Chapter 23

USS Echo – Holding Station in the Beta Durani Oort Cloud

"Captain's log, supplemental. The Echo is currently concealed in the system's Oort cloud, surrounded by huge, comet-sized bodies of ice to ward off any surprise jump space attacks by the Minbari. We are now beginning to scan the area around the inhabited moon where both the Minbari Command and Control center and the Alliance Earth listening post are located.

"Captain, all subspace channels are clear. However, I am picking up several tachyon communication signals transmitted by the Minbari."

"Translate and record, Lt. Carter," Vox said to the Alpha Centauri native.

"Aye, sir."

Vox then turned to face Colonel Utron. "The moon is in orbit around the third planet from the star?"

"That's right, Captain."

"Very well, Colonel. Krilka do you have the moon on your scanners?"

"Aye, sir," Krilka noted while she stared into her science console hood. "I am detecting life signs there. There are many Minbari life signs, a few human life signs and…one life sign that is currently unidentified. It appears to be substantially in the form of bio-electricity."

Niznik Vox blinked twice at Krilka's report. Then he shot Utron a look. "Have you ever heard any reports of a bio-electric life form inhabiting that moon before?"

The other man shook his head. "Until the Minbari and my people had come there, there had been no signs of any advanced life forms still living there. However, the moon had once been inhabited by a civilization that had either died out or abandoned the moon eons ago, though. My men are hiding in some of that race's ruins."

Vox nodded and pursed his lips. This mission, he thought, would be difficult enough without the addition of an unknown life form thrown into the mix. Then he glanced at Krilka and said, "Science officer, please scan the moon to find the exact location of every life sign. We may need to take out the control center while we're rescuing the Colonel's men. Also, scan the system for Minbari warships. We may have to destroy or disable them before we proceed to the moon. Do you think you can be ready to brief us on your findings in the conference room within the hour?"

"I will endeavor to be ready to do so, Captain."

"All right then," he said. "Carter, please inform Dr. Grey and our MACO commander to meet with Krilka, Colonel Utron, Lt. Hobson, and me in the conference room in one hour. Lieutenant Krilka," he said as he glared at the Klingon officer.

"Make it so."

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Aerotech Space Corporation – Vehicle Assembly Building – Launch Director's Office

Cape Canaveral, Florida

Local Time – 1130

"Oh, for Christ's sakes, Suzanne! Open the damn door!"

Steven Byerly, the Chief Executive Officer of Aerotech shoved fruitlessly against the unyielding panel before he shot a long-suffering look over his shoulder at his Chief Operating Officer. Apparently, Suzanne Calvin had planned to drag him into the facility's Launch Director's spartan office she'd borrowed intending to have another go at him in a milieu where he couldn't just walk away from her. Clearly, she'd discovered the LD's remote the other man used to bar the door during top secret briefings.

"In a moment, Steven. I simply want to understand how in the hell could you leave the decision to send my two best men up in Cochrane's old relic to Peterson?"

"Aren't they the best men for the job?" He'd decided an effective way to answer her question was with one of his own. "They're the guys we use to fly any ship with avionics from pre-Earth Alliance days, aren't they?"

She peered at him, scrutinizing him like a hawk examining her prey. The way she did that had always spooked him, though he would never tell her that even if he was lying on his death bed.

Calvin wasn't a beautiful woman in the traditional sense of the word but she had a presence that always demanded anyone's attention. Her handsome face plainly showed her earnestness and the direct approach she took with everything. Like most engineers, she expected life to conform to her notion of 'how-things-work.'

Unfortunately, her approach made it difficult for the woman to accept a new and terrifying reality. The disastrous first contact with the Minbari and the one-sided war that followed, along with the Alpha Quadrant powers' arrival in Earth space, had irrevocably changed everything for all time.

Now she ran a frustrated hand through her shock of dark brown, shoulder-length hair. "Even so, I don't like it."

He pursed his lips and stared at her. "You don't have to like it. I don't have to like it. We just have to do it, my dear. Look, you and I just run the company. In this instance, Earthdome has given us our marching orders. Peterson is simply the messenger. He's always been our conduit, especially to Levy and Hershovitz. The three of them are old school chums, you know."

"I still think it's too risky to send those men up in an old vessel like that."

He rolled his eyes at her then. "Oh, don't hand me that crap, Suzanne! You know as well as I do that the Feds went over the test vehicle with a fine tooth comb. They guarantee that she'll work, particularly after Wolowitz installed the fusion generator that will initiate the ship's warp core. And are you really going to argue that the Feds' technical abilities aren't as good as ours and that we shouldn't believe them when they say the ship is ready to fly?"

"No," she reluctantly admitted. "However, what really bothers me is why the rush? Why won't they let us use our normal configuration management process to ensure we've completely reduced the risk of having something go wrong? Why are they so heedless of the danger to Donovan and Powell in letting them fly Cochrane's folly?"

He narrowed his eyes at her. "Calvin, a word to the wise. You'd better stow that attitude right damn quick before we go out on the tarmac and see the licensor. Ms. Rostenkowski won't appreciate it if you insult her ancestor like that."

At least she had the good grace to look ashamed about what she'd said. "I'm sorry, Steven. You're absolutely right. It would be unfair to voice my frustrations with Earthdome to her. She's really a pretty sweet kid and I can see that she's going to be a damn good engineer once she's been mentored by Wolowitz for a few years or so. I'm just perplexed why Earthdome is so adamant that we have to fly this mission at this time, at this very moment. And why do they want the Alpha Quadrant reporter to broadcast the entire thing via ISN? For God's sakes, nearly the entire government, not to mention the Feds and the Klingons, are busy readying Earth's defenses to repel the Minbari attack we all know is coming! Yet, they want to subject everyone to a show of a technology that may be new to us but has been in use by our Alpha Quadrant friends for centuries?"

He shrugged his shoulders, hoping she'd accept that he was just as much in the dark about the 'powers-that-be's' reasons as she was. However, Peterson had given him the inside scoop and had sworn him to secrecy.

The Chairman of the Aerotech Space Corporation Board of Directors needn't have worried about Bylerly spilling the beans, though. Steven Byerly loved life too well to risk telling anyone about Levy's plan.

The woman wanted the test flight to be broadcasted far and wide. She wanted the whole galaxy to see it, particularly the Minbari. The Klingons, Starfleet and she believed the Minbari would freak when they saw that Earth Alliance now possessed warp drive technology, something in their thousands of years in space the boneheads had never developed for themselves. The fact that lowly humans could outpace them in technological advancements was something the fragile Minbari ego simply could not countenance.

So the plan was to draw the boneheads to Earth while their rage blinded them to the traps that the allies were laying out for them throughout the Solar System.

Although the allies were confident in their plan, they also were confident that Earthforce's space fleet would be completely devastated after a spirited defense of the Solar System. The projected losses were so staggering, there wouldn't be enough ships left to adequately defend the Solar System, let alone patrol the interstellar colonies.

So, there was another, even more important reason, in Byerly's merchant mind, for Aerotech and him to happily go along with the plan both for commercial and personal reasons.

After Earthforce's brass had studied the after action reports of Acaltha's humiliation of the Minbari task forces at Jericho, they'd realized that the battle doctrine used by every star-faring nation in their quadrant was woefully obsolete in the face of capital ships that moved across the battlescape faster than even Minbari Nials. As a result, the brass had been negotiating with the Alpha Quadrant powers with a vengeance. Even though Levy had reported that neither party had wanted anything from Earth Alliance to defend the Solar System from the Minbari hordes, their Madame President was no fool. She was very magnanimous in providing energy resources and minerals to the Klingons after she'd heard about the explosion of Praxis and made certain there were no strings attached to the arrangement. In response, the pleased Empire that wasn't burdened by the restrictive Prime Directive of the Federation, provided the process to construct polarized molecular alloy in response to the Madame President's largess. This was a huge boon to Earth Alliance's aerospace industry because the metal was nearly twice as strong as the polarized hull plating used in the early NX-series Federation starships, even though it was old technology to the Klingons.

Not to be outdone by their old rival/new ally, the Federation gave Earthforce the plans and a working model of the Daedalus-class explorer deflector shield array. The array would not only protect Earth Alliance ships during faster-than-light travel, they would also supplement the polarized hull protection by dissipating energy weapon impacts.

Grudgingly impressed by the Federation's countermove, the Klingons then decided to provide the secrets of gravity deck plating to Earth Alliance, forcing the Federation to counter by providing the plans for the Daedalus-class sensor suite and a rudimentary subspace communications system to Earth Alliance.

Now, somewhat incensed by the Federation's response, the Empire provided the plans and a working model for the disruptor arrays from their old D-5 battlecruiser to Earthforce.

Byerly then recalled how everyone in the presentation hall, with the exception of the furious Klingon contingent, had roared with laughter when the incredibly beautiful, statuesque and expressionless Vulcan captain from the Valkyrie inserted a small device the size of a matchbox inside a spatial torpedo the Feds had provided previously to Earthforce that increased the weapon's yield ten-fold. And just like that, Earthforce now had photonic torpedoes.

Then she revealed that the Andorians had also used disruptors in the time before they had joined the Federation, a variant of the weapons used by the Klingons. However, she said her ship's engineer had discovered that Earth Alliance could actually construct these weapons 'straight off the shelf' with currently available parts! Albeit, more bulky than the D-5 models, the parts fit nicely in the turret housing of the Nova's plasma cannons and could use the same power couplings. The weapon could do more damage than the EA's current particle beams, fired faster and required less power. This revelation would bring the old ships out of mothballs and give them a new lease on life.

After that, the military acted like Santa Claus and gifted the defense and aerospace industries that bonanza of new technologies. In fact, Calvin's people were busy as bees designing the new Intrepid-class light cruisers as a result of the treasure trove they'd received.

The new design practically guaranteed that the company would make money hand-over-fist. The new ships would be slightly larger than the Federation Constitution-class but far smaller than any of the cruisers in their sector of space. For their size, though, they would be well-protected with polarized molecular alloy hull plating and the Daedalus deflector shield array and sensor suite, as well as heavily armed with phase cannons for long range engagements and photonic torpedoes and D-5 class disruptors for heavy-hitting medium range actions. These ships would also use the smaller jump engine designs that Acaltha had recovered from the Minbari ships he'd captured at Jericho for long hyperspace transits. For intersystem and short to medium interstellar trips, the jump engines would be disengaged and the new warp drives designed to travel as fast as Warp 4.5 would be activated. These cruisers would provide the Earth Alliance fleet with extremely flexible mission platforms with smaller personnel requirements than a Olympus-class corvette for exploration and defense. Meanwhile, modified Olympus-class corvettes and Novas would bridge the gap during the time that other warp-capable Earthforce vessels were being designed and constructed.

And the beauty of it all for Byerly was the fact that the lion's share of government and civilian contracts would be for the new propulsion systems used for ships, photonic torpedoes, and probes, as well as the sensor suites. Aerotech would be raking in the credits like they were going out of style and he'd receive huge bonuses as compensation for the booming business that would be tied to the licenses they held.

"Steven!"

At the exasperated sound of Calvin's voice, his musings were totally derailed. "What?"

"I asked, what's in it for the Alpha Quadrant powers? Why are they so keen on us proving Cochrane's concept?"

"At the presentation, they told us they only wanted us to recover a piece of our heritage. Isn't that a good enough reason for you to swallow?"

"I'm an engineer," she responded. "I don't take anything simply on faith. That's especially the case for me when it involves people or aliens."

"So…you're saying that you don't trust them."

"Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying."

He smirked. "That's wise, Suzanne, because I always say, 'don't trust anybody.' Life is much safer if you take that to heart. Despite that maxim, though, I'm with Levy and Hershovitz in believing that warp/impulse drives are game-changers for Earth Alliance. With them, our warships will be as maneuverable as anyone's current crop of fighters, making them much harder to hit and allowing them to impact the enemy by placing more ordinance on target. They'll also expand our ability to explore systems with hyper-gravity stellar masses, something even the Minbari can't do. Finally, we'll have faster transit times in system, as well. Look, I see so much potential for the technology that the demand will outstrip our capacity to construct all of the drive systems that will be needed. We'll have to subcontract out maybe fifty percent or so of the work to other manufacturers. Of course, we'll make damn certain that those subcontracting agreements will totally favor our upside while providing a reasonable profit to our partners. After all, that's the price they're going to have to pay to play in our sandbox."

Apparently his point about the vast amount of money they were going to make, and most likely would be paid to her in bonuses, as well, had finally gotten through to her. She sighed heavily and surrendered. "All right, Steven. You win. I'll make certain that Donovan and Powell are ready to go."

"Wonderful!" Then he shot a pained look her way. "Now would you please, for the love of all that is holy, open the damn door? I've got to go to the john right now unless you want to mop the floor 'cause I can't hold it any longer!"

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