Grindell had been ordered to bring the data crystal directly to his civilian superiors. In an elaborate office located in one of the government’s many building complexes, the crystal’s secrets were revealed. Holographic images floated above a colossal desk as a small extravagant woman sat watching, with arms folded. Attired in stylish apparel, the shapely black haired woman in no way fit the image of the position she held. As one of the Council’s more outspoken members, Counsel Vailla conducted herself in any manor she saw fit.
“Impressive, is it not?” observed Grindell.
“Impressive?” Vailla questioned in her heavy aristocratic accent. “It’s a monstrosity. It’s too big. There are too many redundancies. It’s ten times the size of our standard carriers and only provides room for two additional squadrons. We could never afford the upkeep, let alone the cost of repairing it.”
“Actually madam, with the system advances, the service costs are quite reasonable. Her power plants are three times more efficient than ours and require half the maintenance.”
Vailla seemed not to listen as she rose and strutted around the desk. “And the crew costs must be astronomical.”
“According to this, the standard operating crew is twenty-five-hundred. Everybody else is optional.”
With a sarcastic sigh, she stated, “I’ll let you in on a little secret, we are broke. We can not afford this ship, never mind building more of them.”
The Marshal was more than aware of the nation’s financial difficulties; he was reminded of it every time he asked for something.
“Madam, we can’t afford not to have this ship. Or an entire fleet of them.”
“Do you have any idea what this will do to the arms race? Our allies will turn against us. We’d be isolated, hounded for this technology.”
“Our allies? Our friends who won’t lift a finger to help us against Delphia? The arms race is exactly what I’m talking about. This ship wins it.”
“As lacking as our friends may be, we can not afford any more enemies. The current war has been too much of a strain on our resources. It must be ended before we can consider any other investments.”
“With all due respect, Counsel, the advanced technology and shear firepower of that ship has turned the war in our favor. By freeing up the rest of our fleet here, I can achieve a strategic victory in the Darcane System, and force Delphia to the negotiating table,” Grindell boasted with clenched fist.
“And leave Aultra defenseless?”
“Aultra is far from defenseless, ground based units are sufficient to hold off any major attack. There’s also the Oronos and those two Delphian ships we captured.”
“The Oronos is not under your control, and those others are far from combat ready, by your own report. You sent me a memo looking for more money for them.” She ignored the rest of what he’d said. The advantage was in pointing out the deficiencies. It was the constant sparring that slowed operations of the military. Government and military officials were constantly bumping heads. Each time Fleet Command ran into any kind of obstacle, Grindell would automatically blow it out of proportion to his staff officers. This was meant to make himself look better. In actuality, it nourished resentment against the bureaucracy, resentment that was starting to bloom.
As much as the military fought with the government, there were struggles within the Assembly itself. When Grindell blamed his inability to commandeer the Oronos on their not meeting with General Yanex, Vailla reluctantly admitted, “Jurisdiction has not yet been established on that matter.”
“Jurisdiction? Kryton from the Foreign Council has already met with them.”
“This is a military matter,” Vailla snapped, letting her cool exterior slip momentarily, “it is under the control of my Council.”
“I see,” smiled Grindell.
“You see nothing, Marshal. Once a format has been established, we shall meet with your, supposed, time traveling friend.”
“I will inform General Yanex.”
“General Yanex, if that is his name, is now the concern of this Council. We shall deal with him directly for now on.”
Grindell knew just how empty of a proclamation that was. His people were already heavily involved with the Oronos. To pull the matter away from him would be highly counterproductive.
As a last ditch effort to gain the upper hand he asked, “And my request for a counter strike at Darcane?”
Vailla turned her attention to papers on her desk. “I will take it under advisement.”
“I would hope that you would bring it up before the Council as soon as possible. We have a fleeting window of opportunity here.”
Unit movements were not her exclusive decision. Her job was to oversee the voting of her council.
“I will take it under advisement,” she glared at him.
“Thank you, Counsel.”
“She’s a fool, Packlin,” Grindell proclaimed in hushed voice as the two men hurried through the expansive lobby of the Royal Pyramid. The staunch military atmosphere of the majority of the building had been set aside in the design of the entranceway. Several floors of balconies lay open above them and were decorated with vegetation and glass works of art.
“What did she say?” Packlin pushed as they cleared a security check and moved to the transport lobby.
“The most powerful ship in the known galaxy,” Grindell rambled, “and they’d scrap it for lack of funds.”
“What about Darcane? We need to move before they can bring up reinforcements.”
A car designated for high level officials opened immediately for them. Grindell rubbed his chin as he stepped in. “Gather your plans and statistics. We’ll get moving on the deployment. I can’t wait on those bureaucrats.”
He waited as Packlin stood outside the car, deep in thought.
“I have a quick matter to attend to,” Packlin excused himself with. “I’ll join within the mayda.”
The HLT transport ship passengers were repeatedly remained of how classified the ship they were about to board was. Aurora didn’t need to be reminded. She glanced around the crowded cabin at all of the different people with their security access badges displayed prominently and wondered how many of them were really soldiers, like that bastard Horace. Word traveled fast and suspicions were running high.
The ship lurch slightly as it settled into the docking port on the rear edge of the Oronos’ wing. The four ship’s officers were waved ahead as the other passengers lined up for the security checkpoint. The large access passage they crossed was lined with cargo containers and equipment ready to be off-loaded for surface research installations. It bothered Aurora to see how much stuff was leaving the ship, with very little coming back. No repair crews or construction materials were being on-loaded and fuel was trickling aboard.
Tollyn dismissed it by saying they needed time to organize such a large-scale construction project. The orbiting space station simply wasn’t able to handle such an immense ship. He said that he would report to Marcone and tell him about Yanex’s leaving them as he and Lorran left for the COC.
Something struck Aurora as being different while she and Sands traveled back to their barracks. There were an awful lot of strange uniforms in the corridors. It didn’t occur to her that not all of them were wearing access badges until they ran into Lazell outside of transport tube. The girl flashed smile and posed with one hand in the air, to show off her new uniform. Actually it was the old uniform. The old black pants and jacket, with a red shirt, that the present day Tyramma wore conformed nicely to her shapely body.
“Everybody’s getting new uniforms,” said Lazell. “Do you like it?”
Aurora didn’t. She rushed past her and into the dayroom. There she found piles of their old clothing on the floor. Worse than that were boxes of personal effects. Racing down to her own room, she discovered two badge wearing people going through her things and throwing anything they thought questionable into a box on the bed.
“What the fuck are you doing!” she roared at the startled men. “Get out of my room!”
“We’re under orders,” said the man at her closet. Over his initial shock, he went back to looking through her letters while the other man pulled open a draw.
Aurora rushed over and tore the papers from his hands. “This is personal property! You have no right to violate personal property.”
“We have our orders from Fleet Command,” the man tried to explain as he stepped back with hands open. “All material conflicting to the cover story is to be confiscated.”
“It’s okay,” Lazell squeaked from the door. “They went through my stuff too.”
“It’s not okay! Fleet Command has no authority here.”
Sands stepped in and stated, “The Commander must’ve approved it. It’s part of the cover story.”
“Cover story?” Aurora marched over to him. “You mean the lie. They’re erasing us, Sands. They’re erasing where we came from and making up their own story.”
“There’s a reason for it,” Sands tried to explain. “If you’ll calm down and listen.”
“The reason is that they want to hide the fact that they screwed up,” Aurora said bitterly. “They lost this war and they want to hide it. They want to shut us all up. They’re getting rid of the evidence here. Well it was my life, as fucked up as it was! It’s who we are, and they’re not going to take it from me just because they don’t like the way it came out. It was mine!”
Sands didn’t follow as she stormed out of the room. He doubted that she would listen to the reality of the situation, the politics of it. He simply nodded for the men to continue, then went to find his own room ransacked.
“Are you all right?” Lazell called out as she hurried to catch up with Aurora in the corridor. “Do you want to talk about this?”
“No! Leave me alone.”
“I want to talk about it. We can help each other.”
Aurora turned back when she reached the transport. “I don’t want to talk. I’m tired. I just want to go home.”
Not knowing where to direct the transport, she entered alone. The doors closed and Lazell stood there alone.
“We are home,” she said to herself as tears streamed down her face. Her faith slipped, and she suddenly found herself lost. The growing bitterness around her was starting to overwhelm her. She had to resist it. She had to keep up her strength. Surely it wasn’t all that bad, they were home. Soon they would all be free to walk on the planet she told herself.
This didn’t bother her as much as the fact that she was failing with Aurora. The more she tried, the more she was spurned. How much more could she stand?
Marcone went straight to the General’s quarters when he heard that Yanex had returned. “I heard what happened, is everything all right?”
“Yes,” Yanex said from the bathroom as he washed up. “Things are a little more complicated here than I expected.”
“Tollyn said that you went to meet with someone. It wasn’t her, was it?” Marcone made no attempt to hide his dislike of the treacherous Princess.
“An interesting woman that Marlanna. It seems that her influence reaches a lot further than I had anticipated.”
“Sir, wouldn’t it be a good idea if we distanced ourselves from her? It might prejudice the Counsel against us.”
“The Counsel should have no opinion on her at this point.”
“If you want the support of the Royal Clan, shouldn’t it come from Dyoney? After all, her coronation takes place in twenty-nine days.”
“The coronation marks the end of power in the Royal Clan, all influence dies with Dayson.”
“Influence? Do we want to associate ourselves with Marlanna’s kind of influence? The Shadow Corps and assassins?”
Yanex stepped from the bathroom. He dried his hands with a small towel that still bore the Alliance insignia; the recovery team hadn’t reached his quarters yet. He tossed the towel back into the bathroom blindly and said, “Marlanna isn’t the only one serving their own interests here.”
Marcone didn’t like the sound of that. “How so?”
“When Dayson dies eight days from now, there will be an upheaval in the General Assembly. It’s related to this push for Darcane sovereignty.”
“I thought that failed.”
“It did,” Yanex said as he sat behind his desk. “Or rather will. I’m just concerned that with all the turmoil coming in the next few weeks we might be pushed aside. I have to keep them focused on the real issue here. They need to act on the Krix now, not when they get around to it. Not when it’s in the right people’s best interest.”
“I agree, and I’m not afraid to say that this veil of secrecy they’re putting up is starting to trouble me. Some of the edicts are starting to sound threatening.”
“I’m not all that happy about it either, but I can understand it. The last thing we need is for every nation in this sector to start putting claims on this ship.”
“Certainly not, but just how long can they keep it up? Delphia must have every spy on their payroll on their way here by now.”
Yanex chuckled. Grindell had boasted about all of the spies they had arrested thanks to them.
“Let’s hope that it’s long enough to get the new fleet started.”
“Another thing,” Marcone added, “I’m concerned about the crew. A lot of them are starting to worry about how this cover-up will affect them. I’m a little concerned about it myself.”
“Nothing’s been decided yet. Once I’ve spoken to the Council about the Krix, I’ll bring that up in the open assembly. There’ll be no games when it comes to my people.”
Marcone took some comfort in that and felt more at ease. After discussing some of the ship’s other business, he excused himself. His shift had run exceedingly long in the General’s absence.
“One more thing,” Yanex stopped him at the door. “Notify Tollyn and Sands that the investigation into the stolen data chip is now terminated.”
Marcone was surprised. “May I ask why?”
Yanex cast his eyes down at the desk. “There is no further need for it.”
“With all due respect sir, does this have anything to do with your covert meeting?”
“The matter is becoming damaging to our cause, Colonel,” Yanex said firmly. “I want it ended, immediately.”
Marcone’s racing mind came up with the worst. However, he squelched any further argument. “Yes sir,” he responded.
More and more people were coming aboard. More and more equipment was leaving, bound for laboratories on the surface. Planet wide research had turned in a different direction. Foundries and mining stations would soon get new orders and designs for composites. The existing fleet would be retrofitted and upgraded. Everything on the damaged ship became a commodity. Even the wreckage of a couple of interceptors were off loaded to the planet.
The recovery crew even worked in the COC. Unused stations were disassembled and their components removed. Software and programs were downloaded and translated. Workers crawled through the equipment racks below the floor. Even cabling harnesses were removed for study on how they might improve existing technology.
Despite the cramped space below the floor, Horace had no trouble moving about. His knees were practically in his chest, he made his way along the darkened pathway between metal racks that housed various components. Even though the confinement didn’t bother the well-conditioned giant, it was good to stand erect when he climbed up through an opening on the side of the COC’s main floor. Having been aboard for five days, he no longer drew as much attention as initially.
Horace took note that the ship’s commander was present as he carried a black box to the back of the chamber and stacked it with others. The rank of sergeant on his arm would normally gain him little respect in the region of mostly officers. It made him that much more conspicuous when he stood beside the Command Station, looking over the scenery. Yanex gave him little more than a glance, focusing on his duties instead.
“A fine ship,” Horace said to no one, his eyes focused forward. A slightly turned head indicated that he had the attention he wanted.
“It will be a shame if the Council gets its way. I’d sure hate to lose such a fine ship to the scrap heap.”
His message delivered, Horace returned to his work. An almost absurd notion, as he had just confirmed that he knew, they knew, he was a plant. As long as they didn’t throw him off the ship he would be in a position to take action when the time came. If the General did remove him, another would take his place, another that could be unknown to them.
Horace climbed back down under the floor as Yanex rewrote his enemies’ list. They would never scrap his ship.
“Go away,” Aurora said bitterly when Lazell sat down next to her at the bar.
“You should be nicer to me you know,” Lazell said. Her voice had a strange tone to it, one that Aurora had never heard before, it was serious.
“Why?” Aurora said without looking at her.
“Because I’m your friend.”
“I don’t want a friend.”
“No, but you need one.”
It occurred to Aurora that there was a different person sitting beside her. It was the same face, the same wild hair, but something was different. It was in the eyes. They looked directly into her own. They didn’t roam around the room as they usually did. The air of carelessness that hid the true spirit of the young woman was gone. She sat there, open, honest, and exposed. Aurora sudden realized that for the first time, Lazell looked like an adult, an equal. All the more reason to hide from her.
“It’s nothing you want to be involved in.” Aurora turned back to her drink.
“Nothing I want to be involved in? What, the fact that we’re being boarded by covert troops? The fact that nobody trusts us? Maybe it’s the point that no one’s returned from leave.”
“No one’s come back from the resort?”
“No, they’re being transferred to some processing center for debriefing.”
“Does the Commander know this?”
“Of course,” said Lazell, “why do you think nobody important has gone.”
Aurora shook her head, then polished off her drink. “What’s the difference? There’s nothing we can do about it.”
“Is that it? You feel you’re powerless over the situation?”
Aurora didn’t respond she just waved for another drink. Although she was well over her limit, the bartender was reluctant to turn her down.
“They’re taking your past from you,” Lazell pushed. “They’re doing it to all of us. We’re becoming a people without a past because they’re afraid of it, what is to be they’re future. They may be able to steal the past for us, but we still have the future, a new future.”
“The future will repeat itself if they’re too stupid to learn from the past, our past.”
“Maybe, but you and I are hardly powerless in this situation. There is a time to sit back and accept things as they are, but this isn’t one of them. Our mission is to change things, to have an effect on the future.”
“It’s not going right. There’s something going on here, something bad.”
“Tell me what it is, and we’ll do something about it. You learned something while you were down there, what?”
Aurora looked the woman in the eye once more and saw something she hadn’t seen in a long time, honesty. There sat someone she could truly trust and depend on, she was sure of it. The world they were being thrown into was bleak and deceitful, and here was a ray of sunlight. As annoying as Aurora often found the girl, she was jealous of her optimism. She could only dream of seeing things as hopefully as Lazell had. How could she dash her spirit by dragging her into this mess?
“You wouldn’t understand,” Aurora snapped. “This is nothing I want to share with you.”
Lazell’s stern expression became hurtful. “All right, suffer alone.”
Lazell took two steps from her seat, then turned back. She was angry. “Ya know, I’ve tried to be your friend. I thought you needed one. All you’ve done is push me away.”
“And you never wanted anything from me?” Aurora responded.
“Well, maybe I did. But, it’s not a lot to ask for, is it? I just want to live.”
Aurora hesitated and didn’t look up at her.
“You’re not the easiest person to get along with. You’re just a cold hearted bitch. Is your heart so full of hate that you can’t let me in?”
Aurora didn’t answer. She sat there in silence staring into her glass. When Lazell turned away, for good, she called out to her. “Wait, stay.”
“I want you to.”
Lazell slowly sat back down, leaned on an arm, and listened.
It took a moment for Aurora to start. She was having trouble controlling what she wanted to say. In the end, she just opened her mouth.
“Down there,” she said slowly, “I, ah, felt lost, alone. I’ve never felt so empty as I did in that city. It was as if I weren’t even there. This is so unreal, being in the past, everything is gone. I’ve never been born. We don’t exist. We don’t belong here.”
“Then why are we here?”
“I don’t know, it was a damn accident. That’s if we’re here at all. We could all be dead for all I know.”
“We’re not,” Lazell’s eyes filled with tears, “we’re here, and we’re here for a reason. This is the New World. There are new lives for us here. We deserve them. We’ve suffered and fought for them.”
“We’re not done fighting yet. There’s something terribly wrong here, I know it.”
“Then maybe we should figure that out.”
“I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“Don’t worry,” Lazell smiled, “I’m stronger than you think.”
Aurora chuckled a bit. She handed the woman a napkin while saying, “Yes, yes you are. I’m sorry I underestimated you.”
“It’s okay.” Lazell stood up. “I’m use to it. Come on, let’s go find out what’s going on.”
As they left the bartender cleared away the glasses. It was becoming an all too common scene for him. The transition was difficult for a lot of the crew. Many times he had found himself in a bout of his own depression that close friends had helped him through.
Glancing up at the monitor over the bar, he caught the end of the planetary news broadcast, hopeful that some good news would cheer him. There was none.
“Counsel Shylock of Darcane spoke out publicly against the delay of Writ 625,” the announcer said. “The measure would give individual planets and provinces the right to dictate their own local laws. Joined by representatives from Tainus, Shylock demanded that the Prime Minister bring the measure up to a vote of the General Assemble.”
There was a short portion of what Shylock had to say, followed by a statement that the Prime Minister, whom also chaired the general assembly, had no comment.
Sands raised his hands in defense when he saw the two women at his door. He was busy straightening up his own room after it had been ransacked.
“It’s all right,” Aurora said softly as she stepped in, followed by Lazell.
“You’re not gonna hit me, are you?” Sands joked.
“No, not unless you want me to.”
Sands smiled. “Maybe later. Hey listen, it’s a fuckin’ kick in the teeth comin’ back to this shit, I know. If I had been warned...”
“It’s not your fault,” Aurora said as she sat on his dresser. “I know that.”
“In a few days,” Sands said, “they’ll turn over the ship and we’ll be out of it. We’ll transfer off and get a good vacation. How’s that sound?”
“Down to Kayden?” Lazell asked.
“To be assimilated?”
“I think debriefed is a little more appropriate, and less sinister.”
“Are you aware that no one’s come back from there?” Aurora asked.
“No,” said Sands, “none of my people have gone down yet. Why?”
“Let’s just say, I’m concerned about it,” said Aurora.
“Don’t be, everything’s fine. Things are a little confused right now. We just dropped in from a hundred cycles in the future, with a huge ship, to tell them they’re all gonna die. You can expect them to be a little screwy over it. Once we’re settled in, it’ll all work out. You’ll see.”
“What about the investigation?” Aurora asked. “Does Tollyn have any info’ on what might have fried that relay box we found?”
“Oh, um,” Sands hesitated, “that’s over with.”
“I got word from Marcone a little while ago, the Commander killed it.”
“Why?” Lazell asked.
“Didn’t say. Probably because we screwed up so bad down there.”
“No,” Aurora said sarcastically, “we didn’t screw up. He doesn’t need to find out who stole those history files, he knows who it was.”
“And who would that be?”
“Who he went to meet with,” said Aurora. “They couldn’t take the crystal off the ship at Arkonus, we were scanning for that. So who just happened to risk her ass staying aboard to read the damn thing on the way home?”
“Of course Marlanna.”
“Hey, you don’t know who he met with,” Sands said.
“Who else would it be? Holder was probably part of the Shadow Corps and didn’t even know it. She didn’t just roll out of bed one day and decide to take over. It took planning and preparation. Most of Fleet Command followed her when she made her move. It was the line officers and ranks that stopped her.”
“You think she’s already on the move with this?” Sands asked as he sat on his bed.
“Of course she is,” said Aurora. “Wake the fuck up. Why else would she want those files?”
Sands cursed at the floor. “If she read those files...”
“She knows where all her mistakes were made. She’ll know who betrayed her, and who to trust. She’ll know exactly how she went wrong, and how to get it right this time.”
“We need proof,” said Sands, “we have to be able to prove it’s her.”
“The proof is in the history data,” said Aurora. “Everything about her and whoever was with her is in there.”
“There is no more history data,” Lazell said. “I heard they wiped all the computers clear of it. And, they confiscated anything that even looks like it might have a date on it.”
“This ship is huge,” Aurora said, “there are two-thousand of us with memories, they can’t get it all. There are enough of us who know what happened to testify.”
Sands shook his head. “I doubt that she could be convicted of a crime that she would have committed. After all, our past no longer exists. It never happened, kinda.”
“No,” Aurora shot back, “but it would be enough to expose her and stop her and who she’s in cahoots with.”
“Cahoots?” asked Lazell.
“Cahoots,” Aurora explained, “you know, her followers.”
“I like that word,” Lazell smiled and repeated it a few times, then giggled.
“Ya know,” Sands said, “the Commander already knows all this. He had more access to those files than we did. He may have already dealt with her.”
“Then why did he meet with her?” Aurora asked.
“I don’t know, maybe he’s playin’ her. You don’t even know that it was her he met with. It could have been Grindell.”
“Or it could’ve been Packlin,” said Lazell. “He’s in cahoots with Marlanna.”
She and Aurora shared a silly smile.
Sands was surprised at how much Lazell knew. “Packlin was in on it?”
“Yeah, he turned on her in the end.”
“Who else?” asked Aurora.
“Listen,” said Sands, “we’re out of this. General Yanex has things under control.”
“You sure of that?” Aurora asked.
“If he wants our help, he’ll ask for it. Besides, we have no more access to information. The files have all been dumped.”
A devilish smile spread across Aurora’s face as she remembered something. She hopped off the dresser and headed out of the door, followed closely by the others.
“I hate it when she gets that look,” Sands mumbled as they followed her into her room. From her nightstand, Aurora produced a data crystal. “This is the one Holder used to first download the data. I forgot I put it in my pocket.”
“Big deal,” Sands declared, “it was erased as he loaded it back into the system.”
“Why didn’t the search teams take it?” asked Lazell.
“Because there’s nothing on it,” Sands explained, “it was erased. You can’t recall data off a dumped crystal.”
“Well,” Aurora’s smile broadened, “you’re not supposed to be able too.”