Fleet General Suza did not question the urgency of his orders. He assembled his fleet and moved out of orbit on time, even though they were not ready. Transports and shuttles chased after the group of three battleships and two carriers as they accelerated toward light speed and the jump to ex-space. One ship, the Attragone, lagged behind. Her crew had been spread all over Aultra on leave when the orders came down. Even the ship’s commander was forced into one of those shuttles that were rushing to catch up.
General Gilderith sat passively listening to a news broadcast as he looked over some reports from his ship. The two-day-old government walkout still dominated the stories, and was intensifying. He was disturbed about how the change of command was going and had his grave misgivings about the crash that took Grindell. However he was in no position to question orders. Chapter Fifteen had been publicly enacted before they broke orbit and all the rules had changed. Even with his suspicions and concerns, he followed his orders. That was until he was given a reason otherwise.
“Commander,” called the pilot, “I’ve lost the Attragone’s navigation beacon.”
“Is she still on the scanners?” Gilderith asked without looking up.
“Yes sir, but the transmission just quit. Shall I try to raise her?”
“No, we’ll wait. If they have a problem, we’ll deal with it when we get there.” The fleet had been ordered to run silent as soon as they had left orbit, and Gilderith didn’t want to be the one to violate it. The shuttle was still receiving the signals from Aultra so if there were a systems failure, it was on the carrier.
“Oh, it’s back,” said the pilot.
Gilderith shrugged it off and went back to his reading. That is until the background noise of the news went to static. He watched as the monitor remained out for a few moments then restored. Two thoughts struck him, the static had lasted as long as the navigation beacon had been out, and he was watching the same thing he had just seen. The last bit of the broadcast was repeating itself before moving on. Gilderith suddenly lost interest in his reports.
Once his shuttle came to rest in the crowded, busy flight-bay of the Attragone he went immediately to his Communication Center and confirmed his suspicions.
“Returning command to you, sir,” Colonel Sella announced when she saw the man bound into the Command Center. Gilderith put on a headset and ordered a full sensor sweep.
“What’s wrong?” Sella asked as she saw the look in his eyes.
“Maybe nothing, maybe plenty.” He shifted about as he awaited the results.
“Nothing out of the ordinary on the standard scanners, sir,” reported the Sensor Liaison Officer.
“Check visual.” Gilderith lowered his voice as he turned to the Colonel. “There’s a time delay in the transmissions coming from the surface. We hit it on the way out.”
Sella though a moment. “We also had a brief interruption in communication. With the blackout I wasn’t able to check it.”
“Target off port aft,” interrupted the SLO. “Four-thousand, visual only.”
“Post it on my station,” Gilderith ordered. He took his seat and zoomed the monitor in on the object, a small-unmanned probe.
“Look familiar?” he asked Sella as she leaned over his shoulder.
“That’s from the Oronos!” She hesitated a moment. “They’re jamming this system?”
Gilderith said nothing. He couldn’t stop his mind from racing through all the different scenarios of what might have been happening. All the scenarios had a common thread; none were anything good. If it were some intelligence measure, meant to stop any Delphian spy that might have escaped the round up, they should have informed him about it. That was the only reasonable explanation for it. However there were far too many unreasonable explanations. Too much was happening. Too many things bothered him. Packlin had no authority to deploy the fleet, and far too many people had suddenly gotten transfers. If it were just some new security plan, then he’d have sacrificed his career for nothing. However, if it weren’t, he might be just as bad off. Either way, he had to act.
“We’ve just developed propulsion problems,” Gilderith finally said.
“Sir?” Sella was shocked.
“With the blackout order we can’t communicate until we reach orbit.”
“I hope you know what you’re doing,” she whispered.
“I hope I’m wrong,” Gilderith sighed. “Bring us about and start reducing speed.”
Counsel Torin was called away from the preparation for his early morning press conference to learn that he had been beaten to the punch. A long night of gathering support after his encounter with Princess Marlanna was falling apart as he and his staff watched the broadcast.
Only two of the major networks carried the speech from the beginning, however when the context of it became clear, it was on every channel throughout the planet. The rest of the nation would get an uninterrupted version, but only the speech, not what followed.
Princess Marlanna was dressed uncharacteristically conservatively as she spoke to a small group of reporters on the steps of the Royal Pyramid.
“The recent discovery of an alien starship has brought us some grave news,” Marlanna announced. “The vessel we now call Oronos is all that remains of a race called the Saillians. For a hundred cycles these people bravely defended themselves against relentless attacks from a malevolent race know to them as the Krix. Now all that remains of those noble and peaceful people is this one ship.
“I have chosen to tell you this as it was the intention of the Council not to. They did not want to warn you that this force of evil is advancing in our direction. Left unchecked, it will destroy us as surely as it did billions of Saillians, as well as countless other races.”
A murmur ran through the crowd of reporters, which suddenly seemed larger. Many people suddenly found themselves watching the speech without warning. Communication lines filled at government offices as people demanded answers.
“The central government has lied to us all.” Marlanna raised her voice. “They sit about and argued as the danger grows ever closer. They have failed to act as all our lives, our families, our nation, and our future lay in the path of annihilation.
“I am here to tell you that we will not sit idly by and await death. All of our existence has been a struggle for survival, a constant battle against those who would destroy us. Even now our brave soldiers battle for the lives of the innocent on Darcane. This new threat is far greater than anything we have faced. However, I am confident that we will rise to the challenge and persevere. Only through action can we hope to survive. Action that this government was not willing to take.
“This is why I am here this day. As the bureaucracy is incapable of acting, I am forced to. In the name of Emperor Dayson, and the provisions he has laid down, I am enacting Chapter Fifteen and assuming direct command over the Unified Military of our nation.”
The words ran through the crowd like a shock wave. Hysteria and fear spread through the city. In orbit, in the lounge of the Oronos, the crew gathered in disbelief.
“Holy shit,” declared Colonel Sands, “she’s doing it.”
“Doing it?” said Aurora. “She’s already done it.”
“What do we do?” asked Lazell. “We have to do something.”
“What of Dyoney?” was shouted from the back of the crowd.
“Dyoney is not up for the challenge. She did not wish to become involved as our elected leaders made a mockery of the appointments we had entrusted them with. By the old tradition, I challenge the right of succession.
“We will build a new and stronger republic,” Marlanna announced. “One that will stand against our enemies, one that will stand for freedom, one that will serve the best interests of the people and not itself.
“Together, we will defeat the Krix and build an even greater nation. A nation that will someday know peace. Only through strength, and only through determination, can we achieve that day. Only through vigilance will we hold it.”
Shortly after the announcement, Lorran entered the lounge. She had a stunned look on her face that caught Aurora’s attention.
“Yanex met with the Council in Maracasa, four days ago,” Lorran said quietly and without meeting her eyes. “They didn’t believe him.”
“About us coming from the future?” Aurora asked.
“That, the Krix, all they did was argue. When Yanex proposed a preempted strike,” she started to shake a bit, “they blew up. Yanex stormed out of the room. I don’t know where he went. He was different when he came back. I don’t know what to do, this is all going wrong.”
“Neither do I.”
“Can you tell Sands? I have to get back to the COC.”
“I will,” said Aurora, although she seriously doubted Sands would do anything with it.
“Relax,” she tried to sound reassuring, “we’ll find out what’s happening.”
The Oronos’ COC crew was also surprised by the announcement. Chatter about it, and what it meant to them, filled the intercoms. That was until the General entered. Eyes turned toward him looking for answers, none came. Yanex simply walked about a bit, then stepped over to the Sensor Station.
“Have Tri-S reset and clear the targeting menu,” he said in a hushed voice. “Select only Alliance ships as friendly.”
“Sir,” Lorran whispered, “that will make only our own ships safe. All others will be available targets for the fire control computers, including Aultrian.”
“I’m aware of that. I will designate specific targets as needed.”
Marcone entered a short time later. He spoke with some of the other officers before approaching the General. “We wanted to change the time line,” he said.
“It’s better that they know,” said Yanex. “I was never comfortable with the idea that no one would know about the Krix.”
Marcone shook his head. “The only reason it’s out there is because that bitch is using it as a propaganda tool. She’s overthrown the lawful government.”
There was no response from the stone face General.
Lieutenant Nather chimed in over the intercom with, “Commander, we are getting reports of fighting in some of the outer provinces.”
“What about the capital?” Yanex asked.
“The streets seem quiet. However surface transmissions suggest there are a number of arrests going on. Ark-light units from the Royal Pyramid are hunting people. Also, troops have been deployed throughout the city.”
“They’re eliminating anyone opposed to them,” Marcone speculated. “There are covert troops onboard, we should secure them at once.”
“The ship is secure, Colonel,” Yanex said blankly.
This lack of enthusiasm hit Marcone; Yanex was a man of action. Even if his worst fears were true, and the traitorous Princess had taken in the General, there should be some move either way. Yanex just sat there, deep in thought.
Marcone didn’t want to ask which side they were on. He didn’t want to question the loyalty of his old, if strained, friend. He had to know though. He had to ask, somehow.
“Is there a problem?” Marcone asked tenuously.
“With the mission? Is there something wrong?”
“No.” Yanex no longer wanted to be questioned. “Prepare flight operations. Make ready primary interceptor squadron.”
“Yes sir. What’s the mission?”
“Defensive perimeter, however I want them fully dressed should the situation change.”
Marcone simply nodded as he stepped off. Over his headset he heard a message from Lorran. “Sir, the Attragone has broken off from the fleet and is headed back this way.”
“Lock scanners on her and see if you can pick up any of their internal communication,” Yanex ordered.
“Attragone has raised an ECM field to keep us out,” reported Nather.
“There is a shuttle from the Maracasa moving to intercept the Attragone,” said Lorran.
“Sir,” added Nather, “that same ship is transmitting a request for assistance to the fleet at Darcane. Also, Major Tollyn states he has a coded message for you. Do you want it here?”
“No,” Yanex rose from his seat. “I’ll come back for it.”
Marcone watched him leave, then went to Nather. “How long will it take that signal to reach Darcane?”
“It won’t,” Nather said smugly. “We’re filtering all communication through here.” The man suddenly realized that he shouldn’t have said anything and fell silent. However he had already said too much.
Half a dozen shuttles and transports intercepted the Attragone as she moved into orbit. The highest-ranking officer to make it out was Fleet General Mellor. He was jumping with excitement over his harrowing escape. Actually, he ran down a hall when someone yelled for him to stop. He was lucky to catch a transport tube as its doors closed.
“I was lucky not to be in my office when they came,” Mellor told General Gilderith as they hurried down a corridor. “There was no warning. As soon as Marlanna started her speech, her goons were arresting people. No charges, just pulling them out.”
“I knew something was wrong when we crossed a jamming barrier,” Gilderith said as they entered the rear of the Command Center.
Gilderith pointed up at a monitor that displayed the Oronos, hanging just over the horizon of the planet. “They’re in on it. They’re filtering all of the out going transmissions. The Darcane fleet probably has no idea what’s going on.”
“If they do,” agreed Mellor, “it’s a limited idea. I knew she’d have to have some powerful allies to try something like this. Well, they’re not going to get away with it. We’re going to call they’re bluff.”
Gilderith glanced up at the Oronos. His mind shot back to the first time he’d seen that sinister form looming over him. The Attragone was stuffed with troops and fighters, they’d even dismantled some MAC-32s and crammed them in, however even on her best day, and that was it, she was no match for the Oronos.
Gilderith had stood firm behind Earth’s moon, at Arkonus he had been awe inspired, now fear washed over him. His own life was inconsequential to the over three thousand people on his ship.
“They may not be bluffing, sir. I’ve seen what that ship can do.”
“Nonsense,” said Mellor, a man who had never been in actual combat. A man who was fevered with the thrill of battle without ever having tasted blood, or seen his brothers dead by his own mistake. “Jamming signals is one thing, firing on another human ship is quite another. They won’t push it that far.”
“We’re no match for that ship, General.”
“I’m not planning to take on the Oronos,” Mellor said as he walked over to a display table used to plot battles. Gilderith and Sella joined him as he called for a display of the planet’s surface. “Why aren’t we over Maracasa?”
“Because the Oronos has moved into that orbit,” stated Sella.
“There’s less of a concentration of surface batteries here,” Gilderith explained. “This also puts us in line to observe the Oronos, and gives us an escape behind the horizon, if need be.”
Mellor scoffed, “There’s no need to worry about the surface defenses, they won’t fire on us.”
“You’re sure of that?” asked Sella.
Mellor glared up at her. “The last thing they want is a spectacle. There aren’t that many troops in the capital. They want things quick and quiet. The less there is for people to get upset about, the better it is for them. Can you imagine the public uproar if this ship were to burn into the atmosphere? No Colonel, they want everything to remain calm and quiet. That way there’s nothing for people to rally around. If there’s no significant threat to the individual citizen, they are less likely to rise up.”
Gilderith saw some sense to that. “Out of sight, out of mind.”
“Precisely,” Mellor said. “This can work to our advantage.”
Mellor called for a map of Maracasa and pointed out the area of the Royal Pyramid. “You’re carrying nearly a battalion of troops (900 people), are you not General?”
Gilderith nodded and folded his arms.
“We deploy those troops here,” Mellor gestured at a park adjacent to the Royal Pyramid. “Then surround the Royal Pyramid and demand Marlanna’s surrender.”
“If she refuses?” Gilderith asked.
“We take her, and Packlin.”
Sella and Gilderith glanced at each other before Gilderith got started. “First problem, we are simply ferrying these troops to Darcane. We don’t have drop ships to deploy them.”
“There are transport ships coming alongside,” Mellor said, “use them and your own shuttles.”
“Yes sir, that is possible, but neither is designed to make that kind of a landing, and neither is equipped to provide cover fire if the drop point should go hot.”
“Your interceptors will provide escort down to the landing zone, then provide cover as needed.”
“Yes sir, they can, that brings me to the next point. We would need to make several sorties in order to deploy any significant force. As soon as we dispatched the first flight, they would be alerted to us. By the time we got our people down there, they’d either be waiting for us or well fortified.”
Sella added, “Never mind the fact that these are transport pilots. I doubt that any of them has ever flow into the heart of a city before.”
She zoomed the map into the maze of buildings that the ships would be required to navigate. “There is a high probability of an accident.”
Gilderith threw up his hands. “Each one of those flights is vulnerable to attack. Even if the Oronos doesn’t engage us, Marlanna is bound to have some fighter squadrons on her side. We could be taking on the whole planet if she paints us as rebels!”
“Do either of you have a better idea?” said Mellor.
“Sneak in a crack unit to infiltrate the Royal Pyramid,” Sella offered.
“It would take too long to organize,” Gilderith countered. “They’d be expecting something like that.”
“Well?” Mellor pushed, “anything else?”
Gilderith thought a moment. He had nothing other than pulling out and rallying with the fleet at Darcane and that was out of the question. Marlanna would be far to entrenched by then. Also, there was no telling whom they could trust among those commanders.
Reluctantly, Gilderith said, “No.”
“You have your orders then,” Mellor said boldly.
“The cargo transport ships docked at Attragone’s two HLT ports are taking on personnel,” Lorran reported. “Also, there appears to be activity in the flight-bay. We can’t be sure, but it looks as though they are prepping for a launch.”
Listening to the report over his headset, General Yanex then calmly ordered, “Launch green squadron.”
There was a stunned silence in the COC. Only the voice of Carlisle was herd as he relayed the order over the intercom.
Marcone slowly stepped over to the Command Station. “Sir, the mission objective seems to have become somewhat unclear to me, could you redefine it?”
“The original three mission objectives are still the priority here,” Yanex said as he sat back and folded his arms. “We are in fact close to achieving our objective.”
“Our objective?” Marcone questioned. “What exactly is our objective here?”
“It’s the same as it’s always been. We have warned Aultra of the Krix, delivered them the technology to fight with, and,” he said in louder tone, “as of today, this ship has been re-commissioned into the fleet. We are now under the jurisdiction of Fleet Command.”
“We’re under the command of Princess Marlanna!” Marcone called out.
“We are taking steps to prepare for the Krix War. This is our objective. To win that war and save our people.”
Yanex pulled off his headset and said to Marcone “The objective must be met. Nothing else matters. Nothing can stand before that.”
“Not even the rightful government?”
“Especially not them.”
The fighters of the 663rd grouped into a standard formation after launching. With the carrier at a stand still they would have to buildup speed on their own. The order had come as a surprise and was assumed to be an exercise. That was until Vice-Colonel Sands called in for the mission data.
“Assume attack posture,” stated the flight controller, “but hold for final firing clearances. Select primary target, UDT Attragone. Secondary, any launched vessel. Suppress flight operations.”
“What?” Bogan shouted out over the channel.
“I don’t think so,” someone else broadcasted.
“No way,” Bogan added, “I’m not firing on that ship.”
“Calm down,” Sands said as he bought his fighter, and consequently the rest of the squadron, to a new heading. “There’s more going on here than we know.”
“I’m not firing on that ship!” Bogan shouted once more to the echoes of others.
“Shut up!” ordered Sands. “Clear this channel while I get verification.”
“Sands, listen to me,” said Aurora. “The Commander’s gone over the edge. He’s playing God. He’s trying to rewrite history, only it’s not coming out the way he wants. No one can standup under the amount of stress he’s been under. Losing the entire nation, only to find out he’s powerless to stop it from happening again.”
“This is an unlawful order, Sands,” said Marcus. “He’s just a vice-general. He doesn’t have the authority to order an attack.”
“We are at war,” Sands responded.
Aurora said, “No we’re not, the war hasn’t started yet.”
“We’re at war with the Delphians.”
“Those aren’t Delphians,” said Talya, “they’re our own people. We’ll be spilling red blood.”
“They’re our predecessors,” said Marcus. “We’d be killing ourselves, our parents. Think about it. Can you live with those three-thousand lives on your head?”
“I can’t live with the billions that will die if we don’t stop this war,” Sands responded.
Aurora said, “You’re right, we have to change the future, but not like this. There has to be another way.”
“If there were, don’t you think he’d have taken it?” Sands was hard pressed to defend the man whom had stood by him. The General had shown faith in him, promoted him over others, given him respect and confidence. How could he betray his faith in him at such a crucial time?
“You know him,” called Aurora. “You know how ruthless he is. He’ll get us all killed to achieve his objective. Especially if he thinks he’s right; and he’s right. There has to be another way!”
“The mission is right, the objective true,” responded Sands. “We have to stop this war. We can’t let this time line play out, otherwise we’ll be extinct in a hundred cycles.”
“Yanex doesn’t want to stop the war!” shouted Aurora. “He wants to launch a first strike!”
“What’s wrong with that? They did it to us. They did it before. They’ll do it again.”
Major Ecar sounded in with, “We’ve got a hundred cycles worth of technology, Sands. We got the edge in a big way. We’ve got a chance now.”
“Shut up!” Sands said to all the protests ringing in his ears. He had to think.
Knowing the loyalty Sands felt toward the General, and how much it meant to him, Marcus tried to reason with him.
“The mission objective has been met. We hobbled the Delphian fleet at Arkonus. This present war will end in our favor, without Darcane falling into Delphian hands. Our nation will be stronger because of that. The Council has been warned about the Krix. They have our technology. The future has been dramatically changed. Things will be different. We don’t have to do this.”
Sands looked up to see the Attragone ahead of them, by the naked eye. “I don’t know. I have to think.”
“You don’t have time to think!” shouted Talya. “What’s it gonna be?”
“Listen to me, Sands,” Aurora said angrily, “if you take one human life, I swear I’ll land this thing in the middle of Maracasa. And don’t you think they won’t listen to me. We are not firing on that ship! Do you hear me!”
Horace entered the COC wearing combat fatigues. “Major Horace, tenth MAD, reporting for duty, sir,” he snapped to attention before the General.
“Assemble your people in the hilty bay, near your equipment,” Yanex said without looking up from his scanner data. In his ear was the conversation amongst Green Squadron. “Hold there for orders.”
“You don’t want me to secure the Command Center, sir?” Horace said as he glanced around at all the hostile looks that he was getting, particularly from Marcone.
Yanex stepped down from his station. “That won’t be necessary, Major. Report there yourself and stand by.”
Sergeant Blane stood by the Security Post with three of his soldiers, in full armor.
Lieutenant Lorran’s voice cracked with tension as she reported, “Tri-S reports, Attragone’s transport ships are beginning engine pre-start.”
Yanex turned to Lieutenant Nather, “Hail the Attragone. Tell her to stand-down from launch or prepare to come under fire.”
“You don’t have to do this,” Marcone said as Yanex walked past him.
“It’s already done.”
“No response from Attragone,” reported Nather.
“Tri-S reports ship movement in the flight-bay. They are making ready to launch.”
General Yanex stood in the center of the chamber, hating the words he spoke next; hating himself for saying them.
“Major Hellor, destroy the transport docked starboard side of the Attragone.”
Hellor looked over to see that the man wasn’t even looking at him. He wanted to look him in the eye to see if he could spot some sense or reason to what was happening. Yanex just stared straight ahead, not giving him the opportunity.
His mind a blank, Hellor’s hands worked the control board automatically. One of the Oronos’ main guns rose from its bunker and swung about to train on the Attragone. A flashing warning on the screen stated, “Friendly.” The targeting settings had to be changed to manual. When he hit the button for that, a cross hair appeared over the human packed ship, he would have to direct the round himself.
The picture was too much for Hellor. He withdrew his shaking hand from the console, stood up, and backed away from the station. He turned to face the General at attention.
“Sir, under fleet regulations I find that to be an unlawful order, and do formally refuse to carry it out.”
“I understand Major,” Yanex said as he turned to look him in the eye. Hellor saw something he wasn’t expecting, regret.
“Sergeant,” Yanex called, “place the Major under arrest.”
Blane motioned for one of his men to carry out the order. Armor clad and face hidden behind a helmet, the young soldier walked down between the two men. With his rifle in one hand, the soldier asked for Hellor’s weapon. The Major hesitated a bit, then reached over with the opposite hand, pulled his gun, and slapped into the soldier’s waiting hand. There was a hush as the loyal, trusted, and well-liked officer was escorted out, bound for the Detention Center.
Yanex returned to his forward, emotionless, stare until the Major was gone. Finally he said, “Colonel Marcone, man the weapons station.”
Marcone walked slowly over to the post. He past behind the General without looking at him.
Yanex turned to face him. “The order stands, Colonel.”
Marcone bent over the console, he hit a few buttons, increased the power setting, moved the cross hair, and hit the fire button.
On the Attragone, the ultimatum was not well received.
“Then that’s what it’s to be,” said Gilderith. He wanted to avoid a fight, but since it was forced upon him he was not going to back down, no matter how out matched he was.
“How long till the interceptors are ready?”
“Three teda,” stated the flight officer (four and a half minutes).
Mellor started pacing, he suddenly wasn’t quite so confident. “How should we respond to their threat?”
“That wasn’t a threat,” said Sella as she worked at her console.
“We don’t,” said Gilderith, “leave them guessing.”
He turned to his navigation section. “Bring the engines on line and plot a course for the far side of the planet. We’ll hold up longer in a fighter battle than a slugging match.”
“Oronos is opening a gun port,” reported the sensor officer. “Heavy weapon coming to bare on us.”
“They’re bluffing,” uttered Mellor. “They won’t fire on us, they wouldn’t dare. Tell them I’m here! Tell them I order them to surrender.”
“I’d rather not let Yanex know you’re here,” Gilderith said. “That might give him more of an incentive to blow us out of the sky.”
Gilderith called out to his officers, “Raise shields! Arm all weapons! Launch when ready!”
The arguing among the Oronos’ Green Squadron came to a sudden halt as a powerful bolt of energy streaked past them, skimmed the hull of the Attragone, and exploded just beyond; illuminating the silhouette of the Aultrian ship.
“Clean miss, sir,” reported Lorran.
Marcone stiffened as the General came face to face with him. Discipline had broken down. His officers were defying him. Anger over the betrayal suppressed any understanding he might’ve had for their position. In their place, he would’ve wanted to do the same thing. Whether discipline would have won out or not, he never knew. There was no turning back, right or wrong, his role was set.
“Signal from the Attragone!” called Nather. “Fleet General Mellor states they are standing down.”
“Inform Fleet Command,” Yanex said as he glared at Marcone, waiting for the man’s response.
Marcone cleared his throat and said, “Effective immediately, I resign my post and commission.”
“You are relieved.” Yanex said slowly. Then called for yet another soldier to remove Marcone and confine him to his quarters.
“Colonel Tollyn,” Yanex called out over the intercom.
“You are now the acting Operations Officer. Appoint your successor and report to the COC.”
“Yes sir,” said an elated Tollyn.