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First Command

First Command

Rodney L. Smith First Command

Chapter One

    It was a grippingly cold, blustery, and overcast day at the Fleet Ordnance Proving Grounds. It was the kind of day that makes one want to stay inside in slippers and robe while drinking hot cocoa. John Banks, Chief Test Officer, was just wishing he’d worn a heavier coat. The cold breeze was finding every gap around his neck, waist, and sleeves to crawl inside with him. He was so grateful when the gun was aimed, the target steel plate was in its framework, and he could get back inside the blockhouse.
    The damp, slightly dank warmth of the blockhouse felt good after the biting cold outside. He adjusted the final voltage to the Yestepkin Gun and sounded the range siren. He looked around at his various test monitors at their consoles and asked if they were all ready. He got a thumbs-up from each station and fired up his own terminal. As the readouts stabilized, he thought back to how many of these prototype guns, shields, missiles, gadgets, and doodads developed by some talented amateur or backyard scientist he had tested. So few of them amounted to much. Almost none of them lived up to the hyped up sales pitch from their developer.
    He did admit that Valeri Yestepkin stayed away from the more grandiose statements made by other weapons developers. In fact, his request for appraisal said only that, “Prototype weapon in accordance with paragraph 1. C. 56. a of block grant 1601.7c is submitted for your review and appraisal.” It was most unusual in its brevity and lack of adjectives.
    His terminal was ready, he dialed up the huge amount of necessary power, and he hit the siren button again. The gates around the test range closed and locked. The flashing red warning lights activated. People on nearby ranges put on their goggles and hearing protection. John Banks charged the gun and set it for narrow beam. He paused a moment, to ensure everyone was ready and recording. He hit the fire button, lights dimmed, and a silent, invisible beam of energy reached out and bored an 8 cm diameter hole in the 5 cm thick steel plate.
    That was impressive. So far, so good. He activated the trolley system and moved the steel plate over two meters, to offer up a fresh target for the wide beam. He sounded the alarm again, waited for the gun to charge and hit the fire button. As before, the unseen beam of energy reached out and a two-meter circle of steel disappeared, as did a piece of the backing berm.
    A technician in the front row exclaimed, “Whoa, is it supposed to do that?”
    John Banks wasn’t sure. He called up the grant paperwork and read the section on expected design characteristics. The gun employs radical new technology to disrupt the molecular bond of objects and cause the target to dissipate as a cloud of disaggregated atoms.
    He left the blockhouse and approached the target steel. The holes made at narrow and wide beam were equally smooth and cool to the touch. He could smell a slight acrid odor as the wind shifted around. He walked around back of the target frame and inspected the berm. The two-meter diameter circle continued behind the target to a depth of one meter. In the center of the bigger circle was a smaller circle. John squatted down and could see daylight on the other end.
    Sudden realization hit him like a bucket of icy water poured down his back. In a panic, he scrambled over the berm to see what damage had been wreaked on the other side. Fortunately, the adjacent range was not in use. He walked down that range to its blockhouse and saw the hole in its forward face, but it only went in 8 centimeters.
    He trudged back to his range, climbed over the berm, and called his supervisor.
    “Boss, I think we have a game changer weapon here. Oh, and we’ll need some repairs to ranges six and seventeen.”

    Shadow Leader J’Kraul was called unexpectedly before the K’Rang Elders. He barely had time to change into his formal uniform, after returning hurriedly from the range where he had been qualifying on a new pistol. He was still adjusting the hang of his cape, and handing over his weapons to the Imperial Guards, when he was instructed to enter. The three elders on their high bench viewed him dispassionately as he marched to the traditional spot four paces from the bench, halted, and saluted.
    J’Kraul calmed his racing heart as best he could and addressed the Elders. “Excellencies, I am Shadow Leader J’Kraul reporting as ordered. How may I serve the Empire?”
    The middle Elder spoke. “Shadow Leader, we wish a report on your efforts to acquire information on the Humans’ ability to rapidly shift large forces within their space. I know we asked for the report three weeks hence, during the last time you were before us, but the true extent of our defeat at G’Dranu moves us to an increased level of concern.”
    J’Kraul came to stiffer attention and spoke. “Excellencies, our agents within Human space have confirmed that the Humans have developed a teleportation gate capable of transporting their largest ships vast distances to another gate almost instantaneously.”
    “When we attacked the Humans at G’Dranu, they had only a prototype pair of rings. They moved one of the rings to their sector adjacent to G’Dranu and pushed through a massive force. Our fleet did not have a chance. The Human force was more than six times the size of our invasion force, and even outmatched our additional task forces sent to reinforce.”
    “We have made gathering information on these rings our number one collection priority. We have gained an immense amount of data on the system, but nothing that will allow understanding how it works or to help us build our own. That information is being guarded like nothing we have ever experienced before.”
    “The technical information on the system’s operation exists within a small research community that is highly secured and operates on a compartmentalized basis. Only a few people know how all the components work together. We are attempting to determine who these individuals are and if there are any others that may have access to this information. There is almost always a research assistant or administrative assistant that has access to the data because of sloppy security or a personal relationship with one of the researchers.”
    “Once we locate one of these peripheral individuals, we will induce this individual to allow us access to the operational data. We have even considered abducting the lead researchers and bringing them to our theoretical physics research institute on T’Pifa, but feel that would result in open war with the Humans. In our weakened state and with their transporter capability, we calculate the cost would be much greater than the gain.”
    The left Elder said, “We concur, Shadow Leader. This will require traditional, classical espionage to be successful. The Humans must not know we possess their technology, until we are prepared to deploy it in operationally significant numbers. If they suspect we are building this system, it may precipitate a war we are unprepared to fight. Keep us informed of your progress. Thank you, Shadow Leader.”
    Having been dismissed, J’Kraul bowed, saluted, and backed out of their presence. He met his aide, who had retrieved his weapons from the stoic Imperial Guards. The aide passed his weapons back to him and they walked in silence until they passed out of the guards’ earshot.
    J’Kraul said softly to his aide, “Have H’Topa come to me first thing tomorrow morning.”

    Kelly Blake, the new captain of the Galactic Republic Ship Vigilant, was the youngest Captain in the Fleet. Having been recently promoted to Lieutenant, he was frocked to Lieutenant Commander and assumed command of the Scout Ship Vigilant. Frocking was an ancient tradition, in which a junior officer was allowed to wear the next higher rank in order to assume a position requiring that rank. It was generally used when there were more positions than officers of the right rank or qualifications to fill them. In Kelly’s case, it was based on merit. Kelly would have almost all the privileges and responsibilities of a Lieutenant Commander, but would still be paid as a Lieutenant.
    Kelly may have had the honor of being captain, but he also had the headaches. The Vigilant sat on the Scout Force parking apron of Fleet Base 17, otherwise known as Antares Base, preparing for his first training cruise as captain. Kelly was up to his ears in paperwork. He, LCDR Timmons (his former captain), and Chief Watson (the former senior chief of the Vigilant) all were promoted within a month of each other and moved up the chain of command. Commander Edgar Timmons left the Vigilant to become Commanding Officer of the new 21st Scout Squadron. That made him Kelly’s boss again. He liked Commander Timmons, but wished he hadn’t taken Master Chief Watson with him. Kelly moved Senior Chief Blankenship up from Sensors to be the Chief of the Ship, on Chief Watson’s strong recommendation and his personal experience.
    She was doing well adapting to her new job, but Kelly was left with no executive officer. That meant Kelly dealt personally with the paperwork required to man, operate and stock the ship. The Admiral had promised Kelly his pick of any of the junior officers on Fleet Base 17, but the process was not going well.
    He had conducted over half a dozen interviews and none of the officers had been right. The XO was the only other officer on the Vigilant and Kelly wanted someone he could trust with his command. Kelly had plowed through more personnel records and was ready for three interviews that morning.
    The first two interviews were repeats of the previous six. The officers presented themselves well, had good records, gave all the right answers, but just weren’t right. Kelly was getting discouraged. He knew that if he didn’t find someone soon, the Admiral or CMDR Timmons would pick one for him. He waited for his last interview of the morning to arrive.
    Lieutenant Junior Grade Consuela Cortez showed up late. Kelly was filling the time working through the requisitions for his upcoming training cruise. His Chiefs did a good job of preparing the requisitions for his approval, but they tended to think only of their own departments, not of the entire ship. It was Kelly’s job to sort through the wish lists and balance the requests against practicality and the ship’s budget.
    There was a knock on his cabin door and Kelly said to enter. It was Chief Blankenship.
    “Sir, LTJG Cortez is here to see you.”
    Kelly turned away from the desk terminal and said, “Show her in, Chief.”
    Kelly got up as LTJG Consuela Cortez entered his cabin and moved over to shake her hand. LTJG Cortez had an easy smile and a firm grip. She was just slightly shorter than Kelly, had short black hair, brown eyes, olive skin, and a slender build. She was in her duty uniform, not her dress uniform, as all the other candidates had worn. It fit her well.
    When she saw Kelly looking at her uniform, she said, “Excuse my uniform, sir. I had to go into work this morning and sort out some problems. I was just released a few minutes ago.”
    Unconcerned with her uniform, Kelly replied, “Where do you work, LT Cortez? But first, how do you prefer to be addressed?”
    “Please call me Connie, sir. I work for the Base Repair and Refit Directorate. It was my crew that engineered the new electron guns that hide your engine exhaust plume. That was a good catch, sir. If the K’Rang exhaust homing torpedoes had hit our fleet unaware, we would have lost a lot of ships. I want to thank you, by the way. I got a commendation for the engineering design.”
    Kelly remembered when they first came up against a K’Rang Torpedo Ship. One of the homing torpedoes had picked them out of the clutter of an asteroid field and almost took them out. It was only the Vigilant’s superior speed that kept disaster at bay. The Vigilant’s subsequent investigation determined that the torpedo homed in on the ion trail from the ship’s engines. Their recommendations for masking the ion plume had been retrofitted throughout the fleet and had saved several ships during the recent New Alexandria Campaign against the K’Rang.
    Kelly picked up his pocket terminal and reviewed Connie’s record. She graduated from the Fleet Academy two years ago and had been with the Repair and Refit Directorate since. Her degree had been in shipbuilding and her fitness reports showed she excelled at her job.
    “Tell me, Connie, why do you want to transfer from engineering to command?”
    She paused slightly and said, “Well, sir, I want to get out into space, and command is the fastest way to get me there. I’ve been making a lot of runs up to Antares Station to work on ships and send them on their way. I can hear space calling to me.”
    Connie, momentarily distracted, looked over Kelly’s shoulder and said, “Pardon me, sir, but I see you have requisitions on the screen behind you. You aren’t using the latest format. That will slow down your requisitions because they have to be re-entered once they get to the Repair and Refit Directorate. Those will go to the bottom of the pile. Here, I have a data device with the latest forms and a translator program that will convert your data to the new forms.” She showed Kelly a small data transfer device.
    “If you’ll permit me, I can do that for you in a flash.”
    Kelly moved out of the way. Connie sat down at Kelly’s terminal and had the requisitions reformatted in five minutes.
    “Sir, I notice that your Chiefs have duplicate items on some of these requisitions. Would you like me to cross-level these and get rid of the duplication?”
    Kelly was amazed. LTJG Cortez had just done in five minutes what would have taken him a good portion of the morning to do.
    “By all means, LT, go ahead.”
    She called up all the requisitions, combined them on one form, and highlighted all the duplications and high cost items.
    “Here you go, sir, this should make it easier to sort through these and determine where you want to apply your resources. If you want, I can leave this data device with you or load it on your system. I’ve been hounding the Directorate Chief to call in all the unit supply officers and go over the new forms. It would save everyone, but he doesn’t see this as his problem to solve.”
    Kelly realized he had just found his XO.
    “LT Cortez, you’re hired. You’ll have to interview with CMDR Timmons, my Squadron Commander and with Admiral Craddock, the Commander of Scout Force, but I’m going to recommend you for the position as my XO. I don’t think you’ll have any problems, but Scout Force is a small organization and the Admiral likes to meet all of his officers before he approves their assignments. Come on. Let me walk you around and give you a tour of the ship.”
    Kelly led a smiling LTJG Cortez out of his cabin into the aft part of the bridge. “This is the bridge. As you can see, the Vigilant still has glass ports. It’s one of the things I like most about her. I came here from flying fighters in a carrier task force and I like to have a direct view of my surroundings not interpreted by a computer. Even as smart as computers are, I want them supplementing my senses, not replacing them.”
    “There are three banks of positions here on the bridge. The lowest two positions are for the helmsman and navigator, and the next level up are engineering, sensors, and weapons. The three positions on this highest level are the command positions. The Captain is in the center, the Chief of the Ship is to port, and the XO is to starboard. The tiered seating gives all positions a clear view ahead, above, and to the sides. The three command positions are multi-functional. Any or all of the other five functions can be controlled by any or all of these three terminals. In an emergency, one person can run and fight the entire ship.”
    “The Vigilant’s main mission is to find the enemy for the Fleet and never lose contact. Stealth and our sensor suite are our main weapons. We only use our armament to protect ourselves or Galactic Republic citizens. If we have to, we have a pretty good sting. There are three twin particle beam turrets arrayed around the hull. We have three new fixed heavy caliber rail guns forward. In the stern we have three medium caliber rail guns faired into the engine nacelles. Anybody trying to fly up our exhaust, where our turrets can’t reach, has a surprise coming. We also have a cargo hold on our top dorsal fin that can mount a launcher for 20 missiles. They give us quite a punch.”
    “Sir, that seems like an awful lot of firepower for a scout ship.”
    “We don’t use weapons much in our work, but when we need them I want as many as I can carry. We had a direct combat role in the New Alexandria Campaign. The Vigilant alone destroyed a K’Rang command ship, four battle cruisers, four missile cruisers, four destroyers, seven frigates, and an armed support ship. We damaged a destroyer, two frigates, and another armed support ship before we were through.”
    She marveled goggle-eyed, “You did all that with this one ship?”
    “Yes, but those four ships we only damaged almost finished us off. If another scout ship hadn’t come along at precisely the right moment, we’d be floating bits of debris in K’Rang space right now.”
    Kelly walked across the bridge and opened a door. “This is the XO’s cabin. As soon as the Admiral approves, you can move right in. You’ll be expected to live onboard. It has a berth, desk with terminal, pretty good storage, a private head with shower, and an upper berth that can be folded down from the wall if we embark passengers or specialists. I don’t know how this will compare to your quarters on base, but I found it quite spacious, compared to my shared four-man cabin on a carrier.”
    “We have a crew of 48 — two officers, six chiefs, and 40 lower ranks. The ship is divided into five sections. There is the bridge section, gunnery section, sensor section, engineering section, and mess section, with a chief in charge of each section. They manage their sections and assign their people to watches and other duties. The Chief of the Ship, Senior Chief Petty Officer Barbara Blankenship, is an eighteen-year Fleet veteran. She’s new to the job, having been the sensor chief until Chief Watson left us and I moved her up. She’s getting used to the job and should be fully acclimatized by the time we leave for our first training cruise in a few days.”
    “Aft of the CO’s and XO’s cabins are the six chiefs’ cabins. Chief B’s cabin is configured like mine, with a small conference room attached. The rest of the chiefs’ cabins are like the XO’s, only slightly smaller. Aft of Chiefs’ country is weapons. This is where all the guns are controlled. These three positions are for the three turrets. I’ll get Chief Tony Pennypacker to run you through some training simulations, so you can get a feel for it. This position is for the forward and aft fixed guns. This next position controls the missile launcher or special weapons pods, when installed. Next aft is the sensor section. Petty Officer First Class Yiao Chang is filling in as Sensor Chief until Chief B’s replacement arrives next week. Chief Josiah Johnson from the Fleet sensor school will be filling that position. We have the normal collection of spectral receivers, magnetic anomaly detectors, infrared sensors, electro-optical sensors, electromagnetic spectrum sensors, chemical sniffers, and also the mass optical array, which lines the hull of the ship. It gives us a real advantage out in dark space where, sometimes, the only indication of another ship is when it passes in front of a star.”
    “Next is the galley. Chief Culinary Specialist Bill Austin runs it. They just changed his rating’s name and I still haven’t gotten used to it. ‘Cookie’ can work miracles with patrol rations. In accordance with base regs, we don’t run the galley in port. Cookie does keep enough capability for coffee, tea, and occasional snacks. He can cheat some on the base regs, because we have a replicator installed and he has to train his cooks on it. If you haven’t tasted food from a replicator, you are in for a real treat. As long as there is a menu entry for the item, it can be replicated. Cookie has been working on some non-standard menu items. He is almost to the point that if you can describe it, he can replicate it. Come on, I’ll introduce you to Chief Miller, he runs the engine room.”
    They proceeded further aft down the central corridor, past crews’ quarters and storage bays, to an iris door that opened as they approached. Chief Miller met them at the door of what had to be the cleanest area on the ship. It practically gleamed.
    “Good morning, Captain, what can I do for you?”
    “LT Connie Cortez, this is Chief Machinist’s Mate Glenn Miller. Chief, this is LT Cortez. If the Admiral approves, she will joining us as our new XO.”
    Chief Miller wiped his hands on a rag and extended his hand to LT Cortez. Chief Miller was always wiping his dirty hands off on a rag, but no one could ever figure out how he was getting them dirty in such an immaculate space.
    “I’m glad to meet you, ma’am.”
    “I’m glad to meet you too, Chief. How do you like the new Diomede engines?”
    Chief Miller was impressed with LT Cortez at that point. Any junior officer that knew what type of engines had been fitted into his ship was a step up in his rating.
    “I like them just fine, ma’am. We tuned them up on our shake down cruise and are able to get her to FTL Power 5.89. Any faster than that and the engine synchronizer can’t keep up. We’d wind up corkscrewing or worse.”
    “One of the techs in my section has been working on that very problem. I’ll see if I can get her data and pass that to you. Better yet, I’ll have her come by to see you. She thinks she can get FTL Power 6+ out of three diomede engines like you have.”
    “Chief Miller whistled slowly, “Ma’am, that would be sweet. I’ll be looking forward to her visit.”
    Kelly thanked the Chief and moved back forward. “If you didn’t know it, you just scored major points with Chief Miller, our resident curmudgeon. With only two officers on board, the XO fills in as engineering officer. I think the two of you will get along fine — at least you will until the first time you enter engineering with a coffee cup. Chief Miller is a little protective of his space. He won’t stop you from coming in, just don’t spill any coffee on his deck or I’ll never hear the end of it.”
    “Now, who have I left out? Oh yeah, our Corpsman is Petty Officer First Class Rajna Kumar. Sickbay is here to port, just forward of the port stores locker. He can diagnose most anything and provide most treatment just short of organ transplants. Petty Officer Benitez is our Yeoman. Chief Billings is on leave right now, but he is our quartermaster and runs the bridge crew. That completes the 50-credit tour. Let me walk you to the quarterdeck.”
    Kelly wished her good luck and saw LTJG Cortez on her way. When he returned to his cabin, he called his boss, CDR Timmons, and Captain Hasselrode, Admiral Craddock’s executive officer, to let them know he had a recommendation for XO and to set up appointments for LT Cortez.
    Kelly was relieved that he had finally found someone that he could trust with his ship and crew. He could see she had a lot to learn, but so did he when he first came aboard. He would have to retrain her from the bad lessons she probably learned in the R amp;R Directorate. Here there would be no decisions by committee. There would be no inspector leaning over her shoulder reviewing her work for accuracy and completeness. She would have to be able to make correct decisions on the fly that affected all on board. Not that Kelly worried about such things, but his command and career would ride on her decisions. Chief B would have to do what all chiefs did, train a new officer in her duties. She and Kelly had their work cut out for them.

    Commander Edgar Timmons looked at his patrol schedule after he closed the communication with Kelly Blake. There was a hole in the schedule, waiting for the Vigilant to be ready for patrol. He would have to send the next ship in from patrol back out on an expedited turnaround to meet his taskings if Kelly couldn’t get his ship ready. He had faith that his old XO would get the job done.
    He called Captain Hasselrode and they scheduled LTJG Cortez’s office call with the Admiral; Edgar scheduled her office call with him for just before. He would escort LTJG Cortez up to the Command Group, to ensure she got there on time and knew where to go. He put both appointments on his calendar and informed Kelly and LTJG Cortez.
    Edgar looked around his office and missed the Vigilant. As captain, he was master of his fate and out among the stars. As squadron commander, he sat behind a desk and watched other men go out where the stars are few and far between. He couldn’t really even accompany one of his ships on more than a brief one day inspection cruise, due to the lack of guest quarters for senior ranks on a Valiant-class scout ship.
    Edgar looked up and saw Master Chief Watson standing in the door with the coffee pot in his hand.
    “Excuse me, sir, but I know just what you’re thinking. It’s the same thing I’m thinking. Why on Armstrong did I take this promotion and give up my ship?”
    Edgar let out a hearty laugh and said, “Is it that obvious, Chief?”
    Oh, yes, sir, it’s that obvious, because I see the same look in my eyes when I look in the mirror each morning. I have the answer to the question, though.”
    “What is that, Chief, but I think I can guess?”
    “We’re here to pass on our knowledge and experience to a new crop of ship’s captains, so hopefully they won’t make the same mistakes we made.”
    “Yes, Chief, so they can go out and make new ones. Now are you going to share that coffee or just keep your hand warm with it?”
    Laughing, Chief Watson walked over and filled Edgar’s cup.
    “Did I hear that LCDR Blake has selected an XO?”
    “Yes, he chose LTJG Connie Cortez from the Repair and Refit Directorate.”
    “I read something about her in the base notices. She got a commendation for the ion gun redesign we recommended after our run in with that K’Rang torpedo ship. I’ll pull her record for you.”
    Chief Watson left and Edgar reflected on what he said. Of course that was why he was squadron commander, but he still wished he could get out in space and have some fun sometimes.

    In an inside office in a non-descript office building in a northern suburb of the capital city on the K’Rang home world sat Shadow Lead Agent H’Topa. He perused recruitment reports forwarded to him by his senior source within the Galactic Republic. This was a fruitful source and one he had developed from an initial recruitment report from his former senior source.
    H’Topa had worked this source carefully from the start to one of great worth. This source was good at identifying prospects early in their career, but with the right future potential. This was good for H’Topa because he was patient. Haste was not a good quality for an agent handler. The Humans had a saying, “The race does not always go to the swift.” H’Topa believed this.
    The case folders before him contained intimate details on prospective sources. He knew their wants, their needs, and their aspirations. He had a knack for finding those unwilling to wait or needing an edge to get ahead. Occasionally he found one that just needed credits, or love, or sex, or commitment to a cause. He could use them all, although he stayed away from those that needed chemical stimulants.
    His network was extensive and secure. He had a Human support network of credits handlers, dead drop servicers, transporters, enforcers, and other specialties when he needed them. They helped him service his agents.
    Credits handlers ensured payments got to the right people on schedule. Dead drop servicers passed messages, credits, and equipment to agents and picked up messages and bulky items from agents, all with no physical contact between them. Transporters were his mules and moved packages to or from dead drop specialists. They were the only Humans to make contact with the K’Rang, but even they passed packages through multiple cutouts. Enforcers took care of sources that got greedy or who talked to Human security forces, or ones that just got sloppy.
    Human remorse was one of H’Topa’s greatest impediments to greater success. Too many times, he spent resources on a source, only to have it run crying to security, commit suicide, or lose itself to gambling, chemical stimulants, or sex. If he ever found a drug that eliminated Human remorse, there was nothing he couldn’t accomplish.
    Of course, this would be oh so much easier if he could freely travel in Galactic Republic space. For years, he had urged establishing diplomatic relations with the Humans, but he was always shouted down by the reactionary element within the military. No matter how much value he could show them to having an embassy and consulates with full intelligence staffs, they were just too xenophobic to hear him out. H’Topa suspected they did not want the Humans to see just how weak the K’Rang Empire was in relation to the Galactic Republic. “Our 56 worlds are a fraction of the 150+ Human settled worlds. Perhaps if we spent a little less credits and time on ill-conceived military adventures and more on settlements, we could match the Humans,” he thought in irritation.

    Fleet Reporting Officer Alistair Bennett placed his ship in geosynchronous orbit around Shepard and linked into the planetary communications system. He let his computers download the planet’s data buffer containing the last year of data and voice signals to process, and took a nap. In an hour, he had a list of suspicious communications for further study. He discounted a dozen on the list as normal criminal or immoral activity and no concern of his. Two were overly secretive lovers planning and coordinating affairs. Seven were shady business dealings, more of interest to securities regulators than him. The remaining two were possible covert communications to authorities in the K’Rang Empire. Alistair followed up on these.
    Both communications sets were similar in that they contained hidden data. One set contained hidden video files in a cooking recipe email. The other contained hidden instructions on placing and receiving something from a dead drop. Alistair had his first clue toward dismantling the cell or cells. Now he searched the data for links from the recipients to others. Pretty soon, he found he had nothing. He had never seen a cell with such tight security.
    Alistair ran down the specifics on the recipients. He got their names, photos, addresses, aliases, and all sites that they frequented regularly. He looked for similar interests, friends, and activities, then cross-referenced their known IP numbers against other aliases and email addresses — and found the common link.

    Shadow Lead Agent H’Topa reported promptly to Shadow Leader J’Kraul as ordered. The Shadow Leader kept his attention on what he was working as H’Topa patiently stood at attention before his desk. It was a standard trick to put your visitor off balance. H’Topa and J’Kraul had attended many of the same espionage training courses together and knew all the techniques. It did not work on H’Topa.
    Unimpressed, he asked in a strong voice, “Was what you called me here for of importance, Shadow Leader, or should I come back later?”
    J’Kraul started laughing. “No, my friend, sit down, relax. I wanted to make sure time had not softened you. I have a top priority assignment for you from the Elders. They want the transporter ring technology from the Humans, but don’t want the Humans to know we have it. What can your network do to get it for us?”
    H’Topa took a moment to stretch. “Your information exists in five places in the Human space. It exists in the minds of Andrew and Moira Blake. It exists in their notes locked in a triple-sealed safe in their high security lab on the planet they call Gagarin. The notes are in their own coded language that only they speak. It exists in a triple-sealed safe in their Fleet HQ on their main world, Earth, and the production design exists in three parts in three safes at the manufacturing facility on their main world Shepard. No one has access to all three safes.”
    “The factory is the easiest to access. I have two agents working there, but they have yet to gain access to any of the three data sets. The humans jealously guard this data. Whoever their security chief is, he is good.”
    “One of my agents asked about all the security and was told that even if the K’Rang got hold of the manufacturing design sheets they wouldn’t be able to make them work, because each ring has excess components. There is a code unique to each ring that tells it which components to activate. If it doesn’t activate in the right sequence, it shuts down until a special restart code is entered. That code has to come from a special office in their defense HQ and be entered by hand.”
    “As you can see, I am on top of the situation. I just haven’t found a way to break through their security. I do have a prospect. It is one of the Blake’s research assistants that helped them develop the prototype ring they used against us at G’Dranu. I have been suggesting to him that he didn’t get sufficient credit for the work he did helping them develop it. It seems he unwisely left their employ, planning to start his own research establishment, just before the government bestowed large bonuses and recognition on the research staff and the Blakes. The Blakes insisted he be rewarded, but the bureaucrats said no. I’m twisting that knife slowly for maximum effect. I judge that he may favorably consider an offer to work for us if he feels slighted enough.”
    J’Kraul quietly said, “I hope, for both our sakes, that you are correct.”

    Kelly’s terminal in his cabin chimed to let him know he had an incoming message. He keyed up his terminal and Commander Timmons’ face appeared.
    “Kelly, I just heard back from Hasselrode. The Admiral has approved Connie’s assignment as your XO. She has some things to close out at R amp;R before she can report in. One of those is the engine tweak up to FTL Power 6. She told the Admiral about that and he wants her to see if she can make that happen before she reports in. R amp;R has better computers to work out the algorithms. The Admiral suggests you postpone your training cruise until the engine modifications can be made. He left it up to your judgment, though.”
    “I can hold off, boss. I didn’t want to do the training cruise without an XO anyway.”
    “Good! Why don’t you come join me for dinner at the club tonight? Somebody is visiting me and wants to see you. Meet me at 1930 in the main dining room. Your old Flight Leader is in town. Janey wants to help you wet down your new rank.”
    “Janey’s in town!? Great! I’ll be there. The drinks are on me.”
    Commander Timmons signed off. Kelly thought things were really going his way: First, he finds out his choice for XO was approved. Next, he gets news his ship will be one of the fastest ships in space. Then he gets to have dinner with Janey Willis, his old flight leader from when he was in Fighter Force on the Carrier Bolivar. Life was good.
    At times Kelly couldn’t believe his luck. Just under two years ago he had been drummed out of Fighter Force for stepping on the toes of a senior Fighter Force General Officer, Major General Irina Bugarov. She had a penchant for disposing of good officers, an infamous legend throughout the Fleet. Kelly had managed to be in the right place at the right time to expose one of her serious tactical errors and save the Fleet Carrier Simon Bolivar from a K’Rang sneak attack.
    She beached him on Fleet Base 17, expecting him to spend the rest of his time in the service overseeing toilet repair requests. Things didn’t work out as the General planned, because Kelly came to the attention of Admiral Craddock, Commander of Scout Force. He took Kelly on as XO of the Vigilant and gave him his second chance.
    He flourished under the tutelage of Commander Timmons, so well that he succeeded Timmons in command of the Vigilant. Life was definitely good.
    Now that he didn’t have a training cruise to plan, he realized that he had a free weekend. He called in Chief Blankenship to tell her to stand down the crew.
    Chief Blankenship, a slender brunette with a no-nonsense air about her, came into his cabin after knocking. “Was there something you wanted to see me about, sir?”
    “Yes, Chief, stand down the crew for the weekend. Admiral Craddock has approved LTJG Cortez as our new XO. She’s going to be working with Chief Miller on some engine enhancements to get us up to FTL Power 6 as she closes out her job with R amp;R. We might as well give the crew some time off. Finish out whatever they are working on and set up the quarterdeck watch for the weekend. Keep everybody on the base or nearby. No passes to the southern hemisphere this weekend. Tell Chief Miller to expect to hear from LT Cortez on Monday. ”
    “Aye aye, sir. Sir, do you have a minute?”
    “Sure, Chief, what do you need?
    “How am I doing, sir?
    Kelly paused for a bit before responding. “Chief, you’re doing fine. You came into your job highly recommended by Commander Timmons, Chief Watson, and myself. ”
    “Thank you, sir. Things have been sort of hectic lately and I wasn’t sure how I was doing. I just wanted a bearing check.”
    “Smiling, he said, “Trust me, Chief. I’m not shy. If you screw up, I’ll let you know. Besides, things will get smoother once we get an XO in here and we can parse out some of the duties to her. Did you get a chance to talk to her?”
    “A little bit when she reported in for the interview. She was a little nervous about being late, but seemed like she had her stuff together. One thing, sir. Most junior officers coming on board a strange ship are usually either a little uncomfortable or wide-eyed. She was neither. She walked on board like she had been here all her life. Maybe it’s because of her experience in the R amp;R Directorate and constantly visiting ships her people are working on, but she fit.”
    “Thank you, Chief. I’ll be in the area all weekend. I’ll have my communicator with me if you need to get in touch. Have a nice weekend.”
    Chief B left and Kelly went back to his terminal. He had some paperwork to finish before he could start his own weekend.
    After approving seven junior promotions, appointing various Chiefs to extra duties and verifying the small arms inventory, he was ready to get back to sorting out the requisitions he had been working on before LT Cortez’s interview. He called up the new forms that she had compiled for him and had to admit that the way she formatted them made them much easier to sort through and decide.
    He turned down a request from Chief Miller for an additional spare engine equalizer. Two were more than sufficient. He approved Cookie’s request for additional rations for the training cruise. He did adjust the priority down now that they were not going out for two weeks. He sorted out the remaining requisitions, approved the majority of them, sent notes to the various Chiefs on the items he didn’t approve, and sent it on its way into the system. He was done.
    He had several messages in his queue. He sorted through all the administrivia first and forwarded them as appropriate. Next came the Captains’ Notices. He read through them and wondered why anyone thought some were important enough to bother the captains. Most had to do with infractions of base regulations that should have never risen to the level of a Chief, much less a ship’s captain. Some of them dealt with changes to procedures or regulations. He quickly sorted through and disposed of them.
    Kelly wished he had someone that could sort through these minor items. Unfortunately, confidential secretaries were not authorized. He thought about having Yeoman Benitez sort through them, but some things he didn’t want getting out to the crew. While most messages weren’t sensitive, sometimes the messages were close-hold and Captains’ Eyes Only. This was just a task he couldn’t delegate or could he. Then Kelly realized he had forgotten someone or something-he had forgotten about Wanda.
    Wanda was the artificial intelligence that had been issued to him when he flew single seat fighters. It was designed to handle some of the minor tasks for the pilot so they could concentrate on flying. Kelly had customized his to have the persona of a slightly older woman, a sort of cyber older sister. He had only loaded her on his terminal as XO, but he could do more with her now that he was the captain.
    He called her up on his terminal and authorized her access to all ship’s system and all his files and messages.
    A voice came from his terminal. “Good afternoon, Kelly, or should I say Captain? I was beginning to wonder if you had abandoned me.”
    “Good afternoon, Wanda, I’ve been a little busy lately, as you should know.”
    “Yes, Kelly, I have been working in the background monitoring events. Congratulations on your promotion and command. This ship is much bigger than your F-53 fighter. What can I do for you?”
    “Wanda, I have authorized you access to all systems and my messages. I would like you to monitor my messages, prioritize them, and process them as I instruct you. There are a number of messages that come in that I want automatically forwarded to the appropriate section Chief, others I want brought to my immediate attention, and others I never want to see. We will work together to sort through the different categories.”
    “I understand, Kelly. You do seem to get a lot of messages that could be handled at a much lower level. Would you like me to sort through the messages and provide you with my assessment now?”
    “No, Wanda, I’m just going to review my personal messages now. I need a break.”
    Kelly called up his personal message queue and saw a message from Candy Craddock. It reminded him that he still had not visited her at her new house in the mountains and her invitation was still good.
    Candy was Admiral Craddock’s daughter and one of Kelly’s closest friends. Kelly and she had hit it off from their first meeting, and her dad seemed to approve. She was a civilian lawyer in the base Judge Advocate General’s or JAG’s office, and had recently completed a new house in the mountains several kilometers from base. He had seen her last at his promotion and assumption of command ceremony, where she and his two other close female friends had met and bonded. She had promised him a housewarming party for the four of them as soon as he could find the time. He called her at her office and she picked right up.
    “Hey stranger, long time no see. What’s up?”
    “Well, I was wondering if you had plans for this weekend. I suddenly find myself with some free time on my hands.”
    “As a matter of fact, I do have plans for this weekend. Angie is flying in on Tammy’s shuttle this afternoon and all three of us are going to spend the weekend at my place. Want to come along?”
    Kelly couldn’t believe his luck. Kelly had been Angie Shappelle’s wingman on the Bolivar. She had gotten quite chummy with him, now that they were not flying together. Tammy Nielsen was one of the first people Kelly met on Antares Base. She flew the interplanetary shuttle between Antares and Tau Ceti, using the transporter gates that Kelly’s parents had invented. Angie’s squadron, the Fighting 68th, was stationed on Gagarin in Tau Ceti sector. Who could ask for more than a weekend with three beautiful women?
    “Candy, I’d love to come over. Should I check out a flitter or will we all fit in your aircar?”
    “I think we’ll all fit. As you know, there aren’t a lot of clothes required at my house, so luggage taking up space is not an issue. Why don’t you come over to my office at 1730? We’ll go pick up Angie and Tammy at the terminal and head out to my place.”
    “I’ve already agreed to have dinner with Commander Timmons at the Club tonight at 1930. He’s got Janey Willis visiting, and she wants to congratulate me on my new rank and position. Why don’t we all meet for dinner at the club? I know Angie and Tammy will be hungry. I’m buying.”
    “Okay, do you want us all to meet at the club or can you come over here to be with me when I pick them up?”
    “I’ll come over at about 1800. I still have some things to close out here. The shuttle isn’t due in until 1830 anyway.”
    “Great, I’ll expect you at 1800 them. See you then. My boss is here. I have to go, bye.”
    Kelly stood up, stretched, and threw a few things into a small bag for the weekend. As Candy said, there weren’t a lot of clothes required at her house.

Chapter Two

    Friedrich Debran, CEO of Debran Industries, Inc., was finishing up some details on a new acquisition. It was a small electronics firm that built a key component for the transporter rings. He had ten plants that produced components for the rings. His firm made everything from the massive rings’ outer framework, to power couplings, to the non-ferrous bolts that held everything in place.
    The new transporter rings, once fully deployed, would allow for a ship to enter a ring at one side of the Galactic Republic and come out at another ring on the other side of the Republic. It cut travel times from weeks or months to seconds. It had the potential to revolutionize the defense of the Republic’s space. It also would give a boost to commerce, as shipping times and costs decreased dramatically.
    His political contributions to the Colonial Party and specifically to Senator Coleen Santori (C-Grissom) gave him access to information that helped him steer his acquisitions into new and fruitful enterprises. His acquisitions of ring-related industries now gave him a management problem to solve. He needed someone with military experience and connections. It had to be someone with extensive military command experience that could use the right words to seal the deal. They had to be words that the senior officers sitting across the table would understand.
    He had always considered himself a great negotiator, but these military types didn’t respond to his normal techniques and several times he came close to losing crucial contracts because of it. He needed to have an edge, someone that would understand his goals and objectives and be able to translate those into military speak.
    He had his chief of staff, Roger Delphant, contact some executive placement agencies and culled down the extensive lists through personnel committees to a select group of 10 candidates. Delphant himself trimmed that list down to the three top finalists. The executive vice presidents interviewed these candidates to determine the best suited. Debran interviewed the top rated candidate first. If acceptable, the candidate was offered a position. If not, the next on the list was interviewed and offered a position or rejected and so on, until one was hired or a new list was developed.
    Debran liked this procedure, even though it was slow. He hadn’t picked a bad candidate yet. He had the first interview scheduled for 1300. It was 1245 now. He looked forward to picking his new Vice President for Defense Consolidated, a newly organized 10-industry subsidiary of Debran Industries.
    Debran cleared his desk and called out to have Roger bring in the first candidate when ready. The intercom buzzed and he was informed Mr. Delphant was here with the first candidate. Roger Delphant led the candidate in and said, “Mr. Debran, allow me to introduce Major General Irina Bugarov, Fighter Force (Retired).”

    Dinner at the Officers Club was very enjoyable. It was a perfect concentration of good friends, good wine and good food. Commander Timmons and Janey were obviously becoming a couple. When Janey kissed Kelly to congratulate him on his new rank and position, Kelly had Commander Timmons glaring at him and Janey had Tammy, Candy and Angie glaring at her. Kelly couldn’t help but burst out laughing.
    After Janey kissed him, Kelly had to kiss Angie to congratulate her on being the leader of her own four-fighter flight now. Then he just had to kiss the other two women at the table so they wouldn’t feel left out.
    It was getting late and copious quantities of alcohol had been consumed. Kelly was starting to wonder how they were going to get to Candy’s house safely. It was several kilometers from the base and Kelly wasn’t sure he could drive, much less Candy. Candy was about to order another bottle of wine.
    Kelly waved the waitress off. “Candy, if we’re going to your place, we’d best start to sober up.”
    “Well, you have a point there. My air car will fly by itself, but it doesn’t land very well by itself. I recommend we call the dessert cart over.”
    Kelly called the waitress over with the dessert cart. They each had a large slice of cake and lots of coffee. Shortly after, Commander Timmons and Janey bid good night and departed. All three of Kelly’s ladies looked at each other and smiled the same mischievous smile. Kelly just chuckled.
    After another pass at the dessert cart and lots more coffee, they were recovered enough to make the flight to Candy’s house. The three women paid a last visit to the ladies’ room and they were off.
    They all piled in and Candy punched in the destination. They drove out the main gate, turned right, passed the power lines, then the car lifted straight up and headed west. They flew around the northwestern corner of the base, over the deep and cold western lakes, and into the craggy mountains. The air car started circling over the familiar mountain peak. Candy pushed a switch on the dash and lights came on in her high mountain field.
    Candy expertly guided the air car to a landing next to her house perched on the mountain ledge. It was the first time Kelly had seen it as other than a 3D rendering. It was spectacular.
    The house looked as if it had always been there. It was clad in a local stone similar to limestone, shining white in the landscape lights. Kelly noticed that the pool was in the back of the house, not in front as on the original plan, and asked her about it.
    “The builder convinced me to put the pool in the back, so it could be fed by the natural spring. It cost a lot of credits to move several thousand liters of water up here. This way I only have to fill it once. When I’m not using the spring to top off the pool, it fills my cistern.”
    Angie and Tammy had never seen the house, even as a plan, and were astounded. Candy ushered them inside.
    The house was spacious and very tastefully decorated. The main room had a number of couches arranged in a large conversation area. A large fireplace stood in one corner, and the kitchen was opposite, similar to the one in a house Candy rented when she lived in the southern hemisphere, but slightly larger. It was well furnished and contained all the modern conveniences. The two remaining corners of the main room held matching sandblasted glass doors that opened into what appeared to be a library and, opposite, a music room.
    Candy had decorated the house with numerous pieces of art. Alcoves carved into the walls held small statues. Art hung on the walls, including a large tapestry depicting the Antares system. Chandeliers made of Orion crystal hung above the conversation area, the front door, and the long kitchen counter.
    Candy escorted them out the rear glass doors onto the patio.
    “This is the best part of the house,” she said as she hit a switch on the wall. The back yard was flooded with light. Spotlights shone up through the shrubbery. The medium-sized pool was suffused with a pale blue light.
    They walked out onto the patio, through a large portico. The portico sheltered an outdoor room outfitted with sturdy furniture, including a wooden dining set, rattan-style chairs and couches, and a large coffee table. There were three boxes, wrapped with bows, on the table.
    Candy called them all over. “Here, I have a present for each of you. I know it is traditionally the guests at a housewarming that provide gifts, but I like to be a little different. Let me pass these out. Don’t open them until I say to.”
    She picked up a box with a red ribbon and handed it to Kelly. The next box had a blue ribbon and it went to Tammy. The box with a white ribbon was passed to Angie.
    “Okay, open your boxes.”
    Each pulled the ribbon off their box and slipped the two halves apart. Tammy was the first. She let out an “Ooooh!” and held up two pair of blue silk lounging pajamas, similar to ones that Candy had worn when Kelly visited her in the south. Angie stood up with two white versions of the same. Kelly opened his box and found two pairs of red silk lounging pajamas.
    Candy smiled at them, “Okay, as I said before, you don’t need to pack much in the way of clothing when you visit me. Let me take you upstairs and let you get settled in. Then I expect you to change into these new outfits and wear them or nothing else while you are here. Gather your bags and follow me.”
    They went upstairs, and each went to one of three guest rooms on the second floor. Kelly remarked, “Candy, I thought you were only going to have three bedrooms.”
    Candy smiled and replied, “Living this far out, I realized that visitors would be staying the night. So, I had them redesign it to have four bedrooms. In a pinch, the library and music room downstairs can be set up as spare bedrooms.” Candy pointed Kelly into his room and she went into her master bedroom.
    Kelly changed into his new outfit and checked his visage in the mirror. The thin silk didn’t leave much to the imagination. Kelly remembered what they said in Fighter Force, “No guts, no glory.” He headed downstairs. As he went by her door, Candy called out for him to open a bottle of wine.
    The kitchen was so similar to her former rented house that Kelly had no problem finding the wine, the opener, and four glasses. He poured four glasses, put them on a tray, and went out to the pool. As he looked down at his attire, it occurred to him that it was the perfect color for spilling wine upon.
    The three ladies came downstairs together and out to the pool. Kelly’s jaw dropped. They were all ravishing in their pajamas. Candy was obviously comfortable in hers, but the other two were slightly self-conscious. Kelly looked on with a big grin on his face and Tammy and Angie smiled back.
    Angie spoke first. “Well, it’s not like we’re showing anything you haven’t seen before or we haven’t seen ourselves.”
    At that point they all broke into laughter. The ice had been broken. They all relaxed around each other and spent the rest of the weekend thoroughly enjoying each other’s company.

    Valeri Yestepkin looked around at his laboratory. It was sparse and a far cry from what he enjoyed when he worked for the Blakes, but was sufficient to his needs. A non-competition clause in his previous contract with the Blakes prohibited him from working on projects using the same or similar technology as the Blakes developed, but he was content to be working on his own.
    Valeri had an idea for a weapon, an idea he had gotten when working for the Blakes, but did not use their technology. It was a weapon that did what the transporter gate did in disassembling the molecules of an object, but it had no ability to put them together again. It was, in effect, a disrupter beam.
    He had applied for and received a government research grant that paid for his laboratory and two assistants here on Shepard. He had already produced a prototype demonstration weapon, per the grant requirements. A team at Fleet Ordnance had his weapon prototype and was testing it to determine its efficacy and suitability.
    Valeri was now working on scaling his system to different sizes. He worked with a computer assisted design program to bring the size down to that of a hand weapon. If he could get it that small, he could easily scale it up to an assault rifle-sized weapon. Valeri thought it would make a replacement for the heavy M57 blast rifles that assault troops currently carried. If his calculations were correct, the disrupter rifle would be half the weight of the M57 and shoot twice as far.
    Scaling up beyond personal weapon size was a bit of a challenge, because the power requirements expanded faster than the size increased. A weapon scaled up to be a cruiser’s main armament would require its own engine for power. There was a way to make it more energy efficient, but it eluded him at the moment. Until he figured it out, he would work on the personal weapon design.
    Cindy Matthews, one of his research assistants, came back from lunch. She was a very pretty woman, several years younger than Valeri. She was tall, well built, and usually favored skirts or dresses that showed off her long legs, her best feature. Today she wore a light white blouse and a short blue skirt with braid-like piping along the hem. She pulled him away from the terminal and handed him a pastrami and Swiss on rye sandwich, his favorite.
    “Eat, damn it! Valeri, you’re no good to us unconscious from lack of food.”
    He saved what he was working on and turned to eat his sandwich at the workbench. Cindy poured a cup of coffee and fixed it for him, then set it down next to the sandwich and left the room. She came back in a few moments, wearing her lab coat.
    He asked, “Where is Ron? Shouldn’t he be back from lunch now?”
    “Ron took the afternoon off to take care of some personal matter. You said he could have the time off. Don’t you remember?”
    “Oh, yes, something to do with his taxes as I recall.”
    She went over to the work outline board and stood staring at it for a while. Valeri finished his sandwich and his coffee.
    He asked, “What, no dessert?”
    This brought a laugh from Cindy. She turned around, holding open her lab coat, revealing only her. Her blouse and skirt must have been left in the other room. She walked toward him, dropping the coat off her shoulders as she approached. She sat on his lap and wrapped her arms around his neck.
    She stared into his eyes as she said, “How’s this for dessert? I’ve been waiting for us to be alone for a long time, you workaholic.”
    Later, Cindy lay against his side on his office couch, her left leg draped over his. Her head rested upon his chest and she twirled the hairs there.
    “Valeri, I hate to talk shop, but you can’t keep working on that old terminal. You’ll make yourself blind. It’s so slow. If you’d gotten that bonus for working on the Blake’s invention, you could have afforded a new one. Just how hard did they push for you to be included?”
    Cindy had been unhappy about Valeri’s failure to get the bonus for the transporter rings that all the other workers on the team received. She kept harping on how much he contributed to the project for nothing. He’d been gone less than a month when they announced the bonuses. One would think they could make an exception. Moira Blake told him they had pushed hard to get him included in the bonus fund, but the finance bureaucrats said no. Moira even offered to give him her bonus, but he couldn’t accept. Besides, Fleet owed him the bonus, not Moira.
    Cindy kept bugging him about it as if there was anything more he could do. Even now, after this unexpectedly memorable lunch, she couldn’t leave it alone. He wondered if this was just a set up to make him go back and tilt at the bureaucratic windmill…again. He smiled, because if it was a set up, it was one he could get used to.

    Friedrich Debran was impressed with Irina Bugarov. She carried herself well, and was knowledgeable about Debran Industries holdings and recent company activities. She had done her homework. She also had a pretty good idea of what her job would entail, and had several ideas she offered freely to improve the company’s exposure in the defense market. There were changes and upgrades needed to Fighter Force aircraft that could be marketed to her former colleagues, if they could be simultaneously marketed to key members of the GR Assembly.
    He liked her sense of duty, commitment and political manipulation. She freely told him that she had no romantic, family, or other commitments, and could devote however many hours the job required to ensure it was done right.
    His mind was made up. He offered her the job at a reasonable salary, by private sector standards, but significantly more than a two-star general made. He enjoyed giving Flag Officers low initial salaries, as it fueled his sense of superiority. She accepted.

    LTJG Cortez pushed the engine modifications through in record time. A big incentive was the fact that she couldn’t leave for her new assignment as the Vigilant’s XO until she had the modifications installed and tested. In a week and a half, the modifications were fitted to the Vigilant and ready for live testing.
    Half of Connie’s team from the Repair and Refit Directorate embarked on the Vigilant for the in-space trial. There were wires run everywhere to connect all the instrumentation that had been brought aboard.
    Kelly truly took actual command of his ship for the first time, when he requested permission to take off for the test. Upon approval, he gave the order to lift off and experienced almost an electric rush of excitement as the ship, his ship, rose into the air. They quickly left the atmosphere and moved out of the system.
    Connie was afforded the use of the XO’s position on the bridge for test monitoring purposes, although technically she was not yet the XO. Her boss, LT Roger Dahlens, who Kelly had met his first day on Armstrong, was the senior engineering officer on board and in charge of the test.
    Kelly watched their progress through the system and ordered them to FTL Power 1 as they crossed the last orbital plane, leaving the red giant Antares behind. Chief Blankenship sent the helm a transit course though dark space, the ship smoothly speeding up to light speed. Kelly asked for a status check from the engine room. Everything was operating well within tolerances. LT Dahlens nodded at this information and turned to Kelly, “Captain, would you increase speed to FTL Power 3, at your discretion?”
    Kelly gave the order and the ship smoothly accelerated to many times the speed of light. He called back to engineering and got a report that all was still well within tolerances.
    LT Dahlens acknowledged the report and gave clearance for a full speed test. Kelly gave the order and watched the FTL meter on his display climb to FTL Power 4, FTL Power 5, and then to FTL Power 6. It felt no different than FTL Power 1. The indicator continued to climb slowly until it stopped at FTL Power 6.6.
    Kelly called for a status check from engineering and a jubilant Chief Miller came back, “Sir, she’s purring like a kitten. There was not so much as a spike while she climbed through the numbers. I believe we just set a speed record for a Fleet ship, Captain.”
    Kelly let the ship run for 30 minutes and said, “ Helm, bring us down to 0.9 c.”
    The helmsman backed off the speed control and the Vigilant smoothly coasted down to just below light speed. He answered, “We are below light speed at 0.9 c, sir.”
    Kelly looked at his display and ordered, “Helm, all stop. Sensors, report all contacts. Engineering, report status.”
    Helm answered, “All stop, sir.”
    Sensors answered, “Conducting a sweep, sir. Sensors report all clear, sir.”
    Chief Miller reported all systems normal.
    “Helm, turn us around. Line us up with the reverse of the course that got us here.”
    When the ship was lined up on the new course, Kelly turned to LT Dahlens and asked, “What will happen if I punch it? What happens if I take us to FTL Power 6 as fast as I can?”
    LT Dahlens turned to LTJG Cortez. “Connie, it’s your design. What do you think will happen?”
    “I think she’ll run like a scalded cat, sir.”
    Kelly turned to Chief Blankenship and said, “Sound battle stations. Sound the collision alarm, Chief.”
    People all over the ship hunkered down in their seats. Those off watch ran to their battle stations. The helm and navigator tightened their harnesses.
    Kelly looked around at the orderly chaos, waiting for battle stations to be reported from all sections. As the last report came in, Kelly ordered FTL Power 6. The compensators and artificial gravity increased power to keep everyone in their place. The helmsman called out the numbers as they came and went. The Vigilant topped off at FTL Power 6 in 23 seconds. LT Dahlens let his breath out in a rush. Kelly laughed.
    “What’s the matter, Lieutenant? Didn’t you trust your own handiwork?”
    “Oh, I trust what my people did. I just didn’t necessarily trust what the original shipyard workers did. I’m glad they built a good, strong ship. I never figured any captain would do what you just did. That was a lot of stress on the hull, sir.”
    “It may save my life and all on this ship someday. I had to see what would happen. Lieutenant, do you need to conduct any more tests or are we done?”
    LT Dahlens responded, “You’ve exceeded all my requirements, sir.”
    Kelly said, “Well, thank you and your crew, Lieutenant. Navigator, lay in a course to Antares Base. Helm, bring us to FTL Power 5. Secure from general quarters, and take us home.”
    The short trip back to Antares Base was uneventful. LT Dahlens said his goodbye to LTJG Cortez. She would transfer to the Vigilant as soon as they got back and the order was cut.
    Kelly turned the conn over to Chief Blankenship and made a quick tour of the ship. He picked up a cup of coffee and some cookies from the galley as he made his way back forward, then took his seat and watched his bridge crew at work as they approached Antares Base and landed. Now, with a full crew, he could plan his work ups and make this ship his own.

    Workups went smoothly, almost effortlessly. Kelly thought he would have a lot of difficulty getting the crew to gel, what with the crew changeover as Kelly took command, but his chiefs had other ideas. They worked separately to get their individual sections in shape and then worked together toward a cohesive whole. Newly arrived Chief Josiah Johnson, the new sensor chief, increased sensor efficiency and won a bet with Chief Blankenship. His years as the senior sensor instructor at the Fleet Sensor School were put to good use.
    Kelly put his crew through its paces in five days. Around the clock drills sharpened the crew’s responsiveness. Every crewmember could work not just his or her own job, but also the job of the person next over and the person above in the chain of command.
    There were a few humorous moments, such as one unexpected call to general quarters, when one of the female members of the damage control party showed up on the bridge to deal with a simulated leak wearing just a towel. It snagged on a panel almost immediately and dropped off, leaving her in just what nature gave her. Undeterred, she finished her simulated repair and received a standing ovation from the bridge crew. She donned her towel, bowed deeply, and left the bridge with Chief Blankenship hot on her trail.
    Kelly had the crew practice skills that had kept them alive in K’Rang territory. He had them make multiple FTL jumps from one arm of a local nebula to the other. His goal was to be at FTL power one by the time they left the near nebula arm and be at dead stop within the destination nebula arm’s cloud.
    He found an asteroid field and met two training goals. He had his helmsmen, in turn, pull over an asteroid, land quickly and softly, lift off again, and do it again. He had them do it over and over, until they all did it to Kelly’s satisfaction.
    The gunners practiced firing on small asteroids, from stationary positions and while moving. Kelly timed all gunners to see how quickly they dispatched the targets, until he was satisfied with their performance. He then picked larger targets and had the nose gunners fly and point the ship onto the targets, then fire on targets with just the nose rail guns and with the combined nose guns and turrets locked forward. He didn’t forget the tail guns, designating targets for the tail gunner to take out.
    He practiced with the tractor beams to see how big an asteroid they could pick up. He moved asteroids around and even engaged in asteroid bowling. The Vigilant used it against the K’Rang during the New Alexandria campaign, so Kelly didn’t feel guilty about having a little fun.
    He taught his gunners the finer points of off-axis shooting, and had his nose gunners practice flying the ship and pivoting the ship away from the direction of travel, to engage targets parallel to their direction of travel. That was also a tactic used against the K’Rang. While it was mainly a fighter tactic, the Vigilant was nimble enough to accomplish it, too.
    Kelly tested out the galley’s ability to prepare food during combat conditions by giving them a specific menu to prepare while gunnery drills were being conducted. Cookie did a superb job, splitting the meal and cooking half in the traditional way and half in the replicator. He challenged Kelly to pick which was which. Kelly couldn’t tell the difference.
    Kelly conducted a mass casualty drill to test Doc Kumar’s ability to function in a combat setting. He had coordinated with the Antares Base Hospital for combat casualty symptoms and pinned them to random crewmembers. Kelly sent two or three crew at a time to sickbay with wounds or burns or radiation sickness. Rajna came through professionally and calmly, correctly diagnosing, triaging, and treating each case.
    The Vigilant was ready for combat two days ahead of schedule. Kelly would work out any other issues on the transit to their patrol zone. He prepared to give the crew two days liberty in appreciation for a job well done.
    Kelly felt LTJG Cortez would quickly grow into the job as XO. Her experience in the repair and refit directorate gave her a good feel for the ship. He got a kick out of her shaking as she took over the helm position, but settling down as she got a feel for the ship. She had good intuition, like Kelly, and always seemed to be in the right place at the right time to stop potential problems before they occurred. She was a far better cook than Kelly was. Best of all, she relieved Kelly of a ton of extra duties. Kelly was a happy captain.

    Kelly called LTJG Cortez into his office for “the talk.” Kelly had gotten it twice, once as a fighter pilot and once as XO of the Vigilant. He thought he had it memorized by now. It was Connie’s turn. He called her into his ready room and had her sit down. He noticed she was sitting at attention and he told her to relax.
    “I want to tell you a little bit about why we’re out here. I know it’s not taught well enough in the Academy. It’s important to know why you may be asked to put your life on the line way out where the stars are few and far between.”
    “I know you learned about the Milky Way in Astrography. I’ll bring you up to date, but first let me cover a little history. You know the Milky Way is a bar spiral galaxy and Earth’s solar system is in a small spiral off of the nuclear center of the galaxy, not one of the bigger spirals further outward. Even though our galaxy is called the Milky Way because of the apparent cloud of stars as seen from Earth, there are vast distances between the stars. These areas we call dark space. This is where we Scouts operate best.”
    “I’m sure you learned about the first galactic human settlements over a century ago. When our first long-range probes and scouts went out, they found our little corner of the galaxy was largely unpopulated and mostly devoid of life. We quickly populated human settlements on the few habitable planets in this part of the galaxy. Huge settlement ships were built and they carried mankind out into the far reaches of space. We populated the 10 closest worlds first and spread out from there. Those first settlers had it hard, and we lost a lot of good people. Life on the frontier before we came up with reliable long distance FTL communications 25 years ago was rough. There are now over 150 human-inhabited worlds and moons in this arm of the Milky Way.”
    It wasn’t until our scouts pressed further outspiral, away from the core of the Milky Way, that we ran into the Moosilian Empire. The Moose were fairly benevolent and we signed the First Intragalactic Treaty with them in 2133. We agreed to the establishment of a buffer zone between our races. Trade is allowed and encouraged, but they don’t want us moving any excess population in there. Our patrol forces on the frontier guarantee we don’t trod in each other’s space. It’s held up pretty well.”
    “Our scouts surveying inspiral found a similar situation. Life is not as common as most early philosophers, authors, and scientist expected. One scout pushing out further inspiral on a deep-space patrol found a curious artifact floating in open space. It was a spinning, glowing triangular dipyramid. They scanned it from all sides, recorded all they could, and would have brought it back to the nearest star base if it hadn’t been twice the size of their ship. After a great deal of study, the best human brains determined it was a no trespassing sign. The scouts had run into the frontier of the K’Rang Empire.”
    “While the Moose are a benevolent race, as you know, the K’Rang are not. They are a rat nasty bunch and want nothing to do with humanity. In fact, their standard response to meeting a human ship in space is to immediately annihilate the human ship. No warning, no “get out,” they just blast away.”
    “Actually, rat nasty is an inappropriate description of the K’Rang. They’re evolved from a cat-like species. They walk on two legs, but retain many feline traits and characteristics. They have the fur, claws, teeth, and balance of a cat. They can leap three times their own height. They are unbelievably quick. A K’Rang warrior can cover short distances with incredible speed. If they get in close, they can make full use of their claws and fangs. In space they react similarly. They like to get in and duke it out at close range — something we have learned to use to our advantage.”
    “After the Capricorn War, which we and the K’Rang fought to a draw, we withdrew back from the frontier, established our mutual sensor and mine fields to provide advanced warning of any incursions, and pretended each other didn’t exist. No armistice or ceasefire — we just withdrew to lick our mutual wounds. Neither side able to gain the advantage. Neither side wanting to provoke the other has existed for quite some time. That situation, unfortunately, has changed.”
    “Fourteen months ago, a survey team from Hodgkin’s World, Inc., in Capricorn, flew to examine some not so nearby star systems for human inhabitability. Mark Carter, Hodgkin’s World, Inc. president and CEO, wanted to export some excess population and gain some territory. His survey ship stumbled on a solar system the K’Rang were terra forming. As stupid as it was, Carter mounted an expedition of his own resources to take this world and the K’Rang terra forming technology for his own. Needless to say, K’Rang reinforcements showed up and wiped out the Hodgkin’s World fleet, but not before the Hodgkin’s forces had killed all the K’Rang terra forming party. Fortunately, Mr. Carter paid for his stupidity and perished along with his fleet.”
    “The K’Rang stewed for a while and then tried to invade and take New Alexandria in the Scutum sector. Our new transporter gate allowed us to move in a massive fleet and annihilate their invasion force. They are arrayed in a purely defensive posture at this time. We hit them pretty hard and completely by surprise.”
    “The K’Rang are no pushovers. They fight well and are fearless in battle. They have good tactics and adapt quickly to battle situations. We lost many ships to them in the Capricorn War. We captured a few of the K’Rang, but no matter what we do, they die in captivity. Our best minds think they just choose to stop living and die. We know more about their physiology than their military or society.”
    “We watch them. They watch us. Half our Fleet intel guys say nothing will happen. Half say in the right situation, they will go on the offensive. Either way, we patrol and make sure they know we are there. They do the same thing. The longer this impasse continues, the more we build up the capability to use our transporter gates to quickly reinforce the frontier.”
    “Our mission is to find out what the K’Rang are up to. We are not out there to start a war, but, hopefully, to keep one from happening. Keep that in mind as we patrol around the frontier. The buffer zone we and the K’Rang have set up is wide enough so any incursions won’t be a mistake.”
    “We also have strict orders pertaining to any confrontation with the K’Rang. This is why I’m having this long chat with you this morning. It’s imperative these orders be followed completely.”
    “The K’Rang don’t get to shoot first. Our orders are that we will not engage in any confrontation with the K’Rang unless they are firmly on our side of the buffer zone and we have an overwhelming numerical or tactical advantage. Our leadership wants to make sure we defeat the K’Rang in any engagement. Now, of course, those orders can and have been changed, but for now they stand.”
    “Do you have any questions?”
    “No, sir, I think I understand. We use overwhelming force or surprise when dealing with the K’Rang. We never intentionally fight from a weak position.”
    “Good summation, Exec.”
    Yeoman Benitez knocked, was told to come in, and brought Kelly a message to report to CMDR Timmons before he released his crew.

    Connie Cortez saw to securing the Vigilant from work ups and helped Chief Blankenship to keep the crew gainfully employed until the Captain returned. She found several inconsistencies in the ship’s wiring, and set up several teams to trace wiring circuits for ship’s systems and correct the ship blueprints to match how things really were. She would have several things to say to the yard boss when she could break free. First, she needed a moment to spin down and retired to her cabin to work on paperwork.
    She was exhausted, operating on about four hours sleep in eighteen for the entire cruise. She noticed that the Captain was overlapping the beginning of her watch and Chief Blankenship was overlapping the end of her watch. She changed her routine and overlapped theirs. That didn’t leave a lot of time for sleep. She would have to speak to the Captain about sleep discipline. It wouldn’t do to have the senior leaders suffering from sleep deprivation on a long patrol. Maybe it was just that they were all new in their jobs and things would settle down with more experience in the positions.
    Even without the sleep loss, Connie would still have been beat. She had so much to learn. Even with the simulator time she put in, she had never piloted a spacecraft before. When LCDR Blake turned the controls over to her, she couldn’t stop her hands from shaking. She had to admit it was a rush to have all the ship’s power in her hands. The majority of the time, she just roamed the ship and looked for things out of place.
    She made a lot of on the spot corrections, like instructing the gunners to always leave their turrets locked facing forward when not actively manning the turrets. This kept the maximum firepower forward if needed in an emergency. She helped Chief Johnson fine-tune the sensors and win his bet with Chief B. She took a turn at cooking and taught Cookie one of her mother’s recipes for fried chicken, which he programmed into the replicators. She spent so much time with Chief Miller learning all the engineering systems that the Captain had to send Chief B to remind her that there were other parts of the ship she needed to learn.
    It was a good first cruise for Connie. She looked forward to their mission.

    Chief Blankenship had a chiefs’ meeting after the major elements of securing from the work ups were accomplished. She wanted to get a feeling from the chiefs on how their sections had done and what needed to still be improved. She also wanted a sense of how the new XO had done.
    Chief Miller led off. “Engineering was in good shape. The new algorithms for the increased speed gave them better stability at all speeds. My section has all started on preparations for their proficiency exams. If there was anything that could be improved on, I don’t know what it could be.”
    Chief Johnson was next. “The new XO is all right by me. She is technically proficient and not afraid to say she doesn’t know everything. She was willing to listen to why something she suggested was not a good idea, as long as it was done tactfully and in a manner that increased her knowledge of the ship. She’s smart, but still realizes she has a lot to learn. As far as the section goes, I have a couple of single stripers that are a little hesitant to make a call, but I’ll break them of that by the time we get to our patrol sector. It happens with a lot of the newbies, but you know that.”
    Chief Pennypacker said, “Gunnery did well. We have a few that are below the average, but more work with the simulators will fix that. The XO proposed keeping the turrets locked forward when not manned, and did it in such a way she made me think it was my idea. She’s slick. Some of my guys have started on proficiency exam prep, but I’ll get all of them cranking on it on our next patrol.”
    Chief Austin followed. “She can cook. I think she’ll do fine as soon as she gets more used to the crew. Remember she was an engineer, not a command track officer. She’s used to having a supervisor look over her shoulder. She’ll learn to be more forceful and direct.”
    Chief Billings took his turn. “Bridge crew did fine. It was almost funny to watch LT Cortez when the skipper gave her the helm. She was shaking so bad when she first sat down, but she calmed herself and did a good job at helm. She eventually loosened up enough to try some loops and rolls. By the time she finished, she was having fun with it. I have one helmsman that doesn’t yet have that level of comfort. I’ll work with him in the simulator. The rest are good.”
    Chief B gave them all some last minute taskings and broke up her meeting.

Chapter Three

    Alan Shepler, the new Chief Executive Officer of the Indigo Consortium, considered his company’s financial future. The fire that killed his predecessor had destroyed some of the jewelry production capability in the main building. The remaining production capability in the two outlying buildings was insufficient to pick up any additional output. Unless he could find replacement production capability, he was going to record a very low profit for this year.
    There was the flamestone cache on their asteroid 4533 facility near Rigel, but he wasn’t ready to use them yet. He would have to build a new production facility before he could chance using them. He had visions of an exclusive stone and mounting collection with platinum, silver, and gold rings, bracelets, and pendants — all designed to show off the flamestones’ special luminescence.
    He wondered if he could re-establish trade with the K’Rang. Yes, he had several liters of flamestones, but who couldn’t use more? When he briefed Mr. Debran as a new vice president, Debran had seemed receptive to the idea of acquiring more flamestones. How could he regain contact with the K’Rang? All the contacts went up in flames when Charles Delphant died in the fire. There must be a way. He was attending the annual jewelry industry convention on Earth next month; perhaps he could put out some discrete feelers.

    Irina Bugarov settled into her new office. Her executive assistant, Terri Hawkins, a tall, willowy, pale blonde woman in her late twenties, suggested that while her full glory wall of framed awards, decorations, and mementos from her 32-year career might have been appropriate for the military, it did not befit a new senior executive of a major corporation. Terri picked through her boxes and pulled out a handful of mostly pictures, a few key awards, and Irina’s folded Fighter Force forest green Two-Star Flag. She walked around the room, while Irina watched her curiously. She finally stopped and pointed to the wall behind the desk.
    “Your pictures taken with dignitaries go there. That will show your visitors your connections and what you bring to the company. Over there, above the credenza, is where we put your framed flag. I’ll have it put in a walnut frame to match the credenza. Immediately below that, we will put your model of the F-53. On the opposite wall, we’ll put this painting of your old battle group traveling majestically through space. Over here on the entry wall, we will put your highest decoration certificates. The total look will be one of understated, but evident competence, service, and experience.”
    Irina stepped into the middle of the room, spun around slowly, looking at each wall in turn, and said, “I like it. Terri, you have a good sense of style. Perhaps you could go shopping with me for a better professional wardrobe? This is just something I had left over from when I would occasionally wear civilian clothes.”
    Terri smiled and said, “Of course, General, that’s why I’m here. I know just where to take you for the best look and quality.”
    Terri walked to the credenza and retrieved her pocket terminal.
    “Ma’am, how do you prefer to be addressed? Do you prefer ma’am or General or something else?”
    Irina thought about it for a bit then said, “ General or ma’am will do for now.”
    Terri looked at her terminal and said, “Yes, ma’am, your first appointment is in 30 minutes. Your company CEOs will be here for a meet and greet in the executive conference room. Here are their bios. There will be coffee, tea, water, and a small selection of pastries. It’s scheduled for an hour, and there will be no presentations at this time. Over the next five days, they will come in individually and brief you on their operations. They’re scheduled one in the morning and one in the afternoon from tomorrow to Saturday.”
    “Excellent,” Irina said. “Now sit down. There are some things I want to let you know, how I want my days organized, and what I will expect from you.”

    Andrew and Moira Blake caught the daily shuttle from Gagarin to Armstrong. They hadn’t seen their son since his assumption of command. Moira wanted to see her baby, the newest and youngest ship captain in Scout Force and the Fleet.
    Admiral Tom Craddock, Scout Force Commander, received a call from Andrew, asking if it was all right for them to drop in and see their boy. The Admiral could hardly say no to the inventors of FTL communications and the transporter gates. They were also personal friends. He invited them to stay at his quarters if they wanted to make it a longer stay.
    LTJG Tammy Nielsen, Kelly’s friend and daily shuttle pilot, messaged to inform him of their departure from Gagarin. She recognized them from having met them at Kelly’s assumption of command ceremony. The Admiral’s call, telling him to come by at 1800 for dinner, followed Tammy’s message. Kelly apologized to the Admiral for his father’s uncharacteristic spur of the moment visit. Admiral Craddock said not to worry, he always enjoyed the Blake’s visits, even if this one was unannounced. He told Kelly to come casual and he would see if he could get Candy down from her mountain aerie for the evening.
    Kelly checked his calendar for tonight and tomorrow and found no conflicts. The ship was being loaded for his upcoming patrol, but that would close out well before 1800. He told Chief B and Connie his parents were coming to visit, and he would be having dinner with the Admiral tonight.
    Kelly met his parents at the Military Spaceport Operations Building. They were glad to see him, but had something else on their mind. He drove them directly to Admiral Craddock’s house, where the late summer plantings were just as spectacular as those from the early spring. Candy’s mom was a master gardener.
    Amy Craddock met the Blakes at the door, warmly greeted them, and showed Andrew and Moira to the guest room. Kelly waited in the den while they got settled. Mrs. Craddock walked into the den and asked if Kelly would care for anything. He politely refused, saying that he just wanted to make sure his parents were all right. He still had to return to the Vigilant and change for dinner. She assured him that they were fine and he should go and change.
    He left when the transport arrived and returned to the Vigilant, then showered, shaved, and put on a shirt and slacks that he and Candy had shopped for on the southern continent. At 1720, he left for the Craddock’s house. He arrived a few minutes early and Candy met him at the door. She must have just arrived, as she was still in her pinstriped office suit. Mind, it looked very good on her.
    Her face lit up when she saw him. “Kelly, I’m so happy your folks dropped in. I get to see you again. You haven’t been as much fun since you assumed command. Come in. Would you like some wine?”
    Kelly took her hand and gave her a peck on the cheek. “I’d love some wine, thank you.”
    He followed her to the bar and she poured him a glass of their favorite vidal blanc. Kelly took a sip, smiled, and pronounced it excellent. Andrew came up to the bar and asked for a glass as well.
    Candy poured him a glass, then kissed Kelly on the cheek and excused herself to change into something more comfortable.
    Andrew watched Candy leave almost a little too long and asked, “Are you two getting serious? Your mom sure would be happy if you produced a couple of grandkids any day now.”
    Kelly laughed and said, “Okay, Dad, anything to make Mom happy, but don’t you think I should be married first?”
    They both broke out laughing.
    Moira walked in to find out what all the laughter was about.
    “Dad was trying to get me to produce some grandchildren for you without the encumbrance of a marriage.”
    Moira hugged Kelly and said, “You could hurry, you know? We aren’t getting any younger.”
    Candy walked back into the room wearing a black silk shirt and a matching set of black silk jeans. The shirt set off her bust and the two undone buttons showed off her impressive cleavage. The pants clung to her legs, emphasizing their length and tone. High heel pumps accentuated the effect. She came over and hung off Kelly’s shoulder, probably to dissuade Andrew from leering. It didn’t work.
    They had a lovely dinner punctuated with friendly conversation. Afterwards, Moira and Andrew asked Tom if there was someplace they could speak in private. He directed them into his study. After a few minutes, Admiral Craddock stuck his head out and motioned Kelly in.
    Kelly walked in, was motioned to a chair and heard the admiral say, “Moira, repeat what you just told me, please.”
    Moira said, “We didn’t come here to see you, Kelly, sorry. We have detected a large espionage cell on Shepard and Gagarin. It’s intertwined into almost all functions on Shepard.”
    Admiral Craddock asked, “What makes you think that, Moira?”
    She sat up straight and continued, “We knew when we designed the transporter gates that we had something transformational. It would put all other civilizations, especially the K’Rang, at such a strategic, operational, and tactical disadvantage that they would have to steal it. Therefore, we took certain precautions.”
    “We designed the gates in three pieces, built in three separate assembly lines. We kept the design sheets to the absolute minimum. We put extra components in the rings that are functional, but excess to needs. We have a controller that uses some components one time and different components the next. If the sequence is wrong or the wrong component is used, the system shuts down and has to be reset by hand with a code available only in a special office in Defense HQ on Earth.”
    “That is what we did to keep the gates’ hardware secure. We also put some sniffers in our network and nondescript surveillance gear around our research center, the factory, even in Defense HQ. The feed from the sniffers and surveillance gear flows into a computer we designed, and it searches for anomalies.”
    “We can identify an agent on our staff that has been trying to learn our private language. There are two agents in the main factory that have been trying to gain access to the design sheets. A yeoman and a civilian admin assistant in Defense HQ have been trying to gain access to the copy in that safe. A colonel and a sergeant major in Defense HQ have been trying a little too hard to get assigned to the reset office. We haven’t determined if they are spies or just angling for what they consider to be a plum assignment.”
    “Our former research assistant, Valeri Yestepkin, has two agents working for him, trying to turn him against the Republic. It won’t do them any good. He doesn’t know enough to help them build a ring, even a rudimentary one, plus he’s a good guy. You may remember him from our demo in your conference room. He was one of the assistants helping to bring in the rings.”
    “He’s involved in a research grant, developing a new weapon on the basis of an offshoot of our technology. He’s developing a series of disruptor weapons that make things disappear permanently. He’s already delivered a prototype weapon to Fleet Ordnance. His weapon design alone is worth stealing.”
    “We’ve also noted some instances of poor security at some of the factories building the components. We noticed excessive copying of specification sheets, design sheets, CAD/CAM files, and assembly instructions. It’s as if someone is trying to build a gate from the bottom up.”
    The admiral looked at the two and asked again, “Why have you come to me with this and not your supporting Fleet Intel Field Office?
    Moira replied, “Because we don’t trust them. They’ve been compromised. We don’t know specifically who it is, but one of the security officers has been turned. We’ve seen data on the rings leave their office network. Remember those data devices you found that had our design info on them? We think the security shop on Gagarin is where it originated.”
    Admiral Craddock stood up and walked over to his desk. He picked up his communicator and contacted CAPT Hasselrode and had him call a meeting with CDR Timmons, CDR Johnson, and Kelly at 0800 hours tomorrow morning. He instructed Hasselrode to cancel all his other morning appointments.
    He turned back to Kelly and said, “Your next mission just got a lot more complicated.”

    Tom Baker was lead construction foreman on segment two of the ring system. His team had been catching hell for trouble with aligning his segment to segments one and three when the system was assembled at Tereshkova. He studied the drawing, looking for the mating plate dimensions, suspecting that the setting on the milling machines had drifted off during the milling operation. His machinist insisted he had the right dimensions, but Tom wasn’t sure.
    Tom was also not feeling right. He was pretty sure his lunch from the gut truck was bad in some way and he could feel his insides churn. He was alone in the plan room, but the security guy was just outside if he had to leave suddenly. No sooner did the thought enter his mind than he felt an uncontrollable surge. He jumped up, running out the door for the men’s room at speed. He yelled for the security man to lock up the plans as he ran out the door. Unfortunately, the security man had stepped away for a chocolate bar from the vending machine down the hall and wasn’t there to hear him. A janitor walking by did hear him. Realizing the opportunity, he snatched at the door before it closed and locked, and went in.
    There it was before him, one of the three plans, the Holy Grail of espionage. He quickly pulled out a camera and collected page by page until he had them all. He left the room as he found it and hurried away. The security man came back, found the door locked and no one inside and got a case of the jaws. He would write up the foreman for a security breach. He thought to himself it was a good thing he came back when he did.
    The janitor hurried to the maintenance room, quickly disassembled the camera, and hid it in various spots around the room. He took the data device and uploaded it to a special hidden folder on his pocket terminal and encrypted it. The data device went into a special pocket in the tongue of his shoe. Now all he had to do was wait for normal quitting time. There was no need to do anything out of the ordinary when he had just scored such a coup. He was sure there would be something extra in his pay this month.
    The foreman came back to the reading room and the peeved security guard initially would not let him in. Then he saw the foreman’s ashen face and quickly buzzed him in.
    “My god, man! What’s wrong with you?”
    “I think the fish sandwich I had for lunch was bad. I barely made it to the restroom in time. I’m going home. I just wanted to make sure you secured the plans.”
    “Sure, I got them locked back up. Don’t worry about it. Now get out of here and go get well.”
    The foreman and his rumbling guts checked out and went home. Before he powered up his transporter, he called the machinist and chewed his butt for using the wrong dimensions. He gave him the right dimensions and told him to make sure they stayed that way.

    The janitor thought he was working for a competing manufacturing firm unfairly locked out of running for the ring contract. He waited until he got home at his usual time and formatted the data file for transmission in a cooking recipe. He chuckled as kindly old Aunt Martha from Schirra sent off her family recipe for Sickleberry Pie.
    Alistair Bennett woke up as his ship’s computer dinged to let him know a message with the parameters he’d set had shown up. He read the recipe and waited for the fifth response to come in.
    The fifth comment was from a young wife on Tereshkova wishing she could see a picture of the pie. Alistair assumed this was code for a dead drop. There was never a response back in any of the previous messages and he didn’t expect one this time.
    Alistair had found the common thread when he noticed that in every suspicious message, the message was sent from a different planet than the one on the profile. He’d tumbled to the anomaly by accident and spent a few days testing his hypothesis and weeding out the real grandmas visiting their grandkids on another planet. He found three agents working on Carpenter at the factory — two dead drop servicers, a transporter, and a creditsman. They were brilliantly compartmented except in their communications, which used the assumed security and anonymity of the public network. That would be their downfall.

    Shadow Lead Agent H’Topa was overjoyed. One of the covert collection ships in Human space had intercepted a success code from one of their agents in the factory on the Human main world Shepard. They sent a short coded burst, which a frontier collection site picked up and forwarded to him. He looked up the code and saw it was for acquiring one part of the three-part ring design plan. J’Kraul would be overjoyed to have something tangible to report to the Elders. They were being quite harsh with him, even though they understood how good Human security could be.
    He placed a call to pass on the good news. J’Kraul was ecstatic, as he had an appointment with the Elders next day. J’Kraul asked him what chance there was that the other two parts could be acquired in the same manner. H’Topa had to burst his bubble by telling him he had no way of knowing at this time how this one part had been acquired and wouldn’t know until the agent could be interviewed or the data file off the public network could be delivered to a K’Rang world network for forwarding. It would take at least four days for the collection ship to arrive at N’Ganu, the nearest main world to their exfiltration route. The collection ships were built for collection, not speed. In the meantime, he would arrange for one of his enforcers to interview the agent and report as soon as possible. Although he didn’t tell J’Kraul, as soon as possible could be four weeks.
    H’Topa remembered how his request to place a special communications device in one of the Human’s FTL hubs had been turned down by the Elders and how they had excoriated him for even suggesting such a thing. He remembered their instant dismissal of the idea, fear actually, at the danger that the humans may discover it and turn it into a way to gain access to the K’Rang communications system.
    “There are times like this when it would be helpful for there to be direct connection between the Human and K’Rang networks,” he thought.

    The meeting with the Elders did not go well for Shadow Leader J’Kraul. The news that they had obtained one of the three design plans just led to questions of when would they have the other two sections and the codes to make the rings work. J’Kraul was pummeled so hard by their impatient harangues that he had to use all his will power to keep his ears from flattening on his head. He barely salvaged the meeting by promising to put more resources to bear on the matter and was summarily dismissed. His aide read his superior’s mood and wisely kept quiet on their trip back to Shadow Force Intel HQ.

    H’Topa was summoned to J’Kraul’s office immediately upon his return from the Elders. H’Topa could see the frustration in his friend’s eyes and demeanor.
    “It was the worst I have ever felt in any briefing to any audience. They are almost in panic mode. They must have those other two other design plans or neither of our careers or lives are secure.”
    H’Topa tried to calm his friend, but nothing he said helped. Finally he asked, “Would it help if I went into Human space and directed the network more closely? Our biggest problem is that it takes two weeks to get directions in and two weeks to get the info out, if we’re successful. If I go in on one of the collection ships I can direct my network in real time.”
    J’Kraul looked up at his friend, “H’Topa, old friend, if you are caught it will mean your death.”
    “Then I had better not get caught. How soon can you have a collection ship to take me to Human space?”
    J’Kraul argued in his head against this course of action, but in the end realized he had no choice. If they didn’t make progress on this, Shadow Warriors would be sent to offer them the honorable way out, or they would do it for them.
    “I will have the Special Collection Ship D’Ran at your disposal tomorrow. It is not your usual collection ship. It has teeth and legs. Captain M’Toth and I have served together before. He is steadfast and brave. He will be there when you need him and will give his last breath to keep you safe. Be safe, my friend. You are not just our best lead agent, but also my friend. Contact M’Toth and inform him when you want to leave.”
    H’Topa looked down, then back up into his friend’s eyes and said, “When you tell him he is under my orders, tell him to be ready tomorrow morning at dawn. I will be there ready to load and leave. I don’t think this is the time to dawdle.”
    J’Kraul smiled and said, “You’re right, it isn’t.”

Chapter Four

    It was two hours before Antares crept up over the horizon, as Kelly looked around the bridge. All the first watch were at stations, and Chief Pennypacker had the quarterdeck watch.
    Kelly called Chief P and said, “Chief P, bring up the gangplank. Secure the quarterdeck watch.”
    Kelly felt the now familiar change in pressure in his ears, which signified a good seal, but he checked the pressure indicator to make sure the pressure wasn’t dropping, signifying a leak.
    He keyed his communicator and said, “Antares Base, Vigilant requests permission for take off.”
    The tower came back immediately. “Vigilant, you’re cleared number one for take off. Good luck and good hunting.”
    Kelly ordered, “Helm, standard departure, set course for Antares Station.”
    The helm lifted Vigilant smoothly from its parking apron and moved to the takeoff point. She held it still over the takeoff point for a second and smoothly applied power to the engines. Vigilant lifted into the night sky. The transition from atmosphere to space was hardly noticeable. The Vigilant came to the course that Chief Billings had entered into the navigation computer. The station came into view as the ship approached the terminator between night and day.
    The Vigilant was ushered directly into the ordnance loading dock and a 20-missile pod was installed into the dorsal cargo bay. This was not the usual 20-missile wartime pod they had carried before, but a special pod holding 10 of the long-range heavy missiles capable of killing a destroyer or frigate, and 10 newer, smaller missiles capable of stopping a smaller scout-size ship, but not necessarily killing it. The type of missile used was selectable on the gunnery console. Fully loaded, the Vigilant backed out of the dock and moved to the ring for transport.
    This ring, that had been so decisive when used for the Second Battle of New Alexandria, was returned to Antares Base, as it was almost directly opposite Gagarin in GR space. It was also only a prototype and the designers, Kelly’s parents, didn’t trust it for more than moderate use. Supply ships and the daily shuttles were its peak customers. A production ring would replace it after Earth and the ten first tier worlds were outfitted with rings.
    The helmsman lined the Vigilant up with the gate, stopping 50 km from the entrance for clearance.
    Kelly keyed his communicator and said, “Antares Station, this is Vigilant, requesting clearance to Gagarin.”
    “Vigilant, this is Antares Station. You’re cleared for Gagarin, time now.”
    Kelly said, “Helm, sound collision. Take us through on standard settings.”
    The collision alarm rang through the ship. It was standard procedure when one did not have a clear view forward. Kelly felt the cold as the blackness swept over them in the ring, and then they were looking out at Gagarin’s sun and station. Transport completed, the helmsman powered up to 0.3 c and transited out of the Tau Ceti system, on course for Shepard in Barnard’s Star system.
    Kelly asked Chief Billings to forward the course to the helm. When the helmsman acknowledged the course, Kelly said, “Helm, standard departure, go to FTL power 4 after we clear minimum safety distance.”

    Indigo Corporation CEO Alan Shepler was feeling pretty good about himself. He had cleared the acquisition of Bijou Jewelry with Friedrich Debran as a way to rebuild production lost in the fire. Then he negotiated a rock bottom price from the existing owners, getting it for half what he thought he would. He now had a substantial amount of credits to modernize the plant on Shepard and to pad his own bonus, all without affecting his projected third quarter profits.
    He toured the plant with the plant manager, looking at where to invest his improvement credits. He saw simple improvements that could be made in improved lighting at the jewelers’ workstations, and additional tools to have a complete set for each jeweler. He noted the majority of the jewelers were on in years. He could buy some robot jewelers as the older ones attrited out of the labor force. Shipping looked like something out of the twentieth century, with shelves and boxes instead of computerized stock pickers/order fulfillers.
    Yes, he could see a lot of improvements, but first he needed a new plant manager. The son of the former owner asked to stay on as the plant manager, but he had one of his shift foremen from Fomalhaut in mind for this job, the one with the trim muscular legs and spectacular abs. What good was it to be the boss if you couldn’t enjoy some perks?
    He was entering the main office when his pocket terminal chimed for an incoming message. He looked at the header and stopped dead in his tracks. The executive secretary and office manager looked at him. He regained his composure and told them he had to take a call and he was not to be disturbed.
    He quickly entered the executive suite and closed and locked the door behind him. He started up his personal terminal, and when it was ready, opened his personal folder and accessed the public network. He scrolled the list of sites until he found the right one. He entered the site and downloaded two messages on single skillet meal recipes. As the recipes downloaded, he pulled out a data device and plugged it into his terminal. A light came on at the side of the device and he hit Enter. A small holographic image of the solicitous K’Rang merchant, T’Polla, appeared on his desktop. He must be a prosperous merchant, because his robes look like they were embroidered with gold thread.
    “Mr. Shepler, it is so good to find you again. I was worried I would never make contact with you. That would have been such a loss, because my sources in the Imperial Hall tell me that the K’Rang Empire is considering offering to exchange ambassadors and establish diplomatic and trade relations with the Republic. The recent defeat at G’Dranu convinced the merchant and political class that the military class was leading them down a path to destruction. We voted as a bloc in the Imperial Assembly and cancelled all future weapons programs. We will be using the credits saved to rebuild our merchant class consumer goods production and shipping capability.”
    “Of course, one of our first actions will be to invite Human military authorities in to witness our decommissioning and destruction of all but a small self-defense force of deep space ships. Once this is accomplished, we will petition to be included in the Human ring network so our merchant ships can speed goods in and out of the Empire and the Republic. I understand that the official offer will be made in two of your weeks.”
    “I ask if you can acquire any information on these transporter rings. We will need to put in our orders to the yards soon for new merchant ships to handle the expected trade resulting from our new relationship. It wouldn’t be good to leave the yards idle for too long. The workers would revolt. We will need to know dimensions to know how big to make our freighters. What physical principles do they follow, so we can determine if any of our engines or systems would be adversely affected? Do they require any modifications to our ships? In essence, anything you can find out for us.”
    “Our agreement with the late Mr. Delphant is still in force. Indigo Corporation has an exclusive license to import flamestones from the Empire. Please pass our condolences to Mr. Delphant’s family. His passing was a terrible loss to Empire-Republic relations.”
    “I am not one to ask favors of you without a quid pro quo, as you call it. I have a 10-liter shipment container of flamestones that I can turn over to you at our next meeting. Contact me at the link on the other message when you are ready to trade.”
    “Again, it is so good to find you well and we look forward to trading with you. Farewell.”
    Shepler knew what T’Polla was asking for and why. He knew that T’Polla was probably a K’Rang agent, but he didn’t care. Neither did Delphant when he was alive. Of course, if they had gone to the K’Rang with the measly data Delphant had procured, there wouldn’t be 30 liters of flamestones on their company asteroid. It had been easy to acquire the info they really wanted.
    Shepler knew there was no way the K’Rang Empire was ever going to conquer the Republic. All they could do was snipe around the borders. Eventually the Republic would tire of this and go in and conquer them world-by-world. He could give them everything they asked for and it wouldn’t change the inevitable.
    Now, whom did he know that could get him what he needed?

    H’Topa took off his heavy merchant robe and hung it on a hook. He supposed it was the type of robe a merchant would wear. The K’Rang had no merchant class or political class. There were the nobles and there were warriors. The nobles ran the Empire, electing the three Elders that ran the day-to-day affairs. There was no longer an emperor. Years of internal palace intrigue left the K’Rang weakened and disjointed. The K’Rang Empire was heading to ruin when the dukes and barons revolted against the Emperor. The Emperor was put to the sword, as were all his palace minions. The three main blocs of nobles each voted an Elder to run the Empire. The blocs shifted and changed over the years and only one of the original three blocs still provided an Elder, but the Empire prospered under their rule.
    The rest of the K’Rang were warriors. K’Rang females traditionally were warrior mothers. They gave birth to warriors and administered the creches, but of late, had started to become warriors. There was initial resistance to this, but experience showed that while they were not the same as male warriors, they brought unique skills and aptitudes that males sometimes never develop. Kittens were warriors in training for the day they were ready to serve the Empire.
    Warriors comprised two classes: warriors and shadow warriors. Shadow warriors were the best of the warrior class, as determined through rigorous testing from kittenhood through adult. Those judged best at providing skills the Shadow Force required became shadow warriors.
    Shadow Force was the K’Rang Imperial Guard. A regiment always guarded Imperial Hall. A Shadow Force Task Force always orbited G’Durin. Shadow Force always had the first line equipment and ships.
    Regular warriors’ weapons and ships were always a touch inferior to their Shadow equivalent, and also older on average. Shadow Force ships were upgraded in the yards every five years. The warriors’ ships were modernized every ten years. Although the warrior fleet outnumbers the Shadow Fleet, they were kept stationed on the outer reaches of the Empire. The Shadow Fleet patrolled the Empire’s inner main worlds.
    Technically there was no merchant class. There were warriors that were in charge of production and supply for the warrior class and the women and kittens directly. Some even were in charge of providing luxuries and necessities to the nobility. Warriors supporting other warriors ran factories, shipyards, farms, mines, and lumber mills. The K’Rang just considered it logistics.
    While only royalty and their relations were allowed to live permanently on G’Durin, a small number of military and bureaucrats lived on the home world during their assignments, such as the Chief of the Regular Fleet and his staff. H’Topa and J’Kraul’s duties as Shadow Warriors in the Intel HQ also gave them authority to live on G’Durin. Provided Mr. Shepler was able to acquire what was needed, they would continue to stay on G’Durin and above ground. The main military cemetery so close to the city center was a constant reminder that there was more than one way to be granted permanent residence on G’Durin.
    H’Topa thought, “Mr. Shepler was helpful before in getting us long-range communications design information. Let us see if he can get what we need this time.” H’Topa had seen Shepler’s eyes light up at the thought of a reestablished supply of flamestones. “Perhaps he will be motivated to do what we ask if we ask him the right way.”
    “Captain M’Toth, set course for Shepard. It seems our friend is not on Fomalhaut after all.”

    Alistair Bennett noticed the highly encrypted data stream pass through the network. It drew his computer’s attention because it followed the same data path as a posting to a suspect forum. He would never know the contents, but he suspected something was being put in place.
    He ran his trace routine to see if he could pinpoint the terminal that received the stream. Not only was the stream encrypted, but the data packets comprising the stream were de-multiplexed and sent though multiple links to be multiplexed back together at the receiving terminal. He let the computer work on it, but did not hold out hope.
    Turning his attention to other matters, he set the computer to work on correlating suspected espionage activity and ship arrivals and departures. He was looking for patterns that would lead to K’Rang courier ships bringing in instructions and leaving with reports and/or equipment. The computer broke out a number of ships that were in the area during periods of high espionage activity. He had the computer look for any information on these suspect ships that related to registry and ownership. The K’Rang had the same problem he would have if he wanted to task an agent in the K’Rang Empire. There were no direct communications or data links between the two adversaries. All message traffic had to be carried in and input into the communications stream once the courier ship came in range of a network node. There were K’Rang ships in Human space doing the same thing. Alistair took another nap while the tireless computer trudged through the network, looking for those ships.

    Kelly took a tour around his ship and liked what he saw. He sat down for coffee with Chiefs Austin and Pennypacker, thanking them for their service to the ship and saying how much they were going to be missed. He kidded Cookie about not being able to teach him to cook. He then asked them, even though their transfers were months away, if they had any recommendations for their replacements. Both Chiefs recommended people on other Scout Force ships.
    Kelly was unsure if that could be made to happen. He told them both that he was considered sort of a favorite with the Admiral, but not so much that he could raid from other captain’s rosters.
    Chief Austin replied, ”Culinary Specialist First Class Donna Robinson is first cook on the Virtuous. I trained her. She’s good. She just came out on the Chiefs’ list. She’s low on the list, but she’ll be looking for a job when she makes Chief. The Virtuous won’t have a billet for her then. That should be right about the time I’m out-processing. Let Yeoman Benitez ask personnel for who is coming up for promotion about the time I leave. They’ll do the research for you and take the hit with the captain of the Vigorous for stripping away his first cook.”
    Chief Pennypacker said, “Gunners Mate First Class Tom Hendrickson, on the Vengeance, must be in the same boat as Robinson. He won’t have a billet either, once he makes Chief. He’s one of my wife’s cousins, but he’s a good gunner. The Chief he works for is lazy and makes him do all the work. He’s ready for his own section, where he gets the credit for what goes right and not just the blame when things go wrong. I suggest you have Benitez ask about filling both our positions as Cookie suggested. Personnel will make the transfers to keep their books straight. Let them take the heat from the other captains.”
    Kelly liked their suggestions, but wanted to see both personnel files first. He made a note for Benitez to pull the files.

    H’Topa’s next action was to contact the agent that acquired the one-third copy of the design segment. He contacted the agent’s dead drop servicer and arranged a transfer of twice the normal payment. He knew this agent had a family problem and always needed credits. Double pay would reward him for this coup and encourage him to be more aggressive in the future.
    An idea started forming in H’Topa’s head, a way to get all three segments of the design plan. He called up data on the plant’s work force. He was so thankful Humans had a compulsion to set up publically available line and block charts of who worked for whom and who was in charge. It made his job so much easier, especially as the charts so often wound up in the trash. He would have to find a way to get the other two plant foremen to review their copies of the design at the same time. H’Topa began to put a plan together.

    Yeoman Benitez knocked on Kelly’s cabin door and came in with a message for him. He put aside the personnel files he was reviewing and took the message. It was from Scout Force operations, and said to meet up with Fleet Intelligence Reporting Officer Alistair Bennett, in orbit above Shepard. The Vigilant was to assist Alistair in his investigations. It gave the coordinates and a short-range frequency for coordination.
    Kelly called in Connie and gave her their new destination.
    “What’s there, sir?”
    Kelly replied, “A Fleet Intel Reporting Officer and his ship. We get to help him bust up some spies.”
    “Will there be anything else?”
    “No, not right now.”
    She left and Kelly got back to his two potential replacement chiefs’ personnel files.

    Alistair awoke as his computer chimed that it was finished. It found five ships that were in or near the site of suspected espionage activity. They were all registered on third tier worlds, and were about the same type and class. All were older medium cargo ships, not unlike Alistair’s, but slightly larger. They had all been built in second tier world shipyards that were no longer in business. There were too many coincidences in this list.
    He put together a short order to the Vigilant to be handed over when they docked, instructing the Vigilant to ping the transponder on any of these ships in orbit over Shepard. If Kelly got a hit on one, he was to stop and board the ship for inspection for safety and navigation purposes. One of them was passing instructions to the operatives. That should about do it. Now all he had to do was wait for the Vigilant to appear.
    He turned back to his computer and had it start looking for flight plans for any of these ships in or near Shepard. As the computer quietly churned through the data, he took another catnap.

    Alan Shepler contacted a source he’d used before to get information on the Blake’s FTL comms system. He dialed the number and a male voice answered, “Security, how may I help you?”
    “Oh, I’m dreadfully sorry. I was trying to reach 0258-555-6768.”
    He apologized for the wrong number, hung up, and waited.
    Thirty minutes later, a call came in, asking for Mr. Miller. Shepler said he was Miller and the call went through.
    “Mr. Miller, so good to hear from you again. What can I do for you?”
    “I’m trying to build a shed. I have all the material, but I’ve lost my plan.”
    “Do you remember the plan number?”
    “I don’t remember the plan number, but remember that it is a three-part plan.”
    “I may not be able to help you get that particular plan, but I will see what I can do. How soon do you need it?”
    “Thank you, I need it as soon as possible. This is very important and I’m sure I could find some way to repay you for your kindness in this matter. You have a good day.”
    Bart Morton, the chief security officer supporting the Theoretical and Applied Scientific Research Facility on Gagarin, hung up the phone and pondered over what he had just been asked. The last time he had taken a call from Mr. Miller, the job had been simple. There were no elaborate security measures for that data. It was simply a matter of calling up the data on an open terminal someone had left on and transferring the data to his pocket terminal, then he transferred that information to a data device and left it under the lip of a recently emptied trashcan in Cosmonaut Park. His very generous payment was found inside the cracked base of a cast iron street lamp three blocks away.
    This ring data, however, was the most tightly secured data he had ever known. The security plan had been developed by a genius. Every security hole had been covered. Nothing had been left to chance. He would love to meet whoever developed it. It had to be someone in Fleet Intel with enormous resources at his disposal. Nonetheless, Mr. Miller had deep pockets and Morton’s mistress, Silke, had expensive tastes.

Chapter Five

    Kelly saw the small cargo ship appear as they drew closer, exactly where the coordinates given in his orders had said it would be. He ordered the helmsman to hold off 50 km from the cargo ship until he established positive communications and identity.
    He exchanged code words on short-range communications with the ship’s occupant. Determining that he had the right ship, he requested permission to dock; receiving it, Kelly ordered the helm to move forward and dock.
    The docking was smooth and sure. Kelly made a note to see to promoting this helmsman as soon as possible. She was his best and most consistent helmsman.
    Kelly went to the hatch and cycled it open, where a tall blonde man with long hair and a full trimmed beard met him. Kelly shook his hand and received a firm grip back.
    “Mr. Bennett, I’m LCDR Kelly Blake, of the Vigilant.”
    “Captain, come aboard and let me brief you on what I have found out so far.”
    Kelly asked if he could have his XO and Senior Chief sit in. When Alistair agreed, he called Connie and Chief B to the hatch. Alistair led them into the interior of his ship to a central conference table. A white cat was curled up on the table. Alistair shooed the cat and called up a screen at the end of the table. He motioned them to sit, then went through what he had determined so far.
    He told them of the agent network, laying out every node of the network he had uncovered to date. He showed them the dead drop servicers, credits handlers, and transporters, and how he identified the spies through their use of the network forums.
    Kelly pulled out his pocket terminal and transferred the data his folks had developed. Alistair whistled when he saw the data. Thanking Kelly for his parents’ work, he jokingly asked if they might consider doing more work for Fleet Intel some time.
    The combined data laid out the network in detail. It showed the data flow from the spies to the dead drop servicers and network forums to the transporters. There the path stopped, until Alistair transferred in the data from his analysis of the possible courier ships. It showed the flow of credits and instructions in, but how those got to and from K’Rang space was a mystery.
    Alistair held back his previous order and tasked Kelly to find the courier ship’s infiltration and exfiltration paths. He also charged him with taking out any courier ships that might be leaving with critical data. His gut told him that one might show up and soon. He passed Kelly the parameters he had developed on the courier ships to plug into the Vigilant’s computer system. Kelly passed that to Chief B.
    With the preliminaries out of the way, Alistair invited them all to stay for tea. Kelly declined, and Chief B wanted to get the courier ship parameters to sensors, so they could start tracking ships coming into the system. Connie expressed a liking for tea, so she stayed behind.
    It was quiet in the sector over the next few days, and Connie and Alistair had time to become quite chummy. She was constantly finding excuses to go visit or coordinate. Kelly noticed, but it didn’t interfere with her duties. Considering the loneliness a reporting officer must experience, he let it go on as an act of mercy.

    The D’Ran entered the system on the far side from where Alistair and the Vigilant were orbiting. The planetary data system interrogated the ship’s data banks for name, registry, and ownership, and charged it a 200-credit system entry fee.
    The D’Ran did not cause Alistair’s computer to alert because it was not like the other courier ships. It was not registered under a flag of convenience, but under a first tier world flag. It was not nondescript — in fact, it was painted bright red with an eagle’s head painted on its nose. It employed the “hide in plain sight” camouflage scheme.
    H’Topa had the captain park the ship in and amongst ships waiting for clearance to land at various spaceports on the planet below. After a few days, as ships came and went, no one noticed them anymore.
    H’Topa linked into the planet’s data network and transmitted a number of taskings to his agents and to those belonging to other agent handlers back on G’Durin. He also received a number of reports from his and other handlers’ agents.

    Alarms went off on Alistair’s console as the outgoing messages hit the network. Alistair called over to the Vigilant and asked if a courier ship had arrived in sector. They replied that no ships matching the parameters had arrived or left the system since they started scanning for them.
    Alistair knew one of the ships had to be a courier ship. He checked their registries and found all legally registered in their system of origin and insured. The insurance came from reputable ship underwriters. He analyzed the IP address and saw it was from an unknown ship in orbit, using a link to the worldwide broadcast network. He called up every ship arrival in the past week and looked for anomalies. He came up with less than a dozen suspects. He needed a way to whittle down the list.
    He called Kelly over, explained the situation, and asked if they could help by putting eyes on the suspects. Kelly asked for the list and how soon he wanted the pictures.

    H’Topa analyzed the reports he received back and decided to pursue multiple paths to acquire the plans. He realized, from one of the reports destined for another agent handler, that there were four K’Rang operatives in the Defense HQ, not just his two. He saw there were an officer and a senior NCO working to be assigned to the special ring office, in addition to his two administrative assistants.
    There were also agents being run by Mr. Shepler, who was running a small network of his own. He had an administrative assistant, Silke Watson and her boss, Bart Morton, the local security officer on Gagarin, working for him. H’Topa decided that initiative like this must be rewarded.
    He also read reports from his two agents working for Mr. Yestepkin. They didn’t feel he was a good source for the plans, but the weapon he was working on would be worth acquiring. He read their precis and agreed, and sent a message authorizing them to proceed.
    H’Topa sent directives to all agents in proximity to the target, ordering them to concentrate on acquiring copies of the ring design plans. He knew that this might compromise his network, but he didn’t look forward to being offered an honorable way to die when he got back to G’Durin. A network could be rebuilt, but he was one of a kind.

    Kelly undocked from Alistair’s ship and started a high orbit of the planet. Their sensors were set to high gain, and within a day had a complete list of all ships in Shepard’s space. Sensors ran the list against all ships on the planet registry, then forwarded Kelly a list of ships in orbit, but not on the registry. There were four: two bulk freighters, a bulk liquid gas carrier, and an auto-container freighter. Vigilant made a close pass to all four and scanned them for any signs of K’Rang occupants. The scans proved negative. Kelly guessed that the ships were merely avoiding the system entry fee.
    Kelly sat down with his sensor experts and Chief B to see if there was any way to detect K’Rang signatures externally. The discussion went back and forth between Chief B and Chief Johnson, but neither came up with a workable solution. The winning answer to what was different about K’Rang and Humans came out of the mouth of a diminutive Cryptologic Tech 3rd Class, Daisy “Pixie” Benson.
    Pixie sat quietly, listening to her superiors getting nowhere near a solution on what was different about K’Rangs that could be detected by the Vigilant. The discussion was getting quite heated when Pixie said loudly, “Their poop and pee are different.”
    The startled participants sat in stunned silence, and then laughed as they absorbed what Pixie had just said. Of course, ships pump their toilet waste overboard. If there were K’Rang on board, it would be detectable by the Vigilant’s multiple sniffers. Getting silly in their exhaustion, they wondered if K’Rang used litter boxes and what kitty litter brand they used, if they did. There was much laughter before they got serious and back to work.
    Chief B ran a search for the chemical composition of K’Rang bodily wastes. She pulled it up on her pocket terminal and beamed it to Chief Johnson’s terminal. Kelly sent the sensor section back to their positions to “sniff” out the K’Rang poop and pee. Pixie received an on-the-spot achievement medal for her blinding sense of the obvious.

    Bart Morton decided to reinstate after hours security checks in the Gagarin Research Facility. After a week of very visible signs left on desks from people leaving their terminals on, tossing classified material into regular wastebaskets, or forgetting to lock safes, people started taking security seriously. The facility manager even congratulated Bart on his success in increasing security awareness.
    In addition to gaining him kudos, he also was making his presence, wandering through offices at night, a routine thing. People thought nothing of him checking safes, opening unlocked safes, rifling through desks, and digging through waste bins. It became a joke when he found a violation in the early evening, while the late workers were still preparing to leave. Workers applauded him when he caught a violator. Bart suspected in some cases that workers were setting up their office mates.
    He and Silke worked together to find out how to open the safe combination envelopes for the triple locked safe holding the ring plans. Bart’s office maintained the combination envelopes for all safes in the facility, even the Blakes’ personal safe. They just had to open the sealed envelope in such a way that it could be resealed so that it didn’t look like it had been opened.
    Bart and Silke practiced with empty envelopes, using steam from her teakettle to soften the glue on the seal. They practiced until they could do it perfectly each time. Late on a Friday, Silke steamed open the main safe combo envelope, wrote down the combination, and resealed it. She did the same with the three internal safe drawer combos.
    After the last worker left for the weekend, Bart and Silke put their plan into effect. They first made a sweep of the offices looking for security violations. Bart found two and left his famous yellow ‘gotcha’ signs on the desks. This gave them justification for being there late on a Friday.
    After completing the security sweep, they entered the Blakes’ office and opened the safe. The main safe door opened easily. The first drawer opened and Bart had Silke photograph the one document in it page-by-page.
    When Silke had the first document copied, she handed the document back. Bart put it back the way it had been, using a photo he’d taken as reference, and locked the drawer.
    They did the same with the second and third drawers, where each held only one document. When they finished, they put everything back exactly as it was before. As a final step, he left one of his yellow ‘gotchas’ for having unclassified papers on top of the safe he’d just rifled. Bart and Silke took the camera’s data device with them as they checked out through the security guard, the data device securely stashed in Silke’s brocade and lace bra.
    They sent the success code through the network’s cooking forum and received the code phrase to put the data in their dead drop within two hours. They copied the data to another clean device and triple-sealed it in plastic bags, then took his ground car to a certain public park. Their dead drop site was a public restroom. The third sink from the door had a lip on its underside. Bart went in, made sure the stalls were empty, and secured the bag under the sink, where it was not visible to the casual eye. He washed his hands and carried the paper towel outside, to toss in the container by the entrance to the park.
    Bart and Silke went back to his apartment and spent the weekend celebrating their imminent reward. Bart wondered if it might be enough to retire on. He’d heard of a hidden world run by pirates, if they could only find it, which sounded like a perfect retirement location.

    Colonel David Little had been a brigade commander assigned to reinforce the New Alexandria Ground Forces during the second battle of New Alexandria. Sergeant Major Frank Days had been his senior enlisted advisor. Little had been on a fast track to a star and planned to take Days with him as he rose in rank. After the New Alexandria campaign, he was informed he would not be considered for a star because he had no combat experience as a brigade commander. The K’Rang invasion fleet had been destroyed before they could land any ground troops for Colonel Little to fight.
    When he was told this in a phone call from his mentor and superior, he exploded and said things to a two-star general that could have gotten him court martialed; instead, it got him relieved from command three months early. That effectively ended his career. After that, Little felt betrayed by a service to which he’d devoted his adult life.
    It was time for him to get some payback. He found out what bars were of interest to the local counterintelligence detachment and frequented them, letting his dissatisfaction with the military be known. It wasn’t long before he came to the notice of some shady types and was recruited. He smiled when they encouraged him to apply for the special ring security detachment.
    Little and Days had excellent records and were approved for the special ring security detachment. As the senior member, Colonel Little was made acting chief. A one-star admiral was to be the eventual chief, but had not yet been confirmed by the Senate. The Colonel and Sergeant Major settled in and established the processes for the office, effectively ensuring they had access to every code. After a week, Little transmitted the success code to the cooking forum and received a dead drop code in return.
    Frank Days made the drop by placing an envelope containing the codes, triple sealed in plastic bags, up onto the smoke shelf of the crumbling chimney in an old abandoned house. Two days later they received another dead drop code. When they opened the package in Days’ apartment, there were two packages of backdated stock certificates totaling 200,000 credits. Days and Little celebrated with beers.
    In his triumph, Little completely forgot that becoming visible in those bars of interest to the counterintelligence detachment had made him of counterintelligence interest.

    Pixie’s brainstorm worked. The Vigilant’s sniffers could detect the chemical signature of K’Rang bodily waste. Unfortunately, the Vigilant could not determine which ship contained the K’Rang in the orbital parking area holding over 200 ships without spooking the courier ship. Alistair did some magic with the planet’s servers and increased his computational power exponentially. He called up the ship’s logs for every ship that had entered Shepard’s space in the last four weeks. He let the combined computing power look for anomalies. In seven hours, the computer spit out three ships. One was an ore carrier, another was a cargo and passenger ship, and the third was a decommissioned military gunboat converted to civilian use.
    Sensors plotted out the ships’ locations in the parking orbit. Kelly looked at how the three ships were parked in relation to each other and had navigation plot a course that would put the Vigilant in close proximity to all three ships. When plotted out, it looked very similar to a standard approach pattern, which gave Kelly an idea.
    The Vigilant left orbit and looped around the next nearest planet. It came back lined up on the vector to pass all three ships and started a standard approach. Kelly called to Shepard Station and requested docking at the station, also on the same vector.
    In sensors, Pixie jumped up and shouted, “Bingo!” when they passed the second ship, the combined cargo and passenger ship. She had found the K’Rang courier ship.
    Kelly had them put the visual of the ship up on their main monitor. Kelly couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw the paint scheme, crimson red with an eagle’s head on the bow. It was so obvious that nobody would suspect it. He kept his ship on course for the station and docked long enough to send Connie and Cookie with a shopping list and a set amount of credits. They bought spices and delicacies and returned to the Vigilant.
    Kelly departed the station and made a low angle approach to the planet. He kept them on this vector until they pushed beyond the spot where the K’Rang courier ship’s sensors could still range on them and had them climb back up to dock with Alistair.

    Alistair spent the time that the Vigilant was away to break out more data on the cooking forum discussions. He found he could decipher more of the spoofed data and find out from which planet the reply messages came. The first reply originated on Tereshkova, to a recipient on Shepard. The second came from Shepard to a recipient on Gagarin. The third came from Shepard to a recipient on Earth. The first message was from four weeks ago and must have been from another courier ship or the one here on its transit in. Alistair deduced that the courier ship would need to leave here after it retrieved the first package and go to Earth and Gagarin to pick up those packages. Kelly agreed and proposed to move his ship out to the edge of the star system. There he would monitor the ship and follow it when it left to retrieve the data from its next stop.
    Alistair composed a message to a counterintelligence office in Fleet Intel HQ. This office dealt with espionage cases involving compromised Fleet Intel officers. He provided all evidence he had so far gathered on the agent network. It was up to them to decide which individuals to roll up and which to turn, and which to continue to watch.

    Cindy arranged another special lunch for Valeri. She was quite energetic about it and left him snoring on his couch. She had little sense of accomplishment from that. He had been working so hard on his weapon systems that he was one blink from falling asleep most days. She let him sleep.
    She walked into the lab, without bothering to put on so much as her now signature lab coat, and sat down at the CAD/CAM terminal. She called up the complete designs for his hand weapon and an assault rifle that would use the disruptor technology. She included the large caliber shipborne weapon design, even though it still had the energy supply problem, and copied it all to a clean data device.
    She put the data device into a compartment behind her pocket terminal and returned to her sleeping beauty. She knew just how to wake him.
    Cindy did not hate Valeri. He was just a means to an end. She liked, no, loved fancy things and keeping herself beautiful. That required more credits than a lab assistant made. Her K’Rang friends had lots of credits, and all she had to do was move within the theoretical physics community and get hired to work on the latest technology. Her high grades from the Delosian Institute of Physical Sciences, plus her long legs and firm breasts, usually put her on the short list for hiring wherever she applied. Valeri was the first male to hire her that actually read her transcript and master’s thesis. It was so unusual that she blushed at her job interview. She thought that blush was one reason he hired her.
    He had certainly never made any advances on her. He had assumed she and Ron were together, seeing as how she so strongly lobbied for him to be hired. Even her flirting with Valeri was never the cause of reciprocal flirting in response. She finally had to take matters into her own hands with their special lunches to get him to give her a tumble. Even that couldn’t cure him of his workaholic ways. She worked around him totally naked one afternoon and he never even noticed, while he tried to work out the power supply problem for the larger caliber guns. It was most frustrating.
    She kneeled down beside where he lay on the couch and ran her lips and hands over his body until he stirred. Then she gave him one more gift, for her pleasure this time.

    Alistair jumped when his console alarmed, signifying a new message on the cooking forum. He was so startled he almost dropped Connie off his lap. She stood up, allowing him to read out the latest message. This one was a beef stroganoff recipe from Gagarin. He would break out the IP address and location of the sender later. For now he waited for the fifth comment. It was from another housewife, asking for a picture of the completed dish.
    Alistair had learned that it signified a call to place the data in a dead drop. He wished he had the technology to trace an IP address to a specific individual. The imaging technology on his ship could follow an individual on the ground from high orbit. It would be helpful to follow the package to the dead drop, and then follow the package after it was picked up, and make prosecutions easier when Fleet Intel counterintelligence rolled up the network. Oh, well, rolling up the network was someone else’s responsibility.
    He pulled Connie back onto his lap. The airlock door sensors would give them plenty of warning.

    Irina Bugarov toured the 4 Motion Electronics, Inc. plant on Shepard as the introduction to her first of ten subordinate firms. She saw a modern, efficient factory putting out three main components of the transport ring system. She made a point to look beyond where she was being guided. If the guide turned left at a hallway that also went right, she went down the right hall to see what she was being led away from. There were more than a few instances where her guide kept on walking and talking, while she was looking through storage closets and unoccupied workspaces. After this happened twice, the CEO had the plant manager inform her what was in the opposite direction and ask if she wished to confirm this. She didn’t. She just wanted to make the point to this manager and all the others she had yet to visit that she would look and go anywhere she pleased and wouldn’t be fooled by being led away from somewhere unpleasant. She knew this manager would be in a conference call with the other nine managers within seconds of her leaving the building.
    She did see things that disturbed her. There were numerous copies of classified plan design sheets at many supervisory positions, most with no one present at the position. She had her assistant make a note to enquire about security in the plants. The company CEO and plant manager explained the sheets were needed to ensure the components were made to spec.
    Irina asked, “Are all these people here cleared for this information? If so, how would you know? They have no badges or other identifiers showing they are cleared. What are your document security procedures? How many copies of these documents have been made?” She walked over to a partial document obviously run off a copier and held it out before her.
    “How many of these are running around? This is unsatisfactory. Terri, make a note. Look into hiring a security officer for my staff. Gentlemen, clean up your act before my security officer arrives. I suggest you dust off your industrial security manuals and read up. There will be a test.”
    Terri looked at the faces of incredulity, the ‘but we’ve always done it this way’ faces and thought to herself, “Folks, there’s a new sheriff in town.”

    Terri worked late that night, preparing notes for the General’s visit to her next plant. It required her to put together a data file with each key plant individual, a picture, notes on compensation, and last performance review. All this was organized into a master file, which included the plant’s production statistics, manpower, facilities, and any issues relating to the plant, such as lawsuits or regulatory issues.
    The General was a tough taskmaster, but Terri could stay ahead of her and usually anticipated her needs. Irina needed to make a first impression of confidence, business savvy, and knowledge of each plant’s contribution to the subsidiaries’ profit potential. Irina needed to get them all pulling in the same direction, like a team of horses dragging a heavy wagon.
    The plant managers were under the same gun as the General. She wasn’t afraid to terminate any of the managers’ contracts if she lost confidence in their ability to do their jobs and contribute to the overall profitability of the subsidiary. She was going to make a profit, a quite considerable profit. Profit was Irina’s mission now.

    H’Topa was almost done on Shepard. Transport specialists were rendezvousing with dead drop servicers and consolidating the data in one location. The close pass by a Human warship, specifically a scout ship, made him anxious to get away from this planet. He would wait until darkness covered the selected spaceport and land, be on the ground just long enough to pick up the deliveries, and then back into space to Gagarin.
    The captain tried to convince him that the close pass must have just been a coincidence. If the Humans were on to them, why would they alert them to their presence? H’Topa was somewhat assured by the captain’s logic, but didn’t like coincidences. He would be happier when they were a few light years from here and with blank scans behind them.

    Alistair informed Kelly that the courier ship was moving. Alistair had moved his ship to where he had line of sight on the K’Rang ship. The courier was moving down to a spaceport on the smallest continent. Alistair focused his optics on the ship as it flared out and set down gently on the parking apron. He watched as a vehicle drove out to the ship. A single man carrying a case of some sort passed it over to someone from the ship. The first man received something in a bundle from the man from the ship, and the first man drove away.
    The ship sat on the ground for 30 minutes and lifted off. Alistair informed Kelly that the ship had filed a flight plan to Gagarin and lifted off.
    Kelly ordered his ship to Gagarin and set an initial course 300,000 km parallel to the most direct course. His intention was to shadow the courier ship from just ahead and to the side of his path, hopefully out of his sensor range. As long as the courier ship didn’t have special sensors, they should be okay.
    On the planet below, Cindy was railing at Ron. “How could you have been so stupid? I told you to put the package on top of the south support beam of the footbridge, not the north beam, you jackass! Couldn’t you tell your north from your south?”
    Cindy had been in a foul mood ever since she’d seen the post on the cooking forum with the missed dead drop code. No telling how long it would be before another courier ship would show up. Plus they had to retrieve the package before some inquisitive teenager sneaking a snort under the bridge looked up and saw it. She punched him in the side to encourage him to drive faster.

    Alistair landed on Shepard and coordinated with the counterintelligence team leader in charge of rolling up the agent network on Shepard. Alistair turned over his report and the detailed information on the suspects. The team spent an hour on Alistair’s ship, reviewing the data and planning their raids.
    Alistair asked the team leader not to start the raids until they received the go signal from him personally. That would signify that the courier ship had launched from Earth and was out of contact with a network node.
    The Vigilant would track the courier ship until it showed them the exfiltration route into K’Rang space. At that time, the Vigilant would destroy the courier ship before it could escape across the frontier.
    Concluding the briefing, Alistair hurried them off and fired up his ship to pursue the courier ship to Gagarin.

    H’Topa reviewed procedures for collection on Gagarin. The landings were at one of five minor spaceports, chosen at random. He reviewed info on the spaceports, saw no difference between them, and picked the last one according to the Human alphabet. He was heartened to hear from the captain that no ships left orbit behind them. He also did a 360-degree maximum range scan and found nothing but routine intrastellar traffic.
    H’Topa liked this captain. His quiet assurance calmed H’Topa’s nerves. Yes, the scout ship yesterday was probably just a coincidence, but the stakes here were too high to trust to luck. Their successful return to G’Durin would ensure the security of the K’Rang Empire and take away a significant Human advantage, not to mention keeping a certain two Shadow Warriors alive.

    Kelly conferred with Chief Johnson in the sensor section on the best way to close on Gagarin without the K’Rang ship detecting them. After their close pass at Shepard, the K’Rang would spook if they showed up again. Chief Johnson recommended lying off 300,000 km as they were now and letting Alistair do the orbital surveillance.
    “Nothing says the K’Rang can’t tap into the planet arrival registry and pull us up if we get close enough to be interrogated and registered, even if we just go to Gagarin Station.”
    Kelly saw the logic and agreed to hang back, keeping the ship in sensor range, but moving them laterally so they were parallel to the flight path to Gagarin. “Just because we assume he’ll make a collection run to Earth next doesn’t mean the K’Rang have agreed with us,” he thought.
    Kelly returned to the bridge and tracked the courier ship. After some time of very little going on, he zoned out, and started back to the present when Connie leaned over his shoulder and said, “Captain, you should get some rest. It’s going to be three days to Gagarin, tagging along at this courier ship’s speed.”
    Kelly agreed, turned the conn over to her, and turned in.

    Alistair pushed the throttle forward and made a broad sweep around the courier ship on its port side, maneuvering to stay out of sensor range, and reach Gagarin before them. He had to confer with the special CI team before the courier ship arrived. He needed them to be very careful not to divulge their presence or be seen by the chief security officer before taking down the Gagarin network. They would not be able to advise the security office, as the special team would be arresting their boss and receptionist. This should have been obvious from the report, but Alistair liked being sure everyone understood what was expected.
    Alistair’s status as a Fleet Reporting Officer gave him certain privileges and authorities. One privilege was a special code that allowed his ship to have unimpeded access to any world in the Galactic Republic with no questions, no entry or landing fees and no record of his arrival or departure. He also had a nominal equivalent rank of brigadier general and special authority to task any Fleet or Fleet Intelligence or counterintelligence unit he needed to help accomplish his mission. Alistair normally never needed these authorities and he used them sparingly. He knew from experience that the more people involved, the harder operational security became.
    Alistair pushed past the courier ship some 350,000 km to his starboard and arrived in Gagarin two days before it. He conferred with the special CI team chief and ensured he understood not to spring the trap until the courier ship left Earth and they had been given the go signal from Alistair. The team chief acknowledged his instructions and left the meeting to coordinate support from the local CI office and the Special Ops School. They would be trying to arrest 12 people in ten locations, eleven if Bart and Silke weren’t together.
    Coordination completed, Alistair positioned his ship in geosynchronous orbit above the Gagarin Research Facility and waited.

    H’Topa sent the signal for the transport specialist to deliver his package to the ship at the Whispering Pines Spaceport on the northwest side of Star City. He gave the transporter a simple code phrase to use to identify him. The transport specialist was told to be prompt, as they would not remain on the ground for more than an hour.
    The transporter acknowledged receipt of his instructions and put his material in proper order for the transfer. He filled out a shipping receipt, listing all the included packages by code name and sequence number. He had quite a bundle to pass. He was also hoping they would pass back a larger than normal package his way. His wife’s brother was spending his credits almost faster than he could earn it. If the bum didn’t get a job soon he was getting thrown out the door, no matter what his wife said. She could follow her brother out the door, if she objected this time.
    At the appointed hour, after the cloak of darkness had settled over the spaceport, H’Topa ordered the ship down to the surface. He thought that this delivery would provide him the complete data on the rings he had been seeking. This Gagarin delivery should be a complete copy of the plans from the Blake’s safe, in their special language. The earlier acquired second segment of the design plan received on Shepard, written in galactic standard language, should give the Imperial Analytical Cabal a key to translate the other two segments. H’Topa just had to collect this package and one more on Earth, and he would have all the info necessary to construct a transporter ring.
    The courier ship descended through the night sky and was directed to a parking space on the operations apron. The transporter met them promptly at the assigned time, gave the code phrase, and passed the package over. A package was handed back to the transporter and the gangplank started coming up as the engines wound up. The transporter quickly moved away as the crimson ship leapt back into the sky.
    H’Topa opened the package and verified the contents. An entire copy of the plans, in the Blakes’ special language, was in there and as described. He locked the packages in the ship’s safe and ordered the ship to their final pick up on Earth.

    Alistair watched the courier ship start its flight up through the atmosphere as he boosted out of orbit toward Earth, ahead of the courier ship. He headed off at an angle away from Gagarin for 400,000 km before increasing speed and heading straight for Earth. That should be sufficient to not appear suspicious on the courier ship’s sensor, if they could pick him up at all. The Vigilant was on a parallel course and slightly behind the K’Rang ship. If the K’Rang ship did not go to Earth as predicted, they were in position to intercept and destroy. The K’Rang courier ship must not be allowed to enter K’Rang space.
    Kelly watched the courier ship on his monitor. It was making a beeline for Earth. He wasn’t letting down his guard, but he was confident that was the K’Rang’s current destination. Kelly turned the conn over to Chief B and turned in for a few hours.
    As he laid on his bunk waiting for sleep, his thoughts drifted back to his last day on Earth, his graduation from the Academy. He wore his Summer White Defense Academy uniform with a forest green stripe down the leg, signifying accession into Fighter Force. He had flight wings on his chest, showing he had qualified on the F-11 Atmospheric Fighter Trainer. He was fulfilling his dream of joining Fighter Force.
    He sat through the speeches and the interminable roll call to receive his diploma and another long wait to receive his commission. He stood with his classmates as they all swore the oath to defend the Constitution of the Galactic Republic. At the final word of the oath, they were officially dismissed from the Academy and their hats soared high into the air.
    He was a brand new second lieutenant in Fighter Force. His classmates shook his hand, hugged him, and a few females kissed him. He had only a short time to meet with his parents, then at 1900 hours would board a shuttle to the transport ship leaving for Gagarin. His parents were disappointed that they didn’t get much of a visit with him, but the ship had to leave that evening, to deliver them all to their branch courses on time.
    The Galactic Republic Transport Ship Admiral Donald B. Hanson was a purpose-built ship, specifically designed to carry ground force troops from home station to where they were needed. It was one of five such ships that were part of the Fleet Reserve. Once a year, it made the voyage from Earth, carrying the entire Defense Academy graduating class to their component basic schools on Gagarin. This trip, the Hanson was having problems with its number three engine, and would take a week longer to reach Gagarin. The ship’s engineer would attempt repairs enroute to speed their journey.
    Kelly shook his dad’s hand and gave his mom a kiss goodbye as his group was called to load on the Hanson’s shuttle. Once on board the Hanson, he was assigned a four-person cabin with three other cadets, two females and a male. The Academy never assigned coed rooms, so this was something new to them. Back to back desks and clothing lockers in the middle of the cabin provided a visual block and they agreed to respect each other’s privacy. After a week, they were so used to each other that passing gas and scratching themselves while walking around in their underwear were routine occurrences on both sides of the central divide. By week two, even the underwear was sometimes optional.
    The Hanson’s captain had made this particular run many times and knew what to expect when several hundred energetic males and females used to rigid discipline were set loose on their own recognizance. He had not just a Master at Arms, but an entire section under him to maintain order. They were specially trained in calming down rowdy junior officers by appealing to their sense of duty. If that didn’t work, they had Sleep Wands that could put a charging elephant down with a touch. Many a new butterbar wound up sleeping the night away in a holding cell, to be freed the next morning with no charges filed and as if nothing had happened, but that the butterbar just needed a good night’s sleep. The captain felt duty bound to deliver his cargo of junior officers as close to the condition they were when they boarded. After all, he took this same trip many years ago himself.
    Kelly’s two female cabin mates, Celia and Marta, had no romantic interest in him and thought of him as a friend. They frequently joined him for late night gabfests, while the ensign in the upper bunk snored the night away.
    This was a military transport, not a luxury liner, so recreational facilities were limited. There were two small bars, one port side and one starboard, a supersized gym with weights, exercise machines, a basketball court, and a pool, and an observation room up on the uppermost deck with a clear dome for watching the stars in reclining seats.
    Kelly, Celia and Marta made the circuit, starting in the gym, moving to one of the bars, then to the observation deck, and back to the gym for a late night dip in the pool. After the third week on board, most people were bored out of their minds. A cheer rose throughout the ship when the captain announced the engines had been repaired and they would be getting into Gagarin a week ahead of schedule.
    Kelly was sad to see Celia and Marta go when they finally disembarked at Gagarin. They made him swear to look for them wherever he was assigned. They exchanged contact info, but he had yet to meet up with them again. His mind finally at rest, he drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Six

    Kelly woke up when they were still hours away from Earth. He checked on the status of the courier ship and saw it was still on a direct course to earth. Alistair was approaching Earth and would be there a day ahead of the K’Rang. He would use that time to coordinate the first CI team’s arrest of Colonel Little, Sergeant Major Days, the yeoman and the admin assistant. Simultaneously, a second team would be rounding up the network’s known support staff on Earth. As with the other planets, this would have to wait until the courier ship had left the bounds of the system network node. In the case of Earth, they would have to wait until the courier left Sol’s system, and then they could execute the raids.
    He had one other task to take care of before he left the Sol system. He arranged with Fleet Intel to take the cooking forum down. It existed on mirror servers on three planets and on Earth. All four sites would need to be taken down at the same time, so that the word could not go out for the network to go to ground.

    H’Topa’s confidence swelled as Earth’s sun came into sight. He was seven days away from saving both his and J’Kraul’s lives. The order to the transporter to bring all packages to the Geneva South spaceport had been sent and acknowledged. He ordered the captain to wait until dark over the spaceport and land.
    The transfer went smoothly and the courier ship was immediately ready for take off, but the authorities held them because the spaceport had closed for the night. They could leave at 0600 the next morning. H’Topa almost laughed at the irony of the future of the K’Rang Republic being stymied by blind bureaucratic inertia.

    Kelly ordered the Vigilant into a geosynchronous Earth orbit. It was a crowded orbit, full of communications satellites. Kelly had the helm move cautiously until they found a parking area above Geneva. Kelly called up the electro-optical sensors and focused them on the K’Rang ship. It was still sitting on the parking apron, an hour after the exchange had been made. Kelly couldn’t imagine why the courier ship hadn’t left yet.
    Why would the K’Rang sit there taking a chance on discovery? It came down to Connie to determine the answer. She researched the operating hours of the Geneva South spaceport and found the K’Rang got caught when the airport closed for the night. The K’Rang probably never heard of quiet hours. Whoever was in charge must be livid right now. Now they had to wait until 0600. Kelly was sure the K’Rang would want to be first out in the morning.
    Connie also found out the ship’s name and its registry in her research. It was the Red Eagle (naturally), registered on Schirra to Cooper Shipping, Inc. Further research would reveal Cooper to be a shell company owned by a list of other shell companies. In the end, no one owned her, at least no one but the K’Rang.

    H’Topa had never seen time pass so slowly. He monitored the local sensors to watch for any movement by security forces to advance on the ship. He watched for hours and saw nothing. The spaceport was shut down for the night and they meant it. The only activity he saw after four hours were two taxis dropping off drunken crewmembers at their ships. H’Topa turned the monitoring over to one of the crewmembers because he could no longer stand it. He retired to his cabin and paced the rest of the night.
    At 0600, the tower came up and the captain requested permission to take off. Permission was granted and the courier ship made a lazy departure. It wouldn’t do to invite local scrutiny by blasting out of the spaceport and breaking windows in the process. H’Topa favored the latter departure; the captain favored the former. The captain won.
    The courier ship passed the minimum safety distance and increased speed to FTL power 3. H’Topa waited for the scan report if any ships were following them. The report came back negative and H’Topa retired to his quarters and went to sleep almost immediately. The nervous tension of the past hours wore him out, and he slept for the next nine hours.

    Alistair landed his ship at Geneva Main Spaceport. A CI team ground car met him at the gangplank and whisked him away to the Defense HQ. He walked in with the CI team chief and watched while the CI team placed the Colonel, Sergeant Major, yeoman and admin assistant under arrest. Protests by their subordinates were stopped when the CI team chief showed his badge and credentials. When they heard the four were arrested for espionage, all their former subordinates and office mates suddenly found better places to be.
    The other CI teams rounded up a total of 14 members of the network support cells. One of the transport specialists kept a record of all contacts he had ever made. Over the next two days, two more agents and 12 more support cell members would be arrested. Fleet Intel ran out of cells to put them all into and had to arrange for cell space for the remainder.
    The CI team on Gagarin received their go order from Alistair. The main team dropped in on Bart and Silke and removed them to a Fleet Intel holding facility. Bart could not believe he had been caught and thought this was only an exercise. After he’d spent 10 hours in an interview room reviewing the evidence they had against him, he realized he was in deep doodoo. They had video of him and Silke steaming open the envelopes, opening the safes, and photographing the design plans. They even had video of him and Silke celebrating afterwards on his apartment couch. He gave up and asked if he could get a deal. The investigator laughed and left him alone in the room, until he and Silke could be arraigned for espionage and other crimes.
    Other teams went after the support network and took almost all of them with no fuss and no bother. One of the dead drop servicers was armed and fired several shots at the team before pointing the gun at her temple and pulling the trigger.
    The teams on Shepard were staged and ready for the order, therefore were quickest to execute their raids. They had Cindy, in her signature lab coat, under arrest within minutes. Ron walked unaware into the lab and a set of handcuffs only a moment later.
    The ring factory janitor almost got away when the team arrested the wrong janitor. The right janitor came around the corner, saw the commotion, figured it for what it was and turned to run-right into the arms of a burly security man that had been sent out to the ground car for the identification photos he had left behind.
    Over the next three weeks, additional cell members were identified and gathered up. The only hole at the end of the investigation was the identity of the human that controlled Bart and Silke. Bart was willing to give him up, but had no useful information other than three phone numbers used to contact him. All three turned out to be out of service numbers.

    Kelly followed the courier ship to its exfiltration point. He had to time his attack to ensure he identified his point of exit without letting him get through it. They were still several days to the frontier, but Kelly was pretty sure he knew where they were going. There was an area of few stars and no habitable planets in the Perseus sector. It was a backwater area and only lightly patrolled, even by the K’Rang.
    That was where he appeared to be making a straight line for and the most logical place to quietly cross the frontier. He would give him one more day, then attempt to get him to surrender or destroy him. Kelly’s experience with the K’Rang was that they preferred auto-destruct to surrender. In the two cases where he had K’Rang vessels stopped and ready to be boarded, they activated their self-destruct mechanisms rather than be boarded. He’d give it one more day to be certain of his destination and move in.

    Alan Shepler wasn’t sure what had happened. He had tried to log into the cooking forum, but it was down. He used his last clean phone to call Bart Morton, but a stranger answered the phone. He immediately stripped the phone down to its major components and drove around, discarding them at various crossings over the Mercury River.
    Something bad must have happened and he didn’t want to be around for it. Claiming a problem at the main facility, he paid a premium price to contract for the son of the former owner to run the plant until his replacement arrived. He caught the next available transit to Fomalhaut. It wasn’t until the ship left the atmosphere that he relaxed. He had the flight attendant bring him two whiskeys and a glass of ice. First class was the only way to travel.

    The extra day was up and the courier ship was still headed right for the spot Kelly thought he was heading. There was no other place he could be going. At its current speed, they would reach the frontier in two days. He ordered battle stations.
    Kelly ordered FTL Power 4 to close the distance quickly between Vigilant and the Red Eagle. The distance decreased slowly, too slowly for Kelly, so he ordered an increase to FTL power 5.
    As the Vigilant reached missile range, Kelly ordered the helm to match speed. Kelly came up on the communicator and hailed the courier ship. “Red Eagle, this is the Galactic Republic Scout Ship Vigilant. You are charged with espionage and of having received stolen Galactic Republic property. Come to a halt and power down your engines. Prepare to be boarded.”
    The Red Eagle did not stop. It did not power down its engines. It accelerated.
    Kelly instinctively shouted out, “Helm, emergency evasive, now!”
    The helmsman did not hesitate and hit the evasive maneuver button. The Vigilant automatically dove down, turned to starboard, and dove down again. These semi-random maneuvers were designed to accomplish two things. One was to throw off an enemy missile’s target lock, and the other was to put the Vigilant in a position to return fire quickly.
    Kelly gave the order to fire one of mini-missiles and take out the courier ships engines. As the gunners lined up and acquired missile lock, the Red Eagle also went into evasive maneuvers. The two ships, set for evasive maneuvers, moved around each other like dancers on a stage. The Red Eagle made a hard turn to starboard just as the Vigilant made a hard turn to port. The distance between them increased. Kelly ordered to secure from evasive and sent the Vigilant in pursuit.

    H’Topa’s growing confidence crashed to the deck when the crewman announced a GR scout ship had just appeared astern and was closing on them. When it increased speed and hailed them, he felt it was the voice of doom. The captain, unfazed, stated, “I knew it was too easy. Our friend out there doesn’t know what he’s
    up against. This is no ordinary cargo ship. Helm, increase speed to FTL power 5.5.”
    The two ships traveling at FTL speed were unable to use their guns. The captain ordered the Red Eagle to evasive maneuvers as he saw the scout’s missile bay open. Both ships jinked across space dangerously close to each other. The chance of collision became too great and the courier ship captain ordered a sharp turn to port and down. He looked for anything to hide in or amongst and found nothing. This area had been chosen specifically for its lack of space objects. It left nowhere to hide, either. The nearest star system was 23 minutes away, an eternity against a faster opponent like the scout ship. Captain M’Toth ordered his ship into a sharp turn and ran headlong towards the Vigilant.

    Kelly did not expect the courier to turn back toward him. He ordered a mini-missile aimed at the courier ship engines, to bring him to a halt. The missile left the pod, streaked past the Red Eagle, turned back, and lined up with the exhaust nacelles just as the Red Eagle made a hard turn to port. They didn’t hit the engines, but blew off part of the Red Eagle’s port atmospheric wing. The Red Eagle slowed to below FTL to be able to bring his gun turret to bear. Kelly slowed down to below FTL to keep him from getting too far behind and slipping away. The Red Eagle gunner, with a powerful particle beam cannon, got in a good shot and took out the camera and the dorsal or upper tail gun. Vigilant was now blind astern. If he had fired a little lower, he might have taken out the top engine. Kelly decided to end this deadly ballet and lined the Vigilant to bring all guns to bear amidships on the courier ship. He ordered a sharp turn to port and brought the Vigilant around to fire on the Red Eagle, probably cutting it in half.
    Kelly asked for damage reports as he awaited the firing solution to present itself. Engineering reported damage to the dorsal engine nacelle and rear camera. Gunnery reported the top rear gun was out of commission, but the other two were still functional. Engineering reported one man to sickbay for burns from an arcing relay.
    Yeoman Benitez came up on the shipboard communicator and announced, “Captain, I have a message from Admiral Craddock for you — let the K’Rang courier escape. I say again, let the K’Rang ship escape.”
    Kelly, confused, asked Benitez to confirm the order. She told him she already had. It was a genuine order.
    Kelly ordered his gunners to miss, but miss closely. The top turret gunner missed a little too closely and took out the K’Rang ship’s turret. Kelly ordered evasive to start the ship tumbling then cut power to the engines. The Vigilant passed beneath the courier ship and tumbled off through space.
    The K’Rang ship did not hesitate. It increased speed to FTL power 5.5 and left the Vigilant behind. Kelly kept the ship tumbling until the courier ship was off their short-range sensors.
    While the K’Rang ship sped away, he sent a message saying the order had been carried out and asked for clarification. The reply merely said return to base and job well done.
    Kelly ordered the helm to make course for Antares Base at FTL power 5. He was anxious to find out why he let a K’Rang espionage ship escape across the frontier with the secret to the Republic’s strategic advantage. His order didn’t make sense, but he checked the raw message file and it was sent from the Admiral. His release code was on the original message, confirmation, and subsequent order.
    Kelly secured from general quarters, turned the conn over to Chief B, and did a quick walk-thru inspection of his ship, occasionally mumbling to himself about strange orders and admirals.

    H’Topa was overjoyed. The enemy scout was disabled, possibly with their top engine damaged, and they were able to slip away. Nothing stood between them and the frontier. H’Topa ordered M’Toth to increase speed to maximum and was told they were already at maximum. He fidgeted and paced across the bridge until M’Toth kicked him out, telling him to wait in his cabin if he was nervous. He was disturbing the bridge watch. M’Toth would let him know when they were safe.
    H’Topa went back to his cabin, opened the safe and inventoried the material that would even the odds for the K’Rang against the Humans. He decided to calm his nerves by going through the packages one-by-one, cataloguing the contents, checking for completeness, and duplicating the digital files on a master data device. As he finished securing the data back in the safe, he allowed his thoughts to wander. J’Kraul and he were safe. Against all odds, he had achieved total success. If the Analytical Cabal could translate the Blakes’ language, then they would have the transporter ring plans in the inventors’ own writing. H’Topa imagined this coup might even lead to promotion to the nobility. Even a minor noble lived quite comfortably. A baronet would suit H’Topa quite well. J’Kraul deserved a full barony for all the heat he had been taking from the Elders.
    Captain M’Toth came up on the communicator to announce they were about to cross the frontier and would H’Topa care to come forward to watch. H’Topa would and did. The burden of his mission lifted from H’Topa as soon as they passed through the gap in the Human sensors and mines and on through the deactivated K’Rang mine and sensor cluster. G’Durin was now only two weeks away. H’Topa was becoming ecstatic.

    Kelly reviewed the video of the damage to the dorsal tail gun mount. Chief Miller sent a crawler robot out to get a look at the damage, assess it, and make sure it wasn’t getting worse. The video showed a black gash across the fairing around the dorsal tail gun. A view into the gash showed the rear view camera missing several pieces, including the lens. The rail gun’s top rail and several magnets were shot away. It wasn’t bad damage as battle damage went, but would require a few days in drydock when they returned. He pushed their speed up a half, in a hurry to solve this mystery.

    The Red Eagle entered the G’Durin space traffic control zone and was escorted in by two K’Rang attack craft. As they landed at the main military spaceport, the two attack craft climbed and executed matching left and right rolls. Dignitaries were gathered around the Red Eagle as it landed and parked in a VIP parking position. Captain M’Toth changed quickly into his dress uniform. H’Topa gathered all the data and put it in a shoulder case. The captain marched down the gangplank alongside H’Topa.
    H’Topa looked around and saw the Imperial Analytical Cabal chief, the Collection Directorate chief, and his friend J’Kraul. The Collections chief met them at the bottom of the gangplank, took the case from H’Topa, and led them over to introduce them to Baron N’Gana, recently appointed Chief Secretary to the Elders. Baron N’Gana had lost a son during a courier ship mission and always met each returning courier ship. His status as Secretary to the Elders and a member of the Intelligence Coordinating Committee gave him special access to operational information.
    Baron N’Gana sniffed muzzles with H’Topa and said, “Shadow Lead Agent H’Topa, you have accomplished a great task for the Empire. The Council of Peers meets now to determine suitable rewards for your, J’Kraul’s, and Captain M’Toth’s service to the Empire. I cannot say what it is yet, as the council is still deliberating, but it will be commensurate with your service to the Empire. The Elders wished for me to congratulate you and express their thanks. They have directed that your names be entered into the scrolls of the M’Drella, honoring the Empire’s heroes.”
    H’Topa was overwhelmed. He had dreamed of a cape with a white lining, denoting nobility. It seemed this somewhat officious noble was suggesting such a dream might come true. All this ceremony and excitement was starting to get to H’Topa. He had not eaten or slept in the last 36 hours. He felt himself start to fade. He explained that he and Captain M’Toth were exhausted and asked if they could be released.
    His request was granted immediately and J’Kraul took him and M’Toth to the best restaurant he knew. They celebrated their mutual success and dreamed what their rewards might be.

    Kelly ordered a standard approach to Antares Base after they unloaded their missile pod at the Antares Station ordnance dock. They were directed immediately to Drydock Six for evaluation and repair. Kelly gathered his logs and reported to CDR Timmons’ office. Edgar Timmons exploded from his chair as Kelly walked in. He gave Kelly a hearty handshake and had him sit down. He called out to his admin assistant to bring in two coffees.
    He sat on the front of his desk and said, “Damn good job out there, Kelly. The admiral is quite pleased with you. No, I don’t know why the admiral had you let him go. I guess we’ll both find out when we go see him. I’m waiting for a call from Hasselrode telling us when to come over.”
    The admin assistant brought in two cups of coffee and left a tray of sweeteners and creamer. Kelly put in two sugars and stirred it, then sipped the coffee while he gave CDR Timmons his patrol report. As he finished, CDR Timmons’ communicator buzzed with a message from Captain Hasselrode, telling them to arrive in ten minutes.
    They walked to Scout Force HQ and Captain Hasselrode led them into Admiral Craddock’s office. Kelly was surprised to see his parents and CDR Johnson from Fleet Intel.
    The Admiral stood up, walked around his walnut desk, shook Kelly’s hand, and said, “I’m sure the uppermost question in your mind, Kelly, has to be why did we let them go. I’ll let your dad tell you.” Admiral Craddock motioned Kelly and Edgar to seats.
    Andrew said, “Remember that meeting in Tom’s den where we talked about the agent network working to steal the ring data? After you left Tom came up with an idea to really set the K’Rang back. We decided to provide them with bogus data. Everything they stole was bogus except the ring codes, but those are easily replaced.”
    “The K’Rang will spend the next five years trying to build a ring from the plans they have. They will be convinced that they must have mistranslated the full set. It will stymie them and hold them back from developing a ring. Meanwhile, they’ll be driving themselves crazy. We got their network, so they won’t be trying to steal another set of the plans for quite some time.”
    “We started with the janitor’s supposedly fortuitous acquisition of the second section of the design plan. This was actually the result of a carefully choreographed act by the foreman and the security guard. We knew getting one of the three sections would whet the K’Rangs’ appetite for the rest.”
    “We replaced the set in our safe on Gagarin with a bogus set. Bart Morton’s superior encouraged Bart to increase security. He mentioned that it was a key area of concern by the head of Fleet Intel. Bart saw late night security sweeps as an easy way to justify his presence after hours and get at our safe. We watched him and his mistress practicing steaming open the safe combo envelopes. In fact, we watched the whole operation. It will make great evidence at his trial.”
    “The part we were unaware of was when Valeri’s assistant stole his design for the disruptor weapon he’s working on. We didn’t want that falling into K’Rang hands, so we left your original orders in effect. It wasn’t until we interrogated Cindy, his assistant, that we knew they had missed the dead drop and it was safe to let them go. That’s when you got the call to let them get away.”
    Moira said, “We hope it didn’t inconvenience you too much.”
    Kelly replied, “A minute more would have made it very inconvenient for the K’Rang, as he’d have been floating in two pieces.”
    The admiral chuckled and said, “Then I guess it’s a good thing we called you off when we did. As a result of this operation, we snagged over 40 members of the K’Rang network and CI is identifying more each day. The threat of a death sentence has most of them turning in anyone they’ve ever known to be part of the network. CI will be rounding people up for months. Did I leave anything out, CDR Johnson?”
    CDR Johnson shook his head. “Not a thing, sir.”
    “I understand Commander Timmons is not too happy with you for damaging his old ship. He tells me he turned it over to you in perfect condition, and you broke it playing tag with the K’Rang.”
    Kelly laughed and replied, “The K’Rang came off worse, but they don’t know it. I’m sure their captain is telling stories about how he crippled a scout ship. I had to tumble and drift to explain why I was letting him go. I kept it up until he was out of sensor range. He was approaching FTL power 5.5 when he slowed down to cross through the frontier.”
    The Admiral looked at CDR Timmons and said, “Edgar, I hear your lady is in town. Amy and I would love to meet her. If you have nothing planned, come by my quarters at 1800. You too, Kelly. Your folks have to leave in the morning and we’ll say goodbye tonight. Candy’s in town. She’s been working late on a case and has been staying with us.”
    The Admiral walked back behind his desk, thanked them all, and told everyone but Kelly’s parents they were dismissed.
    Kelly and CDR Timmons left together and talked about the repairs needed to bring the Vigilant back to 100 %.

    J’Kraul and H’Topa were summoned to the Imperial Hall and provided with an escort of Shadow Warriors. The two were not sure what was happening, but one does not argue with 10 Shadow Warriors. They arrived at the Imperial Hall and the Shadow Warriors formed up on either side and marched them into a large reception hall. All levels of royalty occupied the room. The Elders stood at the front of the hall. The Shadow Warriors marched them up to the three Elders and halted.
    The senior Elder spoke. “Fellow nobles, our ranks have been filled by those who have distinguished themselves in battle, sometimes by those who advance K’Rang science, culture, or economy. Today, for the first time, we recognize two Shadow Warriors that have advanced K’Rang security through the ancient art of espionage. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you our newest members of K’Rang royalty, Baron J’Kraul and Baron H’Topa. Advance Baron J’Kraul.”
    J’Kraul stepped forward to the senior Elder. The senior Elder reached to his right, where a retainer stood with a chain and medallion. He took the medallion and had J’Kraul bend slightly so that he could place it on his neck. At the same time, another retainer placed a white lined cape on J’Kraul and helped him fasten it around his neck. Then he was presented with a ring with three moons on its face.
    “Advance, Baron H’Topa.”
    H’Topa stepped forward and received his chain and medallion, white lined cape, and ring.
    Baron N’Gana came to stand beside the two new barons and whispered, “Now salute and bow.”
    The two snapped off a smart salute to the Elder, bowed, and executed an about face and marched out of the hall to the applause of the assembled nobles.
    Baron N’Gana took them to a small office.
    “Welcome to the nobility. You will be taken to a facility outside the city and you will spend the next six weeks learning the duties, responsibilities, and privileges of the nobility. After that, you will choose your duties and move into noble society. Welcome, barons.”
    J’Kraul and H’Topa grabbed each other and did a mini-celebration nose muzzle as Baron N’Gana looked on and smiled.

Chapter Seven

    A month later, in another section of Galactic Republic space, a situation was developing that would again require the Vigilant’s service.
    Russell Obwobwo was the youngest crewmember of the SS Andromeda Clipper. A recent graduate of the Merchant Space Academy, the nineteen-year-old was on the engineering detail’s third watch. His duties included making minor repairs and adjustments throughout the ship as needed. At the moment, he was working on a balky waste control pump in the port dorsal cable and piping access tunnel.
    This was the second time he had to crawl along the piping to fix this particular pump. Earlier, he had gotten it to work again by loosening the mounting bolts and retightening them using the correct torque setting. The shipyard had installed it improperly. He wasn’t sure what was wrong with it this time.
    Russell was proud of his ship. The Andromeda Clipper was the newest ship in the Lyman Space Shipping Lines, and he was lucky to be aboard. It was a new fast auto-container ship, designed to carry auto-containers into planetary orbit, where they detached from the ship and automatically landed at the planet’s spaceports. Once unloaded and then loaded with new cargo, the auto-containers automatically joined up with the Clipper or remained dormant to await her arrival. The automation made it a significant improvement on the older cargo lighter carriers. There were several containers to drop off and more to pick up at Rigel, the next stop.
    The Clipper could do FTL Power 4 and, even though there were ships disappearing on the Rigel to Aldebaran run, the company assessed the Clipper could outrun any danger along the way. Russell heard the chief engineer say that nothing could catch the Clipper and he believed him.
    Russell disassembled the pump motor’s outer casing, removed a metal shaving from the electrical connections, reassembled it, and it ran perfectly. He crawled backward out of the access tunnel. It was then that he heard the engines suddenly drop out of FTL drive and stop. The lights went out and everything changed.

    A non-descript, small intergalactic-class cargo ship drifted in open space between the Aldebaran and Rigel systems. The very familiar single human occupant hunched over his command console, monitoring the space around him. A white cat stretched out on the console, occasionally nuzzling the man’s hand to get his attention.
    Alistair had completed his mission of taking down the K’Rang spy network and turned all his data over to the prosecutors. He looked for an easy assignment to wind down from the pressures of that mission, and chose to investigate some ship disappearances. It seemed like an uncomplicated, routine investigation to him.
    The shipping lane between Rigel in the Orion Sector and Aldebaran in the Taurus Sector was one of the most highly-trafficked in Galactic Space. Alistair was looking for why a disproportionate number of ships in this sector were not arriving at their destinations.
    That ships were lost in space was not unusual. Space was a dangerous enough place that approximately twenty ships were lost in all of the Galactic Republic Space every year. However, eighteen ships had been lost on the Rigel-Aldebaran run in the last eleven months alone. Something was not right near Orion’s Belt.
    Officials from Rigel, Aldebaran, and the shipping companies had poked about for months and turned up nothing. It was as if the ships had just dematerialized. No debris was found. No distress calls were received. None of the crew had turned up anywhere in Galactic Republic Space. None of the cargo had turned up. Officials on both worlds were stymied. Cargo ships were starting to run in convoys or hiring armed escort ships to make the passage. A few fast ships made the journey, relying on their speed to get them through. Those too poor made the runs singly, hoping they would slip by whatever was taking the ships.
    He had been scouting around the Orion Sector and environs for weeks, looking for any reason why eighteen perfectly good ships never made it to port. His sensors showed him the entire space from Rigel to Aldebaran. He could monitor every ship moving through the region. He watched and waited for anything out of the ordinary. He waited a long time.
    Weeks later, with his rations running low, Alistair was preparing to make a run to the planet Titov in the Sirius system. He was laying in his course when his sensors showed him that a Lyman Shipping Lines auto container ship on the run from Rigel to Aldebaran just disappeared. One minute it was there, the next it had vanished. Alistair cautiously moved his ship closer to the last known position of the freighter. Hours later when he cruised through the position, he found only a faint ion trail leading off in the direction of the Pleiades Star Cluster.
    Alistair calculated his remaining rations, added in his emergency rations, and figured he could track the ion trail for twelve days before he would have to make a port call in the Rigel system. He turned to his feline companion and said, “I’m sorry, Rojo. I know how much you like the sailorfish fillets from Titov, but you’ll just have to live on packaged rations for a few more days.”
    Alistair turned his ship toward the Pleiades Star Cluster, turned his sensors on full scan, and followed the ion trail to wherever it led.

    Irina Bugarov and her executive assistant, Terri Hawkins, traveled on the SS Galaxy Queen to Rigel Station for her first annual status report. Irina practiced her delivery during the week-long voyage from her home office on Shepard. She wished that the rings were opened to commercial vessels; it would cut days off her journey.
    She practiced her briefing in three formats: formal long, formal short, and deskside. She did not know which he would prefer, but she would be ready, no matter what he wanted. She practiced her presentation on her assistant, who sat patiently time after time.
    Irina felt good about what she had accomplished in a year. Her combine earned more in the last two quarters than all ten had earned the previous year. She had to spend some credits to improve production, which affected her first two quarters, but it had borne fruit by the third quarter and would for all of next year, too.
    She also felt that hiring a security officer was a good investment. His efforts at improving security got one of her companies a high grade from the local Fleet Intel Security Officer. That rating got them a new multimillion credit contract to produce a classified component of the ring. The other companies, having seen the positive result of having good security, stepped up their security game.

    Alistair Bennett coasted up to the edges of the Pleiades star cluster in Taurus sector. His sensors showed little through the cosmic dust and gas that blanketed this part of space. The minute ion trail he had been following for days was lost in the dust cloud. He dared not proceed further. His gravimetric sensors were off the scale. The gravitational forces and eddies in this packed star cluster could crush or trap his ship. Alistair looked for an out of the way location to sit and watch.
    He turned the sensitivity up and down to see if anything could be resolved out of the charged dust cloud. He drew a blank. He composed a message to Fleet Intel to provide them with his log, his suspicions, and his request for a Scout Force ship with better sensors to explore this region. He had a specific ship in mind. He wondered if they would believe his theory of disappearing pirates.
    Rojo jumped up on the console and nuzzled his hand. It was his way of politely reminding Alistair that he was starving. Alistair left his instruments and went through the feeding ritual. He was sorry he didn’t have any of Rojo’s favorite food left, but what he had would have to do. “Eat up, Rojo. We head to Rigel tomorrow. I’ll see what local fish they have on Rigel Prime. Maybe I can find you a treat.”
    Rojo purred as he ate.

    Thorson stood his sensor watch on the bridge of the pirate ship Undefeated and stared at the blank screen. It wasn’t technically blank; it displayed the nearby planets and celestial bodies all right, but was devoid of any ships that might become prey for the Undefeated. Thorson continued his watch, hoping some rich plunder would come their way.
    Captain Mabry came out of her cabin and up to Thorson. “Have you found me any prizes yet?”
    Thorson looked up from the screen and said, “No, Captain, I think we’ve scared them all away.”
    “Thorson, I pay you for your piloting ability. Pilot us where there might be some choice cargo ships to plunder. We are going to need credits to live on when we finally return to Barataria. Come on. Get lucky.”
    Captain Mabry had inherited the Undefeated from its previous captain, after she slit his throat while making love to him. It went along with her peculiar sense of humor. The Undefeated was a custom-built, fast, medium cargo ship that had been fitted with bigger engines, long-range weapons, and a tractor beam. It was a privateer ship of the Marauder Fleet. It bore no allegiance to any state and existed only on the fringes of galactic society. Some thought it romantic, but Thorson knew the punishment for piracy was spacing. He saw a sudden cold end to his future if he were caught and cast out into the vacuum. He had seen explosive decompression before and it was not something to be dismissed lightly.
    He piloted the ship along the edges of the A-1571 asteroid field, in hopes of finding a hapless freighter or other likely victim. Tim, the sensor/weapon operator, scanned the surrounding space for any approaching ships. It was not unusual for the local military to randomly patrol the empty reaches of space, to forestall exactly what the Undefeated was waiting amongst the rocks to do.
    They waited three days at the edge of the asteroid field, looking for likely targets. They saw large, slow ore carriers, well-escorted express freighters, and pre-fabricated asteroid mining facilities pulled by space tugs. None of those were of any interest.
    The ore carriers carried bulk ores that were of no worth to the Undefeated. The escorted freighters probably carried high value cargo, but their escorts were too strong for the pirates’ weapons and shields. The mining stations were just too big to move if captured; besides, they were mostly just machinery and living quarters for asteroid miners and of no real marketable value.
    They needed a big fast container freighter trying to make the run solo. Freighters sometimes did that, counting on their speed to carry them through the danger. It was only another day before he got an indication of likely prey entering sensor range.
    Thorson called the captain to the bridge and they watched as a faint blip resolved into an Andelian Free State registered mid-sized long-range transport. It was one of the new Galaxy model executive transports, on which corporate executives and tri-vid stars liked to scoot about in space. It was designed more for show than for the realities of space travel. It featured large gaudy fins and winglets totally unsuited for space or atmospheric travel, but it was the latest style.
    The Undefeated was less fashionable, but faster and unlike the transport, was armed. As they passed, the captain ordered a shot across her bow and sent a demand for surrender. The passenger transport quickly slowed to below FTL, yawed in space, faced away from the direction of movement, and fired thrusters to bring her to a halt. Undefeated closed on her and the Captain ordered the boarding squad to stand by.
    The captain of the luxury transport offered his unconditional surrender. Captain Mabry ordered the Undefeated to dock with the ship and sent the boarding party over to secure it. Within minutes, the Ascetic boarding party was signaling all secure and five prisoners to bring aboard.
    The sensor/weapons operator activated the tractor beam and the two ships moved together deep into the asteroid field. Thorson left the S/W operator to keep a watch, and then joined the captain as she inspected the captured ship.
    He followed behind the captain with weapon drawn, as they entered the prize.
    Captain Mabry sneered and said, “Well, Thorson, what do you think of her?”
    He looked around and saw the opulence of the furnishings. The airlock was stainless steel. The passageways were lined with real wood, which was something pretty rare in space due to the prohibitive cost. He looked in one of the cabins and saw gold fixtures and real cloth bedding. There were some credits invested in this ship.
    Thorson chuckled, smiled, and replied, “Captain, this is a good haul. This is a very good haul.”
    They made their way to the bridge and met the captain/pilot and co-pilot. The captain was a typical shuttle pilot. He was all braid and no fortitude — his uniform was highly decorative and wildly impractical. No wonder he had surrendered so quickly. The co-pilot was almost a carbon copy, just shorter and less in shape.
    Captain Mabry asked, “What is your cargo and what was your destination, Captain?”
    Sweat trickled down luxury transport captain’s forehead. The smell of fear permeated the air. He stuttered, answering quickly, obviously nervous, “I have Mrs. Ellen Debran and her two daughters, plus their personal baggage. That’s all. They’re in the main salon with your guards. We were headed to Rigel Station.”
    Captain Mabry motioned for Thorson to follow her. She left an Ascetic to guard the two pilots. Thorson followed her back down the hallway and turned right into the main salon, where two Ascetics guarded the women.
    Mrs. Debran was a statuesque woman in her mid to late forties. She had long brown hair, dark brown eyes and a nice shape. She carried herself in an erect, patrician manner. She was a very attractive woman, wearing a gold silk lounging outfit.
    Her daughters were younger versions of their mother. They carried themselves in a reasonable approximation of their mother’s posture. The captain and Thorson looked on these women with equal interest, for the credits they must be worth.
    The older daughter was approximately 25, with dark brown shoulder length hair. She wore a rainbow-patterned dress that fit tight across the bust and hips. Sandals adorned her feet. The younger daughter was probably 20. She had hazel eyes and the family’s brown hair. She wore a short white shirtdress, which was tight in all the right places.
    Captain Mabry said, “You’re on a vessel in an embargoed area. You’ve been taken prisoner by a vessel of the Marauder Fleet. If you cooperate and offer no resistance, you will be returned to your family as soon as possible. If you cause us problems, you will spend a much more uncomfortable passage. Do you understand me?”
    The older woman said, “I am Julia Debran. These are my daughters, Christine and Sylvia. We’ll give you no trouble. I ask that you not harm my daughters or me. We’re very wealthy and our family will pay a generous ransom to get us back alive and unharmed.”
    The Captain smiled wickedly and said, “You will not be harmed if you cooperate fully with us. Stay here. An officer will be here soon to take charge of you. You will be transported to our nearest base on this ship. Your repatriation will be arranged there.”
    Captain Mabry motioned Thorson to follow her out of the salon. A guard positioned himself in the doorway as they left.
    “Thorson, I want you to take charge of this ship and get it to Barataria unharmed. Our take for this prize will be better than 100,000 credits for the ship, plus whatever the ladies fetch. If their family won’t buy them, we can find lots of useful things for them to do. I’ll take the two pilots with me and leave you with three Ascetics. We’ll follow some distance behind you. Maybe we’ll get lucky and find another ship along the way.”
    Thorson went to his cabin and packed a minimum of gear for the two-week trip. The luxury transport could probably provide him with anything else he’d need. He checked with the Captain, before departing to take command of the prize crew. She had nothing more for him. He held at the airlock as the two pilots and the majority of the boarding party left. The Ascetic Deacon, Third Class met him at the airlock and reported.
    “Sir, we have searched and scanned the ship. There are no weapons on board, except ours. The three women, you, and my team are all that are on board. The ship is provisioned for over a month. With your permission, we will berth in the co-pilot’s cabin. It has two beds. I recommend you take the captain’s cabin. It’s quite spacious and outfitted with a master computer terminal and comms.”
    “The three women are in cabins off the main salon. One of us will guard the entrance to the salon at all times. There is no other entrance. We will keep them in the salon and their rooms unless you authorize otherwise.”
    Thorson was impressed with the young deacon’s professionalism. He approved his recommendations and moved his gear into the captain’s cabin. He looked around for a few minutes, and then moved to the bridge.
    Thorson fired up the main command console and called the Undefeated to check comms. He got a good comms check and continued to familiarize himself with the controls. Everything was automated, so he would have no trouble piloting the ship to Barataria.
    He spent a few minutes locking out all ship’s controls, external view, and comms from every ship’s terminal except the one on the bridge and one in his cabin, and set a voice imprint pass code into the system for the deacon and himself. He cued up the ship’s internal monitor system and verified all heat sources on the ship. The deacon was correct. All life signs were accounted for on the ship. No weapons were on board, with the exception of some knives in the galley.
    He received a message from the Undefeated, to head for Barataria. He moved the ship clear of the asteroid field, plugged in the course, and engaged the FTL engines.
    Thorson activated the sensors to warn of any approaching ships and walked to the main salon. The Ascetic Acolyte, First Class moved out of his way as he entered. The two daughters were talking on a couch, but the mother was nowhere in sight. The daughters looked up with apprehension in their eyes.
    Their mother came back into the room, saw him, and said, “So, you are the one that has charge of us?”
    “Yes, my name is Thorson. I will be your captain for the trip to our base. If you cooperate fully, no harm will come to you or your daughters.”
    Mrs. Debran assured him they would be no trouble and invited him to dine with them that evening. He knew he would get no better offer and accepted.

    James Norman was uncharacteristically nervous. He was normally always prepared, always calm. He was the perfect man described in the old saying, one who could keep his head while all around him lost theirs. He was pretty sure he was about to lose his head.
    Norman was the head of security for Friedrich Debran, of Debran Industries, and he had bad news to relay to his boss. Friedrich Debran was not known for suffering fools lightly and James felt like a fool. He had arranged for four escort ships to accompany Mrs. Debran and her two daughters from Aldebaran to Rigel Station for the Haute Couture Fashion Week. Evidently, the Debran women were informed one of the fashion house’s shows had been moved up on the schedule, and left without their escorts.
    Somewhere between there and here their ship disappeared. As soon as he heard of their departure, he dispatched the escorts to follow their flight path and catch up with them. They cruised all the way to Rigel Station and could find no evidence of the Debran luxury transport. Enquiries at all space stations and spaceports along their flight path were checked, to no avail.
    Norman now had to inform his boss. He had ”handled” people that had displeased this man so he knew full well what he could expect. He wondered which of his operatives would be assigned to “handle” him.
    James Norman paced in Friedrich Debran’s anteroom, until the door opened and Debran’s secretary waved him in. Mr. Debran sat behind his enormous walnut desk. His Chief of Staff, Roger Delphant, sat in one of the side chairs. Norman walked forward until he was three feet away and centered on the desk, the customary position when briefing the boss.
    Norman started as soon as Mr. Debran looked up, “Mr. Debran, I’m afraid I have some bad news to tell you.”
    Debran’s expression didn’t change. “What is it, James?”
    Thankfully, his voice didn’t waiver as he laid out the initial details. “Sir, your wife and daughters’ ship left Aldebaran’s Roper Executive Spaceport at 1137, our time, yesterday, on course for Rigel Station. Although they were aware I had arranged for a four-ship escort, they left without it. Upon learning of their departure without the escort, I dispatched the escorts to pursue and overtake. Although the escorts departed only 30 minutes behind their ship, the escorts were unable to make contact with them. The escorts arrived at Rigel Station, informed me of the situation, and I ordered them back along the flight path to conduct a sector search. The escorts have searched all the way to Aldebaran and have found no trace of the ship.”
    “We have queried every spaceport and station from Aldebaran to beyond Rigel and their ship has not put in. No distress calls have been received. No wreckage has been found. I currently have the escorts making an additional series of wide sweeps along their projected path.”
    “Sir, I have contacted law enforcement and military authorities at Aldebaran, Rigel, and the Fleet. They are coordinating with our escorts so more territory is being searched. Approximately 25 ships are currently involved in the search.”
    “I have to conclude, sir, from the total disappearance of the ship and the lack of a distress beacon or debris, that your wife and daughters have been captured by the Marauder Fleet. If so, the chances are good to excellent that you will receive a ransom demand within ten days and have them returned unharmed within ten days of a ransom payment.”
    Throughout the presentation, Mr. Debran sat stoically, calmly hearing all Norman had to present. He was so calm that Norman was made more and more nervous. At the end of his briefing, Norman’s voice was wavering slightly. He stood and waited for Mr. Debran’s reaction.
    “So, my wife and those two slattern daughters of hers chose to leave without their escort. That is so typical of them, so irresponsible. Of course, you should have anticipated that, James.”
    Mr. Debran looked briefly at a pocket terminal on the desk, typed in a short message, and looked back up at Norman.
    “James, you’re fired. I’ll give you eight hours to clear out your things and be off Rigel Prime. If you are found on Rigel Prime after eight hours…Let’s just say you’d best not be here.”
    The outer door opened and Norman’s deputy was shown in.
    “Ah, Kurt, is it?” The man nodded. “Kurt, Mr. Norman no longer works here. You will escort him to his office to let him gather his personal things. He is to take nothing else. He is to use no terminals or communicators while on the premises. See that he is off the premises in thirty minutes. Recover and secure all company property, security badges, computer files, communicators, what have you. Come back here to see me once you have completed this task.”
    “Yes, Mr. Debran.”
    A devastated James Norman was led out. After the door closed, Mr. Debran turned to his chief of staff.
    “Roger, get in touch with those people we used when we had that trouble with the asteroid miners. I have some work for them. I also want the word put out that Mr. Norman’s work has displeased me. I don’t think he is suited for work in the security field. He should find some other line of work. One other thing; the Fleet has to be doing something about these ship disappearances. Find out what they are doing. I want to meet with whoever is in charge of their activities here in sector. Call in any favors. Apply any pressure necessary.”
    “Yes, Mr. Debran.”

    Kelly returned to the Vigilant late, after dinner with Tammy and Candy. A message was waiting from Commander Timmons, to report first thing next morning. He assumed this had occurred to Timmons after he left the dinner party. Kelly checked for other messages, and seeing none of any importance, went to bed. He noted that Wanda had done an excellent job of sorting through the messages, separating the important from the trivial. Using her as his personal secretary would work just fine. He thought about recommending it for all Scout Force captains.
    The next morning Kelly woke early, went to the dining facility, and ran into Commander Timmons in the mess line.
    “Kelly, come on, let’s sit over here.”
    He picked a table away from the others and Kelly followed him over. They sat down and reviewed again what needed to be done to repair the Vigilant.
    Kelly presented the list of completed repairs. CDR Timmons read through the list as they finished their breakfast, then the two went to the Squadron offices, and into the briefing room.
    “Kelly, I’ve got a mission for you when you come out of the yards.”
    Kelly perked up and paid close attention to his boss.
    “I don’t know if you’ve seen the reports, but we’ve been losing a lot of commercial ships on the Rigel to Aldebaran run. The local authorities and the shipping companies have been sniffing about, but haven’t found anything. Fleet Intel put a Reporting Officer into there a few weeks back. You may know him.”
    “As you know, they have pretty specialized ships with an expansive sensor suite. Alistair saw a fast auto container ship just disappear from his scope.”
    Kelly looked up with a surprised expression. Ships just did not disappear.
    “He followed an ion trail into the Pleiades Star Cluster perimeter, but he lost it when he decided his little ship couldn’t handle the gravimetric stresses in the star field. He asked for a scout ship to pick up where he left off.”
    Kelly did not expect another mission this soon. Chief Miller had estimated two weeks to repair the tail gun nacelle, repair the rear view camera, and replace the rail gun. It had been four weeks and they were still repairing hidden damage. “Boss, when do you want to send me out? I haven’t completed repairs yet.”
    “You’ve got two weeks. We’ve turned up the heat on the yard as of today. The yard boss will be waiting for you when you get back.”
    Kelly whistled. “Two weeks — can I wait for the paint to dry? I’ll do it, Boss, but it’s pushing it. They still have to repair any remaining damage to the hull, replace the damaged rear view camera, and put it all back together — not to mention test it.”
    “I have faith in you, Kelly. If it were easy, I’d have given it to someone else to do. I’ll line up some Intel briefs for you this week.”
    “Thanks, sir, I’ll let you know what I need.”
    Kelly returned to his ship, called in the chiefs, assigned specific tasks and duties he wanted accomplished, and gave them all the information he had. Chief Blankenship reinforced his orders by directing the chiefs to coordinate amongst themselves and assigning specific dates and times to have the tasks completed. They would be very busy for the next two weeks.

    Thorson and Mrs. Debran became quite close during the weeklong trip to Barataria. He found her to be charming and she found him to be quite gallant for a pirate. He noticed the daughters always found something else to do that required them to retire early to their cabins, leaving him and Julia alone together. Her charms won him over and he resolved to see that they were not harmed or inconvenienced more than they already had been. He was certain, from the way she described her husband’s possessiveness towards her and her daughters, that he would surely pay whatever ransom was demanded.
    Julia had explained earlier that Thorson and his captain had best make sure no harm came to them. Her husband would buy any force needed to find them, hunt them down, and ensure they met a painful, lingering death. He would do this, not because he loved them, but because they were his and what was his was inviolate. Thorson could expect the same response if he had stolen a favored horse or ground car. Julia and her daughters represented something that her husband considered to be a symbol of his success and stature in society.
    Thorson told her that as long as he was alive, nothing bad would happen to her or her daughters. If she was wrong and her husband decided the symbol they represented was not worth the ransom, he would sell everything he owned to purchase the three of them, to keep them out of coarser hands. Mrs. Debran took his drink, placed it on the table, sat in his lap and kissed him.

    Irina Bugarov gave her deskside annual report briefing to Friedrich Debran. He was somewhat distracted, but was impressed with her spending credits to make credits. Her production improvements were impressive and innovative. He was also impressed with her security officer incentive that resulted in additional work for one of her firms. Debran congratulated himself at choosing such a good chief for his defense subsidiary. He distributed a significant portion of his bonus funds to her account. This was credit she could use for any purpose, including increasing her own salary, if she chose.

    Russell Obwobwo cautiously crawled through the port dorsal cable and piping access tunnel. He had heard muted explosions and plasma rifle blasts several days earlier. The chief engineer had sent him a coded message to hide and stay hidden, but it had been several days, he’d eaten the last snack bar he’d kept in his tool kit, and hunger was overcoming his caution.
    He crept through the access tunnel as quietly as he could. He figured that whoever had taken over his ship would be smart enough to read the crew manifest and realize one member was missing. He listened to hear if anyone was moving around the ship near his position and had heard nothing for over a day. He needed to get somewhere he could access a data terminal and find out what was going on. It also wouldn’t hurt if he could find a food replicator.

    Alistair Bennett read the reply to his request. He was getting the captain he wanted, but not for four weeks. At least Kelly was a known quantity. He wondered how many ships would disappear in that time.
    It would be nice to see Connie again. The two of them had hit it off on their last combined mission. Connie made it abundantly clear that she was interested in him. They both realized that their careers would not let them carry it farther than just enjoying each other’s company when they could be together. That was good enough for now.
    He looked over at Rojo, happily chomping away on some flaked Rigelian moonfish, and prepared his ship for lift off. He plotted a course to where he lost the ion trail and looked for hiding places. There was a large dust and rubble cloud near the path the ion trail had gone. He could sit there until the scout ship arrived. Maybe he’d get lucky.
    “Finish up your fish, Rojo. We’re about to go back to work.”
    In a few hours he received clearance, powered up his ship, and left the Rigel System. Rojo curled up on the command console beside him and went to sleep.

    The steam from power cleaning the ventilators blew through the kitchen like a white fog. Sally Halstead looked up from her cleaning as her boss, One-Eyed Pete, came into the kitchen of the Ruin View Restaurant, carefully stepping around the roller racks of plates. Pete, true to his name and true to his pirate persona, had an eye patch over his left eye socket. The eye had been burnt out in a welding accident years before, when a piece of molten metal slipped behind his welding goggles. Modern prosthetics existed that could replace his lost eye, but he preferred the patch. He thought it gave him gravitas.
    “Sally, get your rump over to the spaceport. I’ve just bid on the food stores on that new container ship they just brought in. Get me a good inventory of any of the packaged foods and bulk ingredients and bring them back. If they have any of those new replicators and base food packs, get inventories of those, too.”
    Sally looked at Pete with disgust. “What do we need those for? I made you rich by cooking up gourmet delicacies. I don’t need replicators.”
    Sally stood a head shorter than Pete, but she could be a forceful woman. Pete backed up and put up his hands as if in self-defense. “Relax, Sally. You don’t need replicators. They can’t cook anywhere near as good as you, but I can sell them to the Marauders’ ships when they come through for refit and upgrades.”
    Sally threw her cleaning towel at Pete and stalked away to get ready to inventory the ship. Maybe she could find some good ingredients. She could always use new spices. She was continually running out.
    Sally was a smallish woman, a little broad in the hips. She was pleasant enough looking, but no great beauty. Her dazzling smile had long ago faded away. She had been born and grown up in the Algol system. Her parents had passed away and, with no other family in the system, she’d gone to Rigel to become a chef and passed with honors. She was returning to her home when her ship was captured by a Marauder Fleet ship and brought here to Barataria to be sold. She wasn’t rich enough to be ransomed, but she could cook.
    One-Eyed Pete needed a chef. He bid top credit for her when he found out she could cook. She made him a very rich pirate. The Ruin View went from an out of the way low-end diner to an out of the way trendy top-rated gourmet restaurant. All the senior pirates of the Baratarian Brotherhood were regular diners. Even Steven Maynard, the head of the Brotherhood, dined here regularly at his usual table.
    Her cooking ability almost got her elevated to membership in the Brotherhood, but One-Eyed Pete blocked that. He couldn’t take the chance that she’d leave the Ruin View for some other restaurant. He treated her well, almost as an equal, but made sure she never lost her captive status. He worked her hard and infuriated her regularly, but never bothered her for sexual favors. With Pete it was purely business. Sally could do a lot worse, under the circumstances.
    Sally changed into street clothes, gathered up her pocket tablet, and set out for the spaceport. She looked off at the ancient alien ruins in the distance, from which the restaurant got its name, and mumbled, “Replicators, just a bunch of damned techno-nonsense.”

    The pirate cutter Bonnie Maria edged slowly through the star field. Captain Craig could almost feel the shifting gravity pulling his ship this way and that. He stared at the screen of his specially configured gravimetric feed and searched for the path that would get him through to K’Rang space. He and his crew had been out for a month, a month of nerve-wracking tension as they pushed down blind gravity tunnels and narrowly avoided gravity eddies that could trap them forever.
    Captain Craig looked at the fuzzy image, searching for another pathway through the field that would not stop at a dead end. This gravity tunnel, for that is how it looked on his screen, seemed promising. He followed it past a trio of brown dwarves far off to starboard and thought he could see a clear opening ahead.
    In a few minutes he cautiously poked his nose into the clear space, enough to give his sensors a free view of the space ahead. He put his recorders on high speed and high resolution and collected all that he could until his sensor operator reported a ship approaching from port.
    Captain Craig withdrew back into the star field and started mapping the complete course back to Barataria. He spent the whole return voyage analyzing what he collected in his short view of the K’Rang space beyond the Pleiades. He was pretty sure he found a new and lucrative hunting ground for the Brotherhood.

    The Missile Corvette J’New made its weekly pass along the face of the D’Rin star field. Lead Sensor Technician H’Talli recorded the sensor data from the passage to use at some future training event. There never was much that went on in this sector, but there was enough varied commercial traffic through it to make it a challenging sensor classification exercise. He counted over ten ships of various types and sizes. These would make a good training opportunity for his section when back in port.
    He observed the B’Kili system just off the starboard beam and the F’Tuj system ahead and off the forward starboard quarter. These systems containing two main worlds provided a lot of cargo traffic to analyze to keep his team on their toes. He liked these exercises, using recorded data after the patrol was over. It was always too noisy in the CIC during a patrol to really work the targets. He had spoken to the captain about it, but had not convinced him how much more effective his analysts could be if the CIC was quiet while they did their jobs.

Chapter Eight

    Kelly read through the intelligence reports from the Rigel-Aldebaran trade route, not that they were much help. Ships left port and simply were never seen again. Kelly was amazed that none of the ships, crews, or cargoes appeared on any of the normal lowlife worlds that pirates and marauders frequented and used to move their ill-gotten gain.
    What could they be doing with the ships, people, and goods? It didn’t make sense. Pirates always needed credits. Ships needed repair and maintenance, especially ships that couldn’t pull into just any port and shipyard. Pirate ships always had special modifications and configurations that wouldn’t pass normal port scrutiny. How did they replenish their stocks? Crews needed diversions. None of those came cheap. If they weren’t selling their goods, how were they coming up with credits?
    If the missing ships were destroyed, there would be debris. Kelly had seen the effect of catastrophic kills on space ships. There was always an immense amount of debris. What of this report from Alistair, who said the container ship simply disappeared from his screens. How do you make a 300,000 metric ton ship disappear?
    Kelly put the Reporting Officer’s sensor plot up on his holographic viewer and rotated it to see it from all angles. He called up the astrospatial data layer of all known pirate-friendly worlds and saw no obvious connections. He noted how close the K’Rang frontier was to the area in question and wondered if they might be up to some mischief.
    He plotted out the ion trail that the Reporting Officer had followed and saw it peter out at the edge of the Pleiades Star Cluster. He could see why Alastair had turned back. The gravimetric flows in the star field would rip all but a reinforced warship apart. If the gravity pressure didn’t crush a ship, the gravity eddies could trap it and never let it out.
    Kelly pulled up all Galactic Republic surveys of the star field and found them unusually deficient. There were very few surveys into the star field’s depths. Most surveys covered the outer asteroid fields, and none of the few surveys into the field were earlier than five years old. Even the Fleet Intel long-range observation posts’ sensor scans into the field gave little information. The gases and dusts swirling through that part of space obscured all but close range scans. It made for a good buffer between the Galactic Republic space and K’Rang space, but was not good for much else.
    Kelly shut his holographic viewer down and made a note to Chief Blankenship to have diagnostics run on all sensors to make sure they were all at peak efficiency. He didn’t want to be blind going in to solve this mystery. He also made a note to requisition a few extra sensor pods. You can never have too much knowledge.

    Sally arrived at the spaceport just in time to make the shuttle up to the space station. Pete had gotten her a pass, with the help of Steven Maynard, which allowed her access to the station for just such forays as these. She used the flight time to go through her pantry list and organize what she would need off this container ship.
    She had storage at the restaurant for quite a few months worth of foodstuffs. She also pulled up her wine cellar list to see which wines she needed. Maybe this ship would have a few containers of food she could rummage through. Pete had only bid and won on the ship’s larder, but if no one was looking and there were good quality stores in a cargo container, who would know that they weren’t part of the ship’s food stores. She tried to pull up a ship’s manifest to see what the cargo was.
    The shuttle entered the station and Sally craned her neck to peer out the port, to see if she could make out the ship. It must have been on the other side. She couldn’t see anything but ships in the process of dismantling and reconfiguration.
    The shuttle docked, and Sally got up with the rest of the passengers to debark. This was Sally’s tenth time to the station and she no longer marveled at the facility inside the hollow metal moon of Barataria. She just plodded her way around the outer ring tunnel until she came to dock C27. She notified space station control that she had authorization to inventory and remove the food stocks and requested two grav sleds for what she would be removing. The airlock cycled, opening the way for her, and she was notified that her sleds were on the way.
    Sally entered and proceeded to the galley. Most modern ships were all laid out similarly, so she had no trouble finding her way. In moments, she was standing in the galley. She inspected the ready storage and plugged her pocket tablet into the galley terminal to read out what was in the long-term storage.
    Jackpot! The Andromeda Clipper was at the beginning of its cruise and was fully stocked. A quick survey of the ready stores locker showed that the inventory from the galley terminal was correct. She notified station control to send two more grav sleds. Wonder of wonders, they also had a full store of spices. She was in heaven. She sent a message to Pete to enquire about the Andromeda Clipper’s cook. She could always use an extra hand.
    Sally wandered down a passageway and found the long-term storage compartment, opened the hatch and made a quick tour inside. Again the galley inventory and what Sally found inside matched. The captain ran a taut ship. She normally found a degree of pilfering, but everything here was exactly as it should be.
    She was just about to turn and leave when she heard a scraping sound. Her first thought was that there was some creature in the compartment, but spaceships didn’t have vermin like the sailing vessels of old. She listened and heard it again. It seemed to be coming from above. She backed out of the compartment and sealed the hatch behind her. As she turned to move back to the galley, a vent grate dropped from the ceiling in front of her.
    A pair of legs dropped down followed by hips and a waist. A well-built young black man dropped down and hung from his hands. He saw her and his eyes went wide. He tried to scramble back up in the grate opening, but lost his grip. He fell off-center and landed squarely on his back. He lay there gasping for air, the wind knocked out of him.
    Sally walked over to the gasping Russell Obwobwo, looked down, and said, “You must be the missing crewman. I’d heard there was a discrepancy in the crew log. Don’t try to get up. You’ll get your breath back in a few minutes.”
    He looked up at her and just continued gasping for air like a fish out of water. As she said, his breath slowly came back to him.
    He slowly sat up, rubbing his back and ribs.
    She asked, “Is anything broken?”
    He looked up at her and said, “No, just bruised, I think. Aren’t you going to turn me in?”
    She smiled. “Of course. You can’t hide here forever. They’re going to unload everything that’s useable and then dismantle her for parts. You’ll only have life support for another week, and then they open her up to space. I wouldn’t be doing you any favors leaving you here.”
    She pulled out her pocket terminal and he said, “Wait, just give me a chance to sneak out of here.”
    “You can’t. You haven’t got a chip. We all have chips implanted in our necks, right here.” The somewhat pleasant looking woman pointed at where her Adam’s apple would be, if she had one. “You wouldn’t get past the next dock before the alarms went off. The guards would be on you in a flash and they’d be none too gentle with you. Let me call them and you surrender real peaceful like. It’s the best thing for you.”
    His shoulders slumped and he asked, “What’ll happen to me? Will they kill me?”
    “No, young man, they probably won’t kill you. They have need of strong young men such as you. They’ll probably put you to work in one of the mines or factories. If you have a useful skill, they might use you somewhere else.”
    He looked up at her with resignation on his face, “Well, if I’m going to be a prisoner, I might as well start with a full stomach. Do the replicators have power?”
    She looked at him as if he had just used a profanity. “You’ll do no such thing. Come here. Sit. Let me fix you something. It’s the least I can do, seeing as I have to be the one to turn you in.”
    She moved into the galley and got some pans heating, then rummaged through the stores until she found some steaks and vegetables. She pan-fried a couple of steaks, whipped up some mashed potatoes, and boiled some Andelian beans. In moments, she had plated two meals and set one in front of Russell. The other was for her. It was lunchtime, after all.
    Russell and Sally ate their meals in silence. When it was over, she ran the dishes and pans through the cleaner and called up station security. Russell surrendered quietly. Sally hated to do it, but it was the best for him. She got security to let him help her load up the grav sleds and they all left the Andromeda Clipper together. She wondered if Pete could be talked into another waiter or dishwasher.

    Alistair decided he was not doing very much good where he was. He decided to make better use of his time by patrolling the fringes of the star cluster. He put his sensors on passive long-range survey mode and covered as much of the perimeter of the star cluster as the gravimetric pressure ebbs and flows would allow. After a week, he had built up a much better star map of the field. Patterns of energy readings resolved into likely areas to inspect more closely, once the scout ship arrived. He found one area of the field that had readings much higher than the surrounding space. That would be the first area he would recommend to Kelly.
    He looked down at the cat lying on the console and said, “Looks like you will have to go into stasis for a while, Rojo. I don’t think I’ll be able to drop you off at a kennel on any of the nearby worlds. It will be just a longer than usual nap for you, old fellow.” He rubbed Rojo’s head and watched the data flow.
    While he was surveying the far reaches of the star field, a strange ship cruised by his former hiding place. It was huge, bigger than a fleet carrier. It was shaped like a pecan shell, painted black, and with eyes painted on both sides of the bow. It turned out of the star cluster and headed toward Aldebaran.

    Irina asked Terri to get her info on the amenities of the Nebula Queen, sister ship to the Galaxy Queen that they’d come out on. Now that the pressure was off, she wanted to have some fun. She felt magnanimous and offered to pay for Terri’s amenities, too. Terri had been a good assistant and kept her from making an ass of herself quite a few times in the last year. A couple of days into the voyage, she called the concierge desk and arranged Swedish massages for both of them.
    At the spa, Irina and Terri left their clothes in a locker, showered, and donned fluffy cotton robes and slippers. Irina asked for a masseur and Terri asked for a masseuse. Irina felt so relaxed she had her clothes bagged and walked back to her cabin in the robe. Terri followed her lead. Irina wasn’t as slim and trim as her assistant, but she could still turn the heads of more mature men.
    The two padded down the hall in their complimentary terry cloth slippers and had just reached Terri’s cabin when the engine sound changed and the lights went out. Irina, knowing instinctively that this was a bad thing, pushed Terri into her room where the emergency lights were burning, and told her to get dressed. Now! The two women threw on clothes and prepared for whatever was coming.

    Kelley, Connie and Chief Miller hopped on a man lift with the yard boss and went up to perform a final inspection of the tail gun nacelle repair. The yard had fabricated a new nacelle, and replaced the destroyed rail gun with one fresh out of the shipping crate from the armament factory on Schirra. They had replaced the rear view camera assembly completely. All grazing fire damage to the hull had been sanded, filled, sanded, and painted. Kelly was satisfied. The yard boss brought up the form that transferred responsibility back to the captain, and Kelly thumbed his approval.
    Vigilant was ready four days early. Kelly wanted to give the crew liberty to blow off some steam before what looked to be a long cruise. As he was about to announce liberty, he got a call from CDR Timmons to see him as soon as the ship was returned to his control and his ship was out of drydock. Kelly prepared the ship for movement, and then requested permission to lift and move to Scout Force’s parking apron. Permission was granted and Vigilant smoothly lifted out of the drydock and across the field to the Scout Force parking apron. Once the ship was secure, he and Connie walked to CDR Timmons office.
    CDR Timmons emphasized to them the political visibility of their mission, especially with increasing pressure from the Senate. He told them to leave as soon as they were resupplied and good luck and good hunting.
    “So much for liberty,” Kelly thought, as they returned to the Vigilant.

    Steven Maynard conducted a captains’ conference in his main conference room on Barataria. He was a medium-sized, but big muscled man in his late fifties. The deference paid to him was due to his ability to guarantee good captures/profit and a safe haven in which to enjoy them, more than anything else. He was not about to disappoint them now that things had slowed down.
    “Looks like we’ll need to shift our operations to in-spiral for a while. The Rigel to Aldebaran run is starting to dry up. We’re seeing too many armed escorts and convoys since that last container ship that the Leviathan brought in. The passenger liner captured today was a fluke. Even our attempt to infiltrate a few of our ships into the escort fleet isn’t paying off any more. Captain Craig, brief us on that route you were surveying to get us out to the Perseus sector.”
    Captain Sam Craig got up from his chair and motioned for the terminal operator to bring up his plot. The lights dimmed and a 3-D view of the star cluster appeared before them in the center of the table. As the image built, several red paths from Barataria led out, but all terminated before reaching the edge of the field. One crooked blue path led all the way through the field and out into space in the K’Rang end of the Perseus sector, where several green lines stretched from system to system. Several systems were highlighted in orange or yellow.
    “As you can see, I’ve successfully piloted my ship out of the star cluster into the edge of the Perseus sector, represented by this blue line. It’s our back door into the K’Rang Empire. I’ve done a sensor scan and found several cargo runs that would be worth our while, shown here in green. There are at least ten runs here that would provide us with good captures. The best point is that these here, here, and here, marked in orange, are new worlds and get a lot of high tech and machinery cargos. The two more developed systems here and here, marked in yellow, get a lot of deliveries from outside the sector that will be on the edges of our ability to patrol, but high value enough to make it worth our while.”
    The captains murmured at Captain Craig’s comments, with hungry looks in their eyes.
    Steven Maynard signaled for quiet. “Thank you, Captain Craig. Gentlemen and ladies, we will need to harvest this new area carefully. If we continue to hit the Rigel to Aldebaran run selectively and develop this new area as well, we can all live very well for as long as we remain smart. In addition, we might find fertile markets for trade between the empires. I’m sure there are many that would pay top dollar for proscribed goods from the other empire.”
    Maynard brought the meeting to a close and the captains drifted off in ones and twos. Captain Craig and Captain Chang, captain of the Leviathan, remained behind.
    “Steven, this path I found is just barely large enough for the Leviathan to make it through. If the navigators get sloppy, we could lose her to a gravity eddy.”
    Captain Chang, a grizzled man in his early sixties, bristled at the comment. “I guess it’s a good thing I don’t have any sloppy navigators, then.”
    Captain Craig turned to his fellow captain and said, “Lee, that’s not it. It’s just that we all have so much invested in your ship and depend on it so much. I just want to make sure you understand the risk.”
    “It’s all right, Ron, I understand your concern. I think once we fit the new thrusters we’ll pull off that container ship I brought in, she’ll pirouette in space like a ballerina.”
    “Pirouette?” laughed Maynard. “That I’ll need to see.”
    All three left the conference room and went their separate ways, chuckling at the vision of a ship larger than a Fleet carrier twirling in space.

    Maynard made his way to his private quarters on Helge’s Ridge. He walked out onto his terrace and surveyed what he had built so far. Below him lay a twelve-kilometer wide city, with over 300,000 members of the brotherhood and 100,000 captives. It nestled in a valley between two medium mountain ranges and had all the facilities of a second tier world in the Galactic Republic. Every resident, including captives, had private quarters, free medical care, entertainment of all types, and all the modern conveniences.
    To the north was a spaceport that could handle any size atmospheric ship or spacecraft capable of landing on a planet’s surface. The ancient artificial moon above them serviced all other ships and served as the wrecking yard for all captured ships. Nothing went to waste. The yards here were capable of stripping all the usable parts off the captured ships down to just structural members and rebuilding them in four different classes of ships.
    The largest class was the Leviathan, named after the biblical sea beast that swallowed Jonah whole and spit him out again, and there was only one ship in the class. The next two classes were torpedo ships designed for system defense. The Scylla class was fast, almost a fighter, and capable of firing four homing torpedoes. The Charybdis class was slower, but carried six torpedoes. If the Galactic Republic ever ventured into the star cluster and got too close, they would find a swarm of torpedoes heading their way. Maynard would prefer hypervelocity missiles, but the Fleet chips capable of guiding hypervelocity missiles were too closely guarded to acquire.
    The final and most prevalent class was a combination patrol craft and marauder vessel. It was fast, maneuverable, heavily armed for a ship of its size, and with a spacious cargo capacity. The lead ship in the class, the Undefeated, was due back in a few days. It was escorting a captured Galaxy class transport with some wealthy hostages. The ransom would probably pay off the captain’s mortgage on the ship.
    Life was good for Steven Maynard. He had farms, mines, mills and factories, all at his command. In a decade, after he populated this planet some more, he would deed a township to each of his captains, and expand outward where three habitable systems were awaiting settlers. Steven had dreams of an empire, and he was well on his way.
    He read the latest reports from the moon station and wondered how loudly Captain Mabry would yell when she found out he was taking her pilot to captain his latest Undefeated class ship coming off the ways. He’d probably have to give her a bigger cut of the ransom to keep her from blowing up. She was a good captain, but could be such a drama queen at times.
    Steven remembered back thirty years, when the idea of Barataria first occurred to him. It was back when the Algol-Aldebaran conflict was simmering over control of the high iron asteroids in the local fields. Iron was needed to make the steel required for high-rise buildings, combat ships, and other requirements of developing worlds.
    Steve captained the Survey Ship Pericles and was always looking for contracts. The Pericles had been a wedding present from his industrialist father-in-law. It was meant to provide Steven with an income suitable to keep his father-in-law’s little girl in a manner to which she was accustomed. Unfortunately, she was accustomed to more attention than a wandering survey captain could provide. One of her lovers was the jealous type and, when she wouldn’t leave Steven for him, killed them both in a murder-suicide. Steven returned home, buried his wife, sold all their belongings and left to make his life among the stars.
    He found that contracting for survey work in a conflict zone was profitable but tricky work. Both sides had hired privateers who were not always scrupulous when it came to deciding what was or wasn’t an enemy vessel. Steven had some medium plasma guns in hidden mounts fitted in the Pericles, to give him a chance.
    One day, he was working a survey contract for an Aldebaran conglomerate in dire need of certain minerals. Steven was picking his way through an asteroid field, doing remote assay work looking for high concentrations of the minerals in question.
    An Algolian privateer happened upon him and called for him to heave to and be boarded for inspection. Knowing that his Aldebaran contract would brand him an enemy vessel, he allowed the privateer to get close and then cut him in two with his guns. Unfortunately, the privateer wasn’t alone and Steven found himself in a four hour running gun battle. His ship thrusters gave him an advantage in being able to run up to full speed then face rearward to fire. It kept the privateer back and gave Steven running room, but he needed to find someplace to get away, to hide and wait out this tenacious captain. As he ran along the face of the Pleiades Star Cluster, he thought he saw a pathway inside. He turned in against the wishes of his crew and, surprisingly his ship wasn’t crushed by the gravity or swept into an eddy never to be seen again.
    The privateer chose not to follow him, but waited at the spot the Pericles entered. With his exit closed, Steven led his ship further into the star cluster, looking for an alternate way out. He did not find another way out, but he did find something wondrous — an abandoned habitable world.
    Steven spent three days conducting a full survey of this empty planet, hoping their friend waiting outside would tire and go away. It was a Class M planet orbiting within the Goldilocks zone, where the effects of solar radiation were not too cold, not too hot, but just right for human habitation. He found scattered ruins and an artificial moon from an ancient and long absent society. He couldn’t tell if they had abandoned the world or died off. In fact, he found no physical evidence, no bones or images, beyond the ruins, that there had ever been sentient beings on the planet. He estimated that it had been millennia since the planet had been occupied.
    His exploration of the artificial moon found it to be fully functional. Thankfully, the old civilization used pictures for labeling their controls; so most functions were easily discernable. One of his engineers found the controls to pressurize the workspaces and did so. The air was musty, but breathable. It gave them freedom to explore the space station and discover its secrets. What they found was a shipyard capable of building and repairing medium-sized ships like the Pericles or their privateer friend waiting outside.
    Steven was considering the best way to profit from this discovery, when one of his crew suggested that their food was getting low and the pirate at the gate wouldn’t have long to wait before they had to replenish their stocks. He mused how the privateer would probably love to have a hole like this to duck into when things got too hot on the outside.
    Steven grasped onto this idea as a way out of their current predicament. He saw it through to its logical conclusion. He could offer to populate this world with a society of pirates. It had fertile land for bountiful crops and raising livestock. It had space for large estates and city houses. Steven saw the draw this planet could have for the right clientele.
    Steven prepared a sales pitch to use on their tenacious friend still waiting outside. He ran it by his crew and they were all for it. Land on developed worlds was expensive and hard to come by. Land on new words was limited by Galactic Republic environmental and settlement bureau red tape. Here was as much land as one could want. A man could claim a whole continent if he had a mind to.
    Steven approached the entrance to the star cluster just out of weapons range and called the privateer captain over short-range comms.
    “Unknown vessel, this is Captain Steven Maynard of the Survey Ship Pericles.”
    He didn’t have long to wait for a reply. “Captain Maynard, this is Captain Lee Chang of the Aldebaran Auxiliary Fleet Vessel, Morning Sun, present your ship to be boarded.”
    Well, that was to be expected, seeing as his ship had destroyed one of his fellow privateers.
    Steven started his sales pitch. He said he wasn’t likely to submit to boarding. He asked Captain Chang if he ever felt a longing to be the owner of his own land, in a place where he could live his current lifestyle free of any legal entanglements. He asked him if he would like a facility to maintain his ship where the fees wouldn’t go up based on a successful cruise.
    Captain Chang came back on the communicator and asked, “Where is this Shangri La you speak of?”
    Steven replied, “It is right in here behind me. Would you care to have a look?”
    Chang replied, “How do I know this isn’t just a ruse to lure me into gun range and kill us like you killed the Enforcer, or lead me into a gravity eddy I can’t escape from?”
    Steven replied, “You don’t, but isn’t the reward enough to overcome the risk? Come in with your weapons charged, Captain. I will do the same. If either suspects treachery, we are free to fire.”
    The other captain chuckled and said, “I don’t know you, Captain, but I like your style. It will be a pity if I have to kill you.”
    Steven keyed his communicator, chuckled, and said, “I feel the same way about you, sir.”
    Captain Chang was impressed by the found world and also realized its potential as a base for those not friendly with the law. He and Steven agreed to sponsor this world to the right kind of people. One of their first joint tasks was to name their world. They looked through history files for any similar arrangements and found an old Earth pirate named Jean Lafitte, who operated a similar gathering of pirates on an island called Barataria, so that became the planet’s name.
    Steven put the word out through the various prison networks of a world more lenient than those they were serving time on. The word spread quickly through the cellblocks and camps. He told convicts that a world awaited them if they had needed skills and could control their passions. Steven advertised for people with experience in construction, heavy manufacturing, light manufacturing, shipbuilding, agriculture, engineering, hospitality, and other fields. He received queries by the thousands. His population grew and pretty soon his idea became a city.
    Lee Chang put the word out through the pirate network and ships showed up by the dozens. There were some early problems with some of the pirates being a little too ruthless with their captives. Those captives that weren’t killed were worthless for use on the farms and in the factories. That was when the code of the brotherhood came into being.
    The code was simple logic: Loyalty to the Brotherhood above all, aid fellow brothers in need, inflict no needless harm to captives, keep the secret of Barataria, and above all, thieves can’t abide other thieves. These simple rules kept the Brotherhood from descending into anarchy. Unfortunately, for those who could not learn to live within these rules, infractions could mean death. Once you joined the Brotherhood and learned of Barataria’s location, you could never leave the Brotherhood. A few had to be hunted down and killed for that lesson to soak in.

    Fleet comms channels were burning up with messages from the major shipping lines, several corporations, and two world governments to do something about these ship disappearances. There was even Galactic Republic Senate pressure being brought to bear. The Vigilant would be departing as soon as she could be resupplied. They were given priority with base supply so that would be no time at all.
    Kelly reviewed his orders as the base shuttle delivered him to the Vigilant: Proceed to the vicinity of the Rigel-Aldebaran trade route. Rendezvous with Fleet Reporting Officer Alistair Bennett. Assist him in his investigations, as appropriate. Determine the source of the ship disappearances and resolve the matter successfully.
    It was a simple mission. All he had to do was do what the Rigel and Aldebaran governments’ best investigators and the combined resources of ten shipping lines were unable to do. All he could think was what a great mission they’d given him.

    Sensor Lead Technician H’Talli, of the K’Rang Missile Corvette J’New, ran an in-port training exercise for his sensor section in the Combat Information Center, using saved sensor files from their patrol a week prior. He supervised his section as they scoured the old sensor data, rating them on their ability to quickly identify ships by engine signature, type, and size.
    He had a timer and a list of targets he had personally identified on their last patrol through the D’Rin sector. This sector was peaceful and their only targets normally were commercial vessels of various types and sizes. It was a perfect training opportunity. As the techs worked, he tracked how quickly they identified and classified targets on the basis of his own score.
    The D’Rin sector was sort of a backwater by K’Rang standards and the J’New was the only ship dedicated to this sector. Here the border had no mines or sensors, but was secure by the impenetrability of the D’Rin star cluster, a dusty star nursery consisting of a few large blue stars, even fewer yellow dwarf stars, and hundreds of brown dwarfs too feeble to ever become true stars. The gravity and the magnetic fields they created were treacherous to ships. Many a scout ship was lost attempting to find a passage through to human space.
    He checked his list and saw that the next target ship was an ore carrier due in sensor range in ten seconds. He watched to see who would be first to react.
    Sensor Technician T’Get reacted first, but he should not have been able to detect the target for another eight seconds. H’Talli moved to see what T’Get was sensing.
    “Sensor Technician T’Get, what is the target you are working?”
    “Sensor Lead Technician H’Talli, a ship has appeared from the D’Rin star cluster. I believe it is a Human ship of a type not in our data base.”
    H’Talli doubted the junior sensor analyst and asked T’Get to show his data.
    T’Get ran the sensor file back and focused on the face of the D’Rin star cluster, where he had seen the ship. In a moment, a ship appeared outside the boundary of the star cluster. The ship was there and the next instant, it was gone.
    T’Get replayed the file and H’Talli’s pupils widened, his fur stood up, and his blood ran cold as the ship came into view again. H’Talli froze the feed as the ship appeared. He moved T’Get out of his seat and sat down to work the target. It was unmistakably a Human ship. The engine signature was that of a common gravity well/FTL engine of Human design. Unfortunately, it dropped back into the star cluster before its class and armament could be determined.
    H’Talli stood up on unsteady legs as the realization of the find sunk in.
    He announced to the room, “This training is ended. Put your positions in proper order and you are released for the day. Report back here at 0500 tomorrow. Sensor Technician T’Get, you will remain behind.”
    As the section filed out, H’Talli sat back down at the sensor terminal and reprocessed all the data on the Human ship. He had no doubt in his conclusion.
    He stood up and clasped Sensor Technician T’Get by the shoulder.
    “Sensor Technician Second Class T’Get, you will not talk of this to anyone. I concur with your analysis. I am forwarding your discovery directly to the Imperial Analytical Cabal. If they concur with what you and I see, I will recommend that you be promoted immediately to Sensor Technician First Class. You have done a great service to the Empire.”
    Sensor Lead Technician H’Talli left the Combat Information Center to seek an audience with the captain.

    It was departure time for Kelly’s patrol. The crew was ready. The ship was ready. The captain was ready. “Exec, are we ready to lift off?”
    LTJG Cortez looked up from her display, which showed green indicators from all ship’s sections and replied, “All sections report ready. Chief Billings has the quarterdeck. The gangplank is down. Awaiting your orders, sir.”
    Kelly took a look around the bridge. All personnel were in their places. He envisioned his ship as a coiled spring ready to be set free. He keyed his communicator and said, “Chief Billings, bring up the gangplank and secure the quarterdeck watch.”
    Kelly heard the gangplank come up and lock in place. He felt a slight pressure change in his ears, signifying a good seal on the gangplank hatch. Chief Billings joined them, reported the gangplank up, locked, and the quarterdeck watch secured. He took his position as Chief of the Watch. The ship was ready for space.
    Kelly keyed his mike again. “Antares Base, this is Vigilant, requesting permission for take off.”
    “Vigilant, this is Antares Base, you are cleared for take off. Good luck and good hunting.”
    “Helmsman, take us up, standard departure, 0.5 c once we clear the atmosphere. Yeoman, start the log.”
    “Standard departure, 0.5 c once we clear the atmosphere, aye, sir.”
    As they cleared the atmosphere Kelly said, “Chief, Billings would you enter our course?”
    “Aye aye, Captain. Navigator, your course is coming up.”
    Kelly scanned the navigation screen for ships in their path and said, “Helm, as soon as we clear the minimum safety distance, engage FTL Power 4 and let’s get out of here.”
    The helmsman entered and verified the course, then replied, “Course is locked in, minimum safety range in six seconds, five, four, three, two, one, engaging FTL Power 4.”
    Kelly stood up. “Exec, you have the first watch. Chief Blankenship, join me in my ready room.”
    As the captain and Chief B left, LTJG Cortez passed the conn to Chief Billings and checked on conditions in other sections of the ship. Gunnery was squared away. Sensors were squared away. The galley smelled yummy. Engineering was unmatched.
    She went to Chief Miller and asked, “Chief, have you run diagnostics on the engine synchronizers?”
    Chief Miller wiped his hands clean on the rag he always kept handy. “Yes, ma’am, I’ve run full diagnostics on the three active and two spares. All check out within 2 % of specifications or better.”
    “Good, the last word my old boss gave me was to try and discourage the captain from full stop to max speed runs if any of the synchronizers are more than 5 % out of spec. If that happens with any of the active synchronizers, let the captain and I know immediately.”
    “Yes, ma’am, will do.”
    “By the way, Chief, what level G-force did the hull pull during our mad acceleration? My monitor was on engine instrumentation, not hull stresses.”
    “Ma’am, my gauges showed a peak of 6 G’s on initial thrust, leveling off to 4 G’s upon climbing through FTL Power 4, and dropping to 2 G’s just before we hit top speed. We were well within specs for the stabilizers. They max out at 8 G’s.”
    “Thanks Chief, good work.”
    Connie worked her way back to the bridge, stopping off in the galley for a cup of coffee and a roll.
    Staring out the view screens at the cosmos, now that the ship was on reduced patrol lighting, she could make out galaxies by the score. She didn’t think she would ever get used to the immense beauty of it. Connie really loved being in space.
    Chief B leaned her head out of the captain’s ready room door and motioned her in. Kelly told her to come in and have a seat at the conference table.
    “Chief B is going for some tea and coffee. When she gets back, we’ll go over a schedule for drills I want to run.”
    Chief B was back presently with a tray of cups, a pot of tea, and a carafe of coffee. Kelly pulled a small container of sweeteners and creamers from a shelf.
    As they fixed their drink of choice, Kelly began listing the drills he wanted to concentrate on. Between the three of them, they placed the drills into the various watch schedules, to spread the training benefit to the whole crew. While they were finishing up the task, a knock came on the door and Yeoman Benitez stuck her head in the door.
    “Captain, message for you from Admiral Craddock.”
    Kelly frowned. A message sent through deep space comms couldn’t be good news.
    “Excuse me, all. I’ll need the room.”
    He took the data drive from Yeoman Benitez while they all filed out onto the bridge, leaving him alone. He fed the data into his terminal and read the screen that appeared:
    To: Commanding Officer, GRS Vigilant
    From: Commanding Officer, Scout Force
    Subject: Change to Orders
    Proceed to patrol sector vicinity Rigel-Aldebaran trade route, rendezvous with Fleet Reporting Officer Bennett. Proceed to Rigel Station and, at first opportunity, contact Mr. Roger Delphant, of Debran Industries, to arrange meeting with Mr. Friedrich Debran, re: Disappearance, in sector, of Mrs. Julia Debran and two daughters, Christine and Sylvia. Extreme pressure to locate Debran family is being placed on Fleet by Senate Defense Committee Chair. You will be senior Fleet representative in sector, pending decisions being made at Fleet HQ regarding reinforcing your mission. Fully inform Mr. Debran of our intentions to locate his family and secure their safe return. Upon completing briefing to Mr. Debran, make all efforts to locate and return three Debran women and carry out original mission. Will advise. Good luck. Good hunting.
    He called his exec, Chief B and Yeoman Benitez back into his ready room, “Yeoman, please log this message.”
    “Exec, Chief we got a doozy handed to us. It seems a Mr. Debran of Debran Industries, Inc. has misplaced his family and has the Senate putting extreme pressure on Fleet to locate them. As we will be the Fleet presence in sector for the foreseeable future, we are…no, I am tasked with meeting with Mr. Debran and giving him a warm and fuzzy.”
    Kelly printed the message and handed it to Connie and Chief Blankenship to read. They each read it in turn and passed it back.
    “Chief B, did you notice the name of his go between?”
    “Yes, sir, I did. I wonder if he is related to the late Charles Delphant of the Indigo Consortium? He must be or it would be too large a coincidence.”
    Connie looked puzzled.
    “Exec, Charles Delphant was the head of the Indigo Consortium, until he died in a suspicious office fire. Company executives travelling on their ships were meeting with K’Rang agents along the frontier and passing military and other information in exchange for large quantities of flamestones. The Vigilant captured enough flamestones to finance almost half the Valiant class of scout ships. We monitored several of their meetings and even snatched some K’Rang couriers. It gave us the info we needed to ambush the K’Rang invasion fleet at New Alexandria.”
    Connie’s eyes got wider and wider as Kelly recounted the Vigilant’s exploits. She realized Scout Force was far different than her life in R amp;R had been. She had a lot to learn.
    Kelly put the message into his dispatch case and concentrated on finishing the drill schedule. There was little he could do until he met with Alistair and had some idea of the situation. As the meeting broke up, he had Chief B get with sensors to dig up all they could on Mr. Debran and his company. He told LTJG Cortez to increase speed to FTL Power 5. There was no use dawdling.

    The luxury passenger ship bearing Julia Debran and her daughters made the perilous passage to Barataria through the Pleiades star cluster. Thorson had made the journey many times and he knew just where to travel and when to signal the recognition code. It took him three days to complete the passage, because the ship developed an unfortunate tendency to drift off course as the occasional gravity eddies would stretch out their tendrils and attempt to pull them in. It was not a life threatening issue, as a tug would come get them out if he miscalculated and got sucked in, but his professional pride would not let him get sloppy. He took it slow and arrived at the moon of Barataria only two days behind his original estimate.
    As he approached the artificial moon, its massive door opened to let him inside the cavernous globe left behind by that mysterious missing civilization. He called for gate assignment and was told to dock at gate 16. Security met him at the airlock and took the Debrans off his hands. He told the security chief to make sure nothing happened to them, as he would be looking in on them. The Ascetic didn’t even respond to the poorly veiled threat, but walked off with the three women to a detention cell, until the shuttle was ready to depart for the planet. A female Ascetic gathered up some clothes for the Debrans and followed along behind.

Chapter Nine

    Shadow Lead Analyst G’Lon, of the Imperial Analytical Cabal, was reviewing the data forwarded from the Missile Corvette J’New. At first, he thought it must be some image projection of a ship from the D’Rin star cluster’s Human side. Those sometimes happened, but never at this distance. The hard spectral analysis of the ship proved it wasn’t a mirage. The best K’Rang astrographers had surveyed the star cluster for over a decade and pronounced it impassable. How could they have been wrong? Over 100 Shadow Force scouts in six ships had perished, verifying the impassability of this zone.
    Here, if true, the Humans had an open path between two K’Rang main worlds. An invasion through this approach could split the empire. The Shadow Force Fleet and Imperial Fleet were still reconstituting from the debacle at G’Dranu, or New Alexandria, as the Humans called it. Fleet severely reduced K’Rang main world defenses to bolster the frontier against an expected Human counterattack.
    He set up an emergency meeting with Master Tactician B’Gotil, of the Imperial Staff, to brief his findings. He also forwarded a message to the K’Rang Fleet Personnel Directorate, recommending approval for the promotion of Sensor Technician T’Get and an appropriate award for Sensor Lead Technician H’Talli. A short call to the captain of the J’New sent it on an immediate sortie to monitor the location where the Human ship was detected.

    Kelly reviewed what the sensor section found for him on Debran Industries. Friedrich Debran was the second son of industrialist Johann Debran. His brother, Wilhelm, had been appointed as Chief Executive Officer for Debran Industries, Inc., but died in a ground car accident before he had been in the job for a month. Police had investigated the accident, thought that there was something suspicious about it, but couldn’t find any hard evidence of wrongdoing.
    Kelly reviewed the growth of Debran Industries, Inc. since the changeover. Friedrich did a very good job as CEO. He grew the business and diversified the company to include light manufacturing, electronics, mining, shipping, entertainment, and armaments. The net worth of the company had grown by 300 % under his stewardship. There were more than a few securities commission concerns on some of the mergers, but they always went through, such as the 51 % controlling interest in the Indigo Consortium after the mysterious fire that killed Charles Delphant, the Indigo Consortium’s former CEO and brother of Debran’s chief of staff.
    It was obvious that Debran was politically connected and could get his way when needed. Kelly checked political contribution databases and found extensive contributions to Colonial Party candidates and causes. Kelly found a think tank sponsored by Debran that was frequently quoted in news reports, supporting the Colonial Party agenda.
    On the personal side, Friedrich had been married to Julia Deirdre Halscomb since 2295.08.03. He had two daughters: Christine, 26, and Sylvia, 21. The daughters were frequent subjects of tabloid gossip and Tri-Vid celebrity shows. He checked out their photos and saw they were lookers. Most of the pictures were taken in high-end locations and hotspots with them in little to no clothing.
    Kelly pulled up some photos of Mrs. Debran, which showed where the girls got their looks. She conveyed a sense of grace and style in every photo, whether posed or candid. Kelly looked up her family and saw she was from an Old Earth banking family, and had a fortune of her own that may have rivaled Debran’s. Kelly wondered if theirs was a marriage of two great families for commercial purposes or for love.

    Sally Halstead was uncharacteristically whistling while she prepared the evening meal. One-Eyed Pete suspected it had something to do with the new dishwasher she’d convinced him to hire.
    One-Eyed Pete had no interest in Sally beyond her ability to cook excellent meals and make him a lot of credits. If young Russell Obwobwo made her happy, Pete was happy. He did get a kick out of watching the two of them trying to be discreet and failing miserably. The two were smitten with each other. He could see it in their eyes and their inability to avoid brushing up against each other. They did make an odd couple. You wouldn’t think a young, strong, handsome man would feel attraction towards a pear-shaped, plain woman ten years his senior or vice versa, but they did.
    Pete was happy to have Russell around. In addition to keeping Sally beaming, he had a green thumb when it came to growing herbs. A small shipment of live herb plants and seeds came in on a captured ship. Russell convinced Pete to bid on them and established a small herb garden, which produced many more fresh herbs than Sally could use. Pete sold these to his fellow restaurant owners at a tidy profit. Russell had already repaid his own purchase cost with the profits from his herb garden. Pete had plans to expand the herb garden next year.
    Pete’s reverie was halted as two members of the Ascetic Guards, a Deacon, third-class and an Acolyte, second-class, entered the kitchen through the delivery door. He moved to intercept them, thinking they had come in the wrong door.
    “Gentlemen, can I help you? Our dining room is through the glass door on the street front.”
    The senior guard pulled a pocket tablet out and said, “We have a special order here to be filled.”
    Pete came up to them and looked at the tablet.
    “Gentlemen, we can provide you with the first and second meals on your list, but the third is not available on Barataria. If it were, it would be here in my kitchen. Sally, come look at this.”
    Sally came over and perused the menu on the tablet and then exploded, “Pearlfish! What dumbass thought they could get pearlfish? Those are embargoed from export out of the Spica system. They’re on the endangered species list, fer chrissake. Nobody can get pearlfish. How about wingfish in a butter sauce? Those I got.”
    The two guards looked at each other with looks of pure puzzlement. Their simple diet included nothing on the tablet. The senior guard pulled out a communicator and spoke briefly. He put away his communicator and said the wingfish would be fine, then asked if they could be ready in 30–45 minutes.
    Sally threw up her hands and said, “Who is this for? It’s obviously not someone that’s been on Barataria for long, if they think we can get pearlfish.”
    The guards were unresponsive to her query, so she pulled ingredients out of her larder and started her prep. In 40 minutes she had completed the meals, plated them, and prepared them for carry out. The meals were more than the two guards could manage by themselves, so Russell was dragooned into helping them. Russell wouldn’t really be needed until later, when the dinner meal was served, so Pete let him go with the guards to ensure the meals’ safe arrival at their destination.
    Russell rode with the guards to a house on the north ridgeline above the city, where the senior members of the brotherhood had their homes. They pulled through the gate of a massive house built in the style of an English manor house, and around back, where several liveried servants met them, dressed in an old English style matching the large house.
    Russell supervised the transfer of the meals. While the guards weren’t looking, he asked the servants who lived here.
    The nearest servant said, “Pipe down. They might hear you. Nobody lives here. This is a holding facility for prisoners being ransomed.”
    Russell dropped his voice and asked, “ How many people are here right now?”
    The servant replied, “Just three at the moment. They came in last night. They must be important. This is the first time we’ve ever sent out for meals.”
    The senior guard looked back to the unloading and shouted at Russell, “You there, hurry it up or you’ll be walking back to the restaurant.”
    Russell finished passing the meals out to the servants, sat down in the rear of the vehicle, and was driven back to the Ruin View. On the way back he pondered on what he had just learned.

    Roger Delphant worked on other matters while he waited for his 1200 appointment. They were not late, just not early. He didn’t like them and wanted to get them in and out of his office as soon as possible.
    His secretary knocked on his door, stepped in, and announced Captain Ben Alden was here to see him. Roger saw him beyond her and waved him in. His secretary closed the door as she left.
    Roger got up, shook Ben’s hand and offered him a drink. Ben turned it down, so they got down to business. There was not much beating around the bush with these people.
    “Captain, you’ve come alone?”
    “It only takes one of us to execute a contract.”
    Captain Ben Alden looked more like a prizefighter than a ship’s captain. He had one droopy eye and a cauliflower ear. Anyone examining his knuckles would see evidence he had forced his will on many men in his life.
    “Mr. Delphant, I was sorry to hear about your brother. What a tragic loss of life.”
    “Thank you, Captain, it was quite tragic. Accidents do happen.”
    “Now, what can we do for Debran Industries, Inc.? Are some miners acting up again?”
    “No, not this time. Mrs. Debran and her two daughters have come up missing and Mr. Debran wants to keep all his options open. He doesn’t feel that he can rely on the local authorities and Fleet is only sending in one ship. How many ships can you assemble if cost is no object?”
    “In that case, I can get you a fleet of twenty ships: one fighter carrier with four fighters, three gun corvettes, ten missile patrol boats, ten armed cargo ships with 100 troops onboard each, and six medium gun boats. They won’t be cheap, but you already covered that. We’ve worked for you before and this is a family matter, so we’ll keep our price reasonable. When do you need us? I assume right now.”
    “Ben, we need you within five days. There is a Scout Force ship coming in then. We assume he will patrol into the Pleiades star cluster. Everywhere else has been searched multiple times, so that’s the only real option left. If he goes in, we want you to track his path so that you can navigate to whatever he finds.”
    “Mr. Debran suspects his family was taken by the Marauders that have been working the Rigel to Aldebaran trade route, and that they are based somewhere in the star cluster. He wants you to prepare your ships to launch a rescue mission into the star cluster. If any harm comes to his family, he wants you to find the Marauders’ base and destroy it. Kill everyone associated with it. Leave not one brick stacked on another when you are done.”
    “If you find the Debran women alive and free them, your fee will be doubled. If they are harmed or dead and you destroy the base, your fee will be doubled also. Do you understand?”
    “Sure, dead or alive we get double. You have a deal, Mr. Delphant. I’ll have that drink now.”

    Alistair Bennett monitored the Vigilant’s entry into the sector. He watched as they advanced right up to his position, then flashed them the recognition code and was impressed as they smoothly lined up and docked with his airlock. Their helmsman was good.
    He walked back to his airlock and cycled it open after checking the positive seal. An armed duo met him at the lock. He verified his identity to them as the Kelly came into view.
    “Please excuse the drama, Alistair, but we have to be careful. There appears to be a lot riding on us. Please follow me.”
    “Captain, there is something I need to do first. Let me show you what I’ve done to my ship since last you saw it.”
    He turned and walked away before Kelly could answer yes or no. Kelly followed, leaving the two sensor crewmen to guard the airlock.
    Alistair turned around just before Kelly caught up.
    “I have to put my companion to bed. I don’t suppose you have facilities aboard your ship for cats.”
    “Cats? No, we don’t. Fleet regs are very strict about pets and mascots on board. Only flag officers can get away with that. The health people would throw a fit if they found a flea in one of my compartments.”
    Alistair kept on walking forward in his ship. “I figured as much, not that my cat has fleas. Rojo should be asleep by now. I gave him a mickey as you were approaching.”
    “A mickey? What is that and what are you going to do with him?”
    “Oh, he’s about to take a very long nap. I’ve done it before. He goes to sleep, I put him into a stasis chamber, and I pull him back out when I get back.”
    Kelly had met Rojo before. Rojo was a very large cat, probably 9 kilos in weight. Kelly wondered about his name, because rojo was the old Earth Spanish word for red.
    “Doesn’t Rojo mean red?” he asked.
    “True, but it does seem to suit him. Besides, it’s the only name he answers to. I tried dozens before settling on that one.”
    Alistair picked the cat up, slipped him into a cat carrier, and lowered him into a chest type stasis chamber.
    “There. When I get back I’ll pull him out, let him wake up, and he’ll be the most refreshed kitty in this sector.”
    Kelly was amazed, “Are you sure it doesn’t hurt him?”
    “It hasn’t yet. I’ve kept him in stasis for up to six months and it hasn’t hurt him. Captain, let me show you something.”
    Alistair led Kelly to the bridge and punched some buttons on the command terminal. A new holographic display opened up from the floor. In the middle of the display was their current position. Alistair stepped in front of the display and pointed to what was obviously the Pleiades star cluster.
    “Here is where I lost the track of the ion trail. If I had continued, the gravity fields would have torn my ship apart, never mind the effect of the X-ray discharges from all these brown dwarves.”
    “I couldn’t go in, so I scanned as deep as I could from the peripheries. I detected these energy spikes here near this yellow dwarf star. I suspect that may be where our pirates’ lair might be. Of course, knowing where it is doesn’t mean we can get at it. I’m sure there isn’t a straight line path from here to there.”
    Kelly studied the holograph closely.
    “No, not a straight path, but I bet my ship can figure it out. It will still be like going through a maze with dead ends and wrong turns. I’m sure they didn’t leave a breadcrumb trail.”
    “That’s why I called for you, Kelly. Now, if you will authorize the transfer of this data, I’ll shoot it over to your ships data banks.”
    Kelly called over to Chief B to allow a data transfer. In seconds, it was done.
    “Alistair, can I help you with any gear you need to move over to my ship?”
    “No, thanks, captain, I travel light. Let’s go.” Alistair picked up a medium duffle and allowed Kelly to lead him back to the Vigilant.

    Captain Alden entered his missile corvette and immediately handed his comms tech a message to send out offering work to the various ships’ captains that would make up his fleet. He received responses almost immediately from all but a few of them. He sent the rendezvous point to those that responded and waited for the others to respond. He had enough ships from the initial responses to accomplish his mission, but wanted a full consist. He had time. None of them would be more than a few days away.
    While he waited, Ben Alden took in some of the sights and entertainments available here on Rigel Station. It had a reputation as a place where a lonely spacer could find a good time. He took in the bars, gambling halls, shows, restaurants, and the less genteel pleasures available. He was looking for more than just a good time. He was looking for information.
    In the morning, he made his way back to his ship and checked in on whether more responses had been received. They had and he was missing only one ship of the ones he had called for. He saw Captain McDougall’s response and thought if McDougall was coming, so was Captain Dobbs. The two were practically inseparable, at least as long as Captain Alden had known them.
    He reviewed his fleet consist and thought he could face anything the pirates threw at him. He sent messages to all the responding captains to collect anything they could on the pirate base in the star cluster. Surely there were pirates or ex-pirates with loose lips that a few well-placed drinks could loosen further.

Chapter Ten

    Admiral Christos Pouledoris, Chief of Fleet Operations, was not in a good mood. A Galactic Senate Defense Committee staffer had threatened him this morning over the Debran situation. Better yet, he had just gotten off the communicator with the Chairman herself. The staffer had mentioned several cuts in key programs that could result from “further inaction.” Senator Santori had threatened him personally with a downgrade in rank upon retirement. He could care less what happened to his retirement, but he couldn’t allow those programs to be cut or scaled back. They were part of a long-term strategy against the K’Rang. The possibility of peace with the K’Rang on human terms rode on the capabilities those programs would provide. He ordered his staff to provide him with options and the briefer was right outside.
    He called in the briefer and his Chief of Operations, Rear Admiral James Trent. Trent opened up the briefing by setting the scene.
    “Sir, as you know after the Second Battle of New Alexandria, we disbanded the 1st Combined Fleet, and kept the 19th Battle Fleet in the Scutum sector, to keep the K’Rang thinking about a potential counterattack. The 15th Battle Fleet returned to our yards at Gagarin for a badly needed overhaul. The battle cruiser groups and assault landing groups were dispersed along the frontier, to keep the K’Rang further off balance.”
    “The K’Rang reacted by reinforcing their side of the frontier through stripping forces from their main world defenses. We significantly outmatch them in every sector.”
    “That’s the background. I’ll let Captain Danae brief you on your specific request for information on the Debran situation.”
    Captain Elisabeth Danae wore ribbons showing a great deal of combat experience, and the Space Warfare badge, signifying she had spent her time on the bridge and in the combat information centers of numerous warships.
    Captain Danae activated a small holographic projector she had placed on Admiral Pouledoris’s desk. A 3D representation of the Taurus Sector around the Rigel to Aldebaran region opened.
    “Sir, to orient you: Here are Rigel, Aldebaran, and the Pleiades star cluster. Fleet intelligence thinks that a marauder base has been set up in the Pleiades star cluster, from which they have been orchestrating very successful attacks against commercial shipping until recently. In fact, if the marauders took Mrs. Debran and her daughters, it would have been only the second attack in the last two weeks.”
    “We have two ships in the area, a Fleet Reporting Officer that has been in sector for five weeks and a Scout Force ship, the Vigilant, that arrived today. The Vigilant has been ordered to rendezvous with the Reporting Officer and then personally meet with Mr. Debran to brief him on our response to his wife and family’s disappearance.”
    Admiral Pouledoris stopped the briefer, as she was about to continue.
    “Let’s cut to the chase Liz, Debran is not going to be satisfied with just one Intel guy and a scout ship. What have we got in sector or nearby that could be brought to bear on this problem?
    Captain Danae continued, “Sir, I was just getting to that. The closest force of any size is the 3rd Assault Landing Group on the western boundary of the Gemini Sector. At max speed, they could arrive in the vicinity of Rigel Station in three days.”
    “What’s their mission and who’s in command?”
    “Rear Admiral Paulo Minacci just took over command of the 3rd ALG from Rear Admiral Mayer, and they are part of our show of force along the K’Rang frontier.”
    “Fine, send Admiral Minacci a change of mission order to move his force to the Taurus sector at best possible speed and take charge of the Debran situation. Tell Andrew Craddock to chop his Scout ship to Admiral Minacci’s command as soon as the 3rd ALG arrives in sector. Do the same with the reporting officer. Let’s see if we can get the honorable lady from Grissom off my back.”

    Shadow Lead Analyst G’Lon, of the Imperial Analytical Cabal, had just completed his briefing to Master Tactician B’Gotil. He watched the fur on B’Gotil’s neck rise as he showed him the sensor record of the Human ship appearing in K’Rang space.
    B’Gotil stood up, walked to the screen and said, “This is really a Human ship and not some mirage, some trick of space?”
    G’Lon ran the sensor record back and replaced the visual view with the spectral view.
    “The colors you see here in the spectral view denote metallic alloys found mainly in Human ships. We use a slightly different mix of elements in our ships. This is definitely a Human ship. Incidentally, the spectral return confirms it is real and not a mirage.”
    B’Gotil turned away from the display and paced a few steps.
    “We have our forces stretched along the entire frontier in a show of force. We are weak everywhere and strong nowhere. Our main world defenses have been stripped, and here is what is undoubtedly a Human scout poking its nose into lightly defended space between two of our main worlds.”
    “Shadow Lead Analyst G’Lon, you will accompany me to brief my superior. He will probably carry us directly into his superior and I do not doubt we will have a video audience with the Elders before this day is done. Prepare yourself.”
    G’Lon froze for a moment as he realized what B’Gotil had just told him. He swallowed, composed himself, and gathered his data for the upcoming briefings.

    Kelly spent the better part of two watches picking Alistair Bennett’s brain. He and Alistair constructed an energy map of the star cluster showing two areas of high-energy fields. Kelly picked the one with the highest energy readings for their first investigation. Their path would be controlled by the readings from their gravimetric sensors. Kelly hoped to be able to use his 3-D gravimetric sensors to pick a safe path through the gravity wells and eddies, like running through a maze.
    Kelly would have three to four days to conduct his initial reconnaissance into the star cluster, before he came under the command of the 3rd ALG. He had to make the most of that time to find out what was going on in there, while he still had freedom of action.
    Once he felt he had gotten all he could from Alistair, he sat down and prepared himself for his briefing to Mr. Debran. He had already contacted Mr. Delphant and arranged a meeting at Mr. Debran’s convenience. An hour later, he notified LTJG Cortez she had the ship until he returned. He gathered up Chief Blankenship and the two of them walked through Rigel Station, until they came to the office space occupied by Friedrich Debran.
    They were met by Mr. Delphant and ushered into a side office.
    “Captain Blake, so nice to meet you, and who is this with you?”
    “Mr. Delphant, this is my Chief of the Ship, Senior Chief Petty Officer Blankenship. She will be assisting me with my briefing to Mr. Debran.”
    Mr. Delphant turned away, paced a few paces, turned back, and said, “Mr. Debran abhors formal briefings. He would much prefer a deskside one-on-one conversation.”
    Kelly looked at Chief B and shrugged.
    “All right, Mr. Delphant, if that’s the way he wants it. So, what are we waiting for?”
    Mr. Delphant turned to a tablet on the desk, punched a few buttons, read what came up, and turned to Kelly. “Mr. Debran is in a video conference. He will be ready to see you in ten minutes. Can I get you something? Coffee? Tea?”
    “Nothing for me. Would you like something, Chief?”
    Chief B shook her head and they waited. Ten minutes later, Mr. Delphant’s tablet buzzed and he led Kelly, without Chief B, in to see Mr. Debran.
    Mr. Debran was sitting behind a large desk, but got up as Kelly was led into the room. He was a smallish man about five foot six. He used the trick of many short men of having his chair higher than those in front of his desk.
    “Captain Blake is it? So good of you to come see me.”
    Kelly shook his hand and felt a firm grip meet his.
    “Actually, sir, I’m LCDR Kelly Blake. Captain is my title on board ship.”
    “Ah, I see,” Mr. Debran responded. “I’ve actually never really understood military ranks and titles.”
    Kelly said, “Mr. Debran, first let me say how sorry I am for the trouble that has befallen your family. My mission is to do the initial reconnaissance into the star cluster. Fleet Intel has done some initial surveys of the area and we will be using that information to focus our reconnaissance. There are two areas of interest and we will be investigating both of them over the next few days.”
    “In addition, the Third Assault Landing Group, commanded by Rear Admiral Paulo Minacci, will be arriving within the week. We will then have sufficient force to conduct a cordon and search or direct assault, if required. If the marauders are in there, we’ll find them, deal with them, and rescue your family.”
    Mr. Debran paused in thought, then said, “Thank you, Captain, that is quite concise and to the point. I would like to ask you that if you can’t save my family that you, at least, reduce this pirate stronghold to dust and cinders.”
    “Sir, there are limits to what we can do. We will see to it that the pirate base is destroyed and they are eliminated as a threat in this sector.”
    Captain, pass this on to your admiral when he arrives that I want that base reduced to rubble and all the occupants eliminated. If that doesn’t happen, I will make it my job to make things miserable for the Fleet. Your own career is on the line. I could make yours the shortest command in history. Senator Coleen Santori is a close family friend and is personally interested in my family’s situation.”
    Kelly quietly said, “Mr. Debran, Fleet will do everything possible to return your family to you and remove the pirate threat wherever they hide. Before you threaten someone, however, you should know who they are.”
    “My mother’s maiden name is O’Toole. Her younger brother, my uncle, is Brian O’Toole. You may be familiar with that name. If there is nothing more, I’ll be heading back to my ship and my mission.”
    Kelly stood up, walked out of the room, and with Chief Blankenship, left Mr. Debran‘s offices for his ship.
    Debran spoke to Mr. Delphant after Kelly had departed. Mr. Delphant pushed some buttons on his pocket tablet.
    “Yes sir, LCDR Blake’s uncle is the majority leader of the Galactic Senate. I think he’s just seen your senator and raised you.”
    Friedrich Debran grimaced at the odds that a mere Fleet officer could have shut him down like that. He told Mr. Delphant to get his hooligans ready to shadow the Vigilant.

    Standard operational procedure for Scout Force ships on patrol and the physics of deep space did not normally allow for receiving or sending personal messages. Kelly made use of a captain’s prerogative to authorize receipt of emails while docked at Rigel Station. The fact that the sleek, black Vigilant was visible to several view ports along the spaceport’s promenade negated any operational security concerns. Probably none of their observers noted the blue E, the red V, and campaign star, or understood their significance.
    Kelly did not allow the crew any outgoing messages even though the operational security filters in the comms system would have scrubbed out any references to mission, destination, or location. However, he did send two carefully worded messages to his mom and his dear uncle Brian.

    The normal Senate Monday morning party leadership coffee was spirited as Brian O’Toole reflected on their recent passage of the Omnibus Appropriations Bill and its value to the Colonial party in the upcoming Fall elections. With a final push to all his leadership to get the votes out for the Defense and Commerce Enhancement Bill authorizing an increase in funding for the expedited construction and broader deployment of transporter gates, Brian closed the meeting.
    Brian asked Senator Colleen Santori to remain behind. He reminded her that her dual hatting as Party Whip and Chairman of the Galactic Defense Committee was unprecedented and only an experiment. He expressed his concern at the narrowness of the vote on the recent appropriations bill and how more important that was to the party’s future than her micromanagement of the Defense budget. He opined that if things didn’t improve on this next bill he might ask her to choose which was most important to her. She responded that she had just gone through a critical series of hearings on the upcoming Defense Budget, but there was now nothing in the way of her focusing her attention on Party Leadership matters. Brian thanked her for her efforts on behalf of the party and the Republic and held the door for her as she left his office.
    The pressure on Fleet over the Debran affair miraculously evaporated.

    The sources of all the commotion were very comfortable in their captivity. The VIP Manor House they occupied left them wanting for few creature comforts. There were copious and well-maintained gardens, a fully equipped stable, fishing streams, a large pool and spa, tennis courts, a well-stocked library, a nine-hole golf course, and numerous other distractions for their pleasure and relaxation.
    Christine and Sylvia spent most afternoons by the pool working on their all-over tans. Julia spent her afternoons in the library. Julia was pleased that Thorson (she didn’t know if that was his first or last name) had been chosen to captain the soon to be launched pirate cutter Eclipse, and thus was free to visit her often. It allowed him to spend a good deal of quality time with her. She was always so regenerated after his visits. She so enjoyed being a desirable woman again.
    Steven Maynard (the head pirate as Sylvia referred to him) also paid them a call. He told them they were to be ransomed and should enjoy their confinement for the short time they were expected to be there. He informed Julia that he was asking 100 million credits for the three of them. Julia thought they were asking too little considering her husband’s worth, but kept that thought to herself. Although the thought amused her to bid their price up, she never knew what true value, if any, Friedrich might assign to them.

    The capture of the Nebula Queen caused all sorts of logistical problems, as it carried over 500 passengers, male and female, and 130 crew. It took 12 shuttle flights to bring them all down to the receiving facility. They were identified against the roster, chipped, sorted by use categories, and eventually sold. Irina Bugarov and Terri remained together because of some skillful camouflage and even more skillful makeup usage. Suspecting what was coming; Irina made Terri look old and used up. She emphasized wrinkles on Terri’s face, and wrapped an elastic band around her bust to de-emphasize her breasts. Irina then dressed both of them in their worst looking clothes.
    When the Ascetics found them in Irina’s cabin, they initially thought Terri was a man. Irina convinced them otherwise. When they reached the sales arena, Irina kept her close. The two of them were pushed into a cage holding older female captives. Irina and Terri were sold as part of a block of 100 female workers for a piece goods factory. General Irina Bugarov, veteran of two wars, Senior Fighter force commander for a battle fleet, Vice President for Debran Defense Industries, would be a seamstress. She told herself if she was going to be a seamstress, she was going to be a damned good one.

    The Vigilant hovered just outside the Pleiades star cluster, where Alistair Bennett had lost the mysterious ion trail. Kelly had the gravimetric plot on his command display. He studied the readouts, then switched to the 3-D display. With some adjustment, a tunnel of low gravity fields appeared before him. He could see a clear path ahead into the star cluster.
    He and Alistair had agreed that one of the several Sol-type suns should be their first target of investigation. Kelly ran through his mental calculations for choosing this system over the other one more time. He couldn’t find any reasons to argue against that choice.
    Kelly called all hands to battle stations and ordered the helmsman to move ahead. The helm and navigator worked closely with the Exec and Chief of the Watch to keep them in the middle of the gravity channel, as they moved resolutely ahead at FTL Power 3. Kelly stayed on the bridge for the first few critical junctions then moved back to sensors.
    As Kelly walked by, Chief Johnson had his section at maximum effectiveness. They were monitoring external gravity, X-rays, and stellar radiation, in addition to the normal communications, early warning, and self-defense sensors. They had already detected terrestrial communications ahead.
    Kelly walked back to snag a coffee from the galley and returned to sensors. He watched over the operators’ shoulders as they monitored their screens. He had sat position beside them often enough, during work ups and in his previous job as Exec, that they no longer were nervous over his presence. Sensors and the galley were two areas of his ship he had yet to master. He had a deep respect for their capabilities.
    The sensor operator, Chief Johnson, and Kelly saw it at the same time. An indicator for a laser burst transmission ahead of them showed on one of the monitors.
    Chief Johnson spoke first. “Looks like we are on the right route, sir, and they now know we’re here.”
    Kelly replied, “I have to agree with you on that. Is there any chance you could break out what the message was?”
    “No, sir, we only got the indicator because there is so much dust in this area. It was facing mostly away from us.”
    “Chief, can you get a close up view of that thing?”
    Chief Johnson nodded at the sensor operator and he zoomed in on the early warning satellite. It looked like a rock with an antenna sticking out the top.
    “Let’s let this one go. Maybe if they only get one report they won’t react. Yes, I know it’s wishful thinking on my part. Good work, Chief, but keep your eyes open. I suspect we may see company soon.”
    Kelly walked back to gunnery and found Chief Pennypacker, “Chief, we just tripped a burglar alarm, it seems. Heat them up and keep your gunners fresh and focused. I suspect we may have some company soon.”
    “Nothing to worry about, sir, we’ll be ready for them.

    Irina adjusted to the work relatively quickly. Terri let her hair go dirty and kept a disheveled look about her. This kept the male foremen off of her. Irina found out one of the worst offenders of women was a captive himself. She arranged a meeting with him.
    When he arrived, three other women grabbed him from behind and held him while Irina approached him. She unbuttoned her shirt and knelt in front of him while undoing his trousers. He kept asking them why they were holding him — he would cooperate fully.
    When his trousers hit the ground, Irina pulled out a set of industrial scissors and menaced his manhood. He fainted. Irina brought him to and told him that if they ever saw or heard of him bothering another woman in the factory, he would see those scissors again. She also told him to pass the message to the other captive foremen. She scared him so much that he soiled himself.
    Treatment of the women improved dramatically at that point. If ever a man started bothering a woman, the scissors came out and a snick-snick sound echoed through the room. It had a very chilling effect.

    It was First Day. The weeks on Barataria were only six days long and were referred to by their order in the week. Logically, the first day of the week was First Day. The next was Second Day and so forth. First Day was important because that was the only day of the week the Ruin View restaurant was closed and was Sally’s day off.
    Sally taught One-Eyed Pete early on that her not having a day off resulted in a drop in the quality of food served in the restaurant. Complaints from customers made the point to Pete that Sally deserved a day off. Sally made sure that all the staff shared in this day of rest. Pete made the mistake of holding Russell back one First Day to help him with inventory. The next day saw so many complaints on the quality of food that he never made that mistake again.
    Before Russell literally fell out of the sky, Sally had spent her days off in her quarters reading or working on odd bits of needlepoint. She had been mightily bored. Now that Russell was in her life, First Day took on a whole new meaning.
    Plain old Sally had never thought that romance would ever intrude into her life, but Russell dispelled that silly notion. When Sally was with him, she didn’t mind she was a captive. She didn’t mind that another had bought her life and she was merely property in many people’s eyes.
    She was doing what she loved-cooking. She was the head chef in the best restaurant on the planet. The most important people on the planet respected her, so much so that she was almost offered her freedom. All of that paled in comparison to the love she felt from Russell.
    Theirs was not a great passion. Sex was not a great part of their love. Russell realized early on that Sally only engaged in sex to make him feel better, not because it gave her any pleasure. Russell soon figured this out and though he was gentle and patient, she never felt the pleasure he did.
    Russell couldn’t bring passion into her life, so he worked hard to keep romance in their relationship. He wanted to marry her, but marriage between captives was forbidden. He made sure she had flowers in her quarters at all times. He always treated her like a lady. When he was with her, she was the only woman in existence.
    Their main activities were walks in the parks and quiet times reading together. Theirs was a quiet, but intense love.

    Steven Maynard had concluded his visit with the Debran women. He was conferring with the House staff and enjoying the view of the two younger Debran women lounging by the pool below the housekeeper’s office window. He advised the housekeeper that in the future the Debrans would eat meals from the house pantry and there would be no more take out.
    His communicator went off and a text message appeared, informing him that one of the perimeter warning sensors activated. His Defense HQ requested permission to send Torpedo Squadron Six to investigate. Steven mentally reviewed which one was Torpedo Squadron Six. He remembered that Six was the squadron with six Scylla and six Charybdis. Yes, that was the one he would choose. He authorized the action.
    Maynard had been expecting this. He guessed now was as good a time as any to see if his plans for the defense of Barataria were any good. He jumped into his ground car and hurried to his defense headquarters.

Chapter Eleven

    Twelve pilots and twelve torpedo men raced to their ships. They strapped themselves in, ran system checks, and reported their ships ready for take off. The squadron commander split the squadron into two sections, one he led, and the other by his XO. He gave three Scylla and three Charybdis to his XO’s section and kept the remainder under his control. He led the take off and ordered his XO to concentrate his initial attack by his section to the right and above the approaching target and he would concentrate on left and below. After the first shots were fired the two sections were free to engage as the situation warranted.

    Kelly was seated back on the bridge as sensors reported a second laser burst transmission ahead of them. Kelly ordered gunnery to take out the early warning satellite, and then watched with pride as one of the turret gunners put his first burst into the center of the target. The satellite exploded into pieces that hurtled off into the depths of the star cluster.
    Kelly was about to direct sensors to identify any further early warning satellites early enough to destroy them before they reported, when sensors informed them they had twelve hostile ships inbound port bow and starboard bow, high and low. Kelly authorized the gunners to engage all targets.
    Chief Johnson reported twenty torpedoes inbound in the forward hemisphere. The gunners expertly destroyed all these targets as they presented themselves. More torpedoes appeared on the sensors.
    Kelly noticed that three of the torpedo ships were bunched up and arrayed almost dead ahead of the Vigilant. He ordered gunnery to use the nose rail guns to take out these three ships.
    The gunner sitting in the bridge gunnery position lined up the cross hairs and took out the closest ship. In quick succession, he shifted point of fire and took out the second ship. The third ship turned away, but not in time to avoid the next rail gun burst. That made three down and nine more to go.
    There were still ten torpedoes inbound, although the gunners were doing well against them. Kelly was absorbed watching the battle unfold, occasionally redirecting fire or having the helm adjust the course and speed. At no time did he have the urge to grab the helm or take over the gunnery controls. His crew was doing their jobs extremely well; none of the ships or torpedoes got within his safety concern bubble.
    Kelly was watching his monitor and counting the torpedoes being destroyed when it dawned on him that one of the torpedo ships had disappeared from his scope. He called to Sensors that one was lost and to find out where it went. Gunnery reported they didn’t shoot him. Sensors was slow to find him. On a hunch, Kelly looked at the rear view and saw the ship trying to fly up their exhaust.
    Rather than hit one button and take over gunnery control for the rear firing guns, he ordered the bridge gunner to take it out. It only required a minute change in their course to line up the rear crosshairs on the target and there was one less bandit inbound. The top gunner and starboard gunner got one each and the port turret gunner got two, one cleanly and the second that flew into the debris of the first and took itself out.
    Kelly was getting tired of this game, as occasional plasma charges rocked the ship when they hit the Vigilant’s shields, and he thought he saw a way to bring it to a speedier conclusion. A brown dwarf was ahead to port. Kelly knew his engines could keep them from being caught in the gravity well of the dwarf, but bet the torpedo ships weren’t so well off. He ordered the helm to head directly for the brown dwarf.
    The torpedo ships, smelling blood in the water, followed, firing all their remaining torpedoes. There were now 31 torpedoes and eight torpedo ships in tail pursuit of the Vigilant. Kelly watched his gravimetric sensors, the gravity force numbers climbing higher as they neared the brown dwarf. This stillborn star with insufficient mass to ever erupt into a sun would be their masterstroke or their tomb.
    Kelly kept his eye on the gravity gauges, as he waited for his gut to tell him when to sheer away. The gravity gauges climbed until Kelly finally gave the order for the helm to slingshot around the brown dwarf. The helm matched velocity with the centripetal pull of the brown dwarf’s gravity. The Vigilant swung around the double Jupiter-sized dwarf and came back pointing the way they came. The torpedoes, way ahead of the torpedo ships, had engines too weak to pull away from the brown dwarf’s gravity and spiraled into the dwarf. The eight remaining torpedo ships suddenly found themselves in a head-on collision course with a very angry Vigilant. Six of them broke right and left, only to be taken out by the turret gunners. Two held their course straight at the Vigilant, firing their secondary nose guns to little effect. The Vigilant’s shields easily absorbed the hits. The bridge gunner lined up his cross hairs twice and the torpedo ship threat was no more.
    LTJG Cortez ordered all sections to report battle damage status. Negative reports came in from all sections, except engineering, which reported a minor temporary loss in shield strength. Kelly had just successfully prosecuted combat against a superior foe with no loss of life and no damage to his ship. He felt pretty good. He did feel bad about the torpedo ship crews, who were brave, but had picked the wrong occupation.
    Kelly looked around at his bridge crew and realized everyone was hunched over like they were expecting an explosion. He realized he was hunched over his console and straightened up. As he did so, he bumped into Alistair Bennett, who had been leaning forward over him watching Kelly’s monitor.
    Kelly smiled up at Alistair and asked him if he enjoyed the show.
    He replied, “In my ship, I don’t get shot at. This was a novel experience for me.”
    Kelly and the bridge crew laughed, breaking the tension. The crew sat up and stretched.
    Alistair let the laughter subside and then said, “They came at you uncoordinated except for the first salvo. You may have killed their leadership when you took out those initial three ships with your nose guns. The attack lost cohesion at that point. They still could have killed you, but they were firing their torpedoes almost at random, except for the end, where they salvoed their remaining torpedoes. I think you rattled them when you came right at them, but they rallied when they thought they had you on the run. Remember, these people are only in it for the credits. Dead men don’t get paid.”
    Kelly pondered Alistair’s analysis of the battle and admitted he agreed with him. He ordered the helm back to their position before the attack started and put them back on the base course. He thought about his order and lessons he had been taught back in the Academy. He remembered one of his instructors saying, “The easy path is always mined.”
    Kelly ordered the helm and navigator to plot a course along the 3G gradient toward their first target planet. That should get them some maneuvering space that wasn’t so well protected and covered by sensors.

    Steven Maynard arrived at Defense HQ to find the place in a state of chaos. No one knew what had happened. The torpedo squadron commander had made no contact report. All they knew was they had engaged a single ship and been destroyed in total. Maynard’s HQ staff had no idea who or what had destroyed the sixth squadron.
    A number of close explosions had knocked out many early warning satellites and a recon patrol of four torpedo ships could find only wreckage floating in the vicinity of where the battle took place. They found only debris of Torpedo Squadron Six. No wreckage could be found suggesting that any hostile ship had even been here. Maynard was on the comms, demanding that they find the ship or ships that had destroyed the torpedo squadron. In response, they made a maximum power active sensor sweep all the way back to Barataria and found nothing.

    Chief Johnson wanted to kiss the pirate in charge. He tracked the active sensor sweep all the way back to what had to be the pirate main base. He also tracked every identification friend or foe signal from the early warning satellites to the torpedo ships. He had a plot of all the satellites now. As long as they hadn’t seeded any out here in the higher gravity area, they should be able to sneak into the base’s back door. He went forward to brief his analysis to the captain.
    Kelly and Chief Blankenship took Chief Johnson’s collected active sensor data, Alistair’s energy data, the day’s gravimetric data, and overlaid them on top of each other. The result was a series of additional gravity tubes of various G-forces. Numerous travel tubes of similar gravity existed throughout the area and the Vigilant was probably the only ship aware of them.

    Chief Johnson’s weren’t the only set of eyes and ears out that day. Captain Ben Alden also intercepted and tracked the returning flight of torpedo ships. He filed this info away and thought about the best way to use this information. A sneak attack with massive firepower and shock action was his preferred mode of operation. If you could catch the other side asleep or off balance then half the battle was won. He retired his ship from the star cluster and prepared a message to all his fleet to rendezvous above Rigel’s southern pole in two days. He turned the conn over to his second in command and went to his cabin to plan his attack and rescue operation. He still laughed, because he got paid either way.
    Ben knew that he wouldn’t have a breakout of the planetary defenses, but he could always come in on the side opposite where the main settlement was. He pulled up a scanned hand drawn map one of his crew had drafted from the rum-soaked blatherings of a pirate crewman in one of the seedier bars of Rigel Prime.
    Captain Alden looked at the map and couldn’t figure out what significance the moon had for it to figure so prominently in the chart. Was it seeded with defensive weaponry or did it have another function? He pondered on this, but no revelation came to him. He’d just have to see if he could come at the planet from the side opposite the moon, if he could. He closed his terminal and lay down on his bunk, and within seconds was asleep, dreaming of what he would do with all the credits he would earn from this job.

    Shadow Lead Analyst G’Lon and Master Tactician B’Gotil completed their video briefing to the High Elders and awaited questions. The three elders conferred amongst themselves, then the center Elder looked up at them.
    “We thank you both for bringing this critical information to our attention. It is obvious that our show of force strategy along the frontier leaves us vulnerable if the Humans choose to use this avenue of approach into our space. We must move forces back into this sector immediately.”
    The Elder to the left said, “Master Tactician B’Gotil, perhaps we should give some consideration to an armed reconnaissance in force, to see what is within the star cluster and to let the Humans know that this pathway goes both ways.”
    B’Gotil answered, “Of course, Excellency, as soon as we recall sufficient forces to both conduct the reconnaissance in force and defend the sector, we will do so. We don’t want to alert the Humans until we can blunt any attack. We won’t know what forces are in the star cluster until we make contact. It would not do to have our recon force make contact with an approaching invasion force and not have our defenses ready to repel them.”
    The center Elder looked down at something before him on his desk, and then spoke again. “You may reduce the force in all contiguous sectors by one-third. There are two Shadow Force destroyers just coming out of the yards here at G’Durin that are yours to deal with this situation. In addition, the Shadow Force Heavy Cruiser H’Kom was coming into the yards for a weapons upgrade, but will be redirected to this effort.”
    The right side elder, which had been silent up to this point, spoke. “G’Lon and B’Gotil, we thank you for this briefing. You may have saved the Empire. We shall see to it that you are suitably rewarded. Long live the Empire!”
    G’Lon and B’Gotil echoed, “Long live the Empire,” as the video image dissolved on the screen.
    Fleet Commander J’Kalt, Fleet Operations Officer, who had been sitting to the side, allowing the two to conduct the briefing, said, “B’Gotil, prepare the orders to the adjacent sector commanders, to send us one-third of their forces. Look at the fleet rosters and select the ships we require. If we leave it up to the sector commanders we will only get their cast offs. This is too important to leave up to their good will. Don’t pick just their best. There is always the chance that the Humans may attack there instead of here.”
    “If we are successful in forcing our way through this star cluster and coming out into human space, maybe we can turn the tables on them. Maybe we can threaten their worlds and force them to react to us. It could reduce the threat in many vulnerable frontier sectors. G’Lon, see what you can find out about Human forces on the other side of this star cluster.”
    B’Gotil’s joint message from K’Rang Fleet HQ and Shadow Force, reducing forces in adjacent sectors, was met with much grumbling from commanders aware of how weak they were, considering this new Human ability to rapidly shift forces around. As they reviewed the list of ships to be chopped, they saw that at least HQ did not take all the first line ships. The fact that they would not be left with the weakest ships softened the blow some. The seal of the Elders on the message also forestalled any requests for reconsideration.
    G’Lon’s message from the Imperial Analytical Cabal ordered two nondescript Human cargo ships to close on the sector opposite the Human side of the star cluster. With luck and hard effort, they should be able to provide a much better picture of Human forces available before the K’Rang Fleet conducted its recon in force.

    Back on Barataria, Steven Maynard had calmed down and was trying to rationally assess the situation. The mystery ship that triggered the early warning satellites was nowhere to be found. It may have been destroyed and the debris sucked into the gravity well of the nearby brown dwarf. It may have been damaged or discouraged and turned around. It may have survived and was continuing forward to his world.
    Steven knew the first option was wishful thinking and the second option was only slightly less so. No matter the likelihood of the first two options, the third was the most damaging and the one he had to plan for. He issued a general recall for all ships’ captains and crews and defensive squadron leaders. They would go out, find this mystery ship, and destroy it.
    As his captains and squadron leaders gathered in his operations center, he put together a cordon and search plan to find and kill this mystery ship. This was his home ground. He had the advantage here.

    The Vigilant sat in the sun shadow on the dark side of the pirate world. Kelly had watched a small armada of ships of various classes leave the planet and moon in the direction from which Kelly had just come. The Vigilant’s gravity sensors, and the fortuitous information on the early warning sensors provided by the pirates themselves, gave him what he needed to know to speed his arrival. This put him behind the pirates as they departed to conduct what Kelly suspected was a cordon and search operation.
    Sensors watched for any further reaction from the pirates, but saw none. Kelly could not believe they had no sensors on the moon or planet’s surface. The Vigilant’s sensors mapped out the moon, detecting that it was artificial, then gazed through its outer shell with passive sensors to map out its interior. Kelly made out half the ships that had been captured in the last seven months. He could also sense ships under construction in various stages of completion.
    Kelly was impressed with this artificial moon, and couldn’t imagine how the pirates could have constructed such a massive facility. It was huge, about one-fifth the size of Earth’s moon. He suspected it might have been left behind by some earlier and more advanced civilization. Nonetheless, it was an impressive facility.
    The Vigilant cautiously moved into closer orbit around the planet. Just because they hadn’t detected any early warning or fire control sensors didn’t mean there weren’t any. Chief Johnson had the sensors recording at their fastest speed, mapping every house, warehouse, business, and government facility. They mapped the road system, mines, quarries, wells, and lumber mills. They searched for any defense facilities on the planet, but found only one headquarters facility near the spaceport and three ground unit barracks near the edge of the main city.
    All this information would be needed by the 3rd ALG, when they conducted their assault on the planet. Kelly considered landing on the planet to conduct a more thorough reconnaissance (he had some time available), but settled for launching ground sensors onto the high ground north of the city. He launched one sensor to attach itself to the moon near the entrance hatch. They would provide information on the spaceport, military units’ barracks, and the comings and goings from the moon.
    Having accomplished all he could reasonably do, he withdrew from the planet and conducted a high speed run out through a higher gravity tunnel in an area of brown dwarves with gravity no higher than 3G. The pirates’ cordon and search accomplished nothing and they eventually gave up.

    The K’Rang sector outside the entrance into the star cluster had always been a backwater, never rating any units higher than a flotilla. Its current senior officer was the captain of the missile corvette J’New. Admiralty looked at the number of ships coming into the sector and decided they needed to assign a senior flag officer to command them. Fleet Commander J’Kalt was temporarily reassigned to command the task force being assembled.
    He chose the Shadow Force Heavy Cruiser H’Kom as his flagship, even though he was not a member of Shadow Force. It was a Task Force commander’s prerogative. Shadow Force ships had extensive command suites, communications, and sensor packages. It would provide him the best picture of the battle and excellent command and control facilities. In addition, the increased armor of a heavy cruiser would give him the greatest survivability.
    He analyzed the ships coming from the surrounding sectors and organized them into what would be his eyes and ears. He organized his forces into three task forces: The two scout ships would lead the way by a couple of days, finding the best path through the star cluster and identifying threats; his flagship, the three light cruisers, the six destroyers and the six missile frigates would follow the path cleared by the scout ships and destroy any forces along the avenue of approach; the two Shadow Force destroyers and the four gun frigates would follow and bombard any fixed or planetary bases along the path; the support ships would follow the ships they were loaded to support. The missile corvette J’New would maintain position at the entrance to the star cluster, to provide communications relay to the main worlds.
    His was a simple plan: sweep the enemy from his path, destroy any enemy bases, reload, and prepare to hold at the enemy entrance to the star cluster. If he came across little resistance, he might advance further and see what he could accomplish. After all, the Human side of the star cluster may be a backwater for them too. He dreamed of avenging the defeat at G’Dranu.

    Steven Maynard, uneasy with what had been reported to him from the sweep, ordered his operations section to have the torpedo squadrons maintain a 24 hour patrol of the star cluster approaches. If he couldn’t find this mystery ship, he could at least make it more difficult for it to sneak back in.
    He called a meeting of his torpedo ship squadron commanders. It was time to reinforce the need for clear and concise reporting upon contact. He also thought about that shipment of space mines the Excelsior had captured. He ordered his operations staff to start having them placed in an all around defense surrounding Barataria. He wanted the path mined in both directions, in case the mystery ship came around behind them.
    A torpedo ship could carry and deploy mines as easily as torpedoes. He ordered all the Charybdis models loaded with mines for the first three patrols. That should build them a good defensive shield quickly, and then they would fill in the gaps with later patrols.
    Maynard felt better, now that he had a plan in effect.

    Thorson spent Fourth Day with Julia Debran. There was little he could do until his ship was completed and launched. As usual, she dragged him into her bed and worked hard to wear him out. Afterwards, he pulled her over on top of him and told her that he wanted her for more than just sex. He didn’t say it, because it was foreign to him, but he undoubtedly loved her.
    He told her that if she wanted, he would take her and her daughters with him when he had his ship. He could see to it that she never had to see her husband again.
    She appreciated the thought, but knew that Steven Maynard would never let her go and lose out on the chance of 100 million credits. She kissed Thorson and told him he was crazy. She rubbed against him until this insane thought left his mind and other feelings took over.
    When Thorson fell deeply asleep, Julia slid out of bed, walked across the room, and looked down at her two daughters sunning by the pool. She wished it was possible for them to leave with Thorson and free herself and her daughters, but Maynard and her husband would never let this happen. She walked back to her bed and looked down at the exhausted Thorson. She wouldn’t admit it to him, barely to herself, but she loved him, too.

    Kelly called a meeting with his command group, Alistair Bennett, and Chief Johnson, while the Vigilant travelled to a rendezvous with the 3rd ALG. The goal of this meeting was to see if they could find a gravity tunnel, other than the sensor-seeded path they went down today, that would be large enough to bring the 3rd ALG secretly on top of the pirate base. Not all the ships of the 3rd ALG were built with the structural strength and integrity of the Vigilant. They would have to find a wide gravity tunnel of 2-G or less to bring the group through.
    After two hours of twisting and turning the holographic representation this way and that, they had found no path large enough or with low enough gravity to bring them through. They would have to go through on the main path they traversed today.
    Next he put his brain trust to finding a way to eliminate or blind the early warning sensors along the path. Chief Blankenship suggested seeing if they could infect the system with a virus. Kelly reminded her that they turned in the wartime virus kit after the New Alexandria campaign was completed. She suggested she might be able to make one. Kelly asked her what she might need to start constructing just such a virus. She leaned over to confer with Chief Johnson and said, “We might have all I need on the sensor data files from today.”
    “How long do you think you’ll need, Chief?”
    “Oh, about a day, I believe.”
    Kelly excused her and Chief Johnson to get started. He told her to keep him informed of status.
    At that, he released LTJG Cortez to turn in and get some rest. Kelly asked Alistair to stay behind.
    “Alistair, did you notice that the EW sensors were all they had? They had no other early warning sensors, surveillance sensors, or fire control sensors on the planet, either. With the exception of those torpedo ships and a few cutters, they were virtually defenseless.”
    Alistair responded, “Captain, they may have figured that the star cluster would provide them with all the protection they would ever need. Another hypothesis is that we came for them before they were ready. Did you notice the barracks on the north of the town?”
    “Yes, I did.”
    “Did you notice the cruciform building in the center of each barracks complex?”
    “Um, no. Why?”
    “That was a very specific building and is only native to one kind of unit. Those were transportable chapels belonging to Ascetic units of battalion size or larger. You have at least a brigade of Ascetics down there. Three thousand or more religious zealot mercenaries are probably providing security and ground defense for that planet.”
    Kelly had heard of the Ascetics, or the Templar Corps, as they referred to themselves. They were fierce fighters with a reputation for tenacity and innovation in battle. They used to only fight on the side of good, but occasionally found their units on both sides of the battlefield.
    “Alistair, will you prepare a briefing paper for me to hand Admiral Minacci and his staff when I attend the commander’s call once the 3rd ALG arrives?”
    “Certainly. I’ll include a complete order of battle laydown, too.”

    Another rendezvous was taking place in the Rigel-Aldebaran sector. Friedrich Debran’s hired fleet was assembling over Rigel Prime’s pole. Captain Alden counted ships as they pulled up to his ship. He seemed to be missing a gun corvette and two missile boats. He called up Captain McDougall, the other corvette captain, and asked where the missing corvette was. Corvettes carried three forward-firing heavy guns and up to 40 medium missiles on internal rotary launchers.
    “Ben,” replied Captain Mac, “Captain Dobbs accidently argued with a Fleet frigate and thus won’t be fulfilling any more contracts. Sorry, I couldn’t find a replacement on such short notice.”
    Alden called the senior missile boat captain to find out why he was short two missile boats. Missile boats carried thirty heavy missiles in internal and external mounts. They were a heavy punch in a small package. It was one ship that many hostile commanders underestimated.
    Captain Argo reminded Captain Alden that missile boats were no longer in production and he had to cannibalize two of them to keep the other eight operational.
    Captain Delong came up on the communicator and offered that, as long as Ben was concerned with shortages, he was missing thirty assault troops from one of his armed cargo ships, but he had more ammunition loaded in their place. Ben just shook his head.
    The last ship to arrive was Captain Cho in her fighter carrier. Ben breathed a sigh of relief when he saw the sun glint off her hull. Her four fighters were the linchpins to his plan to either rescue the Debran women or decimate the planet. His plan was to infiltrate a few special operatives onto the planet on her fighters and have them sniff out the Debrans’ location. They were specialists in blending into the environment.
    When all ships were in laser transmission range, he set up a laser ring and video conferenced with the captains. He laid out his plan and could sense general agreement. He entertained suggestions from the gathered captains, then accepted some and rejected a few. In the end, it made for a stronger plan and ensured the captains bought into the plan because their ideas were incorporated.
    Ben closed out the videoconference by telling them all to disperse but to be at the mouth of the star cluster at a given time tomorrow. Ben took his gun corvette, Cecelia, to a geostationary parking position over Rigel Prime and rested his crew in preparation for tomorrow’s events.

Chapter Twelve

    Admiral Paolo Minacci sat in the astrographer’s bubble on the top of the Assault Support Carrier, Golden Eagle, as it sped through space at top speed. His command was arrayed all around him. It was a powerful but compact force for enforcing the Galactic Republic’s will throughout space. His flagship carried two fighter squadrons equipped with twelve F-48s each. These were the up-engined models with the extendable atmospheric wings. They could carry nine missiles or bombs in external and internal mounts. They were equally good in the fighter role and ground support role. He also had two attack squadrons equipped with twelve AS-76s each. These ships were his heavy hauler attack ships and each could carry the bomb and missile load of two F-48s. His support squadron had an early warning ship, four search and rescue ships, and two electronic warfare ships.
    Arrayed in an arrowhead formation behind him were his three Landing Assault Carriers, each with a dozen AS-500 landing craft capable of carrying 100 marines each with their heavy weapons and providing suppressive fire from six hypervelocity plasma cannons. Each carrier could land a brigade of Marines in one lift.
    Off to port and starboard were his two plasma frigates. These were bombardment ships capable of destroying planetary defenses and facilities from the edges of space with pinpoint accuracy. They could take out a single enemy shooting from inside a house without even rattling a teacup in the next-door neighbor’s kitchen. They also carried defensive missile pods to provide anti-fighter and anti-missile defense of the fleet. Following directly astern were his two replenishment ships carrying all weapon reloads, food, repair parts, and assorted supplies for the group.
    Admiral Minacci was proud of his command. He was grateful that this combat opportunity came so soon after he assumed command. He had served on the Fleet Staff during the New Alexandria Campaign, and was afraid he may have missed any chance for combat experience. These pirates were going to be his ticket to higher rank and awards.

    Thorson thought about Julia during the ride back to his home. Now that he was a captain, he qualified for a large house, almost a villa, on the southern ridgeline. Of course, he would have to pay off the house and his ship with plunder and prize vessels.
    He was pretty sure he loved Julia. She was all he thought about lately. He hated the time he spent away from her. If it wasn’t love, it was probably something that would disqualify him as captain.
    He arrived at his house and poured himself a stiff drink. He thought how his fortunes had shifted in the last two weeks. He had found a prize target, his share of which was enough to cover advanced weaponry and engines for his new ship. His captaincy came through and it was in the newest Undefeated class cutter coming off the ways.
    He remembered how angry Captain Mabry was that she was losing her pilot/navigator. It took a sizable increase in her cut of the Debran shuttle prize before she would stop howling. Oh, but he was thankful he was no longer part of that crew.
    Steven Maynard had personally escorted him up to the moon base to tour his new command. Maynard took him onto the bridge of his ship and had him swear the oath of the Brotherhood. The words were old, but still had meaning. He pledged his loyalty to the brotherhood; to come to the aid of any member in distress; to inflict no unnecessary injury on captives or their ships; and to fairly share the proceeds of his captures with the brotherhood.
    After the pledge, Steven offered to give him a tour of his new ship that would be ready to launch in a week. The engines and weapons modules had been removed to make room for their advanced replacements. It was missing an engine synchronizer that would be installed starting tomorrow. Steven told him to take two weeks to shake out the bugs and he would be cleared to go hunting.
    Even though this ship was almost identical to the Undefeated, he allowed Steven to give him the tour. It was obvious how proud Steven was of his shipyard’s capability, and it would have been unfair and impolite to deny him the pleasure of showing off. He followed Steven through the ship as he pointed out the almost microscopic differences between the Eclipse and the Undefeated.

    Alistair Bennett asked for a meeting with the captain in his cabin. Kelly led him into his ready room and the two sat down to talk.
    His first question was, “Captain, when do you expect the 3rd ALG to arrive?”
    Kelly looked at his chronometer and replied, “The 3rd ALG’s ETA is in six hours.”
    “Captain, I would suggest that I can come up with a better use of those six hours than floating free in space here at the rendezvous spot.”
    Kelly looked at Alistair with a suspicious look and asked, “What do you have in mind?”
    Alistair brought up the holographic display in Kelly’s conference table and focused on the pirate planet. He zoomed the display to the main pirate city and highlighted several locations.
    “Captain, I believe these are the most likely locations where the Debran women are being held, or at least where I can gain info on their location. This, I believe, is the main security force HQ for the planet. This is the Defense HQ, and this is what I believe to be the main pirate administrative HQ. If I poke around and ask the right questions in the right way, I believe I can make the rescue easier to effect.”
    Kelly could see the sense in what Alistair was proposing, but had misgivings.
    “Alistair, you’d be on foot. How do you propose traveling around onto all these far-flung locations on a hostile planet?”
    “Captain, this wouldn’t be my first ground recon on a hostile planet. If I can walk about on a K’Rang world, this will be a piece of cake.”
    Kelly was surprised by this revelation, but it gave him the confidence to believe Alistair could do it. He called the bridge and ordered a course change, back into the star cluster. He figured he had a six-hour window to put Alistair on the ground and return here to meet with Admiral Minacci. It was time to put their increased speed to use.

    Friedrich Debran was not a patient man. He hadn’t received a report from Captain Alden in over two days and he was starting to smolder. Because he was out of contact with Captain Alden, his chief of staff had become the recipient of his ire.
    A very relieved Roger Delphant entered Mr. Debran’s office with a communication from Captain Alden. He keyed it up on the tabletop holographic projector and stood back. Captain Alden’s image appeared on the screen.
    “Mr. Debran, I thought you might like a status update. My fleet has rendezvoused here at Rigel prime and all ships are in combat status. I have them dispersed at the moment but we will join up in four hours at the pathway into the star cluster. This is to allow the pirate planet settlement to be on the night side of the planet. We will move into the star cluster in force, move along a path the pirates were so kind as to point out to us yesterday, put our special operatives onto the pirate planet’s surface, and stage a rescue as soon as they locate your family. Once your family is secure, we will remove them from the area and conduct an attack on the pirate base to destroy any combat capability they have. Then we will systematically reduce their facilities to rubble, at which point I believe we will have executed all the requirements of our contract with you. Do you have any questions, sir?”
    Friedrich Debran rubbed his hands together, “Captain, that sounds like an excellent plan. I would request one more thing from you. I would like to see copies of your gun camera and sensor files from the attack. They might prove useful at some future data when in negotiations with a tough customer.”
    Captain Alden laughed and said, “Yes, I can see how that could be an effective negotiating technique. Sure, Mr. Debran we can do that and at no extra charge.”

    Kelly’s high-speed run pushed them through the Rigel-Aldebaran sector and into close proximity to the pirate world in less than two hours. He held the Vigilant at max sensor range from the planet until the sensor section had time to resolve what reactions to their previous visit had occurred.
    Sensors picked up a patrolling torpedo ship squadron and new mines emplaced along the original path, but nothing further. The mines were concentrated back toward the Rigel-Aldebaran direction, as were the torpedo ships. Space around the planet was devoid of activity.
    Kelly and Alistair chose a location on the southern ridgeline for him to be put down, a large clearing in a forested area, just the right dimensions for the Vigilant to slip into. It was a good distance from the three locations Alistair was to recon, but was the best they could do. It was also in the radar shadow of the planet’s spaceport. Alistair said it would only be a good stretch of his limbs.
    Kelly ordered the Vigilant to make standard approach to the planet’s surface 100 kilometers west of the drop-off point. This minimized detection from burn in and sonic booms. Then he ordered a subsonic run to the wooded clearing. The navigator put them right over the clearing and the helmsman put them down softly. Alistair came out of the Exec’s cabin in what had to be typical garb for the planet. He handed Chief Blankenship a note and came over to Kelly.
    “I’ll need twelve hours to make my way to all three locations. I gave Chief B my comms channels for you to monitor. I will report every three hours. Wish me luck, Captain.”
    Kelly shook his hand and walked him to the gangplank. A blast of warm moist air blew up into the quarterdeck as the gangplank lowered to the ground. He watched as the Fleet Reporting Officer, displaying another unknown skill, blended into the woods and disappeared.
    Kelly brought up the gangplank and took the ship up and out to make his rendezvous with Admiral Minacci’s group. He dropped a communications relay halfway to the entrance so Alistair’s signal would carry out of the cluster.

Chapter Thirteen

    Kelly rode the Admiral’s gig to the Golden Eagle for Admiral Minacci’s commander’s call. He thought it was a pretty cushy ride. He could have docked the Vigilant to the flagship, but Admiral Minacci insisted that he would send his gig instead. Kelly imagined the Golden Eagle’s captain didn’t trust his helmsman’s capabilities.
    Upon reaching the flagship, Kelly was escorted by a young Marine second lieutenant to flag country. The Marine saluted him, opened the door for Kelly, and left once Kelly was inside. Admiral Minacci’s Executive Officer, Commander Oliver Digg, met Kelly just inside the door.
    “Lieutenant Commander Blake, come in. The Admiral is held up, so we’re a little behind schedule. I always hate it when we come into a system and are able to receive broadband message traffic. Every bureaucrat in Fleet HQ wanting a piece of his time bombards the admiral with questions. The admiral will join us shortly. He was quite impressed with your report. Did you really land a man on the planet?”
    “Yes, sir, I had a Fleet Reporting Officer embarked and he wanted to conduct a personal reconnaissance of the planet, in an attempt to locate the Debran women. He hopes to find them and move them to a place where we can pick them up and get them off planet before things heat up.”
    Captain Digg tensed up slightly. “We can pick them up? Who do you mean?”
    Kelly realized that Scout Force’s independent operating style sometimes grated on more traditional Fleet officers, so he chose his words carefully.
    “Now that I am under the command of the 3rd ALG, ‘ we’ means the 3rd ALG.”
    Commander Digg relaxed slightly and said, “Good, you guys tend to be a little too independent at times for our way of operating. For instance, Admiral Minacci would have preferred that you cleared landing your agent with him first.”
    Kelly looked Commander Digg in the eye and said, “I didn’t come under 3rd ALG command until our rendezvous an hour ago. Up until then I was still operating under Scout Force orders, which were to assist Mr. Bennett with his investigations. That is exactly what I did. Mr. Bennett didn’t work for me. Under the terms of my orders I was actually working for him.”
    CDR Digg backed up a half step and said, “Oh, I see. That explains a lot. I would appreciate a copy of your orders and any amendments to them.”
    Kelly pulled out his pocket terminal and beamed them to CDR Digg’s terminal.
    CDR Digg led him over to the table with the coffee and pastry and left him to go greet another arriving captain. Kelly fixed a cup of coffee and left the pastries alone. Another CDR came over to Kelly and introduced himself as CDR Mike Milton, the captain of the Landing Assault Carrier Yellow Jacket. His carrier had the heavy brigade embarked and the Special Operations Company. He thought Kelly might know the commander of his Spec Ops Company, Captain Mary Chen.
    “Why, yes, Commander, I do know Mary Chen. We shared my cabin on one mission.”
    CDR Milton laughed at that and said, “You’re a better man than I. Mary has put a plan together. She proposes that if and when your reporting officer finds the Debran women, you would transport one of her platoons down close to the location, they would secure the women and load them on your ship to bring them out of the combat area. The admiral has seen an initial proposal. He sent it back with questions. Her briefing is after this commander’s call. I’m sure the admiral will want you there to offer your expertise.”
    Kelly agreed with CDR Milton and looked forward to the briefing. He was about to ask how CPT Chen was working out, when the admiral walked in and the room was called to attention. The admiral looked around and saw Kelly. He made a beeline to Kelly and pulled him away from CDR Milton.
    “Have you heard from your man on the planet?”
    “Yes, sir, he reported in just as we arrived here. He’s on his way to his first target. He should be there by now. He was covering ground at a good pace.”
    “Good, keep me informed. I see you’ve met CDR Milton. Has he told you of his SOC’s proposal?”
    “Yes, sir, he has. If we time it right and there are not too many enemy defenders, we can be in and out before they react. They should dress light. I was just down there and it’s hot and humid.”
    Admiral Minacci laughed, which caused every eye not on them already to swivel in their direction.
    Admiral Minacci called the room to order and they all moved into his briefing room. Kelly entered, went to take a seat in the back row in accordance with his rank and was pulled up and put in the first row by CDR Digg. He leaned close, whispered, “Admiral’s orders,” and walked away.
    The admiral stood at the front of the room and activated the holographic projector. The sector came up in the projection. It was Kelly’s reconnaissance report.
    Admiral Minacci started to brief the situation and expanded the projection to highlight the main avenue of approach and the pirate planet. It showed the locations of the early warning sensors, the newly seeded mines, and torpedo ship patrol routes. He zoomed in further to the surface of the sparsely populated planet and centered the projection over the main city.
    Kelly thought that someone had done some good work in a short time. All the major roads were highlighted and identified by number for north-south streets and by letters for east-west streets. Security stations and government buildings were highlighted, as were the spaceport, Security HQ, Defense HQ, and the Government administrative HQ. The three Ascetic barracks were also highlighted. The admiral pointed out that the Ascetics appeared to be light forces only. He pointed out that his analysts saw no indication of heavy equipment, not even artillery.
    This prompted some murmurs from the three Marine brigade commanders. The admiral had Kelly stand up.
    “Ladies and Gentlemen allow me to introduce LCDR Kelly Blake of the Scout Ship Vigilant. We owe him and his crew for all the information you’ve just seen and loaded on your ship’s data systems.”
    “Now that I have this information, my battle staff will be formulating my plan. I am favoring a direct assault from the entrance of the star cluster. I think my F-48s and MJ-9s can clear us a path through the mines, sensors, and torpedo ships. We bring up the plasma frigates and the A-76s to destroy all ships at the spaceport, soften up the Ascetics, and take out planetary defenses, if any. Then we land the 1st Brigade west of town and the 2nd Brigade east of town. The two of them push to link up and clear any hostiles in their path. 3rd Brigade will land its heavy units north of the Ascetic barracks and clear them off the ridgeline down into the valley, where 1st and 2nd brigades will be coming together. A platoon of the SOC will be embarked on the Vigilant to retrieve the Debran women, if the reporting officer currently on the planet’s surface locates them in time. The remainder of the SOC will assault the artificial moon to disable the space doors, trapping any ships inside. I will have plans out tomorrow first thing. Review them carefully and get your recommended changes back to me by 1200. I will issue my final order by 1800. We will attack just before local dawn day after tomorrow. Are there any questions?”
    There were no questions, so the room was called to attention as he left. CDR Milton grabbed Kelly by the elbow and escorted him to follow the admiral. He was led to a smaller briefing room deeper in flag country. CPT Chen was already there. Her smile upon seeing Kelly lit up the room. She was just as beautiful and deadly as she was before.
    “How you doing bunky, sir?” she said with a mischievous look on her face, as she vigorously shook his hand.
    This got several strange looks from the three officers around the table. Kelly saw their looks and suggested CPT Chen should explain that they had shared a cabin on the Vigilant, when she and her platoon were embarked on a mission.
    The admiral entered the room and they all came to attention until he told them to take their seats. Kelly again had taken a back row seat, but the admiral motioned him to come sit at the main table.
    Kelly moved up and CDR Wilton beamed the briefing slides onto his pocket tablet. Kelly settled back as the room lights dimmed.
    The admiral looked at him and said, “Kelly, I don’t know scout ships like you do, so don’t let me do anything stupid.”
    Kelly said, “Aye aye, sir.”
    CPT Chen presented a well thought out plan and Kelly could see no flaws in it. Provided Alistair found the Debran women, Kelly would take the Vigilant down in close proximity to their location, far enough away to not alert security forces, but not so far as to impede the platoon closing on the location and subduing the security forces. All that was missing was the women’s location. Kelly hoped Alistair was still safe.

    Alistair had already checked out the security HQ. It was a guardhouse and nothing more. He observed it from across the street in an alley for an hour before sending in one of his bugs. The flying sensor, disguised to resemble a moth, flew across the street. It searched for an entrance and quickly passed through the door as it was held open to let a guard with a heavy box through. Alistair watched its progress through the facility.
    He went through room by room and found nothing but duty personnel, bunks of sleeping Ascetics, and assorted supplies. After it had mapped out the facility and seen inside every room, Alistair had the moth return to him. He held open its box a few minutes later and the moth flew in for a landing. Alistair closed the box and left the alley, heading for his next target, the Defense HQ.
    It was a good ways off so he picked up the pace, looking like a late shift worker in a hurry to get home. He favored alleys and used them whenever they were going in his direction. It was starting to get light and almost time for a report. He sat down in an alley near what looked like a vegetable garden and composed his report. He must have been too focused on it, because he suddenly realized there was a man standing in front of him.
    The man looked down at him and asked, “You aren’t planning to steal my herbs, now are ya?”
    Alistair, caught off guard, stuttered for a second or two and composed himself.
    “No, I’m not a thief. I’m on my day off and trying to get to the park downtown. I seem to be lost.”
    The man looked at him like he didn’t believe him and asked, “Why are you out so early?”
    “It’s my first day off and I wanted to get there early. I hear they have a flea market and I wanted to see if I could find uniform insignia. I collect them.”
    The man softened his stare as he listened to him. “Man, you are all messed up. The flea market is on Fifth Day. The only thing you’ll find in the park today is people flying kites.”
    Alistair stood up, looked down, and kicked the ground.
    “There you go. My day off is wasted. I know my boss won’t let me change days. If it wasn’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.”
    The man laughed and said, “Come with me. We were just getting ready for breakfast. You look like you could use a meal.”
    Alistair, realizing he had no local currency, tried to beg off. “I can’t afford to eat here and I never accept a gift when I can’t give one back.”
    The young man held out his hand, “I’m Russell. I work here and my woman is the chef. Breakfast is on the owner, who is probably sleeping off last night’s drinking. What he don’t know won’t hurt him.”
    Alistair went with the young man into the restaurant, not knowing how to get away without raising further suspicions than he had already.
    Inside he was introduced to Sally, the chef. She asked him where he was from.
    Alistair answered truthfully, that he was from Archimedes. This elicited a strong reaction from Sally.
    “So you’re from the lost settlement?”
    Alistair answered that he was.
    She asked, “What was it like to quickly go from the 19th Century to the 23rd?”
    He responded that it was easy for some, not so easy for others. Some embraced it. Others ran from it. Those that couldn’t make the transition were allowed to stay on Archimedes in a nineteenth century enclave, protected from the outside universe. He occasionally heard of people leaving the enclave and of others entering the enclave who could no longer cope with outside. Himself, he enjoyed the future.
    She asked him how he got here on Barataria and he changed the subject by saying that he had been invited in for breakfast, not twenty questions. Sally apologized and started heating three skillets. A handful of eggs were set next to the first. Bacon went in the second. Potatoes went into the third.
    Alistair asked if there was someplace he could wash up and was directed to the staff restroom. He closed the door behind him, pulled out his communicator, uploaded the report, and sent it. After he put away his communicator and washed his hands, he went out to the smells of glorious food cooking. It was real food, not anything processed or manufactured.
    “My, but that smells wonderful. I haven’t had real food since I left Archimedes.”
    Sally spoke up, “Well, that’s all you’ll get here. We don’t use replicators or ready-made meals. Everything is made fresh.”
    Sally moved over to a prep table, scooped out equal quantities of eggs, bacon, and potatoes onto three plates. Alistair was handed a plate and flatware and they all sat down at a small table in the kitchen. She let Alistair get his first fork full of eggs then asked, “Now who are you really? You may be from Archimedes, but you sure as hell aren’t from here. Are you from security checking up on us?”
    Alistair took a bite of bacon chewed it and asked, “What makes you think I’m not from here?”
    She looked at him like he was an idiot, pointed at her neck, and said, “First thing, you don’t have a scar on your Adams apple where they put the chip in. This means you are either slumming or from security. Which are ya?”
    “Neither. Let me ask you something. Do you like it here living in slavery?”
    Sally exploded, “Do I like it? Do I like it? What are you, a moron? Of course I don’t like it. Who the hell would like being someone else’s property?”
    Alistair let her calm down some and said, “I’m with the cavalry. In a day or two all hell is going to break loose. This pirates’ den is going to be turned upside down.”
    She looked at him with wariness in her eyes, “What are you trying to pull?”
    “I’m not trying to pull anything. These pirates thought they were invulnerable in this star cluster. That is no longer the case. The Galactic Republic is tired of their raids and retribution is coming. You say you have a chip. Show me where.”
    Sally put down her fork and stood up. She pointed to where her Adam’s apple would be if she were a man. “See the scar?”
    Alistair pulled his hand sensor from his pocket and waved it at Sally’s throat. He did the same for Russell.
    “I don’t know what they told you, but there is no chip in your neck. I bet it hurt like hell when they poked you, too.”
    “What do you mean there is no chip? If I didn’t have a chip I couldn’t travel to the moon and I’ve been there twice.”
    “There is no chip in your neck.”
    “But I could feel it after they put it in!”
    “What you felt was probably a grain of rice or the scar from them poking you with a big damn needle.”
    Russell said, “Wave that thing at my neck again.”
    Alistair did the same for him and said, “No chip.”
    “This is what they use in some prisons to cut down on escape attempts. They’re cheaper than using real chips that prisoners sometimes cut out.”
    Sally asked him, “Okay, now that that is settled, why are you here?”
    “I’m looking for three recent captives. These are three women that are worth a lot of credits in the form of ransom.”
    Sally and Russell looked at each other and exclaimed at the same time, “That’s what that was.”
    Alistair looked at them and said, “That’s what ‘what’ was?”
    Sally started off. “We got three special orders in here a few days ago. One of the orders was for pearlfish fillets. I thought, what moron thinks we can get pearlfish here? It had to be someone new and rich or showing off. I substituted another local fish and fixed the meals. The guards were in a big hurry, so I had to drop everything and make those meals. Well, we plated and packaged the meals, but the Ascetics guards were scared they would spill them, so they took Russell along to wrangle the meals. Russell, you take it from here.”
    “They took me to this big house up on the ridgeline. This house looks like something out of Pride and Prejudice. It comes complete with liveried servants in powdered wigs and the long coats and short pants. I spoke to one of them and he told me there were three important women there.”
    Can you show me on this screen where the house is?”
    Russell looked at the hand sensor screen and pointed to the general vicinity. Alistair zoomed in until Russell was pointing at the exact house.
    Alistair finished his breakfast and thanked them for saving him a lot of useless walking. He warned them to stay away from military facilities for the next few days and wished them luck. He would look them up after this was over.
    Alistair set off to the northeast in search of the big house. He stuck to the alleyways as much as possible. While the chips were a fraud, the neck scars were not and he didn’t have one. When he left the northern outskirts of town he sat behind a tree and sent out a special report. He told the Vigilant that he had probably found the women, but he was going to verify they were there.

    Captain Ben Alden arranged his ships in the formation he wanted for the initial assault on the pirate world. He led with five missile boats, followed by the two corvettes. The fighter carrier came next, followed by the medium gunboats. The armed cargo ships with their troops trailed in the rear, protected by the remaining missile boats. His four special operatives were on the fighter carrier, ready to ride in the jump seat behind the pilots.
    His plan was to go in and just tear things up. He assumed there would be additional patrols, seeing as how the scout ship had gone in and kicked over the hornet’s nest. He needed to tear up their defenses so the fighters could get his operatives down on the planet. He needed them to find the women.
    Once he had them arranged and briefed on his plan, they were ready to go. He came up on his communicator and said, “Tally Ho.” He didn’t know what it meant, but it sounded cool to say it.
    The formation accelerated slowly and entered into the star cluster. He had given instructions to the missile boats to kill the early warning sensors as the came up on them. They did their job and the first dissolved into a cloud of debris.
    One of the lead missile boats called out, “We got company — twelve ships dead ahead, coming in fast. These are probably those torpedo ships. We’ll launch on them when they come in range.”
    Ben looked ahead, but saw nothing. He saw one of the missile boats turn into a fireball.
    Another called out, “They have active mines deployed out here on the flanks. Keep your eyes open. Range on the torpedo ships in five seconds. Prepare to fire.”
    Ben saw twelve missiles streak away from the missile boats ahead of them.
    One of the missile boats reported, “Missiles away, but they have fired on us, too. I count 22 torpedoes inbound. I’m switching to guns.”
    All the missile boats switched to guns and fire bursts reached out toward the speeding torpedoes. Ben added his long-range fire to the missile boats’ gunfire.
    Success against missiles and torpedoes was measured in black clouds of smoke, failure for manned ships a short blossoming of orange flames, before the breached atmosphere dissipated in space’s vacuum. Ben counted two missiles boats taken out by torpedoes and 16 torpedoes destroyed. He saw that the two destroyed boats had ripple-fired their missiles before they were hit. Those had been good pilots. He kept up his fire and looked over to Captain Mac’s ship, whose corvette was matching fire with his. He watched the massed missiles hit the torpedo squadron and saw eight ships burst into orange flames, as their internal atmosphere fueled their demise. That left only two missile boats to sweep the path clear and four torpedo boats left in their way.
    Ben saw one of his long-range bursts take out another torpedo ship. He swung right and killed another. Captain Mac took out the other two. Ben ordered Captain Cho to launch her fighters and get the operatives on the ground before the next torpedo squadron got between the planet and his fleet.
    Ben watched the four fighters accelerate past him and streak forward to the planet. Now all they had to do was hold on long enough to recover the fighters.

    The message from Alistair caused quite a stir in the 3rd ALG flag country. Kelly’s communicator buzzed during CPT Chen’s briefing. Several scowling eyes stared at Kelly until he read them the message that Alistair thought he had located the Debran women. Kelly interrupted the briefing to take over the holographic projector controls. He found the house that Alistair referred to and centered it in the hologram.
    Instantly the concept briefing became a planning meeting as the admiral started looking for the best place to land the Vigilant. In fifteen minutes, the concept had gone from a plan to an execution order. Kelly instructed LTJG Cortez to dock the Valiant to the Yellow Jacket and prepare to embark a platoon of Marines and their equipment. He instructed her to clear out the starboard stores locker and consolidate anything in it to the port storage locker.
    Just as quickly, everything came to a screeching halt when his emplaced sensors showed combat taking place in the star cluster. No one could figure out just who the pirates were fighting. Admiral Minacci ordered Kelly to get in there and figure out what was going on. Kelly ran for the admiral’s gig’s airlock and made a speedy trip back to the Vigilant. When he was on board and the gig was away, the Vigilant was already moving. LTJG Cortez had taken Kelly literally when he said get us moving as soon as I’m aboard. By the time Kelly sat in the command chair, they were already at FTL Power 3 and accelerating.
    In an hour, the Vigilant was in amongst the brown dwarves, parallel to the main avenue of approach. Their sensors showed the hulls of destroyed torpedo ships, spent torpedoes, and the burnt out hulls of ships Kelly had never seen before. With the exception of a squadron of torpedo ships, no other ships were within sensor range.
    Chief Johnson called to the bridge that he could identify them and he was enroute to the bridge.
    Chief Johnson pulled up his pocket tablet and showed Kelly data and images of an obsolete commercial missile boat. He said they were mostly parked in bone yards or melted down, but there were still a few used by fleets for hire.
    Chief Johnson said, “Kind of makes you wonder who would have the need and enough credits to hire a private fleet, doesn’t it sir?”
    Kelly had already made the connection. It had to be Debran working both ends against the middle. Bastard probably didn’t care about his family. He only wanted to make sure the pirates paid for their affront to him. Kelly considered him a sick individual.
    Kelly had the Vigilant held at their current position while they prepared a report for the admiral and waited for Alistair’s latest report. When Alistair’s report came in and the admiral’s report went out, Kelly made another high-speed dash across the sector.

    A beat up transport ship badly in need of a paint job and TLC moved slowly into the Rigel Aldebaran sector. Its pitiful exterior did not match the interior, which was K’Rang state of the art. The K’Rang research vessel H’Gou moved toward Rigel, having been ordered to provide data on this sector. Its twin, the T’Rak, concentrated on Aldebaran.
    Between the two, they catalogued every vessel within sensor range. The captain of the T’Rak was attempting to resolve a cluster of ships between Aldebaran and the star cluster that he thought might be Fleet warships. The H’Gou was attempting to resolve what appeared to be a dispersed small fleet of corvettes and smaller combatants. Both captains agreed that there were enough warships in this sector for it not to be a backwater. In their judgment, the Humans considered this to be a frontline sector. Their independent reports to the K’Rang Imperial Analytical Cabal and Fleet commander read almost word for word.

    After they fought off another torpedo ship squadron long enough to recover the four fighters, Ben Alden retired his reduced fleet from the Pleiades star cluster. Upon rallying above Rigel Prime’s pole, he had the ships disperse as before. He had accomplished his goal at the cost of three missile boats and many good men and women. He calculated their death benefit and thought that at least their beneficiaries would live comfortably, cold comfort that it would be for them.
    While he waited for his operatives to do their job, he prepared his report for Mr. Debran.

    Fleet Commander J’Kalt completed his personal inspection of the ships assigned to his command. He caught many discrepancies, improved his command knowledge, and it gave him something to do while awaiting the arrival of the two Shadow Force scout ships. He wouldn’t move without his eyes and ears. The K’Rang could ill afford to waste ships by barging into the unknown; the debacle at G’Dranu taught them that. He would move when he knew what he was up against. This could easily be another Human trap.

    Mr. Debran read Captain Alden’s report with interest. Who would have thought that there was a habitable world in the star cluster? He had anticipated some type of pirate base, an asteroid or moon facility perhaps, but not a living, breathing planet. The scientists for years had said the star cluster was impenetrable. How wrong they were.
    Friedrich Debran saw the possibility of a large profit here. Land equaled credits and an entire world would equal a world full of credits. He called Delphant to arrange for an armored executive transport ship to be brought to Rigel station and kept on stand by. He just might need to visit this pirate world soon.

    Steven Maynard was not having a good week. Yesterday, a mystery ship came in and killed one of his torpedo squadrons. Today, a mystery fleet came in, killed a second, and wounded a third. Fortunately, the damage to the third was only superficial. His ships killed three of a ship type he’d never seen before. What was going on? He couldn’t keep taking losses like this. He only had six squadrons left.
    He notified his Undefeated captains that they would be put onto the shift schedule and one of them would be on patrol around the planet at all times. He would put two torpedo squadrons flying cover at all times. That should give them an edge, being able to support one another.
    He considered that his troubles started when the Debran women were brought in. He discarded that idea as soon as it came into his head. He knew that his pirate brotherhood couldn’t last forever. He knew that the Fleet would come after him, but who owns this other ship and fleet? He had some credits stashed away in various world banks. If he pulled it all together, it made quite a tidy sum. He could live quite comfortably on that sum. He also knew that he would have to survive this current situation before he could even consider that.
    He reviewed his defense plans again and decided to increase the numbers of mines placed by each shift. He also put one torpedo squadron from the next shift on stand by. That would give him 37 ships to defend the planet, if necessary. He also notified the Templar Corps Bishop-Commander that they might have company in the next few days, to pull out his heavy equipment, and start preparing ground defenses. Of course, he would also have to notify the populace and dust off his civil defense plans. Satisfied he had done all he could, he put himself to bed. Sleep did not come easy to him that night.

    The two Shadow Scout Commanders reported into Fleet Commander J’Kalt. “Sir, Shadow Scout Commanders D’Lon and V’Tagg acknowledge your command. How may we serve the Empire?”
    Admiral J’Kalt surveyed them with interest. D’Lon was a poster perfect Shadow Warrior, resplendent in his crimson cape. V’Tagg was something unexpected, a female Shadow Warrior. J’Kalt had known females were being recruited into Shadow Force, but V’Tagg was the first he’d seen. She was a perfect example of a K’Rang female. She was long of limb, sleek of fur, and bore the brow markings that were all the rage at the moment. He would be more than happy to fight for her submission when she came into season.
    Admiral J’Kalt tossed these thoughts from his head and prepared to give these two their patrol orders.
    “Shadow Scout Commanders, you will enter the star cluster at the location where the Human ship appeared. That appears to be an area of low gravity. Advance into the star cluster and determine a path sufficiently broad to allow my fleet to advance in battle formation. Identify all Human defenses, forces, and settlements. Find the path through the star cluster into Human space. Return when you have accomplished these tasks and report to me. Do you have any questions?”
    They both came to attention and answered in unison, “No, Fleet Commander J’Kalt.”
    “Then you are dismissed. Accomplish your mission. Long live the Empire!”
    They came to a stiffer attention and echoed, “Long live the Empire!”

    Alistair Bennett walked across the unoccupied golf course behind the large manor house. He stealthily moved from a grove of trees to ornamental shrubbery, always keeping out of view of the house. He made a quick dash from the last shrub 20 meters to the pool house. He crawled under a hedge and waited to see if there was to be any reaction from security forces.
    After a reasonable time he peered around the edge of the pool house and froze. There, ten meters away, were two young women, nude, soaking up the sunlight. One was face down on the lounger and the other face up with a large hat covering her face. The view was breathtaking.
    Alistair assumed these two were the Debran daughters, but needed to see their faces to confirm. He thought to himself, as he settled in to wait for one of them to show her face, that it was a dirty job, but someone had to do it. He didn’t have long to wait. The woman laying face up sat up, looked at her arms, and started applying lotion to them. She poked the other one and said she should turn over, as she was looking pink. As the second turned over and sat upright, Alistair confirmed he had found the Debran daughters. He stared for only a few seconds, but it seemed like an hour. Now he had to find the mother.
    Julia Debran decided to join her daughters. Unlike them, she did not feel the need for an all over tan. She was perfectly fine with the tan lines left by her minimal swimsuit. She walked out to the pool, put down her book bag, took a quick dip, and climbed out to join her daughters. Not wanting full sun, she took the lounger in the shade of the hedge.
    Alistair couldn’t ask for better luck. Julia Debran was five meters from him. He took a few seconds to compose a message and sent it off to the Vigilant.
    “The Debrans have been found at the manor house-confirmed.”
    He pondered whether to retire from the scene and contact them when a rescue was imminent, but figured he may not get a better opportunity than this. He silently moved behind the hedge until he was one meter away and directly behind Mrs. Debran.
    He whispered, “Mrs. Debran.”
    She reacted and said, “Yes?”
    He whispered again, “Mrs. Debran, don’t turn around. I am part of your rescue force. Don’t speak. Just nod your head up and down for yes and side-to-side for no. Do you understand me?”
    She nodded yes.
    “I am going to leave a communicator in a small jewel case here behind you. Pretend you dropped something and pick it up. Fit it into your ear.”
    Julia grabbed at her ear then sat up and looked around. She got off the lounger and looked underneath it and then at the shrubs. She saw Alistair lying there under the hedge. Sotto voce, she said, “This better be real and you’re not just some peeping tom.”
    She picked up the box, opened it, removed the small communicator, and inserted it into her ear. Alistair climbed back away from the hedge and moved back toward the golf course.
    Once he was safely inside a copse of concealing trees, with good all around visibility, he contacted Mrs. Debran.
    “Julia, I have moved away and can’t see you now so you don’t need to nod in response. I have just sent a message to Fleet confirming your identity and location. They will work up a rescue plan, inform me, and then I will inform you. Don’t change your normal activities or act differently in any way. The rescue may take place tonight or tomorrow or next week. I won’t know more until they contact me with the details. If there is an emergency or they move you from this house, remove the communicator from your ear and tap the button on the bottom of the communicator then insert it back in your ear. The communicator has a locator so I will be able to find you wherever they take you.”
    “The communicator has transmit capability. You can speak in a normal tone or whisper. Don’t try to speak to me in the house; the house is probably bugged. Come out to the pool by the waterfall or out on the golf course with no one around. I will leave it to you whether you will tell your daughters or not. If you do, make sure they keep their routine the same.”
    “I’m going to go find a hide location now. I will be close by and watching. My name is Alistair, by the way. It’s been a pleasure to meet you. I’ll be in touch.”
    Alistair moved off to the wooded area where he had accessed the property. He found a soft spot amongst the trees and made himself comfortable. He pulled out the sandwich Sally had made for him and chowed down. He hoped the rescue wouldn’t be too much of a wait. He hated field rations.

    Kelly forwarded the message to Admiral Minacci and the 3rd ALG captains, per instructions, and he awaited a reaction. The reaction was swift, in the form of an execution order to dock with the Yellow Jacket and embark a platoon from the SOC. Admiral Minacci decided to conduct the rescue first and the assault after. He felt it was too dangerous for the Debran women to be rescued in the midst of an all out assault on the pirates. The women could be injured in the assault, executed by the pirates, or moved where the Fleet couldn’t get at them so easily.
    Kelly dutifully docked with the Yellow Jacket and had his crew assist with loading and securing the Marines’ gear on the Vigilant. CPT Chen came up to the airlock entrance with 1st LT Bob Heron and requested permission to come aboard. Kelly shook hands with 1st LT Heron and welcomed him aboard. LTJG Cortez escorted him to where the platoon was securing their gear. CPT Chen asked him if he would allow her to ride along to observe the platoon. Kelly asked if she didn’t have work to do on the moon attack.
    She responded, “We’re already practiced and ready. Admiral Minacci wants to have the fleet ships practice their maneuvers in the attack for the next two days. I’d like to watch my Marines in action, if it’s alright with you, sir.”
    Kelly laughed, “Sure Ms. Chen, it’s alright with me. Permission granted.”
    She picked up a large duffle bag and said, “My gear. I go nowhere without it.”
    As soon as all the Marines and their gear were on board and secure, Kelly asked permission to depart.
    Admiral Minacci came up on the circuit and granted permission to depart. He wished them good luck and good hunting, the traditional Scout Force farewell. The Admiral was learning.
    Kelly ordered the helm to undock from the Yellow Jacket and set course for the previously determined hold position within the star cluster. The Vigilant smoothly undocked and moved outside the fleet perimeter before engaging FTL Power 3. It was time to go to work.

Chapter Fourteen

    The commander of Torpedo Ship Squadron Four was monitoring the space within the star cluster pathway. He had broken the twelve ships into two-ship sections and had them covering the maximum volume toward the Rigel-Aldebaran sector. Taking a risk, he had loaded his four Charybdis with mines and had them seed a spider’s web of mines throughout the edges of the path, then return to be fitted with torpedoes. He kept all of his Scylla ships on patrol, and the weapons handlers were working at high efficiency to rearm and reload the Charybdis with torpedoes. All but one ship had returned from reloading. Torpedo Ship Squadron Five had done the same and was covering his back.
    This would be his third four-hour patrol since the last assault had taken out Torpedo Ship Squadron Two. He hoped for a nice quiet patrol like the last two. He felt more secure now that they had a dense field of mines in front and in back of them.
    His last pilot returned from the planet and joined up with her wingman. Now they waited and kept their eyes open. What he wouldn’t give for a sector early warning grid.

    The two Shadow scout ships moved up to the star cluster in echelon formation. They were similar to the Vigilant, but only half the Vigilant’s size. They lacked Vigilant’s turrets, but had a deadly mix of plasma and particle cannons in their nose and winglets. Twelve guns could do a lot of damage.
    They moved in, scanned, and one of them powered forward at FTL Power 5 for two seconds then drifted, scanning the whole time. Then the other powered forward for four seconds at FTL Power 5 and drifted, scanning. The first powered by the second ship for four seconds and drifted, scanning. The second ship adjusted for the change in angle of the path and powered forward. They kept this up until they started to see indications of Human activity on their long-range scanners. Both stopped and scanned. They received indications of terrestrial communications, including planet-wide entertainment broadcasts. The two captains were amazed that any life form could exist in this star cluster, much less Humans, but pressed ever forward. They moved forward slowly now, expecting a Human force to respond to their presence at any moment.
    Their gravimetric sensors were of a match for the Vigilant’s, and they quickly found a path that would accommodate Fleet Commander J’Kalt’s maneuver scheme. Locating a minefield, they determined that it was an undisciplined and scattershot field, and easily found a path around it. It was a tricky maneuver, with two opposing 90 degree turns in quick succession, but still passable by the fleet. They pressed ever forward, sensing that the Human planet was ahead, but as of yet had not gotten a direct bearing on it.

    The Vigilant coasted into a nest of four brown dwarves, close enough to the pirate world for the Vigilant’s sensors to get high resolution scans, but far enough away to be undetectable from the planet or the patrolling ships. The sensor section plotted and calculated the numbers and patrol patterns of the torpedo ships and the recently added cutter orbiting the planet. They intercepted the ships’ reports to the defense HQ on the planet, noting that the defenders were becoming more disciplined and more effective.
    When Vigilant Sensors had a good enough plot to anticipate the patrol ships’ actions, they tested their ability to predict where the torpedo ships and cutter would be at any given times. Their patrol patterns were very predictable, like sentries walking post. One successful test was followed by a second, and third. Kelly thanked God they were lock step and predictable. He had Sensors calculate the next time all the patrol ships would be facing away from the planet and the orbiting patrol ship would be behind the planet.
    They worked their magic and gave him a window of 40 minutes, to begin in one hour and twenty minutes. Kelly told CPT Chen to get her Marines ready. He had Chief Blankenship send a message to Alistair, giving him their ETA and to get the Debran women ready. The Vigilant would meet them on the ninth hole.

    In exactly one hour and twenty minutes, the Vigilant made a high-speed dash into the pirate world’s atmosphere. They spiraled in, aiming for the pin of the ninth hole of the manor house golf course. Night had set in, but the Vigilant’s sensor feed made the helmsman’s monitor picture as bright as noon. The Marines were positioned to the port and starboard of the gangplank. As the Vigilant got within 100 feet of the ground, the gangplank went down and ten Marines rappelled out the opening. They landed softly and fanned out to form perimeter security for the ship.
    As the Vigilant came down on its landing gear facing the manor house, the remaining Marines and CPT Chen ran down the ramp and across the short distance to the house. Kelly had the turret gunners prepared to fire in support of the Marines. Alistair came up on their tactical net and told them to stand down, as all the staff and security personnel were neutralized. He would bring the Debrans out to them.
    True to his word, Alistair led the three women out of the house. He turned them over to CPT Chen and followed them as they ran back to the Vigilant. The Debrans were brought aboard, then the Marines hustled back on in the reverse order that they left. The ten perimeter guards were last on and ran up the gangplank, coiling their ropes just as the Vigilant lifted off. Kelly went back to congratulate Alistair and the Marines. He also wanted to greet the women who had caused this uproar.
    Kelly found the Debran women being examined by “Doc” Kumar.
    “How are they Doc?”
    “Right as rain, sir. Just a slight touch of sunburn.”
    Kelly turned to the three women and welcomed them aboard the Vigilant. He told them he had no quarters for them, but to just remain here in sickbay until they could be transferred to another ship. He then excused himself, as he had a battle to fight.
    As Kelly congratulated the Marines and thanked them for a smooth operation, he saw that CPT Chen was in a heated discussion with Alistair. He ushered the two of them forward to get them away from the crowd of Marines around the raised gangplank.
    “What is it, you two?”
    CPT Chen was first to speak. Pointing her finger at Alistair, she said furiously, “You had to grandstand, didn’t you? You couldn’t just let my Marines pull this off, could you?”
    Alistair calmly said, “Mary, the night staff was two old men and the security force was one enfeebled 70 year old. I took away his flashlight and locked them all in a closet. It was no trouble at all. I accept your expression of appreciation.”
    CPT Chen stomped back to her platoon.
    Kelly laughed all the way to the bridge.
    He looked at the plot and saw no trailing ships. He looked over at the sensor watch position and asked, “Any reaction yet, Jameson?”
    Petty Officer Todd Jameson replied, “None yet, sir.”
    Jameson’s head suddenly went down. “Sir, two K’Rang medium scout ships, K’Tan class, just entering sensor range at 176 mark 52. I think they see us. They are powering up and heading our way.”
    K’Rang scouts in the star cluster was a bad thing. Kelly fired off a quick message to Admiral Minacci, reporting that the Debran women were safely on board. He also informed him that he was about to be engaged by two K’Rang medium scout ships that appeared in the star cluster. Kelly was about to recommend the Admiral move the Fleet to the star cluster entrance, then thought, no, the admiral will figure that out on his own.
    Kelly ordered the Vigilant to come about and engage the K’Rang ships. They couldn’t be allowed to carry information on the pirate world back with them. He sounded the collision alarm, as they were already at battle stations. The Marines lined up in the central corridor; CPT Chen, 1st LT Heron, and his Gunnery Sergeant stood at parade rest behind the command chairs.
    Kelly asked, “Sensors, any reaction from the pirate top cover?”
    “Negative, sir. They are continuing their patrol routes as before.”
    Kelly had an idea. He wanted to make sure the pirates knew they had bigger troubles coming their way. He ordered helm to increase the closing rate by pushing their speed up to 0.9 c, just below light speed. He wanted to hit these K’Rang when the pirate torpedo ships were in the right position.
    The Vigilant pressed on toward the K’Rang scouts. The turrets were hot and his best gunner was just below Kelly’s position, ready to fire the nose guns. Kelly knew he had gun range on the K’Rang; he hoped to do some damage to them before they could return the favor. Kelly ordered the gunners to fire as soon as the K’Rang ships came into range. Nose guns were to concentrate on the lead K’Rang scout and the turrets would fire on the K’Rang wingman.

    The two K’Rang Scouts were coordinating their attack on the Human scout ship. They knew the Human had longer-range guns than they, but there were two of them. As long as he didn’t have missiles, they had a better than even chance of beating him.
    D’Lon, the senior commander, had the lead. His junior commander, V’Tagg, was behind and to starboard.
    D’Lon keyed his communicator to V’Tagg and said, “We must kill this Human scout. The Humans must not know we have been here. He will fire on me first. When he does, you must break right, then turn wide to come in on his left flank and kill him. I will draw his fire and inflict as much damage as I can. Whatever happens, do not let him escape. Fleet Commander J’Kalt will need the element of surprise.”
    As the first steel rail gun projectiles started coming his way from the Human scout, he ordered V’Tagg to break right.

    Kelly watched as the nose gunner opened fire. The lead K’Rang came straight ahead, as the trailing ship broke right and away. Kelly, being a former fighter pilot, knew this maneuver. The other ship would come in on their port side and try to shoot them amidships. Kelly warned gunnery to keep the turrets focused on the K’Rang maneuvering off to port.
    The range indicator for the lead K’Rang showed him coming into range to fire back. Kelly watched the rail gun slugs tearing up the scout’s nose. He had the gunner concentrate next on the winglets, as they contained plasma guns. When the lead K’Rang’s guns came into range, D’Lon opened fire with all he had. The plasma guns had little effect on the Vigilant. Her shielding spread the charge all across the outer hull and neutralized the plasma pulses. The particle beams had more effect, but at this range it did little more than etch the hull. The K’Rang guns’ effect was also reduced by the Vigilant’s nose gunner’s deadly accurate destruction of the K’Rang guns.
    Kelly kept watch on the flanking scout ship; it was almost in position for what Kelly had in mind. Kelly keyed up the screen showing the pirate patrol routes. It was time. Kelly ordered the helm to come 45 degrees to port. This put them equally between the two K’Rang ships and in a position where neither could fire on the Vigilant with their fixed nose or winglet guns. Kelly ordered the turret gunners to fire on both ships as they passed. He saw pieces fly off both ships as the turrets’ twin particle cannons chewed pieces from the sides of the scouts. Both scouts frantically tried turning in toward the Vigilant, but the radii of their turns were too tight.

    D’Lon was almost weaponless, but he ordered his own ship and V’Tagg’s to turn in pursuit. They must destroy this Human scout. V’Tagg thought she had an idea of what the Human was trying to do, but the code of Shadow Force was to follow your orders without hesitation. She would follow, but could ask questions.
    “D’Lon, could this Human be leading us into a trap?”
    “No, he is running. Did you not see how he turned between us to avoid our guns? He must be hurt more than he shows. His nose guns may be off line or damaged.”
    V’Tagg suggested, “He seems to be leading us back to the Human world, where those fighters are patrolling.”
    D’Lon saw only victory and honor. He said to V’Tagg, “Look at your tactical display. The fighters are out of position to be able to support him. V’Tagg, form up tight on me and follow me.”
    She lined up on his starboard winglet and followed him, in accordance with the code. As one of a very few K’Rang female ship commanders, she mustn’t take any actions that would endanger the future for those females coming up in the ranks behind her.

    Kelly had the helm line up with the pirate planet atmosphere. He wanted to leave a message few below would miss. The ship skipped in and out of the atmosphere, leaving a contrail half the diameter of the planet. Every time they skipped into the atmosphere, it produced a sonic boom, as well. As they came around the planet, they came face to face with two-dozen surprised torpedo ships. In an instant there were over 100 torpedoes launched and heading their way. Calm, professional reports of the torpedo squadrons engaging a Scout Force ship went down to the defense HQ on the planet.
    As they turned away from the torpedoes, the torpedoes and the torpedo ships followed in tail chase. Kelly ordered the helm to line up with the lead K’Rang scouts nose. Once the distance to the K’Rang ships closed to where the torpedo ships had sensor readings on the K’Rang scouts, not so calm reports were sent to the defense HQ. The level of profanity increased exponentially.
    Kelly had what he wanted. He ordered the helm to climb 15 degrees and go to FTL Power 3. As expected, the Vigilant accelerated away from the torpedoes too quickly for them to maintain lock. The torpedoes searched for a new target and the two K’Rang scouts were in their sights. The K’Rang were unable to turn away in time and over 100 torpedoes homed in on the K’Rang scouts. The conflagration was a wonder to see, as torpedo after torpedo accelerated into the growing mass of debris, flame, and smoke.
    Kelly ordered the ship off general quarters and had Connie call for damage reports. The sections reported only minor damage. Engineering had a fried circuit breaker and a 10 % loss in shields. Sickbay reported a mild case of motion sickness on the part of Miss Christine Debran. The galley reported a broken glass. Sensors reported a frayed nerve; Doc immediately prescribed duck tape.
    Kelly should chastise his section chiefs for inappropriate reporting, but at the moment, coming off an adrenaline high, he thought it hilarious. He ordered the helm to reverse course to the pirate world and hold off 200,000 km from the planet.
    The torpedo ships still held position where they saw the K’Rang ships destroyed. Kelly listened as the torpedo ships reported the Vigilant’s presence. The next thing he heard was a hail from the defense HQ of the planet.
    “Scout Force Scout Ship, this is Steven Maynard, head of the Brotherhood of Barataria.”
    Kelly let a moment pass then responded, ”Mr. Maynard, this is LCDR Kelly Blake, captain of the Galactic Republic Scout Ship, Vigilant. What may I do for you?”
    “I would like to discuss terms of surrender, captain. We could probably have held you off, but we have no desire to take on the K’Rang.”
    “Mr. Maynard, I would be happy to accept your surrender, but I must contact my admiral first. Stand by.”
    Kelly sent Admiral Minacci a message, informing him of the current situation and asking for guidance on how to proceed. In ten minutes, he was directed to stand by in orbit, awaiting the arrival of the 3rd Assault Landing Group.
    Kelly called down to Mr. Maynard. Maynard answered and Kelly ordered him to stand down his forces and prepare to receive the Commander of the 3rd Assault Landing Group in approximately four hours. Kelly observed the space clearing over the planet. Before long, the Vigilant was alone in orbit above the pirate planet.

    The series of sonic booms woke up everyone in the factory women’s dorm. Irina Bugarov knew what it was instantly. She ran outside in her nightclothes, with Terri trailing close behind her, and a crowd of other women following. Above them was a contrail looking like a giant dotted line stretching across the sky as far as they could see.
    Terri, obviously afraid asked, “What is it? Are we under attack?”
    Irina calmed her down, “We aren’t, but our pirate friends are. That was too big to be a fighter and too small to be a major combatant. My guess is that was a scout ship making a point.”
    Right then, the torpedoes collided with the K’Rang scouts and the cascading explosions could be seen plainly in the night sky.
    Terri asked, “Did they kill them?”
    Irina answered, “Somebody died, that’s for sure. I just hope it was some of our pirate friends.”
    The dazzling explosions went on for several minutes. Irina thought their deliverance might not be far off. The Fleet had found them.
    With the show over and nothing left to see, Irina and Terri retired to their room and climbed into their beds. Sleep came slowly, as they imagined their liberation.

    The Vigilant orbited above the pirate world, its sensors peering down to make sure that the pirates had stood down. The sensors detected no activity other than the start of practice for a parade by the Ascetics. Kelly watched the units forming up and running through their drills on his cabin monitor. CPT Chen sat opposite, commenting on lapses of precision in their formations and soldiers out of step. The Vigilant’s sensors were of a high enough resolution that individual soldier’s movements could be seen clearly. There was little else to do while awaiting the 3rd ALG’s arrival. Kelly had already prepared his defense for possibly exceeding his orders, and forwarded a detailed report to Scout Force HQ.
    There was a knock on the door and Alistair stuck his head in the door. “Anyone in need of a refill?” he asked, as he entered with a carafe of fresh coffee. Kelly held up his cup and Alistair filled it. CPT Chen still wasn’t speaking to him, but held up her cup, too.
    Kelly said, “Alistair, look. They’re preparing my victory parade.”
    Alistair sat down and looked on.
    Kelly commented, “ I suppose they’re not all that bad, for a bunch of monks. Mary’s platoon could put on a better show. I don’t know much about these Ascetics. Aren’t they just a bunch of mercenaries with religious trappings? I’ve heard they’ve wound up on both sides of a conflict more than a few times.”
    Alistair recalled a recent Intel study on the Ascetics.
    “The Templar Corps was formed more than 150 years ago on Earth, in reaction to a need for ethical and disinterested peacekeeping forces to preside over disengagements and nation building, in the aftermath of several civil wars and other conflicts. They were surprisingly good at it. They didn’t loot and they didn’t look the other way. They were sufficiently armed and had flexible enough rules of engagement that they could preempt many problems before they blew up.”
    Kelly asked, “How did they get started? After all, someone had to have the idea to form units of military monks.”
    Alistair continued, “Theopholus the First was the first Cardinal, First Class of the Templar Corps in 2195. He saw the need for ethical peacekeepers after the outbreak of the Retro Post-Colonial Wars in Africa, Pan Pacifica, and Asia in the late 22nd Century. The United Nations-funded peacekeepers too often went in with their own agendas or their hands out and made matters worse.”
    “Now, so you understand, the Templar Corps is only the military arm of the Order of the Holy Knights of the Resurrected Temple. The Cardinal, First Class is dual hatted as the military commander and head of the order. The order also provides mobile hospitals, refugee camp administration, logistical support, and nation building support. After the Great Global Depression of 2203, the Templars were able to recruit trained specialists in medicine, logistics, engineering, finance, law, and other fields.”
    “Theopholus, seeing the need, also recruited heavily for acolytes and deacons (their foot soldiers) from the slums and barrios, built discipline through rigorous religious and military training, and outbid the UN peacekeepers on dealing with the Nigerian Civil War aftermath in 2207. The Templars went in, disarmed the combatants, restored order, established hospitals, schools, and civil government. It was rumored that they only had to shoot a few key people Pour l'encouragement d' les autres — for the encouragement of the others. In a year, Nigeria was back on its feet with a stable coalition government, a rebuilding economy, and a functioning civil society. It was rumored that their new constitution was dictated by a Templar cardinal.”
    “The Templars, or Ascetics as they are commonly known, became the go-to guys for any regional instabilities. Sometimes the mere threat of bringing in the Ascetics was enough to force an agreement at the negotiating table.”
    CPT Chen, forgetting she was still mad at Alistair, asked, “Why are they called Ascetics?”
    “They take a vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience when they join the Templars. They possess only the clothing they are issued and live a Spartan existence, therefore Ascetics.”
    Mary asked, “Chastity? So do they never have sex? Certainly, that must cause them problems? I have enough problems of that sort with my Marines.”
    “They have an internal program where exemplary male and female Templars are chosen to have children. The children are raised in common creches and the parents never know which child is theirs. It fosters a sense of family throughout the Corps, because you never know if that new acolyte or presbyter might not be your own child or brother or sister. Scrupulous records are kept in the Templar HQ to guard against incest, which is a high sin in their beliefs.”
    “They really made their impact felt in the Great Migration, when they were chosen to provide the security forces for the settlements. Their ranks swelled as each settlement ship left Earth with a battalion of Templars, and there were 100 settlement ships. The Templars established a strong presence in the new Galactic Republic. That’s why every first tier world has a Templar monastery.”
    “On my own world, allowing for our unique situation, the Templars became the police force more than a military force. They used their military power at the beginning to put down the Revolt of Desperation, but after that they were our cops. After we got the upper hand on the ‘Many Teeths’, a lethal predator, there wasn’t much need for military. An interesting fact is that the Ascetics train equally on modern weapons and on sword, spear, and shield. That came in handy on Archimedes, after they ran out of ammunition packs.”
    “The Templar Corps nowadays is likely to show up in situations like this, where military capability is needed, but can’t be associated with the Republic or any world government. As much as they try to avoid it, they occasionally wind up on both sides of a conflict. They justify their mercenary activities by pointing out that their acolytes and deacons never engage in war crimes and always follow the Galactic Conventions on War. They fight a higher ethics war.”
    “Of course, the Templars today are diversified. They have their own combat and support fleet. They produce their own rations. They set up monasteries to train new recruits wherever they go. As ground forces go, they are pretty low maintenance. The local bar owners hate them, though.”
    CPT Chen asked, “What is their rank structure? What are these acolytes and cardinals?”
    Alistair replied, “Acolytes are their lowest ranks, basically privates. Deacons are junior sergeants. Archdeacons are senior NCOs. Presbyters are junior officers. Bishops are large unit commanders, battalion through brigade. Cardinals are their generals commanding divisions and corps. The one Cardinal First Class is their order and military leader.”
    Alistair changed the subject. “So when are you going to recon the exit out to K’Rang space? Minacci is a fool, not having you do it now. What if there is a K’Rang fleet just sitting waiting for their scouts to report? Don’t you think they might wonder what happened to them and poke their heads in to see?”
    Kelly paused, then responded, “I think the admiral is a little ticked with me for stealing his glory. I’m expecting to be called on the carpet when he gets here. I’ve already prepared my defense.”
    Kelly got an idea. “His order said stand by in orbit, but it didn’t restrict us in other ways.”
    Kelly called in LTJG Cortez and Chief Blankenship. “Connie, Chief B, program one of our long-range probes for travel to the K’Rang side of the star cluster.”
    Kelly quickly called up the K’Rang navigation chart that they captured in the Scutum sector. He picked a spot between two K’Rang main worlds. “Have it come out here.”
    Chief Blankenship took down the coordinates. Connie asked, “What do you want it to do, Captain?”
    “Have it scan the sector and report all combatants. Return it here after it completes its scan.”
    The two women said, “Aye aye, sir,” and departed to complete the task.
    In fifteen minutes, Connie stuck her head in and said the probe was ready. Kelly gave the order to launch and it was away. Kelly calculated that he should have a report just before Admiral Minacci’s arrival. That should give them something useful to talk about.

    The probe left the Vigilant on a direct course for its destination, but its internal sensors adjusted its route to avoid gravity eddies and celestial bodies. It took it a quarter hour longer than Kelly’s shirtsleeve analysis determined. As it approached the edge of the star cluster, its self-protection program caused it to halt, as a K’Rang missile corvette was patrolling just within sensor range. The probe waited for it to pass, advanced into K’Rang space, and immediately sensed 33 K’Rang combatants and support ships of various class and type. With no other combatants within the sector to find, the probe retired back into the star cluster, and returned to the Vigilant, transmitting its report once out of sensor range of K’Rang space.
    Kelly whistled when he was handed the report. Minacci might get his chance for glory after all.

    Fleet Commander J’Kalt impatiently paced the carpet in his command suite. The two Shadow Scouts should have reported by now. Was the pathway into the star winding, filled with dead ends? Was there a Human invasion fleet waiting that destroyed them? He was blind and could not formulate a final plan without that information.
    He thought about his options if the scouts did not report back. He could just form up his fleet and conduct a recon by fire, as suggested by the Elders, and attempt to spring any Human trap early by destroying potential hiding places they encountered. He could conduct a meeting engagement and try to overwhelm any Human force before it could do the same to him. He could establish a defensive perimeter here opposite the known exit from the star cluster.
    The recon by fire offered a possible offensive option, but failed if it ran into a larger Human force. The meeting engagement was another offensive option and worked best against an unprepared and slow to react enemy. A smaller force able to react quicker in a surprise-meeting situation has overwhelmed many a larger force. He couldn’t plan on the enemy commander being stupid, but it is a gift he would accept. The defensive option was the safest course of action. He could array his weakest ships nearest the exit and his stronger ships in depth. He could probably commandeer the planetary defense fleets to add more depth. This would be the most likely to be successful, but he always felt fortune favored the bold. He called a commander’s conference for six hours hence, whether the scouts reported or not.

    Admiral Minacci called Kelly to his flagship, but not to chew him out. He wanted him to bring the raw sensor files from the probe to be analyzed by his own Intel staff. He congratulated Kelly on discovering the K’Rang fleet. He did mention that he might have overstepped his authority by forcing the surrender of the pirates.
    Kelly pointed out that in engaging the K’Rang scouts he was carrying out his priority responsibility to the fleet of counter-reconnaissance. Per Fleet doctrine, it was a scout ship’s duty to deny the enemy information on friendly forces.
    Admiral Minacci realized he was beaten and said, “How did you induce the pirates to surrender?”
    Kelly just shook his head, “I don’t know, sir. I think the realization that the K’Rang knew of their existence convinced them that surrendering to us kept them alive longer. It surprised me as much as you.”
    The admiral changed the subject. “You did take a hell of a chance, taking on those K’Rang with the Debran women on board.”
    “Couldn’t be helped, sir. It was worth more than all of our lives if the K’Rang ships got away with the knowledge of the pirate world. How are they settling in here on your flagship?”
    “We rousted some junior officers and gave them a cabin to themselves. It will do until a transport arrives to carry them home. Mr. Debran has been notified and has a transport on the way. He’s coming himself, I’m told.”
    “The pirates want to hold a surrender ceremony and sign a formal surrender document as a sovereign independent world. My lawyers tell me this is required by Galactic Republic law and lets the pirates off the hook for execution for piracy. I guess we won’t be holding mass spacings after all.”
    The admiral fixed Kelly with a steely, but bemused glare and said, “I’ll expect you, as the conqueror of whatever this world is called, to share the reviewing stand with me.”
    Kelly deflected the glare. “Barataria, sir, it’s called Barataria. I’ve gathered some other info on them while in orbit. It seems their data banks aren’t too secure. The population is about 400,000, about 300,000 members of the Brotherhood and the remainder captives. One of our terms must be to release the captives immediately. The moon is full of captured ships in various stages of cannibalization and some pirate ships being constructed. They have one called the Leviathan that is bigger than your flagship. It’s a giant clamshell looking thing with an EMP projector. It would come up behind ships and fire the EMP, disabling the ship. The clamshell opens, they use tractor beams to swallow the ship, and transport it back to the moon. It’s quite a monster.”
    “Steven Maynard has built quite an empire here, completely under the radar. Too bad it’s built on captive labor. He’s got farms, factories, mines, and mills — all the features of a second tier world. If they hadn’t gotten greedy, we’d still be wondering where the ships went.”
    The admiral changed the subject to the K’Rang fleet on the other side of the star cluster.
    “I’m glad you put that probe out there. That K’Rang fleet could have ripped us badly if they’d hit us unaware. Even knowing they’re there, there’s not much we can do about them. My tacticians put us being wiped out in five scenarios out of eight. Even adding in the pirates, it’s a close run thing with the odds only improving slightly.”
    “I’ve sent a dispatch requesting a cruiser squadron to reinforce us, but none are in close enough range to reach us in less than a week. Now if the K’Rang will just cooperate…”
    Kelly thought back to the mystery fleet that attacked the pirates and pondered on how he could enlist their aid. He wondered where Mr. Debran was.

    Steven Maynard called up to speak with Admiral Minacci. “Admiral, I have a request to make of you, on a matter of legalities. Due to long mutual distrust, we don’t allow lawyers here on Barataria, except for unique circumstances. Our surrender is one of those circumstances. We have need of legal advice in regards to the surrender.”
    Admiral Minacci impatiently wanted Maynard to come to the point, “Yes, Mr. Maynard, what does this have to do with me?”
    “Admiral, we have an unarmed ship we use for courier runs that we would like to send to Aldebaran to return with our legal team, if you will allow it. It will require crew transport by our shuttle up to the moon. You may board or scan the courier ship to verify it contains no weapons or contraband. We may be forced to delay the surrender if we don’t have our legal representatives here.”
    Minacci responded, “All right, Mr. Maynard. Have your ship come up to my flagship and stand off 50 km for boarding. If we scan and detect any weapons, explosives, or anything we don’t like, we will vaporize your ship. Do you understand?”
    “Absolutely admiral, there will be no tricks. It’s just as I say.”
    Maynard closed the comms channel and turned to Thorson. “Thorson, pick your crew and take these dispatches to the law firm of Rondage and Jompe, in Santana City on El Nath Prime. They’ll know what to do. Return here tomorrow or the next day at the very latest.”
    Thorson rode the shuttle up to the moon and boarded his incomplete ship. When he purchased the engine and weapons upgrade they had removed the old engines and weapons, but had only replaced the engines before the surrender. He felt naked in a ship with no weapons, but the reduced weight and faster engines made him one of the fastest commercial ships in the area.
    After a thorough but, thankfully, expedited inspection, the Eclipse was on its way. During the trip, he worked on a little something the lawyers could do for him. His refund for the weapons should cover it.

    Friedrich Debran departed Rigel Station for Barataria in the custom executive transport. He would stop off first to retrieve his family, and then on to the planet. He couldn’t let a habitable planet go to waste. His pilot followed the path through the star cluster provided by Admiral Minacci and rendezvoused with his flagship. He wasn’t allowed to dock with the warship, but a launch was sent over with his family on board. There were no tears of joy from his wife and daughters when they came aboard, only a request to know where were their cabins and were there fresh clothes to change into.
    Friedrich had the steward show them to their quarters. He joined the captain and had him request permission to land on Barataria. Permission was denied and Debran just kept going higher up in the chain of command until he was put in touch with Steven Maynard. Maynard told him that he was busy surrendering his planet and didn’t have time for social or revenge calls right now.
    Debran quickly laid out the outline of a financial proposition, to act as Maynard’s Galactic Republic land agent for settling the unoccupied portions of the planet. The proposition interested Steven, and he authorized Debran’s ship to land.

    All the captives were released from their labors. This date would be henceforth known as Barataria’s Independence Day. Russell and Sally took the day to visit the main city park.
    Sally had made a picnic lunch for them, and they searched out a shady hillside patch to spread out their blanket.
    Sally was pensive as the two of them lay beside each other. She had been quiet during the walk to the park. Russell could tell something was bothering her.
    “Sally, what’s wrong?”
    Sally kept quiet and turned away from Russell.
    Russell pulled her over into his arms and asked again.
    She seemed to shrink away from him even as he held her tight.
    Quietly, she said, “I don’t want this to end.”
    “You don’t want what to end? The captivity?”
    “No, us, the restaurant, the time we’ve had together. It’s all going to go away. I’ve been so happy here in this intolerable situation. Of course, everything is going to change now. I’ll have to go and find a job in the Algol, Rigel, or Aldebaran system. I’m sure running a restaurant as a pirate’s captive will seem exotic, but won’t get me my own place. And you, you’ll go back to being a merchant sailor again. Everything will change.”
    Russell continued to hold her and kissed her head.
    “What will happen to us now that you…we won’t be forced to be together? You won’t continue to be happy with me, when you can have your choice of younger, prettier women.”
    Russell looked down at her and said, “You idiot! Don’t you know that I love you? I want YOU! You’re more than pretty enough and young enough for me. I couldn’t imagine living with you if you were younger. You work twice as hard as any one my age. You wear me out as it is, in the restaurant and in bed. I’ve chosen you.”
    Russell continued to hold her as tears streamed down her face. He leaned down and kissed her, tasting the saltiness of her tears.
    She looked up at him and said, “I’m sorry for being such an idiot. I never expected to find someone as wonderful as you in my life. Forgive me for being an insecure, emotional woman.”
    “You’re forgiven — now fetch me out a sandwich. I’m hungry.”
    The tears vanished and her smile returned as she laid out their feast.

    The Vigilant was chosen to take the admiral and selected officers down for the surrender ceremony. Chief Blankenship and the chiefs motivated the crew to make the ship gleam. When she came for Kelly to do his inspection walk-through, she reminded him how hard the crew worked and they would appreciate him recognizing their efforts.
    Kelly conducted his walk-through inspection and was impressed when he saw the shape of his ship. The crew really exceeded his expectations. He was effusive in his compliments and issued two on-the-spot awards for exceptionally well-maintained spaces. Chief B gave him a thumbs-up when he was through.
    Kelly ordered the probe launched again to maintain a watch on the K’Rang fleet. It would hover near the spot it had observed from before and pop out every hour or two to maintain contact with the K’Rang ships. It wouldn’t do to get caught unaware, with the only scout ship parked on the planet below.
    At the appointed hour, the Admiral’s gig pulled up to the airlock and docked. Kelly met him in his dress uniform and six side boys stood for his arrival. The party consisted of the admiral, his aide, his protocol officer, the captains of two of the three assault landing carriers, and his entire JAG section. The Yellow Jacket would be sending CPT Chen and the SOC down in an AS-500 as an honor guard.
    The gig pulled away and the AS-500 pulled up beside the Vigilant. Kelly called down to the spaceport and received permission for the two ships to land. Kelly ordered the helm to make a standard approach to the spaceport, and advised the AS-500’s pilot of his intentions. The pilot responded back that he would follow them down.
    They spiraled down through the atmosphere and lined up to put down at the designated spaceport parking spaces. An obvious government functionary met them at the gangplank. He introduced himself as Roger Delvane, secretary to Mr. Maynard. His first question was if it would be possible to move their ships to another location. The ceremony would take place at the main parade field across town. If the people could see the presence of the fleet in the form of these two ships, it would do much to calm down certain reactionary elements in the Brotherhood, and raise the spirits of the former Prisoners of War.
    Kelly caught the reference to POWs. Someone in the Brotherhood knew the Galactic Republic law on non-aligned worlds. They were safe from execution by spacing as long as they could maintain this farce that they were a non-aligned world and secretly at war with the Republic. Kelly conferred with the admiral and the pilot of the AS-500, and they agreed to move to the parade grounds. Mr. Delvane had a hover ship waiting to lead them to the new location. Kelly and passengers loaded back up and held position until Mr. Delvane’s hover ship arrived to lead them across town.
    Kelly put the crew in their dress uniforms for the ceremony. They would form part of the honor guard. He would leave the sensor watch, two turret gunners, and the bridge watch onboard, in case they needed to leave in a hurry. Connie had the ship. She complained about missing the show, until Kelly pointed out that from the elevated position of the bridge, she would have a better view than he did from the reviewing stand, and an air conditioned view. It was quite warm and humid today in Lafitte City.
    CPT Chen marched her Special Operations Company out of the AS-500. They were quite impressive with their white hats, blue blouses, and red trousers with gold stripe down the leg. They were armed with the M-57 blast rifle. Kelly considered issuing his troops — at least the chiefs — with side arms, but decided their weapon was the deadly black ship behind him. He had twelve torpedo ships and two K’Rang scouts to his credit for this campaign.
    While he waited, he had Chief Miller survey the hull for damage. He did a clockwise walk and Chief Miller counter-clockwise. When they each made a full circle and met at the nose, they concluded that the ship was in good condition. It would need a paint job when they got back to Antares Base, but not much else.
    Mary Chen and her sergeants positioned her Marines in accordance with a diagram Mr. Delvane provided. Her sergeants put down markers where key personnel would stand so that others would line up on them, in lines so straight you’d think they were laid with a laser. First Sergeant Don McMaster helped Chief Blankenship do the same for the Vigilant’s formation. Formations and marching were not Fleet strengths.
    Mary Chen came over to Kelly. “I’m happy for your promotion, frocking, and command selection, but I really wanted to meet you as an equal. I had plans for you and me. Why did they have to make you a Lieutenant Commander?”
    Kelly choked slightly and responded, “I had to be frocked to qualify for this command. If it’s any consolation, it was a surprise to me, too.”
    “It isn’t any consolation. Here we are again in a war zone, too. I could get really pissed at the K’Rang. They are so inconvenient.”
    Kelly’s communicator buzzed. It was Sensors, reporting that the probe just reported no change to the K’Rang fleet disposition. Kelly went to report to the admiral. Mary walked back to her marines in a less than rosy mood. First Sergeant McMaster warned those near him and they passed it back.

    Friedrich Debran met with Roger Delphant in his office on board the executive transport. Mr. Debran was in an upbeat mood.
    “Roger, I don’t know if you noticed that there were two yellow suns off to starboard as we made our approach. I would bet that our friends here haven’t made a proper survey or claim on any planets or exploitable asteroid belts that might be there. Get our usual survey specialists energized and in here quickly. I want those systems surveyed and filed with the GR courts as soon as possible — as in days Roger, not weeks.”
    “Yes, Mr. Debran, I’ll see to it immediately. I know just who to contact.”
    Mr. Debran thought to himself that there were trillions of credits to be made here if he could move quickly.

Chapter Fifteen

    Steven Maynard met with Friedrich Debran in the main administrative building. Mr. Debran made no pleasantries and launched right into his presentation.
    “Mr. Maynard, the one constant in the Galactic Republic is the need for more land and resources. Earth is over-populated. The original ten new worlds are approaching over-population, as are several of the second tier worlds. They are constantly seeking out new habitable worlds for settlement of excess population. They’re willing to pay generously for open land on which to settle these immigrants. I propose to make effective use of my contacts in the Galactic Republic, on your behalf, to offer land that you make available to me. I will collect all funds, arrange transport here, meet any planetary clearance procedures you establish, and settle the new immigrants here. When they are happily settled, I will provide you a complete accounting, and keep only a 30 % commission. Besides, with your surrender to the Galactic Republic, your supply of workers dries up.”
    Steven Maynard studied Mr. Debran’s written proposal in front of him while he listened to the briefing. At Mr. Debran’s pause he said, “Mr. Debran, I like your proposal. There is one minor change we would like to make. We would like 300 million credits up front to ensure you are focused on our mutual benefit.”
    Friedrich Debran stood up. “Do you think me a fool? It will be years before I’d make any return on that investment.”
    “No, Mr. Debran, I do not think you a fool. Do not think me one, either. You stand to make trillions of credits from this agency. There is over 3 billion excess population on Earth and the ten first tier worlds and half that number in the second tier worlds you speak of. If you made only a credit per immigrant you would recoup your entire investment and then some in a few months. Of course, we both know you will receive much more than a credit per immigrant. 300 million is our price. Take it or leave it.”
    Friedrich Debran had been a shrewd negotiator long enough to know when the negotiation was over. He had been willing to pay much more for this deal, so he was still coming out ahead. He reached his hand across the table to shake Steven’s hand and said, “We have a deal.”
    In a few moments the necessary changes had been made, the credits transfer verified, and the deal signed. Both sides were happy.

    Thorson returned by midday, and Steven pulled the lawyers into his office and began work on the surrender negotiation preliminaries. The Admiral waited patiently for an hour, then demanded the negotiations begin. Steven, Thorson, and the team of lawyers sat down at the conference table opposite Admiral Minacci, Kelly, and the 3rd ALG JAGs.
    The negotiation went swiftly with Steven agreeing to every term the Fleet JAGs insisted on. Maynard’s lawyer offered a few changes to the document, mostly dealing with recognizing the existing government of Barataria and respect for its laws. By early evening, the documents had been verified by both teams of lawyers and agreed to for signature tomorrow at the surrender ceremony.
    The Brotherhood’s lawyers also presented certified copies of Barataria’s non-aligned world charter, finalized filed claims on three adjacent solar systems, filed application for GR membership, and appointment of Francis Jesse Thorson as the Ambassador-at-Large for Baratarian and GR relationships.
    Now all that was needed was the thumbprint acceptance tomorrow at midday, to make it all official. Roger Delvane sat down with Admiral Minacci’s protocol officer to iron out the details for the ceremony tomorrow, while Kelly and the admiral retired to the guest quarters that had been made available to them just across from the parade field. Steven Maynard had invited them to dinner at the best restaurant on Barataria, and Kelly had requested invitations for CPT Chen, LTJG Cortez, and Alistair.
    While Kelly was changing he heard a knock on his door. He opened the door to see Mary Chen in her hot weather dress uniform. It featured a white hat and shirt worn outside the waistband of the red skirt, which showed off Mary’s shapely legs.
    She strode by Kelly without asking. Kelly shrugged, closed the door, and continued getting dressed. He wore his blue-black pants and a T-shirt, having not yet put on his uniform shirt. Mary sat on the bed, smoothing her skirt to prevent wrinkles.
    “What can I do for you, Mary?”
    She laughed and said, “Well, I’ve been trying to get into your bed for a while now and this is as close as I’ve gotten. No, I got ready too soon and was becoming stir crazy in my room. I hate these events. I never know how to make polite conversation. I hope you don’t mind the company.”
    “It’s alright. When in doubt, ask if the weather is normal. People love to talk about their weather to strangers. If that dries up, compliment them on something cultural you’ve seen as you’ve wandered around the city. I would recommend asking them about the ruins of the previous civilization. Ruin View is the name of the restaurant.”
    She shifted slightly on the bed, causing her skirt to hike up and expose more of her nice legs. She said, “Thanks, I’ll use those. As you might have imagined, my Dad was not big on protocol or niceties. He was a legend in the Marines, but not for his tact or diplomacy.”
    Kelly pulled on his shirt, buttoned it, and tucked it in. Mary got up off the bed to help him get it tucked evenly across the back. When they both looked in the mirror and were satisfied with their appearance, they left the room.
    Alistair and Connie were in the corridor. Kelly had noticed the two becoming quite chummy in the last week. He wished them the best. Their duties wouldn’t allow much chance to be together after Alistair was delivered back to his ship. The Vigilant’s patrol schedule and the wide-ranging assignments of a Reporting Officer would make future meetings rare. They looked happy in each other’s company, so Kelly kept his thoughts to himself.
    They met the Admiral in the lobby, and waited a short time for Mr. Delvane to arrive with a ground car. The ground car was a luxury model and they all fit in the passenger’s compartment with no crowding. Mr. Delvane kept a running commentary of local sights and places of interest. Kelly elbowed Mary so she’d pay attention.
    Shortly, they arrived at the restaurant and Alistair had a sheepish look on his face. Kelly asked what was the matter when they all got out. He mentioned that he had been here quite recently. Kelly could only imagine what that meant.
    They had the restaurant to themselves. Mr. Maynard met them at the door. He escorted the admiral into a small, intimate bar and got a drink for him. He had arranged for all their counterparts to meet them at the door and similarly escort them to the bar. Kelly’s unfortunate counterpart was the Torpedo Ship Wing Commander. A handsome, but celibate, Ascetic Presbyter, first-class, escorted Mary. A Torpedo Ship Flight Commander was Connie’s escort. Ambassador Thorson escorted Alistair.
    After a couple of drinks and some polite, but sometimes restrained conversation, all were ushered into the dining room by Mr. Delvane. The dinner was marvelous, a delicious four-course meal of soup, roast meat with local vegetables, salad, and a dessert. Kelly noticed the Ascetic Presbyter had no problem consuming the fine food. The Admiral asked if he could compliment the chef and a short pudgy woman in white chef’s clothes was brought out to meet him and share a glass of wine.
    She was only slightly embarrassed by the effusive praise heaped upon her by the Admiral. Then she saw Alistair at the end of the table. She walked up to him, slapped him on the back, and said that he did look them up as he promised and this time he did come in through the front door. An awkward moment was diffused when Alistair replied that he just had to come back to sample more of her exquisite cuisine. She beamed.
    After tables were cleared and brandy had been served, Steven asked the admiral about the K’Rang. He asked if they had any evidence the K’Rang were going to advance into the Star Cluster. Admiral Minacci replied that there was a K’Rang fleet poised just outside the cluster, but that they had yet to exhibit any behavior that signified they were preparing to move into the cluster. Steven vowed to place all Baratarian forces under Admiral Minacci’s command if the K’Rang made any move into the cluster. The Admiral thanked him for his faith in him. He told Steven that he had requested a cruiser squadron be sent to reinforce him. Now, if they only get here before the K’Rang moved.
    The dinner broke up. The Admiral, Kelly, and Mary were dropped off at the guesthouse, while Connie and Alistair were taken on to the Vigilant. Kelly changed into his duty uniform and met Mary to walk over to their respective charges. Kelly made a quick walk through of the Vigilant; saw all was as it should be. Mary made a similar walk through of her unit berthed on board the AS-500, and returned with Kelly to the guesthouse.
    Kelly awoke alone in the early morning light. A fully dressed Mary Chen leaned over him, kissed him, and said, “Go back to sleep. You have two hours before the alarm goes off.”
    She said she was going back to her room to change into her physical training clothes and go for a run. She asked if he would care to join her. Kelly rose up, kissed her, and said he’d already had enough exercise keeping up with her. He’d pass on the run.
    She asked, “Would you like to help me get cleaned up after my run? You could scrub my back.”
    Kelly smiled at the thought, but passed. He would probably be back on the Vigilant for breakfast. “Why don’t you join me there after you clean up from your run?”
    As she headed out the door, she said, “An unmetered shower together would have been a lot more fun.”

    The time for the ceremony approached. Kelly called his crew into formation and inspected their uniforms for the ceremony. Mary’s inspection was formal and highly regimented, while Kelly’s inspection was relaxed and matter of fact. Kelly was impressed with the way she could slap the heavy M57 blast rifle from the arms of her Marines and twirl it like it was a plastic toy. When it came to a stop she let go and it hung in the air for a split second, then the Marine grasped and cycled the weapon closed and safe.
    Kelly had his people relax in the shadow beneath the Vigilant. Mary filed hers back inside the AS-500. Kelly considered moving his crew back into the cooled Vigilant, but the Ascetics started marching onto the field. Kelly checked his pocket terminal and saw they were only 30 minutes away from the start. He told Chief B to fall them in on their positions at 15 minutes out.
    He watched the Ascetics march in long battalion formations onto the field in their camouflage uniforms, with their traditional white tunic surmounted by a red cross. Surprisingly, at the end of their formation was a mobile air and space defense battalion floating onto the field mounted on their hover carriers. Kelly didn’t know where this equipment had been. His sensors hadn’t found them. These combined missile and hypervelocity plasma gun systems would prove useful and effective if the K’Rang penetrated all the way to Barataria. Kelly was just glad they were hidden away while he was merrily skipping across the atmosphere. He would have to ask one of the Ascetics where they had been stored.
    Chief Blankenship formed up the ship’s company and marched them into position to the left of the reviewing stand. No one would mistake them for a drill team, but the crew was obviously doing their best. Their turning movements were crisp, they were in step, and they all halted at the same time. On the opposite side of the reviewing stand, Mary marched her company to their places and halted them precisely on their marks.
    With the last of the troops positioned, Mr. Delvane stepped up to the podium. Kelly and Mary hurried to their seats. Kelly was to the immediate left of the Admiral. Mary took her place two chairs further down. A pocket terminal with the sequence of events on the screen had been placed on every seat.
    Mr. Delvane welcomed all visitors and dignitaries to the surrender ceremony. He enjoined all to see this as the evolution of Barataria from a non-aligned world to a member planet in the Galactic Republic. The large number of former captives in the crowd cheered loudly.
    The announcer called attention to the sky as the six remaining torpedo ship squadrons made a fly over of the ceremony in four-ship formations. They were followed across the sky by twelve Undefeated-class cutters in single file.

    Friedrich Debran had also been invited to the ceremony. He and his family sat on the opposite side of the platform from the admiral and Kelly. Julia Debran, seated next to him, was bored and wished she could be anywhere but in this folding chair in the hot sun, watching a bunch of fancily dressed soldiers marching around. She didn’t understand why they hadn’t already signed the papers and been done with it without all this pomp and circumstances.
    As the first torpedo squadron made its way across the sky and all eyes were looking up, her supplied pocket terminal buzzed. Julia looked down, expecting it to say something about the squadron, but instead she saw the following:
    “Do you still want to divorce your husband? If yes, press Continue. Thorson.”
    She couldn’t believe what she was seeing. She looked around and all eyes were still looking skyward. She pushed Continue on the screen.
    “Do you wish a traditional divorce with 50 % community property settlement or a no fault divorce with no settlement? Push A for traditional. Push B for no fault.”
    She pushed A and another screen appeared.
    “That option is not available at this time. Press return for another option.”
    She laughed, pressed return, and chose option B. Another screen came up.
    “Are you Julia Halscomb Debran? Press yes or no.”
    She pressed yes and that screen was replaced as yet another screen appeared.
    “Are you currently married to Friedrich Rainer Debran resulting from a civil ceremony conducted on Rigel Station on 2295.08.03?”
    She wondered where this was going and how long it would take. The aircraft had almost all passed over the parade field. She pressed yes and yet another screen appeared.
    “Do you renounce your GR citizenship in favor of Baratarian citizenship? Press yes or no. (Do not worry. Your GR citizenship will be restored in a month’s time when our request to join the Galactic Republic is approved.)”
    Julia pressed yes and the screen changed one last time.
    “In accordance with the Captains’ Court of Barataria, your request for summary divorce is granted. Congratulations, this is a perfectly legal and proper divorce recognizable in any GR court. It is in accordance with Baratarian law, which will be recognized as legitimate by the GR representatives when they thumb the surrender document. Keep this to yourself until you hear from me personally. Thorson.”
    Her screen returned to the ceremony’s sequence of events. Julia did not know what to make of this. She prayed it was not some joke or trick by Friedrich. Her heart was buoyed by the thought it might be real. She looked at the ceremony with a renewed interest. The music playing as the Ascetics passed in review actually had her toes tapping to the beat.
    The next to final event of the ceremony was a fly over by all 48 fighters and attack ships from the Assault Landing Carrier Golden Eagle. Then Steven Maynard and Admiral Minacci jointly thumbed the surrender documents. The final event was a prayer by the Bishop-Commander of the Ascetic Brigade. It asked for repose of the souls of those lost in the recent battle and for peace to reign over Barataria.
    After the prayer, he gave the command to his unit to return to their barracks. That was the cue for Mary’s Marines and Kelly’s crew to retire from the field. In crisp military fashion, both units marched away from the reviewing stand and onto either the AS-500 or the Vigilant.
    Refreshments were served in a large tent immediately behind the reviewing stand. Kelly followed the Admiral into the tent to get a pirate’s idea of refreshments. Rum punches, brandy, port, and clarets were free and freely served. Kelly watched his alcohol intake to maintain a clear head, and was rewarded with the rare occasion of Mr. Debran getting his own back. Debran was in a conversation circle with Maynard, the admiral, and Kelly. Debran’s wife and daughters were making their way down a buffet table. Ambassador Thorson came up to Mr. Maynard and whispered something in his ear.
    Mr. Maynard looked over at Mr. Debran and said, “Friedrich, remember earlier when I said that I’m not a fool either? Do you know what those two survey ships you sent to the yellow sun systems will find when they arrive? They will find registered survey marker satellites specifying that Barataria legally claims those systems. Why don’t you call your Mr. Delphant and recall them so they don’t waste any more of your credits and time than they already have?”
    Debran was furious to have been caught in a subterfuge and called out on it in public. He yelled for his wife and daughters to come along that they were leaving. His wife was talking to the ambassador and did not hear him. Debran rushed over, reached out, and grabbed Julia roughly by the wrist and started pulling her along. The next thing he knew was that he was in the air and crashing onto the hard turf floor under the tent. Julia had just executed a perfect hip throw on Friedrich.
    She stood over him, yelling, “Don’t you ever touch me again!”
    He stood up, dusted himself off, and spoke coldly to her, “You are still my wife. You will do as I tell you and that goes for those slut daughters of yours as well.”
    Julia reared back and punched him square dead on the nose. Debran wound up on the ground again.
    As he picked himself up off the ground again, a small man walked up to Debran and asked him if he was Friedrich Rainer Debran. Friedrich, already in a foul mood, pulled a handkerchief from his pocket to staunch his nosebleed, turned on the man and said, “Of course I am, you idiot! What do you want?”
    He handed Debran a small packet of paper and said, “Sir, you have been served.”
    Debran, confused, asked, “Served? Served with what?”
    “Why, your divorce decree, of course.”
    Friedrich looked at the man as if the man had just been hatched.
    “What are you talking about? I didn’t ask for any divorce proceedings.”
    “No, sir, Mrs. Debran…excuse me, Ms. Halscomb requested a divorce and that divorce was granted by the Captains’ Court of Barataria this afternoon.”
    Debran built up into a full rage and shouted at the small man, “Whom do you think you are dealing with, little man? I will have that divorce issued by your kangaroo court overturned before the sun sets.”
    The little man advanced on Debran, causing him to take an involuntary step back.
    “I am Emilio Rondage, senior partner of the law firm Rondage and Jompe. Ask your legal advisers if they want to tangle with me in court, any court, even those you’ve bought in the Rigel system. This divorce is absolutely legal and the GR Fleet can testify to it. One of the codicils of the Surrender Agreement was that GR courts would uphold decisions handed down by Baratarian Courts before the surrender document was signed, as long as they did not violate GR law. This divorce is legally binding.”
    Debran did not know what to do. He had never been treated this way. He looked around for sympathy from the crowd and found none. He turned and stomped away. Julia would never see him again.
    Thorson stood beside her and said, “Ms. Halscomb, I know this is sudden, but would you do me the honor of being my wife?”
    She smiled and said, “Mr. Thorson, wait, is Thorson your last name or first name?”
    Thorson smiled back and said, “It’s my last name. I am Francis Jesse Thorson.”
    “Well, Francis, I would love to be Mrs. Francis Jesse Thorson.”
    Thorson picked her up and twirled her around to applause from the assembled dignitaries.
    When he let her down, he said, “Rondage has sufficient evidence of Debran’s corruption of the Rigel legal system that he can argue in GR court that Debran made it impossible for you to get a fair divorce trial in the Rigelian courts. He thinks he can get you a 50 % settlement anyway. That’s enough about that. Where do you want to get married and honeymoon?”
    She smiled and asked, “We can worry about that later. Do you think you can get my ship back before it is stripped?”
    Thorson smiled. Yes, he thought he could do that.

    Irina Bugarov was in the crowd that day. She was on the opposite side of the field and hoped to reach the scout ship and AS-500 across the massive parade field, but there were too many people and too many Ascetics providing crowd control to get over there. She and Terri found a shady spot on the hillside and sat down to watch the show. She and Terri had dropped the tired old women disguises and cleaned up. They got more than a few admiring glances, especially Terri.
    Her heart swelled when she saw the F-48s and A-76s fly over the field. Yes, Fleet had come and rescued them, just like she knew they would. She had never lost faith in the Fleet.
    As the crowd winnowed out, she and Terri worked their way across the field. She knew she was breaking protocol by walking between the Ascetic formations returning to their barracks, but she didn’t care. She was free. Today was her Independence Day.
    She reached the empty reviewing stand and looked around for an officer. She assumed everyone went in the large tent or up into the ships.
    She called up into the ship and a petty officer from the quarterdeck came down.
    “Can I help you, ma’am?”
    ‘I hope so. I am retired Major General Irina Bugarov of Fighter Force. Could I speak with your captain?”
    “Captain’s not aboard, ma’am. I believe he’s in that big tent, ma’am.”
    She thanked him and they wandered over to the tent, but the Ascetic guards had orders not to admit former captives. Irina made a note of the scout ship’s name. She would write a thank you note when she was back in better surroundings.
    The petty officer went back up the gangplank and joined Chief Miller.
    “What was that all about?” Chief Miller asked?
    “I don’t know. Some crazy old broad said she was a major general or something. She wanted to see the Captain. I told her he was probably in the big tent.”
    Chief Miller shook his head and asked, “Why do all the crazies call themselves generals? Log it.”

    Fleet Commander J’Kalt reviewed the scenarios presented by his battle staff. The spy ships’ report from the Human sector had been transmitted to them and gave them an idea of what they might have to face. In their considered opinion, the best option was to conduct a reconnaissance in force into the star cluster. This gave them the greatest benefit for the least losses. The two shadow destroyers should lead the formation, as they had the best sensors and were best able to pick out the route through the cluster.
    The Shadow cruiser and three light missile cruisers would follow, to be able to provide long-range support to the Shadow destroyers. The six fighter defense frigates would ring the formation, to provide flank security against Human fighters and fighter-sized craft. The remainder of the ships would form up with the six missile/gun destroyers behind the cruisers, followed by the ten support ships guarded by the four gun frigates.
    The corvette J’New would remain at the opening to the cluster, to provide a communications relay and rear security. It would warn the fleet and Main Worlds if enemy ships got behind the fleet.
    J’Kalt approved this plan and established rehearsals for the opposite side of the two Main World systems behind them.

    The long-range sensor probe reported the power up and movement of the K’Rang Fleet. It tracked them as they moved to behind the nearest Main World system. It repositioned itself autonomously and reported its new position when it sent the data on the K’Rang Fleet. It got occasional glimpses of the K’Rang Fleet practicing movement and dutifully sent that info on, also reporting the Missile Corvette continuing to monitor the known entrance to the star cluster. As the corvette moved around the entrance, it forced the sensor to periodically withdraw into the cluster to maintain secrecy.

    Captain S’Kal of the Missile Corvette J’New was looking over the shoulder of his senior sensor operator, H’Talli. He had been called to observe some sort of anomaly in the sensor scans, but he could not see it.
    “Play it back one more time, H’Talli, I don’t see what you are trying to show me.”
    Sensor Lead Technician H’Talli wasn’t sure he could see it either, but he could sense something was there. He ran the file back and ran it forward at slow motion.
    “There, just there. See it, sir? That flash, just there.”
    The captain saw a brief flash, but nothing else. He asked how many times he had seen that flash and was told just this one time.
    “Lead Sensor Technician H’Talli, watch this area. If you see anything more, let me know.”
    Captain S’Kal returned to the bridge and thought to himself that if his lead sensor technician was operating on such a hair trigger, what was it like among the junior crewmen? He would have to advise the med tech to start looking at crew physical well being more closely.
    H’Talli assigned two sensor techs to watch that area, to put fresh eyes on the anomaly.

    Chief Blankenship was first to tumble to what the K’Rang were doing. She correctly assessed that they were practicing movement to contact and quick reaction drills. This gave the analysts on the Golden Eagle an idea. Admiral Minacci called a commander’s conference on his flagship for all involved, including the Baratarian leadership. The conference was to develop a plan of attack for the impending K’Rang incursion.
    Kelly was not asked to attend the conference. He was charged with conducting a high-resolution gravimetric survey of the star cluster.
    The Admiral told him, “Find every gravity eddy, dead end, gravity well, hide spots, and other routes through the star cluster. I am going to tie the K’Rang up in the star cluster like they were in a maze. Map the maze for me.”
    Kelly understood what the Admiral wanted, but asked, “How soon do you want me back with the data?”
    The Admiral put his hand on Kelly’s shoulder and said, “Get me good enough, but I wouldn’t turn down perfect. Just don’t leave any hidden routes that would give the K’Rang a way around behind us.”
    Kelly said, “Aye aye, sir,” and returned to the Vigilant.

Chapter Sixteen

    The Admiral called the meeting to order. Present were Steve Maynard with his senior Undefeated class ship captain, his Torpedo Ship Wing Commander, the Ascetic Bishop-Commander, and the captain of the Leviathan. The Marine Brigade Landing Group Commanders and Group ship captains, with the exception of Kelly, were all present.
    The 3rd ALG Intel Chief briefed the enemy situation. The ops chief briefed the friendly forces. He told the assembled leaders that a cruiser squadron was enroute to reinforce them, but was a week away. They would have to go this one with whatever they had.
    The senior Marine Commander gave the Marines status. They had two light brigades and one heavy brigade with armored hover transports, self-propelled medium plasma artillery, armored hover guns, and the long range air/space defense system capable of firing missiles or plasma bursts into planetary high orbits.
    The logistics officer briefed the supplies status. As the 3rd ALG hadn’t fought yet, supplies were full. All ships were reporting full weapons capability.
    The Admiral asked for a similar report from Steven Maynard. Maynard’s ops chief stood up and ran down their capabilities. “We have six full torpedo ship squadrons and over six thousand torpedoes. We have twelve Undefeated class cutters, and we have the Leviathan. Captain Chang has proposed a unique way to use it in our defense.”
    Captain Chang stood. “Ladies and Gentlemen, as you may not know, the Leviathan is a special ship. It’s the size of a fleet battle carrier. It has a clamshell opening system that can swallow a ship the size of this flagship. It has an EMP weapon that can fry the solid-state circuitry of a modern ship and stop it in its tracks, causing it to drift unpowered in space. It also has four tractor beams. It’s this capability, along with the clamshell, that can be of high utility.”
    “Two years ago, we stopped a freighter convoy traversing outside our entrance. We brought the four freighters in and unloaded the cargo for inspection. We found undeclared military items. There were 5000 autonomous mines, 2000 stealth mines, and 1000 autonomous missile pods. If you come out with a mine plan, I can lay mines at a prodigious rate with four tractor beams.”
    The admiral whispered to his ops chief, then said, “That is wondrous news, Captain. We only have 1000 mines in the entire 3rd ALG. We can give you a detailed mine plan to start to work on and all of our mines. If you give my ops chief the specs on these missile pods, we can work them into the plan, too. Thank you, Captain, you’ve made me feel a lot better.”
    The meeting went on for hours as ideas were advanced, seized upon, or discarded. At the end of the meeting, the skeleton of a plan had been decided upon. Now it was up to the ops staff and the Vigilant.

    A similar meeting took place on board the K’Rang Fleet flagship. Fleet Commander J’Kalt was not happy with the results of his rehearsals. The fleet was still just a collection of ships, not a cohesive unit. He complimented the two Shadow Force Destroyer captains for their aggressiveness and admonished the other captains to emulate them. He chastised them for being slow and cautious, when their very survival may require they throw caution to the wind and charge headlong at a Human force of larger size.
    “We will be going in without the benefit of detailed intelligence on the threat. We have to be ready for any situation. More than likely, we won’t know where the enemy is until we run into them. That is why these drills are so important. We must react faster than the Humans react and overpower them.”
    He ran through the drills on the holographic projector one more time, then sent the captains back to practice them again and again until he was satisfied. Eventually, they caught onto what he was trying to do and started to act more like a fleet and less like individual ships in a crowd. J’Kalt slept well that night.

    Kelly looked for empty sectors in his survey results chart. He had built a 35-degree cone of space with the apex (the pointy end) starting at the Human entrance to the star cluster and the base ending centered on the K’Rang entrance to the cluster. He had divided the cone by fourths down the long axis and divided the length by 20ths, making 80 sectors. As he finished a sector, it went from clear to red. When there were only a few sectors remaining, Kelly decided they were peripheral and not important. Kelly set course for the 3rd ALG at max speed. He had what the Admiral needed.

    Kelly turned his survey results over to the Admiral’s Intel staff and they added magnifying data to the chart. They turned the chart over to the Ops Chief and he gave it to his Mine Warfare Staff Officer. The MWSO drew out avenues of approach and looked for ways to canalize the K’Rang where the Fleet wanted them to go, not where they wanted to go. He planned mine fields at key chokepoints, where adjacent hide locations for torpedo ships or fighters were available, and for autonomous mines to close off pathways behind K’Rang ships. The MWSO then turned his plan over to the Carrier Fighter Wing Commander, who coordinated with the Baratarian leadership and assigned defensive sectors to Fleet and Baratarian units.
    The Admiral had the hardest decision to make. What would he do with the Marines? The K’Rang Fleet was composed of all combatant ships. There were no assault landing forces, therefore no need for ground troops. The Admiral made the hard decision to leave his Marines behind. He knew he would have three very angry Colonels in his office shortly.
    The Marines and Ascetics had the mission to defend Lafitte City. They would move the population to safe areas outside the city and support them. The Marines’ long- range air/space defense system would be networked with the similar Ascetic system to defend the planet. If the K’Rang should defeat the combined 3rd ALG and Baratarian forces, they would be on their own until the cruiser group arrived.
    After hearing the three colonels out, he ordered them to deploy to the planet with their wartime combat loads and carry out their mission. True professionals to the core, they saluted and set off to their respective assault support carriers and the planet’s surface. The 3rd ALG had no Marine general or staff embarked to function as a division commander and HQ, so the decision was made for the three colonels to come under the command of the Bishop-Commander of the Ascetics.
    This left a decision on CDR Milton’s idea for how to use the assault landing carriers. Milton pointed out that when the assault landing carriers had their AS-500s unloaded, they were faster and nimbler than a frigate and the bombardment plasma guns were effective against combat ships at medium and close ranges. CDR Milton proposed to use the carriers as ultra heavy attack fighters.
    The Admiral could ill afford to lose his assault landing carriers, but the firepower would surely come in handy in this fight if used in the right way. If they could use brown dwarfs as cover and pop out to fire, they might take out a few of the frigates or support ships. He ordered the three captains to concentrate on the rear of the K’Rang formation, especially their support ships and escorts. They were to leave the heavy ships for the rest of the group.

    The Marines loaded all their equipment and war supplies on the AS-500s and departed for the planet’s surface. They landed in assembly areas and quickly organized themselves to accomplish their missions. Two battalions of each brigade were assigned to organize the evacuation of the civilians. The remaining battalions built the camp for the evacuees west of the city.
    The heavy Marine brigade deployed its two long-range air/space defense systems along the southern ridge. The Ascetic system deployed on the north ridge. The Ascetic light battalions saw to law and order in the city. The Marine heavy battalions and the Ascetic heavy battalion deployed in the wooded high ground to the east of town. All units dug in and fortified their positions.

    With the AS-500s and Marines on the planet’s surface, Fleet efforts turned to establishing the mine barriers and ambush positions. The CFW commander assigned specific ambush positions to units and ordered them to reconnoiter and establish routes into and out of these positions, minimizing their exposure to enemy fire. This was especially true for the assault carriers.
    The Leviathan was a marvel at placing mines. Its cavernous mouth could hold thousands of mines. Its four tractor beams could precisely place the mines. It placed 2000 mines in one 18-hour day. By the second day, they increased efficiency and doubled the number. By the third, they had completed the mine plan. Now it was up to the K’Rang.
    The Admiral worked with the frigates, the carrier, the replenishment ships, and two of the Baratarian captured freighters. The plasma frigates had long-range bombardment guns and defensive missiles. The carrier had twin pods of defensive missiles. The ALG could fire off 200 defensive missiles before the replenishment ships would need to reload them. They carried five reloads. The Admiral worked with the ships to choreograph their actions in support of the fighters, attack craft, and torpedo ships. By the end of the week, he felt he had created a cohesive team.
    Admiral Minacci called another commander’s conference to receive readiness appraisals from his commanders. All commanders reported fully ready to accomplish their assigned missions. Minacci congratulated them on their hard work, then dispersed the ships to their assembly areas. Minacci called Kelly in last.
    “Kelly I need for you to monitor the enemy for me. Stick to them like glue. I need to know where they are at all times. If they split up, I need to know that. Don’t let them get lost. If we are to survive this, much less win, we need to know what the enemy is up to at all times. If you have a clear opportunity to take out a K’Rang ship, especially their supply ships, do so. This is going to be a campaign over a week or more. They will need to resupply. I want that to be a difficult proposition for them.”
    Kelly returned to the Vigilant and started planning his hide spots, overwatch positions, and firing points.

    Connie spent two watches plotting out all the potential positions Kelly designated. She correlated them to avenues of approach, choke points, and other criteria the Captain determined. When she was done, she had a plan for bringing the Vigilant into a firing position, firing, and moving under cover to the next position along the avenue of approach. She also had locations where sensor pods would be placed to observe K’Rang movements at forks in their path. When she had it all entered into the navigation computer, she called it a day.
    She retired to her quarters to find Alistair lying in his upper bunk. He was wide-awake. She had a question that had been in her head since she found out he was from Archimedes.
    “Alistair, could you tell me about what life was like on Archimedes?”
    Alistair rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling. He asked, “Do you really want to know?”
    “Yes, I do. Please.”
    “How much do you know about the Great Migration?”
    She replied, “No more than I read about in history class.”
    “The Great Migration was mankind’s first foray into moving beyond Earth and settling ten relatively nearby systems. It was the start of the Galactic Republic. Earth formed ten syndicates that built ten settlement ships each, recruited 100,000 people, and sent them out to the stars with all supplies they would need to create a settlement on these new worlds. One million people were sent out to establish new Earths.”
    “The ships were massive, larger than the largest ships today. They were built to carry 10,000 people, their personal belongings, livestock, supplies, and fabricators that could form anything they needed out of raw minerals and scrap. Each ship was filled with suspended animation compartments for all the living things on board. Everyone was supposed to sleep for the year and a few months the voyage was supposed to take.”
    “I don’t know how much you already know about my world, but the Archimedes settlement was supposed to be the eighth settlement ship to go to Epsilon Eridani 4. It never got there because the senior astrogator went crazy, put the whole crew into suspended animation, and took the ship off course. He left the Captain a long wandering confession and explanation of why he did it, then spaced himself. The ship powered through space for 30 more years, pilotless, before it sensed a class M planet circling a yellow dwarf very similar to Sol and woke the crew. They were horrified to learn they were 30 light years beyond their intended destination and 41 light years from Earth.”
    “The 10,000 settlers considered all options, but in the end had only one available to them. They couldn’t go back. They couldn’t send a rescue message. They were forced to settle the planet and devolve their civilization before their modern capabilities ceased to work.”
    “Not everyone was happy with this outcome. There was the Revolt of Desperation early on, by those not willing to stay and wanting to load back on the ship and return to Epsilon Eridani 4. The ship had neither the energy nor life support to sustain the ship for a return voyage. Nonetheless, they overpowered the settlement ship watch and loaded 367 settlers back onto the ship. They were in the process of powering the ship back up when the ship’s captain led an Ascetic commando raid to disable the ship and subdue the rebels. If they had gone it would have doomed the settlement, because most of the livestock were still onboard in suspended animation.”
    “That led to the establishment of an autocratic form of government. The appointed settlement chief executive, a former Earth State representative, realized he was not qualified to lead a lone settlement through this new desperate and precarious situation. He selected the ship’s captain as the new leader of the settlement and the captain proclaimed himself Duke Carl I. He hand picked nine village leaders and made them all barons, declaring summary judgment in all matters for himself and his barons.”
    “This got the people working toward the common goal of making the settlement a viable community, instead of pining for what would never be. It was a period of innovation, as people tried to devolve the civilization to a sustainable level before the power supplies on their modern equipment died.”
    “They built steel mills, coking plants, mining equipment, and foundries. They built basic infrastructure for a 19th century society, even though they didn’t have the population yet to operate them all. All the basic building blocks of an early industrial age society were built, piece by piece, using the molecular fabricators that came with the ship. Cotton gins, rolling mills, flourmills, sawmills, and other light and heavy industry were pieced together from fabricated parts. They concentrated on building things that allowed for further capabilities. Boilermaker fabrication equipment was a priority, as the society’s primary power source would be wood fired steam engines.”
    “They had a maximum of 30 years left in the power cells and had to make optimum use of the fabricators before that power ran out. They used the limited sensor capability of the settlement ship to find raw minerals, resources, and the best location for the settlement. They did a pretty good job. The settlement organized itself with the main township, in essence the county seat, in the center of a vast plain with a large river flowing through it. The nine villages were arrayed around it like spokes on a wheel about 200 km away from the county seat. The livestock and seed were distributed to the villages best able to utilize them. Villages along the river valley became farming centers. Villages with fertile grasslands became cattle and horse breeding centers. Villages in the highlands built mills along the creeks and became milling centers. Pigs were distributed equally amongst the villages as they could flourish anywhere. Goats were apportioned to the highland villages where other livestock couldn’t survive. Poultry were apportioned through out the settlement, some even allowed to roam free.
    All in all, the early leaders did a pretty good job. They accomplished all their goals before the power ran out. After 30 years the population had quadrupled, and schools up to a university were built and staffed. Guilds were formed to train people to operate the factories, mills, and other specialized functions. Livestock population grew to where they no longer needed to be isolated to just one settlement. Trade flourished between the town and villages, aided by a unified railway system servicing the town and all villages.”
    She interrupted him to ask, “Which village were you born in and how were you raised?”
    “I was born in Copernicus. We were primarily an agricultural community, which I’m told was a hardscrabble existence initially. There were no horses to use as plow animals because they were all being used as breeding stock. It wasn’t until several years later that geldings became available for sale in the village markets. Of course, by the time I was born, they had developed steam tractors and harvesters to increase farm size and yield.”
    “I was the youngest of six children and not very good at farming. My father saw to it that I was accepted by a guild. None of the regular guilds were right for me, but he was determined I would learn a useful trade. He eventually got me accepted into the Assassins Guild.”
    Connie sat up and said, “The Assassins Guild? That sounds rather ominous.”
    “I guess it does sound rather ominous, but it was more of a military academy than a bunch of cutthroats. We trained on all types of weapons and martial arts. We advanced through the guild levels from novice to apprentice to master. I had just achieved my Master status when we were discovered.”
    “85 years after we landed, a survey ship looking for mineral-rich asteroids and new habitable worlds stumbled on us quite by accident. We had no electronic signature and they assumed Archimedes was an uninhabited world. When they first saw our villages, they thought they had discovered a new sentient species. They were a bit disappointed when we answered them back in our heavily accented Galactic Standard. We were quickly assimilated into the 22nd century, which caused any number of problems. Duke Carl IV filed our application to join the Galactic Republic and it caused quite a stir. We were the first second tier world.”
    “Our world grew quickly and only a little of the old settlement is still there. It was a large shift from the 19th century to the 22nd and some couldn’t or wouldn’t make the transition. They set aside some of the villages as an enclave of the 19th century for those unable to make the transition. Some people eventually left, but some people moved back in. I guess that in about 50 years the enclave will be empty. It will probably be made into a museum.”
    “That’s the college notes version of my planet’s story. Was it what you expected?”
    She rolled over in her bunk and said, “How difficult was it for you to make the transition?”
    “It wasn’t too difficult for me. The Guild training made me able to quickly adapt to new situations. I always knew the Galactic Republic was out there and that some day we would be discovered. When Fleet Intel found out about the Assassins Guild, they heavily recruited us. They taught us new modern skills and helped us to refine our old skills. The transition was made quite easy for me. I like being a reporting officer, although it does get lonely at times. Fortunately, I have Rojo, my cat, to keep me company.”
    He rolled over onto his side and said, “Now if there is nothing more, I’m going to sleep now.”
    Connie stood up and stripped out of her coveralls and undergarments before crawling into her lower bunk. Alistair rolled over onto his other side. He lay there alone and did not go to sleep quite as quickly as he thought he would.

    Fleet Commander J’Kalt called one last commander’s call before he moved into the star cluster. He looked all of his captains in the eye and told them to remember what they had just practiced. He told them to execute all orders with total commitment. If they hesitated in an ambush situation, they would surely be destroyed. It would be better to go down fighting than to suffer a hollow defeat.
    He reminded them what was at stake if the Humans broke out into K’Rang space here between these two main worlds. It could mean splitting the empire and its eventual destruction. He could see in their eyes that they understood the seriousness of their situation, and knew they would all do their duty. He ordered them back to their ships and gave them four hours to prepare their ships and crews for combat. They would enter the star cluster in six hours.
    He had requested reinforcements and had been promised at least a cruiser squadron to backstop him here at the entrance to the star cluster. If he was met by a superior force and annihilated, they would have to hold the entrance against a possible Human attack.
    He brought the captains to attention and said, ”Long live the Empire!”
    They answered in unison, “Long live the Empire!”

    Chief Johnson brought Kelly the news that the K’Rang Fleet was moving toward the star cluster from their exercise position behind the nearest main world. Kelly passed that information to the Fleet. Admiral Minacci ordered the Vigilant to move to a position to directly monitor the K’Rangs’ actions and report them to the Fleet. Kelly acknowledged the order and moved out. He gave orders to Chief Johnson to launch sensor pods to all pre-designated positions. Seven sensors left the Vigilant, speeding to overwatch, chokepoints, and decision points in the star cluster.
    The Vigilant moved out to the fringe of the star cluster and hid behind a larger than normal brown dwarf. He monitored the K’Rang fleet movement into formation as it approached the entrance to the star cluster. They held off the entrance for an hour then, with the two Shadow Force destroyers in the lead, moved ahead and into the star cluster. Kelly passed this information to the reinforced 3rd ALG. Everyone was in position and as ready as they could be.

    Friedrich Debran was being briefed on third quarter profits, something he normally took high interest in, but not today. Something was nagging at the back of his mind. Irritated at not being able to focus on the subject, he threw the briefer out of his office.
    Roger Delphant came in as the sacrificial lamb to find out what or who was putting the boss in a sour mood. As he walked in, Debran was staring at a holographic display of the Pleiades. Roger thought he understood.
    “Are you worried about your investment, sir?”
    Debran looked up, about to throw Delphant out too, when he softened and motioned for him to sit down.
    “Damn right I’m worried. I’m into them for 300 million credits and stand to lose it all if the K’Rang get in there and close off the star cluster. I want my own eyes in there, Roger. Get in touch with your Hooligans and have them assist in the defense of the planet. Put them under the control of that admiral if we have to.”
    “Yes, Mr. Debran.”

    Kelly saw an opportunity to draw first blood. He watched the K’Rang fleet move further into the cluster. As the last of the trailing frigates moved into the cluster, the missile corvette moved up to the entrance. Kelly concluded he must be their communications relay back to the main worlds. Kelly couldn’t let that continue. He gave the K’Rang fleet an hour to get into the first kill box, cut off from retreat, and then he would take this guy out.
    Kelly called up the specs on this corvette and realized he had taken on a later model of this type before. In fact, it was an engagement with three of these that got him kicked out of Fighter Force and allowed him to be where he was now.
    Connie, sensing Kelly was lost in thought, asked him if something was wrong.
    Kelly slipped out of his reverie and said, “See that guy out there? I took three of them out once when I was still in fighters. It saved my carrier, but got me booted out of Fighter Force.”
    “How did that happen, sir? I mean we’ve all heard rumors, but none of us know what really happened.”
    Kelly checked his sensor feed to see where the lead destroyers were in the cluster, realized he still had about an hour before the first trap sprang, and started his tale.
    “We had a general in the Fighter Force that thought she was a modern day Marshall Ney, Napoleon’s cavalry chief. She kept looking up historical battles and drawing all the wrong conclusions. She thought she was being innovative and classical at the same time. No matter what she saw in these old battles, she always set up our operations in the most restrictive manner possible. It was as if she didn’t trust us to think on our own. She had a tendency to trust the technology more than the mind operating it. Have you ever heard of the wall of fire tactic?”
    “Yes, sir, we covered it in tactics training in the Academy, but that was obsolete over a decade ago.”
    “Well General Bugarov thought of it as her master stroke.”
    “Oh, Bugger Off! Everyone on Antares Base has heard of her.”
    Kelly frowned, then continued, “She called for a fleet-wide fighter defense exercise and set it up to run near the K’Rang frontier, to demonstrate our capabilities. My carrier and two others were to play the blue force and two carriers were to play the red force. I was a 2nd LT and had the temerity to ask if the wall of fire didn’t make us vulnerable to an enemy that would stack forces against one sector until they overpowered the defense and punched through. I had my head handed to me. She had my squadron commander personally remind me to keep in formation in our mission briefing.”
    “Well, that was not to be my lucky day. As we moved out to our squadron defensive position on the backside of the fleet, my damage simulator went offline as if I’d been shot down. I drifted in space with my nav lights blinking and limited maneuver control. I was told to wait for the recovery team to come out and get me. That would have been an hour wait until the combat phase was competed.”
    “I tried everything I could think of to get the damage sim to recycle, but nothing worked. I even had Wanda reason with it. That didn’t work, either. That’s when I saw the K’Rang. There were three missile corvettes like our friend over there. All I saw was a star blink on and off as one moved in front of it.”
    “Wanda was able to resolve what they were and how far off. We convinced the damage sim to release the ship back to me if they crossed the border, which they did. I took out the three corvettes, and my reward when I got back on board the Bolivar was to be read court martial charges by the General. The Fleet Commander put a stop to that and awarded me the Space Medal for saving his flagship.”
    “General Bugarov expelled me from Fighter Force and sent me to Antares in exile. I ran into Captain Hasslerode, and he convinced me that Scout Force might be the place for me. The rest is history.”
    “Thank you, sir, that answers a lot of questions.”

    The K’Rang fleet moved beyond the distance where they could turn back and support the corvette. Kelly had the navigator make some calculations on what it would take to make an FTL run at the corvette and stop just amidships. The navigator made some quick calculations and announced it could be done at FTL power 1. Kelly instructed him to pass the course, speed and braking point to the helm. The helm acknowledged. Kelly told the gunner to get ready with all guns. The gunner locked all guns forward and said he was ready.
    “Helm, execute.”
    The K’Rang corvette sensor operators had no warning. One moment their sensors were clear, the next there was a Human Scout ship off their starboard side. Nine guns opened fire at once and blasted a hole clean through the corvette. Kelly could see stars through the gaping hole. They were doomed. No airtight doors could save them. Explosive decompression boiled the blood of the K’Rang crew and killed them almost instantaneously, if not painlessly. As the K’Rang ship was wracked with secondary explosions, Kelly ordered the helm to their next hide position.
    Kelly walked back to the galley for fresh coffee and to check with sensors on the status of any other combatants in the vicinity. Chief Johnson reported no contacts other than the K’Rang fleet in the cluster. Kelly had Chief Johnson inform him the second the 3rd ALG sprang the first trap.
    Kelly didn’t have long to wait, as the K’Rang fleet was moving faster than expected. The first trap in the cluster was a web of stealth mines across the most direct and widest path. When the leading destroyer lost part of its bow to a mine, the autonomous mines behind the rear of the formation moved out to block off their escape. Torpedo ships swarmed out from behind a brown dwarf on the starboard side of the fleet and let loose with all torpedoes. 56 torpedoes spread out and locked in on the major combatants. As the fleet launched defensive missiles to ward off the torpedoes, an A-76 squadron left the cover of a brown dwarf on the port side of the fleet and launched 144 medium missiles at the penned in K’Rang. Further defensive missiles left the ships and sped out to intercept the incoming missiles. The torpedo ships and A-76s pulled away and flew to land on the Golden Eagle to reload.
    Only ten torpedoes and twelve missiles made it through the K’Rang defensive fire to a target. One frigate took two torpedoes amidships and was ripped in two by the combined explosions. A second frigate lost all gun and missile mounts forward of the bridge. A light cruiser lost its stern and drifted in space venting gases, a total loss. Secondary explosions ripped large chunks off the ship and sent them off through the cluster. The immobile lead destroyer received three medium missiles and ceased to exist. The antimatter warheads tore the ship into small pieces. One support ship lost its stern to a medium missile. Four and a half ships destroyed or damaged was not a bad result.
    Kelly watched as the destroyer and three remaining cruisers methodically blasted the space in front of them to open a path through the minefield. Slowly and by twos, the K’Rang fleet passed out of the kill zone.

    Fleet Commander J’Kalt called for damage reports. Four ships were total losses and one partially damaged, but still underway. He would have to move slower now and fire on every possible hide location. He couldn’t let the Humans dictate his maneuvers. He had to find a way to get out of this tunnel they were leaving open for him and find a clear path. The Shadow Destroyer was picking up terrestrial comms ahead, so there must be a base out there.
    As J’Kalt analyzed his current situation, the Shadow Destroyer reported they had come to a dead end. Gravity was increasing and they must turn around. As J’Kalt gave the order to reverse course three assault landing carriers appeared from behind a series of four brown dwarves and opened fire on the four rear guard frigates and support ships. Their plasma guns, designed to send plasma bubbles at hyper velocity speed through a planet’s atmosphere and destroy defensive positions, burned through the hulls of three support ships and a frigate. The burnt husks of the four ships floated off into the gravity well of a brown dwarf and were sent into a slow spiraling orbit. The Human assault landing carriers turned and disappeared into the cluster.
    J’Kalt ordered the three remaining rear guard frigates to pursue the carriers, but a squadron of A-76s was waiting for that. They killed two of the frigates and chased the third away. J’Kalt ordered his remaining fleet to move out of the dead end and form up in an all around defense.

    The three assault landing carrier commanders were elated. They had just done what tacticians will tell you shouldn’t be done. They had intentionally put their ships into harms way. Normally carriers of any kind never see the enemy directly. Oh, they may see fighters or attack ships, but never main combatants. CDR Milton was the most elated of all. His idea had borne fruit. Not only did they take out four ships on their own, the accompanying attack ships had taken out another two. Mark down four for the gators.
    CDR Milton saw an opportunity to take out the two remaining light cruisers. If they could sneak their carriers behind a pair of brown dwarves to one side of the formation, they could get clear shots at the two remaining light cruisers and slip away to their next hide location. He briefed his plan to the other two captains and they were for it.
    They would pull back out of sensor range and line up behind the twin brown dwarves and moved forward slowly. Unfortunately, they failed to account for the final rear guard frigate being slow to rejoin the formation. His sensors picked up the Bee as it slipped in behind the dwarves. The frigate lay in wait for the carrier to pop up, relaying this information to the Fleet Commander. Many guns swiveled in that direction.
    The Bee dropped down below the dwarf. The Yellow Jacket went high. The Wasp went right. All three carriers fired at the two light cruisers and moved to slip back behind the dwarves. The Yellow Jacket had to pull up to be able to loop back behind the dwarves and presented a perfect target to the K’Rang fleet. A broadside from seven ships hit the Yellow Jacket in the port side AS-500 docks and folded the ship in half. CDR Milton and 700 crewmen died in an instant, as secondary explosions cascaded through the hull. The light cruiser N’Gal exploded five seconds behind it, as six sun-hot plasma balls burned through her hull. The light cruiser G’Bid evaded two plasma balls, but took one on the bow, causing minor structural damage. A fourth plasma ball hit the main deck and burned out an entire missile pod. G’Bid was still combat effective, but at a reduced level.

    Admiral Minacci was shocked to hear of the loss of the Yellow Jacket and all its crew. He had never lost anyone under his command before. Now he had lost 700. He considered pulling the two remaining carriers back to his location, but the losses they were inflicting seemed to be worth the risk. He signaled the captains to continue, but not to put their ships in danger unnecessarily.
    He pushed the loss of the Yellow Jacket into the back of his mind. He would mourn them later. For now, he had several hundred K’Rang memorials to arrange.

    Connie watched the death of the Yellow Jacket and it all hit her at once. This was real. This wasn’t some simulator back on Antares Base, but real combat where real people died. She pushed her feelings back somewhere deep inside to be pulled out and mourned over later. She had just seen 700 crewmen die. Rather then cry over them, she would have to find out what went wrong so that it didn’t happen to others or to the Vigilant.
    She asked Kelly, “Sir, what did they do wrong?”
    Kelly thought for a moment, then replied, “The K’Rang must have seen their approach, probably that frigate lagging behind the fleet. They were waiting for them to pop out from behind those dwarves. Look how the guns were already swiveled in that direction. The Yellow Jacket went high and had to loop up and over to get back behind cover. If they had gone left, right, or down, they probably would have made it back under cover. The assault landing carriers have thrusters only on the bottom and sides. That loop, and the fact the K’Rang were waiting for them, killed them.”

    Fleet Commander J’Kalt watched the debris of the carrier being slowly sucked into the brown dwarves’ gravity. That would make the humans more cautious and not so cavalier. It was time to recon by fire. He instructed all his ships to open fire with energy weapons on any suspicious location that could be used as a hide spot for Human ships. He also ordered an increase in speed.
    J’Kalt watched how his ships reacted to their new orders. Every dust cloud, brown dwarf, and asteroid was grazed by energy weapons fire. That would keep the Humans’ heads down.
    There was one threat J’Kalt had not experienced, and his lead destroyer was about to run into it. Just around the next bend was a threat with no fear and no head to keep down.

Chapter Seventeen

    The autonomous missile pod had been constructed in the armaments factories on Schirra, otherwise known as Centauri B-7, the Energy World, Inc. planet. The pod and the others like it had been on their way to Algol Station, to be delivered to the Algolian fleet, when the Baratarians captured them. It had originally been programed to activate when Aldebaran ships came into its sensor field, but were easily reprogrammed to react to K’Rang engine signatures. This pod and the other five around it were waiting to accomplish their purpose.
    It was another pod that first detected the engine signatures of multiple K’Rang ships approaching at 0.2 c. That pod sent a burst transmission to the other five, dividing the targets among the six of them. The pods stood behind their cover, unflinching, as energy bursts flew by or were absorbed by what they hid behind. When the ships were almost within minimum range, they rose up as one and let loose their missiles against the most valuable targets.
    Sixty medium missiles launched against the K’Rang fleet. The missiles so close there was very little the K’Rang could do. The missiles were inside the minimum launch range for defensive missiles. All they could do was fire all guns in the incoming missiles’ direction and hope to hit something. The close in defensive guns took out some missiles, but a disproportionate number made it through to their targets. Two missile/gun destroyers were lost in antimatter explosions as bright as a sun. A damaged light cruiser went out in a similar way. Two support ships trying to evade the fire turned into the path of missiles aiming for the destroyers and disappeared in a number of blinding antimatter explosions.
    Fleet Commander J’Kalt looked on his diminishing command and had them increase speed to 0.3 c. He must get through to this base that was reading stronger and stronger on his sensors. If he could reach their base, he could threaten it, causing the humans to have to come to its defense. There he could engage them in open battle and defeat them. He had his two newest defensive frigates reload missiles at their support ship. He pulled out the Shadow destroyer, his Shadow heavy cruiser, the remaining light cruiser and the two reloading frigates to ram through the remaining human defenses at 0.5 c. The remaining fleet would be under the command of the senior destroyer captain. J’Kalt’s heavy force would go to port and the light destroyer-led force would go starboard. The heavy force would push through quickly and assault their base. The light force would continue to feel its way through the defenses. When the Humans pulled back to defend their base, the light force would close with the heavy force, come in behind the Human fleet and destroy it in detail.
    When the frigates were reloaded, J’Kalt gave the order to move out. He wished good luck to Captain H’Rak, the light force commander, and watched on his sensors as they went wide around a brown dwarf, firing the whole time. He ordered his heavy force to make half light speed and for the Shadow destroyer to find them the best route to this base.

    Admiral Minacci watched the two groupings diverge on his tactical plot. As he watched the sensors resolve the ship types, it was obvious the force moving to port was the bigger threat. He revised his attack plans slightly, but both groups were still within the cone reconnoitered by LCDR Blake. He looked for how he could defeat this K’Rang in detail. He looked at the next trap for the group heading left and assigned two A-76 squadrons to cover the minefield they were about to blunder into at half light speed. The other group was heading toward another missile pod obstacle and he assigned two torpedo squadrons and an F-48 squadron against them. He sent a message to the Leviathan to start laying mines closer to Barataria, just in case.

    Kelly watched the destroyer group and thought he saw an opportunity. The group was heading right through the gravity tunnel he’d found before. It had two opposing 90-degree turns and would reduce the task force’s ability for mutual support. He lined up and waited. When all but the support ships entered the bend he launched at FTL Power 1.1. He shot across the intervening space and stopped just aft of the four unguarded support ships. His gunners opened fire as soon as they came to a halt, and took out the engines on all four support ships. He jumped back out to his previous overwatch position as two of the support ships were wracked with explosions. Now the fleet had no reloads or spares. Kelly reported his kills to 3rd ALG operations. The news cheered up the Admiral.
    Kelly had Connie go back to engineering and check on the status of the stabilizers. He knew he was putting a lot of stress on them and didn’t want a failure at a critical time.

    Steven Maynard was inspecting the plans in effect for safeguarding the population and defending them. The senior Marine Brigade Commander and the Bishop-Commander, who was overall in command, escorted him. They first inspected the facilities being built for the evacuated civilian population. The Marines were in charge of this and, at first glance, it was a marvel of efficiency. The citizens were brought in an AS-500 load at a time. They were identified, given an ID/rations tag and assigned to a bunker. Each bunker could hold 500 citizens or up to 2000 in an emergency.
    The heavy Marine brigade’s engineer battalion commander briefed that they could build three bunkers a day, using plasteel forms and metal flaked structural foam. Once they were covered with 4 feet of dirt and hydro seeded with colored shredded straw they blended into the forest and were impervious to sensor probes. The engineer battalions in the other two brigades could build 2 per day each, and the Templar Corps engineer battalion one a day. He stressed that volunteers were joining in and they expected to double those numbers tomorrow, when civilian construction equipment arrived. In the interim, trenches were being dug that would provide cover under the tree canopy for thousands more.
    Maynard did the math quickly in his head and remarked that in only a month they would have shelter for the entire population.
    The battalion commander, a long time dirt digging engineer, asked, “Would you rather we did nothing, sir?”
    Steven realizing his attempt at gallows humor went awry, said, “Certainly not, Colonel, and I meant no insult to you and your men’s efforts. I just hope the K’Rang give us enough time to complete these preparations. On behalf of our government and the population you will save, you have our undying gratitude.”
    Steven moved on, spoke to some former captives and members of the brotherhood. He assured them the K’Rang fleet was being whittled down by the hour and that Barataria had some pretty formidable defenses in the form of the Templar Brigade and the Marine allies. He pointed out that Baratarian forces in conjunction with the Fleet had already destroyed over half the K’Rang fleet.
    He moved on to a clearing with a hover ship waiting, and climbed on board. They moved to the three planetary defense system installations and were briefed on them in turn. He saw the sector each site monitored and the sensor picture provided by the fleet sensor grid. He asked if it might be wise to place the three sites equidistant around the planet. The site commander explained that the K’Rang had no assault landing ships or forces, so they would be concentrating their fire on the civil or defense centers if they reached orbit. The goal was to knock out as many ships as possible before K’Rang destroyed the installations.
    Steven thanked them for defending the planet and boarded the hover ship to take him to his Defense HQ.

    Sally Halstead evacuated early. The Ruin View customer base dried up when all the captains flew off to battle and the senior Brotherhood members deployed to their wartime jobs. She found a scene of relative efficiency as groups of evacuees were brought in 100 at a time and stood in line for inprocessing. She was determined to do no such thing.
    She pointed her nose in the direction of the dining facility and volunteered her services. When they figured out that this short, slightly pear-shaped woman was THE Sally Halstead, they put her immediately to work. In two days, she had increased evacuee and camp personnel morale. She was able to ramp up her production to feed thousands by training and supervising all the military cooks. Items that would never make it into a military recipe guide were served daily. Even though her meals were high quality, they were not high cost or unavailable to those with special dietary needs.
    Sally had a habit of making suggestions to the head engineer colonel whenever he passed through her line. She helped them in making more shelters faster, by suggesting they link them together, rather than making them all free standing. This increased their production by one-third because they built three for every two they constructed. They even got an assembly line going once they had the use of the civilian construction equipment and personnel.
    The best news was when they finally had a top end total on the number of evacuees. The number was less than 90,000. The Brotherhood members preferred to self evacuate to lodges or vacation homes they had scattered throughout the outlying areas. This left only the former captives to be sheltered.
    Sally suggested they could fit more into each bunker if they used stacked bunk beds. When the Colonel said they didn’t happen to have 45,000 bunk beds, she suggested they build them. Barataria had portable sawmills and the Marines were cutting down trees. There was all this unemployed labor sitting around. The Colonel saw there was no evading her or faulting her logic. He put a captain on it to get it started and turned it over to the evacuees. Trees were dragged into place and fed through the portable saw mills, cut to length, drilled for bolt holes and rope holes, assembled, roped to hold up the mattress and moved into place. Another line assembled the mattresses. Pretty soon almost all 100 shelters had bunk beds and 90,000 former captives had safe, clean shelters. Overhead reconnaissance showed they were even fairly well blended into the forest. The engineers switched from shelters to living conditions and started building sanitation facilities to replace the more primitive early facilities. Hot and cold running water and showers replaced buckets and soapy rags.

    The heavy K’Rang task force was pressing hard to find the path to Barataria. At half FTL speed, they blew through autonomous minefields designed for vessels traveling at much slower speeds. Even the F-48s had trouble getting into firing positions on them. Two Undefeated class cutters managed to take out a fighter defense frigate that got too far out on the flank of the formation, but the ships kept leaking through. Finally the two A-76 squadrons got in front of the formation and let loose all 288 missiles. That slowed down the task force as the Shadow Force destroyer’s defensive capability was overloaded and it ran out of defensive missiles before the A-76’s ran out of offensive missiles. The formation lost all cohesion as the following ships swerved in all directions to avoid the burning hulk of the destroyer, suddenly slowing to a stop from the multiple missile strikes. They quickly reformed though and pressed on.
    Fleet Commander J’Kalt still had the sensors of the Shadow Force heavy cruiser. He pushed his small force to move ever forward to the source of the electronic signature of a Human world that was growing stronger as they moved forward.

    Admiral Minacci had an idea. He had standard dumb mines in his supply ship. These were proximity mines and didn’t care what speed you were going. They just stood in your way and blew up when you hit them. He called Captain Chang and gave him some interesting orders. In two hours, he had accomplished his mission.

    The light task force was moving slower, but having the same bad luck. The mines were causing them problems, but they had some luck blasting through them. The torpedoes were more of a problem. Their defensive missiles were running out, but the torpedo ships kept coming. The two fighter defense frigates had only enough missiles for one more salvo of torpedoes. After that, they had only guns to ward off the torpedoes. Captain H’Rak pushed forward as best he could.
    At the next junction in the gravity maze, he saw something new. A different type of mine he’d not seen before was arrayed in large numbers across their path. H’Rak knew it was a trap, but had yet to decide how to proceed when the remaining gun frigate called, frantically saying that a torpedo squadron just appeared behind them and was advancing rapidly. H’Rak turned the task force to the right down the clear path. H’Rak knew he was being herded, but had no other option.

    J’Kalt saw a similar sight in his path. Large mines, as yet unseen in this battle, appeared in their path, closing off the path going straight ahead. A-76’s appeared behind them and unleashed 144 missiles. J’Kalt increased speed and took the path to the left. The fighter defense frigate took down all the missiles with guns and defensive missiles, but he was now down to one half of one missile pod, not enough for another massed attack. J’Kalt did not have long to wait.
    A squadron of the torpedo ships appeared on his port quarter. He had seen this attack profile before and turned his guns to face the threat. The torpedo ships flew into max range for their torpedoes, fired off a salvo, and turned away before they came into missile range. He looked over the sensor operator’s shoulder and saw the torpedo ships release their torpedoes, the same as every other time. The only anomaly was that there were fewer torpedoes this time. They must be running low. Good!

    Squadron Commander Leon George led his four Scylla straight at the heavy cruiser. They flew in and amongst the 48 torpedoes launched by the eight Charybdis. The defensive fire from the K’Rang ships had not started yet. They must be running low on missiles.
    As they approached, the cruiser opened fire. Plasma bursts and particle beams reached out and attempted to hit the torpedoes. Every third shot, it seemed, hit one of the torpedoes and set them off. Leon calmed his three other pilots and had them fall back slightly. He saw defensive missiles leave the pods on the defensive frigate. As the missiles homed in on the torpedoes ahead of them, Leon called out, “Let’s go,” and pushed his throttle to the stop. The four Scylla formed up into two-ship formations as they dropped down below the cloud of remaining torpedoes, and surged forward toward the heavy cruiser. The defensive missiles flew over them after the torpedoes. They were now in between the defensive missiles and the cruiser. All he had to do was to survive for half the remaining distance to the cruiser.
    Leon’s sensors saw guns on the cruiser start to move to point in his direction. He called to his flight to go evasive. The four ships executed a complicated set of dives, climbs, and rolls, complicating the gun director’s job to the point of impossibility. Unable to fire directly on the torpedo ships, the K’Rang switched to area bombardment. This was only slightly more effective.
    Almost to the release point, Leon gave a five second countdown and ordered his ships to fire, after which they were released to get back to base as best they could. Sixteen torpedoes streaked toward the cruiser. These were souped-up torpedoes, faster than normal torpedoes by a factor of four. The torpedo ships broke in all directions and increased speed to clear the area before the K’Rang got their range. Leon looped back to the way he had come, to watch the effect of the torpedoes.
    The torpedoes sped toward the cruiser. The cruiser’s close in defense system took out eight, but the other four sped on. Two torpedoes hit the heavy cruiser behind the bridge and took out the rear facing guns and rear missile bay. Two torpedoes went high and missed the heavy cruiser, but hit the light cruiser just below the bridge and in the bow. The light cruiser split into several pieces and tumbled through space. The remaining three torpedoes from the initial salvo plowed into the burning hulk of the light cruiser.

    J’Kalt picked himself up off the deck. He took over the nearest sensor monitor and scanned for any further attacks. He saw only the retreating torpedo ships. So, the Humans still have tricks to play. So did he.
    J’Kalt called the captain to get a damage report. The aft gun turret was destroyed, as was the aft missile pod. There were no missiles, so that was no loss. Ten crewmen in the aft turret control center lost their lives in the explosion. Considering it could have been worse, those were acceptable losses.
    Now J’Kalt had to determine what trap the Humans were up to, directing their path as they were. He knew it would not be in their best interests, and he needed to figure it out sooner rather than later.

    Captain Alden had some difficulty reforming his fleet. Many of the captains felt their mission was over when Fleet rescued Mrs. Debran. He reminded them they hadn’t yet been paid and they still were under contract to Mr. Debran. 26 ships rendezvoused with him at the entrance to the star cluster and followed him in. He thought to himself, “How could they be finished when their four operatives were still on the surface?”
    They approached Barataria carefully and called for planet clearance long before they came into defense system range. At first the Baratarian controller told them to go away, they had entered a war zone. Alden told them he had 26 warships and four fighters to add to their defense, courtesy of Mr. Friedrich Debran, and their tone changed dramatically.
    Maynard himself came on the circuit and granted them permission to enter planet orbit and did they need to land. Captain Alden said they did as some of their ships lacked true living quarters. Maynard turned them back over to the controller and thanked them for their timely appearance. The controller guided them into Lafitte City’s spaceport where four operatives, alerted by coded transmission, awaited a ride off planet.
    As the controller gave them landing instructions, Maynard was in communication with Admiral Minacci, giving him the good news. Minacci was pleased and asked Maynard to have this Captain Alden give him his capabilities and ordnance requirements as soon as possible. Minacci reflected that he now had a reserve force at just the right moment. He sent out a general recall message to all forces, but the Vigilant, to form up at Barataria and prepare for their final defense of the planet. The Vigilant was to maintain contact with the two K’Rang task forces.

    Fleet Commander J’Kalt, speeding forward down the gravity tunnel, came to the realization that the sensors on his flagship were more sensitive than those on the two Shadow Force destroyers had been. He could see branches off the tunnel that must have been invisible to the destroyers. When he compared their sensor record to his, the cruiser’s sensors were more than two times more sensitive. He could see multiple paths out to what must be the main passage. He was about to turn that to his advantage. First, he had to have Captain H’Rak’s force to join with his.
    After an hour, the light task force came in range of the heavy cruiser’s sensors. J’Kalt had them guided in to rejoin his formation. They adopted an all-around defensive posture. J’Kalt took stock of their logistics needs and cross-leveled ammunition through the remaining fleet.
    When he took stock of his situation at the end of resupply, he saw that he had enough defensive missiles for three Human heavy salvoes. It would have to be enough. His cruiser and the remaining destroyers had enough heavy missiles to do some major damage to the Human fleet, whatever its consist. If it was the assault landing fleet the spies had reported on, he had more than enough. He discounted the dispersed minor combatants as not much of a concern, feeling he could deal with them if they appeared.
    He realized they had been at battle stations for 36 hours. He noticed his captains were slurring their words and slow to respond. He held his fleet in defensive posture long enough to rest his crews and get some hot food into them. No need to stumble into battle with a fuzzy head. The final battle would wait for some rest.

    Kelly reported the extended halt of the K’Rang fleet and suggested to the Admiral that they probably needed some rest. Over 36 hours of combat would reduce any crew’s combat effectiveness. He had been changing watches on the Vigilant as they moved from overwatch position to overwatch position, shadowing the K’Rang fleet. It was relatively low risk and kept his crew fresh. Kelly assumed most captains had done the same.
    Kelly retired from the bridge to his ready room and called up the gravimetric plot for this sector. Kelly assessed the K’Rang commander stopped here for a reason. He always assumed he might have missed something and now he resolved to find out what it might be. He examined the sensor data and could see little to suggest the K’Rang’s intentions until he turned up the gain on his gravimetric analyzer. Five as yet undiscovered gravity tunnels appeared around the space the K’Rang fleet occupied, like spokes on a wheel.
    Kelly had made a mistake. Immediately behind the K’Rang fleet was a tunnel leading directly into the main passage to Barataria and thence the exit into GR space. Kelly got on the communicator to the Admiral to inform him.
    Admiral Minacci was concerned, but not alarmed. He knew he was taking a chance when he had asked the Vigilant to do a quick survey. The Vigilant had light years of space to survey in a very short time. Of course they were going to miss some detail. Minacci had the Leviathan laying mines in preparation for the defense of Barataria. He added higher priority to some additional fields in their tasking and was done with it.
    He thought a bit about the Vigilant’s young captain. He was impressed with him. He had yet to not accomplish a mission. His actions against the K’Rang scouts probably saved the 3rd ALG’s bacon. If the combat power in this K’Rang fleet had come in with knowledge of the gravity tunnels and of Barataria, he’d be the one stopped and licking his wounds with only half his force, or worse. He would have to see what he could do for LCDR Blake, if they all survived this.
    Now, it wouldn’t do to let the K’Rang get too rested. As soon as the mines were laid, impeding the shortest gravity tunnel to the main passage, he sent in some sortie orders for the fighters, attack ships, and torpedo ships. There was no use in letting the K’Rang get too much shuteye.

    Sally had finished the evening meal and sat down with Russell to eat. The two of them ate quietly, absorbed in their own thoughts. A palpable fear had settle over the camp. Rumors had been flying through the encampment all day. The K’Rang were in orbit! Fleet reinforcements had arrived! The K’Rang had landed and were advancing on the camp!
    That last one by a screaming hysterical woman in the dinner line caused Sally to leave the kitchen and slap the nonsense out of her. It brought her to her senses, and Sally wound up holding her in her arms while the woman had a good cry.
    Russell got up from his seat and came over to her side. She had been wool gathering, thinking about that hysterical woman, and didn’t realize he had moved. She looked over, saw him and jumped sideways.
    “Russell, shuffle your feet when you move around like that. You almost scared me out of a year of my life.”
    Russell didn’t say a word. He just knelt down beside her and took her hand. Sally realized what was about to happen and her eyes got all misty.
    With only a little quaver in his voice, Russell held up a ring, and said, “Sally Halstead, would you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”
    People all around them noticed what was going on and a hush came over the dining hall. People looked on as if they were all holding their breath.
    Sally burst into full-on tears, grabbed Russell about the neck and shouted, “Yes!” The dining hall erupted into cheers and applause. People lined up to shake their hands, hug, and congratulate them. The pent up fear and frustration evaporated as people had something positive to focus on.
    When the felicitations died down, Sally asked, “Where did you get this ring, it’s beautiful?”
    “One-Eyed Pete gave it to me as a going away present. He said our relationship was the most poorly kept secret he’d ever known.”
    Sally looked up into Russell’s eyes. “I don’t want to leave. I want to stay here and continue to work at the Ruin View. It’s still the best restaurant on the planet and how many chefs can put that on their resume? I’m sure Pete really doesn’t want us to leave. What say we negotiate a better deal with him and stay on here? I bet this planet will be booming now that it’s out in the open. I heard they’ve negotiated a land agency deal to bring in settlers. Of course, those pesky K’Rang will have to be dealt with first.”
    “Sounds good to me. If we could be happy as captives, we should be able to be happy as free members of the Brotherhood.”

    Fleet Commander J’Kalt calculated that he had only enough defensive missiles for one more attack and he would have expended all his defensive missiles. The Human fighters, attack craft, and torpedo ships had harassed them for the last four hours. His missiles had saved all but one destroyer that took two torpedoes forward of the bridge, and the resulting ammunition magazine explosion broke the ship apart. His crews were getting more tired and he saw simple mistakes being made that could be disastrous in the wrong situation.
    As the Humans were not going to let them rest, he ordered his fleet to move toward the Human base that his sensors indicated was nearby. He avoided the shortest path to the adjacent wide pathway, fearing it to be mined, and chose the next closest. His fleet formed up and closed up to transit the narrow gravity tunnel. When they emerged into the larger passage they spread out, making themselves less vulnerable to fighter attacks.
    J’Kalt had his first long range sensor view of the Human base. It was a planet. J’Kalt was amazed that Humans, or any species could exist in this star cluster. It was a medium-sized world with a single moon. J’Kalt wondered if he had sufficient force to expel the Humans and claim this world for the K’Rang. That would put some profit to this expensive expedition. J’Kalt put his efforts to defeating the Human fleet, and saved his dreams of conquest for later.

Chapter Eighteen

    Admiral Minacci viewed the entirety of the K’Rang fleet arrayed in the free space before Barataria. Now the advantage shifted to the K’Rang. He had one more trap to spring, then the battle would devolve into a slugfest, one he was ill suited to win.
    The massed fighters, attack craft, and torpedo ships flew at the K’Rang left flank. They launched 48 medium missiles from the F-48s first and peeled off to return to the carrier. The remainder flew on, using the missiles as a shield. The A-76s were next to launch 144 medium missiles and peeled off. The Charybdis launched 120 torpedoes and pulled off to return to base. This left 40 Scyllas to hide in and behind the missile and torpedo cloud boring in on the K’Rang fleet.
    The K’Rang defensive missiles launched, in response to the inbound missiles. It was obvious to Admiral Minacci that there weren’t going to be enough K’Rang defensive missiles. The Scyllas fired off their 48 fast torpedoes and retired back to their base. Minacci watched as intensive fire erupted from the K’Rang fleet.
    The defensive missiles reduced the cloud of approaching missiles, but only by a third. None of the fast torpedoes were hit and they bore into the midst of the K’Rang fleet. The remaining gun frigate and two destroyers took direct hits. The large antimatter warheads broke the ships’ backs and sent them spinning through the formation.
    The remaining missiles and torpedoes caused assorted damage, but none that would disable or destroy a ship. Most of the damage appeared to knock out several of the gun mounts on the remaining K’Rang destroyers. The heavy cruiser was left with only one turret operational.
    Admiral Minacci ordered in what he hoped would be the killing stroke. His two plasma frigates, the two assault landing carriers, and his flagship popped out from behind Barataria and fired all their anti-ship missiles at the K’Rang heavy cruiser. They opened up with their plasma cannons at the remainder of the fleet, concentrating all their fire on one ship at a time. If it was to be a slugfest, it would be at his instigation.
    The first group of anti-ship missiles slammed into the K’Rang cruiser and destroyed its remaining turret, and one of the frigate’s rear turret and missile pod. The cruiser was now weaponless. The plasma barrage aimed at one of the destroyers burned holes through the ship and destroyed its hull integrity. Life giving atmosphere rushed out into space in an expanding fog.
    The defanged cruiser and four fighter defense frigates were all that was left of the mighty K’Rang fleet. Admiral Minacci pressed his advantage. He ordered Captain Alden to attack the K’Rang left flank. Alden’s 27 ships swarmed out from behind Barataria’s artificial moon and bore in on the K’Rang left flank. Captain Alden intended for them to earn their pay. He had all ships film the encounter with their gun cameras for Mr. Debran’s enjoyment.
    The K’Rang frigates put up as effective a defensive fire as they could. As a last desperate measure, the K’Rang frigates fired all their offensive missiles. Sixty-four offensive missiles sped toward the admiral’s flagship.

    The K’Rang frigates formed a wall before their flagship cruiser and switched to area fire. One Hooligan missile boat unluckily ran into a super heated plasma bubble and dissolved into a mass of molten metal. The rest of the missile boats raced on. As they came within missile range, Alden ordered them to salvo fire. The Hooligan missiles, programmed to take out the frigates, bore in through the defensive fire and the 35 surviving missiles slammed into the four K’Rang frigates. The antimatter warheads exploded against the frigates like miniature suns, totally consuming the ships. The K’Rang offensive missiles continued on toward the Human carrier and flew into a cloud of defensive missiles. One missile, thrown off course by a near explosion, tumbled past the defensive missiles, righted itself, and flew into the superstructure of one of the Human bombardment frigates. The burning Human frigate quickly became a total loss and escape pods started ejecting from the crippled ship.

    The K’Rang heavy cruiser stood alone and defenseless in the glaring light of the Baratarian star. Fleet Commander J’Kalt looked at his situation calmly. He had no guns but his close in defensive guns, and they would only protect him from a small fraction of any inbound missiles. He and his ship were doomed; nothing could save them now. J’Kalt decided to make one last desperate attempt to save K’Rang honor. He turned his ship in the direction of the Human carrier and ordered best possible speed. Even though his FTL engines were damaged in the missile strike that took out his rear turret control center, he could make nearly 0.4 c. He aimed his ship and left his fate to fortune.

    Captain Alden ordered all ships to close on the K’Rang heavy cruiser and open fire as they came in range. The four fighters fired two medium missiles each and pulled away. The close in defensive weapons took out one missile, but the others bore in and turned the damaged cruiser into a boiling mass of atmosphere-fueled flame. The atmosphere was consumed in seconds and the flame died out. The smashed hull of the cruiser glowed red in the space above Barataria. Captain Alden and his entire Hooligan fleet did a victory roll.

    Admiral Minacci didn’t rejoice for long. His cruiser squadron reinforcements were still four days away. If more K’Rang showed up, he was running out of ordnance. He still had a large supply of mines. He decided to move his force closer to the K’Rang space and lay a minefield in depth across the entrance from K’Rang space. He took his force to a position beyond which K’Rang sensors could penetrate and provided security for the Leviathan. The Vigilant moved to the edge of K’Rang space and scanned for any enemy combatants. Except for some planetary defense ships near the two main worlds, the scan was empty. The Leviathan, with its stealth coating, was able to move right up to edge of the star cluster and start laying a layer cake of mines.
    The first layer were the Fleet’s dumb mines so the K’Rang would have no doubt who put down the unwelcome mat. The second layer was autonomous mines. The third were missile pods covering the first two layers. Next came a repeat of the first three layers and then a further repeat of the three layers. Minacci intended to make sure the bottle was plugged. He had the Vigilant seed the minefield with the remaining sensor pods. Once Minacci was sure the border was secure, he pulled his fleet back to Barataria.

    When the news of the K’Rang defeat hit the evacuee camp, there was a great celebration. After the impromptu and raucous party came the decisions by the released captives whether to stay or go. A surprisingly large number decided to stay. People lacking family roots, which was not uncommon among spacers, decided to stay. Those with family ties or ongoing business interests decided to go. Those that left were provided with a moderate credit balance to get them back home. Transport ships, including the newly liberated Nebula Queen, were chartered to deliver them to Rigel Station. Irina Bugarov and Terri were first to book passage and got their old cabins back, with their belongings still inside.
    The large number that stayed were offered membership in the Brotherhood. All accepted and took the new modified oath. The Brotherhood swelled by just under 50,000.
    A ceremony was scheduled to honor the fallen and celebrate the victory over the K’Rang. The events were to take place over two days. The first day would be dedicated to honoring the GRS Yellow Jacket’s crew, the Frigate Jacob B. Grandis’ crew, the missile boat’s crew and the Baratarian defenders lost to the K’Rang. The second day would be to celebrate the victory. The second day would start with a ceremony honoring Admiral Minacci, Captain Alden, LCDR Blake, the Undefeated cutters, and the brave Torpedo Squadrons. The rest of the day would be a series of smaller events throughout Lafitte City. One of those events would be the marriage of Russell Obwobwo and Sally Halstead. Steven Maynard would preside. One-eyed Pete would give away the bride, and Alistair Bennett was asked to stand in as best man. Admiral Minacci was requested to come as an honored guest.

    The K’Rang reinforcement task force arrived opposite the entrance to the star cluster on the day of the memorial. They found a multi-level minefield blocking off the way forward into the star cluster. They were able to see the depth and complexity of the minefield and concluded that it would be too costly to penetrate. The Humans also could quickly have forces in place to block any attempts. They spent a few days exploring, looking for another way into the star cluster, and determined the gravity hazards were too great to risk their ships.
    After conferring with K’Rang Fleet HQ and receiving concurrence from the Elders, they established their own combined mine and sensor barrier layered opposite the exit. The D’Rin star cluster was no longer a backwater.

    The military-only memorial ceremony for the defenders of Barataria was a somber affair. The Bishop-Commander led the invocation and prayers for the souls of the lost. Kelly saw quite a few wet eyes on and around the raised dais of one of the Ascetic battalion chapels that had been set aside for the memorial. To tell the truth, his eyes felt a little steamy when he thought about CDR Milton and his warrior spirit that led him to put his ship in harm’s way, when he could have remained safely in the rear.
    Later, Kelly helped the admiral place a wreath at the future site of the Defenders Memorial by the parade ground. The large civilian presence around what was a hastily constructed marble pad was heartwarming. The audience was equally composed of Old Brotherhood and former captives, all grateful to those who died ensuring their safety and freedom. After the ceremony, the admiral called Kelly aside.
    “Kelly, are you aware that Fleet has been studying whether to assign scout ships to groups, task forces, and fleets during operations? On the basis of your service to the 3rd Assault Landing Group, I am forwarding my recommendation to Fleet HQ that this be made a routine assignment for scout ships. I would be happy to have your ship under my command at any time.”
    “It is my considered opinion that the K’Rang fleet would now be threatening Rigel and Aldebaran, if not for the excellent reconnaissance work carried out by you and your crew. You are to be personally commended, as well as your crew. I will see to it that your ship is awarded another campaign star and a special engagement star for your destruction of the two K’Rang scout ships. I will also forward award recommendations for you and any of your crew you deem worthy. Get the recommendations to my flag secretary before you’re chopped back to Scout Force control and leave sector.”
    Kelly said, “I appreciate your sentiments, sir. You’re an easy admiral to work for. I hope we work together again some day.”
    The two clasped hands, then departed to their next event, the wedding.

    Sally’s wedding was to be held at the Ruin View. One-Eyed Pete would allow nothing else. He had flowers from all over the planet brought in to decorate the place. Sally insisted that only she would work in her kitchen, but Pete and Russell shouted her down. They were not going to let her work on her wedding day. They borrowed the best military cooks that she had trained in her style of cooking, and had them cater the meals.
    Sally was dressed in a traditional white satin wedding gown, not seen much these days. It covered her from her shoulders to the floor. It had a simple white beaded headband that held up her veil. The gown had belonged to one of her Brotherhood customer’s wife and had cheerfully been given to Sally to do with as she wished. An afternoon at the tailor assured a perfect fit. She looked positively slender in it.
    Russell was dressed in formal wear suitable for a GR ambassador. In fact, it had once belonged to one, before an Undefeated class cutter liberated it. All the preparations were complete. One-Eyed Pete stood at the front of the restaurant ready to give away the bride. Russell and Alistair stood at the back of the restaurant with the Steven Maynard. Six military cooks watched carefully over the ovens, pots, and pans, with plates lined up on the prep table.
    Kelly sat on the bride’s side in the second row, in his dress uniform. Mary Chen sat on his left and Connie Cortez on his right. Admiral Minacci sat in the first row with his executive officer, CDR Digg. The restaurant was packed. Not a seat was empty and people were standing outside looking in the windows. This was a big event for Barataria.
    The wedding march started and everyone stood and faced to the rear. As One-Eyed Pete and Sally marched up the aisle, Connie and Mary started sniffling. Kelly, prepared, pulled out two handkerchiefs and passed them over. Kelly had to admit that plain old Sally looked beautiful. Her face beamed with a too infrequent smile. She stood up straight and not her usual slump. Love looked good on her.
    She and Pete reached the end of the aisle. He raised her veil and gave her a polite peck on the cheek then handed her over to Russell. Maynard started the wedding with a brief welcome to all the guests and an explanation of why all were here. He then proceeded to the vows and exchange of rings. Women all over the restaurant were sobbing quietly, including Kelly’s ladies. Before he knew it, it was time for Russell to kiss his new bride, which elicited a round of cheers and applause from the assembled dignitaries.
    The reception followed immediately. The guests were hustled into the bar for wine and cocktails, while the caterers cleared the chairs and set up the restaurant for the meal. Kelly mingled with the assorted guest and dignitaries. Steven Maynard came over and brought him a fresh drink.
    “LCDR Blake, I want to thank you for all you did for Barataria. Admiral Minacci tells me that without your support he might have lost to the K’Rang. Let me assure you that we appreciate what you and your crew have done or us. Also rest assured that there will be no repercussions for your unfortunate engagement with Torpedo Squadron Six. We were pirates then and we took a pirate’s chances. We bear you no ill will.”
    “Thank you, Mr. Maynard.”
    “Please, call me Steven.”
    “Okay, Steven, call me Kelly. I appreciate this gesture. I wish there had been a way that I could have accomplished my mission without the loss of your squadron. As a fighter pilot myself, I can assure you that I’ve never faced finer or braver opponents. You can be proud of Torpedo Squadron Six.”
    “Thank you, Kelly. Excuse me, I see my assistant waving me over.”
    It was time for the dinner. The bridal party led the multitude into the dining room. Place cards showed everyone where to sit. Kelly wound up at Admiral Minacci’s table with his ladies on either side. Alistair was at the head table next to Russell. Connie blew a kiss in his direction.
    The meal was excellent. Even Sally was pleased. The toasts were long and witty; the wine flowed freely.
    After a while, One-Eyed Pete stood up. “Ladies and gentlemen, I have a gift for the bride and groom, if they will accept it.”
    He pulled out a pocket terminal and turned it on.
    “This is a legal document I’ve had drawn up. It deeds Sally and Russell a full partnership in the Ruin View Restaurant, if they will agree to stay here on Barataria and help me run it.”
    Sally stood up and pulled Pete’s face down to kiss him. Tears streamed down her face. She choked up and couldn’t speak, so Russell spoke for her.
    “Pete, this is an unexpected pleasure. This is what we were hoping, but felt we couldn’t ask for. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”
    Pete disentangled himself from Sally, who clung to his neck weeping with joy, and had them thumb the document. He held it up after to a round of applause and cheers.
    After the dishes were cleared, the bride and groom circulated around the room, thanking all their guests for coming. When she finally came to the Admiral’s table, she told him and Kelly she’d better never hear either was in the sector without coming by for a meal. There would always be a table waiting.
    They made their way around the table and One-Eyed Pete was there to hustle them along to change for their get-away.
    The bride and groom changed into street clothes and the guests lined the entrance to wish them well. Rice flew as they ran to a waiting hover limo and it sped off into the night. Folks found out later that Pete had lent them his cabin by a lake for their honeymoon.
    A long line for the taxis had Kelly, Mary, Connie, and Alistair waiting, until Kelly felt a tap on his shoulder. It was CDR Digg, motioning him to come with him. The four of them followed him around the corner to a large ground car. Admiral Minacci waved them all in, and they rode to the spaceport.
    Mary rode up to the Golden Eagle in the Admiral’s gig. Her company would be embarked on the Golden Eagle until the 3rd ALG reached Gagarin. The remainder of the Marine Brigade from the Yellow Jacket would be split between the Assault Landing Carriers Wasp and Bee. Temporary berths were set up in the AS-500s to house the Marines. The Yellow Jacket’s dozen AS-500s would be parked at the Baratarian Main Spaceport until a carrier could be dispatched to pick them up. The pilots, copilots, and a small Marine detachment became honored guests of Barataria, as they remained behind to guard the craft.
    Kelly, Connie, and Alistair spent a sober night on the Vigilant. A large part of the crew was out on the town.
    The Vigilant lifted off the next morning, bright and early, with the crew only a little hung over. When they hit orbit, Admiral Minacci contacted Kelly to tell him he had been released back to Scout Force control and, again, how much he appreciated having him around. He hoped they could work together again some time. Kelly expressed similar sentiments. The Admiral signed off and Kelly heard a knock on his door. It was Yeoman Benitez, with a dispatch from Scout Force ordering him back to Antares Base. Kelly ordered Connie to set course for Alistair’s ship to drop him off first.
    They docked with Alistair’s ship and transferred his gear over. Kelly watched as Alistair pulled Rojo out of the stasis chamber. He lifted him out of the carrier and placed him on the warm spot next to the command console. In but a few minutes, Rojo was up and purring, rubbing up against Kelly’s leg. Kelly had an idea and excused himself, leaving Connie and Alistair alone. He came back a discreet time later, making sure to make noise as he approached the control room.
    “I understand Rojo likes sailor fish fillets. If that’s still the case, here’s a package of them for him.”
    Alistair was astonished.
    “You have sailor fish fillets in your galley stores?”
    Kelly replied, “No, but a replicator is a wonderfully handy thing to have.”
    They all three laughed.
    Kelly told Connie that he had some things to take care of on the Vigilant before they left, so she could stay here to say farewell for a while. Kelly went back to his cabin, called in Yeoman Benitez, and finalized his award recommendations to transmit to Admiral Minacci’s Flag Secretary before they left the sector. He approved the list and had Benitez transmit it to Admiral Minacci’s staff.
    Kelly piddled for a bit longer then called over to Alistair’s ship and asked if he could have his XO back. Alistair responded that he would send her over presently and asked to meet Kelly at the airlock.
    Kelly walked to the airlock and called for Alistair. Alistair and Connie approached. Connie excused herself and went on into the Vigilant.
    Alistair said, “I want to thank you, Kelly, for helping me to accomplish my mission. I wouldn’t have been able to without your help. I also want to thank you also for the chance to be shot at and missed. It was most exhilarating, but I think I’ll give it a miss in the future.”
    Kelly thanked him for his valuable insight and hoped they could work together again some time. Kelly and Alistair shook hands and both captains cycled their airlocks closed.
    Kelly returned to the bridge, confirmed readiness to undock, and separated the two ships. As Alistair’s ship pulled away, Kelly gave orders to set course for home at FTL power 4. Kelly took it easy on the crew on the return voyage. He only ordered three drills.

    Alistair received a message containing his new orders. He and his cat were ordered to take a month off. He was pulled off mission status until the month was over. He was authorized to take his ship with him and use it during his leave. Working during these four weeks would be grounds for dismissal.
    Alistair talked to Rojo, “I assume from the tone of the order that they are serious this time. Now all we have to do is figure where we can go for the next four weeks and not work. Rojo, I hear Armstrong is supposed to be nice this time of year. I hear Armstrong is supposed to be nice anytime of year. Now who do I know on Armstrong? You know, if I’m not mistaken, Connie Cortez is on Armstrong.”
    Rojo wasn’t listening; he was too busy batting a fuzzy ball about the command console.
    He continued, “Rojo, I vote for Armstrong. What do you say?”
    Rojo let out a Merow!
    “I take this as an affirmative response, boy. Did I tell you they have wing fish on Antares? I hear they taste very much like sailor fish fillets.”
    Rojo jumped down off the command console and started doing figure eights around Alistair’s legs.
    “Oh, so that sounds good to you, does it, boy? Armstrong it is, then. I wonder if Connie can get some time off?”

    The Vigilant was cleared for a standard approach into Antares Base. Kelly had expected to be directed into Antares Station first. He guessed the Admiral must be planet-side today. The Vigilant was directed to a parking space and the helm sat her down smoothly, without a bump.
    As the Vigilant was hooked up to water, power, and sewage, Kelly received a message to report to Admiral Craddock’s office. Kelly grabbed his logs and found the nearest shuttle to take him to Scout Force HQ. He was shown immediately into Admiral Craddock’s office. CDR Timmons was there.
    Admiral Craddock came around his desk and shook Kelly’s hand.
    “I just got a long message from Admiral Minacci about you. He was very impressed with your performance in support of his operations. He’s recommended the Vigilant for another campaign star and an Engagement Star for your combat with the two K’Rang scout ships. He assured me you’d get them both. Edgar, if this is going to become a regular occurrence I’ll have to see about putting out a policy on it.”
    “Minacci’s recommending that all task forces, fleets, and groups deploy with a Scout Ship in support. I think we can support this with our current strength and I am going to agree with his recommendation. We might need to add some ships to be able to accompany all groups, fleets, and task forces, but we can definitely support those heading into combat situations.”
    “Good work on this mission. I saw your report on the K’Rang scout encounter. We had your back if Paulo hadn’t been as appreciative as he turned out to be. That was a gutsy move. If the K’Rang had been smart enough to see what you were doing, you‘d have been in a tight spot. How did you know the pirates would surrender so quickly?”
    “Sir, I didn’t, but thought the presence of the K’Rang might have a positive effect on the Baratarians’ attitude once the 3rd ALG showed up.”
    “Well, good work, Kelly. Fleet Intel wants to conduct a series of debriefings with you and your crew on the K’Rang, the pirates and these Hooligans you mentioned, but you’ll have a few days to give your crew some time off. I’m taking the Vigilant off patrol status for the next 30 days. I need to give the other captains a chance at glory. The yard will want a few days to check out your ship. Plan on being here for a month, then we’ll talk about your next mission. Give your people some leave. Take some yourself.”
    The Admiral went back and sat behind his desk. CDR Timmons got up from the admiral’s couch and led Kelly out of the office.
    CDR Timmons grinned and said, “Kelly, it’s good to see you’re keeping up the tradition of the Vigilant being a one ship fleet.”
    They both laughed as they walked to the 21st Scout Squadron HQ offices. Timmons escorted Kelly into his office and offered him some coffee. Kelly fixed a cup and sat down in one of the chairs in front of CDR Timmons’ desk.
    CDR Timmons sat down and said, ”Damn good job, Kelly. I can’t believe how effusive Minacci was in his praise for you. Even discounting that he’s politicking for Scout Force to send a scout ship with him next time he goes out, he put in some pretty strong words. You’ll get a fairly high award out of him, I imagine.”
    “I was just doing my job, sir. Just like you taught me.”
    Timmons smiled at that. Kelly did, too.
    “I never taught you to take on a whole planet and win. You did that on your own.”
    “R amp;R directorate wants to interview you about the increased speed algorithm. It seems the Valiant had some problems with theirs. It sent them corkscrewing through space. It was a hairy ride for a few seconds until they emergency braked. They almost lost their stabilization.”
    “I only used the extra speed a few times on this patrol. FTL power five was as fast as we normally got.”
    “Well, they want to talk to you and Chief Miller, anyway. I’ll set it up.”
    CDR Timmons looked at Kelly with a smile on his face and said, “I have some news of a personal nature to share. Janey is getting out. It seems General Bugarov left a time bomb in her records and she won’t be promoted to Major. So, in the spring after she’s released, we’re going to get married. I’d appreciate it if you’d stand up with me as my best man.”
    Kelly beamed, “Congratulations, sir, and I’d be honored to be your best man.”
    “Keep this to yourself for now. She hasn’t told her family yet. I just proposed to her this week.”
    “I’m happy for you both.”
    Kelly turned somber. “Bugarov, it’s a shame she was so vindictive and destructive. She cost Fighter Force a lot of good officers. You’d think, now that she’s gone, personnel would consider some of the records for review and correction. I mean, there’s what, ten officers here alone that she discarded and I’m just one of them?”
    “Yeah, she was a real piece of work.”

    The yard crew came on board the Vigilant and ran a series of diagnostics on the engines, sensors, shields, and weapons. They pronounced her in fine shape. The only damage they found was some minor stealth coating damage to the nose. They scheduled the Vigilant for two days hence to be put into drydock 7 for the paintwork. Kelly’s debriefing took place while the yard crew was doing its diagnostics.
    Kelly’s debrief went quickly due to his detailed logs and reports. They had only minor questions about Captain Alden and his fleet’s consist. A few questions about Steven Maynard were short circuited when Kelly pointed out the detailed biographical report in the file that they had missed. In less than two hours, he had answered all their questions and was released to go.
    CDR Johnson called Kelly into his office after the debriefers were finished.
    “Come in, Kelly. Sit down. I have something I’d like to discuss with you.”
    Kelly was offered coffee, which he accepted, and he sat down.
    “I’d like to talk to you about your next assignment after you give up command. The normal career progression for a Scout Force officer is an assignment with Fleet Intelligence between ships. You’ve really impressed us. We’d like you to start thinking about what you’d like to do next. With your record, you can pick your next assignment. We think we can offer you a more rewarding job than shuffling paper in some headquarters. You have a long time to make up your mind, but think about what you want to do next and include us in your deliberations.”
    Kelly, sensing the office call was over, put his coffee down and stood up to leave. CDR Johnson personally escorted him out of the building, making small talk on the way out. All the way back to the Vigilant, he thought to himself that that was the worst sales pitch he’d ever heard.

    When Kelly returned to the Vigilant, there were two messages from Candy in his queue. The first was a voice message, “Hey, Kelly, Dad tells me you’re back in town for a while. Do you have time to come over to my place? You know you can stay as long as you like. Tammy has a few days off and she is staying with me. We’d love to have you over even, if it’s just for dinner. Say you will. It’ll be fun.”
    The second was a video message obviously from her house. Candy and Tammy were lounging in Candy’s living room, wearing their lounging pajamas — at least the tops.
    “Hey, give us a call back. I have a case of the latest vintage of the vidal blanc you like so much. It’s even better than the last year’s vintage, if that’s possible. We’ll cook some steaks and throw in some vegetables and have a feast. Come on.”
    Candy and Tammy stood up and twirled all the way around before sitting back down and closing the video. They were testing his resolve. That’s for sure.
    Kelly checked his schedule. He actually could squeeze in a week when the Vigilant went into the yard. It would take a few days to paint her and a day or two to dry. He could manage a week then. He filled out a leave form and emailed it to CDR Timmons. He reviewed other messages, and marveled as his approved leave came back almost instantaneously.
    Kelly looked through his calendar entries and saw no conflicts. He sent Candy a message, saying he could come over in a day for a week, and to chill down lots of the vidal blanc. He hit send and almost immediately a videoconference request came back. He saw it was from Candy and accepted.
    Candy and Tammy must have just come from the pool, because they were wearing only towels — and those loosely. Kelly looked over his shoulder to make sure he was alone in his cabin. He was.
    “Hey there. We just saw your message and had to see you. How are you?”
    “I’m fine. I’m also glad I didn’t have a conference table full of crewmembers.”
    Candy and Tammy laughed, cast aside their towels, and Candy said, “Why do you think we were wearing the towels?” The two dissolved into giggles and Kelly assumed they were well into a bottle or two of the vidal blanc, even though it was still a while before lunch.
    “Vigilant is going into the yard for a paint job. I can come over late tomorrow, if that’s okay.”
    Candy and Tammy said in unison, “Of course it’s okay.” Candy continued, “What time should we pick you up?”
    “How about dinner at the club at 1800?”
    “How about we pick you up at the club at 1800 and have dinner here at 1830?”
    Kelly laughed and said, “Okay, I’ll meet you at the club at 1800. I have to go do captain stuff now. Later.”
    He clicked terminate to end the video call and tried to get back to work. It was after lunch before he could fully concentrate again.

    Admiral Minacci sipped a soft drink while the Chief of Fleet Operations, Admiral Christos Pouledoris, handled a call from Senator Colleen Santori that interrupted his office call. He couldn’t tell the topic, but by the Admiral’s body language and responses, it must have been good news. He put his drink down onto the coaster on the walnut end table as the call ended.
    “Well, that was good news. Senator Santori just informed me the Defense and Commerce Enhancement Bill passed with only one nay vote from that cowardly bastard Livingstone from Shepard and one abstention from that wishy washy Steele from Gagarin. Why does he even show up? He votes present or abstains more than anything else.”
    “While you were away, the Republic’s Assembly debated tripling production of transporter rings. It seems the freshman senator from New Alexandria, David Colton, is a whiz at bringing together a consensus. A massive transporter ring production station will be orbited over Carpenter. In a year, when the station is complete, they‘ll be able to produce one every two months after six months of initial production. The rings will be built in three separate pieces, so they can be laid side by side and sent through the existing rings to be opened on site. In another eight months they will have four rings to do a basic outfit of the second tier worlds. In five years most major systems will have a ring and all parts of the republic will be reachable in two days. Pretty soon, FTL power 6 will seem so slow.”
    Paulo said, “That’s great news, sir. My nerves really could have used some reinforcements on this campaign. If that private fleet hadn’t shown up, I might have lost it all. Even with them ready to spring the trap behind me, it was very disquieting to see that reduced, but still quite lethal K’Rang fleet in open space before me. A cruiser squadron would have been handy.”
    “Paulo, don’t sell yourself short. Of course we all want to have overwhelming force in any engagement, but you did a damn fine job with what you had. You destroyed a fleet more than twice your size, with only the loss of an assault landing carrier, a frigate, and a few light ships. I’m putting you in for the Distinguished Service Star.”
    Minacci whistled inside his head. The DSS was the second highest award for combat action in the GR.
    The Admiral continued, “If you have any officers or ships that deserve special recognition, let me know and I’ll expedite the processing and Senate confirmation.”
    “Sir, I’m recommending CDR Mike Milton for the Galactic Medal of Honor. He was my best assault landing carrier captain and he came up with the tactic of using the emptied carriers against the K’Rang. It was a heavy blow to lose him and the Yellow Jacket, but his attacks took out a large number of enemy ships, especially their support ships. He took out three of their supply ships and three frigates in his first attack. His second attack destroyed a light cruiser and damaged a second before they got him. He took away a large part of their defensive missiles with the support ships and their long-range offensive capability with the light cruisers. The final fight with the K’Rang would have been a lot more in their favor without Mike’s attacks.”
    “I’ll do what I can, Paulo. The Senate has been a lot friendlier lately. I don’t know why, but I’ll take advantage of that for you. Is there anyone else?”
    “Yes, sir, there is. You know I’ve been pushing to have a scout ship attached to each fleet, task force, and group. I had a young scout ship captain supporting me and he did one hell of a job. I would go so far as to say he was primarily responsible for my victory. His name is Kelly Blake. He’s a recently promoted Lieutenant frocked to Lieutenant Commander by Tom Craddock so he could take over his ship. If Blake is a typical Scout Force officer, I want a dozen. He was smart, capable, intuitive, and deadly.”
    “He won’t admit to it, but he forced the pirates’ surrender singlehandedly. He let me take the credit for it, but he lured two K’Rang scout ships into a very visible ambush that convinced the pirates they would rather surrender to us than the K’Rang. He blinded the K’Rang commander in the process. The K’Rang commander had to advance against me with no knowledge of the battlespace or my force. I’m putting a personal letter in Blake’s file to see to it he becomes a real LCDR as soon as possible. I’d like to recommend him for a DSS as well, sir.”
    Admiral Pouledoris took a sip of his coffee, thought a moment, and replied, “What other decorations does he have?”
    He glanced at his pocket terminal and said, “He has a Space Medal, a Silver Galaxy, a Joint Meritorious Service Medal, a New Alexandrian Order of Valor, and a Golden Shield of New Alexandria.”
    The Admiral whistled. “That’s a lot of hardware for only a frocked lieutenant commander.”
    “I told you he was good, sir.”
    “Put in your recommendations, Paulo. I’ll support them.”

    LCDR Kelly Blake moved the Vigilant to the paint dock and gave authority to Chief Blankenship to start releasing half the crew on up to two weeks leave. The other half would start getting their leave after the ship was released from the yard. He put Connie in charge while he was gone. That evening, he met Candy and Tammy outside the O Club. They were both wearing thin shirtdresses that were buttoned low and hiked up well beyond the limits of propriety. They had Kelly sit in front with Candy, while Tammy climbed into the back. They motored out the main gate to a grocery store and left Kelly in the car, while they hopped in for some breakfast items. They came out later loaded down with bags of groceries and tossed them in the trunk.
    Candy turned left out of the parking lot and headed toward the outskirts of town. Within two blocks she hit the flight controls and smoothly climbed to 1000 meters. She turned on the autopilot and leaned into Kelly.
    “Kiss me, you fool!”
    Tammy started laughing. “No, kiss me.”
    Kelly kissed Candy because she asked first and then Tammy. They were both good kissers. Candy set her car down softly next to her house with hardly a bump, gathered his things and the groceries and went inside.
    Candy showed Kelly up to a guest room and had him put down his stuff. Taking advantage of her being alone with him, she melted into his arms and gave him another smoldering hot kiss. She led him down to the kitchen, where Tammy was busily fixing dinner, wearing a chef’s apron and not much else. She took a break as the pasta was cooking to sit on his lap and give him a kiss.
    Tammy got up to tend to the pasta and Alfredo sauce, while Candy poured them all big glasses of the Armstrong equivalent of champagne. She handed one to Kelly and set one next to the stove for Tammy. Tammy came over and all three clinked glasses to toast Kelly’s arrival. Tammy plated up three servings of hot pasta Alfredo and carried them to the table. Candy brought over silverware and they all sat down to eat.
    Candy was first to ask, “How did your patrol go?”
    Kelly for once had a patrol he could talk about, and did, “Not too bad, rescued three damsels in distress, took out two K’Rang scout ships, and had a world surrender to me. Then for good measure, we helped to defeat a K’Rang invasion fleet. It was a typical day at the office.”
    Tammy looked sternly at him, with one breast partially peeking out past the edge of her apron, and said, “Okay, okay, if you can’t tell us, we understand.”
    Kelly threw up his hands and gave up.
    The next morning a very tired, hung over, but happy Kelly woke up to Candy and Tammy giggling from the doorway to his room.
    “Come on sleepy head, the pool’s waiting.”
    Kelly said he’d be right with them, as soon as he could find his feet. It made for a very enjoyable week.

Chapter Nineteen

    Kelly climbed back aboard the Vigilant, changed into his coveralls, and took a walk around the exterior with Connie, Chief B, and Chief Miller. They inspected to see that the paint crew had done a proper job. Chiefs B and Miller found three spots where the paint crew had painted over particle beam abrasions without filling and sanding first. Kelly had Connie tell them to do those spots over, as the rest rode an antigravity man lift and inspected the sides and upper surfaces of the ship. Chalk circles marked four other places where the same condition existed. Connie supervised, while the crew repaired them to her satisfaction.
    Afterwards, Connie came to see him in his cabin about taking two weeks leave. He told her to put in the form and he’d approve it. He asked where she was going. She told him Alistair was arranging a cabin for them in the southern continent near Lake Tranquility. Kelly wished her a good leave and was there anything else.
    She asked, “Sir, how do you do it?”
    Puzzled he asked, “How do I do what?”
    “How can you watch the death of a ship and 700 crew and not show emotion? I was almost in tears. When the Yellow Jacket was killed, you never showed any emotion.”
    Kelly paused for a second or two and responded, “Connie, rest assured I experienced emotions when the Yellow Jacket was destroyed. As captain, you can’t let those emotions control you. I have responsibility for the Vigilant and the lives of her 47 crewmembers.”
    “In the heat of battle, you can’t mourn your shipmates. That has to wait until later. Why do you think the military has so many memorial services? You have to stay focused on the fight. If you stop to mourn, the battle goes on, and it could kill you. You push it down and let it come back later. They taught me that in fighter school, but it applies equally here. CDR Milton was a good officer and a good man. He left behind a wife, Jenny, and two children, Robbie, eight and Billy, six. I’ve already sent his wife a condolence message and donated credits to her son’s college funds. In combat, keep your mind in the game. Mourn later.”
    She looked at him and he could see the wisdom in what he said. She also felt she had gained a greater insight into her boss.
    As Connie left, Kelly reviewed the logs and message traffic. These quiet times in homeport were one of his favorite times as captain. Nothing unusual or out of the ordinary was in the logs from overnight. He called up Wanda, his AI.
    “Wanda, what message traffic has come in?”
    “Wanda’s older sister alto voice came over the speaker. “How are you, Kelly? I hope you had a good visit with your friends. Message traffic since our arrival has been low. Two messages to captains about FTL power 6 problems that the Valiant had. One says to avoid acceleration to power 6 from below power 4. The other says check your engine synchronizers for conditions out of spec greater than 5 %.”
    “There are two messages containing Chiefs Austin’s and Pennypacker transfer orders. One item I culled from the traffic stream for you. CPT Shappelle has been chosen for Advanced Fighter Weapons School as a student then as an instructor. She reports into Gagarin in three months.”
    Kelly thought what a prize for Angie. He also thought it would put him back to juggling three women. It’s a good thing they all like each other.
    Wanda continued, “There are a number of captains’ notices I forwarded to the appropriate chief. The only one of any consequence was a revocation of the replicator training exception. Now, replicator training will be consolidated in Building 209, adjacent to the main dining facility.”
    Kelly thought, “There go my morning pastries.”
    “Wanda, were there any personal messages?”
    “There is a message from your mother about a message she got from your uncle. The message was written by a politician so was quite long-winded but essentially said he hoped he helped you.”
    Kelly laughed, “He did, Wanda. Sometimes it’s good having relatives in high places.”
    “Kelly,” Wanda said, “There is one other message that has come in that you might find interesting. It is from a MG Irina Bugarov, FF (Ret).”
    Kelly sat up and read the message appearing on his screen.
    TO: Commanding Officer, GRS Vigilant
    FROM: MG Irina Bugarov, FF, (Ret)
    SUBJECT: My Appreciation
    Dear Sir or Ma’am,
    I am writing this message to thank you for my recent liberation from the hands of the Baratarian Brotherhood. My assistant and I were held captive for three weeks, until your action against the K’Rang, which set us all free.
    I do not know if you had the opportunity to meet with any of the people you freed. I tried to meet with you at the reception after the surrender ceremony, but was turned away by the Ascetic guards. All of us captives sheltering in the evacuation site sang your praises and your ship’s, too. We heard the story of your engagement with the two K’Rang scout ships that convinced the Brotherhood to surrender. From now until all of us die, our symbol of freedom will be your black-hulled scout ship.
    I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for restoring my freedom. Understand that you have my undying thanks. If ever I can be of any assistance to you, you need but ask.
    Irina Bugarov
    MG, FF (Ret)
    Vice President for Defense Industries Consolidated
    Debran Industries, Inc.
    Kelly marveled at this odd turn of events and said, “Now ain’t that a kick in the head!”
    He thanked Wanda, keyed up some paperwork, and started doing captain stuff.

    Steven Maynard called a captains’ conference in his main conference room on Barataria. His twelve captains assembled and waited to hear what he had to say.
    “Ladies and gentlemen,” he started, “as you know our fortunes have changed drastically over the last several months. We faced death by the Galactic Republic or the K’Rang, but have come out of it stronger. Yes, we have forever lost our old way of life, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.”
    Captain Chang of the Leviathan stood up and said, “How can you say it’s not a bad thing? How will we live, now that we can no longer plunder?”
    “Captain Chang asks a very good question. I believe I have the answer.”
    He pushed a button and a holographic projection of the planet appeared in the middle of the table. The world had been divided into a number of similarly sized blocks of land.
    “Land, ladies and gentlemen, will pay our bills and keep us in luxuries. Mr. Friedrich Debran has contracted to be our land agent. He will arrange to bring settlers in from the Galactic Republic and give us 70 % of the profit. In addition, we obtained a 300 million-credit advance payment, to keep him honest. Fifteen million of these credits have been deposited in each of your accounts. That is only a down payment. Once the settlers start coming in, we are talking billions of credits and those are just for this planet. We have three more planets after we fill this one.”
    “Look at the globe in front of you. You will each be granted a section of the planet as your property, your estate. You can keep it all or you can sell it to the incoming settlers. Look at the map and let me know your decisions on which plot of land you want over the next week. Where two captains select the same property, it will be settled by a coin toss. We will draw up papers and deed the section to you. I recommend you talk to our planning board and get their advice on how to divide your section into cities, towns, and villages. Our lawyers can help you in establishing any parklands or reserves you may want to set aside.”
    “The future is bright, my captains, and it’s literally right under our feet. We’ll make more credits off this planet than we ever did thieving.”
    Captain Chang answered back, “Yes, but it won’t be near as much fun.”
    As the assembled captains broke out laughing, Maynard brought in and introduced the planning board and the lawyers. The meeting went on for another three hours, as the captains picked their land and started figuring how to make the most credits from it.

    Kelly and CDR Timmons met with CAPT Hasselrode before being taken in to see the Admiral. CAPT Hasselrode informed Kelly, “It looks like your DSS is going through, in addition to a Presidential Unit Citation, a campaign star, and the engagement star. Minacci got the Chief of Fleet Operations to sign off on them. The boss has me working up a draft policy on display of combat awards on scout ships. He wants to make sure we don’t look like we’ve been sprayed with graffiti. Fleet has a policy but it excludes Scout Force, because of our stealth coating. We have a new stealth coating now and it won’t affect it at all.”
    CAPT Hasselrode’s communicator buzzed and he told them the admiral would see them now. Kelly and CDR Timmons went into the Admiral’s office.
    Admiral Craddock was standing looking out the window at the yards. This was slightly unusual because every other time they had entered his office he had been seated at work on something.
    He turned around and said, “Come in. Take seats at the table. I need some coffee.”
    Kelly offered to get it for him but was waved off. He came back in with Captain Hasselrode and they all sat at the conference table.
    “I guess you three get to be the first to hear this. I haven’t even told my wife yet. I just got off the communicator with the Chief of Fleet Operations. I’ve been nominated for my third star to take over as the Chief of Fleet Intel. He said he has already greased the skids on this with the Senate. He expects my nomination to be approved with the next biennial Flag Officer Appointment and Promotion List, to be submitted in seven months. They expect the list to be finalized and ratified by the Senate in time for Christmas on Earth. I don’t know who will replace me. I may be able to name my own replacement, as Scout Force will come under Fleet Intel after the Defense Reorganization Act passes.”
    All three officers congratulated the admiral and the consensus was that it was well deserved. Admiral Craddock looked at the three officers and said, “John, you don’t get a choice. I’m taking you with me up to Fleet Intel. You two,” pointing at Timmons and Kelly, “need to let me know when you’re coming up for your next assignment. I can get you a good assignment in Fleet Intel HQ or anywhere in Fleet Intel you want to go. Kelly, I know of the perfect job for you in a year and a half, when you turn over the Vigilant to its new captain. I just can’t tell you about it yet.”
    The Admiral’s yeoman came in with a tray of glasses and two bottles of champagne. The bottles were opened, glasses filled, and they toasted to absent companions, to their continued good fortune, and to good luck and good hunting.

    K’Taul was the third director of the T’Pifa Theoretical Research Institute in the last six months. His predecessors had been unable to make a working transporter gate from the stolen plans, and K’Taul was facing the same dilemma. He couldn’t understand what he was doing wrong. His demonstration machine was exactly according to the diagrams on the three plans, but every time he activated it, the room would fill with the foulest smelling brown smoke.
    He knew he wasn’t long for this job if he could not get the device to work. He had called in the cypher team from the Imperial Analytical Cabal twice to ensure they understood the translation of the Blake’s language properly. He couldn’t help thinking the spies stole the wrong data or not all of it. Something must be missing. He was getting nowhere as he was.
    He had one last idea for how to proceed. He would bring the finest theoretical and applied physics minds in the K’Rang Empire and form three teams. Each team would work in isolation, be given a complete set of plans, and charged to build a demonstration transporter ring. Surely one of the teams would reach the proper solution.
    In the meantime, he was making one last attempt to get this demonstration model to work. Making the K’Rang symbol for good luck, he motioned for his senior research assistant to apply power. He frantically gave the cut power signal as the room filled up with the foul smelling brown smoke.