Small winged animals were rousted from their nests high in the dense forest by the passing of a shuttle. They fled into the deep blue cloudless sky as the ship dipped over the next hilltop. With long beaks and sharp talons, the genetically re-engineered reptiles were one of the first species to be reintroduced to the manmade forest. Formerly a scorched landscape, the countryside and others like it had been some of the restoration programs greatest achievements.
The shuttle, with markings from its host ship the Oronos, slowed as it approached a small clearing in the forest. It hovered in midair before settling on a painted and lighted landing platform. Once on the ground other ships came into view. They were parked just off to the side in camouflaged bunkers, which hid them from the sky.
As the ship powered down a detachment of soldiers, who had been mulling around a small building near the bunkers, climbed the steps to the platform and formed a line along the edge. The infantrymen in their standard combat uniforms were to be the honor guard. General Yanex was all but insulted. Here he was after traveling all that way, the sole surviving warship of a once mighty fleet, by law a head of state (a dead state), returned from the future to save them all from the evil Krix, and all they had to greet him was six lousy soldiers.
As he stepped off the shuttle, and his boots hit the ground for the first time, the insult was squelched by a strange sensation. The ground was solid and didn’t vibrate with the hum of powerful engines. Shafts of sunlight leaked between the branches of tall trees and touched his face. A gust of wind wrestled leaves and branches as it pushed its way through the forest. It passed him with all the smells and flavors of the deep woods. Not quite the same smells which filled his boyhood in a similar forest on the other side of the planet, but they were close enough to send the mind of the lonely, battle weary sole back.
Princess Marlanna was outwardly offended by the lack of respect bestowed upon her return, and told them so. An even toned retort delivered her displeasure before she turned back to find that Yanex had wandered over to the rim of the platform, lost in his dreams.
She sashayed over to him and stated, “I am truly sorry, General. This is hardly the welcoming you deserve. However, we are trying to keep this matter discreet.”
“Oh,” Yanex said as he leaned against the railing, “its fine.”
His animosity had been pushed aside. Realizing whom he was speaking with, he had to rain in his emotions. The last thing he wanted was to have this woman see a tear roll down his cheek.
It was far too late for that though. The man’s outward expression remained as hardened as ever, but inside was a storm of emotion. Marlanna heard his words, but she listened to him. As she had learned, and in the way of her father, she listened to his heart. The gift had given her that much more power over him. She was more than capable of reading his emotions, then using them to manipulating him.
“How long has it been?” she asked gently.
Yanex could hardly remember the last time he’d been home. The war had banished him into space long before the loss of Aultra. When he tried to recall his last real vacation, it was shadowed by memories of the last time he’d seen that world, from the deck of his ship, bombing it. That was never going to happen.
“Too long, Your Highness.”
“You can relax, General, you’re home now.”
“No, not yet.”
They walked together to a small surface bound vehicle. Designed for luxury, the passenger vehicle glided over a narrow paved road that led to the main compound. Open toped military vehicles led and followed as the convoy was waved through a manned gate on the perimeter wall. Painted and covered with plants, the wall was difficult to spot from the air. Troops inside the compound were much more discreet, but they were there.
Situated on a tree-covered hillside, the main house formed stair steps downward as it branched out across the compound. Yanex followed Marlanna as she and her escorts strode past a receptionist who pleaded with them to wait in the main foyer. The corridors and rooms of the great mansion were extravagantly decorated. Numerous works of art caught the General’s eye, not that he knew the value of such things. He could not help thinking that all of it was a great waste of resources. Resources that would soon be desperately needed elsewhere.
Large wooden doors at the end of a hall opened into a smaller foyer. The Emperor’s personal assistant, Cronin, greeted them there.
“We are grateful for your safe return, Your Highness,” Cronin said with a bow. Yanex noticed a lack of sincerity in his tone. He was not the only one to catch it.
“I am sure you are,” responded Marlanna. “This is General Yanex. We will see my father at once.”
Cronin raised a hand to stop her as she attempted to push past. He nearly touched her. “I am sorry, Your Highness, the Emperor has taken a bad turn in your absence. Visitors will not be possible.”
“The Emperor gave me specific instructions. He is to see General Yanex as soon as he arrived. Now step aside, Cronin.”
“Father is unable to give an audience,” stated a voice that had similar tone and inflection as Marlanna’s. Dyoney stepped from a door on the far side of the room. “What about that do you not understand?”
She was a taller version of her sister, her hair was shorter, and clothes more conservative, but their facial features differed very little. Both women spoke in that same annoying aristocratic tone as they verbally sparred. Some of Aultra’s less than reputable media outlets had reveled in the sibling rivalries among the Royal Clan. Yanex knew all too well the depth to which this one would sink.
“I understand the wishes of my father, and I understand that I will see him. He will then call for the General, personally.”
Marlanna stepped around Cronin and made for the closed door. Short of physically restraining her, there was no way for him to stop her.
Dyoney was obviously angry. She glared at Cronin to follow after her.
“I do apologize for this inconvenience, General,” Dyoney said, acknowledging him for the first time. “I understand you have had a long journey?”
“Yes, Your Highness,” Yanex said respectfully, although he would have hardly referred to his experience as a long journey. He wondered what, if anything, she knew about him and his ship. Truth was very little. Dyoney was focused on the upcoming coronation. It was going to be the grandest affair the nation had seen in a long time. Her celebration would lift the people’s spirits from the despondency of the war.
“I do look forward to reading your account, General. Perhaps we will have a chance to speak of it when you return,” then she dismissed him with, “in a few days.”
Dyoney had little interest in the Oronos or its crew. Affairs of state were the duty of the government. The striped down role that was being passed onto her was little more than that of a figurehead, and she knew it. She resented it, but she knew it.
She had no intention of meeting with him again. The only reason she was there in the first place was to prevent her wayward little sister from upsetting her father. Perhaps she would arrange for this man and some of his officers to attend the coronation. That way they could politely nod at each other from across the room. Dyoney had finally gotten the Emperor to allow the date to be set in hopes that the ailing man would be able to attend the great celebration. General Yanex just nodded as he watched the woman strut out to rejoin her entourage.
Lack of sleep had made Emperor Dayson delirious. His rapidly failing health had been compounded by fits of hallucinations. He would cry out while thrashing about. Occasionally he would shout “No!” as he covered his face.
Dayson resisted the doctor’s attempts at drugging him. He needed to find some understanding before he passed on. The messenger might bring that understanding. However the messenger was not to be trusted. He had a rather confusing role in the nightmare. As the storm approached it would suddenly stall. A burning figure walked from the wall of fire. As he approached the flames subsided to reveal a charcoal man. The unrecognizable man warned him of the destruction that was to come, then prevented him from fleeing; telling him there was no place to hide. Then, as the fury crept forward, the messenger waited for something, he wanted something. Appeasing him would clearly not stop the storm; he was a victim of it as well. Not being able to satisfy the man with what gold he had with him, Dayson pushed the burned figure aside to face the fire alone. The messenger did not demand further, he simple stood off to the side to find his own destiny in the tempest.
The violence threw him about as his flesh was scorched from his bones. Then suddenly the wave of devastation past him by and he was left in a city of ruins. The messenger was nowhere to be found. There was only destruction and bodies piled high above him. He ears rang with a dead silence. Then a sound rose from horizon. It grew to become a distant laughing, a woman laughing.
“Farther!” shouted Marlanna.
Dayson stirred from his dream state to find the woman standing at the side of his bed. He was still in his bedroom. A smaller medical type bed had replaced his large round one. Panels on the walls were opened to reveal medical monitors and equipment. Wires and tubes hooked the frail remnant of a man to the machines that kept him alive. They were well prepared for this time.
“He is here, Farther,” Marlanna continued, “he is eager to see you.”
“Who?” The old man tried to gather his senses. “The messenger?”
With what little strength he had left, Dayson jerked himself up into a sitting position and grasped the woman by her shoulders. “The messenger is here?”
Marlanna was clearly repulsed. Her eyes widened as she recoiled at his touch. With Cronin standing behind her and several medical technicians in the room, she didn’t want to violently pull away. As much as she hated being touched, she had to endure it.
“He waits outside,” she said anxiously. Turning a bitter eye to Cronin she stated, “They won’t let him in to see you.”
Dayson turned to his assistant. His grip loosened slightly and Marlanna was able to slip free. She stepped back out of his reach. Should he try to put his hands upon her again, she would let him spill onto the floor.
“Admit him! At once!” the old man’s voice crackled with pain. It lacked the thunder and authority it once held. Cronin knew its determination though. Buzzing from some of the medical equipment and hurried work by the technicians also drove the point. Cronin reluctantly agreed.
As Yanex slowly approached the bed, the two men’s eyes locked. The Emperor reached out a shaking hand, which Yanex took hold of. Dayson grasp onto him with both hands as relief filled him. It all became clear to him. The storm had past and he was left with the destruction, death, and the laughing woman’s voice. However, far off in the distance, beyond the voice he then recognized, there was sliver of light on the distant horizon. Dawn was giving birth to a new day.
“I can’t give you what you want,” squeaked the dying man. “I can’t help you.”
Confused, Yanex responded, “I’m here to help you.”
“No, you’re here to help yourself.”
The monitors dipped as Dayson slipped into unconsciousness. Yanex was ushered out with an even greater sense of loss than he went in with. It had been his one chance to speak with the once great man, and it had past him with only a few words. He clearly had not gained the insight that the other man had.
Dayson later awoke with a great sense of peace. The gift had read the messenger and given him understanding. The future was no longer a walled path. It was free to turn in any direction. He could now die in peace.
There was one other thing that bothered him about the messenger, about Yanex, the man himself. It was from him personally. He saw that the man was absolutely ruthless.
Two military offices greeted General Yanex as he left the suite. Identifying themselves as emissaries for the Command Staff, they escorted him to a chamber deep under the mansion where they entered a secret Sub-Trans station. It was an unmapped branch to the planet wide underground transportation system. Serving as a high-speed railway system, most of the passenger and freight traffic moved through the vast network of tunnels.
A small unmarked vehicle awaited them. It was an aerodynamic body supported by four extensions that affixed to tracks at opposing points of the circular tunnel. The larger lower mounts contained motors that drove the undersized transport out of the station. It then accelerated until they had enough speed to couple with the magnetic field that traveled through the four tracks like a sine wave. Blue lights, which streamed by forming a continuous line, changed to white as they entered one of the main tunnels. From the forest sanctuary the transport past under a major city before dropping deep under one of the planet’s oceans. Yanex missed out on a view of Maracasa’s spectacular skyline as he entered the city.
The trip ended as it had begun, in secrecy. They disembarked in secluded part of the military station, under the Royal Pyramid. It wasn’t long afterward that Yanex found himself sitting alone in the plush office suite of Marshal Grindell.
Grindell entered through a side door followed by two aids. Yanex stood as he shook the enthusiastic man’s hand.
“Welcome, General,” smiled Grindell, “it’s good to have you here.”
“Thank you, sir. It’s rather strange to be here.”
“Strange?” Grindell motioned for him to be seated as he moved behind his desk. The aides sat on either side of him and hardly spoke while making notes of their conversation. “I can hardly imagine. You saw this city destroyed, didn’t you General?”
“I watched this nation be systematically cutup and exterminated. They wiped out entire species.”
Grindell began rubbing his chin. “I’m rather disturbed by that.”
“As well you should be, Marshal. That’s what I’m here to prevent.”
Grindell wasn’t sure he liked that tone. He glanced at his notes before asking, “Your trip back in time, you stated that it was some sort of accident? Some sort of weapon’s malfunction?”
“It was an experimental device. One that clearly did not work properly.”
“Is it included in the information you have for me?”
“No, I have no data on it (any longer). It was strictly classified. The other data should be sufficient to achieve the objective.”
A slight frown betrayed the Marshal’s disappointment. “What about the rest of the information? Do you have that with you?”
“My crew is putting it together. It should be ready by the time I meet with the General Assembly.”
“The General Assembly? We want to keep this matter a little more confidential. Surely you can see the need for secrecy here, General. After all, your Alliance doesn’t exist now.”
“Of course, sir,” said Yanex.
“We all want to serve the best interest of Aultra here, don’t we, General?”
“I more than understand the present political situation. Actually, the Alliance wasn’t without its turmoil.” Actually it was on a constant verge of collapse. Only the encroaching evil held it together.
“Good. A sub-council is meeting on how to proceed on this matter,” Grindell said. “However, they can be rather lethargic in their dealings. Well, they’re damn slow.”
“We really don’t want too many delays. We should start updating our units as soon as possible. I’ll start transferring data when it’s compiled. Work should begin on a larger construction facility immediately, if we’re to have the new fleet ready.”
“New fleet? Let’s take this one step at a time, General. Our present financial situation isn’t all that conducive to building an entire fleet.”
“I’m aware of the nation’s financial short falls. I’m including a number of outlines on programs that will help raise revenues, or at least they did in my past.”
Grindell leaned back in his chair with his arms folded. “You seem to have this all worked out.”
“Not entirely. But, I’ve already fought this war,” Yanex said sternly. “I know how it was lost. I know where the mistakes were made.”
There was a tense silence as the aides tapped away feverishly on their keyboards.
“Well then, General Yanex, I’m sure you’ll serve as an excellent advisor. That is once you rejoin the fleet.”
“In time, sir. I want to ensure the needs of my ship and crew first.”
“Of course.” Grindell had expected him take that route. Advocating for his people while vying for his own position. The notion of being an advisor had been soundly rejected. This complete, and untrustworthy, stranger was vying for power in the Command Staff. Power that Grindell was not about to give him.
“The Military Council will need to decide on commissioning your ship.” They both knew that wasn’t true. Grindell could’ve done it right then if he thought it would have given him control of the Oronos.
“In the meantime, we want to ensure the security of this advanced technology. We’re working on cover story to explain your appearance. That is if I can count on your cooperation?”
“That shouldn’t be a problem,” said Yanex. “We’ve already seen the first installment of your story.”
“It’ll pretty much proceed along those lines. We’ll let the matter fade out of public view, then attribute the technology advances to those Delphian carriers you delivered us.”
Yanex smiled at the recondition for his victory. “That should work for a while, but in the long run you’ll need to come up with something better, like the truth.”
Grindell had to restrain his reaction. There was no way he would allow this story to be told. He knew the price for secrecy. The more the lies piled up, the harder they were to crawl out from under. “We’ll deal with that when the time comes.”
“Good. When can I start issuing shore leave to my crew?”
“Shore leave?” Grindell sat straight up.
“We’ve be in space a long time. It’s been a very difficult journey. My people need some time in the sun so they can take in all that’s happened to them.”
“I’m not unsympathetic, General. However, we have some concerns,” he paused, “about releasing your crew into the general population.”
“Well with all they’ve been through, it’s felt that some time to adjust might be in order. Some time to attend to their psychological needs.”
“What my people need is shore leave. Most of them haven’t seen home since they saw it destroyed.”
Grindell cut to his true message. “There’s also some concern about their knowledge of the future.”
“Once briefed about the security measures, my people can trusted.”
“All of them?” Grindell asked intently. “I was told you have a mixed race crew. Not one of them will try to use their knowledge of the future for personal gain? We don’t necessarily want word of the coming war to spread throughout the nation.”
“Why not? How else will people be prepared for it?”
“We’ll take care of that.”
“Who’s we?” Yanex demanded.
“Yanex, surely you can understand that our story must be complete. Any cracks in this wall of secrecy and it will crumble at our feet. Our enemies will descend on us. You do see the need to keep this technology for Aultra, alone?”
“Yes, of course.” Yanex resented his loyalty being questioned, he was a child of Aultra. He fought the urge to lash out. The lesson of his last encounter with a certain professor hadn’t been completely lost. Diplomacy came hard to him, but it did come.
“But I never agreed to the fact of the Krix being covered up,” Yanex continued. “Part of the problem was the people’s apathy toward the other races being attacked. This time they must be aware of the threat. They must be ready to fight.”
“Well, I’m not saying that this is a permanent situation. If there are other avenues to pursue, we’ll certainly explore them. But in the meantime, we don’t want to start a nationwide panic over something that might happen.”
“There are no other avenues,” Yanex declared, “the war is inevitable. You can’t avoid it. And there will be no panic. We are stronger than you think. Aultra will rise to the challenge, as it did before.”
“I’m sure they will, General,” Grindell smiled. A phony smile meant to keep things on a friendly note. We’re all on the same side kind of smile. “And I’ll see what I can do about your shore leave.”
“Anything will do, a remote resort or something.”
“That’s a possibility, and a good idea.”
“Beyond that we’re going to need to start some kind of assimilation program,” Yanex suggested. “Most of my crew are well beyond their duty commitments.”
“As I said,” smiled the Marshal as stood and offered his hand, “together we can work these details out. I’ll be waiting for that data.”
Yanex grasp the man’s hand firmly, “I’m sure it’ll be ready before I meet with the Council.”
As Yanex reached the door, Grindell called after him, “Oh, General, I don’t want to delay our recovery operation. With your permission, I’d like to organize some teams to start repairs and salvage operations on your ship.”
Yanex hesitated, hadn’t he made it clear that he wanted to meet with the council before turning over his ship? But then maybe he was being too hard lined. The meeting had been far more adversarial than he had wanted. Some concession might be in order.
“That will be acceptable. I’ll free up some people to assist them.” (Watch them.)
In the reception area of the Command Staff’s executive offices, Yanex happened upon another man wearing the insignia of marshal. A stocky bald man, Packlin greeted him with a welcoming handshake and congratulations on his victory.
“Hell of a battle, General. I would’ve loved to seen the look on Hess’ snout when you vanished from his screens.” Packlin laughed out loud. “It’s good to have you with us. The fleet suddenly looks a whole lot more impressive for a change.”
“If all goes well, Marshal.” said Yanex.
“I’ve reviewed your reports on these Krix. We should go over this stuff in detail when you have some time.”
Yanex was more than pleased to hear that. Here was a true Tyramma, preparing for the next challenge before the present one was even concluded. Despite his obvious short falls, Yanex had always liked what he’d heard about Packlin. He was a hard driving combat officer. He would have been a great asset against the Krix, if it hadn’t been for his demise that is.
“Yes,” Yanex said, “as soon as I can settle a few other matters.”
“Good,” Packlin stated as he looked over a clipboard full of messages that had been handed to him by a young officer. One in particular grabbed his attention, a short mixture of letters and numbers. “If you’ll excuse me General, I have some other matters to see too.”
Yanex bid the man fair well, then was told that his shuttle had been moved to the Pyramid’s built in hanger, he could depart directly from there. Yanex struggled with the idea of leaving so soon, he’d only just arrived. He longed to see the city as it once was, to walk its avenues and be immersed in people that weren’t all wearing uniforms. However, that would be entirely too selfish. His crew remained cooped up in that ship while he breathed fresh air. No, the rest of his homecoming would have to wait.
Grindell called Packlin over to a quiet corner after Yanex left. “I’m having Zilldac put a sort of recovery team together to go to that ship. I wonder if you might have a few people that we can slip in?”
Packlin smiled, “Yes, I think I can come up with someone.”
After rearranging his jammed agenda, Packlin eluded his entourage to make his way to an unoccupied suite of offices in one of the adjacent buildings. His pulse quickened as a burly soldier led him into a locked room. It was the only room with furniture in the otherwise barren floor. Located toward the center of the building, there weren’t even windows to betray the goings on within. Security probes and jammers also insured the privacy. He put his emotions in check as he approached a small desk in the center of the room. Behind it sat a dark haired woman.
“I thought we agreed not to meet until the next month?” Packlin said, trying to keep his voice from cracking. He wiped his sweaty palms on his uniform pants.
“We did, but there has been a change in plans,” smiled Marlanna. “A dramatic change.”