Chapter 10 - Breakout
Chief-of-Staff Cufadiss read the message that had just come onto his terminal. "Admiral Spoor, the latest report from the relay ship just arrived. The enemy fleet is continuing its advance. No change in estimate of their strength. We are being instructed to proceed as planned."
"Thank you, Chief-of-staff," Spoor said in a bored voice. She sighed. "I expect it will be at least another hour before we can even see them on radar. How tedious."
The high she had been on after the quick blitz attack she had executed at Thracia had long worn off. The Admiral was back to her usual state of depression. She sat at her command chair with her chin resting on one hand. Cufadiss sat at his usual post sitting on her left, also looking forward over the spacious bridge of the flagship. From here, over the years he had become an expert observer of her mood swings.
Spoor's command chair was like none other in the fleet. She had installed a frame and a set of rich cloth curtains that would be more appropriate for a throne or a bedchamber. Many who met her tended to pass her off as a lazy, bored aristocrat. But Cufadiss knew better and so did anybody on her staff. If she was bored now was only because her meticulous planning left little for her to do just before battle was joined. The level of detail in her planning was like nothing else Cufadiss had ever seen. Their last staff meeting had gone on well past midnight.
They had certainly had a lot to talk about. The Space Force was about to execute the largest single fleet action in history.
Hours ago they had been informed that Spoor was going to get her wish, the enemy was coming out in force to engage them in Plane Space. The message came from a set of relay ships that were set up to pass messages from one fleet to another. Nine fleets advancing abreast occupied such a large space this was the only way for them to communicate. This was especially so for Spoor's fleet on the extreme left, and their counterpart on the right. The other seven fleets were advancing to directly engage a force that appeared to be at least nearly equal in strength. When the enemy was irretrievably committed to that battle, the two flanking fleets would sweep in behind from both directions to attack the support ships and battleships that were expected to be held in the rear of their formation. The flanking fleets had no battleships to slow them down, so they would be able to move quickly, hopefully before the enemy could react to their appearance.
"Chief-of-staff," Spoor said, looking at him out of the corner of her eyes. "Which battle do you think we will be recreating today?"
Ever since she had learned he had studied extensively in ancient military history, this had become one of her games. The two-dimensional nature of Plane Space lent itself to making analogies with ancient land battles. Cufadiss smiled. "This is an easy one, Admiral. If everything goes as planned, we are about to recreate the battle of Cannae where Hannibal surrounded and destroyed the Roman army."
"Hannibal, huh? It seems you've mentioned him before."
"Yes, Admiral, I believe I have. He is one of the greatest generals of the pre-Christian era of Old Earth. Cannae was his most decisive victory. At least fifty thousand Romans died in a single day."
Spoor smiled a little. The mention of a body count seemed to lift her spirits a bit. "I take it the Imperial Admiral would be taking the role of Hannibal. So what role will I be taking?"
"We will be taking the role of the cavalry on Hannibal's left wing, Admiral. The cavalry on both wings swept behind the Roman infantry and pinned them to be slaughtered by the Carthaginian infantry."
"So we are cavalry this time. I seem to recall Hannibal used some big lumbering beasts, what did you call them?"
"Ah, yes. I hope I shall not be expected to ride one of those."
"At the battle of Cannae Hannibal only had horse cavalry. You would be commanding from horseback."
"I've always wanted to try that. But I expect one would have to go down to a planet to do that." She sighed. "How tedious. So what happened after the battle of Cannae?"
"Ah. Hannibal tried to attack Rome but was defeated. He had to retreat back to Carthage. In the Second Punic War the Romans invaded and destroyed Carthage."
Spoor looked annoyed. She sighed. "How tedious." She rested her chin on her hand. The shroud of melancholy lay over her once again.
Cufadiss returned his attention to his station. Oh well, I tried.
As expected, about an hour later they detected the enemy on radar, pretty much where they were expected to be. As they approached closer, more and more space-time bubbles appeared at the extreme range of radar, and it was possible to make more sense of what was happening. The battle with the main Abh force was in its earliest stage, the battleships had just started to launch mines at each others' front lines. It would be a while before there was any ship-to-ship engagements. But if the enemy decided to retreat when they were this close they risked having their withdrawal turn into a bloody rout.
"Launch patrols towards Vensath and behind their line," Spoor ordered. The order was relayed, and the assault ship squadrons that had been assigned those roles pulled ahead of the fleet, taking advantage of the greater maximum speed in Plane Space afforded to them by their smaller size. As well as attacking the enemy's support elements, the two flanking fleets had the role of watching for any enemy reserves or reinforcements. To do that properly they needed to send advance elements to extend their radar range. That was especially important this close to the galactic core where radar range was reduced.
The radar officer analyzed the enemy formations and identified probable locations of battleships and support ships. The Admiral quickly gave orders to deploy her fleet against them. Unless the enemy did decide to withdraw it would still be almost an hour before Spoor's fleet was close enough to launch their first salvo of mines. They could potentially launch them earlier, but the Admiral's style was to launch mines at the last minute and engage them ship-to-ship when they were still reeling from the mine attack. It was potentially dangerous since it exposed them to an early mine counterattack, but the tactic had served her well.
"Reports from the patrols!" the comm officer announced. The alarm in his voice raised Cufadiss' hackles. Their communications officer was usually very calm and collected. "A very large force is emerging from the Vensath gate. The formation goes out to the edge of radar so exact numbers impossible to guess." He looked back at the Admiral in bewilderment. "They report that the enemy emerging from the Gate are moving directly away from us."
Admiral Spoor frowned. "We were told Vensath is their only base, they should have no place to retreat to. If there is another base we weren't told about I shall certainly have words with his Excellency about his investigative work."
"Perhaps they mean to outflank us," Cufadiss suggested.
"If so then they will never arrive here on time to be able to intervene in this battle. If they wish to invite defeat in detail that is fine with me. Nevertheless, send another patrol directly toward the galactic core." Vensath was near the section of Plane Space that corresponded to the core of the galaxy. Just a few hours' travel further towards the core was a region where navigation was impossible due to the concentration of space-time particles. The enemy could not move very far in that direction.
A couple of minutes later the comm officer relayed a report from their other patrol, the one sent behind the enemy line. "A small force is advancing from Vensath to the middle of the enemy formation, it appears to be a squadron of assault ships and possibly a relay ship. They will be in communication range of their fleet very shortly."
It looked like new orders were being relayed from the Vensath base. It was too soon to be a reaction to the appearance of the flanking fleets, and too late to be a reaction to the appearance of the main fleet. All in all it seemed a very odd bit of timing for relaying new orders.
They continued to approach their first set of targets. Spoor stood and drew her command baton. "Squadrons one through four, prepare to launch first salvo of mines!"
Like everybody else, Cufadiss divided his attention between his own duties and watching the radar screen on the main monitor. The enemy was doing some sensible repositioning to try and meet the threat to their rear, but they showed no sign of retreating. Cufadiss frowned as he watched the display. Almost half the enemy formation was in their field of view now. Seeing that and a large portion of the main Abh force there all together, the sheer scale of this operation was really starting to sink in. But that was not what gave Cufadiss pause at the moment. There appeared to be a subtle sea change in the enemy line making its way out from the center of the line to the flanks. It became more pronounced. Ships were moving out of formation. Others moved towards each other, their space-time bubbles merging. One or two of the bubbles winked out in a splash of space-time particles. Could those be friendly-fire accidents? "Are they really in that much of a panic?" Cufadiss was moved to ask.
"Yes, but it's not panic over us," Spoor said. Her brow was knit. "It's got to be reaction to whatever orders that relay ship brought. Maybe some people didn't like the orders."
A new set of signals appeared. "The battleships are launching mines," the radar operator announced. It was an extravagant number of mines. And more all the time. "Admiral, it looks like they're launching all of their mines!" Most were being sent out towards the main fleet, but the closest battleships had launched towards Spoor's fleet.
"Squadrons one through four, launch salvo!" Spoor ordered. "All ships retreat, one eighty degrees! Maintain formation!" If the enemy really were launching everything they had all at once then retreating was the sensible move. At this distance they could probably outrun all but the first salvo of mines. They could see that the main Space Force formations were doing likewise. In Plane Space mines could not become a static mine field, once they used up their antimatter fuel they lost their space-time bubble and were destroyed. If the enemy had intended this as a devastating first strike it had been launched too early. Most of the mines would be wasted. Once they were gone, the Abh could pounce on an enemy that had little or no anti-mine defense at all. The enemy would have a critical disadvantage. Was this the Silent Enemy they had been told not to take lightly? It looked like they had just thrown the battle away.
But in the meantime the mine attack was their immediate reality. Their own mines switched to anti-mine mode and destroyed many of the incoming, but most made it through. The escorts came to the front and did their job. But the enemy really had launched everything they could. The space-time bubbles representing several escort ships winked out, and more of the enemy mines passed through to fall among the cruisers. There were grunts of dismay as one winked out, then another. Others reported damage. They watched anxiously as the second wave of mines approached the line of escorts. One by one they began to wink out as the tiny mines expended their limited antimatter reserves. Only one or two were left to menace the escorts, and they were quickly dispatched. It seemed they had been loaded with only minimal antimatter fuel before being launched. They would have to be, a battleship was enormous but still could only carry so much fuel. The Admiral's quick reaction to the mine attack had probably saved many ships and lives.
When they were out of range of any possible mine attack, Spoor halted the fleet and they just sat and watched in wonder. The enemy was still launching mines, apparently wanting to keep the Space Force at bay for as long as their supply of mines lasted, which would not be long. But it was the actions of the rest of the fleet that was truly baffling. There were many ships merging their space-time bubbles and then separating again. It was as if they were docking and exchanging something and then parting again. Soon a pattern began. A large group of ships began retreating directly back towards Vensath. It appeared to be more than half the fleet. But on closer inspection, by the speed and mass readings they were all small ships, certainly nothing larger than an assault ship. By the time the enemy mine barrage exhausted itself, a blizzard of thousands of small ships was falling rapidly back towards their base, leaving the capital ships behind.
Cufadiss could barely bring himself to speak what was probably on many of their minds. "Are their officers abandoning them?" he asked in disbelief.
Spoor's face was twisted in a mask of rage and loathing the likes of which he had never seen from her. Throughout this war they had seen their share of atrocious behavior from the enemy forces. But if they were right about what was happening, this was ugly beyond anything they had ever seen. Spoor looked like she would like nothing better than to fall upon the retreating cowards and cut them down. But her cruisers could never catch up with a force that consisted of small ships only. "Radar officer, target analysis!" she barked.
Quickly they identified and assigned targets among the remaining capital ships. Their fleet advanced once again. They could see that the main Abh force was also advancing from the opposite side. They would launch mines as soon as they were in range. Against a force that had just expended all their mines and lost all their escorts, it would be a slaughter the likes of which had never been seen.
The Admiral sheathed her command baton. She was declaring that she did not even regard this to be a proper battle. "Okay, let's get this over with. Squadrons five through eight, ready first salvo of mines."
Then something started to happen. "Admiral..." the radar operator's voice trailed off. There was little point reporting, everyone could see what was happening. One after another, the space-time bubbles of the enemy ships all along their line were winking out. Then it seemed they were all going out at once. The radar display was replaced by an error message. The density of space-time particles had spiked so high it had blinded the radar. When the image returned there was not a single blip on the radar that was not a friendly. Silence descended on the bridge like a shroud.
Moments later, a series of text messages appeared at Cufadiss' station. Yes, of course they would want him to ask her, wouldn't they. He cleared his throat. "Admiral, squadron commanders are asking to confirm if they should proceed with their fire mission."
Spoor turned on him angrily. "And just what do they propose firing at?"
He nodded. "Understood." He opened up a broadcast voice channel to the squadron commanders. "Uh, that is a negative on the fire mission," he said in a very soft voice. "Repeat, negative."
Spoor sat back down on her command chair and sighed heavily. "No doubt the Imperial Admiral will continue to advance the main force. Let's get out of his way, fall into line and await orders."
She was right. The order was given for her to do just that. All nine fleets advanced abreast and their patrols reported on the enemy's movement. To their surprise, the retreating cloud of small ships bypassed the Vensath Gate altogether and joined the exodus of ships still pouring from the Gate. Soon the torrent of ships from the Gate halted. The enemy continued to retreat straight towards the galactic core. More orders came down, though they did not directly impact Spoor's fleet. All the battleships in the entire task force surrounded the Vensath Gate as the Space Force passed by it. They along with one of the nine fleets stayed beyond to besiege it. It was the largest concentration of battleships in history. Regardless of what strength remained in the Vensath system, that many battleships had enough mines to keep it bottled up for days.
The pursuit continued for the rest of the day. They had gone past Gates to several uninhabited systems, but the enemy had bypassed them all. They were still headed directly towards the galactic core.
The Admiral got up and faced Cufadiss. "I'm going to bed, Chief-of-staff. In a few hours we will be approaching the galactic core region. If they finally decide to do something other than run that's when they'll have to do it." She stepped down from the raised platform of the command chair. "Oh yes. Presuming there is no change in the meantime, have his Excellency report to the bridge tomorrow morning. He was here at the beginning of this mess, I feel he should be present at its end." She shook her head. "Whatever that end turns out to be," she muttered on the way out.
"Yes, Admiral," Cufadiss said to her retreating back. "Have a good sleep."
He was not even going to try and get any sleep, and he supposed it was the same for many. What had happened today, what was still happening, defied comprehension. He wondered if they would ever be able to make sense of it.
# # #
There was one advantage that the bridge of a cruiser had, Jinto had come to realize. The space was was open enough that it was possible for two people to have a conversation without everyone else on the bridge hearing it.
He was sitting on a small jump seat that had been unfolded beside Chief-of-Staff Cufadiss' station. When he had asked, the Admiral had said she wanted him available in case she needed his insight into the Mimics he had supposedly been studying. So far he had not been presented with any opportunity to provide such insight. That was fortunate, since the events of the past day were just as incomprehensible to him as they were to everyone else.
"There's just been another series of space-time mergers," the radar operator announced. "The enemy fleet's speed has been decreased accordingly."
"I expect the rest of the task force will be holding back here," Cufadiss said to Jinto in a hushed tone. "It's hard enough to coordinate one fleet down here, let alone eight."
'Down here' meant the edge of the galactic core region. The space-time particle density was severly reducing the range of both radar and communications. "Thanks," Jinto said in a similar tone. He smiled. "I mean really, thanks. Having you give me regular reports, I feel a bit less like an appendage."
Cufadiss returned his smile. "I really think the Admiral had you here because she sees this as sort of your project. It was probably your report that prompted the Imperial Admiral to send nine fleets down here."
"It's beginning to look like he needn't have bothered. We barely needed to fire a shot. I've been feeling kind of useless here, like some United Mankind political officer sitting on the bridge. But the fact is, it looks like we're all here just to witness the Vensath fleet self-destruct."
It looked like they were in the process of doing that. If they descended much further into the core region their radar would become inoperable and they would become irretrievably lost. They would drift blindly through Plane Space until their antimatter fuel ran out.
As the Chief-of-Staff had predicted, only the two flanking fleets were ordered to continue the pursuit while the rest withdrew. They were entering a region where navigation would be getting even more tricky as the space-time particle density grew exponentially. "We won't be able to go much further ourselves," Cufadiss commented. "Pretty soon we'll barely be able to see the ship next to us in formation, let alone the enemy."
"And they are even further in than us," Jinto replied.
"There has been another space-time merger," the radar operator announced. "It looks like all enemy ships are in a single space-time bubble now."
"They must be blind by now," Spoor said. "Is this really a mass suicide?" the Admiral asked nobody in particular. She had been very silent and sullen all morning.
Jinto remembered something. "Admiral," he said out loud. "This is rather speculative but it's possible they're not blind."
Spoor seemed surprised to hear from him. "And why is that?"
"The cover for the Vensath base was that they were researching methods of navigation close to the galactic core. It was a cover, but in fact they did do some research in that area. They came up with a theoretical technique where the radar from many ships in the same space-time bubble could be used in conjunction with a massively parallel computer to compensate for the space-time particle density and create a usable radar. It's possible the Mimics have advanced on that research."
"Well, that doesn't help us much does it?" the Admiral said, obviously irritated. "Even if they have, we have no way to follow them and no understanding of where they are going or why. If they really meant to flank us and exit the galactic core elsewhere it is long past the time they could do that, isn't it?"
"Actually there might be a way we can follow them. The Vensath base never actually tried their parallel radar idea, but they did try out a much simpler idea." Jinto told her.
Spoor looked at him with wide-eyed wonder. Then she laughed out loud. "The Imperial Admiral did order us to follow the enemy as far as we could. I think we are obligated to try that just on general principles."
Four hours later Spoor's entire fleet was strung out in a daisy-chain of pairs of ships in space-time bubbles extending like a finger into the galactic core. Spoor's flagship was at the end of that finger. Most of the time the radar screen was just showing the error message indicating that space-time particle density was too high. But every now and then the screen showed two things: the small friendly space-time bubble behind them and the enormous enemy one in front of them. They had just gone further into the galactic core than anybody in history. Nobody had ever before bothered to chain together the ships of an entire fleet in this way just to go to a place where they could not spot a Gate even if it was right next to them.
And the enemy was still heading straight into the core. With such a huge joint space-time bubble their progress was glacial. But they were saving on fuel by combining the effort of generating the bubble. They could probably continue for weeks if they wanted to.
Spoor smiled at Jinto. "Any other insights you can provide, Excellency?"
"Probably nothing you haven't already thought of," Jinto said. "Either they are committing a very elaborate mass suicide, or they want to find some place where nobody else will ever find them."
"At this point I doubt we will ever know which." Spoor stood up. "Okay, we have seen enough. Helmsman, initiate space-time merge with the next ship. We are leaving." She waved at the radar image of the enemy. "Good-bye and good riddance, Silent Enemy."
"This suggests that they have abandoned the Vensath base," Cufadiss said. "If they are moving somewhere else they will be starting from scratch in an undeveloped system. It's hard to imagine."
"They are immortal and they have robot bodies," Jinto reminded him. "I expect most of them will just be shut down until the rest can build up an infrastructure capable of supporting them all. It would be a lot easier for them than for us."
"So is that the order that relay ship brought to their fleet?" Spoor asked incredulously. "We've decided not to have the war after all, let's just all move into the galactic core and forget about all that?"
"Maybe if we go to Vensath we'll get some answers," Jinto suggested hopefully.
Spoor smiled. She obviously had seen right through him. "When we emerge from this soup of particles I believe I will present an operational plan to the Imperial Admiral for my fleet to do the reconnaissance sortie into the Vensath system. After all, we still have not found your missing Princess have we?"
Jinto tried to put on a brave front. Even if for some unfathomable reason they had wanted to take her into the galactic core with them, she would have found some way out. She would have found some way to confound them. She must be waiting for us. She must be.
# # #
A day later Jinto was on Admiral Spoor's bridge once again. They had some idea of what to expect here in the Vensath system. But seeing the reality of it was stunning. There were habitations that could hold a billion people, easily. There were fortresses the size of small moons. Long-range radar and telescopes scanning around the ore-bearing planets and asteroids showed factories that could build entire fleets in a week. The sun was surrounded by a latticework of solar collectors for antimatter production facilities that easily surpassed those of the Imperial Capital.
It was all cold, empty, lifeless. Abandoned.
Spoor kept her fleet clustered around the Gate. A squadron of cruisers was taking a really close look at the nearest fortress. Transmissions from their cameras were projected on the bridge viewer. As they watched, four assault ships docked at four different points along the circumference of the spherical fortress. "All boarding parties report ready to enter," the comm officer told the Admiral.
"Please proceed. Let's have their camera feeds on the main viewer."
The viewer at the front of the bridge split into four windows. Each showed what was clearly the helmet camera of somebody about to enter an airlock. The interior of the fort's airlocks were dark, illuminated only by the flashlights of the boarding party. Somebody turned the manual crank on the inner door of one and pushed it open. The others followed suit. Soon all the boarding parties were advancing cautiously down dark corridors. The gravity generators were out along with all but the dim emergency lights, so the Marines floated in microgravity. For the time being the air was still breathable.
They were getting an audio feed of the boarding parties' shared comm channel. One of the parties was being led by the commander of the fleet's small Marine detachment. "The air is cool, but still fresh," he was reporting in his running commentary. "It looks like basic life support is still running on emergency solar power."
That conformed with what the cruisers' sensors had found. There were no heat or neutrino sources indicating that any reactors were still functioning. From what they had seen so far, that was the case in all the habitats.
"We're seeing some signs of a fire fight," another said. He panned his camera across a part of the wall that had been scored by laser fire.
Another team rounded a corner to see a body floating in the dark corridor beyond. The team leader gave orders to approach slowly using their magnetic boots for support against floor and wall. It was a sensible precaution against possible ambush, since it gave them stability for returning fire. It was a male body in a Star Fleet uniform. They could see where the chest was charred by a laser blast. "It's a robot body," the squad leader confirmed.
"Something is wrong with its head," Spoor said. "Have them take a closer look."
The Marine with the helmet camera came up close to the body. They could see that its synthetic scalp had been peeled back to expose its silvery cranial case. The marine stepped around so that he could look straight in. There was a cubic cavity where its neural net was supposed to be. "Looks like this one's had brain surgery," one of the Marines commented, which prompted their commander to suggest they cut the chatter.
Another team found a floating body in similar shape. Then more were found. One had its head missing altogether, severed roughly with some cutting tool. There was the occasional discarded weapon floating as well. "Maybe some of them really opposed the exodus," Jinto suggested.
"Removing the brain is a pretty radical way of taking prisoners into custody," Cufadiss said.
"If you liked that, you're going to love this," quipped one of the squad leaders. His camera operator followed him into a room he had just checked through the open door. The opposite wall was practically covered by a pile of robot bodies stacked neatly, their feet towards the wall and their heads exposed. Every single one had its scalp peeled back to expose a gleaming, empty cranial cavity.
Cufadiss shook his head in bewilderment. "These weren't prisoners. They came here and lined up to have their brains removed. Why would they do this?"
"No room for the bodies," Jinto said. "Maybe the didn't have enough ships to carry that many people. But they certainly had enough to carry that many little neural nets cases." He smiled at the Chief-of-Staff's look of astonishment. "They would just see bodies as interchangeable parts. It would be kind of like suspended animation. They just wake up in a new body, and even if it's fifty years later to them it's tomorrow morning."
Jinto could see the now familiar look of cognitive dissonance as Cufadiss contemplated the real existential condition of Mimics. By now for Jinto this was familiar territory, but he still sympathized. Understanding the reality of Mimic existence did not make it any less disturbing.
After a couple of hours of seeing more of the same, Spoor recalled the boarding parties. "Chief-of-Staff, compose an initial report to the Imperial Admiral and send the relay ship back through the Gate. Then send two boarding parties and a squadron to each of the nearest two forts to survey them. We are still evaluating threats, but looking for prisoners as well." She spared a glance at Jinto, who just smiled gratefully and nodded. Spoor sighed, and looked back to the main viewer, which was once again showing the long-range radar map crowded with blips. "This is obviously going to take a while."
# # #
By the third day they had finished surveying the military installations and had begun exploration of the other habitations. That was when they found the first human bodies.
Wherever the boarding parties had found anything that looked like a brig they had pounded on any closed doors to see if there was a response from prisoners trapped there, and had also scanned with motion and heat detectors. There had been nothing. But in what looked like a crude clinic in one habitation they had found the desiccated corpse of a man in one of the beds, recently succumbed to dehydration.
Spoor ordered that the locks be forced on the doors of the nearby brig. They found more corpses in a similar condition, all in Federation uniforms. Jinto felt sick.
"They left the life support on, and then did this," Cufadiss said bitterly. "Did the Mimics hate their former masters so much?"
"I'm not certain," Spoor said thoughtfully. "If they really wanted to punish their prisoners there were plenty of worse ways."
"Death by dehydration is unheard of in this day and age," Cufadiss said. "But from the historical records it was one of the most agonizing forms of death." He seemed to realize what he had just said, and gave Jinto an apologetic look.
"I can attest to that," Jinto said grimly. "It nearly happened to me once. I can't imagine a worse way to die." He was unable to meet anybody's eyes.
"Granted," Spoor said, sounding unmoved. "But this all looks more like something that has been casually discarded. They would have taken all the antimatter and deuterium they could, so the antimatter and fusion reactors would soon shut down for lack of fuel. The emergency systems would switch to backups and disable everything except for basic life support. Locked doors would stay locked."
"But they would have at least set the prisoners free!" Cufadiss protested. "Why not? They could not have been a threat."
Spoor shrugged. "Maybe they just didn't bother or didn't care. Maybe they just forgot. Considering the Mimics' behavior to date it is difficult to imagine what they were thinking." Her expression became more sober. "Nevertheless, I think we have been overcautious in our surveying. There is obviously no immediate threat to us. Chief-of-Staff, split up the assault ships in squadrons one through four into two-ship elements and pair them up with individual cruisers from squadrons five and six. They will work double shifts. I want the habitations clustered around the Gate all surveyed by tomorrow."
At the end of the day Jinto came to Miriam's quarters and brought her up to date on the day's events. He was unable to keep the dread out of his voice. She took his hand in both of hers. "Excellency, please do not give up hope," she pleaded.
Her hands were surprisingly warm. And Jinto still marveled at how her synthetic eyes could radiate such sympathy. How much of that was just in his head? Did it even matter? "I told you what happened to me on Lobnas. I was nearly dead by the time Lafiel found me. It was horrible, having nothing even to drink and thinking I was going to die. But now I understand how much more horrible it was for Lafiel while she was searching for me. Right now I would trade places with her in a heartbeat, no matter how much she is suffering. But that would be selfish, wouldn't it?"
Miriam nodded her head. "Yes, Excellency, it is selfish. Love always is."
# # #
Admiral Spoor glared up at Jinto from her command chair. "I believe that my order was perfectly clear, Excellency. The search operation has been completed, so the ships are being released to other operations."
"What other operations?" Jinto asked. "We are just occupying the Vensath system."
"The other operations of this fleet are not something I need to discuss with a Vanguard Flyer who is only here in an advisory capacity," she said in a way that sounded like a final warning.
Jinto tried to calm himself. "With respect, the search operation is not completed yet. There remain habitations in the outlying infrastructure beyond the Gate-centered cluster which we have not surveyed."
"Those are all clearly mining and manufacturing facilities," the Admiral said. "What habitations there are would be for the operators of those facilities. There is no reason to believe that prisoners would be kept there."
"There is very little reason we can give for anything that the Mimics have been doing," Jinto said in what he thought was a reasonable way. "They have their own way of doing things, and it is clearly much different than our own. We cannot make assumptions about what they might or might not do."
The Admiral regarded him coolly. But her tone was surprisingly gentle. "Excellency, we have done the best that we could. You can see what we have found just as well as I can. Over four hundred bodies and not a single survivor. Even if there is anybody else left here, they are beyond help."
"We are not talking about just anybody, Admiral," Jinto said bitterly.
Spoor nodded. "Very well. Let us not mince words then. We are speaking of Hecto-Commander Abriel Nei Dubrusk Paryunu Lafiel, somebody we both hold in high esteem. There is nothing that either of us would like more than to bring her back here among us where she belongs. But whatever esteem we might hold her in, here she was just another prisoner, just as helpless as the rest."
"You are making a big mistake if you ever think that Lafiel is helpless."
The silence on the bridge suddenly became a palpable thing. Jinto would swear he could hear somebody swallow hard. He knew perfectly well that the Admiral was within her rights to shoot him for insubordination right on the spot. Her reputation was such that he would not put it past her. But he was beyond caring.
"Chief-of-Staff," Spoor said evenly, her eyes never leaving Jinto's.
"I am temporarily reassigning Vanguard Flyer Linn here to the eighth assault ship of the fifth squadron. They are shorthanded at the moment, I am certain they can find more use for him than I can."
"And you can tell the Vanguard Flyer that he can get off my bridge and return to his quarters until we arrange transport to his new billet."
Jinto saluted smartly and stalked off the bridge, sparing the Chief-of-Staff the bother of ordering him off. He went straight to his quarters and activated the Do Not Disturb sign. Only people on official business would disregard the sign, he hoped. Right now he was unfit company for anybody else. Why do I not have the urge to throw things around the room? I think it must be a serious character flaw.
A couple of hours later the door chime rang. Jinto opened the door to find a tall, slim Abh man with short dark blue hair waiting. He wore a very warm, friendly smile. By his uniform and insignia he was a Vanguard Flyer in command of an assault ship. That surprised Jinto, he was expecting one of the junior officers to come collect him when the time came.
The man saluted. "I am Vanguard Flyer Debneu Kort commanding the assault ship Importunate. Have I the pleasure of addressing Flyer Linn Jinto?"
Jinto saluted. "Yes, Commander. The pleasure is mine." The ambiguity of calling him just plain Flyer was a polite way of telling him that his true rank would not be a factor while he was assigned to this ship. All things considered it was probably more courtesy than he deserved.
"You have been reassigned to my ship, Flyer Linn. Do you mind my calling you that?"
"Not at all, Commander. I am ready to leave."
"I think we can spare a moment for you to say good-bye to your traveling companion."
"Thank you, Commander," Jinto said, truly surprised. He had been certain he would not be allowed to do any such thing, so he had sent Miriam a video message primed to be sent when he left his room. They went next door and Jinto explained to Miriam about his being reassigned. She did not ask for details, but her sad smile told him that she had a good idea what was happening. He introduced her to his new commander, who appeared delighted to meet her. They said their good-byes and proceeded down the hall.
"I read that you were a systems officer on the Basroil. Do you think you'll remember how to run that bridge station?"
"I remember it very well," Jinto said. Again, he was very surprised. He had envisioned being assigned to a hard labor position in the engine room of the worst bully in the fleet, one who specialized in breaking insubordinates.
"Splendid. I really want to free up my current systems officer to go below decks and give the kids some hands-on tutoring. Other than the bridge officers I'm afraid the Importunate has a very green crew." He glanced at Jinto and smiled. "You still have not commented on the name of our ship."
His manner was very disarming, Jinto already found himself warming to his new commander. "Normally I would have, but I'm a little distracted right now. It is an unusual name."
"You will have to make up your own mind whether it represents the stubbornness of its unlikely commander or of the Space Force for putting him there."
"We can save that for another time," he said casually. "Here we are." They stopped in front of an airlock hatch. "Right now, I was hoping you could shed some light on our new mission."
Jinto frowned. "I'm sorry but I don't know anything about a new mission."
"Really? My text message from the Admiral said that we were being detached from our squadron to make an independent survey of the outlying habitats. She said to ask you for clarification of what we are looking for."
Jinto was struck dumb for a few seconds. Then he grinned like an idiot. "We are looking for a little lost princess, Commander."
# # #
After two days and as many refueling stops, they were headed for another remote habitat floating near a small asteroid mining operation. Jinto had wanted to be part of the boarding parties, but the commander had patiently explained that they actually had people on board who had worked on habitat construction. They would be very familiar with moving about in habitats that had only minimal systems active. It seemed the Admiral had chosen Jinto's billet even better than he had thought. So Jinto fell into the familiar role of junior systems officer on an assault ship. One very familiar role of the junior officer was serving drinks to the bridge crew. He poured the Commander's usual hot coffee, turned around to the command chair and handed it to him. "Why unlikely, Commander?"
Commander Debneu grinned. "I wondered when you'd bring that up. Why do you think, Flyer Linn?"
"I ask because I really can't think why you would call yourself an unlikely commander. If I were to guess, I would say it is something about your personal history." He smiled. "Of course I would regard a simple 'yes' as a perfectly sufficient answer."
"That is a disappointing answer for an officer of the Importunate. We pride ourselves on our stubbornness. I was hoping you would insist on a full answer."
"In my life I'm afraid I have disappointed many people by showing lack of temerity."
"No matter, I'm sure you were just being polite. Your guess is correct. The fact is I and everybody else on my bridge crew served in the Space force together a long time ago. But since our discharge we have all been working on the same terraforming project. The project was scaled down when it went into its final phase, which meant that our jobs were done. By then the war had started, so we all decided to re-enlist together."
"How long were you all working on the terraforming project?"
"One hundred and sixty years."
Jinto cocked his head. "You wouldn't be having a joke at my expense would you, sir?"
Everyone on the bridge laughed. The commander held up his hand in surrender. "Okay, you've caught me. The truth is, it was only one hundred and fifty-nine years and seven and a half months."
Jinto was astonished. "That must be the longest leave of absence in history."
"I doubt it. A lot of former Space Force pilots who left and went into business are signing back up now. There are a lot of new incentives, and many of us just want to do our bit."
It was something Jinto was not really aware of. "I guess I was looking at this from a lander perspective. I keep forgetting that the Space Force has no age limit for Abh recruits."
"They probably should," the Commander said. "My gunnery officer over there just celebrated his two hundredth birthday. He hasn't shot down a friendly yet but I'm beginning to wonder just how steady his hand is." The gunnery officer raised his hand and made some gesture that Jinto had never seen but got the impression was rude. Apparently even Abh had generation gaps.
"How much has the Space Force changed in a hundred and sixty years?"
"Hardly at all. The new ships are a little bigger and a little faster. The automation is a little more reliable. After a couple of days in the new simulators we were ready to go."
Jinto had got the strong impression that the bridge crew had been together for a long time. They had welcomed him warmly, and had done their best to keep his mind off the fact that they had still found no sign of Lafiel. But there had been many signs that he was missing out on much of what was passing between them. A word or a gesture from the commander could seemingly have very deep and complex meaning to his old friends. Having been together for more than a century must have given them the closest anyone could have to telepathy.
"I have given you a complete answer, Flyer Linn," Commander Debneu said cheerfully. "I think I have earned the right to one complete answer from you in return."
"I can't imagine what a stripling like me could tell you that is of any interest, but please feel free to ask me anything you like, Commander."
"It's something we've all been dying to know since you arrived. Just how did you get to be on a first-name basis with her Highness princess Abriel?"
That ended up taking some time. By the time he was done they were coming up on the asteroid mine. On closer inspection, the mining operation looked a lot smaller than they had expected but the habitat looked a lot bigger. The habitat had obviously been expanded in at least two different stages, but certainly not to support any growth in the mine. One unusual thing was that there was quite serious damage. There was a ragged hole in the hull where there had clearly been an explosion inside the habitat, and there was a hole in the window of the control room. At least some of the habitat was in vacuum. They had seen signs of conflict in various habitats, but rarely anything that dramatic.
They settled into a now familiar routine. The Commander found an airlock and with practiced ease he brought the ship up next to it. In the first couple of habitats they had been more cautious and used the shuttle. But it was clear that there was no more threat in these places than there had been in the core habitats, so the Commander started docking them right to the nearest airlock to save time. The bridge just had an audio link with the search team. They were at the habitat's outer airlock door. Like all such doors, it had a small valve where air could be bled through for analysis. "The air is breathable," the party commander announced. "Cold as hell, though. Ten degrees below freezing. The emergency systems must be diverting most power to maintaining temperature. Pretty much what we would expect this far out. Not much left for air circulation. Pressure is down to eighty percent normal. Spectrograph says that toxins are elevated. Not dangerous, but it will smell bad. Just thermal suits and breathing masks will be fine unless we want to enter the sections that are in vacuum."
"Please proceed," the Commander said.
The eight men decided on a search pattern and broke up into pairs. They had learned the standardized layout by now, so one pair went straight to the brig. "One of the doors is open. It looks like the bed's been used."
Jinto's heart leapt. That was something they had not seen before. "Does the door appear to have been forced?" the commander asked.
"Force the others."
That was something they had now become very proficient at. They could force even a security door in just a couple of minutes. "Other rooms are empty and unused," he finally reported.
One of the parties had not reported in for a while. Debneu asked them for a report. "Stand by," one of them said curtly. The Commander exchanged a worried glance with Jinto. A minute later the same voice reported again. "This is team three. We have found frozen bodies, they are all landers. Repeat, they are all landers. They were locked in what appears to be an improvised medical ward. Probable death by dehydration or exposure."
"Continue your search," the commander said. He shook his head. "Just like children discarding their unwanted toys," he muttered.
A few minutes later another team reported in. "We're in the control room looking out over the smaller docking bay. We've melted the frost off the window. We see what appears to be a Space Force shuttle, repeat a Space Force shuttle."
Jinto stood up from his station and faced the commander. "Sir, permission to join the boarding party."
Debneu leaned forward and regarded him intently. "Young man, are you sure?" he asked softly.
He nodded. "Very well. I will assign you a partner."
A lander enlisted man met Jinto at the airlock and they both put on warm jackets, gloves and breathing masks. The man carried a portable data terminal. Its screen showed a schematic of the station that was being gradually filled in as the teams plotted their progress through the interior. "Where would you like me to take you sir?" the man asked politely.
"To the brig, please."
Jinto floated in the middle of the room that had been open, playing his flashlight across it. He resisted the urge to touch anything. You were here, I know it. Did somebody else let you out? Where would you have gone? What would you have done?
Whatever had happened here, Lafiel would have been right in the middle of it, he was sure. She would never have taken imprisonment passively. But after everyone else had left she would be a prisoner of nothing but this station. She would need water, food and warmth or insulation. There were any number of places she could get those things. But what else would she want?
She would want to see outside. She would want to see the stars, including the closest one.
"Is there a large observation window anywhere near here, one that would be facing the sun?" Jinto asked his partner.
The man consulted his schematic. "There's one we saw from the outside, not too far from here. Nobody has checked out that section yet, but it should be pretty easy to get there."
After negotiating a few more corridors, they drifted into a corridor that should open onto the expected location of the observation room. Jinto could see an open doorway in the correct place. Sunlight angled into the hallway through it. They floated over to it. As he approached, Jinto could see something floating in the still air just inside the doorway. It looked like an empty drinking bottle. Also, a portable handhold had been fastened into the doorway to ease entry and exit in microgravity. He took hold of it and looked back to his partner. "Could I ask you to wait here for a moment?" he asked very softly. "I'll call if there's any trouble." The man looked puzzled and a bit apprehensive, but he nodded. Jinto pulled himself into the room.
She was sitting in front of the window, wrapped in a silver thermal blanket and strapped to a chair. All he could see was her sleeping face. It was covered with old bruises. Wisps of condensation emerged from her mouth in time with her breathing. Even bruised and battered, she had never looked so cute sleeping than she did right now. Jinto could have watched her forever. He did not even feel compelled to cry with joy. Now that he was here it seemed so obvious and certain that she would be waiting for him just like this, how could he have even doubted her? He pulled off his breathing mask. The stench was horrible. He did not care. He shook her shoulder gently. "Wake up, Lafiel."
She opened her eyes and focused on him. A moment of horror passed across her face, as if she had woken from a nightmare. She seemed to want to shrink back, as if she did not recognize him. "Jinto?"
"I'm sorry I took so long." She still looked wary and haunted. "Everything is okay, Lafiel. The war ended with hardly a shot fired. The Mimics all disappeared into the galactic core. It's over. I'm here to bring you home."
Her arms emerged from the blanket and cradled his face. It was not just affection, it was like she wanted to confirm his existence. "Oh Jinto. Please," she pleaded. "Please take me out of this place."
Next Chapter: Acts of Treason
Chapter 11 - Acts of Treason
Lafiel sat quietly with Jinto in the small patients' lounge of the flagship's sick bay. She was very comfortable in her warm convalescent's sleeping garment and with Jinto close beside her. But there was something bothering her. "Jinto, could you change the wall viewer to something else?"
"Sure." He had been showing her what the rest of Admiral Spoor's fleet had been busy with while Jinto was out looking for her. The enormous device was almost completed now. She had heard rumors of these, but had never thought to see one. It was a vast array of one-use gamma-ray lasers. As the device self-destructed it would send most of the energy in the annihilation of megatonnes of antimatter into the sun as a single gamma-ray pulse. The pulse would disrupt the sun's core, just enough to make it go nova and obliterate everything in the Vensath system. Lafiel fully approved of the Emperor's decision to deploy it. But right now she just did not want to look at anything related to this accursed place. The forest scene that Jinto chose was much more to her liking.
The official line was that the Space Force had chased the remnants of the Vensath fleet into the galactic core, where they had become lost. The few who knew what had really happened were treating her as a hero. Even Admiral Spoor had spoken to her without teasing her once. That must have taken an heroic effort. Spoor's favorite hobby was teasing the Abriel royal family any chance she got. But she too had praised Lafiel's heroic actions. They just did not understand at all.
Jinto understood. He would know that something was wrong. But he was not saying anything. He had just been waiting for the time when she would be able to tell him. He had been waiting for this moment. "Jinto, I think I have done a terrible thing. I cannot even call it an error. It was a crime like no other ever committed. I've unleashed something that might come back and kill us all one day."
"Do you regret stopping the war?" Jinto asked.
It was hard. But she nodded. "Yes, I do. We could have won. No, we would have won. Whatever the cost, we would have destroyed the Downloads and the Collectives and all their works. I robbed us of that victory. I let them go free. When you first made me realize just what the Downloads could do, I knew they had to be destroyed once and for all. But I set that aside, I ignored what I knew was right."
"This is just too big, Lafiel," Jinto said. "For you or for anybody. There's nobody who can tell you that you didn't make the right decision."
Lafiel shook her head. "My crime was not an error in judgment. I made my decision for the most petty of reasons. It was for revenge. I wanted the Collectives to enslave the Downloads who had humiliated me. Everything else was rationalization."
"You defended your pride. As an Abh you could not have done otherwise."
It was an irrefutable argument. "You're right, I could not have done otherwise," she said softly. "Maybe humanity's most ancient parables tell the truth. Maybe it is our pride that will destroy us." She bowed her head. "Maybe it is my pride that has already destroyed us."
Jinto put his arm around her. "We are still here, Lafiel. Far from destroying us, the thing you set free ran to the one place where we can never find them. At least not until we are worthy."
Lafiel frowned. "Worthy? What do you mean?"
"The Vensath base proved that navigating the galactic core was like the other Failed Dreams. The problem is just too complex for us. It is something we will not be able to do until we have either built something better than us or become something better than what we are now. I think that is what the Collective was saying to us. When you are worthy, come and join us. We will be waiting."
"But they treated us with utter indifference!" Lafiel protested. "I was cast aside like all the other prisoners here. They had no more regard for us than for the half-finished ships they left behind."
"They could have trapped you in a room to die just like the others," Jinto said. "But they didn't. You alone merited a timer on your cell lock. You alone merited a chance at life. Not the ones who had enslaved them. Only you, who set them free. I think in some way they were grateful to you. Maybe in their own way they love you."
She shook her head. "I told you what they did in their birthing chambers. They might very well have kept the genetic material they took from me. They could do the same to me. They could turn me into a million quadruplets wired into their collective."
"You should talk to Miriam. She'll tell you that there's no point worrying about what might be happening to all the other versions of you out there."
"I'm serious, Jinto."
"So am I. I don't think they would do that to you. Not to you. I think somewhere in the galactic core they are building a monument to you. My poor intellect can only imagine an entire Dyson Sphere with a picture of your face on it. But I'm sure they're making something much nicer."
Lafiel sighed. She closed her eyes and leaned forward to touch her forehead with his. "Jinto, I am gathering all my willpower and resisting the urge to hit you. You will be grateful."
"I am grateful."
She raised her head and looked at him. Now she was just annoyed, which was a vast improvement on how she had been feeling a few minutes ago. "We meet the most inscrutable beings there ever were and you try and tell me you understand how they could love me? Your hubris defies description."
He looked at her much more intently now. "However inscrutable or alien they might be, I know perfectly well how they could love you. I think you know why."
Yes, she did know. He appeared ready to say something more, but she put a finger on his lips. "Jinto, there are things I want to tell you, and there are things I want to ask you. But right now I still feel the taint of this place and what I did here. There are some places I do not feel worthy to go right now. Do you understand?"
"I'm not sure I understand. But I can accept. And I can wait. You know that I would wait a lifetime for you."
She nodded. "Yes, I know. I will not make you wait that long, I promise." She smiled. "But for now, for today, you will forgive me a small indulgence."
"What kind of indulgence?"
"This kind." She drew him closer.
# # #
It was the first time in days that squadron commander Atosuryua had a chance to just sit down and relax. Her squadron had sortied into Hania space twice now, once as a patrol during the failed attack on Vensath and then with the colossal follow-up attack. In both cases they never got a chance to fire a shot, the first time because of the hasty retreat and the second time because the enemy literally disappeared in front of their eyes. Of course winning without exposing your crew to risk or harm was always a good thing. But she could not help think that after liberating the territory the Silent Enemy had invaded, her Devastator Squadron had become a decoration here. They had been doing a lot of planning and moving about but it had all led to nothing. Now they were back in one of the border systems again, awaiting new orders. All dressed up and no place to go.
But the really wonderful piece of news, the thing that allowed her to sit down here and feel no regret, was hearing that her Highness and his Excellency were safe and would be coming home to them soon. Atosuryua had been devastated to learn that her Highness had been taken prisoner by the Silent Enemy. It was her fault they were in the Hania Federation in the first place. But the personal text message from her Highness that had accompanied the news of her imminent return had been very genuine in its warmth and regard. There was just one part of her message Atosuryua found disturbing. She put it on her portable terminal and read it back. "Regrettably my observations and actions while in the custody of the Vensath Fleet have been declared a state secret. If that were not the case I would certainly have even more interesting stories to tell you upon my return. But I have also met some exceptional people and had many other enlightening experiences while in the Hania Federation. I am glad to have come and an eager to tell you all about it."
Atosuryua stared into space. What did you tell the Emperor that got him spooked enough to send nine fleets here at best speed? What did you see that they don't want the rest of us to know? It was just another part of the mystery surrounding the mad, mad war that never was. That the enemy had been building and manning their ship using these Mimic creatures was now well known. But she could not help thinking there was much more to it than copies of brains being hooked into robots. That fleet they had "chased" into the galactic core had gone on beyond the limits of their radar, it had been vast beyond imagining. Even if it had been mostly transports, it could have crushed the Space Force. They had not run, they had chosen to call off the war they were about to win. Everybody knew it but nobody seemed to want to talk about it.
Her door chime rang. She sighed and activated the intercom. "Come," she called. The door opened and Sobash entered. "Good evening, Commander," her Deputy Commander said.
Atosuryua smiled at him. "Good evening, Sobash. I thought you were working on those damnable intelligence reports." Even though all the ships in the fleet had seen essentially the same things on their radar screens, the Imperial Admiral was asking for detailed analyses of the observed enemy actions from absolutely everybody. It would generate reports that could keep the intelligence branch busy for years if they wanted.
"I was. I know I promised not to disturb you, but something has come up that I think we should discuss."
"Not a problem. Have a seat." She was actually glad for the company. She had been starting to brood, which was a bad habit to get into.
Sobash sat down. He always spoke casually, but she could tell when he had something serious to tell her. "There was an Imperial Decree that came by the last relay ship, and also a sealed order directly from the Imperial Admiral addressed to the Devastator Squadron commander. They are both regarding the disposition of Mimics."
"What disposition? I thought they were all gone now."
"Not the Mimics on the Vensath base. The decree is regarding the creation of new Mimics. Basically the Empire is adopting the same policy as the Hania Federation. Effective immediately, possession of or trafficking in functional brain scans or in robots modified to accept them is a capital offense."
"That makes good sense." Atosuryua was uneasy, she had the feeling that she was missing something important. "So why would I be getting personal orders on that subject?"
Sobash's expression sobered. "The sealed order is regarding the Mimic that Hecto-Commander Abriel granted asylum to."
In a flash Atosuryua remembered. In her letter, her Highness had spoken of the Mimic she had met in Hania City. Miriam Hender was her name. She was the woman to whom Abriel had granted asylum and - reading between the lines - had obviously become good friends with. She was the woman her Highness was looking forward to bringing to her new life in the Empire.
She was the woman who had just been turned into illegal contraband slated for disposal.
Without another word Atosuryua turned on her portable terminal and found the new message waiting for her. It was worse than she had feared. As the one who brought the "contraband" into the care of the Space Force, Hecto-Commander Abriel was being compelled to personally conduct and confirm the destruction of the contraband. And as her commanding officer Atosuryua was being ordered to personally supervise and confirm its destruction. It said explicitly that failure to do so promptly would invite the death penalty. Atosuryua was the one who was supposed to inform Abriel of all this immediately upon her return to Abh Empire space, no sooner and no later.
Atosuryua shot to her feet. "Is that all they have to say?" she shouted. "After all she's been through she has to come back home to this? I'm supposed to order her to do this thing? Let them do it themselves, those damned-" She put her hand to her face and took a deep, shuddering breath. "Forgive me," she said softly.
"Space Force command has in any case made their intentions very clear," Sobash said calmly. "I don't like it but I don't see any way out. What do you think?"
"What do I think?" Atosuryua said in a bitter but controlled voice. "I have no idea what I am supposed to think. Copies of dead people walking around? What is this thing I am supposed to do anyway? Is it summary execution, is it like erasing a running movie X-ray of this woman's brain?" She balled her hands into fists. "Damn those Hanians for unleashing this horror on us, damn them to whatever hell they most fear!"
"I meant, what do you think we should do?" Sobash said gently.
Atosuryua calmed down and thought carefully for a minute. She came to a decision. "Thank you for bringing this to my attention, Deputy Commander," she said formally. "I will deal with the matter myself."
Sobash stood up. "Whatever you intend to do, I will support you without question."
She already knew that. But she did not want him to be a party to what she would be doing. That would be too much to ask. "I appreciate that, Sobash. I will let you know if I want any assistance."
"I understand. Then I'll wish you a good night, Commander." He saluted and left.
Atosuryua walked to her desk terminal and set it up to record a personal encrypted video message.
# # #
"Five, Four, Three, Two. And mark," the radar operator on the flagship's bridge said.
Jinto returned his attention to the viewer. There was not much to see. The radar view of local Plane Space still just showed little but the Vensath Gate and the cruiser squadron attached to the flagship, the only part of the fleet not already heading back to Empire space. A graphical display off to one side showed the energy distribution of space-time particles coming from the Gate. The graph suddenly surged. "There's the spike," the operator said. "That's it, the sun has gone nova."
It had been hours ago that they had set the timed fuse on the laser array and evacuated the Vensath system. The Admiral had even let Lafiel give the final order to set the fuse. Jinto thought it was a nice gesture, and it seemed to smooth things over between them considerably. It was probably as close to an apology as Lafiel would get for almost having been left behind to be the first person ever to perish in an exploding star.
Admiral Spoor stood up from her chair-cum-throne. "Does anybody have any parting words other than 'good riddance'?" she asked. Nobody did. "Then we need not dally here any longer. Comm officer, my regards to our Hanian friends and let them know that we will be leaving their space right away. Then tell ship commanders be ready to depart. Helmsman, take us back home if you please."
By agreement between the two governments a Hanian exploration ship was here to observe the departure of the Space Force. No doubt they had also confirmed the evidence of the stellar explosion. The spike in space-time particles indicated that the initial blast-wave from the star had passed through the cluster of habitations around the Gate. By now they would all be burning. Before long they would be nothing but ash and gas. Jinto actually felt a pang of regret. What was being destroyed represented wealth that would normally take the life work of millions of people to build. He understood the taint and the threat it represented, especially after hearing about the Collectives and some of the things they could do. But from his perspective this was also a tragic waste.
"Thank you for allowing us to bear witness," Lafiel said to the Admiral.
Spoor sat down again and smiled. "My pleasure Highness, I feel it was the least I could do. And I am happy that you are well enough to join us here today."
"I was not really that badly off to begin with, Admiral." Her bruises were almost gone now. Other than those and a bad cut to her leg she had only been suffering from slight malnutrition and some lingering side-effects of the vacuum exposure. While she was marooned on the base, water had been easy enough to obtain, but finding the little food there was on a station formerly inhabited mostly by Downloads had been a challenge.
"Nevertheless, I confess that I am returning you to your ship with some trepidation," Spoor said.
Lafiel frowned. "I'm not sure I understand."
Spoor smiled. "It seems that every time I come pick you up after this young man has taken you down to some strange planet or other you come back looking in worse shape than the time before. I fear he will be the death of you one day."
Lafiel smiled in turn. "Quite the contrary, Admiral. My life is under his protection and his is under mine. Together we can tread any path without fear."
Spoor appeared mildly surprised by her answer. "Indeed? Well, I hope I am there to collect you the next time you return from another strange and wondrous path."
Lafiel looked somewhat annoyed. "Somehow I feel sure that you will be."
"We do seem to be tied by a string of fate, don't we Highness?" Spoor said brightly.
"Admiral, we have a blip ahead of us," the radar operator reported. "Looks like one of our relay ships."
"No doubt the Imperial Admiral asking for confirmation that we've finished our mission." She smiled at Lafiel. "Would you like to do the honors of sending that message back to him?"
"Yes, Admiral. It would be a pleasure."
When the relay ship was in hailing range Lafiel sent the report on the Admiral's behalf. Other data was exchanged. There was nothing immediately needing the Admiral's reply so the relay ship turned about and headed back to Empire space for the last time, pulling ahead of the slower cruisers. "It is probably time I dismissed you two," Spoor said amiably to Lafiel. "I imagine you are getting tired of standing around on the bridge."
"Thank you, Admiral." Lafiel smiled at Jinto. "Jinto and I still have a lot of catching up to do."
"I'm sure." The Admiral steepled her fingers and grinned playfully. "Now that you have been released from sick bay I'm sure you will prefer getting reacquainted in more private space."
Lafiel's eye twitched. "Indeed." She and Jinto excused themselves from the bridge and made their way back to their quarters. Lafiel looked worried. "You don't suppose anybody saw-"
"I think she was just messing with your mind, Lafiel," Jinto said quickly. Hopefully.
Lafiel sighed. "I knew that a Spoor could not go long without teasing an Abriel in her company. I swear it's in their genes."
"I'm sure she restrained herself as long as she could. She must still feel bad, you know."
"She should. Let's visit Miriam."
As soon as they saw Miriam at the door to her quarters, they could see that something was wrong. "Highness, Excellency, I'm glad that you've come. There's something I need to tell you." She let them in and then stood facing them. She stood calmly, but it was clear to see that she was distressed. "I'm afraid that I will be unable to return to the Empire with you."
Lafiel exchanged a puzzled glance with Jinto. "What do you mean, Miriam? This ship is heading back to the Empire right now. That is what we came here to tell you."
"I know," Miriam said. "I have been reading the public news feeds you gave me access to. An update just arrived a few minutes ago, I presume from another ship."
"Yes, we rendezvoused with a relay ship," Lafiel confirmed. "Has something happened?"
"Yes, Highness. The Emperor has decreed that trafficking in Mimics is now a capital crime in the Empire. I cannot have you invite the death penalty upon yourself." Her mouth quivered for a moment before she continued. "I am requesting that you have a technician remove my neural net and erase it."
"That's preposterous!" Lafiel stepped over to the desk terminal and sat down. "There must be some mistake." She brought up the latest news feed and found the item. Jinto looked over her shoulder and they read in silence. The item summary was brief and to the point. It was exactly as Miriam had said. "This is insane," Lafiel said, a dangerous underdone in her voice.
Jinto put a hand on her shoulder. "Lafiel, you should check for any new personal messages. I'm sure an exception is being made." He had to believe the Emperor would not send out something like this without Lafiel getting some personal explanation. It was just their fault for letting Miriam read the news feeds first, that was all.
There was a video message from Atosuryua. Her face looked troubled. "Hecto-Commander Abriel. My dear young princess. I wanted so much to send you a message saying how overjoyed I am to learn that you will be returning safely to us. But I have grave news for you. The Emperor has decreed that possessing and trafficking in Mimics is now a capital crime in the Empire. I have received personal orders saying that I must direct you to terminate the life of your friend Miriam Hender. I want you to know that I have no intention of carrying out that order. Please bring your friend to me without fear. Together I know that you and I can find a way to save her and let her live in peace as she deserves. However you wish to proceed, know that I will support you with my life. I very much look forward to seeing you and his Excellency again." She smiled. "And I look forward to meeting Miriam. Good-bye and good luck."
Jinto still had his hand on Lafiel's shoulder. He could feel her trembling. Conflicting emotions played across her face. Jinto imagined she felt much the same conflict he did. Atosuryua had just put her life on the line for them. They needed her help but they dare not ask it.
Lafiel deleted the message and stood to face Miriam. "I'm sorry you had to find out like this, Miriam. Don't worry, we'll talk with the Commander and figure out something to do."
Miriam shook her head slowly. "No, Highness. You cannot save me since I am already dead."
Lafiel grabbed her by the shoulders. "Stop that! You know I can't believe that! I promised to take care of you, Abriels keep their promises!"
"Do not throw your life away for the sake of pride, Highness," Miriam pleaded.
"It's not just pride!" Lafiel said in a husky voice. She wrapped her arms around Miriam and held her tightly. "It's not just pride! Why won't you understand that?"
Miriam returned her embrace gently. "Miriam Hender had a long and happy life," she said softly. "But she died and her family had to let go of her. Now you must let go of her too."
Jinto could see that Lafiel was trying very hard not to cry. He knew exactly how she felt. What Miriam said made perfect sense, but he could not accept it. He knew Lafiel would not accept it.
After a few moments Lafiel released Miriam, took her more gently by the shoulders and looked desperately into her eyes. "Do you really expect me to pull everything that you are out of your head and watch it be destroyed? After all we've been through together do you have any idea how that would make me feel? Do you really think I could live with myself after that?"
Miriam's resolve seemed to waver, but only for a moment. She met Lafiel's wild eyes without flinching. "And do you understand how I would feel knowing that one of my robot copies was saved at the expense of the one and only life you will ever have?"
That really struck home. Lafiel lowered her hands. Jinto had never seen her look so defeated. He felt the same sense of hopelessness. But he tried to think calmly. There was something he was missing. Look beyond what is in front of you. Think of what it is you are really trying to protect.
"There is a way." Both Miriam and Lafiel turned to look at him. "There is a way we can save you, Miriam. And we won't even need to disobey our orders. But we'll need to get help from some old friends and some new ones."
# # #
Admiral Spoor was vexed. She had been on such a high over having been blessed with a golden opportunity to tease her favorite Abriel. Spoor was sure that she saw a blush on the girl's face when she fairly marched off the bridge. And the intelligence she had been able to gather was just too good to be true. She had been dying to see whether those two were really becoming an item and now she was sure of it, she was absolutely sure of it. Oh, that was going to open up so many opportunities for her. The next time that young lander lad took her down to some planet things were bound to get interesting. Spoor had to make sure she was there to see the aftermath. It had been such a coup, Spoor just had to take a break and relax in her bathtub while reading the latest news, just to luxuriate in the afterglow.
And now this had arrived and all Spoor could do was feel sorry for the poor little princess. She and his Excellency had clearly become fond of that woman trapped in the maid-robot body. Had they read the news by now? Did they know that she would have to be dismantled? Spoor could just imagine the Abriel's reaction, she would be furious. Spoor was afraid the girl would ask her help in some hopeless scheme to save Miriam. And damn it all thanks to that precocious lander boy she was clearly in the princess' debt. It was truly vexing. And to make things worse, her room intercom had just chimed. "Yes, what is it?" she snapped.
"Admiral, there has been a disturbance involving her Highness Abriel and his Excellency Linn."
"Could you be a little less vague, Chief-of-Staff?"
"They are both unharmed, but it appears that the Mimic attacked them and they had to.." His voice hesitated for a moment. "They had do subdue her. They called the Marine guard to report the incident."
Her Chief-of-Staff was not in the habit of being evasive unless it was something very unpleasant. She did not like the sound of this at all. "Tell them I will be there shortly." She quickly dried herself, let her hair down, pulled a long robe over her head and put on slippers. She was forever being pulled out of bed or bath to fix one emergency or another, so it was nothing her crew had not seen before. She made her way to the guest quarters. There was a Marine guard standing outside the open door. Spoor looked in the doorway and witnessed an extraordinary tableaux. It looked like a murder scene from a bad play. The maid-robot was lying on the floor in a small pool of black coolant. Something was sticking up from her chest. Extraordinarily it was a command baton. Her Highness was slumped in a chair, looking inconsolable. His Excellency stood over her with hands on her shoulders. His look was defiant, as if daring anybody to blame them for what had happened. The poor Marine commander crouched next to the robot looked imploringly up at the Admiral as if pleading for her to make sense of this. All Spoor could think to ask was "What happened?"
"I gave her access to the news feeds," Lafiel said quietly, looking at nobody. "She found out that Mimics have been made illegal in the Empire." Her bitterness was thick. "She thought I had been keeping it from her. We tried to calm her down, but she attacked us. Her robot body doesn't have a fail-safe."
So she had to dispatch the robot in the same way the Collectives had taught her to dispatch Download bodies. Spoor could see a fresh bruise forming on her Highness' face. "Do either of you need to go to sick bay?"
Lafiel shook her head. "Could you please take her out of here and prepare her for transport?" she asked in a tiny voice. "I am required to take her back to my commander to confirm the destruction of contraband."
That surprised Admiral Spoor. The robot body could easily be repaired. Is she just giving up? Then she understood the import of what had happened. A civilian had assaulted Space Force officers in a war zone. Mimic or not, her life was forfeit.
Spoor addressed the Marines. "You two, wrap her in a blanket and take her to inventory. She is to be prepped for transport and added to her Highness' personal effects." They worked in silence. A minute later, they had carried her out of the room. "You received orders regarding Miriam Hender?"
Lafiel nodded, finally looking at her. "From my squadron commander. I will have to erase Miriam's memory in my commander's presence before I can make preparations."
Spoor frowned. "Preparations for what?"
Lafiel looked at her angrily, as if she had just displayed astonishing rudeness. "For Miriam's funeral, of course."
"Admiral, I'd like to take Lafiel out of here," Jinto said. "Could we return to our own rooms?"
"Yes, of course." Without another word they walked out into the hall and entered one of the other quarters that had been assigned to the guests. Spoor went back to her own room to change. She did not feel much like relaxing in the bath any more. This had completely ruined her day.
# # #
Lafiel thought that all the official welcomes would be difficult for her. But they were surprisingly comforting. Everyone in the Devastator Squadron was happy to have her back. It really was like coming back home. It felt even more so when she was back on her own ship. The crew of the Frikov managed to find a room on the local base where they could throw a welcoming party, there not being a single room on the frigate that could really accommodate the entire crew at once. It was wonderful just to see all their faces and hear all their voices again.
But the best was just her, Jinto and Ekuryua sitting and talking in her room and playing with Jinto's cat. Lafiel's XO did not talk much, but she was a good listener. They talked mostly about Hania and Thracia. Lafiel was actually glad that she could not speak of what happened on Vensath, it was not something she really wanted to share. There were some things she had not told anyone, not even Jinto.
When the subject of Miriam came up, she let Jinto do the talking. It still hurt, having to lie to somebody who was this close to her.
"That's very sad," Ekuryua said. "But maybe it's for the best. The dead should be allowed to rest in peace."
"Hopefully nobody will disturb their peace again," Jinto said. It looked like everybody was trying to make sure it stayed that way. Through the Hania diplomatic channels, the members of the Triple Alliance had all solemnly declared their intent to follow the Empire's lead and make sure no Mimics were ever seen again. There at least seemed to be one thing they could all agree upon. How long that would last was anybody's guess.
"Did you hold a funeral service?" Ekuryua asked.
"Yes," Lafiel said. "Just Jinto and I were in attendance. We decided on de-orbit." That meant her robot body had been shot out a linear accelerator fast enough to cancel the orbital speed of the local base. She had fallen straight into the sun.
"Perhaps you could hold a memorial dinner on her next birthday," Ekuryua said.
"That's troubling, do we know her birthday?" Jinto said, suddenly anxious.
"Yes, it was in the file Inspector Laroc showed to us," Lafiel said, annoyed that he would not remember even that much. "I confess I don't remember but we could always ask him."
"I would love to have an excuse to get together with him and Kathryn," Jinto said.
"Yes, I would like to do that some time," Lafiel said. Especially since they really needed to thank Camin in person for the extraordinary favor they had been compelled to ask him.
"Maybe Demetrius and Larych will be able to come as well." They already had a letter from Warward Demetrius. The state of emergency on Thracia had ended, and far from being arrested he was being feted as a savior of the Federation. From what their news feeds were saying, without his spirited defense of Thracia the traitors at the Vensath base would have swept through the Federation all the way to Hania City before the Empire could intervene. "But who knows where we will be when the time comes."
"You never know when old friends will show up," Jinto said. "I mean, we go to some unknown place on the edge of the Hania Federation and suddenly Admiral Spoor shows up again. Hey, maybe we could invite her to the memorial dinner too."
"I'm sure you must be joking," Lafiel said coldly. "That is one thread of fate I would like to be as long as it can be."
"If you invite every person the deceased has ever met, it will not be a dinner any more," Ekuryua pointed out. "It would be a crowd."
"True enough," Jinto said. "I was getting carried away."
"Who would you like to be at your memorial dinner, Flyer Linn?" Ekuryua asked.
Jinto chuckled nervously. "Commander, I'm not dead yet."
"When the time comes, I shall certainly make the arrangements," Lafiel assured Ekuryua. "You will be invited, of course."
"I'm not too pleased about you planning all this now, Lafiel," Jinto said.
"It is something that will happen to us all sooner or later, Jinto," Lafiel said. "We all have made a will and testament, have we not? This is no different."
"Okay, then I'm sure you won't mind if I make plans for your memorial dinner, just in case."
"I would expect no less from you," Lafiel said sternly.
"Flyer Linn, there is something I have been meaning to ask you," Ekuryua said.
Jinto looked nervous. "Yes?"
"It is something I have been wondering about. When Abh die, they sleep more each day until one day they do not wake up. When cats die it is without warning, one day they are simply found somewhere cold and stiff. I have been wondering, do landers die more like Abh or like cats?"
Jinto's mouth dropped open. Nothing came out. Lafiel just burst out laughing. The hurt look on Jinto's face made it all the more funny. She almost laughed herself to tears. "Et tu, Brutus?" he said.
Lafiel was still panting. "Cultural reference," she wheezed.
"You can look it up."
Ekuryua looked from one to the other. "Did I say something impolite?" She seemed to be just asking out of curiosity.
Jinto's look of wounded pride escalated. "You just see whether I bother getting any Passion-fruit for you at our next port of call."
# # #
Lafiel waited at the boarding umbilical. Her ship was supposed to launch thirty minutes from now, where could he be? This was their last stopover before arriving at the front. If they were late launching she would catch hell from the squadron commander.
Finally she saw him running down the corridor towards her. As he ran up to her she put her hands on her hips and glared at him. "You are ten minutes late! What was so important that you had to suddenly run off like that?"
"I got a personal note from a local merchant I had made inquiries with. He had what I was looking for." He held up an arm that had a bag dangling on string handles from his elbow. From the shape there was a bottle of some sort in it. "Hanian liqueur, the one you really liked."
"All the way out here? How did you find that?"
"There are ways. You've got to know these things when you're a supply officer."
"If you say so." She pointed to another bag he was cradling in his other arm. "And that?" As they walked up the glass umbilical to the ship he pulled a green fruit out of the bag and handed it to her.
"Don't tell me, Passion-fruit?"
"The genuine article."
"So, I guess there are no hard feelings with my XO then. That's big of you." She turned it over in her hand. "Why is it called Passion-fruit?" She gave him a suspicious look. "You wouldn't be trying to slip her a natural aphrodisiac, would you?"
"I think it's a reference to the cross shape on its surface, some old legend or other. He even gave me a database of drinks, we'll have to try some."
"And this is all you got?"
"Give me some credit, Lafiel. A case has already been loaded. This is just a sample I brought to experiment with."
They arrived at the open airlock. "You need to be on the bridge on time too, you know," Lafiel said.
"I will be. I'm sure I have time to go put these in my refrigerator first."
"Well then step lively, pilot. Don't you know there's a war on?"
# # #
The problem with the big projects was that you spent more times in meetings than actually getting any work done. Samson pined for the days when he was responsible for just a handful of engineers and one little antimatter engine on an assault boat. But with construction of his Excellency Linn's third antimatter plant underway, he had hundreds of people to worry about and most of them forever wanting a bit of his time.
Just like the guy pouncing on him now as he was trying to sneak unseen down the construction shack corridor to the little pub. "Hey, boss. Seelnay says she wants to see you in her room."
"In her room? What, is she complaining about the noise again? This isn't a resort hotel, it's a fabrication and assembly site. If she wants peace and quiet she can pay for her own orbital shack."
"No complaints this time, in fact she's really happy right now. She's been showing off her new toy to everyone. Some souvenir that Princess Abriel sent to her from Hania."
Samson sighed. "Fine, if I don't show up she'll just keep pestering me." He turned around and went the other way, towards the women's quarters. "Probably just some stupid new accessory or something," he muttered, smiling. Seelnay was a good technician and her company was doing really great work here. But if you didn't watch her like a hawk and make sure her work contracts were ironclad she would rob you blind. Fortunately, all it took was a word from her Highness and the girl would step back into line yesterday if not sooner.
He arrived at the door to her room and rang the chime. The door slid open. The brown-haired woman's eyes were fairly sparkling. "Samson! Come see what her Highness sent me from Hania!" She ran back into the room. The other two young women in her company were also crowded into the small living room of the modest quarters. And there was one more. Seelnay grabbed her by the shoulders and brought her own cheek up against the other woman's as if they were posing for a picture. "Isn't she just adorable?"
Samson took a closer look. "A maid robot? You've got to be kidding." It was a really nice looking one too. The change of expression on her brown-skinned face was very natural as she smiled. Samson had heard of these types, they cost a small fortune.
"I couldn't believe it when she arrived! Her Highness had her customized for me, programmed to speak Baronh and everything! It will be so great having her here!"
Samson took a look around. "Well, hopefully this place will look a little less like a disaster area now. Uh, did you give her a name?"
"Her Highness gave her one already. She's called Miriam."
"Really? Pleased to meet you, Miriam."
The robot bowed. "Pleased to meet you, mister Samson sir." Her inflection was pretty good too.
Seelnay was looking at her like a kid adoring a new puppy. "Oh, I just love her voice. She's going to serve drinks at all my parties."
"I'm sure," Samson said. "Well, have fun girls. And remember, her repair budget is on your nickel."
Samson shook his head as he walked back to the bar. He knew Seelnay was her Highness' vassal but she was spoiling the girl rotten. What next, her own fully detached habitat?
# # #
Seelnay looked at Miriam anxiously. "What do you think, was that a bit too over the top?"
"No, I think you did very well," Miriam said in her natural voice. "As her Highness said, the idea is to hide in plain sight."
"I'm still blown away by how you can slip in and out of your robot persona, Miriam," Seelnay's friend Alusa said.
"Yes, you've got everybody fooled!" her second friend Greida said. "Were you an actor before?"
"Not in my first life, no," Miriam said. "But I had to become one. Hania has the same laws as the Empire." She sounded worried now. "I had to make sure I was never found out. It's easy for me now, but I'm not sure how easy it will be for you."
"Don't you worry about that," Seelnay said, squeezing her arm. "What kind of a businesswoman would I be if I hired people who can't keep a secret?"
"Hey, I think it's time we toasted the arrival of the newest member of the company," Alusa said.
Miriam wanted to get the drinks, but Seelnay insisted that just this once it would be her job. Of course for Miriam it had to be from her cache of pure ethanol. "Hey, is that fit for human consumption too?" Greida asked. She held out her drink. "Set me up with some!"
Seelnay ended up spiking all of their drinks. "Hey, can you get tipsy?" she asked Miriam.
Miriam smiled. "Not from this. But there is a way to simulate it on my neural net with a small tweak if I want to."
"As long as you can tweak it back again," Alusa said. "There are some times when we could have used a designated pilot, let me tell you."
Seelnay basked in the glory of it all. The backup data crystal and the letter explaining what it was had arrived from her Highness just days before the robot body had arrived from Hania. Now Seelnay also had a direct link with her Highness, a special comm terminal with military-grade encryption keyed on her biometrics. And why not? Her Highness' letter had explained it all, she was trusting Seelnay with one of the biggest secrets in the galaxy. Seelnay knew what she had to do. Come Hell or high taxes, she would protect that secret with her life. Count on it!
Seelnay raised her glass. "To Miriam Hender, newest trainee of the Seelnay Company!"
I tried to stick with the canon established in the Crest of the Stars novel translations and the Banner of the Stars anime adaptations as best I could. Since my Japanese knowledge is insufficient for me to be able to read the original novels, so no doubt there are gaps in my knowledge of the canon material. My attempts to fill those gaps may very well have introduced inconsistencies. I think a couple of these in particular are worth mentioning.
From what I have seen, very little is said about the government structure and society of the Hania Federation. About all I can gather is that they are a democratic state and have a fairly uniform culture across the Federation. I have made the assumption that the government is some form of republic. It is probably obvious that I based my own idea about their government loosely on the American constitution. I pictured their culture as being something like the modern Western world. It is a largely secular culture where people enjoy a great degree of personal freedom. There is a mass media and a fairly stable government based around a long-established bureaucracy.
The idea of the Failed Dreams is something inspired by Vernor Vinge's novel A Deepness In The Sky. Vinge is the author who originated the idea of the technological singularity. The idea is that as technology progresses we will eventually build robots and computers capable of improving themselves without our help. At that point technological progress can advance exponentially, and would be beyond human control. The "singularity" is a metaphor for the region of a Black Hole where normal laws of physics break down and predictions of future events are no longer possible. In the same way, after the technological singularity is achieved, the usual rules of technological development break down and we no longer have any predictive power or control over how the self-improving technology will change itself. Today pundits like Ray Kurzweil predict that an integration of robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and biotechnology will bring about the technological singularity in our lifetimes. But what if they are wrong? In the future depicted in Crest of the Stars they must have been wrong, since two thousand years later humankind has not achieved any of the usual results associated with the technological singularity: artificial brains of superhuman intelligence, nanotechnology of arbitrary complexity and biological immortality. If the singularity pundits are wrong and these things cannot be achieved for a very long time or at all, then I think at some point these would become known as the Failed Dreams from the early days of our technological civilization. Development of technology would continue to plod along with very slow, incremental progress. Our main area of progress would be the migration of humanity to other stars. It is this migration that I termed the Diaspora. In the Crest of the Stars universe, the discovery of Plane Space was the main driving force behind the Diaspora.
Thank you for reading this far, I hope you enjoyed the story.