Against the expressed wishes of General Layix, the Oronos moved out of the asteroid field and took up a position closer to the main planet. Not in orbit, but well within main gun range. Yanex answered the protests with an explanation of how it would put him in a more strategic position to deal with the Delphians; not that he’d been formerly asked to defend the system. He was carefully guiding circumstances so that there was little choice other than to seek his help. Alone, the Attragone and her escorts could not hope to hold off the Delphians, even if the inbound battleship, Rijian, did join them. That was highly unlikely though, her commander would be more interested in protecting his passengers.
Rijian dropped out on the edge of the system moving at half the speed of light and was greeted by a shuttle from the Attragone. Rather than continuing to decelerate, the heavily armed warship assumed a wide, high-speed orbit of the star. An orbit that would enable the ship to maintain its speed. That would make it easier to jump back into ex-space. The move made it necessary for the shuttle to spend an excessive amount of time and fuel running to catch the ship. General Gilderith needed all of his skills as a pilot to make the dangerous high speed docking with the Rijian. He’d relayed his recommendations about the docking as soon as the ship appeared. With the alternatives being either leaving right away or risk being caught at low speed, they agreed to his plan.
The short lived coupling occurred on the inward run toward the star and ended when the battleship had to change course for its orbit around the sun. This left a very tight schedule for the diplomats as the return docking could only be made at a specific point in the orbit, at regular intervals.
The shuttle actually had to fly backwards, using its engines to slow down even further, as it approached the Oronos. Three orbits of the planet were also made to burn off additional velocity. After making a soft touchdown, the Attragone’s shuttle taxied to the main hanger bay. There it was met by an honor guard made up of Tyramma, troops and maintenance personal. Soldiers in gleaming silver armor lined a carpeted path that led to the Commander and his Operations Officer. Squadron members not on alert occupied the last ten slots in the reviewing line. They, as well as the other officers, wore their best dress uniforms. It had been some time since the Oronos had seen dignitaries of any sort.
With engines shrieking, the shuttle lumbered slightly as its pilot tried to align his side hatch with the walkway. Just a bit over the mark, he wouldn’t prolong the noise by trying to backup. The engines dropped down to a much quieter idle, as if they were ready for a quick getaway. Then, after a moment fell silent altogether.
An occasional face appeared at a view port during the long duration it took for the passengers to disembark. It seemed that they were assessing the situation and trying to determine if it were safe to exit. When the hatch finally did split open it was General Gilderith whom stepped down the ramp first, almost as it dropped to the deck. Heels came together in a uniformed crack as Colonel Marcone called the assembly to attention. With a subtle nod at Yanex, Gilderith stepped aside for the officials he was escorting.
The next man out was a bit more cautious. He looked around carefully before sticking his head out the door. Once he did muster the courage to leave the safety of the shuttle, he only managed to make it halfway down the ramp before being struck with awe. Wearing a fine suit of civilian clothes, which would fit that era, the short meek looking man stood with a tight grip on the railing gazing about. He had been dumbfounded by the size of the ship as they approached, but was now engulfed by it.
He was Kryton, a small man of power who demonstrated his importance with a large entourage. Half the people on the shuttle belonged to him, and they were only a fraction of what remained on the Rijian. How he whined about only being able to bring six of his staff. Once he managed to move forward his overly attentive crew fell in behind him.
Much to Yanex’s disappointment, the military representative was a mere fleet-general with one assistant. One step below a marshal, fleet-generals were cheap in the present day Command Staff. This ridged looking blond haired man was Mellor, one of many that held bureaucratic jobs of meaningless, in Yanex’s opinion. He had expected one of the top three marshals. Grindell himself should have been there.
Yanex’s attention was drawn from the last group that exited the shuttle, as Gilderith snapped to attention before him and formally asked permission for he, and his charges, to board the ship. Yanex accepted them with little enthusiasm.
“May I present Counsel Kryton of Mur,” announced Gilderith, “leader of the Foreign Relation Forum.”
“Foreign Relations?” Yanex asked as he reached out for the man’s hand. He was careful not to apply too much pressure to the small soft hand.
“The Council wishes to handle this as a foreign matter,” Kryton said as he started to regain his composure, and arrogance. “That is until I make my report.”
“I’m sure the Council will be most interested.” Yanex wisely left out the rest of what he was thinking. Kryton babbled on about the importance of his report and the weight it would carry with the Council as an anxious Mellor awkwardly waited his turn.
“We are short on time, General,” Mellor said when his turn finally came.
“As I am aware, sir,” Yanex responded. “It was I who informed you of that Delphian fleet’s heading.”
Mellor stiffened a bit. “So I am told,” was all he had to say.
“Had you been able to communicate in ex-space,” said Yanex, “we could have warned you before you got here.”
“You have that capability?” Mellor’s interest jumped.
“As we all may soon have,” Yanex said confidently. “That’s only the beginning.”
Kryton stepped back over to them, having kept an ear open. “And what is the price for that?”
Yanex thought a moment. He wasn’t going to be baited into showing his cards to these inconsequential people. He had bigger plans.
“Understanding, for a start,” was his response.
Relatively unnoticed at first, the last of the visitors to step off the ramp quickly became the center of attention. Long legs, which flashed from a skirt that was slit up to the waist, made slow elegant strides along the precession. Her hips swayed from side to side with every step. She strutted rather than walked. The top of her dark red dress had a neck line cut below the swell of her ample breasts. Long, flowing light brown hair spilled onto her shoulders.
Flanked by two huge soldiers, who wore the gold banners of the Royal Guard, she was in no particular hurry. Her dark mysterious eyes took in the surroundings at a casual pace. She delighted in the environment as she paused to view her reflection in one of the ship’s soldier’s chest plates. Her pleasure showed in a reserved smile that parted her richly paint lips.
Marcone was shocked to see the young, lavishly dressed, woman. He leaned in toward Yanex and with a hushed voice asked, “Do you know who that is?”
The stoic General gave a slight nod. He knew who she was all right. She was featured prominently in his history files.
“Do you know what she did?” Marcone persisted.
“She hasn’t done anything.”
“Not yet she hasn’t.”
Some of the Oronos’ interceptors had been arranged around the procession line in a show of strength. Standing on the toes of her high heel sandals, the woman gazed over the shoulder of one of the pilots for a better look. Aurora stood at ridged attention as a wisp of the woman’s dress brushed against her breast. She felt warm breath on her neck and couldn’t help wondering why it wasn’t icy.
Stepping back, the woman had an even more satisfied, almost seductive, grin. She was pleased with what she was seeing. Few knew how to exploit an opportunity as she did. With the others out of her way, she took her sweet time making her way down the procession.
Gilderith took the opportunity to whisper Yanex and Marcone, “Listen guys, this one’s a freak. Don’t offer your hand and absolutely do not touch her.”
Marcone tore his eyes off her to ask, “Really?”
“She’s been known to stab people,” Gilderith mumbled.
He looked back at Yanex, who again gave a sullen nod.
“The Emperor regrets his absence,” Gilderith stated. “In his place, my I present his daughter, Princess Marlanna of Cross.”
“Welcome your Highness, on the behalf of the Oronos,” Yanex said with a slight bow.
“I bring you greetings from Emperor Dayson,” Marlanna said in a refined voice. Everything about her, the way she spoke, the way she moved, was an illustration of the cultured and extravagant life she’d led.
“And how fares the Emperor?” Yanex asked.
“The Emperor fares well,” she lied.
Yanex knew it to be a lie, but could understand her not wanting to reveal the true condition of her father; he would be dead in seventeen days.
“An interesting ship that you have here, General,” she remarked with a smile.
“She has served us well,” he said of the battered vessel.
“And us as well. From what I understand.”
Finally, someone was showing some measure of appreciation for what he’d done. Fleet Command had been at a loss to explain how their movements were being so accurately predicted. They had wrongfully assumed that it was because the defenders of Darcane were sending ships out to escort the incoming convoys. A strategy of not sending a detachment had proven devastating. Once they knew about the intelligence network, and eliminated it, a lot of lives had been spared. No one bothered to say any kind of “thank you” or hardly acknowledged it, until just then. Why did it have to be her?
“She can continue to, Your Highness,” Yanex said confidently as he walked with her toward to transport doors. The doors lay open and a car was holding for them. Kryton and his party had already been escorted to their guest quarters so they could prepare for the meeting. General Mellor and his assistant waited impatiently.
“That would be more than satisfying, General. Aultra is in need of that service. The war does not go well.”
Mellor had an angry scowl at hearing her say that. Had it been one of his officers whom had given such sensitive information away to an adversary he would be immediately admonishing them. The Emperor’s daughter he dared not speak to.
“You will lose this war,” Yanex stated candidly. “Or rather would have. Once you’ve had a chance to freshen up, Colonel Marcone will show you some of the ship before our meeting.”
“Time is of the essence, General,” Mellor remarked. “We’re expecting some rather unpleasant company.”
“Not to worry, sir. I’m preparing a welcoming for them.”
“We’ll discuss that when we meet.”
Marlanna entered the transport and the doors closed behind her and Mellor’s frowning face. Mellor would be hard to convince, but Yanex felt that she had already been won over. Perhaps he could use her to convince the others of his sincerity. Somehow the reports he’d read the past nights didn’t match the woman he’d just met.
He turned to Marcone and said, “Somehow, I thought she’d bigger, taller maybe.” She only stood five foot seven in high heels.
“Be very leery of her, Yan. She’s very dangerous.”
“Well, we can’t convict someone of a crime they haven’t committed yet.”
“No,” Marcone said as they waited for the next transport, “But the intentions and personality are still there. She is still the same person who would carry out those acts.”
“That should be interesting to watch,” Yanex noted as the doors opened once more.
As the last of the dignitaries left the hanger the honor guard was dismissed.
“Will you look at those legs. I’m in love. For real this time,” Bogan said as he bounded by.
“Maybe she she’ll show you you’re beating heart,” warned Aurora.
Sands stepped up and gestured toward the departed group, “What do you make of her?”
“I find her disturbing,” Aurora responded sullenly.
“Really? You think she’s disturbed or she disturbs you?”
“Who is that anyway?”
“Remember the sister that murdered Empress Dyoney?” Aurora responded.
“Yeah.” Then a sign of realization flashed on his face. “Really, a real live celebrity?”
“Don’t let the outward appearances fool you,” Marcus said in a troubled tone. “Evil walks among us.”
“I always liked his flair for the dramatic,” Sands mocked. He shook hands as if he were casting a spell, “Ooooo.”
Aurora shook her head as Marcus headed off. Then her attention was caught by someone grabbing her hand. She rolled her head over to find Sergeant Sullivan on bended knee.
“Will you marry me, madam?” he pleaded.
She planted her foot in his chest and shoved him away. Then went on as if nothing happened. Sands had a perplexing expression.
“What?” she snapped.
Sullivan brushed himself off and turned to his comrades.
“Hey, she didn’t say no.”
The tour, which was meant to be brief, was cut even shorter at the insistence of Kryton. One of the launch-bays and Tri-S were visited, then it was on to the Central Operations Center. Security personnel at each of the sensitive areas kept track of the guests. They counted them going in, watched them from a distance, and counted them going out. When the count was one short going into the COC, it wasn’t noticed right away.
“I have to relieve myself,” one man said to a comrade as they moved through one of the long corridors, “I’ll catch up with you.”
Not far from Tri-S was the Flight Operations Center. The senior Tyramma were meeting there to go over some tactical information on their new opponents. Still in dress uniform, Sands and Aurora rounded a corner and had their conversation interrupted by sight of a tall man in civilian clothing. He had an issued visitor’s pass displayed on his shirt and looked perfectly calm. Sands didn’t give him a second thought.
“How ya doin’?” Sands smiled as they man passed and rounded a corner headed for the transport tube they’d just left.
Aurora stopped short and glared back after him. “Who’s that?”
“He’s with the rat politician,” Sands answered as he stopped just ahead of her. “You see how many people that guy has following him around? Swear he’s got someone to hold his dick for him when he pisses. That’s probable him, the dick holder.”
“What’s he doing here?”
The faint sound of heavy booted feet and clatter of armored plates grew in the background.
“Good question,” Sands realized, “why don’t we ask him?”
“Why don’t we,” she echoed as that started back around the corner.
The man stood near the transport waiting for it to open. His calm facade had slipped as he hit the button for the fifth time. His eyes shifted about nervously. Soldiers spilled into the far end of the adjacent corridors and rushed toward him. Troopers also closed in from behind the two Tyramma that were closest to the man.
“Excuse me,” Sands called out to the tall man who turned his back to him. Faced with troops closing in from all sides he made a desperate stand. He spun around with a small stubby gun in his hand and took a wild short at the two officers.
Sands’ reflexes served him well as he ducked the shot and scrambled back around the corner. Aurora snapped her weapon out and blew a hole in the transport door right next to the man’s head. The blast and shower of sparks threw him into the corner. A second shot would have cut him in half if it were not for someone yelling, “Alive! We want him alive!”
She fell back to safety around the corner to change the setting on her weapon.
Troopers converged from all sides. The man, pined back against the set in doors by cross fire, shot back frantically. One shot clipped a soldier and knocked him to the floor, unhurt. The man’s salvation came when the doors parted behind him. He stumbled back into the empty car, firing blindly until the doors clamped shut.
Sands rushed up and pounded a fist on the burnt door. Smoke drifted from Aurora’s blast point and the smell of ozone filled the air. That smell of seared air and carbon from the explosion that one always got with fire from those types of weapons.
“Damn it!” exclaimed Sands. “Where’s he goin’?”
“Nowhere,” answered Sergeant Blane as his men converged on the juncture. “That transport is locked down.”
He assembled the men in a pattern around the doors to give them a clear sweep of the entire car. They leveled their compact rifles at the doors and waited for them to open.
“Check stun. Single shot only. We want this guy in one piece.”
Sands fell back out of the way with Aurora, who was taking a quick look at the soldier who had been hit. Had it not been for the armor plating, the man would have had his side torn open.
“What’d he do?” Aurora asked as she slapped the man on the chest, a sign that he was fine.
“Broke into the computer,” answered the soldier. “He got into some classified stuff before they caught him.”
“How’d he do that?” asked Sands. “We’re more advanced than them.”
“People weren’t exactly stupid in this time,” said Aurora. “Computers haven’t really changed all that much in the last century; how well they do it, not how they work.”
“We’re in position,” Sergeant Blane called into the communicator, which was built into his large helmet. “Open the doors.”
All that was left was a foot, which was jerked up through the roof hatch of the car. Rushing in, Blane and one of his men were driven back by rounds exploding on the back wall. A small wire, from the sergeant’s arm to the rifle’s large scope, allowed him to change the view of one of his eyepieces so he was looking directly through the scope. At the touch of a button on his arm, he could hold the weapon out in front of him and see up the through the hatch as if he looking down the scope. Misplaced rounds on the top of the car answered the few shots he sent up the transport shaft. Another look showed the man scrambling up a ladder to the horizontal shaft above.
When Blane stumbled and fell while trying to climb through the hatch himself, Sands slipped past him and up into the vertical shaft while ordering, “Drop the pressure doors in this section. We’ll get him.”
Grabbing a rifle from one of the soldiers, Aurora followed him up. The two officers were unencumbered by the armor of the soldiers, however they also didn’t enjoy its protection. Their regular uniforms had a measure of lightweight armor in them, but they were still in dress uniforms.
They both stood on top of the car, starring up at the pressure door which closed between them and their prey. The vertical shaft was closed off two levels up, where it connected with the cross shaft.
“Great!” cursed Sands.
“He’s awful slippery for a guy that holds a dick,” Aurora mused as she headed for the ladder, which was set into the shaft wall.
The Security Interface Post took up only one seat on the port side wall of the upper level of the COC. The soldier that manned the station looked up at the officer standing by him. “The subject has opened the manual access hatch into the horizontal shaft. We’re closing off all exits to the area.”
“Is that section active?” asked Colonel Marcone.
“No sir, I’ve closed it down. But any further into the system will start disrupting service in the forward section.”
“Who is it?”
“A civilian, sir. One of the Counsel’s staff.”
Marcone turned to look about the chamber below. Most of the visitors were mulling about the main floor and having different operations of the ship explained to them. Yanex had called Generals Gilderith and Mellor over to the holographic display table in front of the Command Station. A holographic map of the star system widened out to include the approaching Delphian warships as Yanex explained how the inter-phased sensors worked. He pointed out the approaching fleet as he laid out his plan.
“They’re moving apart.” Yanex pointed at a group of symbols that represented the Delphians. “It looks as though they’ve calculated different drop points.”
“That’s a common tactic for them,” stated Gilderith. “They mask some of their ships prior to dropping out to allow them hidden flanking positions.”
“We’ve eliminated their element of surprise,” Yanex said proudly. “We’ll use that to our advantage.”
“We?” said Mellor, “just who is going to command this operation?”
“This will be a coordinated effort,” Yanex said flatly.
“This is an Aultrian defensive operation,” Mellor dictated. “As ranking officer, General Gilderith would assume operational command. That is if Fleet Command decides on that course of action”
“And what other course of action might they assume, General?”
Mellor drew a heavy breath, “You stated that you wanted to rejoin the fleet, did you not General Yanex? Here is your chance.”
“Under the right conditions.”
“Conditions? What conditions? Either you’re with us or not.”
“I am, sir, but at the present time the Oronos remains a sovereign state.”
“Sovereign state? How can you claim...” Mellor began to raise his voice.
Seeing that things were starting to heat up, Gilderith pulled the Fleet-General aside.
“With all due respect, sir,” Gilderith said quietly, “we don’t have a chance of defending this system without him. Fleet Com’ has pulled most of the defensive units out of here.”
“That fleet is looking for this ship,” said Mellor. “If we relocate it to one of the other colonies they may continue looking for it and not attack.”
“Yes sir, and they may leave a battleship behind to ravage this system after they knock down the defenses.”
Mellor fell silent. He didn’t want anything to do with a decision that could cost thousands of lives. He was only sent there to meet with the alien commander, and maybe take control of his ship. Any chance of that had just slipped through his fingers.
“He’s got a good plan,” continued Gilderith. “I think it might work.”
He then produced a computer plaque with a display of a piece of equipment on it. “Plus, as a part of the plan, the Attragone gets this.”
Mellor took a long look at the advanced piece of technology. His mind filled with the secrets it might reveal.
“It’s not the whole ship,” Gilderith whispered, “but it’s a good start.”
Mellor grimaced, then shoved the screen back at him. He glanced over at the ship’s commander, who stood confidently talking with his second in command, “Your original orders still stand, General.”
As Mellor stormed away Gilderith gave a wave of reassurance to Yanex. He knew as well as the others that Mellor was just another spineless lizard who had licked his way up the chain of command. When it came time for an opinion that mattered, Fleet Command would come to him, a highly decorated combat officer. He would endorse the co-command operation. There were few other options.
Then Gilderith did something odd, he gave a slight bow before turning to go. Yanex then noticed Marlanna standing just behind him. She had been watching different variations of the battle plan unfold in the display. Left unattended, the computer had continued running the different scenarios fed into it. Marlanna took them in as she listened intently to the conversation, both of them. (“The gift is strong in her, be weary,” her father had once stated.)
Marlanna smiled, “Actually General, I find your plan rather lacking.”
“Excuse me, Your Highness?”
She pointed at the display while stating, “You are establishing yourself in the best possible position to deal with the Delphian’s traditional opening moves. Also, utilizing your superior weaponry and jamming gives you an incredible advantage, as does adapting the Attragone with some of that technology. However, you don’t seem to have much of a contingency drawn beyond the opening moves. I do not see that you have much of a plan for once they discover your deception. And they will eventually discover it.”
“Well, Your Highness,” Yanex said slowly, having been taken aback, “if there is one thing I’ve learned about tactical operations over these many cycles, it’s that a battle rarely goes according to plan. As a matter of fact, I’ve never seen a major operation play out to the last detail. There are far too many varying factors and unforeseen circumstances that can come into play. And one’s opponent hardly ever cooperates. I’ve found it to be a waste time and effort to draw out long elaborate battle plans.
“Instead, I prefer to stage my forces in the best possible positions to utilize my advantages, then deal with the situation as it arises.”
Marlanna nodded slightly. “I highly doubt that Fleet Command would agree with such a caviler attitude.”
Before he could muster a response in his defense, she added, “But then, they do not seem to have very much choice in the matter, do they? I can not wait to see how this plays out.”
As he watched her strut away, a thought sudden struck him in the, how did she have so much tactical knowledge? She spoke like a seasoned combat commander. Also, what situation was she interested in? Yanex expected that her vision went far beyond the coming battle.
As did Colonel Marcone, who watched her leave with a look of disdain. He brushed aside the awkward moment by reporting that the first set of jamming probes was ready for launch.
“Good,” Yanex responded, “proceed with the deployment. Then have our guests escorted to the Operations Room. We’ll move the reception up to as soon as we adjourn.”
“Yes sir,” was Marcone’s somber response.