A Banner of the Stars story by Ken Wolfe

Some notes to Banner of the Star fans. In this story I have made as little use of Baronh words as possible. The spelling of names is generally according to that established in the English translation of the novels released by Tokyopop. Where required I also used the Bandai translation of the anime as a source. So the spelling is not according to the True Baronh established by the author. I made these decisions to improve the readability of the story. I have tried to make the continuity consistent with the novels up to the beginning of Banner of the Stars IV, though I also took some inspiration from the anime adaptation.

Banner of the Stars is copyright Hiroyuki Morioka. English translations of the novels are copyright Tokyopop. The anime adaptation is copyright Bandai. They retain all rights to Banner of the Stars and all characters therein. This story is a work of fan fiction and may not be printed or distributed for profit.


He entered the room at the appointed hour. As expected, the young technician was sitting in her usual white lab coat, waiting for him. She nodded in greeting. "Good morning, Captain."

"Good morning, Ensign," he responded. "Jane Doe case eighty-three, correct?"

"Yes. She's all ready."

The case was lying on the bed in her too-perfect body. The hospital gown left her brown arms and legs exposed. The bed's back was raised, giving him a good view of the now familiar face. Right now there was nothing behind that slightly alien beauty, not even dreaming. And there would not be anything, not until he gave the word. I hate the Jane Doe cases. This work is creepy enough at the best of times, but not even knowing who it is makes it that much worse. All they knew was that this one had been picked up in a raid on a private residence two hundred miles from Hania City. They had caught nobody who could give them even a hint at her background. The scans had not shown any known pattern, about all they could tell was that she was female. Hence the body she had been given. She could be any one of a hundred people. One of his first jobs was to find out who she was.

He sat down next to the bed. With experience they had found that having a senior officer in uniform interview the subject right away led to fewer problems later on. There was a greater chance of building trust. The design of the room also helped. The trappings of a medical clinic were more or less redundant, but it tended to reassure the subjects that they were being taken care of. "Okay, let's proceed."

The technician touched a button at her terminal. The woman in her synthetic body stirred. The big, dark eyes opened up. She looked first at him and at the technician. She was surprised and wary, but not utterly bewildered. She raised her hands and glanced at them only briefly. There was not the look of utter horror you usually saw on first-timers, and her motor control was good. She had been through this before. "Good morning," the Captain said. "Don't worry, you're safe now. Can you tell me your name?"

Her new face was the best they could make, it expressed her anger and hatred vividly. "Safe? I'm dead! I'm supposed to be dead! I died years ago! How many times do you have to do this to me?"

"Never again, if that is what you wish," the Captain said mildly.

She still regarded him warily. "Are you really a Captain in the Star Fleet?"

He raised an eyebrow. "You know something about the service then?"

"I have a nephew and a grandson in the service."

Bingo. "Yes, I am Captain Brenslaw of the Hania Star Fleet."

She still eyed him suspiciously. "Where am I?"

"In the Vensath system."

She shook her head, making her long black synthetic hair sway. "I've never heard of it."

"Few people have."

He had noticed the technician discreetly tapping on her palmtop. "Ma'am, is your name Miriam Hender?" the technician asked.

She looked at the technician with astonishment. "Nobody's ever asked me my name before," she said very softly, more to herself it seemed.

That would suggest her past experiences had been of the worst possible kind. If that were true it was amazing how lucid and calm she actually was. "Miriam, it appears you understand what has been done to you," the Captain asked. "We have done the same, and for that I ask your pardon. You can be euthanized again if that is your wish. It is entirely up to you. But before you make up your mind, I want to talk with you about a project we would like your help with."

Miriam Hender frowned. "A project? What are you talking about?"

The Captain smiled. "It is a very special, very secret project. Let me tell you about it..."

# # #

Chapter 1 - The Home Front

There were few things that Deputy Hecto-Commander Abriel Lafiel hated more than dictating reports. It seemed all the more onerous when the essence of the report could be summed up in one very short sentence: My ship is now ready to return to active service.

Lafiel managed to smile a bit, looking over the concluding portion of the written report that she had just finished dictating to the house computer. She tried imagining the response she would get from squadron commander Atosuryua if she handed in a one-sentence report. From what Lafiel heard, Admiral Spoor was about the only officer in the fleet who would actually appreciate and even accept a report like that. But Atosuryua would want to see a bit more evidence that all of the ship captains in her squadron had inspected their vessels with due diligence. In the process of gathering information for her report Lafiel had crawled through parts of her frigate that she frankly had not known existed. It would be an exaggeration to say that she had traversed every crawl space of the hundred-meter starship, but it certainly felt like she had.

Lafiel instructed the house computer to send the report to her commander, and it vanished from her desk viewer. She stood and stretched. It only now occurred to her how incongruous it was for her to be wearing her Space Force uniform in her bedroom here in the family mansion. This had been her room since she was a child growing up here in the Imperial Capital. As befitted a Princess of one of the eight families of Abriel, the room was large and luxuriantly decorated with rich fabrics. Since she joined the Space Force she had rarely been back to the capital, so this suite was usually left unused. Since her squadron happened to be stationed here at the capital now, it had seemed the natural place where she could get some work done without being disturbed. But somehow she felt out of place here. Do I still think of this as a child's room?

She walked over to the large window and stood before it, gazing out into the airless void. She could see two of the massive space cities that made up the capital of the Abh Empire. Lakfakalle consisted of several huge floating cities that orbited each other in a never-ending dance through space. As a child she would often stay up later than she was supposed to, mesmerized by what appeared to her young eyes as sparkling jewels, bigger than she could imagine. Eventually she began to understand that she lived in one of those jewels. Later, she came to understand that she might one day rule over them, along with half the galaxy.

Lafiel's grandmother had been Empress until her recent voluntary abdication. Dusanyu, the current Emperor, was a member of the Lamsar family, another one of the Eight. He had been Imperial Admiral of the Space Force, which had effectively made him the heir apparent. He would likely be Emperor for another forty years or more. When he abdicated, the council of former Emperors would select another candidate from among the eight families of Abriel.

Will they be considering me? Unlikely, most Emperors did not ascend to the throne until they were a hundred years old or more. She was only twenty-three standard years old. If she were to be Empress, it would likely be after whomever succeeded Dusanyu.

That is, assuming she managed to live that long.

If she were to have any hope of becoming Empress, she would have to attain the rank of Admiral at the very least. With a war on, promotion in the combat units came only to those who showed exemplary service in battle. And lived to tell about it. Since she joined the squadron it had lost three ships with all hands. One of those ships could just as easily have been hers.

What do I care about more, staying alive or doing my duty to the Empire? In one sense it was a moot point: nobody would give her the choice. For Royalty, service in the Space Force was not an option, and accepting promotion when given was not an option either. She had long since realized that the ruling families of the Empire were the least free of all its 960 billion inhabitants. And no matter how she thought about it, she was forced to conclude that was the way it had to be. It was very annoying.

In danger of falling into another bout of acute depression, Lafiel's thoughts naturally drifted to a single question. I wonder what Jinto is doing? He had finished his tasks related to the refitting of the Frikov early yesterday, so Lafiel had told him to regard the next two days as free time. Since then she had occasion to take meals or refreshments with him when she was taking a break from her work. He would have told her if he was going anywhere, so he must still be somewhere on the estate. "Computer, locate Count Hyde."

"Count Hyde is currently in the Nursery" the room replied with its monotone, vaguely female voice.

The nursery? What was he doing there? The room would be unused now since currently there were no infants or toddlers in the Dubrusk family being raised here. "What is he up to now?" Lafiel muttered to herself.

"Unknown," the room replied.

"Be quiet." Before leaving, Lafiel checked herself in the mirror and gave her long blue hair a quick combing. That hair color and the very pale skin were the most obvious outward traits of the engineered Abh race. The silver metal tiara she wore on her brow covered the most unusual trait of her race: the small, diamond-shaped sense organ embedded in her forehead. In conjunction with the tiara, the Froth gave the Abh a unique sixth sense that allowed them to sense everything around them like a 3-D radar screen. When hooked into ship systems it gave them instant knowledge of the ship's state and surroundings. The Froth gave Abh pilots a definite edge over their lander counterparts, and was likely one of the major reasons they were winning the war. Lafiel was slightly shorter than normal for her race, but the only thing that would really make her stand out from most Abh were her pointed ears, the distinctive trademark of the Abriel royal families.

Lafiel made her way to the nursery. She had spent much of her early life here, so the route from her bedroom to the nursery was about as familiar as any could be. She encountered nobody on the way there. The rest of her family were with their various Space Force units, as most members of the royal families were. And what few vassals remained to maintain the estate made a virtue of being invisible until called for. Her boot heels made a lonely sound echoing down the corridors. Father has changed the paintings again, Lafiel noted. They had a collection of original paintings stored on the estate, and her father regularly sent instructions on which ones to display in the hallways of the near-deserted estate. Even when he was busy commanding a fleet on the other side of the galaxy. Sometimes Lafiel really wondered about him.

Lafiel keyed open the door to the nursery. It quickly became apparent what Jinto was doing here. He was running in circles.

The nursery was a cube fifteen meters across. All six walls had padded fabric with large pictures of animals and cartoon characters done in bright colors. When the gravity field was deactivated it was a perfect environment for young children to experience microgravity and gain an intuitive feel for how objects moved in free fall. It was a vital way for Abh to learn how to properly use the Froth that allowed them to pilot starships as if they were extensions of their bodies. But clearly Jinto had the gravity field on since he was running quickly across the wall which was flush with the corridor floor.

He happened to be running away from her at the moment, so all she saw were slim arms and legs pumping and a mop of auburn hair dancing. He turned a corner and she could see the side of his flushed face. He was panting heavily, he must have been at this for a while now. As he turned the next corner to face her Lafiel stepped into the room. She yelped and nearly fell to the floor.

He noticed her staggering into the room and stopped running. "Lafiel?", he said in a breathy voice. "Are you okay?"

"Jinto, what have you done with the gravity field?" Lafiel snapped. "It must be set at nearly two gees!"

"One point five, actually," he said between heavy intakes of breath as he walked towards her. "The Computer told me." Pant. "This is the only room." Pant. "Where I can set it that high."

"Yes, but why would you?"

"I thought it would be a nice way to get in my daily high gravity exercises."

"I suppose that makes sense." Jinto was a lander by birth, he had grown up on the surface of a planet. He did not have the Abh genetic enhancements that prevented muscle atrophy. Most living spaces in Abh space structures and ships maintained a gravity field of only one-half gee. Landers who spent a great deal of time in Abh space structures had to do regular high gravity exercises to maintain muscle tone. "Using a treadmill in a tiny exercise room every day must be tedious."

"And they won't let me put the gravity in the hallways past point-five."

"You mean you tried?"

"Yeah, the computer said no can do."

"I am having second thoughts about giving you the run of the house."

"All the doorway displays show the gravity field settings. Speaking of which, didn't you bother to check?"

Lafiel was stung by this suggestion that she share the guilt. "How was I to know you would use our nursery in such a way?"

"What, you never tried it when you were a kid? How high does it go anyway?"

"Three gees. And no, don't even think about it." Lafiel planted her hands on her hips and looked away. "Besides, do you always run in your underwear?"

"Oops." Jinto suddenly looked very uncomfortable in his shorts and sleeveless shirt. "Um, I thought you were still working."

Lafiel sighed. "When you're finished, why don't you join me in the Winter Garden?"

"Sure. Now that I think of it that's the one garden I haven't seen yet."

The Winter Garden was the most austere of the family's four Seasonal Gardens. Lafiel sat down on one of the benches and reacquainted herself with it. The big room consisted mostly of rock gardens, evergreen trees, and a variety of spiky plants, only a few of which had some small blossoms. Its glowing white ceiling made it the brightest of the gardens, so it had a charm which easily matched the Spring, Summer and Autumn gardens. The four walls projected pictures of snow-covered landscapes from one of the planets in the Abh Empire, Lafiel was not even sure which one. She had only ever been on two planets, and neither of them had looked like this.

Before long Jinto walked into the garden. He was now in his Space Forces uniform, presumably donned after a quick shower. Jinto was a lander just a year older than her and slightly taller, with a slim frame that he somehow never quite looked comfortable wearing. Jinto's habit of stumbling his way through the world annoyed Lafiel to no end. But somehow seeing the easygoing look on his face always managed to put her at ease. Lafiel often wondered if a less lackadaisical man could have dealt with the improbable set of circumstances that had snatched Jinto from an unremarkable life on an isolated planet and thrown him into the very heart of the galactic maelstrom. That he could be tossed around so mercilessly by the fates and keep a smile on his face was a source of comfort for Lafiel. She was very glad to have him as her best friend.

Jinto greeted her and sat on the bench beside her. "So, did you give the Frikov a clean bill of health?"

"Yes, though I wonder if the crew will recognize it. The shipyard did everything short of disassembling my ship and putting it back together again, and I swear they would like to have done that if they could."

"Well, we've been rather rough with her."

"True enough." Since taking command of the ship Lafiel had taken it into several battles in the course of Operation Twin Thorn. Most of its major weapon systems had been repaired or replaced at least once, along with a good deal else. The armor had been an unsightly patchwork when they brought it into the Imperial shipyards. But the main reason for the extended refit was to evaluate how the frigates were holding up to extended use. It was a new model ship, and these evaluations would go towards deciding whether to proceed with mass production. "The only ship still being refitted is the Marusukov, and that will probably be done in two or three days. Once that happens we'll most likely be assigned back to the 24th fleet."

"So at least we get a couple of days rest while we're here. Did you have any plans?"

"Plans?" Lafiel really had none. "All the people I would want to visit are away."

"Isn't your grandmother in the capital?"

"Yes, she is. I did pay her a courtesy call soon after we arrived. It seems she's even busier with the Former Emperor's Congress than she was as Empress. I would just as soon not impose on her time."

"What is the Congress up to these days, or is that classified?"

"Well what are they not up to?" Lafiel asked, mildly annoyed at the silly question. "They don't just select the next Emperor a couple of times per century you know. Their job is to advise the Emperor, and there are a thousand different matters competing for their attention. Especially now."

"It's a shame the genetic engineers never perfected cloning. Just clone a thousand Former Emperors to get the work done."

"We do have cloning, but you know perfectly well it doesn't work that way. I guess it would solve a lot of problems if it did. A thousand of you and me kept on ice, ready to be thawed out when the Empire needs them."

"A thousand people with your temper? Now that's a scary thought."

Lafiel sniffed. "A thousand of you is a lot more scary."

"Not really. Put us all in the same room and we would just never be able to decide to do anything."

"That I can well imagine. Speaking of decisions, have you decided what you would like to do with your days off?"

Jinto's smile widened in a way that made Lafiel uneasy. "Lately I've been thinking that one thing I haven't done in a long time is to go swimming. Is there a swimming pool anywhere in the capital?"

Lafiel tried to get her head around this word but suspected this was some lander concept that she wasn't quite understanding. "A swimming pool? You mean a bath?"

"A swimming pool is like a really big bath. It's long enough and deep enough for you to swim in a straight line for a while without touching the bottom or the sides."

"Without touching bottom? Wouldn't you go under the water and suffocate?"

"You mean drown."

"Right." The word 'drown' in the Baronh language sounded rather archaic to her ears. It referred to something that was part of the world the Abh's creators came from but was not part of their own world, much like 'ocean' or 'whale.'

Jinto cocked his head. "Lafiel, you don't mean to tell me you can't swim?"

Lafiel smiled. She knew a challenge when she heard one. "I won't know until I've tried."

# # #

In his dealings with the Abriel family, Jinto had quickly come to two conclusions about them. First, they never think small. Second, they never do things by halfway measures.

The moment Lafiel had decided she was going to go swimming, it had become a Mission. Their first try had been to see if there was a bath anywhere large enough to be used as a swimming pool. It turned out the Emperor's palace had one that was ten meters across but still not deep enough. Lafiel had contacted the palace staff to see if the water level could be raised. The Chamberlain himself had called back by video phone and given them a very stern lecture about the dangers of deep water and how disturbed he was that anybody could even contemplate such a flagrant violation of safety regulations.

Not one to take defeat lying down, Lafiel had made further inquiries. Jinto had watched with mixed amusement and wonder as she sat at her desk calling one government agency after another. Eventually they found that the Special Forces Regiment of the Ground Forces had a pool they used for training. The flustered officer they contacted had given a very polite answer that boiled down to "we'll get back to you." Minutes later, the Special Forces Kilo-Commander himself had called back to say that since they were both Space Force officers with impeccable credentials the Regiment could consider allowing a special "training session" for them.

So now here Jinto was, doing a languid side-stroke back and forth across the deep end of a competition-sized pool. Not quite what I had in mind, but give them credit for trying.

To save his poor friend any embarrassment, Jinto made a point of ignoring the shallow end of the pool where a Special Forces Deca-commander was instructing Lafiel in the basics of venturing into the deep end without drowning. It would have been a lot more fun if Jinto could have taught her himself. Their assigned lifeguard and instructor had been excruciatingly polite, but he had very firmly insisted that only a qualified instructor could teach the Princess how not to drown. To be fair they were actually being very nice about this. After all, swimming was considered to be a very specialized skill among the Abh. This was rather as if on his home world the Prime Minister's daughter had shown up at an army barracks and announced that she wanted to learn how to drive an armored car.

The barely-heard talking that echoed from the other end of the pool came to a stop. Jinto casually changed his swimming stroke to face that end of the pool and was happy to see Lafiel approaching him using a fair approximation of a breaststroke. Her instructor had exited the pool and was discreetly taking his post at the lifeguard's seat to the side of the pool. Good, Lafiel only looks mildly pissed off.

"That was quick," Jinto said cheerfully. "Are you sure you've never done this before?"

"Not that I remember. Most children swim a little when their parents take them into a large bath, I presume I must have done that too."

"They say swimming is one of the things you never forget once you've learned." He came up parallel to her and matched her pace. In the half-gee gravity field the chaos of small waves moved across the surface of the water with a slow grace that made it seem somewhat unreal. Everything looked just a little different in the reduced gravity, from the way people walked to the way their hair swayed. It gave life among the Abh a somewhat dreamlike quality, something that had only added to the surrealistic feeling he had experienced in his first years among them. Still "Them." It seems I've been here forever but I still think of this as her world, not mine.

"Shall we pick up the pace a bit?" Lafiel asked.

"Sure." She switched to a front crawl and he did likewise. Somehow he was not surprised this was turning into an endurance race. Lafiel was fiercely competitive even for an Abriel, and she had a tendency to show off. He had to be careful what he said around her. Jinto was afraid that if he dared her to test out the hardiness of her engineered Abh body by sailing across a mile of hard vacuum in her shirtsleeves she just might take him up on it.

Jinto was the more experienced and efficient swimmer, and had muscles developed in higher gravity, but Lafiel more than made up for that by being a quick study and with her sheer stubborn will. It was Jinto who eventually suggested they take a break, but by that time Lafiel looked like she could use one too. She swam to the edge of the pool and pulled herself up to sit on the edge, her legs dangling in the water. Jinto deliberately held back a bit so that he had at least a moment to admire the view from an advantageous angle. She wore a modest, functional black one-piece suit, but she certainly made it look good. In a concession to practicality her normally loose hair was gathered behind the back of her neck in a long ponytail. Jinto pulled himself up beside her. He had been dismayed to find that the Abh idea of proper male swim wear involved something that covered the torso. His own swimsuit was distressingly similar to hers. Lafiel did not seem to find this at all unusual, but Jinto really felt like a dork.

After he had caught his breath, Jinto said "You know, you might be more comfortable without your wristband."

"I just kept it on without thinking. Technically I am still on duty. But this is a military facility, so if I take it off HQ will still be able to locate and contact me here." She took the communication device off her wrist and shook the water off.

"I took mine off since I was too embarrassed to ask whether it's waterproof."

"Of course it is. They are very durable. Anything that could damage it would probably kill the wearer. This is the same one I had when we were on Planet Clasbul."

"You took a few nasty falls while we were there. Under fire, no less."

"That's right. But the wristband is still as good as new."

"Can I see?" She handed it to him and he inspected it. "You're right, it hasn't got a scratch." He tossed it into the pool.

"Ah!" Lafiel turned on him angrily. "What did you do that for?"

"I wanted to see if it floats. I'm kind of surprised that it doesn't. That would be a good feature you know, supposing you lose it in the water?"


"Don't worry, I'll go get it." Jinto stood up and dove back into the pool. Under the water he could see the wristband still floating slowly down to the bottom. He grabbed it and swam underwater to the middle of the deep end. After he came to the surface Jinto turned and waved his prize over his head. "It looks okay. Should I try turning it on?"

"It won't work for you. Stop being such a child and just give it to me!"

Jinto decided things could get violent if he didn't comply. He tossed the wristband to her and she caught it easily. Rather than donning it, she just placed it at the side of the pool and dove into the water. It was not a bad dive for what was presumably her first one, not a belly-flop by any means but certainly a great deal of water splashed up by incorrectly positioned arms and legs. He waited for her to surface. And waited. A stream of bubbles came to the surface, and some more time passed. Uh-oh. He was about to draw the lifeguard's attention to the situation when suddenly he was grabbed by the ankles and yanked under the water. Damn. Sucker-punched again.

# # #

Jinto took some more of his drink and put it back on the little table. He felt tired, but it was a good kind of tired. "Now that's more like what I call swimming."

Lafiel smiled. Just the sight of her sitting by the pool in a wet swimsuit was worth the price of admission. "I guess I misunderstood. I had the impression that you just did laps to improve stamina."

"Just doing that would be boring." After a couple of hours aimlessly horsing around in the water, Jinto was glad that Lafiel seemed to appreciate the appeal of wasting time in a pool. Getting his Princess to relax was one of the great challenges of his life. He chalked up this day as a success. "Maybe we can start a new trend of recreational swimming in the Empire. No space palace would be complete without a swimming pool."

"The Abh are really not subject to 'trends'."

"I suppose not." Over the past nine hundred years the Abh empire had grown to reach right from one end of the galaxy to the other. But in all that time Abh culture had changed very little. Lafiel had explained it to him a long time ago, the thing that all Abh know but rarely talk about. Their ancestors were genetically engineered slaves who had rebelled against their masters. Fearing retaliation, the rebel slave-soldiers had built up their fleet and launched a preemptive attack on their masters' space city. Their masters had all but forgotten about them and had no interest in even finding their wayward slaves, and yet the Abh destroyed them out of fear. As penance for this original sin, the Abh kept a facsimile of their masters' culture preserved, like an extinct animal frozen in amber. They had slain their masters, but the Abh were determined to preserve a living replica of that lost culture for all time. When asked why something could not be changed, Jinto had found that the Abh invariably reply "That is the way we traditionally do things."

"Did you get a new report from Samson?" Lafiel asked.

Jinto thought that was sort of a boring subject, but he knew Lafiel would not stop bugging him until she was satisfied. "Yes, I did. My second antimatter production plant will be online within the month." Samson was a big bear of a man from the planet Midgrat. He had been chief engineer on Lafiel's last ship, a small assault craft where Jinto had also been supply officer. Jinto had followed Lafiel to her new ship after her promotion, but Samson had retired from the Space force after his required service was done. He was still not even a middle-aged man and had planned to go back to farming on Midgrat, but Jinto had persuaded him to oversee the construction of antimatter production facilities in his territory, the Hyde system.

His territory. The home world he could never return to.

"Did you not want to talk about that right now?" Lafiel asked innocently. She was well attuned to his moods just as he was to hers, but she probably misinterpreted his melancholy as reluctance to talk business on his time off.

"It's okay. I was just thinking how I miss Samson being with us." Which was not his main regret at the moment but was not a lie either. Samson was a lander like him but with much more experience living among the Abh. He had been a tremendous help in the years when Jinto was desperately trying to fit in to this strange new world.

"You are fortunate to have him as a vassal. But you can't leave everything in his hands, you know. Ultimately the Hyde territory is your responsibility." Her look softened. "I also miss having him with us," she said gently.

"Oh, that reminds me." Jinto reached for his wristband, lying on a shelf next to the table. "Samson's package included something for you from Seelnay, a video letter and a parcel."

Lafiel's eye twitched. "Oh. Well, I had best see the letter then."

Jinto managed to suppress a smile. Seelnay was a former vassal and servant for the late Baron Febdash, brother of their current squadron commander. In the wake of the surprise attack on the Empire which had started the current war, Jinto and Lafiel had found themselves prisoners of the deranged Baron. They had enlisted Seelnay's help in escaping, but in the process Lafiel had been forced to kill the Baron. It was a tribute to commander Atosoryua's character that she bore them no grudge. In the course of these unfortunate events, Seelnay had become Lafiel's vassal. The bright, lively young woman had also become fiercely devoted to her new lord, she fairly worshipped the ground Lafiel walked on.

They both donned their wristbands and effected the data transfer. "I'll give you the package later, whatever it is."

Lafiel grunted a noncommittal reply. She touched a button on her wristband. "Hello Your Highness!" Seelnay's unmistakable chirpy voice came from the device. "I was so glad to hear that you got back safely to the capital! I wish I could have been there to see you, I miss you so much! Did you get my package? It's nothing really, but I just wanted you to have something that I had got for you! It's this really great bath oil I found, you must try it! It's kind of special, before you get into the bath you rub it all over-"

Lafiel's finger came down on the wristband like a striking viper. She cleared her throat. "Perhaps I'll listen at another time. You may send me her package at your convenience."

Jinto smiled. "Will do." He could see a change of subject was in order. "I've been meaning to ask, did you get any message from your brother?"

"Yes, he sent me a text letter. He is still serving on the battleship Kaisofu. It sounds like he is doing well, though reading between the lines I suspect he is being bullied by his commander."

"What makes you say that?"

"He makes vague complaints of being unable to please his superiors. If their displeasure were justified then Duhiiru would have told me why in great detail, he tends to wax eloquent about his own mistakes."

"It seems that abusing their subordinates is a popular hobby among Abh officers."

Lafiel frowned. "Meaning what?"

"Meaning I am very fortunate you are the exception that proves the rule."

It seemed to take a moment for Lafiel to decide that she would just let that slide. "Many officers think that being the subject of unfair treatment is a legitimate rite of passage for those who lack experience. If Duhiiru is serving a commander whom is of that opinion then he will have to rise to the occasion and prove himself worthy of respect. To be honest, I think my brother could benefit from a little bullying. Left to himself he is maddeningly indecisive. He would be quite happy never to accomplish anything."

"I hope I can meet him some day, it sounds like we would get along well."

"I'm certain that you would, depressingly so."

Jinto just smiled. Abh family relations were still very much a mystery to him. They had no concept of marriage, even the most devoted couples stuck together just long enough to raise two or three children. And most couples had their children conceived in artificial wombs. In fact that was how Lafiel had been borne. Lafiel's mother had died early in the war, so the only immediate family she had left was her father and brother. Her attitude towards her father seemed to be one of simmering irritation, and she appeared all but indifferent about her brother. Jinto had not even been aware she had any sibling until quite some time after he had met her. Of course, it was probably a mistake to generalize about Abh family values based on Lafiel's experience, her father was generally regarded as at best eccentric. What could you say about a man who had at one point told his only daughter that her genetic mother was a cat?

Lafiel did pass on a bit more news from her brother. Their ship had been in a number of battles since being assigned to the 11th Twin Thorns fleet. That fleet was assigned to the second of the two pincers which the Empire was sending into enemy territory as part of Operation Twin Thorns. The object of the operation was to isolate the three nations of the Triple Alliance from each other. With that accomplished, the ability of the enemy to coordinate a counterattack would be crippled and they could be defeated in detail. The enemy had taken a stubborn defensive stand in the path of both thorns of the pincer attack. So progress had been steady but slow. It was really beginning to look like the enemy was hoping for a slow war of attrition to grind away at the Empire's offensive power, and Jinto made a comment to this effect.

"A war of attrition is just a war of wills," Lafiel pointed out. "The side that loses its will to fight first loses the war, it's that simple. The Abh will never lose the will to fight so we can never lose such a war."

"I can't dispute that. The nations of the Triple Alliance have been dealing with the Abh for centuries, you would think they could figure that out."

Lafiel shrugged. "Perhaps they had been hoping for a quick victory and now they have no other plan to fall back on."

That seemed to be the prevailing attitude among many people Jinto spoke with. The initial attack of the Triple Alliance had nearly advanced all the way here to the Imperial capital, but had exhausted itself just short of its goal. Now eight years later, the current Imperial Space force was five times the size of the prewar fleet, so a successful attack on the core of the Empire was inconceivable. "It certainly makes you wonder why they didn't had a Plan B."

"I cannot imagine what that plan might be. If they continue with a purely defensive stance then even a stalemate is too much to hope for. It's very maddening."

"Maddening that we are winning?"

"Maddening to be fighting an enemy who seems to be utterly irrational. It numbs my mind trying to imagine what the enemy commanders are thinking. As a former lander, do you have any insight into their thinking that I might be missing?"

"Maybe they are planning to lose."

"You mean they will surrender?"

Jinto shook his head. "That's not quite what I meant."

Lafiel regarded him closely. "It sounds like something you have been thinking about."

Jinto just took a moment to collect his thoughts. Lafiel waited quietly. "I'm thinking that at least some of the leadership in the Triple Alliance must believe that they will inevitably become part of the Abh Empire," Jinto said. "Whether overtly or covertly, it would make sense for them to extend the war as long as possible."

"That sounds like a lot of pointless bloodshed just to delay the inevitable."

"As a supply officer I was taught to look at the war from an economic and social angle. I think of how an extended war will change the Empire itself."

"Change the Empire?"

Jinto nodded. "As we win the war, there are some things that are going to happen. We are going to be capturing many systems that will be turned into new territories of the Empire. That means that more of the Abh nobles are going to be first-generation like me. A lot more. It also means that a lot more landers are going to be recruited into both the Space force and the merchant fleet."

"So what of it? There are already nine hundred billion landers in the Empire and only thirty-five million Abh. Even if we absorb all the territories of the Triple Alliance it will barely double the lander population. That does not change the nature of the Empire in any way."

"Not by itself, no. But there is one other thing that's happening to the Abh. Nobody really talks about it, but it's pretty obvious if you look at the statistics that are sent to the supply officers."

"What do you mean?"

"It's pretty simple. A lot of us are dying. And we're not having many children."

Lafiel was momentarily taken aback by the comment. "Well certainly that's true. Many of us will have to delay having families because we are serving in the Space force. But we live for more than two hundred years, so waiting isn't a problem."

"Many of us won't live that long. And in the meantime there are less and less of us every day."

"Are you suggesting there is going to be some sort of revolt? We have been incorporating new territories into the Empire for nine hundred years. First-generation Abh are no less loyal and dedicated than the rest of us. You are proof of that."

Jinto smiled. "Why thank you."

"I'm serious!"

"I know, that's why I thank you."

Lafiel sighed. "You will forgive me, but sometimes it seems you do not have a single serious neuron in your brain."

"I have them, but they're hopelessly outnumbered."

"Okay, then rally your serious neurons and make your point."

"You're right that the Empire has successfully incorporated new territories for centuries. But we are likely about to absorb more new people in a few years than you ever did in the past nine centuries. And by the time it's done, there are going to be a lot fewer old-blood Abh families and a lot more new ones from a thousand different worlds that right now we know practically nothing about. I'm not trying to be gloom and doom, all I'm saying is that I think the Empire is going to change more in our lifetime than it has since it was founded. And maybe somebody on the other side has some ideas about how they would like the Empire to change."

Lafiel thought about that quietly for a while. "That makes some sense. But I think there is one thing you are forgetting."

"What's that?"

"The Abriels will still be ruling the Empire. If it does change, then we will make sure it changes in the way we wish."

Jinto smiled and raised his glass. "I wish you luck."

"Thank you." They clinked glasses and drank. That was a habit Jinto had successfully taught her, it was not something the Abh normally did. And maybe I'm a little piece of the conspiracy without even knowing it. I'd better not even suggest that.

"Tomorrow we can be loyal and dedicated again," Jinto announced. "But we promised ourselves we would waste time today, didn't we?"

"Indeed we did. The Regiment graciously lent us their pool for the entire day so we should make the best of it. Shall we go swimming again?"

Jinto grinned. "I was thinking we should try the diving boards next. Maybe they'll let me play with the gravity while you're in free fall."

# # #

Lafiel slipped the nightdress down over her head and winced. That still hurt. She inspected the skin on her face and upper chest in the mirror, and prodded it gingerly. It was no longer red, but it was still tender. It was all due to an embarrassing number of... Now, what had Jinto called them? Tummy-flops or some such thing.

Lafiel walked out of her bathroom into the expansive bedroom, her bare feet luxuriating in the deep, warm carpet. The lights had automatically dimmed as the night hours approached. As expected, an attendant had left a steaming crystal cup of tea on the table. Lafiel sat down and instructed the computer to dim the lights further and make the window transparent. At the moment the side of the city that contained her estate was facing away from the other cities of Lakfakalle. All she could see was the starfield, the sun they orbited, and the loops of solar collectors which encircled the sun like ribbons. This was the only system in the galaxy with such an extensive infrastructure. The shipyards of the capital, too far to see with the naked eye, produced more ships every day and the collectors produced more antimatter to fuel them. The Abh had turned this system into a source of might the likes of which had never been seen. It was a single vast machine ticking like a clock, a factory which produced victory.

But who is going to produce more Abh?

It was Lafiel herself who had explained to Jinto what the Abh considered to be the three great callings of their lives. First, to be a pilot in the Space Force. Second, to be a trader. Third, and most importantly, to be a parent. Leave it up to Jinto to come back and remind her of this at such an awkward time. How many of us will even live to be parents? Will I? Will Jinto?

This place had always been the very picture of stability to her. Even when she was old enough to understand that it had not always been here, that the Abh had built it all with their own hands and their own will, she had seen it as the very foundation of her world. But more and more it seemed to her this place was the center of a maelstrom that was spinning out of control, like the eye of one of those great cyclone storms that would sweep across the surface of a lander world, flattening everything in its wake.

Lafiel sighed. Jinto was right, she really needed to relax more. It was just like her to focus on the one sour point in what had turned out to be a very interesting day. Okay, admit it, a very enjoyable day. There, she said it. Are you happy now, Jinto? I can have fun with the best of them. Nobody defeats an Abriel, certainly not you. Anyone who thinks we are just cogs in a machine is sadly mistaken.

Lafiel shook her head. "Whatever am I thinking?" The same thing she was always thinking, that she had to prove herself. To Jinto, to her father, to her crew, to everybody. Was that the end in itself for her, or was it just her duty to an Empire that might change beyond recognition right before her eyes? Was it just a way for her to earn the right to waste time when she wanted to?

It was just like Jinto to fill her head with half-baked nonsense and expect her to sort it out for him.

She listened to the rest of Seelnay's message. It was not without interest. Being with the girl was always much like being licked on the face by an over-enthusiastic kitten, but despite her bubbly personality she was a very capable technician making a valuable contribution to the construction work in the Hyde territory. She was Lafiel's vassal, but because Lafiel had invested heavily in the Hyde territory Seelnay was there assisting Samson in the construction of the antimatter production plants. Jinto had conceded to a deal with the government in his home world that pretty much made it impossible for him to draw any income from the planet itself, so antimatter production was just about the only way to obtain income from his territory. His actions had been too strongly influenced by sentimentality, but in her heart Lafiel could not bring herself to blame him. They were his people, he just wanted them to be able to forge their own path within the Empire.

Her wristband lying on the bed stand sounded the emergency alarm, and a moment later the room alarm did likewise.

Lafiel rushed to her desk, shouting "display message!" as she ran. The text message came across her screen. All forces in the capital were at first stage battle alert. Her squadron was scheduled to launch in... Twenty minutes? That could not be right. "Give me the bridge of the Frikov!" Who was supposed to be the officer on deck right now? She could not remember.

Wing Flyer Gunomuboshu appeared on the screen, sitting in the command chair. Oh dear. Yes, she had given him a shift as bridge officer, which for a ship moored at the capital should have been utterly routine. Thankfully he appeared to be in only a mild state of panic. "Commander!" he wailed. "Thank goodness! They told us to be ready to launch in..." he glanced aside. "Nineteen minutes! But we don't even have a skeleton crew on board! What's going on?"

"Calm down, Wing Flyer. I just received a summons, which means the entire crew will have done so. Wait for Chief Engineer Gurinshia to arrive, she will direct fueling operations. In the meantime just call the dock control office and get them to connect and pressurize all four of the boarding corridors. There will be a lot of people boarding in a very short time. I'll be there in no more than fifteen minutes." Hopefully.

"Yes, Commander." The Wing Flyer seemed to be averting his eyes while trying not to make it look like he was. This reminded Lafiel that she was wearing her favorite silk nightdress.

"Carry on." She stabbed the disconnect button angrily. If this was a drill then she hoped that someday a bureaucratic error would have the perpetrator dragged screaming to the legendary Abh prison planet of Hell. There was an incoming call from Jinto. She switched to audio-only. "Jinto, you've heard?"

"Yes," came his pleasingly calm voice. "I've already asked the household staff to have your shuttle ready, figured you'd be busy making calls. I'm headed to the airlock now."

"Thanks, so am I." She just put on her underwear, wristband and tiara, grabbed a uniform and boots and ran out into the hallway. To hell with it, it was nothing he hadn't seen before. Mostly.

The inner airlock door was opened. She leaped in and slammed the button that closed the inner door and opened the outer. She squeezed through it as it was opening. The small passenger compartment of her private shuttle was empty. "I'm here!" She shouted.

"Hi Lafiel," she heard Jinto's voice from the cockpit. She looked through the doorway to see him sitting beside the pilot. He waved without looking. How gallant. She closed the airlock hatch and a moment later heard the shuttle detach. No longer in such a mad rush, she took her time putting on her uniform and boots. When she was done she poked her head into the cramped cockpit. "What's our ETA?"

"Ten minutes," the pilot said.

"Four whole minutes before the launch time," Jinto said dryly. "Hardly even exciting."

"Any other news?"

"Other than 'First Stage Alert' and 'Launch Yesterday' not a thing."

Lafiel quietly fumed. A launch order without a destination meant to just take up default defensive positions around the local base and await orders. It was normally done when a base faced imminent attack and there literally was no time to put together any defense plan. But this was the capital! Had the enemy found some Gate into Plane Space they did not know about? The Gates anywhere near the capital had all been charted centuries ago.

The docking bay was pure pandemonium. Lafiel managed to get to the bridge a full two minutes before the ordered launch time. Upon seeing her Gunomuboshu leapt out of the command chair as if it were red-hot. Lafiel returned his salute. "Report, Wing Flyer."

"The Chief Engineer began fueling five minutes ago."

So they would be about five minutes late launching. Better than she had expected. "And the crew?"

"We've already arranged to rendezvous with three shuttles between here and the rallying point with the remainder of the crew. We are currently operational on skeleton staff."

"Well done. You are relieved. Please take your position at the secondary weapons station."

"Thank you, I stand relieved." And she had never seen anybody look so thoroughly relieved in her life.

She at least had her full bridge crew when they launched. It was the first time she had the luxury to think beyond the immediate task of getting her ship out of its dock. She took the silver chain dangling from the side of her tiara and plugged it into the command chair's comm slot. Instantly the space around the ship was projected onto her mind's eye just as if she were immersed in a 3D map of local space. She had expected to see an overcast of friendlies as every warship in the capital region was scrambled. But in fact there were just a few squadrons of cruisers, frigates and assault ships heading out to the rallying points. The alert covered the entire region, but the launch order had been very selective. What in Hell was going on?

"Commander, squadron commander Atosuryua is signaling to prepare for a broadcast message," communications officer Yateshu announced.

"Let's have it on the main viewer."

A minute later the flashing standby message on the viewer was replaced by the face of their squadron commander. Atosuryua had a serene, triangular face, dark blue hair and almond-shaped brown eyes. She smiled pleasantly. "This is the squadron commander to all ships of the First Devastator Squadron," she announced. "Please continue to the rallying point as ordered. But you may stand down from battle alert. We have a long journey ahead of us before we get anywhere near an enemy.

"The current information I have is that the Empire has been attacked by the Federation of Hania."

Next Chapter: The Silent Enemy

Chapter 2 - The Silent Enemy

Hurry up and wait. That was the motto of every army since before gunpowder.

The bridge of the Frikov was quiet. Only half the stations were manned, making the mildly cramped command center seem a bit more open. Jinto had started his shift doing a bit of miscellaneous inventory work. But he only managed to drag that out so long. Right now there literally was nothing to do.

His gaze settled once again on the unchanging image on the main viewer. It showed their hastily assembled expeditionary fleet arrayed around them in formation, moving together through Plane Space at the speed of the slowest ships, the cruisers. Mobility in Plane Space was based on a very simple equation: your maximum speed was inverse to your mass. Bigger ships moved slower, period. It had nothing to do with how big your thrusters were. Each ship or group of ships generated a bubble of three-dimensional space around them. In Plane Space each bubble was effectively an elementary particle with a fixed spin rate. If your spin axis was parallel to Plane Space, you moved across it like a billiard ball rolling across a table. Turn the spin perpendicular and you stopped, spinning in place.

Jinto found it disquieting to think that all the ships in their fleet were like a bunch of electrons flying through space, and the display in front of him was rather like a cloud chamber that made those electrons visible as little vapor trails. The detectors that scanned Plane Space automatically turned the raw data into coded icons identifying the space-time bubbles by mass, or in the case of friendlies by IFF signature. He saw icons representing their own squadron of frigates, the larger cruisers, and the smaller assault ships and escort ships. There were no battleships since they would have forced a slower maximum speed and it was felt that speed was of the essence.

Jinto looked over to the command chair where Deca-commander Ekuryua was sitting still as a statue, looking at nothing in particular. As executive officer of the ship she was officer of the deck when Lafiel was on her rest shift. Technically since they were not on battle alert Ekuryua could have passed the duty on to another officer, but Jinto had never seen her do that. Like Jinto, she had served under Lafiel on the assault ship Basroil, and had volunteered to follow Lafiel to her new command. Ekuryua was a short Abh woman with a cute heart-shaped face and straight dark blue hair that came to a gentle curl under her ears, all of which should have made her look even younger than Abh always do. But her invariably expressionless face somehow gave her the impression of age, which was a source of speculation about the secretive woman. She could be two hundred years old as far as anyone knew, but she was not telling.

Jinto knew what his own motivation was for following Lafiel to the Devastator Squadron. Very soon after he had met Lafiel he had decided to be with her until the end of his days, in whatever capacity she would accept him. He had been happy to be accepted as her friend. But in Jinto's estimation Ekuryua was not friendly with anyone. Unless you counted Jinto's cat, which she doted over. He had trouble imagining what her motivation was for anything. Thinking of the most immediate motivation, she had been sitting there for a number of hours and might be thirsty. As junior officer on deck, it would be courteous for Jinto to bring her something.

Except that Jinto found Ekuryua sort of scary. He suppressed a sigh. Okay, once more into the breach. He got up and walked over beside the command chair. "Deca-commander, can I get you something to drink?"

She glanced over at him with her disquieting expressionless eyes for just a moment then resumed staring into space. "I would like to have some fresh Passion-fruit cocktail," she deadpanned in her soft, high voice.

"Oh. I'm quite sure we don't have any fresh Passion-fruit on board, we left the base only stocked with the standard non-perishables."

"I did not say I expected you to get me fresh Passion-fruit juice, I merely said that is what I would like to have had."

It was odd how every conversation with Ekuryua felt like a cross-examination. "I'll be sure to requisition some Passion-fruit at our next port of call. In the meantime was there anything else I could get you?"


Best to just cut bait. "Okay." Jinto turned to leave.

"Have you done something to upset the commander?"

Jinto froze and looked at Ekuryua, taken aback. She never spontaneously asked questions. "What makes you think Lafiel is upset?" He asked carefully.

"After leaving the capital she has been unusually melancholic. You were her house guest so I presume she spent her day off with you."

"Well, yes."

"What did you do?"

"We just went swimming."

"Swimming? You mean you took a bath together?"

"No, of course not!" His raised voice turned some heads. "It's not bathing, it's swimming" he continued in a more modulated voice. "We do it for fun on my home world. Lafiel and I went to a proper military facility. We wore proper military issue bathing attire at all times."

"I'm not your chaperone, you don't need to spell it out."

Oh yes I bloody well do. "We had an enjoyable day, so I don't know what she would have to be depressed about." But now Ekuryua had him worried. He had seen little of Lafiel in the past couple of days other than at staff meetings. The ship commanders and flag officers were busy getting their new fleet into some semblance of order.

"I see. Nothing else?"

"Well..." Jinto sensed a trap but saw no way out.

Ekuryua raised a slim eyebrow. "Yes?"

"We were talking a bit about how the war was going. I said that I wonder how many of us are going to live long enough to be parents."

Absolutely nothing moved in the room. But the level of tension spiked. It looked like this time he had really done it.

Ekuryua leaned her chin against her palm and regarded him coldly. "I would have thought you have served in the military long enough to know how insensitive that was."

Jinto never thought he would be getting sensitivity training from Ekuryua. "I'm sorry."

"Why are you apologizing to me?"

"Because I feel sorry and you're here."

"A very convenient answer."

Jinto took a deep breath to calm himself. He came to attention. "I will take responsibility for my error and will rectify it at the earliest opportunity, Deca-commander," he said formally.

"Very well. Carry on."

"Yes, commander." Jinto resumed his seat. Chalk up another crash and burn. But he did remember to add Passion-fruit to the requisition list.

# # #

A frigate was essentially a pocket cruiser which was missing the mine laying capability of normal cruisers. Its prime virtues were a higher cruising speed in plane space and higher mobility in normal space. To maximize those virtues, mass and volume were kept to a minimum. So the meeting room where the senior officers of the Frikov awaited their commander was not exactly cramped but could charitably be described as making efficient use of the space. Jinto was usually the one who ended up serving drinks in this room, and he could just do so without bumping into anyone.

"I've just been told the commander's shuttle has docked," comm officer Yateshu announced. He detached his tiara's chain from his chair's comm port, having received the message they were waiting for. Lafiel had spent the day on the squadron's flagship conferring with the other ship commanders, and had signaled ahead to convene a meeting with her own staff.

The door behind the head of the table slid open and Lafiel entered. They all stood and saluted in unison. She returned the salute and stood in front of the chair at the head of the table, which was their cue to remain standing. As usual she opened her meeting with a minimum of preamble. "The relay ship we rendezvoused with yesterday has brought us the first detailed reports from the border patrol squadrons which have been engaging the Federation forces. Thanks to the intelligence they have sent we now have a much clearer picture of what has been happening."

She placed a data crystal into a slot on the table and touched a button. The featureless surface of the table resolved itself into a map of local plane space. Jinto always found it tempting to think of these maps as showing the Milky Way Galaxy seen from directly over the disk of the spiral galaxy. But he knew that was mistaken. Though it was always shown on flat maps like this, Plane Space wove its way through normal space in an unimaginably complex fractal pattern. Mapping between the two spaces only had any meaning at all around the billions of Sords which served as the only gateways between the two. Normally a Sord was just an elementary particle that tended to hover at the edge of star systems, but when energy was applied to a Sord in just the right way it became a Gate into plane space. Travel through plane space was so much faster than through normal space that the relative positions of star systems in normal space was all but irrelevant. It would take far longer to go to the nearest star through normal space than to cross the galaxy through plane space.

The map Lafiel had brought showed most of the Kuryuuvu kingdom of the Abh empire. This kingdom did not share a border in plane space with any of the Triple Alliance. It only shared a border with the Hania Federation, in fact it was practically surrounded by the region of Plane Space that was claimed by the Federation. Hania had been neutral in the war until now, that was why this kingdom of the Empire was so lightly defended and why this fleet had to be so hastily assembled.

Lafiel pointed to the map. "As you can see, the attack did not come from anywhere near the known settlements within the Federation, in fact it came from the other direction entirely. Their settlements are mostly around the galactic rim, but the attack came from the direction of the galactic core. Either they made a very wide arc through their own territory or they have bases near the galactic core that we don't know about. Based on the size of forces we have seen and their estimated supply requirements, we suspect the latter."

In the part of the map Lafiel pointed out, Jinto could see at least thirty Gates that had been marked as either contact lost or confirmed overrun by the enemy. Each Gate led to an inhabited star system, with anything from small space settlements to inhabited planets. So at least thirty systems in the Empire were now in the hands of the Federation. Jinto found that astonishing. The Hania Federation territory was extensive but in total it only contained about twenty widely scattered inhabited systems that they knew of.

"We have identified at least six fleets advancing in parallel. Each fleet appears to be approximately the size of a Space forces half-fleet. Best guess is that each of these six fleets consists of a battleship squadron, a cruiser squadron, three assault squadrons and assorted support ships, presumably including escort ships. We have only received reliable reports from the more recently attacked systems so we are unsure how much forces they are garrisoning captured systems with as they advance. Best guess is that they are keeping garrisons to a minimum and advancing with close to their full strength."

Lafiel looked around the room. "These forces amount to far more than we had given the Federation credit for. Naturally, fleet command suspected these are actually fleets moved from the Triple Alliance and that Hania has allowed them to use their territory as a staging ground to open up a new front." Jinto nodded, and so did others. That made sense, the Federation was part of the same Nova Sicily treaty as the three members of the Triple Alliance. For reasons of their own they had simply declared neutrality when the current war started.

Lafiel shook her head. "But that appears not to be the case." She touched a button on the table and the map was replaced by a series of images of ships. They were mostly grainy and some were blurred. Many had obviously been taken by gun cameras during a battle. "All the ships encountered so far have been either known Federation designs or new variants on those designs." She touched another button and a series of ship schematics came up. Like all the officers Jinto had been hastily getting up to speed on the known Hania order of battle, something nobody had expected ever to do. He recognized all the ships he was seeing. But parts of the schematics showed in red where there were variations between what had been seen in this battle and what was known of Federation ship designs. Some just had weapons systems added or replaced, others looked like they had more extensive modifications. In fact there were a surprising number of different variations. It was like the fleet had been scraped together from a collection of various prototypes.

"There is one final aspect of this attack which was a factor in deciding upon our countermeasures. As yet, no enemy ship has initiated any communication, responded to any challenge or asked for surrender. As far as we can see they simply enter each Gate in force, destroy any forces that oppose them and proceed to the next nearest Gate in their path, advancing as rapidly as they can. We have little idea what their intentions are or what they are doing behind their lines and we want to find out as quickly as possible. When our fleet arrives we will certainly have local superiority of force, but we are not sure by how wide a margin that is."

She brought the map back to the tabletop. "Tomorrow the fleet will refuel at this base. It is the most forward base that we are sure we can reach before the enemy does. We will be joined by the reserves of the local defense fleet, which includes a battleship squadron. The combined fleet will proceed with best speed to liberate the nearest occupied system. This will be done even if we learn of nearer systems being attacked. Further action will be dictated by what we find there and how the enemy reacts."

The tabletop went blank. "Fleet command has also decided on some matters regarding the fleet integration and plans for the upcoming assault. We will need to review these, so please be seated."

When the meeting was done, Jinto lingered until everyone but Lafiel had left. He asked her if she would like him to make her a drink, which was their cue to retire through the door at the other end of the meeting room into her quarters. The Commander's quarters on the frigate were not the cramped affair she had on the little assault ship, there actually was a nice little corner where they could both sit in armchairs. Jinto poured them both glasses of brandy from a bottle that had actually been a gift from him, a Martine brand he had introduced her to. Alcohol had little effect on Abh, but they still appreciated the aesthetic quality of good liquor. Jinto just had to make sure that she never caught on to the concept of a drinking contest, otherwise he would be toast.

"At times like this, do you understand why I feel like a billiards ball sometime?" Jinto asked.

"I think I can. It seems the course of our lives is being directed by people far away making incomprehensible decisions."

"Our new fleet not shaping up as hoped?"

"No, not that. A lot of these units were just formed and their commanders have no experience, but that is true of any new fleet these days. I'm thinking more of the incomprehensibility of lander thinking. No offense."

"None taken" Jinto said happily, completing their old running joke. "I'd have to agree they've really outdone themselves this time. It looks like suicide by peace officer."

"Cultural reference," Lafiel correctly identified from long experience.

"That's where a suicidal person gets a weapon, threatens people with it and provokes peace officers into killing him."

"Please tell me that is not a common practice anywhere you have lived."

"No, it's very rare. But that's what this feels like. If the Empire really got serious we could easily send and supply a force three times this strong in very little time. Maybe we already are."

That was a distinct possibility. This fleet was essentially a vanguard sent out at top speed with minimal instructions, so there had not even been time to get any update from the capital. Their commander-in-chief, the Imperial Admiral, might very well decide to divert other resources even before hearing news of the vanguard's first clash with the enemy. "This would only make any sense at all if it were coordinated with a general offensive elsewhere. But drawing out their main force is exactly what we have been hoping for. Surely they can see that, can't they?"

"Sorry, nobody here but us billiard balls."

Jinto was wondering if this was a good time to broach the subject he had really come here to discuss when Lafiel's face suddenly took on a very serious expression. "Jinto, you're not depressed about your current circumstances are you?"

Jinto blinked. How had she stolen his line? "No," he said tentatively. "Why do you ask?"

"I was just thinking back to our conversation by the pool. It's not like you to be thinking about things like whether you will live to be a parent. I have trouble enough getting you to think past your next meal. When death is looking you in the face it is all you can do to keep from falling to pieces, but the next day you won't give it a thought. I can't help feeling that you've changed."

"Are you saying I shouldn't think about the future?"

"You know what I mean."

Jinto nodded, becoming more serious now. "I'd be lying if I told you I'm not anxious about whether we'll survive this war. But I'm not the only one, you know. In fact I was gearing up to ask you the same question."

"I asked first."

Jinto could not look into her eyes and lie. "Yes, I've been thinking about the course of my life more seriously these days," he said softly. "But no matter how long I think, one thing is absolutely clear. I would not trade the time we have already spent together for the longest lifetime ever lived. If I die tomorrow, in that last moment I will still regard myself as one of the luckiest men who has ever lived."

Lafiel regarded him with an unchanging serious expression. "You will forgive me Jinto, I have asked you a very selfish question."

"May I ask one in return?"

Lafiel nodded. It was understood he did not even need to ask. "I too consider myself to be very lucky. All the more since I have met you. Whether I die tomorrow or two hundred years from now, I will know that I had many reasons to be proud and to be grateful. Being your friend is among the best of those reasons."

"I'm honored. And very glad to hear that you are not depressed."

Lafiel's expression changed in an instant. "Well of course I'm depressed!"

Jinto just froze. He managed to stop himself from blurting "You are?"

Lafiel closed her eyes momentarily and sighed, as if she were confronted by a child who refused to understand a most elementary fact. "Jinto, if the fates forbid you ever have your own ship one day then you will understand that becoming part of a new fleet is much like being adopted into a new family. You are suddenly among strangers whom you know nothing about and have no idea how they will react, yet you must put your life in their hands and theirs in your hands. We are in a fleet that did not even exist a few days ago. How could I not be depressed? Oh, what are you grinning about now?"

"Being depressed about transitory conditions is very healthy, at least you can do something about it."

"Every now and then you manage to say something sensible. I might yet succeed in cramming some common sense into that head of yours."

"Please don't give up on me, coach."


# # #

"No IFF signature" Deca-commander Ekuryua declared in her calm but crisp voice. "Assumed to be hostiles."

"Acknowledged," Lafiel said from her command chair. "Bring us to first stage battle alert."

"First stage, aye."

First contact, Lafiel thought. Okay, let's see what you do when there's a whole fleet bearing down on you.

The fleet was deployed as five groups advancing in parallel across plane space, wide enough that it would be difficult to flank them and near enough to support each other. At current speed they were four hours out from a Gate called Thermopylae 243, currently thought to be the most forward position taken by the enemy. If the enemy were still occupying the system this is about where they would expect to find enemy patrol craft. Which appeared to be what they had found. The two widely spaced blips at extreme sensor range had just come close enough to identify them as the size of small cruisers. Again, exactly what they would expect to see. They were ships with long enough range for extended independent action but with enough speed to outrun pursuers. They were too far out even for fast assault craft to catch them before they got back to the Gate.

"They are retreating at best speed," Ekuryua announced.

The expected orders soon came. The frigates of the First Devastator Squadron spun up to full speed and pulled ahead of the central group of the main fleet. They were soon joined by two assault squadrons and an escort squadron which pulled alongside and matched speed. The new group would be moving fast enough to keep in contact with the retreating space-time bubbles presumed to hold enemy cruisers going back to the occupied Thermopylae system. Now there would be more waiting. As usual, that was the worst part.

In three hours the Gate came into detection range. The enemy blips disappeared into it, presumably to warn their comrades of the approaching fleet. They had not even bothered to drop mines. The number of mines two cruisers could drop would be unlikely to do much against the combined laser batteries an entire escort squadron. Lafiel tapped the arm of her chair rhythmically. Soon they would find out the enemy's intention: fight or flight.

It was not long before they got their answer. When they were half an hour from the Gate a swarm of new space-time bubbles erupted from it. Lafiel's heart beat faster during the minutes that it took the new hostiles to organize. Emerging from a Gate going in either direction was always chaotic, each ship might emerge in any direction from the center of the gateway. When you turned yourself into an elementary particle, your motion was governed by quantum uncertainty.

The enemy fleet moved away. They had chosen to run. "I guess they're going to order us in" she heard Jinto say. He sounded mildly depressed, which as he had pointed out before was probably a healthy thing. But as things stood it was less likely they were in for much of a fight. If nothing had emerged from the Gate then they would have waited for the rest of the fleet to form up under the assumption that the enemy waited around the Gate in the Thermopylae system in ambush. The battleships would have swamped the Gate with mines before the assault ships and cruisers rushed through.

Jinto had called it. The order came, the Devastator squadron would go in accompanied by the escorts. The ships got into formation. Minutes away from the Gate, Lafiel activated the ship intercom. "This is your commander speaking. We will soon be going through the Thermopylae Gate. Up until now it has gone down by the numbers but don't make any assumptions about what we will be encountering. It appears the enemy has abandoned this system but be ready for anything. Whatever we are facing, you know that we have faced worse and came out victorious. We will do so again. That is all." They were an experienced crew now and really did not need to be reminded of these things, but she felt it was wrong to take that for granted. She was very proud of her crew, they deserved to know that they were always foremost in their commander's mind.

Ekuryua counted down the time to the Gate. Lafiel glanced around at the bridge crew. Everyone was calm but focused. When her XO called thirty seconds Lafiel stood and drew her command baton. "Gunners, remember that at the moment we cross we're on our own. If you see something on top of us don't wait to be told, just shoot it!" Those were dangerous orders to give, but not if you really trusted your people.

They made the transition to real space. As usual, the profound change in their frame of existence came with no noticeable side-effects. The switch back to three-dimensional space was announced by the main viewer switching from a view of plane space to a radar map of normal space. A very, very crowded map.

"Multiple contacts! No IFF!"

"Incoming mines! Firing lasers!"

"Incoming assault ships! Firing cannon!"

"Enemy cruisers! Launching nukes!"

"EM jamming! No friendly contacts!"

The enemy fleet here was at least the size of the one that had fled. Probably larger. They were clustered closely around the Gate and it looked like every single one of them was aiming at her ship. Enemy mines and assault ships exploded close enough to make the electromagnetic shield complain. The ship lurched as the electromagnetic cannon sent two thermonuclear warheads out to the nearest enemy cruiser. The first missed and detonated harmlessly, the second struck home. The struck ship's collapsing antimatter engine briefly transformed the ship into a tiny sun. The Frikov's sensors shut down but so would the enemy's, if only briefly. "Max thrust!" Lafiel shouted. "Get us away from the Gate!"

They had been in normal space for ten seconds now.

The Frikov rocketed through the enemy formation. They were more tightly packed than she had even thought. What sort of formation was this anyway? As she had hoped, getting up close and personal made them pass by too quickly for the enemy to line up major weapons. They just traded laser fire, which was little more than a tickle to the armor of a capital ship. Two of their escort ships had pulled alongside the Frikov without even being asked. Their commanders had thought quickly. It had been found that frigates and the little escort ships supported each other very well. That is, until one of them was hit by an enemy antiproton cannon and exploded. Then their own ship lurched violently twice in succession. "We took antiproton fire from assault ships," Jinto said. "Two port laser cannons down, no hull breach."

"Contact from the squadron commander!" The comm officer called. "She says to head for the planet!"

The planet? That had been the furthest thing from Lafiel's mind. They were just a couple of light-seconds from the system's inhabited planet. The orbital stations were silent, presumably destroyed, but there were IFF signatures from the surface. The planet had not been bombarded, so their siege guns and missile batteries would be intact. That support was pretty much their only hope now, and a slim one at that. Lafiel ordered the helmsman to make it so. Her comm officer called out contacts with other ships in the squadron emerging from the zone of EM jamming. Amazingly, all were accounted for. But some were lagging behind, obviously crippled. They should have been dead, going through the enemy lines like that with limited mobility.

It was soon evident why they had not received more attention from the enemy. Even before her XO calmly noted the fact, it was obvious that most of them were heading into the Gate or preparing to do so. "Why are they running now?" Jinto was moved to ask.

"They're not," Ekuryua said. "Only a few ships went through."

"Bait," Lafiel said. "They'll look like stragglers who fought their way through us. Our fleet will go past and chase them. Then the rest of the enemy will emerge behind our fleet and surprise them. But it won't work exactly as they've planned. At least two of our half-fleets will be holding back to cover the Gate until we emerge with the all-clear. Their plan is clever, but not quite clever enough."

The squadron progressed slowly, to cover the crippled ships. The assault and escort ships had fared worse, losing almost a quarter of their number and another quarter damaged. With the enemy forces arrayed in defensive position around the Gate there was little their small vanguard could do but limp to the safety of the planetary defense grid. It was maddening, but it was the correct choice.

Soon after they came into orbit around the planet, the enemy departed. Atosuryua, who was in overall command of their little task force, decided to assemble the able ships and head back to the Gate. Now that approaching the Gate was no longer an act of suicide, they had a duty to reenter the fight. It was unlikely the fleet was in serious trouble, but their help might be needed.

By the time they did emerge from the Gate back into plane space, the enemy was in full retreat, more or less intact. What had failed as an ambush had succeeded as a rearguard action. Looking at the deployment of their fleet and the retreating enemy in plane space, Lafiel could instantly see what had happened. The enemy had taken advantage of the expeditionary fleet's exposed position to force a retreat of its lead elements, allowing the enemy to withdraw in good order. If that had been their original intent then they would have all emerged together. The enemy commander had certainly changed gears very quickly.

Whatever the shortcomings of the politicians who had ordered this attack, it was obviously being carried out by people who knew what they were doing.

# # #

Twenty days after the first clash, squadron commander Atosuryua had the satisfaction of looking down at the last liberated planet. It was a newly terraformed planet, still with not much green showing on the bare continents. Like all the others, it had been untouched by the enemy. The Silent Enemy as they had come to be called.

Her own ships were just small dots in the distance. Minus two still under repairs further behind the lines. They had been fortunate. The whole fleet had been quite fortunate after a couple of early debacles. Casualties had been light. But then again, they had been for the enemy as well. They had retreated steadily, but it had never been a rout. Through a series of feints they had always kept the Abh guessing, always avoiding being trapped, always offering resistance and slowing the advance but always avoiding a decisive battle. It had been a textbook perfect withdrawal. Utterly pointless as far as anybody could see, but textbook perfect.

Her chief-of-staff entered the observation deck of the Admiral's flagship. Sobash was an androgynous Abh man with short dark blue hair and a ready smile. He wore his advanced years with wit and charm. She had come to like him very much in the four years he had been with her squadron. He came up to join her standing by the wide window. "The report from the surface garrison command was just distributed."

"Have you looked at it?" She asked.

"I just skimmed it. Seems to be the same old story. They came, they blew up the orbital forts, they stuck around for a while, they took some antimatter from the local collecting stations, and they left just before we got here."

"And of course they never said a word," she completed for him.

"Not a thing. You would think we are fighting an army of deaf-mutes."

"Even deaf-mutes can read and send text messages. We are just fighting people who really don't want to talk with us."

"At least they did not overstay their welcome, so they are not altogether without tact."

Atosuryua laughed. "They left without even saying good-bye, I call that tactless." They both gazed out the window in comfortable silence. At length Atosuryua gave voice to a gnawing thought. "Sobash, were you ever in a campaign where not a single prisoner was taken?"

"It's unheard of. Inevitably there are crippled ships or escape pods that surrender or are boarded. I know our squadron has not taken any, but surely somebody did."

"I sent an inquiry to the Admiral's office yesterday. They confirmed, not a single prisoner has been taken."

Sobash considered that quietly for a moment. "I do recall at least one report of our ships asking an enemy ship crippled in normal space to surrender. That was back when we were still even bothering. Almost immediately the enemy ship's antimatter engines detonated."

"I've heard a couple of other stories like that from other squadrons. Their crippled ships never even send out any escape pods. It seems so incongruous. In all other ways they fought a very careful campaign. One instance I could pass off as a damaged antimatter containment field. But it really looks like they did not want to be taken alive."

"Some of the elite United Mankind units are pretty hard-core fanatics, we almost never get surrenders from them."

Atosuryua shook her head. "This doesn't feel like that at all. These commanders have moral courage, they held where they could and yielded when they had to. Fanatics don't fight like that."

Another companionable silence was interrupted by both their wristbands beeping. Atosuryua just let Sobash check his. "The delegation from the capital just docked."

"Then let's go find out what they've got to tell us. Maybe they can shed some light on these damnable shadows we've been chasing."

The flagship's small assembly room was nearly filled to capacity with the squadron commanders, their aides and the flag officers. A harried looking Abh man Atosuryua did not know approached the podium. He wore the uniform and insignia of a kilo-commander in the intelligence service.

Sobash leaned close. "Ever met an intelligence officer who had any?" he muttered. Atosuryua shushed him.

The officer introduced himself and launched straight into what sounded like the recitation of a prepared report. "Through diplomatic channels with the Federation of Hania we have been able to gain some insight into the recent attack here in the Kuryuuvu Kingdom. To understand this I need to give you some background information. For over a hundred years now we have been aware of a program in the Federation government known as the Black Budget. Put simply, the Black Budget is a set of military research programs whose exact nature is only known within very select elements of their civil government. We only have a general idea of the scale of the program, and that is at best an estimate. We knew very little about it until very recently.

"Very soon after the attack a very high-level delegation of diplomats from the Federation arrived at our embassy in the established neutral trade port between the Empire and the Federation. They requested audience with the Emperor. They were escorted to the capital and given the opportunity to speak. Put simply, they told us exactly what the Black Budget program is, in great detail."

A barely audible muttering went through the audience. Atosuryua was rather taken aback herself. She had expected a very long-winded report full of generalities and evasion, the usual mix of semi-intelligence and guesswork. But he was getting to the point with astonishing speed.

A map of plane space appeared on the wall behind the lectern. "The Black Budget supports a secret military base in the Vensath system, as indicated here." There was more muttering. The place indicated was in Hania space about halfway between the border with the Abh Empire and the impassable galactic core. More to the point, it was a perfect staging area for the attack that they had just finished repelling.

"This base was originally set up as a research station to develop ships that can venture further into the galactic core. But the program soon grew to conceal an extensive set of other military research and then a shipbuilding program. In short, it was producing a secret fleet. It appears that two years ago there was a coup among the leadership of this base. Speculation is that it was taken over by a faction of the military that favored entry into the war with the Empire. The Vensath base broke off contact with their bases at the Hania capital. The civil government was not even aware of this until after the attack took place. They did not deduce what happened until members of the Black Budget committees in the Hania capital were arrested and interrogated."

At this point the officer's expression became even more smug. "Needless to say we viewed this story with some skepticism. To back up their story, the Hania delegation handed over to us what is essentially all the records that their civil government could gather on the Black Budget on such short notice. It includes very detailed records on the research and the buildup. They have offered their full cooperation in hunting down the conspirators, including free access to their territories toward the galactic core."

He summed up with what for the intelligence department was a miracle of brevity. "There are some anomalies in their story. The main one is, we suspect the civil government knew of the coup some time ago and lacked either the ability or the will to do anything about it. But we think the essentials of the story are true and that we should proceed on that basis."

The intelligence officer withdrew and Admiral Halben stepped up the lectern. "I would lose face if I took more of your time than our colleague from the intelligence branch, so I will be brief." That got a chuckle from everyone. "As well as this information we have also received our orders directly from the Imperial Admiral. With agreement from the Federation we will be occupying the neutral trade-port in force. We will also be occupying a small system in their territory called Thracia." It came up on the map, a point near the border with the Empire and about midway between the cluster of inhabited systems of the Federation and their alleged secret base. It was in a perfect position to cut off any line of communication between the alleged base and the rest of the Federation. "Also with their cooperation we will be conducting patrols deep into their territory. But we have no intention of sticking our necks out. Until we have further information we watch and wait. We are taking up their offer of sending observers to monitor their further investigation into this alleged conspiracy. We will be assigning officers from within this fleet in the near future. You will be given details on what we have so far and we will pass on more as we get it."

The Admiral's face became stern. "If anyone here thinks we are being overly generous with the Federation then they should consider the consequences if we had to invade and occupy the Hania Federation. They have common borders with all three members of the Triple Alliance. Rather than a buffer zone it would become a new border to be defended and a possible path of incursion into the Empire. If we can avoid that we will. But if it turns out our friends in the Federation have been leading us by the nose..." He grinned. "Well, some of them might live long enough to regret it. Now, my aide will explain how we will be redeploying the fleet and the reinforcements that have recently arrived."

The Admiral's aide spoke longer, since she had to show in detail how the fleet would be distributed. Major elements were being moved to the trade port and to Thracia. But the bulk of the fleet, including the Devastator Squadron, would be deployed among the recently liberated systems and nearby neighboring ones as well, setting up regular patrols across the intervening Plane Space where the attack had passed through. So far, after the liberation of the last systems there had been no contact from the enemy. The Abh did not venture across the original border, and it seemed that for the moment the Silent Enemy was not inclined to do so either.

When they were dismissed there was a great deal of animated chatter as people filed out of the room. Sobash was remarkably silent. Atosuryua did not speak until they were back in the privacy of the observation deck. "Sobash, are you buying any of this?"

"Not without some very solid collateral I'm not."

"Me either. I would feel a lot better if somebody I trust is there to take a very good look at what these folk in Hania are doing. I'd like to volunteer some of our people for this investigation of theirs." She smiled. "Somebody with a bit of experience in dealing with eccentric landers."

She was very surprised to see a look of profound anxiety come across her aide's usually placid face. "Commander, you must know how she would feel about being sent to a lander world."

"I am aware of her unfortunate experiences. But I had no intention of sending her alone."

Sobash considered that for a moment then smiled. "You know, I think that might work."

# # #

Chief Inspector Camin Laroc wove his handmade stirling-engine convertible between the bubble-shaped electric rental cars that made their way swiftly along the raised roadway that led into the Federation Government district of the city. It was a crisp spring morning with just a few high-altitude clouds spread across a beautiful blue sky. His was the noisiest car on the road, but even his custom car's engine and tires were within noise regulation, so he could easily hear the calling of the migrating geese flying overhead. He began whistling a tune, happily reliving fresh memories of his night out and looking forward to the day ahead.

Inspector Laroc passed through the checkpoint of the Investigation Bureau building and parked the car in his spot underground. The elevator took him up to the thirtieth floor, where the interrogation rooms were. He passed through the second security scanner and found his nervous-looking assistant waiting for him in the hallway. "Morning Johan. Sorry I'm a bit late, it was a long night." He was in fact more than half an hour early, but for him that was unusually late.

Johan nodded knowingly. "I'll bet. Do you ever sleep?" He came up beside Camin and they both walked down the hallway.

"As little as I can. So is my date with the Minister still on?"

"Yes. His lawyer has called three times since yesterday."

"Do we care?"

"Not any more. The announcement came an hour ago, constitutional rights have been suspended for all Federation government bureaucrats."

"Sweet." Camin's palmtop chimed. "Excuse me." He reached into the inside pocket of his overcoat and pulled out a pad quite a bit larger than the ones most people used. He read the brief message and chuckled. "Just a text message from my wife." He noticed Johan peering over and hit the off button. "It's nothing for your virgin eyes, sonny."

"I can't figure you two out. You had your silver anniversary years ago and you're still acting like newlyweds."

"You just have to marry the right woman is all. Same room as before?"

"Yes sir." They came up to one of the identical windowless doors that lined the spartan corridor. The display beside the door confirmed that the Minister was waiting inside accompanied by the peace officer who had escorted him here.

"We'll let him stew for a bit longer, there are some things we need to discuss first." He found that meetings went faster when they were conducted in places where there were no chairs. Johan had the early shift that ended around noon so he brought Camin up to speed on recent developments in the investigations. He summarized the results of three other interrogations and a couple of search-and-seizures. Camin made notes of points to bring up during his upcoming interview with the Minister. It looked like this was going to be a fun one.

Camin palmed the door open and walked in briskly. "Top of the morning to you, Minister," he said cheerily. He took off his coat, hung it up in the corner of the room and plopped himself down in the comfortable armchair that waited for him. He grinned at the minister sitting awkwardly on a little stool on the other side of the table. The obese, balding man just glared at him. He looked as if he had not had much sleep. It might have had something to do with the phone that had kept ringing outside his cell all night, though nobody could prove that.

"Has my lawyer called?" The Minister asked gruffly.

"Three times. I hope you're paying him well, he's really going beyond the call of duty."

"I'm not saying anything more until I can talk with him."

"Oh really? They never tell me anything, I wasn't aware that they had taken your communication privileges away."

The Minister of Defense looked at him suspiciously. "What do you mean?"

"If you still had your notepad I would have thought you would be keeping up with current events, at least reading the news feeds." He activated the palmtop that he had tossed onto the table. "There was a particularly interesting item, too. Ah, here it is." He read. "Today the President announced that constitutional rights are being suspended for all federal bureaucrats. He said that the move was justified due to the need to have the current crisis resolved quickly. The extent of the conspiracy within the Defense Department was so broad that the widest possible net needed to be cast. The danger of bringing the Federation into the war was so serious that it would be irresponsible to do any less." Camin looked up at the Minister's panic-stricken face. "It goes on about suspending civil oversight of police procedures and so on, but you get the idea." He leaned back. "You know, this just came out so I really haven't had time to think about the implications. It really does open up some new opportunities. One of your former constitutional rights was protection from rendition. For instance, suppose the Abh government thought that you were responsible for the unprovoked attack against the Empire and demanded that we turn you over to them. Yesterday I couldn't have done that."

The Minister sputtered for a moment. "You wouldn't dare!"

"Now what was the name of that planet of theirs? You know, the one where they send people who have really pissed them off. Yeah, I think they just call it Hell." He shrugged. "Anyway, enough of that for now. Let's get back to what we were talking about yesterday." He brought his notes up on the palmtop. "We were talking about your financial records and I really have to say it looks airtight. We were sure we would find that some Black Budget money had found its way into one of your... My my, your twenty-three bank accounts. But every single transaction looks legitimate."

Camin looked back up at the Minister, who was starting to sweat a bit in the air-conditioned room. "Minister, did I tell you that before I started up with the federal bureau I was in the vice squad for a few years? Working there sort of gave me a different perspective on what it is that people really crave. I mean, money is sweet, but it's just a means to an end, isn't it? People can give you nice things without giving money. For instance, somebody gave you a membership into that really nice club, the Blue Lagoon. We raided the place yesterday." Camin watched the subject's face. He could see that the time was right. "It seems that certain other people were brought to the private rooms you booked. Now, it's been a while since I was in vice, but..." He brought a picture up on his palmtop, turned it around and pushed it to the Minister's side of the little table. "I'm pretty sure she's well below the age of consent."

The subject broke down and cried. That always made Camin's day.

# # #

Altogether it had been a productive day for Chief Inspector Camin Laroc. The past few days had been a circus but things were finally starting to come together. Breaking the Defense Minister had been a real coup. He had named names which Camin was able to cross-references with some of the dozen other investigations that were happening in parallel. They were just starting to get glimpses of the big picture now. The Black Budget had been a cash cow for the military that was beyond anybody's worst nightmare. The total budget was almost as large as the regular Star Fleet itself, and it all got funneled into that base way off in the middle of nowhere. They now had command logs, production schedules, order-of-battle, everything. Even personnel lists, all the people who had gone there and were presumably still there. Lots of traditional old-guard military families were represented there, especially among the senior officers. The base had long been self-sufficient, they must have really come to believe that they had their own little empire.

And then two years ago the base just stopped communicating. Ships sent there from a Black Budget program base near the capital never returned. The Black Budget directors and commanders had nobody they could talk to about this except each other. So they just spent two years variously wringing their hands or bailing out or lining their pockets. Then this week the shit hit the fan and the feds came knocking at their doors.

Camin finished dictating his report and glanced out the floor-to-ceiling windows of his corner office. The sun was about to go down and clouds were just starting to gather. Should still be nice to drive home with the top down tonight.

His desk video phone chimed. On the other hand, maybe not.

It was the General Director's face that appeared on his screen. "I'm glad I caught you, Camin. Can I see you in my office?"

"Sure thing boss." The Director's office was two floors up. He did not stand on ceremony where his senior staff was concerned so Camin just opened one of the double carved oak doors and walked in. The Director's taste was very baroque, the spacious office was covered with dark carved wood, red curtains and shelves full of redundant leather-bound books. He already had Camin's favorite drink waiting on the glass table. That must mean he wants something. Camin sat down on the other armchair.

The Director got right to the point. "The relay ship from the embassy just entered the system a while ago. There was a message for me from the ambassador's office. The Abh have taken us up on our offer of a joint investigation into the Black Budget affair."

"Well I'll be damned." Nobody had quite known how the Abh were going to react to that one. They had accepted the other concessions made by the Federation, including the occupation of the trade port systems. But so far nothing about the investigation.

"I'll read you the memo delivered to the embassy by the Abh," He activated the little screen in the chair's arm. "We accept joint control over the investigation into the Black Budget affair. We will be sending a representative of the intelligence service and two Space Force officers to the embassy. We expect them to be met by a senior investigator of the Federation Investigation Bureau who is directing the Black Budget investigation. We further expect the complete cooperation of the Investigation Bureau. End of message."

"Short and sweet, like always. But what does 'joint control' mean?"

The Director smiled. "Whatever they want it to mean."

"That's what I thought."

"We don't even know when the Abh are sending these officers, for all I know they could already be waiting at the embassy. The ambassador is really anxious to expedite this."

Camin looked at him seriously. "And I assume that's why I'm here."

The Director's face sobered. "I won't belabor the point. Of the chief investigators I have working on the case now you're the obvious choice, really the only choice. Nobody else has ever worked with them or even speaks Baronh."

"That was years ago, sir. And I wasn't dealing with their diplomatic mission. I was just dealing with civilian Abh merchants, helping us catch the smugglers who were robbing them."

"I know, that actually is another reason to be sending you. In addition to this message the Abh also sent us information on who they would be sending from their intelligence bureau." The screen on Camin's chair arm lit up and showed a short dossier of an Abh officer, including a picture.

Camin laughed. "They're sending her? Hell, why didn't you say so?"

# # #

Squadron commander Atosuryua sighed and looked up from her desk to the two officers standing at attention before her. This was not going as well as she had hoped. "I have no intention of explaining myself any further, Hecto-Commander."

That just seemed to make Lafiel even more angry. "You are proposing to send us into enemy territory unarmed. I think we deserve more of an explanation."

"I have already explained why what you are saying is inaccurate." And she really thought she had explained herself very thoroughly, convincingly and diplomatically. They were to accompany an intelligence officer to a diplomatic mission into a neutral country that had already given them everything short of unconditional surrender. The Hania government had every reason to make certain that they were safe. But somehow she was not getting through to the girl.

"We don't know whether or not the Federation is an enemy and we won't know until the investigation is complete, that is my point! They could still betray us."

"You know perfectly well how unlikely that is. You will be safer in the Federation than you are on the bridge of your own ship."

She could see that Lafiel knew Atosuryua was right. It looked like the frustration was killing her. "My supply officer is not part of the combat division. It would be more appropriate for me to be accompanied by a trained guard."

Atosuryua just spared a glance to Jinto. He had not spoken a word since the squadron commander had summoned the two of them here. He really looked worried that things were spinning out of control. "This is not a military mission, I already explained that."

"Then why does it need military personnel?"

"You just contradicted yourself Hecto-Commander. A moment ago you were requesting a guard in place of your supply officer. I am not going to repeat myself. Your behavior is now bordering on insubordination."

"Are you really trying to get us both killed?" Lafiel shouted.

Atosuryua regarded her coldly in complete silence. Very slowly, she came to her feet. "Hecto-Commander Abriel Lafiel, I would like to believe that those words were spoken in haste."

It took several seconds for Lafiel to visibly get herself under control. The effort was making her sweat. Gradually, her trembling stopped. "My words were spoken in haste, Commander," she said in a carefully modulated voice.

Atosuryua could see the shame in the young woman's face. It pained her to see it. She had hoped that the tragedy which connected them had been left in the past, but now it hung over them like a shroud. Atosuryua really had done everything she could to prove that she felt no grudge over the death of her brother. Atosuryua knew that her own actions had proved that. And it seemed that Lafiel knew that too. The words really had been spoken in anger.

Jinto stepped forward. "Permission to speak, commander?"

"Granted." Atosuryua could see that Jinto was directing attention from Lafiel to give her time to cool down. His formality was also intended to comfort, it was something the Princess was used to. She hoped Lafiel really understood how lucky she was to have such a devoted friend.

"I understand and accept the reasons we have been chosen for this duty. But frankly I find the specific orders rather vague. It is not clear to me exactly what we are expected to accomplish."

Atosuryua was relieved to be discussing something concrete. "To be perfectly honest, you might not need to accomplish anything other than being visible. Your very presence sends a message to the Federation that we expect them to account for what has happened. It also sends a message to our own Space Force." She smiled, now addressing both of the young officers with her eyes. "I don't need to tell you that the intelligence service is not held in high esteem by many members of the combat arms, especially in light of recent events. The perception is that they cannot collect useful information unless the enemy willingly hands it to us on a silver platter. It is important that respected officers in the Space Force be part of this mission."

She sat down. "Having said that, I want to emphasize that you should be letting the intelligence bureau liaison take the lead in this mission. I have carefully read the dossier of this officer and have made my own inquiries. She has a great deal of experience with investigative work and with working within the Hania Federation. She is very highly regarded by her superiors and by others outside the intelligence bureau. I would not be trusting my officers' lives to her if I did not think that she was capable and that the prospects of her mission were favorable."

"I see." Jinto smiled. "I look forward to working with her."

Atosuryua glanced over to Lafiel. The Princess still looked troubled, but she nodded. "I am happy to accept this mission, Commander," she said curtly.

"Good. I am grateful to you both. The Admiral told me he would like the liaison officers to leave on tomorrow morning's regular relay ship. Hecto-Commander, will that leave you enough time to properly transfer command of the Frikov to your XO?"

"Yes, commander, that will be more than enough time." Lafiel replied.

Atosuryua smiled. "Very good. I haven't left you with much time so I'll let you go make preparations. I look forward to your return." They saluted and left the room. Atosuryua collapsed into her chair. "That was more tiring than chasing elusive phantom ships has been."

A few minutes late Sobash entered her office to find her still sitting there. "I did warn you she would take it badly."

"I think I did make one mistake. I should have sent her with a guard instead."

"That would have been worse. She worries more about him when he is not at her side."

"Yes, of course you're right. The Admiral was very happy at my suggestion. It's just so perfect, an angry Abriel and an agreeable lander-turned-nobleman who are always at odds with each other and utterly devoted to each other. The Hania investigators will be running in circles trying to keep them happy."

"They might have more trouble wondering what to make of our intelligence liaison."

Atosuryua smiled. "Yes, she does have a colorful reputation. It's bound to be interesting."

# # #

Even after knowing Lafiel for eight years and being at her side for five, getting the timing right was tricky. Too early and it would just flare up again. Too late and it would have been simmering for too long, waiting to explode. And the situation had to be right, not in the place where she could use formality as a shield and not in the place where the informality made her uncomfortable. And needless to say, the venue had to be strictly private. The trick was to understand that she wanted to apologize, but he had to go fishing for it.

Shortly before they were scheduled to leave the Frikov, Jinto showed up at Lafiel's quarters and rang the chime. The door slid open and Lafiel regarded him with a slightly puzzled expression. "You're early. And what are you doing with that?"

Jinto smiled and raised the cage he was carrying. His orange tabby cat Diaho stared out at them from the cage. "We're both going to be handing things over to Ekuryua. You're handing over a ship and I'm handing over a cat. I thought we might as well go there together and kill two birds with one stone."

"I've already handed over the ship, but there's no harm paying a courtesy call. Why don't you come in for a moment."

Lafiel had some small sculptures on display in her room. She was in the process of putting them in their protective cases and packing them away. She was putting away the last one as they talked. "I've been following the news feeds from Hania city," Jinto said. "We're front-page news, they say you'll be the first Abriel to set foot in the Federation."

"Yes, I've heard. I have the disquieting feeling that we are going to be put on display."

"If we are going to be involved in the investigation then I doubt that. The whole thing now falls under their Official Secrets Act. Probably nobody can even see us without the government's say-so, and that means our say-so."

"I still feel like a decoration. I can see the value of our presence, but ultimately this is theater. We are there to be seen, if only by select people."

"At least you won't have to shake hands with any politicians, they don't have that custom."

"That's good to hear." Lafiel came to sit down beside him. She absently put her finger next to the cage, which Diaho took the opportunity to smell and paw at. "I suppose I should try to take this mission seriously. After all, we are trying to bring very serious criminals to justice. The people we fought were clearly very fine soldiers who carried out their duty with courage and skill. To have such people taking orders from traitors is unforgivable."

"I really hope we won't need to fight them again."

"We must try to prevent that, Jinto."

Jinto felt that the time was right. "Yes, I want Commander Atosuryua to be able to say that we were well chosen."

Lafiel was silent for a while. "I wonder if she regrets her decision already."

"No, I don't think so. She knows that you trust her."

Lafiel stopped playing with Diaho and regarded Jinto intently. "I do trust her, Jinto. And I'm very fond of her. I just can't believe I turned on her like that. What was I thinking?"

"You were thinking you didn't want me going down to another strange planet," Jinto said gently.

Lafiel sighed. "I've embarrassed you in front of our friends again. I promise I will learn to stop doing that one day."

Jinto took her hand. "I think that will happen around the time that I stop making you angry with my constant stumbling."

That got the smile he had been hoping to see. She squeezed his hand back. "It sounds like you just promised me you will learn to stop stumbling one day."

"How likely do you think that is?"

"I think I am going to be catching you when you fall for a very long time."

"You know you can depend on me to do the same, don't you?"

"Yes, I do."

They were silent for a while. Before long, Diaho started calling out to them as if wondering why nothing was happening. "I guess we had better get going," Lafiel said.

It was a short walk to Ekuryua's quarters. She was in her uniform even though she was not currently on duty. Probably because she was expecting a visit from her commanding officer. "We'll be leaving now," Jinto said. He raised the cage. "Please look after him for me."

"I always do," she said simply, taking the cage.

"Thank you for looking after the Frikov in my absence," Lafiel said.

"I will do so. Please have a safe journey," Ekuryua said politely. Her gaze shifted to Jinto and her expression hardened. "Vanguard Flyer Jinto!" She snapped.

Jinto snapped to attention. "Yes, commander!"

"It is your responsibility to bring our commander back safely, I expect you to carry out your duty without fail."

"Yes, commander."

Lafiel looked between the two of them as if she were expecting something to happen. At length she cleared her throat. "If there's nothing further, we will be taking our leave."

When they were some distance down the corridor, Jinto relaxed a little. "Well, that was different."

"What have you been doing to upset my XO like that?"

Jinto chuckled nervously. "I'm not sure, but I think it's because I wasn't able to get her any Passion-fruit."

Next Chapter: Hania City