The Nebula's Tide

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A Council Convenes

At the center of the battle cruiser’s orbicular holoroom, Admiral Fletcher was a white speck against the obsidian orb of a giant’s eye. The track lights on the floor were dimmed 90 percent so not to compete with the illuminated projections that loomed around the officer. Four massive figures shone before him: General Lo of the Federation’s Star Fleet, Ambassador Windsor of the Galactic Council, Senator Urha of the Interstellar Senate and Secretary of War Montu of the High Galactic Court. All four of their projected faces looked down on the admiral with shadowy contempt as one after another, the General, Ambassador and Senator lashed their heated remarks upon him.

“The doctor’s loss is undoubtably tragic, but your incompetence in the matter is downright inexcusable! What were you thinking, allowing someone of her security level to travel on her own?! And through the Beta, no less!”

“It was my understanding that when we assigned Dr. Leahy to Post 59, she would be protected in the stronghold of the station’s obscurity!”

“That was the entire point of sending her to Tractatio, to keep her far from Federation conflicts.”

“But not from the conflicts of the Quarantine Galaxies! Or the threat of pirates, slavers and beasts!”

“The Hantae Ambassador must be notified, I can’t keep him suspended any longer.”

“Are you insane?! What would we tell him? There’s no delicate way to present this catastrophe now.”

“I agree with the General. News of this could sever our ties with the Hantae completely. They’ve only just begun to lower their defenses to the Federation. We can’t risk the fallout of their departure.”

“If we lose Ursus, we lose their allies and every connection to that star system. That would be the real catastrophe!”

“We can’t keep the doctor’s death a secret from them! They will find out eventually. Better it come from us than from our enemies.”

They continued in this way for several minutes, their outbursts gradually synchronizing into an organized chaos. Beneath their shouting faces, Fletcher stood at attention, his eyes fixed on the wall, his jaw clenched tight. If the admiral’s back were any straighter it would break from the tension.

“Admiral Fletcher!” Senator Urha called. His gaze shot up to meet her. “What have you to say on the matter of this incompetence?!”

“I accept full responsibility for the consequences of my decisions. It was a lapse in leadership, I will not deny that.”

“As well you shouldn’t! Men and women in your position have been dishonorably discharged for less. I, for one, am prepared to sentence you here and now, but that would dump the repercussions of your misjudgment on us. You will see this disaster to the end, Admiral, whatever the outcome may be.”

“Yes, General.”

“Humor me, Fletcher,” Ambassador Windsor said, “How do you propose we recover this situation?”

No matter how many times Fletcher attempted to wet his lips, they remained stubborn, dry and painfully chapped. The papery skin around his neck, temples and forehead threatened to split from the pressure, the red plates beneath his flesh throbbing with his elevated heartrate. Fletcher took a stabilizing breath in through his nose. Now would literally be the worst time to crack.

“The Hantae should be informed,” he started, speaking delicately, “But we can do so strategically. Shift the blame from the Federation to the Asmurian who murdered her.”

“Shift the blame from you, you mean.”

“No, that’s not-“

“Starting a war with the Asmurians is the last thing we want to do. They may be less technologically advanced, but they’re still a warrior-based society. The casualties would be too high.”

“Besides, the Asmurian government publicly banished Treta for his war crimes. He’s technically no longer a citizen of their planet and can’t reasonably act as a representative of their barbarity.”

“If I may,” Fletcher spoke up again, doing his best to keep his tone respectful yet commanding, “the Pirate Treta is the beast who abducted Dr. Leahy, he’s the beast who tortured her without reason and he’s the beast who savagely murdered this innocent young woman by cutting her Federation chip from her body… Yes, I should have assigned a security detail to escort the doctor, I accept full responsibility for that. But even if I had, their ship would still have been struck off course in the comet’s wake and Treta would have likely taken her all the same. The doctor’s loss at the hands of murderous pirates could be perceived as a fault of the Federation, but it doesn’t have to be.”

“And how is that?” the Ambassador asked, yet to sound impressed.

“If the situation is handled correctly, we can use this tragedy to strengthen the Hantae’s dependence on Federation protection. Their enemy are the beasts who murdered a daughter of Ursus. Their allies, are the Galactic Federation officers that fought dutifully to save her and will stop at nothing to bring her killer to justice.”

He waited, cautiously reading the reactions of his superiors. The giant faces that looked down upon him were hard and calculating, but thus far, not one spoke to dismiss him.

Ambassador Windsor was the first to respond, “You’re suggesting we use scare tactics against the Hantae, a race so well known for their trepidation towards space that only seven of their people have ever left their solar system? One of which, has just been murdered under our watch.”

“We need to downplay that last part as much as possible,” General Lo stated.

“General?”

“Admiral Fletcher may be somewhat incompetent, but he’s right about this. Reinforcing the Federation as an active deterrent against the bestial plague on our universe is the only way to ensure the Hantae don’t break away. They need us now more than ever.”

“The matter of Fletcher’s negligence will arise.”

“And he’s agreed to own that. We’ll stay ahead of the scandal by acknowledging it ourselves, but on a small scale. Perhaps at a controlled press conference, held at the same time as a system-wide vigil honoring the fallen doctor, a woman who proudly served under the Galactic Federation and believed in what it stood for to the very end.”

There was a moment of silence, a new light dawning on the situation at hand.

“We’ll need to launch a counter campaign,” the Senator weighed in, strategy stitching her words together as she spoke. “’The Bestial Plague’…. That could work nicely. Similar movements are already being tested in some of our inner districts. I can get a team from the Capital to develop the message and start spreading it amongst our allies by the time the Hantae are informed.”

“I can maybe keep this from them for four more days,” Ambassador Windsor said.

“That’ll be fine. I’ll have word out by then and we can continue to develop the initiative from there.”

“Even with the right delivery and network to support it, news of the doctor’s death with be met with outrage and blame by the Hantae council. The sooner we can bring Captain Treta to justice, the sooner we can put this matter behind us.”

“Thus far, tracking the Monoceros, let alone catching it, has proven next to impossible. The Asmurian Terror has evaded Federation capture for the past 30 years, how do you propose we change that now?”

“We can start by opening the market,” General Lo said. “Double Treta’s bounty and deploy every hunter in the Federation galaxies. If the pirates take refuge in the Quarantines, then we’ll activate our foreign operatives.”

“That won’t be enough,” Senator Urha argued.

“No, It won’t.”

The room went still, the words spoken by the Secretary of War demanding everyone’s complete and instant attention. Since the meeting began, Secretary Montu had remained silent, observing the back and forth of his associates through an unreadable veil of detachment. With his hooded eyes, alert ears and ever-moving tendrils that dissected the air and analyzed the very space around him, the Secretary appeared as if he were at the center of everything and had already experienced every possible outcome of the conversation playing before him. Such was the way of the Duatta.Iill and the nature of their semi-divine intellect.

Secretary Montu leaned forward in a chair unseen by the holocam’s lens. Now under the full glare of the overhead light, his long face was cast in a shadowy mosaic. Darkness played in the sharp ridges that lined the bridge of his nose, pooled from his cheek bones and hid in the wells beneath his prominent brow. Fletcher chanced a second glance at the halo of pointed ears and curling horns that crowned the Secretary’s head before darting his gaze back to the glazed over stare of Montu’s yellow eyes.

“When the Hantae Ambassador is notified of Dr. Leahy’s passing, he will also be informed that the Federation is dedicating an elite recovery team to apprehend her killers.” Secretary Montu’s voice was a baritone wrapped in silk, the echo of his words bounced softly off the curved walls in a hushed choral accompaniment.

“We’ve attempted using special forces before,” General Lo said, thoughtfully. “But never with the Monoceros specifically… Some of our best are currently entrenched on other assignments, but we could certainly put a team together. A higher pedigree should help soften the blow.”

“Given the severity of the situation, and what the Federation stands to lose,” the Secretary said, “I will volunteer my personal armada for the Monoceros’ pursuit and capture.”

Fletcher’s eyes grew wide. He quickly looked between the other faces and saw visible surprise dappled in their expressions as well.

“Secretary, that’s… incredibly generous of you,” Senator Urha said, keeping her tone steady. “A Duatta.Iill fleet behind the mission will surely serve to placate the Hantae’s concerns.”

Admiral Fletcher was astounded. The Duatta.Iill were the most advanced species in the known universe. They were also the most private and never shared their weaponry or military resources with anyone. Not that any Federation species could ever hope to use it if they had. But that didn’t stop the Federation from trying.

The Duatta.Iill’s technology had long ago evolved beyond what superior intelligence could grasp. As such, their science couldn’t escape the mysticism that others’ incomprehension imbued upon it. In fact, many intelligent species believed the Duatta.Iill had successfully transcended science all together and now tapped into an otherworldly power that fueled their otherwise impossible advancement.

As such, their warships were unchallenged in battle, their weaponry unmatched, and their soldiers -each as intelligent as they were ruthless – were feared and honored with the upmost respect. Montu himself had once been one of these elite soldiers, a general and decorated champion of war. But that was eons ago, before the Federation was even a concept in the minds of men.

“If you wish me present, Ambassador, I will accompany you to meet with the Hantae and deliver my offer,” the Secretary’s tone remained as emotionless as his gaze.

“I think that would be best, Secretary. Thank you.”

“The Monoceros has run amok long enough,” Secretary Montu said, dismissing the Ambassador’s thanks. “I’ve counseled with my superiors and we’ve agreed. The Asmurian’s crimes deserve our intervention. Admiral,”

Fletcher went rigid, making eye contact with the Canidae Secretary of War.

“With the General’s admittance, I’m assigning you to this mission. You will report to my ship and relinquish everything you acquired on the Monoceros and its recent escape.”

“Forgive me, Secretary,” the General said, “but given the Admiral’s misjudgment thus far, might you allow the Federation to send a more qualified operative in his place? With the report from Fletcher’s encounter, of course.”

“You said yourself that he will see this to the end. If the Admiral is worthy of his title, then his failure will seed his inspiration for success. And, if he doesn’t, the Federation gains an additional pariah, on whose shoulders the blame will fall.”

General Lo seemed to be thinking. “I’ll approve it,” he said. “Admiral, you will report to me first for debriefing.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Ambassador,” Montu said. “We will convene at the capitol.”

“Agreed. Thank you, Secretary.”

The Duatta.Iill nodded. His image faded and only three projections remained.

“If we’re all in agreement, I will take your leave as well,” Ambassador Windsor said.

“Maintain constant contact, Ambassador,” Senator Urha replied. “I want to know everything the Secretary says.”

“Of course. My autos are syncing with yours as we speak.”

“Very good. General, this council relinquishes Admiral Fletcher to your command. I trust your debriefing will include certain, crucial instructions?”

“Without question, Senator.”

She raised her chin and looked down at the Admiral with a powerful stare that dared him to disappoint her. “This meeting is adjourned.” And with that, Senator Urha’s projection faded, followed closely by Ambassador Windsor’s.

Beneath the giant gaze of the General, Admiral Fletcher turned to face his judgment.

“Soldier, you are one, lucky, sonofabitch.”

“Yes, sir.”

“For the record, I do not sanction this assignment. In fact! You’re the last man I would choose for a mission this important! But, since the high and mighty Duatta has chosen you to board his ship, it looks like you’re all I’ve got. So, let me put this plainly: Don’t fuck this up.”

“Yes, sir.”

General Lo scrutinized him through the hologram’s haze, the weight of his displeasure striking Fletcher even from lightyears away.

“Switch to frequency 7 2 Delta,” he ordered. “This intel is classified.”

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