary. It just felt hollow and unsatisfying. After considering his options, he moved one of his knights forward in an effort to elicit a response from the other player.
“What could you possibly have in mind doing that, one wonders. This is out of character for you, normally, you are much more conservative at this stage of the game. I find this very exciting,” said the royal consort, Empress Jennifer, as she tapped her dainty chin with a single index finger.
“Careful, Empress, when you go on about how excited you are, it might give one the wrong idea,” Karga said with an impish grin.
“Oh, Your Highness, you are such a cad,” she said, before licking her lips and suggestively stroking one of the pawns on the board.
“Perhaps we could take a short break from the game?” Karga suggested, while gently taking her hand.
“I think that is a marvelous idea,” Jennifer purred.
As the two of them rose from the table, the door chime sounded. It was Dobbins.
Karga sighed, “Sorry my dear, duty calls.” He disengaged the lock and spoke to the intercom, “You may come in, Michael.”
The door slid open and Karga’s former aide de camp, now special assistant, strode into the emperor’s chambers dressed in semi-formal civilian business attire. The suit itself was a Trajan style, but locally produced planet-side on Renas. The materials used were primitive and rough, which was just another reminder that the fleet still possessed a very limited capacity to produce even the simplest of things, such as proper clothing.
“Your Majesty, I sincerely apologize for disturbing you this evening and bothering you with this unscheduled visit,” Dobbins said to the empress, his head bowed slightly. “I hope you will forgive me.”
“Nonsense, Michael, it is no trouble at all. You know you are welcome at any time,” Jennifer said in her haughty, regal tone. A tone she quickly mastered after accepting Karga’s hand in marriage.
“One can only assume if Michael is calling at this hour, unscheduled and unannounced, there is some pressing piece of business that must be attended to that cannot possibly wait until morning,” Karga said while walking over to the liquor cabinet.
“There is indeed, Your Majesty,” Dobbins said with an apologetic tone.
“Well then, let’s not waste any time. Darling, would you please excuse us, I am sure that this will about some mind-numbing topic. Probably related to rearranging the royal calendar for the rest of this week.” Karga removed two glasses and poured a finger of whiskey into each one.
“Alright then, but don’t stay up too late. We’ve so much to do tomorrow and you need to get your rest.” The empress gave him a peck on the cheek before excusing herself and leaving the two men alone.
The emperor handed Dobbins one of the glasses before he took a sip. “The Renans never cease to impress me with the quality of their spirits. What I enjoy is most varieties are regional, with so many distinct flavors. Most of it is really excellent.” He swirled his glass and inhaled deeply, savoring the aromas. “So, what do you have for me this evening? I assume this is about the mission folder that was to be executed today, yes?”
“That is correct, sir. The Cheldan Liberation Front executed the operation we paid for, but it didn’t go as planned.” Dobbins took a sip from his glass and then set it down before producing a secure tablet. He pulled up the details and handed it to Karga.
“I see,” Karga said, scrolling through Dobbins’ report and the translated local newspaper stories. “The kidnapping did not end well and the ambassador’s daughter was killed.” He handed the tablet to Dobbins, then turned and took another sip of his drink. He swirled the brown liquid just a bit as he contemplated the situation, staring off into nothingness.
Dobbins stood silently, holding the tablet.
Karga turned to face Dobbins once again, his eyes bright. “I wouldn’t worry about today’s outcome. I think it still works just fine supporting the ultimate purpose, don’t you think?”
“I think it’s a bit early to tell, but I tend to agree. It would have been better if she lived and the CLF dragged this out for a while. In the end though, this should significantly ratchet up tensions.”
“Are the other mission folders ready to capitalize on conditions as they develop?” Karga settled into one of the comfortable chairs in the room and crossed his legs, still facing his assistant. He did not invite Dobbins to have a seat.
“Yes Sir. We’ve got plans drawn up and resources allocated against them. Assuming things go the way we anticipate, we will be able to exploit this.”
“Very good, Michael, you continue to outdo yourself.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Now, with a bit of luck, we’ll have a nice little global war started down there within the next six months.”
Near the Trajan Diplomatic Compound
Dad Schmidt peered through a set of binoculars from his concealed location, tucked into a clump of bushes on the fringe of Clarkston’s largest city park. He was in a hide position, carefully constructed over the previous weeks, during hours of darkness. The position was well camouflaged and offered observation to the main entrance to the Trajan’s diplomatic compound in the capital city. It wasn’t perfect, but it was sufficient. Schmidt had spent plenty of time in similar setups in less hospitable places on the other side of the world.
He’d been in place for nearly a day now, having set in well in advance so as not to compromise their delicate operation. This was the critical evening, and the time he needed to be switched on and alert. He stroked his big, bushy black mustache while he glassed the main gate, watching the security team mill about. They were clearly bored and doing what they could to stay engaged. Dad must have seen the two of them smoke an entire pack of cigarettes in the last hour alone. Watching the glowing embers from a distance, he started hankering for a pull from his pipe. But that was definitely out of the question, so he did his best to force the thought from his mind.
All of a sudden, the two out front directed their attention inward and they opened the gates. A long line of identical cars pulled out, all with dark tinted glass. It was impossible to identify the target from where he was but that wasn’t his job. He was just supposed to signal the rest of the crew.
He slithered from beneath the bushes and faced away before pulling a battery-operated torch from his jacket. He switched it on and off several times, delivering the pre-arranged signal to a man concealed on the other side of the park . This man signaled someone in a nearby office building, who in turn picked up the handset of his telephone from its cradle and quickly dialed the number for the team waiting across town.
Jake Baker fanned his cards out and studied them with a neutral expression on his face. “James just found us a new flat in a really nice neighborhood. Once this job is over, he and I can finally move in together. Oh, and I raise you.”
Janovich momentarily pulled his eyes away from his cards to watch Jake toss some more money into the pot. He took another drag from his cigarette before tapping the ash into a nearby ashtray. “Who’s James?”
“You can’t be serious. You met him at the Armistice Day party three months ago. He’s my partner,” Jake said, shaking his head and looking seriously annoyed.
“Is he your new husband? Sorry mate, I don’t remember meeting ‘im at the party. I was on the piss,” Janovich discarded one of his cards and drew another from the deck.
“So what else is new? I shouldn’t be surprised that you were blackout drunk that night. Like usual.” Jake sighed and rearranged the cards in his hand. “Next time I introduce you two, I’ll have you do a field sobriety test first.”
“Whatever, I’m sure you two blokes make a lovely couple.” Janovich studied his cards while thinking hard about all the others he had seen go into the discard pile up to this point, and the amount of money in the pot. He ran the numbers in his head, calculated the odds, and decided to accept the risk. He laid his cards on the table and leaned back in his chair. “Okay mate, what you got?”
Jake smirked, just a bit, before laying his down as well. “Oh, all I got is this.”
“What? You sonuvabitch! You got to be shitting me!” Janovich exclaimed as he stood, pointing at the cards.
Jake scooped up the loot and dragged it to his side of the table. “Sorry, mate, that’s how it goes sometimes.”
“Get stuffed, you bloody cunt! There’s no way you could have pulled that off!” Janovich seethed, turning away with both hands on the sides of his head, vigorously rubbing his temples.
Jake said nothing while he sorted through the windfall, arranging the bills and coins neatly by denomination. “You wanna play another hand? Maybe get your money back?”
Janovich spun around, “Get fucked!” Then he stormed off into the bathroom and slammed the door behind him.
“Hey, Carl, I got another one for you,” Jake said, a big, toothy grin on his face.
Silence from behind the door.
“Where are average things manufactured?”
“I am not in the mood, you prick!”
“At the satisfactory!”
“I swear, when I come back from the loo, I am going to fucking kill you!”
The two of them had been occupying the hotel room for the last few days, and while it wasn’t very tidy, there wasn’t much in it either. They brought no luggage and very little else. They were dressed in catering staff uniforms with jackets draped over the backs of their chairs. The only other things they brought were a deck of cards, some take-out food, and plenty of cigarettes.
Jake started shuffling the deck again, knowing full well that once Janovich cooled down a bit, he’d be ready for another round. As the toilet flushed in the bathroom, the phone started ringing. He threw the cards down and snatched up the phone.
“It’s time,” the voice on the other end of the line said.
“Right,” Jake responded, saying nothing more before hanging up.
Janovich heard the phone ring and came out of the bathroom just as his buddy hung up. “That them?”
“Aye. It’s game time.”
Jake Baker and Carl Janovich took the service elevator downstairs and once they arrived at the ground floor they skirted the main lobby of the hotel, to use the staff entrance to the convention center. As they passed by, they could clearly see the activity picking up at main door. There was a huge banner hanging over the reception desk that said, “Welcome Delegates to the 14th Annual World Trade Convention.”
Security had been tight all week, but it ramped up during peak activities and some of the larger events. Many of the participants were staying in the hotel, but others who lived and worked in the city were coming and going, only staying long enough for key meetings and engagements. Others were staying offsite at even more expensive hotels, most of it billed to the taxpayers of their respective nations.
Limousines and other vehicles were dropping off delegates and their staffs, where greeters and doormen received them. Security details fanned out and worked with the Portanian federal agencies who were in the building, likely with a command center set up in one of the rooms. Probably a room similar to the one Baker and Janovich were using.
They made their way to the kitchen and met with their supervisor who set them to work at the bar. Cocktail hour was going to start shortly and the two of them would carry trays and serve drinks. After getting their final instructions, Janovich pulled out a newspaper clipping with a black and white photo of the Trajan trade envoy.They both studied it one last time to make sure there were no mistakes recognizing the man.
Once satisfied, he stuffed the clipping back into his pocket, and the two men got to work.
Cocktail hour segued into the formal portion of the evening just before dinner. Baker and Janovich worked hard serving drinks, picking up empty glasses, and generally doing their best to keep up with the full-time waitstaff. They were new at this, but they had practiced hard and did a fairly competent job without making any serious mistakes.
The ballroom was large and there were over 1,000 guests seated around scores of tables. The seating was arranged observing protocol for all the dignitaries present, and opportunity for social interaction was maximized. Men and women were dressed in formal evening attire, some in their culturally unique garb, while others wore more modern international fashions.
At the head table sat the Trajan envoy and his spouse, along with representatives from the larger and more powerful nations. Naturally the Portanian representative was there as well, along with members of the diplomatic corps.
During the formal portion of the evening, a few gave prepared remarks but in consideration of the audience, the speeches were brief. After that, there was recognition of people responsible for planning the elaborate evening. After a mercifully short formal program, dinner was served.
Janovich and Baker worked alongside dozens of other members of the staff, dressed in formal jackets and ties, serving meals to distinguished guests. They kept on their toes throughout dinner, bringing out the food, clearing away dirty dishes, and serving the subsequent courses. They silently signaled to one another they had positively identified the Trajan trade envoy, and continued with their work, never letting the man out of their sight.
At long last the dessert was served and the two of them spread out. Janovich made his way to the head table, while Baker moved to the back of the ballroom near the exits. The young street tough from New Kent, with the cauliflower ears and the broken nose, looked out of place in his dinner jacket and tie, but nobody said anything to him out of the ordinary. He did his job and blended in to the background, just like the rest of the staff.
Janovich wheeled a small cart loaded with cakes and other confectionaries beside the head table and politely asked each of the guests what they preferred. Once he started setting the small plates and dishes in front of the diners, Baker ducked out of the room. He quickly walked around a corner and down a small service corridor where he found what he was looking for. Without hesitation, he pulled the fire alarm and then exited through the kitchen. He tossed a high-concentration smoke grenade next to the fryers before making his escape through the loading docks into the alley, just outside the complex.
When the alarm sounded in the ballroom, Janovich acted startled by the sudden loud noise and in an exaggerated manner, dumped an entire bowl of powdered sugar on the Trajan envoy’s dark dinner jacket. The fine white stuff covered almost the entire right breast of the coat. The young street thug, cum imposter, pretended to wipe off the mess while rubbing it even deeper into the fabric.
“My sincerest apologies, sir!” Janovich said as he pawed at the man.
The trade envoy merely pushed his hands away and said something in a language Janovich couldn’t understand but could clearly be interpreted as angry by the tone of his voice.
The master of ceremonies took to the podium. “Ladies and gentlemen, I do apologize but we must calmly evacuate the building. Please exit through the rear of the ballroom to the lobby and out to the street. I am so very sorry for this interruption.”
Without fanfare, the entire assembly, dressed in all their finery, slowly made their way to the door.
Terry Hannigan and his team patiently passed the time at the modest hotel located across the street from the convention center. It served as a budget-friendly alternative to the convention center’s lodging, and though not in any way extravagant, the accommodations were clean and comfortable. Not that they cared one bit about the rooms or the service They were more interested in its physical location and the fact that it had a nice flat roof three stories from the street, directly across from the convention center’s main entrance.
Ideally, the team would have chosen a room with a view of the street, but government security teams had rented them all to prevent any unsavory elements from having clear observation, or line of fire, conveniently located just yards away from where scores of VIPs would be embarking and disembarking their vehicles. That meant Terry had to post himself in the hotel bar, which did allow a clear view across the street.
The instant people began pouring out of the sets of double doors out onto the sidewalk, Terry knew that was his cue. He left money at the table for his meal of greasy bar food and quickly made for the back staircase. He bounded up the stairs three at a time until he reached the second floor, then practically busted through the door to his team’s room. His teammates, Bert Smith and John Sellers, were both there, dressed and ready to go.
“Get your kit boys, we’re on,” Terry said, while holding the door wide open.
Bert and John snatched up three duffel bags and bolted for the door. Bert handed one to Terry and took off for the stairwell. Once there, they removed the contents and checked to make sure everything was ready.
Terry and John pulled out matching pistol-caliber submachine guns.Bert had a scoped hunting rifle. Hannigan checked to make sure his old handgun, liberated from a Jungian officer, was still secured in its concealed holster. The others verified their weapons were loaded and safety catches were engaged.
The three of them climbed the remaining stairs as swiftly and silently as they could. Once they reached the roof, they checked the door and to their relief, found it unlocked. They stepped out, weapons shouldered, and at the ready while moving to the street-side façade. Silhouetted against the bright city lights were two men, looking over the edge, presumably at the activity t at the convention center, two security officers of the Portanian federal police, distracted by crowd belching out the front doors.
The trio approached the officers with weapons raised, cheeks to stocks, both eyes open, peering just over the barrels, moving toe to heel, deliberately and quietly. Ten feet from the two men, they halted, in position, totally undetected.
“Ahem . . . ” Terry loudly mimicked clearing his throat.
The two officers spun around, their eyes wide, hands reaching for holstered sidearms.
“Tut, tut, tut . . . let’s not be hasty, gentlemen. It’s such a pleasant evening and I’d hate to spoil it with any unnecessary drama,” Terry said, his eyes as hard as diamonds. “Now, hands on your heads, if you please.”
Both slowly brought their hands up and interlaced fingers on top of their heads before the first spoke. “What do you want? What is your purpose here?”
“Just taking in the cool night air, mate,” Terry said, pointing the muzzle of his weapon in the man’s face. “Now, if you’ll just remain still, my friend here with the long rifle, will relieve you of those weapons. If you cooperate, we’ll leave you unharmed after our business is concluded, so you can rejoin your families and get on with your lives.”
“And if we don’t?”
“Listen, mate, you wouldn’t be the first man I’ve killed. It’s nothing personal. Just business. Understood?” Terry’s tone was devoid of emotion. “I’d rather it not come to that. You two are not what we’re here for.”
Bert set his rifle on the tarpaper-covered rooftop before moving forward. He carefully and smoothly removed the pistols from their leather holsters and stuck them in his belt. Without waiting for anything else, he snatched up the rifle, rested it on the edge of the roof, and peered through the scope looking for the target.
“Step over here and get on your knees,” Terry said, indicating a spot in the center of the roof, well away from street-side observation.
The two officers grudgingly complied and dropped to their knees. John produced some line and tied their hands behind them, before producing handkerchiefs.
“I’ll take care of the rest of this, you go help Bert,” Terry said, securing the bandanas around their mouths and tying a knot at the base of their skulls.
John jogged over next to Bert and produced a set of binoculars. “I’ll work from the left side of the crowd and scan toward the center. You start on the right side.”
“No problem,” Bert replied adjusting his lane, glassing scores of individuals in the crowd emerging from the convention center.
“Wait, I think I’ve got him. Just to the left of the double doors standing near the valet. There’s four of them clustered together, one woman and three men. Our guy has white powder on his dark jacket,” John said, focusing the binoculars to get a better look.
Bert adjusted his aim. “Oh yeah, I got him.”
“Take the shot.”
Stan Yavuz and Mark Beare stood flanking the principal and his wife while people continued to pour out of the convention center onto the sidewalk and into the street. Everything that could have possibly gone wrong working this security detail for the trade minister had gone wrong. And now just when the conference was practically over, this shit had to happen.
When the fire alarms went off, some idiot server dumped powdered sugar all over the minister and the fool was stupid enough to actually touch him. Stan snatched that guy up and tossed him aside while Mark got the minister and his wife to their feet and moving out of the ballroom. Naturally, the minister was more concerned about the mess on his nice dinner jacket than the fact that the building may have been on fire.
Stan started shoving people out of the way so that Mark could get the principal to safety. The minister didn’t seem all that concerned until the smoke started pouring out of the room they assumed was the kitchen. He and his wife got a little more pep in their step. Now they were out on the street, and working the extraction plan, just as they had planned and practiced earlier in the week.
“Zentral, ve’re in positzion. Vhat’s da ETA for our car?” Mark said into his squawker, his eyes scanning the crowd. The heavy accent betraying his roots from the long-lost home world of Regina.
“It’s on its way. Should be there in three minutes.”
“Okay, t’anks.” Mark put the communication device away and unbuttoned his jacket, allowing easier access to his weapon. “Stan, I scan low, you go high. Keep yer eyes on doze rooftops.”
“Mr. Beare, how much longer until our ride gets here? I want to get out of here and get this terrible evening over with,” said the trade minister, clearly upset with the current circumstance.
“Zentral informs me dat ve only haff tree minutes before a car arrifes for you Yer Excellency,” Mark said, never actually looking at the minister.
“Tell them to hurry it up. I don’t like to be kept waiting.” The minister turned to his wife and shook his head in disgust. “Just when you think these people couldn’t be any more primitive, they continue to surprise you. A building catching on fire? It boggles the mind that they would construct anything of significance with flammable materials. These people should be living in caves!”
Mark and Stan wore a set of dark glasses that wrapped around their eyes and temples. They looked like sunglasses, but they were advanced optics that possessed numerous advanced capabilities. They could scan the electro-magnetic spectrum, and they were also slaved to the personal weapons that security detachment carried, assisting with targeting. Both were using these optics to detect any potential threat that might put the principal in danger.
Stan looked up viewing through enhanced thermals and spotted two people on the rooftop of the hotel just across the street. He magnified the image and saw that not only were they looking right at the principal and his wife, they were aiming a weapon at him as well. “Shit! I’ve got a shooter!”
“Vhere?” Mark blurted, trying to get eyes on target.
Without saying another word, Stan Yavuz reached into his coat and produced a compact personal defense weapon. It was an intermediate weapon that was bigger than a sidearm, but smaller than a standard issue infantry system. He brought it to bear and the targeting reticle in his “glasses” rewarded him with a positive lock in the fraction of a second.
He did not ask permission before opening fire.
Bert made the adjustment for the elevation and windage, and slowly exhaled before gently squeezing the trigger. This was no different than the hundred other times he had done this in combat as a sniper assigned to the 8th Regiment of Foot. Just like all the other times, he was surprised when the trigger broke cleanly, and was rewarded with a loud report from the rifle.
What was different this time however, was just as the bullet exited the rifle’s muzzle, a tiny anti-personnel grenade came flying at him and his spotter along a laser-flat trajectory. The ordnance itself was no larger than the tip of a lead pencil, but it packed a sizable punch. The Trajan grenade detonated between the heads of both sniper and spotter, killing them instantly.
Terry whipped around to see his comrades crumpled in heaps, their bodies rendered into something barely recognizable as human. He gritted his teeth and shook his head in frustration. For a moment he entertained the idea of peering over the ledge to see if the target was still alive but thought better of it. Whomever got Bert and John would get him too if he dared to sneak a look. They were compromised, and if the rumors were true, then the Trajans would get imagery on him from orbit in no time.
Without waiting another second, Hannigan bolted for the stairwell and made good his escape.
5th Squadron, 18th Fleet
The shuttle bay was crowded with most of the ship’s compliment of officers dressed in their duty uniforms, standing tall in rigid formation. In front was the captain of the ship along with the XO, waiting to receive their guest. The shuttle itself was powering down after a short flight in local space. The ramp lowered to reveal two passengers preparing to disembark. Both were busy peeling off their vac suits and securing them in the back of the craft.
The two navy officers came striding down the ramp and the high-pitched whistle of the Boatswain’s Call resounded throughout the compartment. Commodore Marino stopped in front of the captain and rendered the time-honored courtesy. “Permission to come aboard.”
“Permission granted,” responded Captain Archie Aydin. “Welcome back home, Sir!”
“Thanks, Archie, it feels good to be back. It’s been way too long,” Marino said with a big toothy grin, vigorously shaking hands with his former XO and old friend. “I see you’ve managed to gather up the usual suspects.”
“It’s good to see you again, Sir,” Commander Paige Kaya said, shaking with her right hand and wiping tears of joy away with her left. “This bucket hasn’t been the same without you.”
“Archie, it sounds like your XO just insulted you a little bit,” Marino said mirthfully. “If I didn’t know better, it sounds like she wishes I was back in command over here.”
“I’m hardly insulted, Boss. I’d be happy to give up the reins and hand ‘em over to you in a heartbeat. We’ve all missed having you aboard.” Aydin turned to his assembled officers. “Now, the rest of you fall out, come over here, and welcome our old captain back.”
The rigid formation of officers transformed into a mob of smiling individuals who set upon the Fleet Chief of Staff, shaking hands, and exchanging pleasantries. The odd man out was Marino’s aide de camp, who stood off to the side quietly, watching the exchange. After the warm welcome was complete, the group broke up and began to filter back out to their duty stations. All begged Marino to visit during his stay on board before he had to head back.
“I gotta say, Archie, the ship hasn’t looked this good in years. The vessel, the equipment, and most especially the crew. You’ve taken good care of everything,” Pavel said as he settled into a chair in the wardroom as he unbuttoned the collar of his tunic.
“Things are getting easier these days, all across the fleet with respect to logistics, though far from perfect. Supplies are coming available. For the first time in quite a while, we’ve been able to get the raw materials for the machine shops to fabricate parts and keep most of the equipment in good repair. We’ve got a long way to go, and I wouldn’t want to go into action against a Dominion squadron, but we’re far better off than we were even a few months ago.” Aydin sat down as well and hit a call button. “I think a lot of that is in no small part your doing, Boss. I’ve heard you’ve been thrashing the fleet staff pretty hard to get them working on our supply problems.”
“Well, I hardly deserve any credit, Archie. But yeah, ‘thrashing’ would be a good word for it. Much of our issues stemmed from sheer apathy and despair during the long journey getting here, and it took a bit of motivating to get systems working again. And then there was the growing corruption, but that’s a whole other issue. I think we got most of the problems worked out though. Nobody has enough of anything right now, but at least some supplies are dribbling in. Unlike before. Things are continuing to improve.”
A chime sounded at the door and Aydin unlocked it, allowing access. The door Petty Officer 2nd Class Mira Flores came in, carrying a tray containing a carafe and food. She set the tray on the table between the two officers, then looked at Marino, barely able to contain her smile. “It’s a pleasure to see you again Sir.”
Pavel stood and offered his hand. “Why, Flores, what a sight for sore eyes! How have you been?”
“I’ve been well, Sir, along with the rest of the staff down in the galley. We really have missed you since you left.” Her big brown doe eyes began to mist up just a little bit. “Will you be aboard for long? We only just got word of your arrival a short while ago. We’d be honored to prepare a special meal for you while you’re home . . . I mean aboard.”
“That sounds like an excellent idea, if you ask me. You should stay. I can have a stateroom prepared for you in no time and it would be a snap to have you take some of your meetings from here. It would be no trouble at all. Just give me the word, Boss and I’ll make it happen,” Archie said as he grabbed a couple of cups from the cabinet.
“Well, let me see what I can do. But I’d be happy to stay for dinner. It’d be great spending some time here again,” Marino said as he settled back down in his chair.
“That’s terrific news. I’ll let Chief Campbell know. I’m sure he and the Log-O will find something to prepare for the evening’s festivities,” Flores said, rubbing her hands together.
“What else is going on with you? Clearly, you aren’t just busying yourself with your official duties all the time.” Pavel accepted a cup from Archie and made for the carafe before he was shooed away by Flores.
“Oh, certainly not, Sir, I’ve been doing this and that when I’m not working.” She poured both of them a hot cup of tea, and gave Marino a generous portion of sweetener and milk. Just the way he preferred it.
“She’s being a bit modest, I think. The young petty officer here has been picked in this year’s draft and will be representing the squadron in the fleet bay ball league. She’s quite amazing. She’s going to shake things up this year and make us all proud,” Archie said as he studied the tray loaded full of snacks, trying to decide which selection to make.
“That’s great news. What position do you play?”
“I play offense, forward wing. Captain Aydin is far too generous with his assessment of my abilities though. I’m average at best,” she said while arranging a few platters for the officers.
“Nonsense, I saw that scrimmage last week down in Bay 4, and you were a machine. I think you scored most of the points for your team if I remember correctly,” Aydin said while putting a scone on his platter. “I think she’s going to carry our team all the way to the finals this year.”
“I’m just happy to contribute to the team.” Flores made her way to the cabinet and opened it. “Would either of you gentlemen care to fortify your beverage?”
“It’s like you read my mind. Again.” Archie took a generous bite from the scone. “Boss, you really need to try this stuff. Good Renan whiskey, they age in charred oak barrels. It’s the best stuff I’ve ever had.”
“Well, with a recommendation like that, how could I refuse?”
Flores produced a bottle filled with the amber liquid and poured a shot into their cups of tea, before popping the cork in place and returning it to the cabinet.
Marino took a sip and sat with a contemplative look on his face. “Archie, I must say, your taste in fine spirits is without equal. This stuff is exquisite.”
“I thought you’d like it,” Aydin said before indulging.
“Will you gentlemen require anything else then?”
“No, thank you Flores, that will be all. I don’t know how we’d get along without you taking care of us,” Archie said before taking another bite from the scone.
“My pleasure, gentlemen,” Flores said as she prepared to leave. “Commodore Marino, I hope that you can come see me play ball sometime soon.”
“I’d love to. I’ll work my fleet inspection schedule around it. It’ll drive my aide nuts, but he’ll live,” Marino said with a twinkle in his eye. “It was good seeing you again Flores.”
“Thank you, Commodore. Hopefully, I’ll get to see you again.” With that, she left the two men to themselves.
Marino took another sip of the fortified tea. “So, how’s the rest of the squadron doing? I presume the ships and crews are in similar shape to Imperator.”
“Absolutely, though some things vary from ship to ship. Unlike the rest of the fleet, our crews are largely intact, personnel moves have been minimal, and this creates all sorts of unique . . . issues.”
“Such as?” Pavel raised an eyebrow.
“The crews on the ships have been living together for a decade now, and the social interaction has evolved. In some cases, they’re acting more like families or tribes rather than crews. There are strengths and weaknesses associated with that and we’re still just figuring out how to deal with it,” Archie said, scratching the back of his head.
“Is it affecting morale?”
“It did for a long time. You remember during the long journey with all the drama of people living in close quarters day in and day out? All the frayed nerves and fighting? Hell, the murders and suicides were almost all due to the closed confines and the monotony. But much of that has worked itself out and things are better, but hardly ideal as you are well aware.” Archie began folding a napkin while he spoke.
“Things are different in 5th Squadron than in the rest of the Van. Do you think conditions are better or worse?”
“Ship-board life is very insular, and with the crews becoming ‘clannish,’ it can create some frictions when operating together. Particularly on the rare occasion we need to reassign an individual. I’ve had ship captains get quite belligerent over the moving of a single lower enlisted rating. Even when their skills are redundant on board that particular vessel.” He drained his cup of tea before pouring more from the carafe. He got up and retrieved the whiskey and topped off before offering another round to his old friend and commander. “Care for another?”
“No thanks, I’m fine. But do go on with what you were saying.”
“I know you’ve been dealing with this reoccurring problem across the fleet, but fraternization is killing us. It’s corrosive to good order and discipline and nothing we’ve done to date has done anything to stop it. It’s not helping that there is such a disproportionate number of males compared to females either. It makes all the incidents exponentially worse.” He put the bottle back before sitting. “Things started turning around after you got the Fleet Admiral to authorize liberty down planet-side on Renas. Morale skyrocketed but it came at a cost too.”
“Desertions, you mean?”
“Yeah. We’ve had over a dozen from 5th Squadron alone, and I hear it’s even worse in other parts of the fleet.”
Marino leaned over and picked out a scone for himself. “That’s true. We’ve lost a couple hundred to desertion. Once they get down on Renas, it can be hard to get them back. We even had a few legitimate cases of mental breakdowns, trying to get personnel back up in orbit. Those we permanently assigned to highly coveted dirt-side details. We’ve had to manage those closely.”
“I can only imagine.” Archie took another drink and smacked his lips. “You know I’ve missed you, Boss, and I am sincerely happy to see you here on Imperator again, so don’t take this the wrong way.”
“What’s that Archie?”
“Just what in the hell are you doing here? I know you didn’t put all your responsibilities on hold just to come over here and visit with us.”
Pavel took a bite of the scone and then washed it down. “On second thought, maybe I will have that drink.”
“Coming right up,” Aydin said as he got the bottle again and recharged the cup.
“I’m here, Archie, because I know you and I trust you. Moreover, I feel pretty much the same about the rest of the crew. There are a few exceptions of course, but for the most part I know I can trust your people with my life.” Marino rose from his chair and began pacing. “Some time ago, I was approached by some senior members of the government and asked to support them.”
“In what way?”
“In regaining their constitutional powers over the government and the people. They didn’t want to be figureheads anymore and they saw an opportunity when the king and Karga were jockeying for position.” He faced his old friend. “I didn’t give them an answer then. I was riding the fence and I didn’t want to get involved. I could see all the things they were telling me were true but I wanted to stay out of it. That was all before Karga murdered most of the royal family.”
“I’m guessing you’re not sitting on that fence any longer?”
“Correct. I told some very senior members of the government that I would do whatever it takes to remove Karga from power and restore the constitution.” He started pacing again. “And that is one hell of a tall order especially after Karga carried out the purge.”
“Yeah, there are a lot of members of the fleet incarcerated right now in makeshift prison barges. The message to everyone was clearly received.” Archie drained his cup again and set it aside. “I assume you’re telling me all this because you want my help.”
“Not just you, Archie, I need everybody’s help. Do you think I can count on the loyalty of the rest of the captains in 5th Squadron?”
“Well, I can’t speak on their behalf, but you’ve got my support. The things that are rumored to be going on in the fleet under Karga’s orders are shocking, as was the murder of the royal family. But when he crowned himself emperor . . . well . . . that was just too far.”
“That’s good to know. Because I’m definitely going to need your help if we hope to have any success pulling off a coup.”
Springfield, National Capital Territory
Federal Republic of Belton
Global Confederation Secretariat Building
The High Commissioner was going over his notes one last time before stepping out in front of the General Assembly of the Renan Global Confederation. He had been working with his speech writer for over a month preparing these remarks and he had to deliver them perfectly. Naturally, the emperor had read and approved them, so everything was sanctioned and endorsed by the one person who was really in charge of them all. Samuel Netherton tried not the think or dwell upon it too much.
“Tell me, Ted, do you really think the timing is right? I mean, are we giving it away too soon?” Netherton asked his closest friend and confidante, the chairman of the ruling party.
“I wish I knew. One thing is for certain, the Renans are often smarter than we give them credit for and they know that something is up. Our being here does not make sense and their demands for answers only grow in intensity with each passing day,” Bramble said, smoothing his thinning hair.
There was a knock at the door and Netherton nodded to his assistant to see who it was. “Gentlemen, it’s Ambassador Fink of Portania.”
“Please, let him in,” Netherton said, putting his remarks down on a nearby table.
The Portanian ambassador to the Global Confederation came in alone, with a somber look on his face. He was a tall man in late middle age, wearing an expensive tailored suit, and a pair of thick glasses perched on his nose. His hair was greying some but he still maintained much of the light blonde color, giving it a dignified appearance.
“Gentlemen, thank you for seeing me. I know you have a busy schedule so I won’t take up much of your time,” Fink said, shaking hands.
“It’s no bother at all, Jim. It’s always good to see you,” Netherton replied without using his translator. He had been studying the local language of Portania for some time now and had become quite fluent though he still spoke with a thick accent. “What can I do for you?”
“I wanted to once again offer my sincere condolences over the loss of your trade envoy, Commissioner Stevens. The Prime Minister wanted to reiterate our government is going to great lengths to hunt down the terrorist group responsible for this and bring them to justice.” Fink pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose with an index finger. “We will leave no stone unturned.”
“I have no doubt that you will be successful. As you well know, Brad Stevens and his wife Bella, were close personal friends of mine. His loss came as a tremendous blow to all of us.” Netherton put his hands in his pockets and sighed. “Are there any leads in the case?”
“We don’t have a lot to go on at the moment but we are confident we’ll get to the bottom of this. We do know the two shooters did not act alone and were part of a larger network. There were several employees at the convention center that night who were hired on under false identities. Our intelligence services are working to find out who they were. It does appear they were well financed and resourced so this wasn’t just some small group of whackos. This was much bigger,” Fink said.
“I see. But what were their motives? I mean, why in the world would anyone want to kill our trade minister? We haven’t done anything political here on Renas.” Netherton hoped he was being convincing because he was telling the mother of all lies. He knew full well that Karga was running all sorts of shady operations on every corner of the planet. He was hoping none of the Renans had figured that out yet.
“It’s really too early to tell. Your security team did an excellent job and took out the shooter along with his spotter but unfortunately what’s left of them made it almost impossible to identify the bodies. So that did not help us much. Our two members of the security detail on the roof did share with us they believed the two dead terrorists and the one that escaped seemed to have military experience and training. That’s not much, but it is something.”
There was another knock at the door. The assistant cracked it open and spoke with the person just outside. “Gentlemen, I’m afraid that we’re out of time. The General Assembly is waiting.”
“I’m sorry, Jim, but I’m afraid we have to go now,” Netherton said, extending his hand. “Thank you for stopping by to keep us updated.”
“You’re very welcome, Your Excellency. If there is anything you need here in the capital, please feel free to call on me,” Fink said, shaking his hand.
“Thank you, Jim. You are a good friend.”
High Commissioner Samuel Netherton walked through the hallowed halls of the Global Confederation’s secretariat building followed by a small entourage. He kept running his prepared remarks through his mind, mentally smoothing over segues and reaffirming where he should use emphasis and verbal flourishes. He was uncharacteristically nervous but not overly so. This was a monumental day and one that would echo through history.
They eventually entered the chambers of the General Assembly, where ambassadors representing over 100 different sovereign nations were gathered. They were quietly chatting with one another, seated and awaiting his arrival. It wasn’t often that anyone from the Interstellar Protectorate addressed this or any other government body so this was considered a significant event.
As Netherton approached the podium, he looked up to see the press box. The international media was there in force, with journalists clambering over one another to get a better look. All the while, he could hear the shutters of their cameras clacking away, snapping dozens of photos. He thought to himself how similar they looked to the Trajan variety back home, so very, very, far away. The thought hit him with a bout of melancholy which he quickly shook off to focus on the business at hand.
When he took up position behind the podium, the room hushed, and sidebar conversations ceased. The only significant noise in the room still emanated from the press box as the cameras continued to click away.
“Ladies and gentlemen of this august body, let first me start off by thanking the people of Renas for your generosity and warmth. You have been gracious hosts and it is our great privilege to know you as friends.” Netherton spoke in his native tongue but there was a live feed sent through a translator to all members present and for the international media.
“Our arrival to your wonderful world just a few years ago was an historic event for all of us and our engagement with you has been remarkable. We truly cherish our relationship with you, the people of Renas, and look forward to our future interactions with you.” He paused to take a sip of water before going on.
“Since our arrival we have enjoyed countless engagements, sharing technological and cultural knowledge in an exchange meant to bring prosperity to everyone. Throughout it all we have never been completely transparent as to why we arrived here in the first place. We’ve been asked many times what our ultimate purpose is and we’ve kept those reasons to ourselves. Not for nefarious reasons, but for practical and pragmatic ones. Here, today, on behalf of my people, I intend to put those questions to rest.
“You see, our fleet of ships, staged in orbit around this world, represent the last free members of our society we left behind many years ago. We escaped from a brutal intergalactic conflict that claimed the lives of millions of our citizens. Our people lost that war and we are but a handful of survivors who have traveled across the stars looking for a new home.
“I stand before you today, representing a band of refugees, petitioning this organization to officially recognize us as a sovereign entity, so that we may join you here in this community of nations . . . ”
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