Like a pack of immense sharks, warships of the rebellious Free and Independent Midway Star System roamed the dark emptiness of space, patrolling against any threats.
At other stars, the crumbling but still-powerful and predacious empire of the Syndicate Worlds gathered forces and tried to stamp out revolution wherever it flared into existence. Midway, strategically positioned and a leader among the rebel star systems, knew it was only a matter of time until the Syndicate attacked again.
“I almost wish something would ha—”
“Don’t say it.”
“I’m sorry, Kommodor. It’s just that there are few tasks more boring than standing sentry,” Kapitan Diaz said. “Especially deep in space far from any planet or orbiting facility.”
“And few things more dangerous than becoming bored or distracted as a sentry,” Kommodor Marphissa reminded him, her voice sharp. “Let alone jinxing us with careless wishes!”
“I was about to say how important it was to stay alert,” Diaz added quickly. He raised his voice for the benefit of the specialists on the bridge of the heavy cruiser Manticore. “If you’re on sentry and not paying attention, some enemy might sneak up and stick a knife in you.”
“Or one of your superiors might catch you napping,” Marphissa said. “If that happens, you’ll probably wish an enemy had killed you quickly instead.”
“That’s the Syndicate way,” Diaz agreed. “But we rebelled against the Syndicate.”
“And that’s why we’re on sentry duty,” Marphissa said. “The Syndicate wants this star system back under their control.” Her gaze shifted to the display before her command seat. The huge hypernet gate that helped make Midway Star System very important hung in space only ten light-minutes away, the massive structure seeming small and insignificant against a backdrop of endless stars. Space had a tendency to dwarf the mightiest human creations. The nearest ship traffic was almost a light-hour distant, a boxy freighter plodding steadily along toward the inner star system. President Iceni, the only one whose orders Marphissa would respect, was four light-hours away, on a planet orbiting only several light-minutes from the star. Marphissa’s warships were on their own out here, as was she.
“How long do you think it will be before they attack again?” Diaz wondered.
Marphissa shifted irritably in her own seat. How many times had they had this conversation? “Maybe next week, maybe next month, maybe in the next minute. The only thing we know for certain is that the Syndicate will be back, and they will be bringing a large enough flotilla to make us fight for our lives.”
“The battle cruiser should be operational again soon.”
“It needs to be operational now, along with our battleship,” Marphissa grumbled, lowering her voice so only Diaz could hear. There were some things the specialists should not listen to. “We’ll be sitting ducks if the Syndicate returns with a battleship of their own, and all we still have in fighting condition are these cruisers and Hunter-Killers—”
An alert blared, causing everyone on the bridge to jerk to full alertness and frantically focus on their displays as a new symbol sprang to life near the hypernet gate. Ten minutes ago, something had arrived at the gate, the light from that event one hundred eighty million kilometers away only now reaching Marphissa’s own flotilla. Boredom and irritation vanished in a flare of excitement and fear as Marphissa waited for Manticore’s combat systems to identify the new arrival.
“We’re getting a Syndicate ID on it,” the senior watch specialist reported, drawing a curse from Kapitan Diaz.
Marphissa had once envied those who commanded flotillas, imagining them free of the day-to-day responsibilities that kept lesser souls in constant labor and worry. But she had already learned that the burdens of being in charge, of having no one else to turn to for orders and guidance, were as heavy as a neutron star and as unforgiving as the pull of gravity from a black hole.
And Marphissa would have to make all of the decisions. It would be almost four more hours before President Iceni even saw that a new Syndicate ship had arrived in this star system.
There were times when President Gwen Iceni regretted having learned that not every problem could be solved by ordering someone to be killed.
This was one of those times.
Because at this moment she really, really wanted to kill someone.
“We know that the next Syndicate attack could come at any time,” she told General Artur Drakon in what Iceni thought a remarkably well-controlled voice. The way his defensive glower deepened at her words led her to suspect that her voice might not be as controlled as she thought. “There are unknown forces moving against us within this star system though we’ve managed to keep the citizens quiet for now by giving them some voice in their own affairs. Supreme CEO Haris at Ulindi might try attacking us again. And, of course, we never know when the enigmas might return and wipe us all out. Did I forget any problems we currently face?”
He met her eyes, defiant despite the obvious guilt he felt. “We can’t entirely trust each other.” Drakon paused, then added more in even darker tones. “We can’t entirely trust our own closest subordinates.”
“Then you agree we had more than enough things to worry about before this.” Gwen sat back, sighing heavily. “Why do I trust you at all, Artur Drakon?”
“Because you have to. The same reason that’s always been there.”
“No. I could have tried to have you killed. Where is she now?”
“Colonel Morgan? In her quarters.”
“Her quarters.” Iceni let the two words hang for a long moment. “After she exploited her position as one of your closest aides to betray you, that’s all you’re going to do?”
Drakon ran one hand through his hair, looking away. “I haven’t decided. I told you. There are complications—”
Whatever Drakon had been about to say was interrupted by a high-priority alarm. Iceni tapped acknowledge, hoping her jerk of surprise hadn’t been apparent to Drakon. “What is it?” she snapped as the image of her personal aide/bodyguard/assassin Mehmet Togo appeared beside her desk.
“A ship has arrived at the hypernet gate—” Togo began, his voice and expression both as placid as if nothing could ever unnerve or even annoy him.
“One ship? Why is that so critical?”
“A Syndicate ship.”
Iceni felt a chill at odds with the earlier heat of her anger at Drakon and Morgan. “Just one? Did the Syndicate send an unescorted battleship to attack us this time?”
“The ship is a courier vessel,” Togo continued. “It informs us that it carries one passenger, CEO Jason Boyens. The courier ship is en route this planet. Even though it is identifying itself as under official Syndicate control, it claims to be operating independently.”
“Boyens? Alone?” She looked at Drakon, who frowned again.
“What the hell does he want?” Drakon growled. Boyens was known to both of them from his long service with the old Reserve Flotilla, but after going to the Syndicate supposedly to negotiate an end of hostilities, he had instead returned to Midway in command of a Syndicate flotilla attacking this star system. Timely assistance to Midway from Black Jack’s Alliance fleet had forced Boyens to flee that time, but now he was back without any warships.
“Whatever it is, he’s putting himself into our hands.” She sat back, pushing aside her anger at Morgan and at Drakon, letting Boyens’s sudden reappearance filter through the Machiavellian paths that experience in the Syndicate system had worn in her mind.
“Do you want to kill him?” Drakon asked.
Drakon grinned ferociously. “Not right away.”
“Agreed. Let’s see what he can tell us, first,” Iceni said. She didn’t want to pursue further the topic of Morgan’s treachery at this moment, so did not object when Drakon made a quick departure to make his own preparations for dealing with whatever news Boyens was bringing.
Five minutes after Drakon returned to his headquarters, Iceni forwarded a message from Boyens that she had just received.
Colonel Bran Malin began backing out of Drakon’s private office. “I will leave you to discuss the matter with President Iceni, General.”
“General,” Malin said, “I fully understand that your confidence in me has been damaged and that I cannot expect to be given the same access to critical issues until your concerns regarding me have been resolved.”
“You’re right that I’m going to be watching you more in days to come,” Drakon said. “But recent revelations about you and Morgan do not alter the fact that I have come to value your insight and opinions. Let’s both see what Boyens has to say.”
Even Malin could not help a very brief smile at Drakon’s words, but all he said was, “Yes, sir. You won’t regret it, sir.”
The image of CEO Jason Boyens appeared, looking confident but also regretful. “I won’t insult you,” Boyens began, “by pretending I don’t realize that I am now the one who needs to make a deal for my own survival. I want you to realize how much I can do for you. The last time I was in this star system, I may have looked like I was in charge of that Syndicate flotilla, but I wasn’t. There was a snake CEO at my back, literally at my back, almost every moment. The slightest misstep would have resulted in my death, and you at the mercy of a snake CEO instead of a friend like me.”
A friend? Drakon thought. Does he expect me to believe that he’s now a friend?
“I have information that you need,” Boyens continued. “I could have gone to a lot of different places when I escaped from Prime. I came here. Give me a chance to show you how I can help you. Boyens, out.”
Drakon glanced at Malin. “Well?”
Malin considered the question, his head tilted slightly to one side. “His story is plausible, General. Having a senior Internal Security Service agent monitoring his every move would have been a reasonable precaution for the current Syndicate government.”
“Because they couldn’t trust Boyens, either.”
“Yes, sir. But he may know some very important things if he has been at all aware of what the Syndicate is planning.” Malin nodded toward where Boyens’s image had been. “He appears to have intended that message solely for President Iceni.”
“I noticed.” Iceni was clearly telling him that they remained allies despite recent discoveries about problems among Drakon’s closest aides. “All right. We’ve seen that message and talked about it. Now, let’s talk about you.”
Drakon drummed the fingers of his left hand on his desk as he eyed Malin. He had been granted very little time to absorb the news of Malin’s true relationship to Morgan, the huge secret Malin had kept from him and everyone else. On the other hand, if my mother was Roh Morgan, I doubt that I would want anyone knowing, either. “Never mind CEO Boyens. Can I still trust you?”
Malin usually struck people as reserved to the point of coldness, but now he seemed frozen inside at the question. “I . . . General, I will not betray you. I never have.”
“Are there any more secrets that I should know?”
The multitude of hidden sensors focused on Malin provided their verdict on the surface of Drakon’s desk, the words polarized so as to be invisible to Malin himself. No deception noted. But Malin was as well trained as anyone could be in fooling the sensors that measured signs of dishonesty. “I want the simple truth out of you, Colonel. Where does your loyalty lie?”
The question puzzled Malin. “With you, General. I am loyal to you above all others.”
No deception noted. “Have you been working with Colonel Morgan in any way I am not aware of? Engaged in any projects I did not order you to pursue?”
No deception noted. “Any other person in my position would have you shot. You know that, don’t you?” Drakon demanded. “You’ve been one of my closest assistants, you know just about everything about my forces and contingency plans, and you kept that kind of secret from me. You know too much for someone who misled me.”
“The same could be said of Colonel Morgan, sir,” Malin said, his words coming out as carefully as if they were footsteps through a minefield.
“I agree. Why shouldn’t I have both of you shot?”
Malin gazed at him, his face rigid. “You have always been able to count on me, sir. Give me any task, and it will be done.”
“That much is true,” Drakon admitted. “And I will admit that is also one of the reasons I’m wondering if I can afford to trust you any longer. You’re too damned good at getting things done. I need to be sure you’re only acting for me.”
“I am, General. At this moment, you have a very important task facing you. If you are going to let Morgan live, then you need me to protect you from her.”
“You’re no match for Morgan. You couldn’t stop her if she tried to kill me.”
Malin made a self-deprecating gesture. “Not if it was a direct attack, no. But she won’t do that, General. She is intensely loyal to you even though that loyalty is warped. Morgan won’t try to physically harm you, but that doesn’t mean she won’t do other things. I can monitor her, watch for schemes, plots, and unauthorized activities. I can identify anyone who contacts her, no matter the means.”
Drakon considered the alternatives, then nodded. Until he knew more about what Morgan was up to, there was no one better suited for discovering her secrets than Malin. “Do not make me sorry for giving you another chance,” Drakon said, his own words as cold as Malin’s eyes. “There will not be any more chances after this.”
“I understand, sir. Thank you for the opportunity to prove my continued loyalty to you.” Malin saluted, then left.
Drakon sat watching the sealed door after Malin had departed, wondering if he had just made a deal with one devil in order to frustrate the plans of another. But Malin had been invaluable in the past, and aside from the secret regarding his real mother, had never shown any signs of disloyalty or unreliability. In all ways, Malin had always appeared to be bedrock stable and unflappable, which, given that his mother was Roh Morgan, was an impressive achievement.
He called Iceni. “I recommend that we tell Boyens to prove his good faith by telling us everything he knows about the next Syndicate attack. When it will get here, what forces it will consist of, who will be in command, and anything else that can help us prepare to defeat it.”
Iceni nodded, her eyes hooded. “I agree. I will inform Boyens that he must provide that information right now, before any negotiations begin, to ensure his own safety. Kommodor Marphissa has detached Falcon to ‘escort’ the courier ship carrying Boyens to this planet. If Boyens betrays us again, or tries to flee, even a courier ship won’t be able to outrun a light cruiser quickly enough to avoid being destroyed.”
“Boyens will know that,” Drakon said.
“I have had the transmissions from CEO Boyens during his last visit to this star system analyzed,” Iceni added. An image popped up next to her own, showing Boyens on the bridge of a Syndicate battleship. The image zoomed in on a woman standing a few feet behind Boyens. “She can be seen in the same place relative to Boyens in every transmission. Do you recognize her?”
Drakon studied the broad, cheerful face of the woman, trying to remember if he had ever seen her. A chill ran down his back as her possible identity came to him. “Happy Hua? Is that her?”
“Have you met her?”
“No. I’ve just heard about her.” Drakon gazed at the woman again. “Or rather, I was warned about her. Before her reputation became known, she fooled an awful lot of victims with that façade of hers.”
“Hua is a CEO in the Internal Security Service, now,” Iceni said. “She has climbed high on the ladder formed by the bodies of the victims who mistakenly thought her external appearance was a reflection of internal goodwill. If that is the minder that Boyens had at his back, then I am inclined to believe that his words and actions were seriously constrained.”
“We don’t know how much, though,” Drakon argued. “Boyens may have wanted to do some of the same things that Hua was insisting upon. And, for all we know, he didn’t really escape to come here but was sent as a double agent.”
“General Drakon, I have no intention of trusting the man.” Iceni leveled a stern look at him. “I sometimes wonder if any man can be counted upon.”
He suppressed the surge of anger those words created because he knew it was a guilty reaction. “I didn’t try to hide anything from you, Madam President. Can you say the same?”
She laughed. “Oh, General, you will never know how many things I have kept hidden from you.”
Her image disappeared, leaving Drakon gazing at nothing.
Even a courier ship boosting in-system at point two light speed required twenty hours to cover the billions of kilometers between the hypernet gate and the world where Iceni and Drakon waited. But at least it covered the distance fairly rapidly, constantly shrinking the time required for a message to travel between the ship and the planet at the speed of light.
Boyens did not look as confident in this message as he had in the last. “I’ll tell you what I know about the impending Syndicate attack, just to show my good faith,” he said, as if Iceni had not demanded the information of him. “I estimate you have about a week before it gets here. They could be delayed past that, but I don’t think they can possibly arrive in less than five days at the earliest. The flotilla is supposed to once again include a battleship, as well as two heavy cruisers, six light cruisers, and ten Hunter-Killers.”
He hesitated. “Here are the important parts. I am certain that command of the flotilla will be given to CEO Hua Boucher. If you don’t know the name, she’s a snake, and a particularly deadly one. I have no idea how good a mobile forces commander she is. From what I saw, she has no real experience at it, but she will be ruthless. Except in one way. I know the Syndicate government won’t permit her to bombard Midway. They need everything here, all of the facilities, intact. But that won’t stop Hua Boucher from killing by any other means at her disposal if she gets the chance.
“That’s all I know. But I gave it to you freely! And there are other things, information that you need to have. If we work together, if you are willing to deal, you can have what you need, and I can get what I want. Boyens, out.”
A snake in command. Iceni rubbed her eyes as she thought, then called Togo. “What do you know about CEO Hua Boucher?”
Togo’s expression did not change, but thoughts could be seen moving behind his eyes. “She is Internal Security Service. Very dangerous, Madam President. I met CEO Boucher when she was an executive.”
“My training unit was interrogated regarding some shortfalls in food supplies at the unit cafeteria. I was the only member not arrested.”
Iceni raised an appreciative eyebrow. “The others were taken in by Hua’s happy appearance?”
“As if she were friendly, sympathetic, yes, Madam President,” Togo said.
“How did you know better? You must have been pretty young and inexperienced at that point.”
Togo paused, and for one of the few times in Iceni’s experience, he gave the appearance of being upset. “I was emboldened by her pleasant appearance, so I stole a look into her eyes.”
Iceni leaned forward, intrigued. “What did you see there?”
“Nothing, Madam President.” Togo gazed steadily back at her, now betraying no emotion, his words flat. “There was nothing in her eyes. It was as if I were gazing into a patch of space devoid of stars; no light, no life, nothing but cold and emptiness.”
“I see.” Iceni sat back, eyeing Togo. “What are her vulnerabilities?”
“She . . . is very confident in herself. I remember that. It did not bother her that I had looked directly in the eyes of a supervisor.”
“Can you tell me anything else about her?”
Togo made a throwing-away gesture with one hand. “She will show no mercy at all to you and honor no agreement.”
Iceni smiled. “I assumed both of those were true. Thank you.”
Despite the dismissal, Togo paused. “Madam President, I have heard rumors concerning General Drakon’s staff.”
“Yes,” Iceni said, still smiling. “You missed some very important information about Colonel Morgan.”
Togo hesitated, thrown off by that announcement. “I have been told that Morgan is under arrest.”
“Not technically correct. She remains off-limits. Do you understand?”
“She is a threat,” Togo said. Did she only imagine a tinge of weariness in his voice as he repeated that warning for perhaps the twentieth time? “Eliminating her would remove a serious danger to you and send a powerful message.”
“It would send the wrong message.” Iceni waved one flattened hand in a cutting motion to signify the subject was closed. “Have you learned anything else about whoever is trying to stir up trouble among the citizens of this star system?”
“No, Madam President. But I will find them.”
She waved again, this time in clear dismissal, and Togo left.
Iceni sighed, wishing again that her problems could be solved by simply having Morgan killed. But she had seen too many CEOs fall because they had thought they could kill their way out of any difficulty. It was a simple solution that rarely solved the problem, instead usually generating new enemies faster than they could be killed.
She faced a bigger and more urgent problem at the moment, anyway.
Iceni called up a display above her desk, one centered on the star Midway. Planets and numerous other objects whirled slowly about the star. Bright symbols indicated the warships she had to defend everything here. Four heavy cruisers, six light cruisers, twelve Hunter-Killers. A dangerous force in areas where Syndicate authority had collapsed or was tottering but not adequate to defend against the battleship that CEO Boucher would be bringing. Iceni didn’t trust Boyens, but she had no doubt he was telling the truth about that.
In order to defend this star system, Iceni needed her own battleship, but newly constructed Midway still had a lot of work that needed to be done before she could engage in combat. The battle cruiser recently acquired from Ulindi was much closer to being ready to fight, once the damage inflicted on the renamed Pele when it was captured from so-called Supreme CEO Haris’s forces was repaired. Pele might be ready before CEO Hua Boucher arrived here. But what could a single battle cruiser do to stop a battleship?
I have no idea how to do that. But I know someone who can do it if anyone can.
This only involved mobile forces, so it wasn’t a matter that required consultations with Drakon even if she wasn’t still more than annoyed at him. Iceni checked her appearance, sat up straight, composed her expression with the ease of long practice in looking like she was in charge and able to handle anything that came at her, then tapped the control to send a message. “Kommodor Marphissa, there is another Syndicate flotilla en route here, one equivalent in strength to the previous attack. I have been told that it could arrive as soon as five days from now, but you should assume it could show up in only four days. We have strong reason to believe the flotilla will be commanded by a snake CEO named Hua Boucher who lacks experience in commanding mobile forces but is certain to be intensely loyal to the Syndicate. She may be overconfident, she will not care about losses among her workers, but it is likely she will have orders to minimize damage to her warships while trying to retake this star system. She will also have orders not to bombard this star system.
“You have proven your skill at command. I give you no specific orders beyond what you know, that you must defend this star system. We must prevent the Syndicate warships from succeeding in their mission and do so while protecting the people of this star system to the maximum extent possible. I trust in your skill and your judgment to deal with this threat as effectively as you have done in the past.”
This was the point at which traditional Syndicate communications would add some motivational threats about the consequences of failure. But Iceni had already dispensed with another time-honored Syndicate practice (detailed orders spelling out exactly what Marphissa should do, since micromanagement was as much a part of the Syndicate way of doing things as paranoia, corruption, and backstabbing) and had found that she got much better results.
“There are a few other matters,” Iceni continued. “I will be sending orders to Kapitan Kontos to assume command of Pele and make every effort to make her ready to fight within the next few days. I am sending Falcon back to you along with Captain Bradamont. Place Captain Bradamont wherever you want to make use of her abilities, but you are to remain aboard Manticore as your flagship. I don’t want you and Kontos both on Pele because I can’t afford to lose both of you if the worst happens.
“Good luck, Kommodor.
“For the people, Iceni, out.”
Iceni sighed, then sent a message to Kapitan Kontos, conveying her orders for him to leave command of the Midway and move to the Pele. She grimaced before sending a third message, to Kapitan Freya Mercia, ordering her to take command of the battleship Midway in place of Kontos. That left only the need to copy Drakon on her last three messages, then inform him that Captain Bradamont needed to be lifted up to Falcon as soon as possible.
And that was pretty much all she would be able to do to prepare the defense of Midway against the latest Syndicate attack. No one in their right mind tried to dictate the details of time-critical activity across four light-hours’ distance though Iceni had known (and a few times had to work for) people who thought such a thing could work. Everything else would now be up to Marphissa, Kontos, the workers trying to get Pele ready for battle, and Captain Bradamont. Twice before, Admiral Geary’s Alliance fleet had saved Midway Star System, an odd thing given the only recently concluded and century-long war that had nurtured generations of hatred between the Syndicate Worlds and the Alliance. But Midway was no longer Syndicate, Black Jack Geary was no average officer of the Alliance, and now perhaps Captain Bradamont, left here by Black Jack as an adviser and liaison officer, could help Midway’s warships save this star system a third time.
Iceni gazed morosely at her calendar, knowing that the next few days would pass very slowly as everyone waited for the axe to fall.
At least the prospect of interrogating CEO Jason Boyens offered the promise of some distraction during that time.
© Copyright 2014 by John G. Hemry. All Rights Reserved.