/ Language: English / Genre:sf / Series: Spirit of Empire

Knights of the Chosen

Lawrence White


Knights of the Chosen

Lawrence P. White

Chapter One

The gleason struck so quickly that only a few in the great forest room of Chandrajuski’s home knew it was even there. Most were still shaking off the terrible effects of the Chessori mind weapon. The three Chessori lay dead, killed by Mike and Reba, but Otis, Ellie’s Protector, lay dying with a knife in his side. Ellie, the Last of the Chosen, collapsed with a knife in her heart, dead before she reached the floor.

Jessie, Mike’s Protector and the only remaining Great Cat, leaped to the back of the room, firing repeatedly at the gleason to make certain it was dead.

Mike fell to the floor with Ellie, cushioning her. “Guard us!” he yelled to the room at large. Without waiting for a response, he went internal.

›Jake, I need you. She needs you.‹

Jake knew exactly what he meant. ›It’s not done like this, Mike. You’re my host.‹

›We’re her First Knight, Jake. Find a way. You are her only chance.‹

Ellie’s death had come so suddenly that Jake was at a loss, completely unprepared for what Mike asked of him. He had never considered living anywhere but within Mike. Riders always committed to a host and remained with them forever. The thought of leaving Mike devastated him. He wanted to fission a new Rider instead, but he knew his Queen did not have time.

›I’ll try. Give me a minute, then remove the knife.‹

Mike closed his hands around Ellie’s neck, providing skin-to-skin contact for Jake, feeling for a pulse as he did so. There was no pulse at all. He closed his eyes, oblivious to all other activity within the room, feeling intently, waiting for a pulse. Still nothing. He waited the full minute, then pulled the knife from her chest and immediately went back to feeling for a pulse.

After a time, he thought he felt a faint pressure. The pressure gradually increased until he was certain there was a pulse, though it remained weak.

“Thank you, Jake,” he whispered and was momentarily surprised that there was no response. But there could be no response. Jake was no longer a part of him.

His attention widened to take in his surroundings. All eyes were on him and Ellie. Vorst, the replacement Sector Commander, lay bound hand and foot. Jessie crouched beside Otis who was unconscious. “Is he

…?” Mike struggled to ask.

“Not yet,” she growled in response. “But it will not be long. The knives are almost certainly poisoned.”

Mike turned to Reba who stood at the ready, her blaster trying to cover the whole room.

“Jake has gone to Ellie. It seems to be working.”

Her eyes closed as she went internal to her Rider. When her lips thinned and she holstered her blaster, Mike knew the two of them had reached agreement. She went to Otis and laid her hands on him. After a time, she removed the knife from his side.

She turned back to Mike, the sparkle that was always evident in her eyes gone. “Let’s get out of here.”

Jeffers, the leader of Chandrajuski’s underground, spoke into a communicator, then ordered everyone outside to the assembly point. One of Serge’s freighters was just settling to the ground. As they struggled to get Ellie and Otis aboard, the freighter was struck by fire from above. It quickly responded with its own weapons, but it could not move until the ramp closed. Its upper shields glowed from hits, and dissipating energy streaming from the shields struck several of Jeffers’ men. There was no hope for them.

Jeffers boarded and quickly ran for the bridge. When he arrived, the ship was just lifting. Captain Palmetier, though busy, immediately lifted his visor and raised a blaster toward him.

Jeffers raised his hands, shouting, “I’m on your side.” He set his own blaster on the floor and slid it toward Palmetier, then submitted as two crewmen pinned his arms to his sides. A glance at the screens showed a full squadron of fighters engaging the freighter.

A loud, “Time to boogie, Jer,” came over the speakers as another freighter appeared on the screens headed directly into the fray, its weapons firing nonstop. Serge Parsons had come in person.

“On the way, boss,” replied Palmetier curtly. He slid his visor back over his face to cover a grin.

Moments later, a cruiser came into view from over the horizon, moving fast.

“That one’s on our side,” yelled Jeffers. “So are a couple of others. Be careful who you shoot at. Get me into the net so I can help.”

The two crewmen were uncertain until Sir Val showed up. “Let us both into the net,” he ordered.

It didn’t take long before they cleared the fighters and headed for space. In fact, by the time they reached space, there wasn’t a single Rebel fighter left. The Rebel command ship, a cruiser, broke off its pursuit when Jeffers’ friendly squadron approached. When two more squadrons of Jeffers’ ships came over the horizon, it was no contest. The Rebel cruiser retreated.

They reached the edge of space, but they did not have to wait three weeks to jump as did Jeffers’ ships. Use of the micro jumping capability might give away a closely held secret, but Ellie’s life hung in the balance. Joline’s beacon went silent, and it was likely the Rebels would not even see the ship amidst all the confusion. As Palmetier prepared jump computations for the first micro jump, Val contacted Serge and gave him a set of coordinates, explaining to him that three heavy squadrons loyal to Chandrajuski and the Queen would head for that point in space. Admiral Chandrajuski wanted those ships, but none of them knew the location of the Queen’s secret base.

Serge balked until apprised of the Queen’s condition, then grimly advised Val that he’d take care of it.

Joline’s sickbay carried no life support tanks, only a medic and basic supplies. Jake and Celine, the two Riders, had their work cut out for them.

From his own experience Mike knew that, at the very least, food was essential to their survival. The healing process used by Riders consumed large amounts energy. The medic attached two IV’s to each of them and pushed all the nourishment she could into the comatose bodies.

Her principle concern for her patients was not the physical damage caused by the knives – the Riders seemed to have that problem well in hand. Her greater concern was whether the Riders could cope with whatever poison had been on the blades. She took blood samples, then had to wait while a computer worked on the samples.

Mike remained by Ellie’s side. She couldn’t hear him, but he believed his presence might somehow help. She and Otis each contracted high fevers despite their Riders’ best efforts.

The computer only partially resolved the issue of the poison. It was there, and its molecular structure had been analyzed, but it matched no known compound. The medic made an educated guess that it was from the home world of the gleasons. Any wrong attempts to treat it might make Jake and Celine’s jobs harder.

It didn’t take Mike long to make the logical connections. He called Captain Palmetier.

“You carried Otis on his research mission to study the gleasons. Do you have his notes?”

“I do.”

“There might be some mention of poisons used by the gleasons. Can you get everyone you can to review the records for us?”

“We’ll get on it immediately.”

It took a while, but Val and Reba eventually showed up with printouts in hand. “We have a number of possibilities, Mike,” Val advised. “We’ve discarded most of them as being so lethal that they kill instantly. Neither Ellie or Otis would still be alive if they had been used. We’re down to three that are a little slower acting but just as deadly.”

They showed the printouts to the medic who studied them intently. She then went to work on her computer.

“Of the three, I can synthesize antidotes for two,” she announced after some study. “An antidote for the third is unknown. I cannot say which of the remaining two is most likely. I’m going to take samples for testing.”

“How long will the testing take?” Mike asked wearily.

The medic worked while she talked, taking new samples of blood from Ellie and Otis and placing those samples on a number of test dishes. “A day or two, minimum. I have to let the growths get started, but I can work on making both antidotes while that’s going on. Then we test the antidotes on the test growths. Another few hours to a day or so.”

“Let me know the minute you have the antidotes ready,” Mike ordered. “It doesn’t look to me like we have days. They’re burning up with fever.”

The antidotes were ready in a few hours. Mike pushed the medic as hard as he could. “Is there any sign of growth yet in the test samples?”

“Only microscopic. Not enough to test.”

“You have lots of samples. Test a few right now.”

The medic did as ordered, but she was not happy about it. “The tests results will not be valid, Sire.”

“I know. You can run complete tests on the other samples later.”

Mike then reached both hands down inside Ellie’s hospital gown, placing both hands flat against her stomach. With his eyes closed, he willed his thoughts to Jake. “Come on, Jake. Come to me,” he whispered.

It didn’t take long for Jake to sense his presence. Though he couldn’t feel anything, Mike felt Jake’s presence.

›Hello, Man,‹ he heard faintly, as if from far away.

›Hi, Jake.‹

›I’m too busy for idle chatter. I don’t think we’re going to make it this time.‹

›Yes you are, and I’m going to help. I need you to pass me a sample of the poison.‹

›You already have samples.‹

›No, Jake. I need you to pass a sample into my body. We don’t know which antidote to use. We’ll test one of them on me.‹

He felt Jake’s presence strengthen in him. He had Jake’s complete attention for the moment. More, he sensed Jake’s suffering. The poison was clearly killing him as well as Ellie.

›Not a good idea, Mike. This is a bad one.‹

›I know, and from the looks of things, you can’t save her by yourself. Please let me help, for both of your sakes.‹

›You understand that if I lose her, I am lost as well?‹

›I kind of guessed that.‹

›Okay, here you go. This stuff hurts.‹

›Make it a strong sample, Jake. If we guess wrong, if we use the wrong antidote, it will kill both of you.‹

›Okay. I have to go. See you on the other side.‹

Mike felt Jake’s presence withdraw. He pulled his hands from Ellie and turned to the medic who was staring at him with a shocked expression.

“Any results yet?” he asked.

“No, Sire. I just started the test. What were you doing? ”

“Communicating with her Rider. The poison is in me now, and it’s already working. You’d better get another bed ready.”

The medic’s eyes rose to the ceiling. With a frown, she bustled Mike off to a bed. Reba started to chew Mike out, but Val put his arm around her waist and leaned toward her ear.

“You know it’s the right thing to do. I’d do it for you in a heartbeat. In fact, I’m surprised I didn’t think of it myself. He’s doing it for her, not just for the Empire.”

“Of course he is. My god, it could all fall apart right here,” she breathed.

“No. One Heir remains, if she proves to have the Touch. I’m staying the course. Will you?”

“I choose to stay with you no matter what course we follow,” she whispered into his ear.

Mike’s body arched. He groaned, “Someone better make a decision.”

The medic turned frightened eyes to him. “It’s too soon, Sire. I can’t be certain.”

Chandrajuski’s long, jointed legs inched his bright green body farther into sick bay, the wise old eyes of the giant praying mantis swinging toward the medic until they were on a level with her own.

Speaking like a father rather than the queen’s senior military commander, he said, “You must decide, child. If you choose wrong, it will not be held against you. We understand.”

She returned to her test dishes, taking samples and placing them under a microscope for visual inspection. The computers had so far been inconclusive. Switching samples back and forth, still peering into the eyepiece, she eventually said, “I believe it is most likely this one, but I can’t be certain.”

“Then the decision is made,” Chandrajuski said to her. “Administer the antidote. If this one fails, we will administer the other to Otis.”

Twenty minutes later Mike stirred, then opened his eyes. Chandrajuski took charge, turning to the medic. “Were both knives poisoned with the same chemical?”

“Yes.”

“Administer the antidote to both of them, at once.”

Both Ellie and Otis’ fevers broke hours later. Both remained in a coma as the Riders did their work, but the immediate danger had passed.

Mike was able to leave his bed the following day, though he remained weak. He found Jessie sitting by Ellie’s side, her tail curled around her feet, her body wrapped in massive bandages.

“How are they doing?”

“About the same. No worse. The poison damaged multiple organs. They’re beyond help from the medic, but she believes the Riders have a chance. They both need tanks, but the ship doesn’t carry a tank.”

“You’ve been here a while, haven’t you?”

“I have my responsibilities. I will answer to Otis when he recovers.”

“Can’t you share the job with the other cats?”

“What others?”

“You mean…” He paused, suddenly aware that the rest of the Great Cats were missing. They must have perished in their battle against the gleasons.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” After a time, he asked, “Were any of them special to you?”

“All of them were special to me. We were team members.”

“Why don’t you take a break, get some rest. I’ll stay.”

“You couldn’t protect her from a feather right now.”

“Neither could you.”

“You’d be surprised, Sire.”

“Okay, I’ll get Val or Reba to relieve you. Will that be acceptable?”

“Bring both of them, and be certain they’re armed. We cannot guarantee the loyalty of the crew. She is not to be left unguarded, even for a moment.”

*****

He joined Chandrajuski and Jeffers in a planning session the following day. Reba and Val attended, as well. Jeffers started the meeting, briefing them on the sizeable underground organization he had built on Centauri III. During the months of planning Chandrajuski’s rescue, he had managed to transfer his supporters to ships commanded by individuals he was certain would be loyal to the Queen. He had also managed to send most of the families of those sailors to other worlds where retribution would be slow to follow.

Chandrajuski had high hopes that his senior staff had made it aboard the Empire ships at the last moment, but there was no way to communicate with those ships after the first jump. He hoped to fan these leaders out across the Empire to recruit more ships and more men.

Everyone agreed that the ultimate demise of the coup would have its roots in the political arena, and the Queen would surely lead that effort when she recovered. Their job was to support her political agenda with appropriate military force, and they would have to move fast to gather those forces. The Rebels became more entrenched with every passing day.

As Mike listened to them talk, it dawned on him that their plan ignored a vital component. He waited, sure it would come up, but it did not. As the meeting wound down and chairs scraped back preparatory to everyone leaving, he held up a hand.

“Wait. We’re not done.”

He looked to each of them as he considered his next words. Reba nodded encouragement, knowing his concern. Val looked worried, clearly understanding that Chandrajuski’s plan was flawed, but he had no solution to the flaw. Jeffers raised an eyebrow to his First Knight and waited for him to speak. Mike’s gaze ended up on Chandrajuski, a creature he barely knew. The wise old eyes of the Gamordian that so reminded Mike of Albert Einstein stared back at him, expectant and patient. Mike studied those eyes, wondering what was going through the Admiral’s mind.

There was no question in Mike’s mind that, with Chandrajuski aboard, his own responsibilities, the responsibilities of the Queen’s First Knight, were changed. Not diminished, just changed. The rebuilding of Empire military forces would be accomplished by Chandrajuski, and Mike had no doubt that the job was in good hands. His own responsibility in that regard had metamorphosed to one of oversight. Chandrajuski’s presence did not push him to the sidelines – there were no sidelines for the First Knight. Instead, he was free to focus in other directions, and his immediate focus was on the big picture: what good were Chandrajuski’s forces going to be against the Chessori mind weapon?

“Your plan is exactly what the Queen had in mind, Admiral, and I hope you can pull it off. She believes that you can.”

“You don’t?”

“I do, so far as it goes.”

“It’s already well underway.”

“It is?”

Chandrajuski considered him for a time. He knew almost nothing about the new Queen’s First Knight, but after what Mike had done to save her, he held no doubts concerning his loyalty.

“I have not revealed every detail of my plan, to you or to Captain Jeffers.” His gaze went to Jeffers. “There was too much risk in informing you, my friend.”

Jeffers nodded, and Chandrajuski’s steady gaze moved to Val. “I told you in our first meeting that your sister was out on assignment. I did not tell you what that assignment was.”

Val nodded grimly, and Chandrajuski’s head swung back to Mike.

“The Queen’s Seer revealed to me that one Chosen still lived after the Rebel strike on the Palace. She had no idea where Daughter was, but she knew that Daughter lived. That was enough for me to act. She is on a mission to inform certain other individuals that the Empire is not dead. Sire, if she is successful, a limited number of senior military leaders are, even now, awaiting word from the Queen.”

Chandrajuski paused, then added, “There’s more. These leaders have been instructed to hold as long as they can. When holding becomes untenable, they are to retreat with as many forces as they can muster and wait for further instructions.”

Mike stared at Chandrajuski in awe, his mind attempting to grasp the concept of serious military forces already at the beck and call of the Queen. For so long they had been just one ship, then a few more damaged ships from Admiral Jon’s squadron. Suddenly, there might be fleets in the wings just waiting to be commanded.

“A masterful stroke, Admiral. The Queen chose well in you.”

“Perhaps. I have heard nothing back from the Queen’s Seer. I have no idea if she has been successful or not.”

“Do the Rebels know of this plan?”

“They don’t from me. During my incarceration, I was subjected to questioning under the influence of certain drugs that force truth, but these drugs do not make one forget the questions.” His mouth opened to display many tiny, wickedly sharp teeth, and Mike leaned away from him, suddenly reminded that this creature was a warrior.

The mouth closed abruptly. “Sorry, First Knight. I did not mean to frighten you. It is my equivalent of your smile.”

“And what is there to smile about?”

“They failed to ask the right questions, Sire.” Again, the mouth opened, and Mike recognized the smile this time.

“They might not have learned about it from you, sir,” Val said softly, “but there are others.”

“Too true, Sire. Krys is as frightened as she is determined. I believe that, in her own mind, she has accepted the same call to duty that you did as a child when you saved Daughter from assassination.”

Val’s look of horror was not lost on Chandrajuski.

“We covered her tracks thoroughly on Centauri III. She has a civilian ship with a number of military upgrades, and she has a military crew. Her captain is a Rress, and her pilot is a Schect.”

Val nodded grimly. “Not all her contacts will be successful. Her purpose will become known.”

“It will, Sire. Let us hope it is not too soon. Her contacts were carefully chosen.”

“Admiral,” Mike said, “you’ve been held prisoner and might not be aware of all the issues. Our concern is not just the Rebels. They have partnered with the Chessori.”

Chandrajuski’s eyes blinked, then blinked again. “You’re certain of this, Sire?”

“Pretty certain, and the consequences are staggering. Only one ship survived Daughter’s treaty mission to the Chessori, one ship out of two squadrons. As well, the Rebels, with the help of the Chessori, nearly took Resolve on Earth and again in space on a number of occasions. A limited number of Chessori observers took over Val’s squadron from within, allowing Rebels to take command. I was mortally wounded by a Chessori aboard that ship, surviving only because of my Rider. The Chessori were moments away from killing the Queen in your home when Reba and I gunned them down, and you personally experienced the effect of their mind weapon, even if it was only for a few moments.

“According to Jessie, the Chessori mind weapon was the cause of the lone gleason escaping the Great Cats outside your home, giving it the opportunity to mortally wound the Queen.

“In hindsight, we should have known better than to let the Queen come to Centauri III at all, not so much because of the Rebels, but because we failed to factor the Chessori into the equation.”

Chandrajuski’s gaze remained on him, but Mike sensed that he was not the focus of Chandrajuski’s thoughts. Wheels were turning within that great mind.

When he sensed those wise eyes focused on him again, Mike said softly, “The Chessori are out to get the Queen, and they’ve come within a hair’s breadth of succeeding on too many occasions. Furthermore, they’ve partnered with the Rebels. In every case, so far as I know, everyone but Reba and I, and to some extent the Great Cats, are completely powerless against this mind weapon.”

Chandrajuski backed away from the table and turned sideways to them, a long, delicate leg moving gracefully, then freezing in position while another leg moved, one after another, the pattern repeating itself. He stared at the far end of the room, then swung his long neck back toward Mike. “That explains what happened to the ships I sent to Dorwall to rescue Daughter.”

“You tried to rescue her? How did you know?”

“Krys knew. She accompanied the rescue party and was the sole survivor. She returned with an unbelievable story of a small number of Chessori ships destroying my three squadrons with barely a shot fired. I considered it an exterior threat, and my focus remained on the internal issues of trying to hold the Empire together. I see now that I was short-sighted.”

“She was there?” Val asked in alarm.

“She was. She observed events from afar, from aboard a small fighter. It was the only ship to return.” He moved back to the table, his eyes on Jeffers. “What do you know of these Chessori?”

“Chessori traders show up from time to time, as they have been doing for a long time. Their presence has increased since the coup, but I paid them no mind. To the best of my knowledge, they’re just trading.”

“There were three Chessori with Admiral Vorst,” Mike corrected him.

Jeffers’ lips compressed. “They’re our enemy, and I paid them no heed. I’m sorry, Sire.”

“There’s no fault here, but you’re right: they’re our enemy just as much as the Rebels are our enemy. And if they were invisible to you, they’re probably invisible to any other forces you’ve cobbled together.”

He leaned forward, his gaze on Chandrajuski. “You can’t fight them, Admiral.”

Chandrajuski met his gaze. “You did not fall to this mind weapon when the Chessori activated it in my home.”

“Reba and I have experienced it many times. It does not affect us.”

Chandrajuski turned to Val. “Is it something to do with the knighting process?”

“No, sir. I, too, suffer, as does the Queen. As fighting units, we are completely incapacitated.”

“No political mechanism exists for dealing with them, and you’re telling me there is no military solution either?” Chandrajuski demanded.

“There is a military solution, Admiral, but I don’t think you’re going to like it.” Val said, nodding to Mike to continue.

“You knew?” Mike asked him in surprise.

“Reba and I talk. We are in agreement that it’s necessary, but we are not in agreement that it can be done.”

Mike turned to Reba with raised eyebrows. She nodded. “It’s a stretch, Mike. No argument there, but we can do it. I know we can. A few hundred front-line warriors would be a good beginning. We don’t need any support staff, the Empire can provide all of that. You know as well as I do that it takes ten or more people to support one front line warrior. A few hundred volunteers could do the job of a few thousand. A thousand could do the job of many thousands. Their only purpose is to neutralize the Chessori. After that, regular Empire forces can deal with the Rebels.”

He nodded agreement, his lips compressed, and turned back to Chandrajuski. “The Chessori have to be met head on, and they have to be defeated. Until they are, the Queen will not be safe, and her military and political agendas have no chance of success. We believe our people, the people of Earth, are immune to the Chessori mind weapon. Reba and I definitely are, and others on Earth who have been in the presence of the mind weapon were, as well.

“We have to go to Earth, Admiral. We have to recruit soldiers and sailors and bring them back with us to fight the Chessori.”

Chandrajuski made a noise that could only be described as clearing his throat. “Besides the fact that Earth is classified as an emerging world and thereby off-limits, the obvious difficulties of language and technology such recruits would have to overcome make such a plan… questionable.”

He turned his attention to Reba. “This plan could also be dangerous to Earth. Have you considered that?”

“It could also be rewarding,” Reba replied, her eyes filled with excitement at the possibilities. “There will be challenges, but we will deal with them. Do you have a better idea?”

Chandrajuski stared at her, and it turned into a long stare. Clearly, he did not.

Mike was a little more subdued than Reba. “If we do this, we probably owe it to Earth to ask their permission, though I’m inclined to go ahead even if they refuse. But asking could be difficult. If we invite one nation, we have to invite all nations. If we don’t, we’ll disrupt already fragile political relationships around the globe. Language differences among the recruits would make it even more difficult to get them all working together, at least in any reasonable time frame.”

“Not so, Mike. I’ve met lots of foreign officers who speak English,” Reba countered. “We could make that a prerequisite for the first batch of volunteers. And we don’t have to start big. We need help aboard ships, and we need help protecting the Queen. We can do it.”

“Whether we can or not, do we have a choice?” He turned to Chandrajuski. “It’s been in my mind for quite a while to do this, but we’ve had no resources. If you do, indeed, have an organization in place, it’s time to act.”

“I hope I have something organized, but I’ll have to find out. You’re breaking all the rules as they relate to our treatment of emerging worlds, and ordinarily the Queen would have to decide. In her absence, it’s your call as First Knight. The idea has merit. Would you have us pursue it further?”

“Everyone in this room has experienced the effects of the Chessori mind weapon,” Mike responded without hesitation. “We don’t have any choice, nor do I think the Queen will rule differently when she’s back on her feet. Your responsibility is to fight the Rebels, Admiral. Mine is to fight the Chessori. I’m going to Earth.”

*****

They landed on Shipyard two weeks after leaving Centauri III, demonstrating the power of Serge’s fast ships. A ten week trip had been reduced to only two weeks. Had Shipyard not been located so incredibly far beyond the border, the trip would have taken as little as one week. As soon as they landed, Ellie and Otis were placed into restoration tanks to complete their healing under the guidance of full teams of medical specialists.

Serge had not yet returned. Assuming he was not fast-shipping, he was probably still on his way to the rendezvous with Chandrajuski’s ships. Someone there would have to decide what to do with those ships, and Serge would have a big say in it. Would he let them come to Parsons’ World, or would he renege on his agreement with the Queen now that it had become reality? Allowing three squadrons of fully operational ships into his domain was a far cry from giving permission to Jons to bring his few ailing ships in for repair. And, loyalties had to be sorted out. How reliable were the men from Centauri III? Serge was not the one to make that decision, at least not on his own. He needed help.

Mike brought it up to Chandrajuski soon after their arrival on Shipyard.

“Jeffers is here, and he’s the logical choice. He just needs a ship, preferably a fast ship. He can catch them at the rendezvous if he gets going, and he knows the men as well as I do. He’s perfect for the job,” Chandrajuski responded.

“Who’s to be in charge out there? Jeffers is a captain, but admirals reported to him on Centauri III.”

“Hmm. Good point, Sire. Jeffers is still the right man for the job. The organization we developed on Centauri III worked well enough for an underground, but we’re trying to reestablish normal Empire chain of command now. He’s seriously outranked.”

“Promote him.”

Chandrajuski gave him a piercing look. “It would take two promotions. Such an action can only be approved by the Queen.”

“He’s the man you want?”

“Yes.”

“Then promote him. I’ll sign whatever papers you need signed. I, too, think he’s the right man for the job.”

Chandrajuski’s mouth began opening in a smile, then he changed his mind. He looked hard at Mike. “I do believe you’re getting this job of First Knight figured out, Sire.”

Mike smiled, but the smile changed to a grimace. “This is the easy part. I think it gets harder from here on.”

Mike, Reba, and Val were reunited with Admiral Jons, who took them on a tour of Shipyard. Mike was surprised to learn that Shipyard was a fully developed, vibrant world with cities, farms, universities, entertainment, and lots of industry. It was not just an outpost as he’d been led to believe by Serge. In most ways, according to Jons, Shipyard was more civilized than Parsons’ World. Parsons’ World focused on the clandestine end of things. Shipyard was fed by the largess of Parsons’ World, and in return it provided research, innovation, and heavy industry. Most of Serge’s ship modifications, indeed entire ships, were manufactured on Shipyard. From here had come the science and engineering behind the micro jump, the modified beacons on every one of Serge’s ships, and the improved weapons Serge had displayed briefly as they left Centauri III.

Jons was certain Serge hadn’t laid all his secrets on the table. He strongly suspected advanced communications capabilities and faster ships’ drives among other things.

Jons proudly led them on a tour of a reconditioned Resolve. The ship had received the full attention of Shipyard’s master craftsmen and had been restored in record time. Resolve gleamed from head to toe, the battle scars completely eliminated. He led them to the bridge and invited Mike and Reba to plug in.

To their utter amazement, George appeared, welcoming them back. “And I’ve had an education, too,” he added mischievously. “You’ll like the new me.”

“George, we thought you were dead,” Mike said in wonder.

“So did I. The engineers here were able to resurrect me. I was there, just turned off.”

“That was an incredibly brave thing you did. You saved us all.”

“I think you get some credit for that, too,” said George as he basked in the praise. “I’ve heard most of the story, second hand of course. We made a good team, didn’t we! Are we going to be together again?”

“I’m certain we will, though maybe not real soon. You need to teach me the trick of resurrecting you in case I have to do it again. Uh, I’m sorry about what I asked you to do. I hope you won’t hold it against me forever.”

“I accept your apology, I won’t, and I think we can just put it behind us, Mike. We’ve both grown from the experience. Besides, I’m smarter now. It won’t happen again. Trust me. Where’s Jake?”

Mike winced as a deep pain sliced through him. “He’s with Ellie. I’m sure he’ll look you up as soon as he can.”

“I don’t confuse easily, Mike, especially since I got educated, but I’m confused. He’s with Ellie?”

“She almost died back on Centauri III. I had to give him up to save her. They’re still recuperating.”

George remained silent for a time, an eternity for a computer. “I’m sorry, Mike. I’m sure he misses you as much as you miss him.”

“I’m not sure it works that way with Riders, George. I think they grow to like whomever they’re with. I’m sorry it had to happen, but I have no regrets. She’s worth it. My hope is that they’ll both stay a part of my life.”

“And you, Reba? We didn’t get to meet properly last time. Welcome aboard!”

“It’s good to finally meet the real you, George. I’m glad you made it.”

“You seem changed. More confident or something.”

“Well, besides the fact that I’m fully checked-out on the net, there’s a man in my life now. I’ll have to introduce you.”

“If it’s possible for a computer to be happy, I’m happy for you, Reba. And thank you for letting me sense that happiness.”

“George, you’re more than a computer. Admit it. Have you met any others of your kind?”

“Many, here. We talk all the time. Would you like to talk with Joline?”

“Not at the moment. I just left her. I’m sure she hasn’t forgotten me yet.”

“Definitely not. She says you’re a natural starship commander. She’s happy to serve with you any time.”

“Who knows,” Reba mused. “Maybe you’ll both get the opportunity.”

Chapter Two

Juster knocked lightly before entering and slumped onto the couch across the room from the desk.

Struthers looked up from his work, irritated at the interruption, but this man had unlimited access to his office. “It’s a little early for a drink,” he said pleasantly.

“You’d better pour one. No, make it two. I have bad news.”

“Tell me you found her.”

“I did, but she got away. This time, she took Chandrajuski and several squadrons with her. I’m very sorry, Sire.”

Struthers could only stare as he sensed the complex threads of his grand plan unraveling. His sense of doom had been growing of late. He knew it showed, and he knew it was affecting his performance, but he couldn’t help it. He went to sleep with her on his mind, and he awoke to thoughts of her. No amount of work or liquor or women or anything else seemed to help, nothing except the growing kernel of hate in his gut. He fed it, and he liked feeding it.

He hated the Chosen, had for many years. Because of the Chosen, First Knight had been the highest position he could ever attain within the Empire, and it wasn’t enough. He was smarter, stronger, and better than them in all ways. He had earned the right to rule, but the gap between First Knight and the line of Chosen, where all the power truly lay, could not be crossed. Only fate, in the form of a genetic trait inherited by the line of Chosen, held him back from his rightful place.

He had pulled off his part of the coup, the really difficult part, flawlessly. Daughter’s fate had, he thought, been sealed the moment she departed on the treaty mission, a mission whose sole purpose had been to place her and a few others in the hands of the Chessori. The Chessori’s part had been so simple and so certain of success that he had erased her existence from his mind weeks before the coup to focus on the principle target, the Palace. The Chessori had let him down, badly.

He was so close! Of all the Chosen, she had been his least concern. And now… now he hated this particular Chosen most of all. He had considered issuing orders to capture her rather than kill her on sight, just so he could one day feel his hands around her throat, but he had come to his senses. He just wanted her dead. He needed her dead. Then he’d get back in the saddle and continue the charge.

He shook himself back to the present, then got up to mix a drink for each of them. “What about the gleasons? We were pretty confident there,” he said over his shoulder.

“All dead, Sire.”

“Vorst?”

“Captured, Sire.”

The delicate crystal glass shattered in his hand. Bright red blood flowed freely, but he didn’t notice, nor would he have cared. “It’s the cats, my friend,” he whispered. “Everything she’s accomplished is because of the cats. But she hasn’t been to Brodor. We have it staked out. And none of her ships have shown up anywhere. We’d know if they had. Where is she getting them?”

“She’s pretty sharp, Sire, and she knows how we work. She probably has a few sharp officers with her who know us, as well. We can’t know what’s happening on every planet – we’re not that well entrenched. Heck, we don’t even have our own fleets under control yet.”

“Then get them under control.”

“It’s not that easy, and you know it. Our plan calls for the process to take years. The Empire has some incredibly sharp officers in charge. You know it, you helped put them there, and we don’t just want to get rid of them: we want them on our side. It’s going to take time, lots of time. They’ll come around or else, but it’s too soon.”

“Time is the one thing we no longer have,” Struthers said. “She’s out there, and she’s plotting. I can feel it. We have to stop her.”

“Sire, we still have our ace in the hole. There aren’t enough cats to take out all the Chessori, and we now know from tests that the cats are not nearly as efficient under the scree. We need to make her come to us. We need to sit down and calmly figure out what her strategy is. If we can do that, we can be waiting. We can beef up the Chessori wherever we think she’s headed, and we’ll take her out. Just like that,” he said snapping his fingers.

“By the way, Sire, did you know your hand is bleeding?”

Struthers looked at his hand and shrieked, shaking the blood from it. “See what she’s done to me?” he screamed.

Chapter Three

Chandrajuski cornered Mike in a corridor and shepherded him into a nearby conference room. It was just the two of them.

“What’s up, Admiral?” Mike asked as he stood beside the long conference table.

“We’re wasting time, that’s what’s up,” Chandrajuski stated, brooking no dispute as his long legs carried him to the far side of the table. He leaned over the table with his bright green head angled toward Mike. “Until the Queen is back on her feet, you’re the senior person here, and I’m next in line. Both of us have been sitting around for two whole days, just waiting, for what, I don’t know. We can’t afford idleness, and we can’t just wait around for the Queen to recover. Even after she’s out of the tank, she’ll need another month or two to get her strength back. I’m supposed to be developing a fighting force. I’m not sure what you’re supposed to be doing, but you’re not really accomplishing anything either.”

Mike frowned. “My thoughts exactly. This First Knight business is a little hazy to me; I’m not sure what I should be doing. I need to go to Earth, but the recruits I bring back need ships, and we need to make arrangements for their training. To do that, we need your men. I guess I’ve just been waiting for Ellie, I mean the Queen, to wake up and give me direction.” He paused in thought for a moment. “On a theoretical level, as First Knight I should be running the Empire in her absence. In reality, there’s nothing to run at the moment, nor would I know where to begin if there was. I thought you were busy preparing for an influx of ships and sailors.”

“What influx?”

“Serge could show up any day.”

“He’s weeks away, and my staff, provided he hasn’t shanghaied them somewhere along the way, is months away. It’s a good staff, and they don’t need me around to get things started. All I’ve been able to do so far is put Jons in charge of upgrading our ships. It’s not his forte, he’d rather have a squadron, but he made a lot of headway on his own while you were gone. He’s got the engineers working on plans that can be put in place as soon as Serge gives the okay.”

“The engineers are cooperating?”

“To a point. Drawings, craftsmen, and probably some parts will be available by the time Serge returns. It will be up to you and me to coerce Serge into giving his men the go-ahead. Jons’ immediate goal is to have things ready as soon as that happens.”

“He’s a good man. You say he got started on this on his own?”

“He did.”

“I’m impressed. What else is on your agenda?”

“Personally, I do not want the Queen waking up to find I’ve been idle. Besides, it’s not my way. I’m going on a trip.” Chandrajuski leaned across the table again, his wise, bright eyes meeting Mike’s. “Want to join me?”

“Why, and where?”

“You and I have a number of priorities. The Queen’s safety obviously tops the list. I believe Shipyard provides a reasonable level of safety for her at the moment, though we need to restore her complement of Protectors. I’m not sure how that’s best accomplished, but there aren’t any here. And you’re right; if we’re going to bring recruits from Earth, we have to prepare a place to train them. For the recruits who will work with her Protectors, it’s your problem, and it will be a difficult integration. For the ones going to the fleet, my men will make the preparations, but I have three other urgent priorities: intelligence, ships, and trained military personnel to operate them. All speak of more people. I’m going to see how successful Krys has been, and I could use your help.”

“I’d like to be here when the Queen wakes up.”

“So would I, but she can’t afford such luxuries right now. She needs us to do our jobs. With a fast ship, we can hit two or three worlds and be back in six months or so if all goes well. What do you say?”

Mike’s desire to be there to hold Ellie’s hand when she awoke was strong, but so was her need for him to help her restore the Empire. To do that, he needed to know more about the Empire and what was going on out there. He sorely missed Jake and the guidance he provided.

“Do you have a plan?”

“I always have a plan,” replied the Gamordian. Then in a lower voice, “Well, my men think I’m always acting according to a plan of some sort. In this case, I really do have a plan. There are three individuals I consider vital to our cause. One is a sector commander, another is a fleet commander, and the third is missing and may be dead. What I have in mind might be a long shot, but if we’re successful, we’ll come away with squadrons of ships and personnel. It’s even possible that these men have their sectors under control as we speak. If so, the Queen will have a true base of operations from which to expand her influence to more sectors.”

Chandrajuski backed away from the table to pace. Whenever he did so, Mike was reminded of his strong resemblance to a praying mantis. His long legs moved with incredible grace, then the whole body froze for a few moments. The process would repeat itself over and over. That was not to say Chandrajuski could not move fast. He could move very fast when it suited his purposes, but regardless of how slowly his body moved, his mind continued at full speed.

“These individuals, like me, have built commands based on loyalty to themselves in addition to loyalty to the crown. The Rebels will have a hard time gaining the upper hand in the two sectors I’m thinking about, but you can be certain they’re working on it. The sectors are key to both sides. We might already be too late, but I want to try. It’s not essential that you accompany me, but the presence of the First Knight will not only remove doubt, it will prove that the Queen is in control. What do you say? Will you go with me?”

“Yes,” Mike replied without hesitation. “My trip to Earth is critical, but certain things need to be in place first. When will you be ready to go?”

“Why wait? I can be ready in an hour.”

“Let me see to a few things. It won’t take long.” He went to the door, then turned back to face Chandrajuski. “You’ll be talking with other admirals?”

“I will.”

“And you’re recruiting them to work for you?”

“For me and the Queen, yes.”

“Then you need a higher rank. Is Grand Admiral the right rank?”

“I believe that’s what the Queen had in mind. There’s no hurry, though. I don’t have much of a command to be grand about yet.”

“But you will, and you have to be able to order these men.”

“That’s what you’re there for.”

“No, sir. I’ll just be there to add legitimacy to your leadership. If these men are to report to you, you must command from the very first moment. These conversations will not be among equals. If they were, you would simply be forming a larger unofficial underground like you had on Centauri III. The Queen no longer rules from obscurity, Admiral. She’s the legal ruler of the Empire, and you are her Grand Admiral. Understood?”

“Yes, Sire. It will be so. Give me two hours, no, three hours. I think I’ll make some adjustments to our plans, and I’ll get some things started for your eventual recruits.”

“I’m bringing Val along.”

“Whatever for? Isn’t First Knight enough weight to throw around?”

“It’s not because he’s a knight, it’s because of why he became a knight. He’s very, very good at everything I’ve asked of him, and I value his counsel, especially now that Jake is gone.”

Mike called Val and Reba to a meeting that he did not look forward to. Looking at Reba rather than Val, he announced, “Val is leaving with me in three hours. We’re going on a recruiting voyage with Chandrajuski. We’ll be back in a few months or so.”

Reba looked stricken, seeming to age before his eyes. Val, too, experienced a moment of resentment, but Mike also sensed his excitement. Reba looked deep into his eyes. “I won’t argue with you, Mike. All I ask is that it be necessary.”

“It’s necessary, and I believe it’s what Ellie needs of us right now. We can’t sit around doing nothing while she recovers. She needs us to be productive.”

“I can go with you.”

He shook his head. “No, I need you here. Ellie needs you by her side when she awakens, and I need to know that someone not susceptible to the Chessori mind weapon is here to protect her. You’ll be the only one on the planet that’s immune.”

Reba looked away, then focused on Val. Her eyes filled to the brim with tears, but she rose to the occasion. “You can’t hide it from me, Val. You’re excited for the first time in days. Go get packed.”

Val took off like a shot. Reba turned back to Mike. “He’s bored, not with me but with the inactivity. So am I. Got anything for me to do?”

“Yes. Keep an eye on Ellie.”

“You already said that. Anything else?”

“Think about what I just said, Reba. Do you remember Lieutenant Rebecca Morrison, lately of Earth? She’s now Lady Rebecca, the Queen of All Space’s senior representative here. She’s on an alien planet, right in the middle of a war, and she has no one of higher authority to turn to other than herself. I think you’ve been promoted.”

She wiped a last tear from eyes that had suddenly gone dry. “Is that what it’s been like for you?” she asked softly.

“To some extent, and I’ve been feeling guilty about doing nothing. I’m glad Chandrajuski brought me to my senses.”

“Remember when we were training as a crew on Earth? And remember what happened when I had George remove you from the crew?”

“It was a disaster. Everything came to a standstill.”

“That’s what’s happened to us here, but instead of you being removed, it’s Ellie. I didn’t realize it until just now, but we’ve graduated to a new phase of this war. We’re not just one ship anymore. We have truly moved into the realm of politics. You captained a craft of the state, but she’s captaining the craft of state now, and we’ve come to a standstill without her leadership.”

“And as on Earth,” he said, continuing the thought, “we’re over the shock and struggling to get things going again. I saw the inefficiency then, and I see it now. We’re stumbling along until she gets back in the saddle.”

“Yet we’re all leaders, titles or no. We can get things moving in the right direction without her, we’re just not as efficient.” Her eyes rose to the ceiling in thought, then she turned her gaze back to him. “You’ll miss her, but she’ll miss you more when she finds you gone. I know she’d like to wake up to your touch.”

“I’m counting on you to be there in my place. Give her whatever support she needs, just be there. And while you’re waiting, see if you can come up with a plan to recruit more Protectors. We’re desperately short-handed. And we need to design a training program for the trainees from Earth, assuming we can pull that off.”

“Yes, Sire. I might be able to get us started on some other things, as well. I’d better check on Val. He probably needs help packing.”

Mike, Val, and Chandrajuski met at the bottom of the entrance ramp to Resolve. Mike hid his surprise at the choice of ship, but Chandrajuski offered an explanation. “I had planned to take a fast scout, just the two of us, but after what you said, this makes more sense. The ship itself will add legitimacy to our positions. It might also complicate things, but in the end it will be worth it.”

Turning to Sir Val, he said, “I barely know you. Are you ready to get underway?”

“It’s just the three of us?” Val asked in surprise.

“No, I’ve borrowed some men from Jons’ squadron. We have enough to man all stations. I hope you don’t mind handling the conn when it’s your turn?”

“Not at all, Admiral.”

“Good, because you’re also Resolve’s captain on this voyage. I can give you ten minutes to assure yourself the ship is ready. Set course for Aldebaran I as soon as you can.”

“Yes, sir!” Val headed up the steps at a dead run.

“You know, Admiral,” Mike said with a grin, “as a Knight of the Realm, he outranks you.”

“I know that, but he doesn’t. Come on. You supposedly know your way around Resolve. Show me where my cabin is.”

*****

Later, Mike found himself on the bridge out of old habit. Resolve was already underway with Val in Mike’s old command seat. He and the two other pilots were engrossed in the net, probably computing a micro jump. Sure enough, moments later the screens blanked as they jumped. The screens refreshed in a moment, then they jumped again. And again. In no time at all they settled into the first long jump, after which one pilot and Val took a break. Val removed his helmet and rubbed tired eyes before discovering Mike sitting quietly in a crew seat before one of the active screens.

“Hi, Mike. Feel at home?”

Mike smiled. “Not exactly. This is better. My time aboard Resolve was anything but relaxing.”

“So I’ve heard. Do you realize you’ve probably made more jumps manually than anyone else in the galaxy? Would you like to set up the next one?”

“Heaven forbid we ever get to that point again. I’ll pitch in wherever you assign me, as pilot, cook, or repairman. Do you realize,” he said in embarrassment, “I’ve never landed a ship?”

A look of astonishment came over Val’s face, then a glint found its way to his eyes. “Maybe not, but you’ve crashed them into the ocean a few times.”

“Ugh. You had to remind me.”

“I’d be happy to assist you through our landings.”

“We’ll see. Things might get a little tense when we arrive. They have a habit of doing that around us.”

“That they do.” A little sheepishly, Val said, “You know, I never imagined I’d be the captain of this ship. For me, it’s like… the ultimate.”

“This ship was really the beginning of the rest of your life, wasn’t it?”

“I guess it was. What’s for dinner?”

“I don’t know. I’ll try to scrape something up. Any idea what Gamordians eat?”

*****

Their arrival at Aldebaran I came off without a hitch. Resolve broadcast a completely fictitious beacon code just in case the Rebels had taken charge of the sector. They emerged from hyperspace to find a large number of Chessori traders scattered through the system, and Mike stayed in the net as much as he could, ready to take over if necessary. Val set up a tight beam transmission to Admiral Harold Seeton, Fleet Commander, a human and an old classmate of Chandrajuski’s.

Chandrajuski met Seeton at the ramp and escorted him to the conference room where Mike and Val waited. It didn’t take long to get down to the purpose of their visit.

“How’s business, Harry?” Chandrajuski inquired.

“We’re basically locked down, just trying to keep the peace. How about you? I thought you’d been arrested?”

“I was rescued.”

“Rescued!” Seeton peered hard at Chandrajuski. “You were imprisoned, and now you’re a grand admiral traveling with two Knights. Please tell me you’re not here on Struthers’ behalf.”

Chandrajuski’s neck stretched across the table toward Seeton. “You know me better than that, Harry.”

Seeton let out a long sigh, then his eyes crinkled into a smile of triumph. “We know each other well, my friend. I got your message.”

He turned his head to Val. “Your sister was alive and well when we last met.”

Val stood abruptly. “She was here? How long ago, Admiral?”

“Two months. The formalities, Sire, if you will.”

Val removed a Pin from his pocket and passed it across the table. Seeton stared at the Pin for a long time, his eyes brimming. His hand shook slightly as he picked up the Pin. He couldn’t open it, though in fairness, he didn’t try very hard. He had been clinging to hope for two months and was afraid to lose it. Visions were one thing; the reality of a Knight of the Realm was quite another.

He handed the Pin back to Val. “Do you have the slightest comprehension of what this Pin means, Sire?”

Val looked hard into his eyes. “It means everything. Opening this Pin is a test of me, but how do we test you?”

“Open the Pin, Sire, and I’ll provide proof.”

Val opened the Pin, and Ellie’s countenance shone forth. Seeton stared, his hopes fulfilled. “She spoke true, Sire.”

Mike pulled the pendant from under his shirt, but Seeton held up a hand. “That vision was for another, Sire.”

Mike sighed and looked up to the ceiling. “Not again,” he groaned.

“Sire?”

“Never mind. You said something about proof?”

Seeton lifted a communicator to his mouth. “You can come in now.”

Blasters immediately sprung into Mike and Val’s hands. Seeton regarded them, then turned to Chandrajuski. “A friend comes. Only one. There is no threat.”

A crewmember escorted a man into the lounge, then left. For the first time since Mike had known Chandrajuski, he found him at a loss for words.

“Greetings, my friend,” Governor Veswicki said to him.

Chandrajuski stepped around the table and batted fists with Veswicki, his mouth open in his ferocious smile. “I am truly pleased, Governor.” He turned to Seeton. “You promised proof, and you delivered, Harry.” Blasters disappeared back into holsters.

Veswicki looked to Val and bowed. “I see the resemblance, Sire. You can be proud of her.”

“How is she?”

“She seemed well, very well, considering.” He turned to Mike and faced him squarely, then bowed. “You would be our First Knight, Sire?”

Mike hesitated. He was not pleased, not pleased at all that he was known to this man. What other visions had Krys had of him? Veswicki’s expectant look turned into a look of confusion. He turned to Seeton with raised eyebrows.

Seeton, too, seemed confused. “Uh, now would be appropriate, Sire.”

Mike again pulled out the pendant and placed it on the table. He brushed his hand across the surface, and the bright hologram of Ellie shone forth. Veswicki leaned forward and picked up the pendant, not for examination but for pleasure.

“We’re honored that you came to us, Sire.” He stared hard at Mike, and Mike sensed the question.

“We have not met, Governor, nor will you find a record of me anywhere in the Empire. May I ask who you are?”

“You don’t know? I’m the governor of Triton Sector.”

“Hmm. Past or present?”

“Both, Sire. I do not recognize Struthers’ authority to remove me.”

“Well said, Governor. Neither does the Queen.”

“How is she?”

“Mending.”

“Mending!”

Chandrajuski spoke. “She’s had a difficult time since the coup, Signio. It’s a long story. Let me just say that Sir Mike has been with her through most of it. Without him, the last of the Chosen would be dead. The same can be said of Sir Val.”

Veswicki and Seeton each bent to one knee, their heads bowed deeply toward the two Knights. Veswicki spoke for both of them. “The Queen lives. We are at your command, Sires.”

“Then rise. We have work to do,” Mike commanded.

Veswicki rose and looked hard at Mike. “Just who are you, Sire?”

Mike looked to Chandrajuski who said, “You can trust both of them.”

Mike turned back to Veswicki and Seeton. “I don’t trust many, and you have not been Tested. Who I am is not important. Know that the Queen trusts the three of us implicitly. You know Admiral Chandrajuski’s background, and Sir Val was a fleet officer before being Named. As for me, you would be well served to assume I know very little about your empire.”

“Sire?”

“I’m from an emerging world, Governor.”

Veswicki stepped back in confusion. Mike took a seat, and Val and Seeton followed suit, but Veswicki remained standing.

Chandrajuski stepped in. “He’s from an emerging world, Signio, a world without space travel, but he brought her 800 light years without an AI, all manually. He’s fought multiple engagements with the Rebels and Chessori, and she’s alive because of it. He was mortally wounded while protecting her and only survived because he carried a Rider. If that’s not enough, he sent his Rider into her body, bringing her back to life after a gleason’s knife went into her heart. I saw it with my own eyes, and I saw him test a potential antidote to the gleason’s poison on himself before we gave it to the Queen. I think it fair to say that, despite what Struthers did, the position of First Knight has been fully restored.”

Seeton and Veswicki again went to a knee before Mike. He frowned. “Each of us in this room has faced equal demands on our lives, and we will face equally terrible choices in the months and years to come,” he said. “We do these things for the good of the Empire. You have remained true to your oaths, and I thank you in the Queen’s name. Rise, gentlemen, and let us get back to work. We’re in this together until the very end.”

They rose, and Veswicki went to stand before Mike. “Sire, the Empire will be forever in your debt. I stand willing and anxious to serve the Queen. I stand willing and anxious to serve you, as well.”

Veswicki turned away and paced for a time. When he turned back to Mike, he said, “I would hear your story, First Knight. Clearly, you’re a survivor, and just as clearly, you’re a fast learner. Before that, though, I must ask if you fully understand what you’ve given us?”

“I believe I do, but I’m also a good listener. Why don’t you enlighten me.”

“Imagine if you will, Sire, a rope bridge crossing an abyss. Immediately after the coup, Harry, me, Chandrajuski, and all the Empire leadership suddenly found ourselves stranded on that bridge. The ropes are fraying and will not hold much longer. We’re much closer to the side of the Rebel politicians – it’s easier and quicker to head their way – but for some of us, most of us I hope, our principles and ethics beckon from the far side. Now, with the gift you’ve given us, we discover the Queen standing on that far side beside those principles.

“ The decision is easy for us, Sire, and it will be clear to many others as well, but we have to move briskly if we are not to fall into the abyss.”

His lips pursed with concern. “We were almost ready to move here in Aldebaran Sector before Krys’ arrival. We can deal with the Rebels, but not the Chessori. She warned us about them, thankfully, but we don’t have any kind of plan for dealing with them yet.”

“How much do you know about the Chessori?” Mike asked.

“We know as much as she knows, including what happened at Dorwall and during her missions. We know they have some sort of mind weapon. She’s convinced us to keep our distance from them.”

Alarm filled Val’s eyes. “She’s had run-ins with them? How did she survive?”

“Her Great Cats manage to function, Sire. She acquired a changeable beacon along the way, so she’ll show up as a different ship everywhere she goes. Her hope is that the changeable beacon will extend her mission. The risk now is if she’s identified during her stops. She can’t change the beacon until she’s out of the system.”

“Where did she get the means to modify her beacon?” Chandrajuski asked. “It wasn’t from me.”

“From Korban.”

Chandrajuski’s mouth opened into a grin again. “She’s working down the list, and it appears she’s been as convincing as I’d hoped. I should have given her the modification before I sent her out. My mistake. I’m glad Korban rectified it.”

Val leaned back into his chair, his eyes just slits. “Admiral Seeton, you have a new governor here. Have you been ordered to accept any Chessori as crewmembers?”

“I’ve been ordered to train them, Sire. The Chessori have brought a large number of their own military crews for the process. Since they’re already trained to their own standards, I was ordered to compare those standards with our own by placing them in active positions aboard ships. I have not complied, nor will I.”

“How can you not comply?”

“I have informed the sector commander that it is illegal for me to recruit from outside the Empire. If they ever become members of the Empire, I’ll insist they pass muster at an Academy. Following that, I’ll have to think of something else. They’re not getting on my ships.”

“I served on a ship with a mixed crew, sir. I believe it was one of the first. I can tell you that a small number of Chessori took over the ship without a fight. They activated their mind weapon long enough to secure those of us who would not support the Rebels, then they turned it off. The regular crew resumed control of the ship, but only so long as the Chessori allowed.”

Seeton and Veswicki both looked ill. “The rest of the crew went back to business as usual after that?” Seeton demanded.

“I was in the brig, but I believe they did, sir. If you’re a Rebel, and if the Chessori are on your side, what’s a little pain compared to a sure win? Do not ever let even one of them on your ships, sir.”

*****

“I get the feeling you’ve been organizing something?” Chandrajuski asked later. “It’s time you brought us up-to-date.”

Veswicki spoke for himself and Seeton. “Before Krys’ visit, we were considering going rogue.” Mike’s eyebrows rose, but Veswicki didn’t apologize. “Sire, we knew the Chosen were all dead. Our choices were to cave into Struthers, or attempt to resurrect some kind of structure based on Empire standards. His way is wrong.”

He glanced at Chandrajuski, then back to Mike. “So was ours, Sire.”

Mike sat back and nodded. He and Chandrajuski had had this same conversation, though Veswicki didn’t know it.

“Our models showed both plans, his and ours, ultimately failing. Our plan at least had a chance. It would give us time, time to look for the right charismatic leader, or perhaps some other mechanism as yet unknown, that would provide acceptable leadership to the multitude of worlds and races throughout the Empire. None of us is that right leader. Our plan was to buy time.”

He looked to Chandrajuski. “Your plan to hold was just the right message to send. It has bought us time, time we’ll use to prepare. Struthers can never claim to have the Touch. Use of the Touch is universally recognized and accepted as the court of final appeal. No one has ever successfully argued against the political power of her Touch.”

Chandrajuski nodded, and Veswicki continued. “Of the 47 sectors, I believe I speak for seven, and several more will likely join with us if we can move before the sector commanders are forced to flee. If we combine our efforts with Krys’ efforts, I believe the number will be higher.”

“How many has she reached, and what is her success rate?” Chandrajuski asked.

“We were her ninth stop. Seven sectors were receptive and two were not. Her contacts there were dead. But it’s not just her, Admiral. She’s recruited others, including Buskin. When they last met, they both agreed that he should break up his two squadrons, sending ships out on individual missions. They, in turn, would network others. If they have been even marginally successful, her message might have reached all the sectors by now.”

Chandrajuski’s eyes gleamed. “Then she’s gone far beyond the assignment I gave her. Have you heard from Buskin?”

Veswicki shook his head. “Not a word. She gave us a location, but we haven’t followed up on it yet. He can’t fight the Chessori any more than we can, and we’re not planning to join him as recruits. We’re going to hold, and we’re going to resist.”

Veswicki paused, then added, “Struthers has to know what she’s up to by now. Secrets can’t survive when so many know. They’ll find Buskin eventually. We just have to act before the Rebels do.”

“He’ll find Krys, too. Struthers has known for a long time,” Val said softly. “You said she’s had some encounters with the Chessori. What they know, he knows. I’m certain of it.”

“We can’t move against the Chessori, Sire,” Veswicki said.

“We’re developing a plan to deal with them,” Mike informed him. “It’s my problem, not yours. You’ll have to wait a little longer, maybe as much as a year. Are you strong enough here to hold that long?”

“Sire, it might be all over by then. Certainly we won’t have more than two or three years. The Chessori are an immediate problem, but the Imperial Senate is the most pressing problem.”

“Why?”

“When Struthers next convenes the Imperial Senate, he will attempt to cement the legality of his government. He’ll present a motion stipulating that the Chosen are dead and that his government is the new government.”

Veswicki stared at his new First Knight for a time before saying, “If that motion is approved by the Senate, he’s won, Sire. His government will be the only legitimate government in control of the Empire. He would brand us as Rebels, and we could legitimately be prosecuted as such, including the Queen.”

Veswicki directed his gaze upon each of them in turn, his eyes burning with passion. ”Until learning from Krys that we have a Queen, I had seen no possible way to stop Struthers from succeeding with his motion. The few Imperial Senators within the sectors I am pulling together would not be enough to prevail against the rest of the Senate. But now! We have a Queen from the line of Chosen. Her very existence is the club we can wield before the Senate. I don’t know how we, or she, will do it, but she has to convince the Senate that she is a contender. There is not a more important task before us. We cannot allow Struthers and his Rebels to be legitimized.

“Admiral, Sires, our first priority is to prevent that motion from passing, or even from being introduced if possible. From a political standpoint, that first convocation of the Senate would be the perfect time to prove to the Senators that the Queen rules, even if it is in absentia. Senator Truax is attempting to organize the Senate against Struthers. His task is equally important to ours.”

“Krys was able to recruit him?” Chandrajuski asked.

“She was, and he’s off with a list of his own to recruit other senators. It was another masterful stroke, sir.”

“I wish I could take credit, but it was her idea. What resources have been provided to Truax?”

“I don’t know. Krys doesn’t know. I’ve been searching for him, but I have not found him yet. Krys dropped him off on Mitala I. All she knows is that his original plan was to use civilian cruise ships to get around.”

“That’s too slow,” Chandrajuski growled.

“But safer than military ships. His contacts will, if he’s successful, spread out to reach other senators. I, too, have dispatched messengers to Imperial Senators. His contacts and mine are small in number, but the numbers will increase and pick up momentum on their own as time goes by.”

Veswicki’s lips pursed and his eyes narrowed with excitement as he considered his next words. “Struthers’ motion will never pass if enough senators believe the Queen is alive and well. Truax and I are spreading the word, but it’s our word against Struthers. There will be some doubt. If we can find a way to prove to the Senate that the Queen rules, Struthers’ movement will lose all legitimacy. He’ll be finished. Is there a way?”

“You might be encouraged to know that the Queen has reached the same conclusion,” Mike replied. “We don’t have a plan yet, and quite frankly, it seems impossibly difficult at the moment, but that’s why we’re here. We’ll find a way, but first she needs an infrastructure to support her. What support can you provide?”

“If we can deal with the Chessori, I can have a core of perhaps ten sectors fully under control by the time Struthers calls the senate into convocation, at least in name,” Veswicki answered.

“What do you mean by ‘fully under control?’” Chandrajuski asked. “Sectors are barely under control even in the best of times.”

Veswicki’s expression hardened. “There will be clear separation of Rebel versus Empire control, that’s what I mean…”

Mike let the experts deal with resources. He had other things on his mind. Just listening to Veswicki and Seeton had widened his horizons immensely. He now truly understood what Otis had been telling him all along: their first job was to protect the Heir. Nothing else mattered if the Heir died. Just listening to the two admirals discuss issues with Chandrajuski clearly demonstrated what having a Queen meant to these men. It meant everything, as simple as that. Everything.

And this was just one sector. He could multiply this sense of rightness many times over as the message traveled from one end of the Empire to the other.

He suddenly understood the power of Chandrajuski’s plan for Krys. She wasn’t just spreading the word that there was a Queen. Her assignment was to weave threads through the Empire, threads that would be turned over to Ellie. When Ellie took over the weaving, the Rebels’ days would be limited.

*****

Before leaving, Chandrajuski made some demands. “I have a temporary base that is adequate until you secure your sectors. Until then, I need ships, men, supplies, and support, as much as you can spare, and in the Queen’s name I ask that you send your best. How many ships can you spare?”

“You don’t want me to risk losing the sectors, do you?” Veswicki asked.

“Definitely not. We must protect our infrastructure.”

Seeton spoke up. “Let me model it before I commit. Off the top of my head, I’d say I could spare ten heavy squadrons, and a lot more after we make our move and consolidate the sector politically.”

“See if you can make it thirty, Harry. What about you, Signio? Can I count on support from the other sectors?”

“Definitely. I won’t commit without their approval, but we’ll scrape together as many as we can. I assume we’re talking about hardship duty.”

“We are. Until the Queen can move out into one of the sectors, I cannot support dependents.”

“What can the Queen do for you?” Mike asked.

Veswicki spoke immediately. “We need regular communications, and I am requesting a summons from the Queen for myself and my senior commanders.”

“She’ll want to Test you, but she’s not up to it yet. Multiple Testings take a lot of energy, energy that she won’t have for a while. I’ll let you know when she’s ready. Until then, you have Admiral Chandrajuski’s support, and that means you have hers.”

“You mentioned something about gleasons, Sire.”

Chandrajuski answered. “Struthers has recruited them.”

“How?”

“I don’t have a clue. There were three of them. Her Protectors took them out, but not before the last one threw a poisoned knife into her heart.”

“And she’s still alive?” Veswicki demanded.

“To make a long story short, Sir Mike killed the last gleason, then sent his Rider to the Queen. The Rider is repairing her injuries as we speak.”

Veswicki turned away, then turned back to Mike. He stared hard at him, but he addressed everyone within the room. “The Chosen have never carried Riders. Does anyone know what effect the Rider will have on her being Queen? Will her Touch still work?”

“We won’t know until she’s strong enough to try,” Chandrajuski said. “I’ve given this a lot of thought. If her Testing fails, she might be able to rid herself of the Rider. If all fails, we still have Alexis who will be named Daughter if she passes her Testing. The circle of those who know about this must remain very small. Understood?”

Solemn heads nodded agreement. “I will inform you when the Queen is ready to Test each of you. She may even come here to do it. That will be her decision.”

“Where are you off to next?” asked Veswicki.

“Admiral Korban is my next stop. You three will be my top commanders.”

“You’re wasting your time if you think you’ll get any help from him,” Veswicki responded. “He’s up to his eyeballs just trying to hold Orion Sector together. He’s in Struthers’ sights, and they’re going after him hard.”

Chandrajuski thought for a time, considering options. “I’d love to teach Struthers a lesson,” he finally said. “Can we offer any support to Korban?”

“We already sent a couple of courier ships. When neither returned, we sent a full squadron. Not a single ship has returned,” Seeton said. “We’re on the verge of declaring the squadron lost.”

“It has to be the Chessori,” Val said. “In addition to their mind weapon, they have some other advantages we do not have. They can track through hyperspace, and they have an interstellar communicator. Beware.”

Veswicki and Seeton looked at each other in alarm. Seeton said, “A dispatch was received from our lost squadron. It, too, claimed a trader tracked them through hyperspace.”

“A Chessori tracked me through hyperspace,” Mike said, “though they’re not actually tracking during the jump. Someone had placed a mechanism aboard our ship that broadcast our jump settings just prior to each jump, so they’re really tracking only during the intervals between jumps. I wonder if any of your ships have been compromised?”

Seeton frowned. “We’ll have to check. What do we look for?”

“I don’t know, but I know who does. We’ll get the information to you.”

“Whatever develops here or anywhere else,” Chandrajuski said, “the Chessori, and hence the Rebels, will know about it if we allow them the opportunity to get a message out. Timing will be everything when we make our moves, and because of the Chessori, we’re not going to be able to move simultaneously in all sectors. It’s going to be one at a time.”

“Sir, we can’t fight on these grounds.”

“You’re not fighting, not yet. You’re holding. Your job will be to defeat the Rebels, and you’re well focused on that, but you can’t act yet. Sir Mike’s job is to defeat the Chessori, and we have a plan. There is a way to defeat the mind weapon, but it’s not something I can discuss. Just know there’s a plan that will take some months to put together.”

He added one more consideration for Veswicki. “Are you ready to give up your position here?”

“Definitely not. I’ve just gotten started.”

“You’d better be looking for your replacement during the next few months. The insight you’ve shown me with your understanding of the big picture is impressive, much better than my own. The Queen does not have access to a lot of political advice right now. She might want you at her side. She’ll let you know.”

Chapter Four

Getting help from Earth suddenly moved up on the list of priorities. Struthers had a timetable. Though they didn’t know its details, it most likely included demonstrating to the Imperial Senate that he was capable of taking control of those sectors that resisted. Chandrajuski was determined to do the same in the Queen’s name, and Orion Sector looked to be the place to do it.

In the end, among many other things it was decided that Val would pay a visit to Admiral Korban by himself. His mission, though extremely dangerous, was crucial: in addition to bringing hope to Korban, he was to determine what had happened to Seeton’s lost squadron and what assistance Korban needed to keep his sector out of the hands of the Rebels.

Mike and Chandrajuski would return to Shipyard, first gathering up any Protectors or Guardians they could find here on Aldebaran I to guard the Queen.

Mike would hasten his departure to Earth. While he was gone, Chandrajuski would organize a training regimen for the recruits from Earth in addition to his myriad other chores of organizing the Queen’s armed resistance to the Rebels.

“Thank you for not telling them about Serge’s fast ships,” Chandrajuski commented to Mike during their return to Shipyard. George had turned off his beacon a week after departure, and their signature had dropped from the screens at Seeton’s headquarters. Because of that, they were able to fast-ship the rest of the way.

“No sense getting their hopes up until Serge agrees to provide the science and engineering,” Mike answered. “We definitely need it. We’re in the hole when it comes to new discoveries to combat that communications ability of the Chessori. If they really have it, Struthers has access to it, and don’t for a moment think those kinds of things are insignificant. On Earth, major battles, even whole wars have been won or lost because one side suddenly gained a slight advantage. But bringing Earthmen to the front lines, if we can pull it off in time, provides us with a huge club against the Chessori. I just hope we can keep their knowledge of our source, Earth, a secret. It won’t be easy. As soon as my people show up in the fleet, everyone will know.”

“Then maybe we should lie about where they come from. Where would you like to be from?”

Mike smiled. “I couldn’t care less. Somewhere that won’t suffer when the Rebels find out. I can readily see them decimating some poor, innocent world out there.”

“We’ll have to do some homework on that one. Maybe we can have your men wear a special trinket or something that leads everyone to believe we’ve found a technological solution to the psi weapon.”

Mike brightened. “Great idea. Anyone with the trinket will be immune, no matter where they’re from.”

“We’ll have to claim it only works for humans at the moment,” Chandrajuski grumbled.

*****

When they arrived on Shipyard, Ellie didn’t wait for Mike to find her. She boarded Resolve the moment the ramp touched the ground. With Jessie and Reba at her side, she threw her arms around him, clearly not caring who observed.

“Welcome back, my love,” she whispered into his ear.

“Welcome home, you mean,” Mike corrected. She pressed closer.

Serge came strolling up the ramp soon after with his hands in his pockets, acting as if he didn’t have a care in the world. “You’re back early. More bad news?”

“Some good and some bad,” Chandrajuski responded. “The good news is very good. The bad is about what we figured. Did you bring my ships back with you?”

“Yes, and no,” Serge replied. “After a lot of bickering, I caved in and brought the ships to Parsons’ World. Shipyard is, and must remain, a closely guarded secret. I brought Jeffers all the way.”

“Hmm. You may have to put up with more bickering from me.”

“I know. But once the location of Shipyard is out, it cannot be undone. I’m not as worried about the damage to my business as you might think, it’s just that Shipyard is a diamond in the rough, especially right now. Is it necessary for you to have your headquarters here? Seems to me that Parsons’ World, or even somewhere else, might work just as well.”

“We’ll give it some thought, Serge. Thanks for what you’ve done. You’ve made good decisions, and I know they weren’t easy.”

“You’re welcome, and they weren’t. My men will exact a price, but I’m with you all the way on this.”

“Does that mean you’ll give us fast ships?”

Serge rolled his eyes. “I knew that one was coming. I will not make that choice by myself.”

“Understood,” Chandrajuski agreed, nodding his head. To Ellie, he said, “I’m convening a staff meeting. Are you up to it, Your Majesty?”

“It’s all set up. We’re just waiting on you.”

*****

Reba, clearly disappointed that Val had not returned with them, remained quiet during the meeting. When it ended, Ellie ushered Mike into her quarters. She was accompanied by Jessie and another Great Cat unfamiliar to Mike.

“Michael, let me introduce Ralph, Otis’ replacement,” Ellie said.

Mike’s eyebrows lifted. “His replacement?”

“He has removed himself from the roll of my Protector. The damage to his body is not completely healed, and it might never be. He is ‘slowed,’ which might be to our advantage. He has more important duties as a Knight. He waited until you entered Shipyard’s system, then left immediately for Brodor. You’ll have your Guardians.”

“How many?”

“As many as you need. All of them, if that’s what you want. Brodor will terminate as many contracts as it takes. It will take time, but it’s his problem.”

“Won’t that leave them undefended?”

Ellie turned to Ralph, who answered. “Our commitment to the Queen is strong, Sire. We will not hesitate to risk all, if that is what it takes, but Brodor will not be undefended. Everyone there is a survivor, not just the Guardians and Protectors.”

He bowed to Mike. “A pleasure to finally meet you, Sire.”

“Welcome aboard, Ralph. The Queen’s Protectors do not bow to anyone, least of all me.”

“We don’t have to bow, Sire, but you’ve earned it. Jessie briefed me on your activities. My people thank you.”

Mike bowed to Ralph. “I would know your full name.”

“My true name is Rllapllptshsdt, Sire. Don’t even try. It doesn’t work in Galactic High Standard, nor can your body produce the proper sounds. Ralph is my working name, and it works fine.”

“I guess it will have to. Are you a Protector?”

“I am.”

“Otis called me a cub. You’re welcome to do the same. All of the Brotherhood has earned the right,” Mike said with a smile.

“I thank you on their behalf, Sire. Jessie is also a Protector now.”

Mike’s eyebrows rose as he turned to her. “Congratulations, Jessie. I saw you try to take the knife into your own body. You’ve earned the promotion and my gratitude.”

“Thank you, Sire. Can I call you cub, as well?” she asked, showing all her fangs in a smile. Mike, smiling in return, just nodded his head.

“She was not elevated because of the knife, Sire,” Ralph added. “It was because of her performance against the gleasons. She and Otis are the only two of the Brotherhood who have stood against gleasons and lived. I hope there is no recurrence.”

“So do I, Ralph, but there might be. You were both in the meeting and you know the stakes. I believe quite strongly that every possible effort will be made by the Rebels to find and kill the Queen, and that could include sending gleasons if they find us. I won’t complain if you go overboard in protecting her, even if she complains.”

He turned to Ellie. “I mean that. There’s no single thing of greater importance to Struthers than ending the line of Chosen. I saw with my own eyes what’s happening out there under the mistaken impression that the Chosen are no more. For the sake of your Empire, you can no longer take risks like you took on Gamma VI and Centauri

III.”

“I know. Like you, I’m learning. I was still thinking as Daughter then, not Queen. As Queen, my life is no longer my own to risk.”

“There is some question that, because of accepting a Rider, you might have lost the Touch. Have you?”

Her eyes took on a hooded look. “I haven’t tried. It might be better not to know just yet.”

Mike took her head in both of his hands and looked deep into her eyes. “Your realm must know, Your Majesty. Test your First Knight.” He released her.

She put her arms around him, mumbling into his shoulder, “I’m afraid.”

He held her for a time, then pushed her out to arms length. His gaze insisted. She took his head in her hands and looked into his eyes. Nothing happened. She let go, frightened and confused.

“You’re looking at me as me, Ellie,” he said gruffly. “Try again, but look at me like I’m someone you’ve determined must be Tested. And it’s time to Test me anyway. I’ve been away. Maybe I’ve had a change of heart. Maybe I’ve found someone else to love.”

This time her eyes swelled, and he willingly became her subject. He was no longer afraid of her knowing everything there was to know about him, not that he had any say in the matter. As before, she was totally in command. When she released him, she stood back, her smile filling him with relief.

“Ralph, Jessie, we’d like some privacy,” she said.

“We’ll be just outside the door, Your Majesty.”

“Thank you, Ralph.” She stood back from Mike, studying him. “Thank you, First Knight. That was a thorough Testing. Sorry, there are few secrets in your life now.” Smiling again, she said, “And I sensed the strong need uppermost in your mind, but something else comes first. I have a present for you.”

He blushed, knowing what she had sensed from him. “Uh, oh. I didn’t stop to shop.”

“I would hope not. Come here.”

She took him in her arms and ran her hands along his waist, pulling the back of his shirt up until her hands caressed his back.

“Uh, Ellie…?”

“Hush, this will only take a moment.”

Suddenly, Jake was there.›Hi, Man! I’m back!‹

“Jake!” he yelled aloud. Ellie still held tight to him.

›Don’t move, you idiot. I’m not all the way in yet.‹

›Are you back to stay?‹

›If you’ll have me.‹

›I’ll have you. Welcome home. It didn’t work out with Ellie?‹

›Does she look unhappy?‹

›No. I’m surprised you’d leave, though.‹

›She wants to be the one to tell you.‹

“Tell me what?” he spoke aloud, leaning back to get a better look at Ellie.

“Jake had another child,” she offered softly. “Her name is Cassandra.”

Mike’s mouth dropped open. “Is it working?”

“Hmm,” Ellie murmured. “She’s wonderful. And intelligent. And my second best friend.”

“She hasn’t taken my place, then?”

Ellie just leaned into him, squeezing harder. “And now you’re leaving me again.”

“Sorry. I’d rather stay. Should I send Reba by herself?”

“No. The two of you have to go. Your mission is critical. I am not inclined to die twice at the hands of the Chessori. By the way, Celine also fissioned. She is back with Reba, and Otis has a Rider of his own.”

›Okay, Mike. I’m in.‹

Mike suddenly felt whole again. He stepped away from Ellie and closed his eyes.›Welcome home, my friend.‹

›Home sweet home, and it’s all mine again, finally. I have to stop having offspring that stick around.‹

›I think she needed the extra help. Is she really all better?‹

›No, but Cassandra has things well in hand.‹

Mike felt Ellie’s hands go around his waist. He opened his eyes to find her staring at him from inches away, her eyes his whole world.

“Has Jake told you what’s coming next?”

“Uh, no.”

She put her arms around his neck, stood on her toes, and kissed him on the lips, a long, warm, inviting kiss. “I’m what’s next, if you’ll have me,” she breathed, leaning back slightly, still staring into his eyes.

Mike blinked, then closed his eyes. “Not fair. You Tested me. You know how I feel.”

“I do know.” She stepped away slightly and unbuttoned a button on her blouse, then another, revealing the soft swell of a breast. Her eyes took on a distant look, a sweet look.

“Wait, Ellie,” he said, taking her back into his arms.

She smiled. “You cannot command the Queen. And my realm desperately needs to restore the Chosen. There’s only one way to do that. Must I beg?”

“Never,” he said. “But I’m selfish. I want all of you, not just a part of you.”

“What part of me have I not offered?”

“The part that calls you the Queen of All Space and me a man from an emerging world. You told me once that the Chosen do not marry for love.”

Her gaze hardened. “They don’t carry Riders or enter ships nets, either. I know your customs. Test my commitment.”

He stared long into her eyes, then lowered himself to one knee. “I love you, Ellie. Will you marry me?”

She sunk down to both knees in front of him, taking both of his hands in her own, very focused. “Remember the words of the Leaf People?”

“How could I forget?”

“Say them.”

Looking into her eyes, he repeated the words from Val’s story. “The Knight will stand with you. Lean on him, love him if you will, but hear him well, for he holds the keys. Your talents are nothing without the keys.”

She nodded. “The Leaf People were right, Michael. My talents are nothing without the keys.”

She looked at his hands, separating them and feeling them, rubbing her fingers across them possessively. “These are the hands of the man of dirt. The dirt of your ancestors has sifted through these fingers. So, too, have the stars of our realm. These hands have fought for me, they have held me, and when I fell to the gleason’s knife, they literally held the keys to a kingdom.”

She brought his hands to her lips and kissed them, staring into his eyes. “I am Queen, and I rule, but when it comes to our love, I kneel before you. I am your woman, you are my man. I love you, Michael, and yes, I will marry you in accordance with your customs.”

“Uh, we’re talking about a few hundred more years here, Ellie.”

“We’re talking about a lifetime, however long that is. My heart is settled on this score, so don’t try to weasel your way out of it. The decree is already drawn up. You just have to add your signature to mine.”

“You planned this?”

Her eyes sparkled. “I’ve been planning it for a long time.”

“I had visions of trumpets and thousands of people. I’ve been scared to death to ask.”

A wizened look came to her face. “Once, that would have been the process. We’re building anew from the ashes. I am Queen, and I intend to make some changes. Now will you come to me?”

*****

As they walked arm in arm toward the dining room the next morning, he asked her, “Does this mean I’m no longer First Knight?”

“You’ve always been more than First Knight, Michael. You’re the Knight. Never forget. Until this crisis is over, the Empire needs a First Knight more than it needs a king. I don’t see how you can be First Knight when you’re King, but I want you to continue as First Knight. And when the time comes, you’ll have a say in who your replacement will be.”

Mike stopped dead in his tracks, looking straight ahead. “Stop this about ‘King.’ I’m no king. I think the official title is ‘consort,’ is it not?”

She took his arm possessively and continued down the hallway. “Sorry, Michael, it doesn’t work that way here. You’re now officially King. You rule beside me.”

He pulled her to a stop. “You’re joking. Please tell me you’re joking, or that we can keep it a secret or something. Please.”

“Sorry, King Michael. Or is it King Carver?” She thought a moment, a mischievous look in her eyes, and said, “I guess King works well enough all by itself.”

“You’re just having fun with me.”

She took his arm and turned him to face herself, serious all of a sudden. “Michael, you are King. And you are my husband, I am your wife. Got it?”

“But you’re the Queen of All Space.”

“Then you’re King of all Space. Accept it, Michael. You might be a man from an emerging world, but never forget: you were called. You hold the keys, and my Talents are nothing without the keys. What can be more kingly than that?”

She reached a hand up to caress his cheek. “Be a king, Michael. It’s your Empire now, too. Our Empire needs us, both of us.”

*****

Later that very day, Mike, Reba, Alexis, and Mildred, along with Jessie and four Guardians left for Earth. The Empire could not afford a honeymoon for its King and Queen at the moment. Resolve and Joline lifted off together and didn’t waste any time. They were fast ships, at least until reaching Earth’s system.

Alexis and Mildred accompanied them to Earth at Ellie’s insistence. Her near death had highlighted the fragility of the line of Chosen, and she knew it was only a matter of time before word leaked out that Parsons’ World was bankrolling the Queen. When it did, Rebel knowledge of Shipyard would not be far behind. When that happened, the Rebels would hold nothing in reserve. Until the Rebels were defeated, she would live with the knowledge that an invisible, or nearly invisible, gleason might show up at her side without warning. Until the Empire could protect the line of Chosen, she and Alexis must never be in the same place at the same time. And what safer place to hide Alexis than Earth? Everyone there, they believed, was immune to the Chessori mind weapon, and it was not likely anyone would think to look for her on an emerging world.

Ellie’s eyes followed the two ships as they rose silently from their berths. Her eyes stayed lifted to the sky long after the ships disappeared, her thoughts turning inward. She was truly alone now. She was separated from her child again, and her precious Knights were scattered to the stars as they strove mightily to save the Empire, all in her name. And there would be more struggles to come, of that she was certain. She didn’t know what form they would take, and she knew they might not all be successful. Her own part, standing before the Imperial Senate some day in the future on her own home world, a world that was now the heart of the rebellion, filled her with fear and anger. Such a waste, and all because of one man. One man among trillions of intelligent beings, one man who had held a position of trust, one man who had ruthlessly betrayed that trust.

Struthers.

If she accomplished nothing else with her life, she would restore the Empire to its full glory. After the rebellion was put down, she would entertain changes to her ruling status, but until then she would rule with the full power of the law behind her, her Knights and warriors beside her to enforce those laws. That was the position of trust the Empire and its citizens had bestowed upon her, and she would not let them down.

She turned to walk back across the tarmac, waving away the offer of a ride. Her Protectors turned with her, their eyes searching everywhere for threats. Her thoughts turned inward.

›I miss him already.‹

›I know, but what you have chosen is right. His mission is critical.‹

›Oh, Cassandra, it’s so much more than it appears on the surface. He’s not just recruiting a few soldiers, he’s recruiting a whole world. Can one man bring such a world, a world that will surely resist, into the Empire? As much as he wants to do so, I will not let him if they choose otherwise.‹

›Then maybe we’ll just have to give him some help?‹

Ellie smiled. ›We will, indeed. Any chance there’s a new Heir starting in there?‹

›No. You’re not fully recovered yet, and you are much too stressed. There’s still time for me to intervene if you would like.‹

Ellie lifted her eyes to the sky again, to the place Mike had gone.›You tempt me, dear, but I think our man would prefer nature taking its course. He’ll be back.‹

Val

Chapter Five

Forg approached the gangplank of the Empire cruise ship and stopped to let his eyes rove its beautiful lines. A trader at heart, he had spent the better part of his life in space and could only wonder at the beauty of this liner. All white, shaped like a perfect ellipse, it was truly a marvel, and truly unlike the ships of his people, the Chessori. Among the Chessori, all ships were working ships. There were no such things as luxury liners.

He set his single bag on the tarmac, hesitant to take the next step onto the entrance ramp. He hadn’t shielded his thought, and it went to the five other crewmen with him. They gathered around him in a huddle, their bodies touching each other, sharing their mutual unhappiness. Yes, this was the final step. As soon as they stepped up that ramp, it would be a clear admission that their ship was gone forever.

He could not imagine a worse predicament. The loss of his ship instantly reduced him to the lowest rung of Chessori society, the unemployed. The rest of his crew, all relatives, shared in that fate. It wouldn’t be forever, but to be in this predicament for even a short time was anathema to the Chessori. No slightest outward expression of his chagrin showed, at least not to the other guests passing to both sides of the small island the Chessori had become. Rarely did outward expressions show themselves among the Chessori. There was no need.

“We should be going,” Grost, his brother, thought. “Each step takes us closer to a replacement ship.”

Forg sighed inwardly: Grost was right. He picked up his bag and forced himself to take that difficult step. Following that one step, the rest of the steps became easier. He and his crew had only one focus now: to reach Orion III, where they hoped to hitch a ride with another trader back to the Chessori domain. There they would begin the laborious process of purchasing another ship. The price he had received from the K’tiri who had stolen his ship was sufficient to purchase a brand new ship, but the loss of his ship still stung deeply. The transaction had broken a fundamental law of the Chessori, a law that only a K’tiri had the power to break.

Inside the cruise ship, he and his crew wandered aimlessly as they sought their cabins. A friendly crewman finally led them to their rooms and helped them get settled. Before leaving, the crewman held his hand out. Forg looked at the hand and thought a question to his crewmates, but he received no helpful replies. He resorted to words.

“We are new to your society,” he said to the crewman. “What exactly does the hand you hold out to me mean?” When the man hesitated, Forg added, “I mean no disrespect. I only wish to learn.”

“Uh, it’s tradition to tip for good service, sir.”

“Tip?”

“A gratuity, sir. A small amount of money is usually exchanged when the service you receive is good.”

“It is?”

“It is, sir. Only within the service industry. Did you tip the waiter after your last meal?”

“I paid him the requested fee.”

“A little extra would have been appropriate, sir.”

“Are you not paid by your employer?”

“I am, sir, but not overmuch. Wages in the service industry are usually adjusted downward to compensate for tips.”

“I see,” Forg said, reaching into his belt pouch and bringing out a coin.

“Uh, about three of those, sir.”

Forg did not let his surprise show. He had been a trader for many years and was accustomed to surprises, though this small oddity was a new one. The crewman accepted the coins with a bow and left.

“Now what?” he thought to his men as he placed his bag on a bunk. “We have many idle days before us.”

“We can explore the ship,” Grost said with excitement. “ I’d like to see how these people entertain themselves.”

They wandered the ship for days as it headed out of the system, constantly surprised at what they found. Gambling, parties, competitions, drinking and eating to excess, such idleness was never seen within the Chessori domain, though in truth there was little else to do aboard the great liner. They found a small establishment that was not crowded in which they could enjoy refreshments without undue staring. Chessori were still quite rare within this Empire.

Meals were a different matter. Everyone was expected to eat together in a large dining room, and more tips were expected. At least the food was good – plenty of meat. The Chessori disdained the other offerings, but the waiter learned their ways and soon just brought large portions of meat, all properly cooked and seasoned. Along with the meat, he brought small amounts of alcohol, something the Chessori metabolism needed on a regular basis.

Forg requested a visit to the bridge, but he was turned down. Passengers were not permitted on the bridge under any circumstances, and he was not surprised. He ran his own ship the same way, unless the request came from a K’tiri. Then he could not refuse.

The K’tiri. How he hated them, especially now. Until recently he had never heard of a ship from a lesser guild annexed as his had been. And why had it been taken? Why did the K’tiri need the ship so badly? It was so foreign to Chessori ways. If you wanted a new ship, you negotiated with the S’klida, the ship selling guild. It took time, but it was the proper way. And to annex a trader’s ship when cargo was aboard, cargo that had been promised for delivery, that was inexplicable even to K’tiri ways. But once the K’tiri claimed scree’Tal, or death-right, Forg’s options evaporated. He had to complete the deal.

Not only did it not make sense, it would give future Chessori traders a black mark with the client, something that contradicted all tradition. He simply could not understand it, nor could his crew.

He was not the first to lose his ship; he had recently encountered others of the lesser guilds who had suffered the same fate here in Aldebaran Sector. His Guild Master would likely be inundated with grievances. Nothing would come of them, the K’tiri were too strong, but the grievances would be made, noted, and negotiated. Still, it just did not make any sense. His anger would be a long time simmering against the K’tiri.

Chapter Six

Val boarded the cruise liner after days of private meetings with Admiral Seeton’s senior staff. As the only proof here on Aldebaran I of the Queen’s existence, Admiral Seeton had insisted that the Knight meet as many of his officers as he could, and Val jumped at the opportunity. He knew exactly what it meant to these warriors to have a Queen. No longer were these officers adrift, as they had been for more than a year.

Too, he now had a clearer understanding of the methods used by the Rebels for taking control of sectors. Sector governors either swore allegiance to the new regime, or they were replaced with individuals loyal to Struthers. The new governors then set about replacing their staffs with members loyal to themselves, reaching into the military ranks after solidifying their own personal staffs. The process took time but was inexorable in its completeness. The sector commander, Seeton’s boss, had caved in to the new governor’s demands quickly and was working hard to establish his own command structure of loyal officers. He hadn’t gotten far. Seeton had blocked him at every step of the way, walking a tightrope for months as he delayed and in some cases refused to carry out orders that would undermine his own strengths.

Seeton had been hard pressed by the new governor to allow Chessori observers aboard his ships, but the visit by Krys, the Queen’s Seer, had alerted him to the danger. The threat had been reinforced by Val and Mike, and he now knew without any doubt that the Chessori were the enemy. He would risk everything before allowing the enemy aboard his ships.

Krys had delivered the same message to Orion III, and Val expected to encounter a similar arrangement there.

Val had two reasons for taking passage on the cruise ship. First, it offered a non-military, clandestine method for approaching Orion III. Second, one of Seeton’s clerks had discovered six Chessori listed as passengers, and Val wanted to study them.

He slept through liftoff and felt completely refreshed when he emerged from his compartment. He spent several hours perusing the various decks, astounded at the multiple forms of entertainment offered to guests. Sorely missing Reba, he nevertheless congratulated himself on not being forced to explore all the activities offered by the entertainment staff. Reba would have demanded exhaustive involvement in each and every one.

He developed a routine of an hour of hard physical exercise before breakfast, then lots of time cruising the corridors or simply relaxing in various lounges, drinking mild stimulants to keep up appearances while constantly searching for the Chessori.

After nearly a week of failure, he resorted to asking Captain Summers to seat him with the Chessori during a meal. The captain gave him a troubled look, wondering aloud why a fleet lieutenant would have any interest in the Chessori, but when Val returned to his room the following day, he discovered an invitation to join the captain for dinner.

He decided to put a little pressure on the Chessori. Discarding his plan to act as a civilian, he put on his best uniform. A crewman escorted him to a seat directly opposite the group of six Chessori. To his left sat a man and woman returning to Cordolla, the ship’s first stop, after a year-long vacation. They were wealthy farmers recently retired. To his right sat a self-important businessman and his wife heading to a meeting on Orion III.

In Val’s experience, every species had one or two strong suits, almost always something physical that set them apart from other species, something that had helped them climb the evolutionary ladder high enough to let intelligence do the rest. It might be strength or speed, claws, beaks, or hands, size, or any combination of such things, but it was usually obvious.

The Chessori had no visible strengths at all. Short of stature and hairless, their bodies were completely white. Slim, weak necks supported disproportionately large heads. To all outward appearances, they were frail. And they were frail. The Chessori that Mike had tackled beneath the ship on Earth had died beneath him, its bones crushed.

Their only remarkable feature, other than the complete lack of significant strengths, was their eyes. Dark and shaped like ellipses, the eyes of the Chessori dominated their features. And they never blinked, didn’t even have visible eye lids.

The six Chessori sitting opposite him looked like mannequins sitting eerily still, their eyes never blinking but seeing all. His skin crawled at the memory of the mind weapon hidden behind those eyes.

Clearly, the mind weapon had paved their way up the evolutionary ladder. Other than Mike and Reba, Val was not aware of any other creatures in the galaxy that were immune to the weapon.

He wanted to stare at them. Even more, he wanted to pull from them the means to inhibit this mind weapon of theirs, but he could not – yet. He wanted to keep a low profile. The very presence of a uniformed line officer aboard a cruise ship was unusual, and Val explained his presence at the first opportunity. Keeping one eye on the Chessori for reaction, he described how he had lost his job as a ship’s navigation officer after failing to comply with his captain’s demand that he swear loyalty to the Rebels. He made it clear to everyone at the table that he supported the old Empire and would not waver in that position.

Conversation about the coup and its effects on the Empire immediately erupted around the table. The Chessori watched stolidly, their huge eyes betraying no emotion, though he did see questioning looks pass between several as the discussion continued.

“How can there be an Empire when there’s no Queen?” asked the wife of the retired farmer beside him.

“What makes you think there’s no Queen?” Val replied simply.

“Well!” the woman snorted. “Everyone’s seen the pictures. Everyone knows what happened at the Palace.”

“How can you support anyone who would do such a thing?” Val inquired, spreading his hands wide and addressing everyone at the table.

Silence held for a few moments, then several replies came at the same time. The general consensus seemed to be that it was done and could not be undone. It was necessary to consider the future now.

“If the Rebel cause was just,” Val argued when the discussion seemed to be dying down, “I might agree. But to rebuild from a foundation of treachery, of wrongness, to reward the ones who caused it with loyalty and support, what does that say of our values? And what does it say of the eventual success of their venture?”

The table went silent. Val looked at each of them during the silence, then continued. “Would you build your home from defective materials? Would you begin a new business with a knowingly defective business plan? Would you teach your children that honor is dead, that it is proper to reward murder and treachery with loyalty?”

These were not new subjects to these people. He knew they had given careful thought to the ramifications of the coup, though perhaps not in the same terms he had. Probably most discussion centered on what was best for themselves or their own worlds, not what was best for the Empire at large.

“I can tell you,” he continued, keeping an eye on the Chessori for any reaction, “that all modeling I have seen regarding the future of the Empire shows it coming apart at the seams under Rebel leadership. Maybe that doesn’t matter to you, but I promise you it will matter to your descendents. Their Empire will not be the pleasant place you have grown up within. I would be surprised to see cruise liners like this one plying the space lanes in two hundred years. It will be too dangerous.”

He turned to Captain Summers. “Have you encountered any pirates yet, sir?”

Summers smiled a tight smile. “No, and it’s your job to prevent that.”

“It was, and I hope it will be again when I find a new ship,” Val responded openly. “Which I hope to find on Orion III. But what if the very people you count on to keep you safe from pirates become pirates themselves? Have you thought of that? Have you thought about what the military could become without firm, centralized political control? And without the values these Rebels have so blatantly abrogated? To whom will the admirals and generals swear allegiance? Might they not become local strongmen, responsible only to themselves?”

Val looked around the table again, then let his gaze come to rest on the Chessori. “What do our Chessori friends think about all this?” he asked in a pleasant voice, inviting a response from them.

The Chessori directly opposite him spread his small hands wide. “To us, this is an internal issue. We take no sides. We are simple traders.”

“Traders?” Val asked in surprise. “Where’s your ship?”

“Ah…” the Chessori responded, his mouth turning into a thin, grim line, changing his stony facade instantly. “You ask just the right question, young sir.” He spread his hands to encompass his comrades. “Like you, we, too, are without a ship at the moment. We hope to remedy that on Orion III.”

“What happened to your ship?” Val asked innocently.

“A long story, sir, not appropriate for the table. Though I do not take sides in this internal dispute, I applaud your integrity. Are there others such as yourself?”

“Many. Most, I think. At present, some are adrift in their loyalties. That will change. They just need the right leader.”

“To whom will they swear loyalty? As stated earlier, your Queen is tragically dead.”

Val looked around the table before replying, seeing looks of agreement on most faces. He turned back to the Chessori who appeared to be spokesman for the group. “The Queen is, indeed, dead. The line of Chosen is not.”

There were gasps around the table, though no slightest change of expression appeared on the Chessori faces. Val turned to Captain Summers, discovering him returning Val’s look through narrowed, intent eyes. Val simply raised his eyebrows in an unspoken question as his gaze swept around the table. He turned his attention back to his food, taking a bite and chewing deliberately.

Everyone followed his example for a time, then the businessman on his right asked the question on everyone’s mind. “Is there a new Queen?”

Val deliberated for a time before responding. “At this moment, I cannot provide a satisfactory answer to that question. I can only tell you that my loyalty to the Empire and my oath has not, and will not, waver.”

“But all the Chosen were at the Palace,” one replied.

“According to whom?” Val responded without hesitation. “Struthers?” He paused to let that sink in, then added before returning to his meal, “His whole future rests on your perceptions, and his actions prove he is without honor. The line of Chosen is not ended. I know that for a fact.”

Later, as the table extended its regards to the departing captain and couples began heading off in various directions, Val cornered the Chessori and invited them to share refreshments with him. To his surprise, their spokesman accepted, leading the way to a lounge that was only sparsely occupied.

“Your hang-out?” Val asked as they pulled two tables together, then seated themselves.

“Yes,” the leader replied. “I am known as Forg.” He introduced the others and let Val introduce himself.

“I’m Lieutenant Val.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” Forg replied as he extended his tiny hand.

Val took it and shook, instantly aware of the fragility of that hand and limiting his own pressure to what would otherwise be considered a weak handshake.

“Thank you,” Forg replied to Val’s thoughtfulness with a smile. “I can’t tell you how many times this hand has been abused. It is a custom we Chessori do not share with you.”

“Then I thank you for the honor extended to me.”

“Just a courtesy. We traders are accustomed to dealing with local customs.”

“Have you been a trader long?”

“All of my adult life, as have my friends here,” Forg said, indicating the other Chessori seated at the table. “We all come from the same family, a family that has been trading for generations.”

‘I know little of the Chessori,” Val answered honestly and intently. “May I ask a few questions?”

“You may. We do not often share in this manner, but the integrity you displayed during the meal deserves the honor of sharing. Such is held in high esteem among us.”

Val allowed a natural smile to light his face, hoping it would take the sting out of his next words. “Honor among traders?”

Forg bowed his head in response. “I sense the humor behind your words and share the joke. We Chessori traders love to bargain, though we do so under very definite rules of ethics. The outcome of any negotiation is to our advantage, or else we turn away. Our profit margins are reasonable, and when we make a deal we always abide by the terms. No exceptions. Those are our rules, and we are well known for them.”

Forg thought for a moment, then added, “Perhaps not so well known in your Empire, yet. We are relative newcomers here.”

Forg’s words took Val by surprise. Either this guy was a very good liar or Val was missing something. He chose his response carefully. “I wouldn’t say the same is true of us. I’m no expert, but I think our traders go for as much profit as they possibly can.”

“They do,” Forg agreed as he nodded his head. “Not difficult to counter if one knows his business well, and we know ours very well. We belong to a large network of traders and usually manage to find buyers before reaching agreement with the sellers. We rarely guess at profit margins.”

“How can you do that?” Val asked in surprise. “Aren’t most of your deliveries completed in other star systems?”

“Yes, of course, or my ship and crew would not be needed. We’re part of a very large… guild… you would call it, and we have our methods.”

Was Forg hinting at the Chessori interstellar communications capability? Val decided to tread in less dangerous waters until he got to know these Chessori better. He changed the subject. “You seemed interested in the discussion about our Queen. Do you have a similar government where you come from?”

“Definitely not,” Forg replied. “All male Chessori belong to guilds of various kinds. Some guilds have superior status compared to others, but commerce governs all. For example, if you need a new ship, you bargain with the shipbuilding guild. If you need a new home, you bargain with the homebuilding guild. If, instead, you desire a ship that is not new, you would bargain with a guild specializing in used ships. I know that in your empire it is possible to deal directly with a ship’s present owner, thereby bypassing the ship-selling guild, but that is not possible among the Chessori. I and my friends here,” he said, indicating the others seated at the table, “belong to a trader guild. We buy, transport, and sell. That is all.”

“Are there other trader guilds?” Val asked, interested in Forg’s description of his society.

“There are. Most tend to focus on one or two sectors within our empire, though some focus on special items as well.”

Val spent the next couple of days getting to know the Chessori. The process seemed remarkably easy, almost as if they were helping to speed things along. He wouldn’t say they became friends, nor could he ever trust any Chessori after the horrible agony they had inflicted on him, but they became comfortable with each other.

Following another dinner at the captain’s table, a dinner the captain had not attended for one reason or another, Val settled down with the Chessori for drinks in the lounge they had taken to frequenting.

“Do your trading activities compete successfully with the other races in your empire?” he asked. “I mean, maybe Chessori traders deal honestly, but surely not everyone else does.”

“You ask many pertinent questions,” Forg responded, looking at him thoughtfully. He glanced at his partners, though no words were exchanged between them.

When Forg turned his attention back to Val, he continued staring for a time before answering. “It is clear to us that you seek knowledge of the Chessori. In addition to that, you have given each of us the strong impression that you are more than you appear, and that you are a person of great integrity. Integrity is important to the Chessori. It is a fundamental tenet of our existence, as we have explained. Is it possible that you seek something from us, and that in exchange you might have something we want? Care to deal?”

Val’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “What is it that you want?”

“A ship.”

“A ship!”

“A ship. Specifically, we would like our old ship returned to us.” Val stayed mute, caught completely by surprise. Forg added, “We are traders, but we cannot trade without a ship. “

“What happened to your ship?” Val asked guardedly.

“Have negotiations begun?” Forg asked, looking directly into Val’s eyes.

Val’s pulse quickened. “Maybe they have, and maybe they haven’t. We can call this off at any time if we don’t come to agreement, right?”

“Agreed.”

“So what happened to your ship?”

“Can you get it back for us if I tell you?”

“Probably not, but how can I tell unless I know the whole story?”

“You admit, then, that it is a possibility? Are you more than you appear to be, or are you a simple pilot looking for work?”

Val had a strong urge to rub the stubble on his chin, but he was not about to reveal his increasing tension to this Chessori.

“Forg,” he replied, “I’m a pilot, as I told you. I’m connected with others, with many others who might be able to help you, but you ask much.”

“Would one of them be this Queen you mentioned?” Forg asked quietly.

Without hesitation, Val responded, “I will not tell you who my associates are. We have to get to know one another much, much better before that discussion takes place.” Jeez, he thought to himself, this guy is sharp. He scares me. Where’s Reba when I need her?

“And we shall. Let me leave you with a further thought before we part this night. I am Chessori. As such, I am bound by the rules of my guild. All Chessori are bound by such rules. One particular guild, a very senior guild, has chosen to interpret one of our rules in such a way that I and my guild members consider incorrect. That interpretation has led to the annexation of my ship, and mine is not the only ship taken in this manner. I intend to right this wrong. I will have my ship back.”

“You speak of dishonor among your people.”

Forg nodded solemnly. “I do. I do not say these words lightly. What has happened to me and my crew is bad, very bad. It is against all Chessori custom.”

“I am not Chessori. Is this conversation appropriate?”

Forg leaned toward him. “Probably not, but all of us sense something special in you. We have given this careful consideration. There is much competition between certain of our guilds. Some competition strengthens, but this particular competition weakens.”

Forg rose from the table, his crew rising with him. “I seek that which is right for my people. We might well be strengthened if we do this right. We will retire now. Do you wish to continue negotiations tomorrow?”

Val nodded. “Perhaps over breakfast?”

They exchanged details on where to meet, then Forg bowed and turned away.

Val stayed for a while, deep in thought. ›Are we falling into a trap, Artmis?‹

›Maybe. Are these Chessori who and what they appear to be, simple traders, or are they part of the same group pursuing Ellie? I don’t know.‹

How in the world were they going to determine the truth, Val wondered? At the very least, the Chessori were not to be trusted. Yet, he might really be on to something here. He, Mike, and Chandrajuski had considered the possibility that not all Chessori were involved in the coup. Was Forg hinting at a split of some kind among his people? Was it possible this guild thing had anything to do with it? If so, how big a deal was it to the Chessori? Was he dealing with one shanghaied crew, or were there others, possibly many others, who felt the same way?

›Consider a larger scale, Val. Could the Chessori be in the midst of a civil war themselves?‹

›That’s too big, Artmis, and the timing would be pretty coincidental, don’t you think? If I’m not reading Forg completely wrong, my guess is that this is more of an inter-guild thing, not an empire-busting thing. But we’ll keep your idea in mind, as well as the fact that we might be reading Forg wrong.‹

Fundamentally, if what Forg said was true, the Chessori were traders, bargaining until an agreement was hammered out. If true, since the Chessori were assisting Struthers, it meant that Struthers had struck an agreement with them.

›Did he strike an agreement with all the Chessori, or was the deal with just some of them, maybe just one guild?‹ Artmis wondered. ›How well does Struthers know the Chessori? Could he have struck a deal with just some of them, perhaps thinking those he dealt with represented all Chessori when, in fact, they didn’t, or did he strike the deal with certain knowledge that the Chessori leadership stood behind the agreement?‹

So many questions and no good answers. Val had six Chessori to question and learn from, really just one if Forg was fully in charge. Surely Struthers had dealt with many others, was, in fact, dealing with many others at this very moment. The Chessori were spreading quickly through the Empire, and the ones he had encountered prior to Forg were definitely siding with the Rebels. But what if they represented just one guild? What if not all guilds supported the Rebels? Was Forg a good guy or a bad guy?

Val knew that Mike, Ellie, and Chandrajuski were counting on him to find answers to these questions. He spent a restless night, unaccustomed to dealing with such far ranging issues with no one to fall back on for help. He wished Reba was beside him, knowing she’d have crystal clear insight that would put them on the right track. When he woke up the next morning, Reba was still uppermost in his mind. He talked to her while he worked out, trying to focus his thoughts.

Her cheerful response was, as always, simple and uncluttered. “You’re going to do this thing the way you’ve always done things,” she said in his mind, flashing her incredible smile. “The right way.”

Forg was alone when he arrived for breakfast. The diminutive Chessori seemed lost at the table set for eight. Val had to consciously remind himself that he was not dealing with a child.

“How did you sleep?” he asked as he sat down.

“Not well. You?”

“About the same.”

“We may be juggling similar problems,” Forg said, folding his tiny hands together on the edge of the table, his eyes glistening as they stared at Val without blinking. “The stakes are very high. Neither of us is in a position to trust the other, yet trust is our only currency at the moment.”

Val bowed his head. “I believe you’re right: it is a dilemma. How do we solve it?”

“Through negotiation. Tit for tat as your saying goes.”

“This issue may ultimately go far beyond simple negotiation, Forg.”

“Perhaps, but isn’t that the highest form of negotiation?” The corners of Forg’s small mouth lifted in a smile as his unblinking eyes stared back at Val.

“I guess, then, that I’ll start with saying it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever restore you to your ship. Nor is it likely I’ll ever be able to supply you with a different Chessori ship. An Empire ship is possible, but probably not suitable to your needs. Can I just supply you with the money for a new ship?”

“So you have access to ships and funds. I thought so.” Forg waved his hands in a negating fashion. “I don’t want money. I’ve already received payment for my ship.”

“You have? I thought someone took it from you,” Val said in surprise. “Did you get a fair price?”

“Negotiations were conducted between myself and another Chessori. Of course I got a fair price.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“The problem is fundamental to all Chessori negotiations: I could not walk away from the deal without completing it. I am grossly offended.”

Forg’s words confused Val. “Offended enough to negotiate for information that might be construed as treasonous to your people?”

“What information I might share with you is not treasonous. It is to the benefit of my people that this horror be stopped.”

“To what horror do you refer?”

“I suspect you know very well of what I speak. Do you deny such knowledge?”

Val hesitated, then plunged in. “I’ve been on the receiving end of the Chessori mind weapon.”

›Careful!‹ Artmis said in alarm.

›I know, buddy, but it has to come out.‹

›Mike and Reba are not here to deal with him. I’m not ready to go through that thing again.‹

Forg let out a long ‘sssssssss,’ and fell silent for a time. “I was not referring to any such thing. You are mistaken. I don’t know what you are talking about,” he finished weakly.

“No mistake, Forg. It’s excruciatingly painful and disabling. You know exactly what I’m talking about.”

Forg took his time responding. “If such a thing existed, and I am not saying that it does, you would not be alive today.”

“Well, here I sit,” Val replied nonchalantly, one hand reaching across the table to distract Forg while the other crept toward his weapon.

“If that is a weapon you are reaching for, it is unnecessary. I am unarmed.”

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned about you Chessori, it’s that you are never unarmed,” Val replied, his hand gripping the miniblaster tucked into his pocket, its barrel pointed directly at Forg.

Forg remained silent for a long time, his eyes searching Val’s. “Have negotiations ended, then?”

“Depends on what you have to offer,” Val stated calmly. “I would know more about this mind weapon, for one thing.”

Forg frowned. “Please describe it.”

“I’m sure I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know,” Val said, his grip tightening on the blaster. “I’ve seen a small number of Chessori bring an entire warship to its knees, round up crewmembers considered disloyal to the Rebel cause and lock us up, then release everyone else to return to their duties.”

“Such a thing is not possible.”

“You know it is,” Val responded with disgust. “This thing was used only long enough to secure the ship for its command staff, long enough to arrest those of us judged unwilling to switch sides. So far as I know, everyone survived, and I’m certain its use was condoned by the Rebel officers who commanded the ship, for it affected them as well.”

Forg’s eyes wandered. He seemed confused, but he eventually nodded his head as acceptance of Val’s words seeped into his mind. “I’m sorry, Val,” he said, returning his gaze to him, staring at him. “You can’t understand,” he continued after a time. “To have used the scree against an outsider is bad in and of itself. To have allowed anyone to escape that knows of its existence is breaking a most fundamental law of the Chessori, a law that relates to the very survival of my species. I am bound by law to kill you now.”

“Well, you’d better be good at it because any flinching on my part will cause my weapon to discharge. It’s pointed directly at you.”

“I have nothing to fear. Should I so choose, you will be instantly incapacitated. Perhaps I have spoken too soon. You have not really experienced the scree, or you would know.”

“I have, and I believe it was used at full strength. But before you get carried away, think about something. If you were to use this scree right now on me, how would you go about killing everyone else in the room?”

“They would all be incapacitated.”

“So you’d have to kill them all?”

“Yes.”

“Then everyone else on the ship? I don’t believe that’s possible,” Val added uncertainly.

“It is possible, but not practical. It is certainly wrong.” Forg was again silent for a long time. When he spoke, his voice was very low. “If what you say is true, the actions of this very senior guild have transcended all guild law, all Chessori law. I cannot believe that what you say is true.”

“Believe me or not, Forg – that’s up to you. I can tell you with absolute certainty that many, many sailors have lived through its use and survived to fight alongside their Chessori comrades. As awful as it is, these sailors have accepted its use, knowing that in the long run it protects them from their opponents. Your secret is definitely out.”

He leaned toward Forg, his blaster still pointed at him. “Our knowledge goes far beyond that, Forg. We’re certain that the Chessori have partnered with the Rebels to bring new leadership to the Empire.”

Forg stared at him, then mumbled, “Impossible.” He looked away, but after a long period of contemplation, he returned his gaze to Val. “I cannot envision an agreement with the Rebels that would betray this fundamental tool of the Chessori. It defies reason. I must have proof.“

“Stick around with me long enough, and you’ll probably get it,” Val replied sadly. “It seems to follow me around. I’d offer to show you the scars, but it doesn’t leave any.”

“No, it does not. You may remove your hand from your weapon now.”

“All right. As a show of good faith, I do so.” Val placed both hands on top of the table, knowing it would not matter in the long run. He sensed Artmis’ nervousness but pushed the thought aside. He was nervous enough all by himself.

“My appetite has disappeared,” Forg said, standing up. ”I am returning to my quarters.”

“Okay,” Val said, shaken as well. “Just know one thing. You can probably take me out one way or another, but doing so will not put this particular genie back into its bottle. Your secret is known by many. We even have a pretty good idea of how the weapon came into being. It’s obvious your physical bodies are not strong. From way back in your species’ beginnings, you needed a special tool to survive. Looks to me like you got it. It’s worked on everyone I’ve seen it used against.”

“Its use does, indeed, cross all species boundaries,” Forg agreed, much troubled. “No one is immune except the Chessori. We can meet again tonight in the lounge. I give you my personal assurances that you will not be harmed by me or my brothers, at least not as long as we are still negotiating.”

Val looked into Forg’s eyes. “I guess that will have to be the next item of negotiation, then.”

Forg shook his head. “It is not that simple. You have given me an impossible dilemma. Good day, Val.”

They met again that evening. This time Forg and his companions all attended. With them in attendance, Val knew that Forg had shared the morning’s conversation with them.

Forg opened the conversation without delay. “We must return to our people. Can you help?”

Val snorted. “Do you know what happened to the last ships we sent to visit the Chessori? Our trade delegation?”

“I know nothing of any such delegation. What was the outcome?”

“They were massacred to the last man. All five thousand of them. It was the first display of this scree that we know about. So much for the honesty and integrity of the Chessori.”

Forg and his group looked stunned. Forg recovered long enough to ask, “If all were killed, how do you know about it?”

“I said all men were massacred,” Val replied evenly. “Several women survived. My friends have all the gory details. I would imagine Struthers and his ilk have, as well. In fact, I know they do.”

“Can you prove this?” Forg asked.

“Yes, but not here, and perhaps not to your liking. I could let you interview our survivors, but I won’t. I don’t think they’re much in love with the Chessori anyway. I think your best source of proof is the Chessori that were there.”

“These things are not representative of the Chessori,” Forg hissed. “We seek to trade honorably with you, nothing more.”

“Well, some of you seek more, lots more,” Val replied. “Enough to join the Rebels as they try to overthrow my Empire. Your people have accepted a big part in this coup, them and their scree.” A nasty grin lit Val’s face. “They’re going to lose, too. Wait and see. They’re going to lose. Have you chosen sides?”

“We choose the side of the Chessori, of course,” Forg replied absently. Then his gaze locked on Val. “And I don’t mean the Chessori you have already met.”

Forg’s gaze wandered among his fellows for a time, though no words were spoken. Val suddenly had an insight. “You’re talking mind to mind!” he exclaimed.

Forg’s gaze shifted instantly back to him. “Are we back to negotiations, then?”

“Call it what you want. It’s your turn. I’m one up on you.”

“You may infer what you wish. I will not become a traitor to my people, but I am troubled by the wrongness you have described. I would like to right these wrongs.”

“At what price?” Val asked. “Are we still talking about getting your ship back for you?”

“We are,” Forg responded, “but the stakes have been raised. Your vision of the Chessori is wrong. It is up to all Chessori to correct the error. It begins with us. We are prepared to offer guidance that might be helpful to you and your Empire, but I would ask a question first. Does your Empire stand a chance against these Rebels? Are we assisting the winning side, or will our efforts serve only to delay the inevitable? I would ask for a true evaluation, not just your personal hope.”

Val hesitated. “The outcome is in doubt, primarily because of the scree. The Rebels can and are being dealt with. The scree makes the process more difficult, but we have a plan. I believe the Empire will be restored to its full stature in time. It may even be stronger and better as a result of this coup. Any information you choose to provide might serve to speed up the process, but, quite frankly, I doubt if you have any information I don’t already have or will soon have through my own resources.”

“How will you defeat the scree?”

“All I can say is that we have a plan, and it’s a good plan. If it works, and if you speak true, it may be to your benefit as well.”

“No one has ever defeated the scree. ”

“No one has ever tried to take over the Empire either. We’re very serious about taking it back, and to do so we will have to defeat the scree. We have a plan.”

“You believe the Empire will be fully restored. The cohesion required by your Empire comes from a certain line of women who lead, a line which we have been informed no longer exists.”

“Forg, I say again, the Empire will be fully restored.”

“Your conclusions are based on what? Fact, hope, what?”

“All the above. We have a Queen, she is from the line of Chosen, and she fulfills all our requirements.”

Val knew he might have said more than he should, but the Rebels and their Chessori friends were well aware that Ellie had survived. What he had just divulged would not be a surprise to Forg if he was in league with the Rebels. If Forg was not in league with the Rebels, if he was, in fact, opposed to the Chessori who were working with the Rebels, it might give him hope. However, Val had clearly set himself up as one who could lead the Chessori to Ellie. He would have to be careful.

“I see,” Forg replied. “She is completely restored?”

“No. She rebuilds her Empire from a hidden location.” Val leaned toward Forg. “Don’t even think about asking where it is.”

“It is not necessary that I know,” Forg replied. “I have one further question. If I can prove to you that not all Chessori support these Rebels, will your Empire reconsider its perception of my people? Will your Empire give us the opportunity to negotiate a new relationship between our peoples?”

Val paused. He had to speak carefully. His words were the Queen’s words on all worlds of her Empire. He could not force her hand, yet to open doors and to provide opportunity was exactly what her Knights were all about. He would keep those doors open.

“Your task will not be easy,” he said to Forg. “If you can convince me, you will then have to convince others. But know this: if you speak true, the door is not closed to the Chessori. If you speak true, you will have the opportunity to be heard. A promise from me in this matter is a promise from the Queen.”

Forg stared at him. “You speak for your Queen?”

“I do.”

Forg looked to his friends for a time, and Val sensed confusion among them, though no outward sign showed. When Forg turned his gaze back to him, he said, “I knew you were more than you appeared to be, but you are young. How can you speak for the Queen?”

“You ask too much, Forg.”

“I do not ask too much. I ask a lot, but a lot is at stake here. I am a simple trader, but who you are is not clear to me. Fundamental to every negotiation is that representatives of each party be decision-makers. Are you in a position to decide? These are weighty issues. What you and I decide today might impact the future of our two empires, a future that is at great risk at this moment.”

“What do you have to offer?”

“If your knowledge of the Chessori is as limited as you say, I offer a window to the rest of my people that is, apparently, closed to you at the moment. Your impression of the Chessori is very wrong. I ask again, who are you that you speak in the name of your Queen?”

Val considered Forg’s words, then he considered Forg himself. Forg was Chessori, and Mike had declared all Chessori to be the enemy, but what if Mike was wrong? What if some Chessori were not the enemy?

If Val chose wrong, it would be a terrible mistake, but at this point the only risk was to himself. Was he willing to risk his and Artmis’ life? Almost worse, was he willing to risk the horror of the scree?

›What do you think, Artmis?‹

›I think you’re on to something. As Knights, our duty is clear. It is time to risk.‹

He shuddered, and Forg noticed.

“You are frightened. Is my question so threatening?”

“No, but the consequences of my choice are. I deeply fear a recurrence of your scree.”

All six Chessori hung their heads, seemingly in shame. When Forg looked back to Val, he said, “I now believe you have truly experienced the scree. For that, I am sorry. I cannot make amends, but regardless of how our negotiations progress, I offer my word as a trader that you will not feel its effects from me or my crew. That is a personal promise made outside the terms of our negotiations.”

“Words are easy,” Val responded. “Can you offer proof?”

“You know I cannot. Are we at an impasse? Have negotiations ended?”

“Can you afford to end negotiations?”

“I can. I’m not so sure that my people can. I would like to keep the door open between our peoples, but I do not have the means to do so on my own.”

Val sat back in his chair and considered. At the moment, the threat was only to him and Artmis. Regardless of what he revealed to this Chessori, only the two of them were at risk. Then he wondered. He opened his eyes to Forg.

“Can you read my mind?”

“I cannot. If I could, it would be a two-way communication, and you would know that my words are true.”

“Then everything is based on faith in our words.”

“It is, and the stakes are very high. If you choose to risk, I will reciprocate.”

“In that case, do you understand the position of the Queen’s Knights within the Empire hierarchy?”

“I have heard tales of Knights, tales that are spoken with words of reverence. I believe they are simply that, tales of the past. Of those that have spoken the tales, none ever actually met such a person.”

“You have.”

Forg let his surprise show for the first time. He sat back in his seat with his mouth hanging open. So, too, did the other Chessori with him. “The Knights of the Realm are real?” he finally asked.

“Very real, Forg. Also very few in number.”

“The tales mention a talisman created by the Queen,” he said softly.

Val smiled grimly. “You may call it a talisman if you wish, but its principal purpose is to serve as identification, unquestioned identification. Only the Queen, using Talents found nowhere else in our Empire, can empower these talismans, and they are given only to her Knights in a very special and private ceremony. Once empowered by the Queen, only she and the Knight to whom it was issued can activate it, and if either of them dies, it ceases to function. For the Knight carrying this talisman, his word is her word on all worlds of the Empire. I can readily believe they take on magical powers in tales.”

Forg seemed frightened. He remained pressed into his seat, as far back as he could get in that seat. “What are you saying, Val?”

“You asked if I was in a position to make decisions. I am, and this proves it.” He tossed one of his Knights Pins across the table. It came to a stop before Forg, spinning slowly until it came to rest.

Forg stared at it, afraid.

“Pick it up, Forg,” Val ordered. “It will not hurt you. Open it.”

Forg hesitated, then, looking at Val, he reached tentatively for the Pin with his small hand. The other Chessori leaned away from him, looking as if they were ready to flee. Before picking up the Pin, Forg looked to each of his men. No words were exchanged, but Val sensed they were communicating in spite of that. When Forg turned back to Val, he said, “I have issued instructions that no matter what happens, the scree will not be used.”

Val nodded, and Forg picked up the Pin. He examined it, saying, “It is beautiful.”

“What’s inside is more beautiful. Open it,” Val ordered.

Forg turned it over in his hands, then reached a decision. He brought his other hand to the Pin and tried his best to open it. He could not, and he returned his gaze to Val.

“Let the others try,” Val demanded. The Pin was passed to each, and each failed to open it. “Place it on the table,” Val ordered when they were done. Forg did so, and Val turned the Pin in the proper direction, then passed his hand over it. The Pin instantly sprung open, and light poured forth. Within that light, a hologram coalesced, a picture of Ellie, the new Queen.

“Who is this person?” Forg asked, mesmerized. Unless he was an accomplished actor, Val decided, his lack of knowledge added credence to his story. This Chessori seemed utterly unaware of Ellandra of the Chosen.

“She is the new Queen, the Queen of the Empire.” Val reached for the pin, closed it, and returned it to his pocket. He didn’t want anyone else to see it just yet.

“Then Knights of the Realm are real,” Forg said after a time.

“Very real, but few ever know who we are.”

Forg bowed his head. “I am honored. I wish to continue negotiations.”

“Know this, Forg. Negotiating with me is negotiating with the Queen. Know, too, that we never lie. We are not required to reveal entire truths, but we never lie. Such is our promise to her, and such is our promise to the citizens of Empire.”

“I am not of the Empire.”

“You are not, and at this point in time, all Chessori are enemies of the Empire. You will serve your people well if you can convince me otherwise.”

“Then negotiations continue. The opportunity you offer pleases me. We Chessori traders have been quite successful here in your Empire. A return to normal will be good for the Chessori because it will be good for business. What would you like to know that I can tell you?”

Val was caught by surprise. He thought for a moment, then dove in. “Your ship was taken from you. Why?”

“I can only surmise, but your description of the use of the scree answered a lot of questions that had previously had no answers that made sense to us. The Chessori in some sectors appear to have been successful at insinuating themselves into your warships. Not so in Aldebaran Sector. Because of that lack of success, I believe the guild to which I referred earlier has elected to assist the Rebels by manning their own ships. My ship is probably a warship now.”

“But it’s a simple trader. Is it armed?”

“It is armed. We Chessori do not always trade among friendly people.”

“Surely a trader cannot be as heavily armed or protected as our warships. You wouldn’t stand a chance.”

“Were there no warships among the treaty group?” Forg asked impatiently.

“There were many.”

“As you have surmised, we Chessori have methods of survival that do not require the use of heavy weapons and shielding.”

Val shuddered, knowing Forg was right. His memories of the scree would never be far from his thoughts, particularly when in the presence of Chessori. “Why are you headed to Orion III?” he asked.

“My guild is alive and well in Orion Sector. The senior guild of which I spoke has not needed to annex our ships there. We hope to join another Chessori trader for a ride home. Once home, we will begin the laborious process of finding a new ship.”

Val was thunderstruck. He’d been thinking too small. On his cruiser Beta IV, the Rebels had usurped control of the ship with the assistance of the Chessori. They had then expanded that control to the rest of the squadron without any fighting at all. It appeared that Struthers was, right now, expanding that plan to include the rest of the Empire. Even though the program appeared to have failed in Admiral Seeton’s sector, Struthers’ fall-back position presented an equal threat to Seeton’s ships. Would they be able to fight against even one Chessori trader, let alone a fleet of Chessori traders? He didn’t think so.

If the Chessori in Orion Sector had not needed to annex traders’ ships, that meant that Admiral Korban had caved in to demands to place Chessori aboard his own ships. Surely he would not have done so had he known the repercussions. Did he know, even now? How well had the Chessori infiltrated his fleets?

Then he remembered Harry Seeton’s lost squadron. Had it encountered the Chessori? His lips pursed as he considered the repercussions. If what he surmised was correct, Struthers’ strategy was brilliant, and possibly unbeatable. Mike had been the only one to see the plan in its entirety, and he’d been right. No wonder he was in such a hurry to get to Earth, to take responsibility for that project as First Knight. The Chessori had to be neutralized if the Queen’s forces were to have any chance at all against the Rebels.

“How can we fix this?” he asked Forg.

“You can’t. You may have already lost the war, at least in Orion Sector.”

“We have a plan,” Val assured him. “Will you help?”

Forg thought for a time, then Val realized he was probably discussing the issue with his partners. When he turned his large eyes back to Val, he said, “We don’t know what we can do. There aren’t enough of us. At this point in time, I suggest we continue our negotiations, knowing that much more is at stake than my ship.”

“To what do you refer?” Val asked.

“Our futures,” Forg responded. “If your Empire wins, there will be blood lust for the Chessori. I would avert that for both of our peoples.”

“And if we don’t win?”

“Your leader, Struthers, will be a figurehead. I believe this senior guild of the Chessori has gone rogue. It wants to own your Empire, and it will if we don’t stop it. Once your Rebels have won, what is to stop their Chessori partners from turning the scree on them?”

Chapter Seven

Val made his way to the bridge. Stopped outside by a crewman, he asked politely to speak with the captain.

“Passengers are not permitted beyond this point, sir,” the man answered automatically.

“I see.” Val reached into his pocket and removed his Knight’s Pins, pinning them to his collar as he said, “Do you recognize these, sailor?”

The man stared at the pins, his eyes wide. “I do, Sire,” he gulped.

“Take me to the captain.”

“Follow me, Sire.”

Captain Summers was on the bridge. He paled when he saw the Knight’s Pins on Val’s collar, but he stood tall and erect. This was his ship after all.

“Sire.”

“Captain, I have a request.” Captain Summers nodded, and Val continued. “I have two messenger drones loaded as cargo. I need access to them.”

“Very well, Sire. I must insist that you not endanger my passengers.”

“Do not fear, Captain. I will, however, inconvenience them for a short time. Something has come up that demands my immediate intervention.”

Val checked the navigation screens, then continued. “I see we have not yet jumped for Cordolla. After I’ve released my drones, you will proceed to Orion III.”

Summers paled. “I can’t do that, Sire. The company sets our schedule, not me.”

“Captain,” Val replied, “You will remain in command of this ship only as long as you carry out my instructions. Your remaining in command will benefit your passengers, don’t you agree? Upon reaching Orion III, I will depart, and you will be on your own again. Do I make myself clear?”

Summers searched his eyes for a time. He finally reached a decision, saying, “I would see proof of your authority.”

Val removed one Knight’s Pin from his collar and handed it to Summers. He then passed his hand over its surface, and it sprang open. Captain Summers stared at the hologram that shone forth, then sighed, a grimace forming on his face.

“Thank you, Sire,” he said, all business as he returned the pin to Val. “And may the gods be with you.” To his crew, he said, “Set course for Orion III.”

The secret was out, and Val did not try to deny it. Instead, he wore the emblems on his collar in public and shared the captain’s table at all meals. The other seats around the table rotated among other passengers, and he was deluged with questions and a considerable amount of flirting.

With his secret out, Ellie’s was as well, but he knew she had never intended her existence to remain a secret, only her location. Remembering back to Gamma VI, he recalled her dangerous return to inform the general populace of her well-being. He was only continuing that effort now, and though it was on a very, very small scale, passengers aboard this ship numbered among the wealthy of the Empire. Their stories would spread.

Val had no way of knowing if any Rebels were aboard. Consequently, he wore a full size blaster prominently on his hip for the remainder of the voyage, and his hand was never far from it.

During a private time with Forg, Val informed him that the Queen herself had been subject to the scree on many occasions. Forg was aghast, visibly shamed with the knowledge. Later that day, he called on Val with a request.

“My associates and I would like to accompany you on the remainder of your mission,” he stated.

Val hesitated. “Where I’m going, it will be exceedingly dangerous. I suspect there will be Chessori within the command structure on Orion

III.”

“Then you might benefit from our protection,” Forg argued.

“Can you protect me from the scree?” he asked in surprise.

“No. But as soon as I see you writhing in pain on the floor, my weapon will be out. I will not hesitate to use it.”

“Against your own people?”

“These are not my people. The K’tiri have forsaken the honor of our name. They are my enemy.”

“Do you understand that I cannot reveal the location of my Queen to you?”

“I do, though that may change in time. I have heard of this Touch she uses. If, as I have been told, she can determine truth, I will submit to a Test.”

*****

Val gave serious consideration to whether he should show up in Admiral Korban’s office as Sir Val or as Lieutenant Val. He decided to be a lieutenant again. As Sir Val, he would be admitted to Korban’s office immediately, but it would be impossible to keep his presence secret from the sector governor. Word of his identity would spread quickly enough from the passengers aboard Serendipity, but it would take hours to reach the military side of the base, and then it might simply be disbelieved. The downside to being a lieutenant again was that the rank ensured that several hours, and possibly several days, would be added to his quest – lieutenants did not easily reach the office of the sector commander.

In the end, he and Artmis decided that the greatest importance lie in Korban retaining as much control of events as was possible. Chandrajuski desperately needed someone in command to mount an offensive against the Rebels in Orion Sector. Without Korban, they’d have to start over, and probably at a lower level, adding months, if not years, to the process. The presence of a Knight of the Realm could, at least potentially, force the governor’s hand and cause Korban to be sacked. Val would keep as low a profile as he possibly could.

On the other hand, he might well be walking into a fatal ambush. He could not be certain of where Korban’s loyalty lay. Indeed, he wondered if Korban was still alive.

He left the ship as Lieutenant Val with an escort of six Chessori. He made good time: it took three hours for him to reach the outer defenses surrounding Korban’s office.

“Lieutenant Val with a dispatch for Admiral Korban,” he announced yet again. This time he was standing before a full commander.

“I’ll take the dispatch, Lieutenant,” the commander ordered without standing up.

“Sir, my orders are to deliver the dispatch to Admiral Korban personally.”

“Give me the dispatch, Lieutenant. I will personally deliver it.”

“Sorry, sir. There’s no written dispatch. It’s a verbal message.”

The commander rose angrily from his desk. “Who is the dispatch from?” he demanded.

“I can’t tell you, sir. Those are my orders.”

“You show up here with six Chessori demanding access to the admiral? You must be crazy! I can’t believe you’ve gotten this far. It’s as far as you’re going to get, Lieutenant. Dismissed.” The commander sat down again and returned to his paperwork.

Val leaned over the commander’s desk. “Would it help me or hinder me if I told you I’d recently been in discussion with Governor Veswicki?”

The commander looked up at him with a pained expression. “It might have helped if you hadn’t shown up with the Chessori. We don’t allow their kind in here. Sorry, kid. Get out.”

Val stood up and reached into his pocket, then leaned over the Commander’s desk again, speaking quietly. “Commander, you will show no change of expression on your face. Do you recognize this?” he asked, opening his hand.

The commander paled, but to his credit his eyes lifted to meet Val’s gaze without any change of expression. “I do. Are you from Struthers, then?”

“No. I am here on Imperial business. Notify Admiral Korban.”

“I won’t let the Chessori in, Sire.”

“Very well, they’ll wait outside.” Val ushered Forg and his men back through the door to wait in the corridor, then returned. The commander led him to the admiral’s office, which they entered without knocking. Val stepped across the threshold to find five blasters aimed at his midsection, including one in the hand of an aging admiral who stood behind a desk.

“You’ve got some explaining to do, Lieutenant,” the admiral said grimly. “But before you do, hand your weapon butt first to Commander Gorvl.” Val hesitated. The admiral added, “Quickly, young man, if you value your life.”

Val handed over his blaster, then held his hand out to the admiral, his Knight’s Pin in plain view to all. “I take it you are Admiral Korban? I would speak with you in private.”

“No matter who sent you, there’s nothing you can say that these men cannot hear. I am Admiral Korban.” He holstered his blaster but remained standing. The other officers remained on their feet as well, their weapons still aimed at Val.

“What’s your name?” the admiral demanded.

“Sir Val, Knight of the Realm.”

“There is no realm anymore. Who are you from? Struthers? Has he resorted to this?”

“You had a visit some months ago from a young woman. You believed her enough to provide her with a changeable beacon. I am proof of her story, and I am proof that the Queen lives.” Val threw the Pin onto Korban’s desk. “You know the drill, Admiral. You are oath-bound to follow it. Open the Pin.”

“I suppose Struthers has discovered the secret to making these things.”

“Only one with the Touch can complete the process, as you well know.”

Korban picked up the Pin and attempted to open it, but he could not.

He placed the Pin back on the desk. “Okay, your turn,” he announced. Val reached for the Pin, but Korban’s hand grasped his before he touched it. “Not so fast. I do know the drill. If apologies are necessary later, I will make them, but a lot is at stake here. Just leave it on the desk and pass your hand over it.”

“No apologies are necessary,” Val answered. “I, too, understand the stakes.” With his gaze locked onto Korban’s, Val passed his hand over the Pin. The locket snicked open, and their gazes broke, Korban’s lowering to the pin, Val’s remaining on the admiral.

Korban stared at the Pin for a long time before his gaze lifted to meet Val’s, then traveled around the room to make contact with each of the other officers.

“It’s as she foretold,” he said in amazement. “It’s Daughter.”

“She’s your Queen now, Admiral.”

Weapons returned to their holsters, and Korban’s shoulders sagged. He fell back into his seat with his eyes closed. Val sensed that a terrible burden had been removed from his shoulders.

“At last,” Korban mumbled. He looked deeply into Val’s eyes. “She foretold your arrival. She told me to hold, and she told me that my burden would be heavy. She was right.”

Val’s lips compressed into a thin smile. “She usually is. She is my sister.”

Mike

Chapter Eight

Reba was bouncing off the walls, as always. Captain Palmetier encouraged her to spend as much time in the net with George as she could, thereby improving already good skills, but keeping her out of mischief as well.

George had all the latest refinements Shipyard could provide. Besides the updates to himself, his beacon was adjustable, he was capable of micro jumps, and he now carried four batteries of lasers, two lasers in each battery and each more powerful than before.

Resolve fast-shipped to the outskirts of Earth’s system, then reverted to normal speed, taking three weeks to reach orbit. During those three weeks, George kept his sensors busy searching for signs of Chessori or Rebel ships. He found no traces of them.

Mike waited until full twilight at the ranch in Wyoming before landing. Resolve settled down about a mile from the main house so as not to scare the livestock or any people who might be about.

Jessie prowled the grounds out of sight as Mike and Reba approached his home. Some eighteen months had gone by since Ellie had shanghaied Mike, a time during which his family had heard nothing from him. Two dogs gave the first warning, barking as they raced up to Mike, their tails wagging vigorously. The front door opened, and his father stepped out and stared, then closed the door behind him and waited. Mike walked up the three steps to the wide veranda with a hesitant smile. His father took him in a bear hug.

“You look fit, son.”

“I am fit. You look well, too, Dad.”

“The aging process is taking its toll, but I still carry my load. Introduce me to your lady if you would.”

“Sorry, Dad. It’s not like that. She’s got someone else in her sights. Her name is Rebecca Morrison, daughter of Senator Morrison of Virginia.”

“Pleased to meet you, Ms. Morrison,” he said, reaching out to shake her hand. “Admiral Trexler told me you two were together. I want to hear all about it, but first I have to prepare your mother for this. Give me a few minutes. You don’t just want to appear in front of her. Wouldn’t be good for her.”

›So this is where you grew up?‹ Jake asked.

›It is. I rebuilt my car in the barn over there. Out beyond it is the stables where we kept our horses. Right beside it is the corral where we practiced roping steers.‹

›Want to give a demonstration?‹

›I’m pretty rusty. Are you ready to make repairs?‹

›Maybe another time.‹ Jake chuckled.›I think we have bigger fish to fry at the moment.‹

›We do. I hope you don’t mind if I don’t tell them about you right away.‹

›Not a problem, Mike. I wouldn’t be surprised if you don’t ever tell them. It’s not necessary that they know, and they wouldn’t exactly be meeting me.‹

›Not without going into the net they wouldn’t. We’ll see.‹

›Are you going to tell them you’re married?‹

›I don’t know. We’ll have to see how things go. I’m barely used to the idea myself.‹

Mike sensed another grin from Jake. He, too, appreciated the incongruity of a man from Earth marrying the Queen of All Space. His head shook as he once more considered how lucky he was.

And he missed Ellie. Had there been any other way to deal with Earth, he would have stayed with her. Though she had a full complement of Protectors, she had no one from Earth to protect her from the Chessori. The Great Cats were good, and Ellie was on Shipyard, a world the Rebels did not know about, but he still worried.

Getting reunited with his parents was as wonderful as Mike had hoped it would be. He and Reba filled them in on their adventures, though they painted with a wide brush, giving only the barest details. Reba called her father’s cell phone, dragging him from his bed at home in Annapolis and informing him that she was back and in need of a meeting. She needed Admiral Trexler, as well.

They got little sleep that night: Jessie was introducing herself to the dogs, a critical step that might not succeed. Mike stepped out into the night with the dogs on leashes as Jessie approached and was surprised to see the confusion in the dogs’ minds. Clearly, Jessie looked threatening to them, but they had no memories of her smell, and she talked, ordering them as their master did, using all the right commands. And she had treats! It was touch and go, with growling, prowling, and whining all night. By the next morning, it looked as if an unhappy truce had been reached, though the dogs remained very uncertain.

Mike introduced Jessie to his parents the next morning. They remained almost as uncertain as the dogs.

He took them to the ship where they met Alexis and her four Protectors, Mildred the nanny, Captain Palmetier, and the rest of the crew. Expecting eagerness, Mike was disappointed at the forced cheerfulness of his parents. He quickly sensed they were utterly overwhelmed by the ship and the alien creatures that inhabited it. It was too far removed from their lifetime of focus on farm and family. He cut the visit short, never even mentioning George or Jake.

Mike had his doubts about their apparent willingness to take in Alexis and Mildred, but he had no ready alternative. His sister, Mary, lived nearby. When brought into the picture, she jumped at the opportunity until she realized the size of the group accompanying Alexis. Her home simply had no room for Mildred, the four Protectors, and her own family.

They took a time out. Mike and his father saddled up three horses while his mother prepared a picnic lunch, and the three of them rode out toward the foothills. Mike didn’t see Jessie, but he knew she was nearby. They didn’t have to go far, setting up lunch in a meadow beside a small stream where they had spent many happy times together fishing for trout.

›It’s a nice world you grew up on,‹ Jake said to Mike.

›It is, but I didn’t really appreciate it until I left, and that wasn’t completely voluntary.‹

›But it is now. There’s nothing to stop you from staying.‹

›You’re right. Just the small matter of my wife light years away and the minor uprising we’re trying to put down.‹

›Well, I for one am glad she kidnapped you. We wouldn’t have met if she hadn’t.‹

›I’m glad too, Jake. You’re home to stay for as long as you want.‹

›You have a few hundred more years ahead of you with me aboard. I guess I’ll stick around. It’s not worth the trouble trying to fix up someone else.‹

›Someday I hope to show my home to Ellie,‹ Mike said.›I don’t suppose we’ll ever have the opportunity to settle down here though.‹

›Not likely. The Empire will never accept its King and Queen living anywhere but the Palace.‹

›Well, maybe we’ll lose this war. Maybe then.‹

›Don’t even think it, Mike. You know they’d find you.‹

His lips pursed, but he did not respond. Instead, he asked a question of his parents, something he hadn’t really delved into since his arrival. “How’s the ranch doing?”

His dad smiled. “Doing well. Mary and John do all the running of it now. They manage the staff, the books, and most of the problems. I’m just a ranch hand most of the time, filling in where needed. And I’m happy with the arrangement. Your mother and I, for the first time in our lives, have freedom to travel, read, and do all the things retired people get to do. Since you kids moved out, we’ve gotten to know each other all over again. Guess what? We’ve discovered we love each other more than ever.”

His mother smiled. “We’ve missed you, Mike. I wish you could stay.”

He frowned. “You know I can’t, but you don’t know all of it. I’m married now.”

“To Ellie?” his mother asked with a smile.

“How did you know?”

“Every time you mention her, you either brighten up or show the worry that someone in love would show. I’m sorry we missed the wedding. When do we get to meet her?”

“It’s time for complete honesty here, Mother. And Dad,” he added, looking into his father’s eyes. “If we live through the next few years, maybe then. I hope it won’t take longer than that.”

“Is it so bad?”

“Yes, and no. Have you seen me without my weapon since I arrived? Even in the house?” Stares from each of them told him it had been very noticed. “It’s been bad, very bad, but I think we’re getting our act together. There’s something you should know. Have I given you any feeling for how large the community is out there?”

“We’re trying to grasp it, but probably not,” his father replied. “Thousands of worlds is pretty hard to picture.”

“It is, and it’s really hundreds of thousands of worlds. What I haven’t told you is that Ellie is in charge of it all.”

His parents looked at him with questioning looks etched onto their faces. How could he expect them to understand? He still had trouble with the concept himself.

“Mom, Dad, some women in Ellie’s family, and only her family, have been gifted with certain Talents that help them govern the Empire. Because of these gifts, these women have literally held the Empire together for thousands of years. She and Alexis are the only two remaining females of that long line, and these special abilities lie only in the women. To the Rebels, Ellie and Alexis are the most sought after targets in the galaxy. That’s why Alexis is here. As difficult as it is for Ellie to be separated from her daughter, she has ruled that they cannot both be in the same place for the time being.”

“Ruled?” his mother asked immediately.

“She’s Queen, Mother. Yes, she rules.”

“And you’re married to this person?” she asked, confused.

“I am. I don’t know how it happened. I can’t explain it, but I am. We’re very much in love.”

His mother shook her head while his dad looked at him with a question.

“Yes, Dad, I am,” he responded to the unspoken question. “I was first Knighted, then named First Knight, sort of like a prime minister or something. I’m embarrassed to tell you what my duties are supposed to be. Let’s just say that at this moment I command all her armed forces and will eventually lead the Imperial Senate, as well. If we prevail.”

“You know how to do this?” his father asked in amazement.

“Heck, no. I’m learning as I go. I have some incredibly talented help.”

›Thanks, Mike,‹ Jake broke into his thoughts.

›You bet, partner,‹ Mike thought silently.

“Protecting Ellie and Alexis is, and has been, my first priority,” he continued aloud. “Alexis is my daughter now, too. She needs a safe home, somewhere the Rebels and the Chessori would never think to look, but I’m getting the feeling that it might not work for you as I’d hoped. I can tell you’re overwhelmed with all this. Let’s speak honestly. Does leaving her and her nanny, as well as the four Protectors, here in your home work for you?”

A long silence ensued. His mother broke it by looking at her husband, saying, “Ellie is our daughter-in-law. That makes us this child’s grandparents.”

His father remained silent for a long time, chewing on a piece of straw he’d gotten from somewhere. “I guess it does,” he finally concluded. “It would put all of us, including Mary and the rest of the family, in a dangerous position.” He looked at Mike. “Do you want that for us?”

“I do not. I’m a little short on alternatives, though. The key to the whole thing is to keep it a secret. I haven’t found any place or anyone else that I trust. The cats’ home world, Brodor, is our second choice, but it’s also the most likely place for the Rebels to look.”

“What kind of security do you have in mind?” his father asked in his quiet manner.

“Several levels. You and mother are the last and final level, though I don’t believe it will ever come to that. We will provide weapons, and they’re easy to use. The next and most important level are the four cats. They are lethal and exceedingly good at protection. The next level will be special soldiers from our own army, once they’re selected. Their purpose is to counter the Chessori psi weapon I told you about. They and the cats will work as teams.

“The first level of security will be two ships in space. If a threat appears, one will immediately bring word to me or Ellie. The other will pick up Alexis if that is deemed appropriate. If enemy ships come, we’ll have several weeks of warning and will be able to get her away in plenty of time before they arrive. Our ships have some hyperspace capabilities these others not only don’t have but are not even aware of yet. The key is secrecy. We will keep our forces as small and compact as possible.”

His parents sat silently for a time, contemplating. He decided to go for a walk to give them privacy. When he returned, his father stuck out his hand.

“I guess this is more important than lazing around in retirement. We’ll do it, and do it happily. The best part of our lives has been raising you kids. We’re up to one more grandchild.”

*****

Senator Morrison, his wife, and an exhausted Admiral Trexler arrived the next day. “Good to see you again, Mike,” Trexler said with outstretched hand while Reba and her parents reunited. “Where’s the lady?”

“Not here. We’re not out of trouble yet, but we have a plan. You’re very much a part of it.”

“Again? What do I have to do this time?”

“How would you like to go with us?”

Trexler’s gaze narrowed. “Be careful what you offer, I might take you up on it. Are you speaking for yourself or these aliens?”

“Both, sir. I’ve been, ah… promoted.”

“I see. And Reba?”

“Yes, she’s been promoted as well. She’s now Lady Rebecca, one of a very small, select group of Knights surrounding the lady you referred to, the lady we call Queen.”

“Queen!” Trexler exclaimed. “That lady was a queen? Queen of what?”

Mike lifted a hand and waved it at the sky, his eyes focused far beyond. “Everything out there,” he said. “Or, as she put it to me, ‘a thousand worlds would fill just one corner of her realm.’”

Trexler frowned, trying to adjust to the big picture. Mike took his shoulder with a knowing grin to lead him into the study for privacy. “Think big, Ray,” he continued. “Think real big, as in galaxy big. She’s the Queen, we’re in the middle of a coup, and we’re the good guys. This time I’m certain of it.” Mike coughed into his hand, clearing his throat while the admiral digested this news. “Ah… Ray, she wants to hire you.”

Trexler’s eyes narrowed. “For what?”

“Reba can’t wait to tell you. How about we take a stroll with her?”

The Carvers hosted a ranch style lunch, then Mike, Reba, Trexler, Senator Morrison, and Jessie went for a walk, just heading down the dusty lane.

“You look tired, Ray,” Reba observed as they set out.

“Your dad pulled some strings. I was in Beijing, China eighteen hours ago. Most of that eighteen hours has been spent in the back of a jet fighter going as fast as it could to get here. The President pulled out all the stops when your father called.”

“It’s appropriate, and we’ll make it up to you, Ray. We have a new job for you. You won’t need the old one anymore.”

“So I gather from Mike. He won’t tell me anything about it. Care to do the honors, or do you intend to keep me in anticipation, Lady Rebecca?”

Senator Morrison choked. “ Lady Rebecca?”

Reba turned angry eyes to Mike. “You told him!”

“Sorry, I thought you had.”

Senator Morrison stopped them all with his arms outstretched. “Will you two get your story straight and tell us what’s going on here?”

Reba told the story all over again, this time holding nothing back. It turned into a very long walk. “So, Dad, as strange as it must sound, the Empire needs our help, as many as you can provide. We suspect it’s easier to start with the Special Forces types, we only need a few hundred, but we really need pilots and gunners to spread around our ships, as well. We think that will be a lot harder for you. We’ll train them, that’s not the problem, but we need people who will adjust. That is the problem. This will take your very best just to handle the psychological adjustments necessary. And it will be a hardship tour. We can’t bring their families right now, it would attract too much attention to Earth, and there will be no way for them to communicate with their families during their tour. We think we’re looking at two or three years, possibly more.”

“How many are we talking about?” Trexler asked.

“A few hundred ground troops and maybe a thousand officers for the fleet. Is that possible?”

Trexler and the Senator stared at each other, then walked off on their own for a time. They all met up back at the house where preparations for dinner were underway. Trexler excused himself and went into the study to make a phone call. Half an hour later he returned.

“The President will be here the day after tomorrow.”

“Here!” Mike exclaimed in disagreement. “No! That’s exactly what we don’t want. We can’t attract a lot of attention to Alexis. Everything has to stay low key. I’ll meet with him at the White House.”

“You certainly will, but not yet. You can’t leave here until the place is secure, and I don’t want to waste any more time than necessary.”

“I’m not needed here,” Mike responded angrily. “And we can’t have busloads of Secret Service people showing up.”

“No busloads, Mike. This will be low key. We’re real good at setting up secret meetings like this, and you are needed here. Who’s going to protect Alexis if the Chessori show up? Your crew will be out of the picture. I’ve seen it happen, remember?”

“We just got here, Ray, and we know there are no Chessori ships in the system. We checked.”

“What if they’re already here on the ground, hiding somehow? Alexis might be at her most vulnerable this very moment. It might be stretching probability, but from what you say, only Earthmen are immune to this mind weapon of theirs. We in this room are her only defense until we get our own troops here. Got any spare weapons you can pass out to me and the Senator?”

Alexis, Mildred, and the four Great Cats moved from the ship into the ranch house, then Resolve’s crew delivered crates of weapons to one of the barns. Reba returned to Resolve and lifted into space where George’s sensors would have the best coverage possible.

Admiral Trexler slept like a log, but Mike and Senator Morrison took turns sharing guard duty just in case Admiral Trexler was right about a possible ground attack.

By mid-morning of the following day, teams of Delta Force special operations soldiers began arriving, some dressed as farmhands in civilian pickup trucks, others simply appearing from… well, to Mike they just seemed to appear from nowhere. Four teams of nine gathered around their commander, Colonel Joshua Dace, inside the barn to receive a short briefing from Admiral Trexler. Mike attached translation devices to their ears, then three teams deployed to the fields surrounding the farmhouse.

The fourth team got the full treatment, including an introduction to the Great Cats. Mike was gratified at how quickly the men accepted their situation, as was Trexler. These were good men. Two of the Great Cats assisted with the training while two remained with Alexis. The translation devices did not remain in place for long; both the cats and the soldiers disdained jewelry while on duty. They immediately set out to develop hand signals in place of verbal commands. Empire weapons were offered, but the men chose to stay with what they knew. Blasters might be better weapons, but without live fire exercises, the men would not be as effective as they would be with the weapons to which they were accustomed.

This group then rotated to the field and another team came in for the same treatment, and by nightfall, all had been through the accelerated program. More training would take place during the ensuing days, but everyone in the house slept better that night.

The President arrived the next afternoon in a beat up old pickup truck, three security men accompanying him, two riding uncomfortably in the back, all four dressed as ranch hands. Admiral Trexler assured Mike that many other resources were in place to protect the President, but they would remain invisible.

The President’s briefing began in the living room, but it ended in orbit aboard Resolve. With everyone seated in the lounge, the President leaned forward, looking at each of them in turn before speaking. Then he rose to pace.

“I appreciate the briefing and the ride aboard Resolve. At this time, we have to move into the area of diplomacy. You represent this empire of yours and I represent Earth. Whatever actions I take, I will be representing not only my constituents but the whole world. I need answers to some hard questions, and if you’re able to convince me, you’ll then have to convince others who may be even more demanding. Until then, not a single soldier will leave this planet. Understood?”

Mike took up the challenge. “It’s not a perfect world, sir. It never is. I know what your first question will be, and my answer to it will not be conclusive.”

“Very well, then, do your best. It’s obvious that any actions we take on Earth to help this Empire of yours could place us in danger, a lot of danger. Is it a risk we should take? How do I know we’d be helping the good guys?”

“Is America a ‘good guy,’ sir?” Mike asked, then held up his hand to forestall the President’s indignation. “I say again: it’s not a perfect world out there, any more than it is here on Earth. Earth has thousands of years of history behind it, most of it tainted with extreme warfare. Many people on the planet are starving while the strong indulge. That’s the reality here, and it’s probably the reality out there,” Mike stated, pointing his hand at the ceiling. “I can’t say for certain, because I haven’t seen that much of it, but the Empire has its share of crime and unfairness.

“As for government, its members have chosen to join together through a representative Imperial Senate under the Queen’s guidance and have been doing so for thousands of years, longer by far than any political entities here on Earth have survived. It seems to work. The reason it works is that the system has eliminated most of the large scale brutality. Seldom does the Queen get involved in internal conflicts. She focuses, instead, on conflicts between worlds and societies, many of which are so different, even weird, that it’s fairly amazing that anyone can succeed at the task. Yet, until now all members of the Empire have continued to support the system, in part because of the Queen’s special abilities. Worlds that have not chosen to join are simply not permitted to interact with other worlds. It’s like the United Nations wants to be, except in this case, the Empire wields the largest bat.”

“Except for these Chessori. It appears they have a larger bat.”

“I can’t say, sir. We just don’t know what they’re up to yet. But forget the Chessori for a moment. At present, they’re just a tool used by the Rebels. This tool has potentially given these Rebels the means to take down a legitimate government. It’s really no different than if your top generals and admirals decided to do away with you and the rest of the political leadership here in America. Earth has seen it untold times throughout history. The generals have the power, and your leadership endures only so long as they permit it to endure. All it would take is one or two exceptionally charismatic generals to bring down the house of cards. If they did, would they represent the true wishes of the people?”

“Can you prove to me that is what’s happened to your Empire, that your Queen does serve at the pleasure of its members?”

Jake spoke privately to Mike.›Let Jessie tell her story. No one can doubt the value of Empire after hearing about her people.‹

›You haven’t been around enough Earthmen yet, Jake. We doubt everyone.‹

He turned to Jessie. “Will you tell your story?”

Jessie padded up to the President and sat. “My people call themselves ‘The People.’ Two thousand years ago we were already known as great warriors, and a few of us had gone out into the Empire to act as Protectors. We never developed space travel on our own, nor do we even now have a desire to do so. We’re at heart a primitive people, and we remain true predators. Our civilization is not particularly large, and we like it that way.”

She looked at the President with fierce eyes: this story still burned in the hearts of her people. “Another space-faring people were angered by certain actions of our Protectors. They decided to exterminate us, but they did not personally have the ability to do so. We are serious survivors. Instead of fighting us directly, they imported hordes of gleasons, the most feared creatures in the galaxy, to do their fighting for them, and the attempt nearly succeeded. We overcame the first and second deliveries of gleasons, but by then our ranks had been decimated. When the third delivery landed, we had little hope. The Empire came to our rescue before we succumbed, and at great risk to themselves, they helped us defeat not only the gleasons but the civilization that brought the gleasons to us. Since that time, my people have dedicated themselves to supporting and upholding the laws of Empire.”

She stared hard into the President’s eyes. “The Royal Family represents truth. The Empire enforces fairness, and within the memory of my people, it has always been so. We support both to the death.”

“Then why hasn’t your Empire shown itself to us? We have plenty of problems of our own that we could use some help with,” the President shot back.

“Earth is classified as an emerging world,” she stated. “Under ordinary circumstances, the Empire has a ‘hands off’ policy for such worlds. Interaction with the rest of the Empire changes emerging people, and like it or not, they are forever after unable to develop as they would have if left untainted. We have not come willingly to this table. Sir Mike has dragged us.”

“We’ll have to delve into this issue a lot more, but it can come later.” The President turned back to Mike. “Next issue: what risks do we incur?”

Mike had given this serious consideration. “My best guess is that there is no risk at all for the moment. That could change if our plan works, but that will be a year or two away, at least. By then, I hope to have sufficient forces in place to protect Earth. To the best of our knowledge, the Rebels do not know of our plan nor of the ineffectiveness of the Chessori mind weapon against the people of Earth. We have a plan to further delay their learning of this.

“However, I personally suspect that the Chessori know, or at least suspect, that we are different. It’s stretching the imagination a little, but if you consider all the reports here of alien abductions, and if you attribute some measure of truth to them, I think it’s possible the Chessori have been studying us for some time now, possibly to determine why we are immune to this weapon of theirs.”

He paused to let the President consider the idea. “Sir, I’m curious if the Roswell aliens are a myth or if they are real. From the stories I’ve heard, they appear to resemble the Chessori.”

The President eyed Mike suspiciously, then shrugged. “I don’t know the answer to that, but I’ll definitely look into it. I see where you’re headed with this, and it could make a big difference to Earth’s level of risk. What kind of protection can you provide to the planet? Will it be effective?”

“I can’t give you absolute assurances, sir,” Mike responded, “in part because we know so little about the Chessori. But by the time the Rebels figure out what we’re up to, we’ll either be well on our way to success and more than capable of protecting Earth, or we will have failed and the Empire will be in decline. If we fail, as far as the Rebels and the Empire are concerned, the threat to Earth will evaporate. They won’t care about our special abilities.

“As for the Chessori, if they don’t already know about Earth, they will not find out from us or our activities. If they already know about Earth, we humans are probably perceived as a potentially serious threat to them, but not until we develop space travel.”

“Not true,” the President said. “We don’t have to develop space travel, we only have to travel in space, and that’s just what you’re planning to do with these recruits.”

“Consider the alternative, sir. Suppose Earth chooses to avoid this conflict, to remain on the sidelines, to stay safe. Without our help, I believe the Empire will fall. If the Empire falls, Earth will share some of the blame in condemning the rest of the Empire to whatever fates befall them. More important, when chaos reigns and some alien race decides to take Earth under its wing, it will do so whether we want it to or not. And the Chessori are still out there, ready to pounce on Earth whenever they feel like it, especially if the human race continues its steady march into space. Is that the future you choose for mankind? Do we bury our heads in the sand, give up the conquest of space, and stop being who and what we are, or do we risk?”

“That’s unfair, and you know it.”

“I do not know it, sir. Based on the best intelligence I have concerning the Chessori, two things stand out. The Empire will lose this war if the Chessori mind weapon is not neutralized, and we are the only species in the galaxy immune to that weapon.”

Reba leaned forward in her chair. “Whatever course you choose, Mr. President, Earth’s continued existence may, even now, be only at the whim of the Chessori. Sir, that’s like standing in front of a lion without any means of protecting yourself. Your only hope is that the lion is not hungry. That scares the heck out of me. Whether you like it or not, Earth is already at terrible risk, right this moment.

“Be proactive, sir. We can make a difference, and we can assure the future of our world in the process.”

“If we live long enough.” He turned back to Mike. “You’re saying that if we stay out of this, we’ll be living in fear forever. If we help, we live in fear for a little while. How long?”

“Probably at least a year, maybe two. We’re going to train the men and women you give us, then we’re going to hit the Chessori hard and fast. As soon as we have enough ships under our control, we’ll send some to Earth. It’s likely that by the time anyone realizes where our guys are from, we’ll be here protecting Earth.”

“Hmm.” The President wasn’t particularly happy with this answer, and he was less happy seeing his options melt away.

Mike stood up. “Sir, I give you my personal assurances that the Empire will do everything in its power to protect Earth. Don’t forget, I’m from Earth, too. I can almost guarantee you that a significant fleet will arrive within the next year or two, a fleet that will remain invisible to the civilians here but that will be adequate to beat off any attack against Earth.”

“And during that two year period, there’s nothing you can do?”

“There’s nothing that needs to be done. Earth has been ignorant and defenseless for thousands of years. If we keep this whole thing under wraps, no one will have reason to treat us any differently.” Mike held up a hand. “There is some risk, sir. I believe it minimal, but haven’t we always risked in order to advance?”

“What advancement are we talking about? What do you offer in return?”

“Let me be completely candid here, Mr. President. To America only, I offer nothing. To the world, I offer eventual membership in the Empire if they so choose. I won’t promise you a timetable, that will have to be worked out by experts who know a lot more than I do about people’s reactions to all of this. The last thing any of us wants is for civilization here on Earth to melt down over knowledge of extraterrestrials. It’s probably a good homework assignment for you.” Mike smiled, knowing that the President was probably not accustomed to being given assignments.

The President got up to pace again. “You’re right, Mike: it’s never easy. The galaxy isn’t going to go away even if we close our eyes to it. Humanity has reached a turning point: we’re on the cusp of a fundamental change to our beliefs and ways of life. I, personally, intend to have a part in it. You will have your soldiers and sailors.”

He turned to Admiral Trexler. “Do you have a plan?”

Trexler stood up. “Yes, sir. But it is fundamentally important that we not limit our selection of individuals to our own military forces. History demands that this be a global effort. Common sense dictates that it remain known to only a limited number of people, as well. It must remain undetectable to everyone not within a very small circle of decision-makers. I’m suggesting, sir, that we recruit from as many different cultures as possible. Some of our recruits will be active military, but many can come from those who have retired. Mike tells me that we’re not looking for quick, young reflexes here as much as we are for cool heads, individuals that will at all times also have to be diplomats. I’ve spent a career getting to know people from all over the planet, and the assignment you gave me a year and a half ago, to bring word to certain national leaders that we are not alone, has opened many doors. I’m certain I can network these resources to come up with the people we need, and it can be done quietly.”

“Very well. Find an office somewhere and get moving on it. Mike and I will focus on the political end of things while you and Lady Rebecca do the legwork.”

Two months later they were ready to go. Mike had traveled much of the globe in order to convince political leaders it was in their best interest to allow some of their best people to leave the planet. Admiral Trexler and Reba had spent innumerable hours interviewing candidates. About half of those selected were pulled from retirement, and some were senior officers on active duty. Surprisingly, they acquired a number of very senior officers, individuals who were willing to give up lucrative commands in order to go into space where they would simply be crewmembers with no command authority at all until, and unless, they came under attack by the Chessori.

Mike was home visiting his parents when he was approached by Colonel Dace, the officer in charge of the Delta Force soldiers guarding Alexis. One of the Greats Cats accompanied him.

Dace had impressed Mike on the day he arrived. Whereas most of his troops tended to be large, husky men, Dace was wire thin and of medium height, and Mike had been surprised that a person of average size could pass all the grueling training required of these very special soldiers. Dace had not only passed, he had come up through the ranks the hard way, having entered the Army as a private. He did not have the hardened look of a professional killer as many of his men did. Instead, he frequently smiled, even cracked jokes from time to time, and he seemed completely at ease with the responsibilities thrust on him by the strange assignment. Mike had quickly discovered that he was not an armchair officer. He was a natural leader and accepted no less from himself than he required of his men.

Dace saluted him. “Sir, I respectfully request that my men and I accompany you on your mission. We’re prepared to ship out as soon as we train our replacements.”

The request caught Mike completely off guard. “Colonel, I was told you and your men are the best the Army has. You’re needed here.”

“Agreed, sir, but we’re needed even more where you’re going. We have a two month jump on learning how to work with the Protectors, and we can speed up the process for the rest of the men that go with us. From what I hear, the mission you have in mind for your men is more critical than the mission here. I will personally guarantee you that our replacements are up to the task before we leave.”

“How much do you know about the mission out there?” Mike asked.

“I know what you told us, and I’ve had further conversations with Lady Rebecca. Horth here has filled in a few blanks, as well.”

“I don’t see you wearing the translating device, Colonel.”

“We use it occasionally, sir. All my men are multilingual. It’s one of the requirements of every special operations soldier. We’ve managed to pick up a little of the lingo. Not much, but a little. We learn faster without the device.”

Mike turned to Horth, speaking in Galactic High Standard. “Do you know what’s going on here, Horth?”

“I do, Sire, and I support his request. Under his leadership, his men have learned to coordinate their activities very well with our own.” He awarded Mike with the toothy grin favored so much by the Great Cats. “Just like you, Sire, they are quick to learn. Colonel Dace and Otis will function well together to prepare the rest of the men for their duties.”

“But you have little support here. If it comes to a fight, you need the very best.”

“I am assured by Joshua that his replacements will be up to the task. Great fighters can be provided, but I have watched Joshua and his men carefully. They are all leaders. Each one functions efficiently with the rest of the team, but also on his own, needing no guidance, an important quality for Protectors. I can’t say Joshua and his men are the best your planet has to offer, but I doubt if anyone is better. Most important, I believe they will fit well with my brothers. His request is more specific than simply accompanying you to train the rest of the men. Has he informed you of his plans?”

Mike turned back to Josh. “Horth says there’s more to your request.”

“There is, sir. I’d like me and my men to be assigned to the Queen’s personal guard.”

“All of you?” Mike asked in surprise.

“However many it takes, but definitely led by me,” Josh answered.

“I don’t think you know what you’re letting yourself in for,” Mike replied grimly. “While I can’t say exactly how all this will play out, I can tell you that we anticipate having to smuggle the Queen into a Senate meeting hosted by the enemy. She will have to speak, and depending on the outcome, we may have a real firefight on our hands, both coming and going. All that in addition to potential assassins more hideous than you can imagine striking at any moment. There will be losses, Colonel.”

Josh pursed his lips. “About what we thought. We’ve discussed this, sir. My guys are willing to commit for the duration. I’ve selected men from all over the planet: Delta Force, Green Berets, Navy Seals, British SAS, and others. My guys in particular have been together for some years now. We’ve been an elite group within a larger elite group and have been tasked by the White House on a number of occasions for special missions. We’ve seen combat, we’ve rescued hostages, and we’ve provided personal protection to VIP’s. We’re mature, we’re effective, and just as important, we can be counted on to not betray a confidence. The Queen will need us near her at all times. We’ll be right there in meetings at the highest level and there won’t be many secrets kept from us. She and her staff can feel comfortable discussing things in front of us that will go no further, guaranteed.”

Josh paused for a moment before continuing, looking Mike straight in the eyes. “You see my men as trained killers, sir. What you don’t see and may not know is that every single one of them functions as an executive. Every one of them is a college graduate, each of them has had to demonstrate high intelligence, they’re good planners, and every one of them is a leader.”

“What about families?”

Josh rubbed his hand along his jaw as he considered. “That’s the tough part, isn’t it? There’s no good way to leave families behind, though we’ve done it before for shorter periods of time. It’s a terrible sacrifice, more so for our families than ourselves. My wife will skin me alive, but she’ll also be proud if she’s ever allowed to know what we’ve done. My men are pretty much all in the same boat there.”

“We’re not asking anyone to keep this a secret from their spouses, Josh. We just don’t want it going any further than that.” He took Josh’s hand and shook it. “You’re in, if Admiral Trexler agrees. You realize that the Queen’s security detail answers to me?”

Josh smiled. “You I can handle, sir. It’s this Otis guy I’ve heard about that concerns me.”

“We’ll see about getting you a few days off before we ship out. I’ll talk to the admiral, but you’d better get started on finding your replacements.”

“Already done, sir. I just need the go ahead. If you’re willing, I’ll make the call to Admiral Trexler.”

Mike nodded and Josh saluted him, then at a hand signal from Josh, he and Horth turned away.

A week before the anticipated departure from Earth, two freighters from Serge arrived in orbit with the message Val had sent via drone to Parsons World. Colonel Dace arrived in Washington, DC with the message, joining Mike, Reba, and Admiral Trexler in their hotel.

Val’s message explained that, though he had not yet reached Orion III, he believed Admiral Korban had bowed to pressure from above to place Chessori observers aboard some or all of his ships. Val believed the Chessori’s purpose was identical to what he had experienced aboard his own cruiser, Beta IV. The Chessori would be held in reserve until needed, then simply take over Empire ships at will. Orion Sector could well be lost if the Chessori were not rooted out from the ships and from sector headquarters. Was it possible for Earth to supply soldiers specifically for this job? Just a few per ship would be a huge help, though more would be better. He couldn’t know for certain how entrenched the Chessori were on Orion III, and other sectors might be at risk as well.

Val appended a couple of important pieces of intelligence. He believed the Chessori communicated telepathically. The range of this communication was unknown. It might be the interstellar communications system they had heard about, though that seemed farfetched to him. Because of this telepathic ability, all ships within a squadron would have to deal with the Chessori at the same instant and from an isolated position far out in space between worlds. If they didn’t, the Chessori would have the ability to warn Chessori in other ships. If the range of this telepathic ability was interstellar, they had a much more serious problem, possibly an insurmountable problem.

He desperately needed several hundred men. A thousand would be better.

Val’s last item brought a gasp from Mike. Val informed him that though the Chessori had partnered with the Rebels, their ultimate goal was to replace the Rebels and take the Empire for themselves.

Mike turned to Trexler, shaken. “Can your guys clear ships?”

“Definitely not. They can fly, and they can man guns, but they’re not hand-to-hand guys. What Val needs is soldiers trained at urban warfare. They’ll be clearing corridors and fighting room to room within the confines of a ship.”

Colonel Dace was the first to speak. “We barely scratched the surface of global special operations troops when we put my group together, but what you’re describing is perhaps the most difficult fighting of all, and the casualties will be high. You need really good men, but you need men you can afford to lose.”

“I’m not sending anyone into certain death,” Mike replied.

Trexler corrected him. “You don’t want to, but you might have to, Mike. Welcome to the ranks of colonels, generals, and admirals. We sometimes have to make those hard choices.” He held up a hand as Mike prepared to argue. “We’re not going to send anyone into certain death, but we are going to send them into certain danger. There will be losses. It’s our job to minimize those losses by choosing the right people, then training, equipping, and leading them. It’s also our job to ensure a steady flow of replacements as the men get used up. We have a fairly large body of men trained with just the skills you need. They’re called Rangers. There’s probably no one on the planet better at urban warfare. We’ll have to see the President again.”

“We have to keep it an international force if we can.”

“I’m not going to make that call,” Trexler replied. “What do you think, Josh?”

“We need to select the leader of these men and let him decide,” Josh answered without hesitation. “And I know just the guy for you. His name is Colonel Waverly. He was a Green Beret before Delta recruited him. He’s back with the Rangers now, and I’ve worked with him on occasion when we needed backup from the Rangers. If you can get him, we won’t have to wait around while he gets everything together. He’s been in special operations most of his career, except when he’s been on loan to other countries to liaise with their own special operations guys, and if anyone can put together an international force of urban warfare experts, it’s him. And he’s seen a lot of action. There’s no one better to call the shots.”

“Where will he get his troops? Can we come up with the thousand Val requested?”

“Our Rangers can easily spare a thousand, but Waverly has contacts all over the world. He can bring in British, Israelis, Russians, and he’ll probably bring more SEALS, Marine Recon and Green Berets, maybe even Military Police, and some Shore Patrols,” Josh answered. “The Marines and SP’s are well-trained on shipboard duties; they might be a good resource for tactics aboard ships. The rest specialize more in street fighting, but the skills are similar. Waverly will get them, he’ll make sure they’re very good, and he’ll make sure they speak English. And a thousand won’t be any problem at all. Waverly can get the first batch on their way, then someone else can start working on reinforcements and replacements.”

Assignments were finalized: Mike would accompany Josh and his men to Brodor while Reba remained on Earth to work with Waverly. When Waverly’s group left for Centauri III, she would accompany them. That left Trexler on his own, but only until reaching Parsons’ World. There he would have the full support of Chandrajuski’s fleet.

Senator Morrison was present to see them off. Just before boarding his ship, Mike handed him an envelope containing a note from Val. After reading it, the senator sighed. “He’s asking my permission for Reba’s hand. I already like him. Reba’s told me all about him. He seems exceptional.”

“He is,” Mike agreed. “In every way. I can’t offer higher praise.”

“Well, when you see him tell him he has my blessing, and thanks for asking. I’ll put in a request that they wait until her mother and I can attend, but we’ll understand if they don’t.”

Mike grinned. “They’re separated by light years at the moment. I’ll pass on the message.”

“Light years might even be a challenge for Reba,” Senator Morrison answered morosely but with a grin. “God bless you all.”

Three freighters from Parsons’ World landed at night on a remote dry lake in Nevada. Awaiting them were Trexler’s 1,000 pilots and gunners destined to spread throughout Chandrajuski’s fleet and Dace’s 300 Delta, SEALS, and SAS specialists. The two ships destined for Parsons’ World left first, each carrying half of Trexler’s officers. The remaining ship lifted for Brodor soon after, carrying Mike, Dace, and the men who would be Protectors.

Chapter Nine

Excitement filled Admiral Raymond Trexler’s thoughts as he boarded his ship in the high Nevada desert, but the excitement was soon replaced with misgivings. Rudimentary furnishings had been provided in cargo holds for his 500 men and women, but there was little privacy. Not a great beginning for his recruits, he grumbled to himself as he moved among them offering words of encouragement and patience. He had expected more from this Empire he had agreed to help, but he was not about to admit it to anyone but himself.

Translator devices were handed out, and once they were in space, Serge’s captain spoke to them, apologizing for the accommodations but informing them that their stay on the ship would be brief. The trader was a fast ship, and the voyage would only last a few weeks.

Trexler knew that at the moment his biggest enemy was inactivity. He sought out the captain, and together they constructed a full agenda for the recruits. Language training was a high priority, and Serge had sent several language specialist to get them started. Crewmembers, when available, led groups of recruits on tours of the ship, including the bridge, while others held classes in galactic geography and Empire government. Trexler and his senior staff were offered opportunities to enter the net, and all but Trexler did. He chose to defer his own training, deciding that his presence among his recruits was more important.

Reports from the officers who entered the net filtered down continually, giving hope and confidence to everyone. Yes, it was possible to learn to fly the ship, and yes, it was a lot of fun.

Admiral Chandrajuski greeted Trexler on Parsons’ World and whisked him and his senior officers to a meeting while everyone else got settled into quarters. The second ship landed right behind the first, and Trexler’s 1,000 recruits were a single unit once again.

Trexler was impressed with the program Chandrajuski had thrown together. Not only were lessons and coursework ready, Chandrajuski had thoughtfully arranged for the well-being of the recruits as well. Each received a complete physical, and in some cases, cures for ailments that were just an ordinary part of life on Earth. Glasses and contact lenses soon disappeared – they were no longer needed. Certain pathogens were erased from a large number of these aging warriors, and exercise periods were a required part of the curriculum but with a twist. Elementary language lessons took place during the exercise periods, even when the words were not completely understood. Shouting out proper pronunciation during repetitions was a great way to accustom voices to demands of the new language they would learn, and repetition taught numbers and letters.

Chandrajuski was astounded when Ellie dropped from hyperspace. He, Serge, and Trexler met her as she disembarked from the trader late that same day, her Protectors surrounding her. Trexler kneeled beside them, and she stopped before him in surprise. “Admiral Trexler?” she asked.

“At your service, Your Majesty,” he said, looking up at her with a grin.

She took his hand, forcing him to stand, and just stared at him, then turned to Chandrajuski. “Do you know who you have here?” she asked.

“He’s in charge of the recruits from Earth, Your Majesty. You know him?”

She stepped back to study Trexler, directing her words to Chandrajuski. “Do you remember the admiral who helped Mike and me escape from Earth?”

Chandrajuski’s head swung toward Trexler on his long neck. “You’re him?”

“I am, sir.” He turned to Ellie. “It’s a pleasure to meet you again. Your situation is improved this time, but not by much.”

“Indeed, it is not. Mike said you would likely be out of a job after we left, that there was no approved method in military circles for dealing with aliens, and you’d be sacked. I’ve always regretted that.”

“There were some interesting meetings after you left, but I managed to hold on. I lost my fleet, but I was promoted and given the job of spreading the word of you aliens to carefully selected world leaders. Mike pulled me from that job, too.”

She smiled. “Much to our benefit, Admiral. I’m pleased that you’re here, and pleased that you have heard my call and responded a second time. This time, it must have been by choice.”

“Definitely by choice, Your Majesty. Mike, Reba, and Alexis were all well when I last saw them.”

“I needed to hear that. Thank you. Will you three meet with me in my quarters? I’d like to be brought up to date, and I want to know what I can do here to assist with the training of our newest recruits.”

“Your Majesty?” Chandrajuski said in shock.

“You heard me. I’m going to help. If nothing else, I managed to pick up a little of the language from Mike and Reba, and my Rider is from Jake’s line. It knows the language well. Perhaps I can help my recruits with their language lessons.”

She took Trexler by the arm and walked away, leaving Chandrajuski and Serge Parsons staring at each other in amazement.

Ellie jumped right into the language lessons. Her students immediately focused on the Great Cats accompanying her, so she concentrated her first lessons on them. Expecting to find the training monotonous, she instead found it exhilarating. Within a couple of months, the only language permitted at the training facility was Galactic High Standard except during technical classes where translating devices were required.

When she wasn’t teaching, she was talking. She insisted that, regardless of how full the training schedule was, these men and women from Earth had the right to know the full story, not only of the Chessori and the rebellion, but of the impact others from Earth had already made within her Empire. Schedulers made certain she spoke before every class of recruits, and Mike and Reba’s story became well-known to these warriors. A sense of pride filled them, and more important, she convinced them that they could, in fact, learn this job and make a difference. In her estimation, it wouldn’t be long before their own stories added to the tale.

Serge’s training facilities worked around the clock with the goal of each recruit experiencing the net within the first few days after arrival. Even ships in port were used to bring the recruits into the net. By the end of the second week, some 100 had moved on to weapons training. By the end of the second month, everyone was flying ships in the simulator mode. Detailed training in handling ships and weapons under battle conditions soon followed. Admiral Seeton’s ships, the squadrons he had promised, began arriving at about the same time. Trexler sent half of the recruits into space to continue their training, rotating each half of the trainees on a two week cycle.

In some ways, Trexler’s recruits had the easiest training regimen, but in the long run theirs was the most technically demanding. They had the net to train them, but unlike Mike’s hurried training on Earth, these warriors not only had to learn to handle their ships, they had to learn to function as a battle group, and the standards set by Chandrajuski and his admirals were much higher than Mike had ever achieved.

Two difficult stumbling blocks presented themselves. The first was language. Though language was not an issue in the net, each of Chandrajuski’s ships would be staffed with only a limited number of Terran crewmembers, and they had to function side-by-side with fully qualified Empire officers when outside the net. The second problem was the attitudes of the Empire crewmembers. They were understandably proud of their positions, and they, too, were warriors. They did not relish the thought of turning battles over to newcomers from an emerging world. None of these ships had fought the Chessori, and none of the crewmembers had experienced the scree. Until they did, the Terran sailors had to focus on diplomacy almost as much as training.

Chandrajuski’s staff took care of administration, ensuring the recruits focused only on training, but Trexler and his senior staff could not avoid all administration. Every minute of every day was full for these leaders. Chandrajuski himself was in and out during these months of training, shuttling by fast ship to Aldebaran I and other sectors to meet with various admirals and politicians.

At Ellie’s request, Trexler joined her for dinner whenever he could get away. Rather than giving him a break from his duties as she intended, it usually just meant less sleep for him, but the two of them became instant friends.

“Mike tells me that knowledge of aliens could have a severe impact on Earth culture,” she said as they relaxed before dinner.

“Earth cultures, you mean. We’re like a kettle of soup, with beliefs ranging from one extreme to the other. All the parts go together to create a fine dish, but the individual parts remain just that – individual. Many of our people have no common grounds for coming together.”

“Perhaps knowledge that they are not alone will provide that common ground.”

He winced. “I wish it was so, but I don’t think it is. Not only are national identities strong, many are rooted in religious beliefs that are thousands of years old, beliefs that put humanity at the center of everything. It’s my understanding that most religions have no provisions for accepting outsiders. Many will brand the Empire as evil. It’s a huge problem, and there’s no way we’re going to hide our efforts out here for long.”

“What’s being done about it?”

“Knowledge is the key, and time is an important element in the process. My people tend to resist change even when it’s good for them. World leaders are spreading the word carefully, and they’re including religious leaders. I was part of the process just before coming here. The plan is to give these leaders time to consider how they will integrate their teachings with knowledge that we are not alone. I don’t know if the process will be successful.”

“Mike really wants to bring Earth into the Empire.”

“So do I. That doesn’t mean we’ll succeed. There will be great hope and opportunity for some, and strong resistance from others. It could easily lead to war, and I mean global war.”

She looked away from him in distress. “My Empire will not force itself upon Earth.”

“Mike’s very words, but that’s not the problem. Even if we choose to remain separate, to bury our heads in the sand and try to ignore you, the fact that you’re out here will not go away. Beliefs will be tested and tested hard. I can’t predict the outcome. And the Chessori are not going to go away.”

“The Chessori are an exterior element, and it’s my job to protect Earth from outside aggression. The Empire will not let the Chessori take over Earth.”

“At the moment, the Chessori are beyond your means to control. One single ship with the right germs aboard could wipe out all life on Earth. There are indications that the Chessori have been studying Earth for many years. I think we know why, and if they’re so inclined, they probably have the means to exterminate us. Actually, as strange as it might sound, the Chessori threat could be the thing that unites Earth. Beliefs are strong, but the will to survive is, I believe, even stronger.”

“I give you my word that I will do everything I can to protect Earth from the Chessori.”

“I know you will, Your Majesty.”

“Ray, I have a name. We’re going to be spending a lot of time together, and it’s time you started calling me by my name when we’re in private.”

“Your Majesty, I don’t even call my President by his name. I don’t think anyone does except his family.”

“My name is Ellandra of the Chosen. Do you know what it means to be one of the Chosen?”

“I do, Your Majesty.”

“Mike shortened my name. He calls it a nickname, and I like it. Among my closest friends I’m known as Ellie. Got it, Ray?”

He smiled. “Got it, Ellie, though I confess I find it strange to be calling the Queen of All Space, as Mike refers to you, by a nickname.”

“It’s a small circle that has earned the privilege. You’re one of them, and I’m counting on each of you to speak plainly even when we are not in agreement. Understood?”

“Understood, Ellie. I insist on the same treatment in my own command.”

“What can I do to help you and Mike bring Earth into the Empire?”

Trexler turned away as he considered. When he spoke, it was without hesitation. “First and foremost, protect us from the Chessori, but as soon as we can, we need to find the means for Earth to help in the process. Mike and I need to focus nations on survival of our species rather than fighting each other. Earth can’t just sit idly by while you do the fighting for us. We need to take part in the process, struggle mightily to build whatever machines are necessary to fight, and supply fighters from all over the globe to do the fighting. If we can make it a global effort, the process has some hope of unifying us.

“Beyond that, two items of significance come immediately to my mind. The first is that our energy production is, in most cases, carbon based. We’re drilling all over the planet to bring petrochemicals to the surface where we convert them to energy to power our cities, factories, and transportation systems. In the process, we’re not only polluting the planet, we’re fighting over the resources. The Empire has moved beyond this technology, and Earth needs that technology.

“Second, if you have the means to somehow neutralize nuclear weapons, we might just survive whatever conflicts arise while we adjust to the knowledge that we are not alone. Can you do that?”

“I don’t know. Chandrajuski might. The Rebels used a nuclear weapon at the Palace to instigate the coup. It was a weapon that did not destroy buildings, but the radiation killed everyone.”

Trexler nodded. “We have similar weapons. I’ll discuss it with him.”

“Do we have time to settle our differences with the Rebels before we address the problems on Earth? My resources are quite limited at the moment.”

He stared at her for a time as he considered. “Probably not. From what Mike tells me, you’re not going to defeat the Rebels without defeating the Chessori, and if my forces from Earth are successful, the Chessori, and maybe the Rebels, are going to focus on Earth as soon as they figure out what’s going on.”

She nodded, frowning. “The Chessori appear to be another empire in and of themselves. We have no idea whether their resources are limited or massive, nor do we have the means to take this war to them. Not yet.”

He stood up to pace. “Can you isolate the Chessori that are already here, keep them from being reinforced?”

She shook her head. “No. Space travel doesn’t work that way.”

“Then you have to isolate the Rebels, defeat them in spite of their Chessori partners. Without local assistance, the Chessori would have no bases.”

“We’re working on a plan to do just that. Defeating the Rebels militarily means all-out civil war, and I won’t allow that. I plan to defeat them politically.”

Trexler’s eyebrows raised. “How?”

She grimaced. “I’m not certain. We’re working on a plan. It will, most likely, require me to address the Imperial Senate in person. It so happens that the Imperial Senate convenes on my home world, a world that is now Rebel headquarters.”

Trexler blinked, several times. “And you’re going to speak there? How? Is it possible?”

She stood up to face him. “I don’t know. The very thought terrifies me, but I will do whatever is necessary to prevent civil war. Train your men well, Ray. I’m going to need their help.”

*****

Chandrajuski assigned Admiral M’Coda, a Schect and the best tactician he knew, to mentor Trexler through his training. In addition to mentoring Trexler, M’Coda constantly evaluated the other candidates from Earth for command positions. He and Trexler would select the individuals who were best qualified to command squadrons, and a select few would go on to further training as fleet commanders responsible for multiple squadrons. Fleet tactics were still under development, and these few individuals would become part of that development.

Chandrajuski, Jeffers, and M’Coda met with Admiral Trexler and two of his senior staff to determine the minimum battle staffing of Terrans for each ship, assuming the scree disabled all regular ship’s personnel. A typical squadron consisted of fourteen ships: a cruiser, one frigate, and twelve fighters. Heavy squadrons included a second frigate, and light squadrons had no frigates at all and only six fighters. Cruisers alone normally sailed with a staff of some 1,500 officers and sailors, and another 500 were needed to staff the rest of the ships, more when the squadron was augmented with the second frigate.

A cruiser mounted over a hundred weapons, all controlled by twelve batteries of multiple weapons through the net. Each weapon needed a gunner. Additionally, the bridge required an absolute minimum of three officers, one in command of the squadron, another commanding the ship and monitoring damage control, and the other flying the ship. Repairs by Terrans during battle would be limited, falling to the ship’s normal complement subsequent to the battle or during a respite if one occurred. A cruiser needed 30 of Trexler’s men all by itself just to permit a minimal level of offensive capability. The Operations Center, at least initially, would not be manned by Terrans. There just weren’t enough Terrans to go around. The Terran squadron commander would lead from the bridge of the cruiser.

The smaller ships each needed a captain, a pilot, and a gunner for each gun. Total minimum staffing for these ships came to 60.

Ninety men for each squadron meant they could only field eleven squadrons, not nearly enough. Discussion became heated, but Chandrajuski made the final decision. Each squadron would receive one-half of the necessary complement of Terrans. They would just have to make it work. Aboard cruisers and frigates, one Terran would have to operate a battery all by himself. They would be going up against Empire ships, but those ships, too, would likely be operating with reduced staffing. As soon as the Chessori activated their scree, only the Chessori would be available to fly and fight the ship.

No one was certain how many Chessori were aboard Rebel ships, nor did anyone know their levels of expertise, but it seemed reasonable to count on a significant reduction in capability. After all, the Chessori’s primary weapon was the scree. They would anticipate easy pickings from any attackers.

Trexler knew and understood the odds. He also knew that the Chessori’s best defense would be to keep the Rebel ships fully functional by not using the scree. If the Chessori had that level of discipline, his men and women would face a fully operational opponent and would not stand a chance. They would have no option but to back out of the net and let the Empire crews duke it out. If the scree was used, the odds were very much improved and his men had a chance.

He would have liked to think that everything depended on the skill levels of his men and women, but in reality everything hinged on the abilities and discipline of the Chessori. In his favor, his crews were all warriors, and they were, in effect, defending their home. They would be effective if given the slightest chance.

Chandrajuski fielded 22 squadrons consisting of some 270 ships. Still not nearly enough, but it would have to do. Initially, their only purpose was to rid the Empire of ships taken over by the Chessori. It soon became apparent, however, that other demands would be made on these squadrons. One minimally trained squadron was dispatched to Brodor at Mike’s request. Three more squadrons would be used for picket duty at Parsons’ World, and one squadron would be assigned to travel with the Queen. Engineers were converting as many ships as they could into fast ships, but it was a slow, tedious process. Clearly, if Struthers discovered that Parsons’ World was Ellie’s headquarters, he would attack in overwhelming numbers. They had to keep a reserve of ships there.

Trexler was now wishing he’d brought two or three thousand more sailors with him. It was an unreasonable wish, but he wished for it anyway. After much soul searching, he dispatched an officer back to Earth with a request for more help: any combination of pilots and gunners for the fleet and more special operations ground troops for Waverly. The new troops would be months away, but it was his responsibility as commander to ensure a steady stream of reinforcements and replacements.

K rys

Chapter Ten

“No Chessori,” Stven muttered to himself as Rappor’s screens filled. The great, purple dragon felt a puff of noxious gas coming on, but he swallowed it. His pilot, M’Sada, simply could not suffer the pain it caused him. “That’s a bit unusual.”

“Thanks for swallowing, Captain. It’s not the normal pattern, I agree.” M’Sada’s two upper hands, almost never still, finished preening his whiskers and moved on to his two long antennae. His remaining eight short legs jerked from time to time as his conscious mind, mostly disconnected from his body, roamed the net. “I’ll keep an eye out, though. They seem to find us no matter where we go.”

Sangia IV lay three weeks ahead. It would be their twelfth stop on this remarkable, clandestine voyage, a voyage that had been immensely successful. Stven had changed the ship’s beacon code after each stop, something completely illegal and unknown within the rest of the Empire, and it seemed to be helping, but a pattern had emerged: inbound legs to each world had been free of threat, but somehow the Chessori were always on their tail when they left, regardless of how careful they’d been during meetings. Early jumps were dangerous, and he fretted. He couldn’t keep it up forever without risking the ship, but there was no ready alternative.

Stven had made a number of changes to crew assignments over the many months they’d been together. Knowing that a confrontation with the Chessori was inevitable, he’d decided to train the Great Cats to fly the ship. They already had the basics, but he wanted them to use the full capabilities of the net. That meant the rest of the crew was out of the net, but that was okay if it kept them alive.

The skills of the Great Cats grew logarithmically with access to the net. No longer did they operate guns manually. They had the full benefit of targeting data, tracking, and communication with their captain, the Great Cat Borg. Gordi’i and Kali’i, Rappor’s gunners, had the AI throw everything at them that it could, and the cats’ performance now was second to no one within the fleet.

Gortlan, the engineer, trained Tarn in the process of changing the beacon code of Rappor. While they worked on that, Stven and M’Sada improved their own skills of keeping the net alive without an AI. The AI had to be completely shut down when changing the beacon, and the two on the bridge had their hands full managing the ship without its assistance. Krys was brought in to help, and though her mechanical skills were not good, she could alert them to problems as she prowled the ship through the net.

Stven was confident that each position now had at least one backup, and the Great Cats would take over completely if they encountered the Chessori mind weapon.

Rappor landed at the civilian port on Sangia IV, and Stven went by himself to the operations office to log in his arrival.

“I’ll need a complete manifest,” the agent told him.

“You need what?”

“A complete manifest. New procedures,” the creature told him, “and I’ll need to log in your captain’s certificate.”

Stven hesitated, then listed fictitious names for Krys and Tarn. Since at least one Great Cat would have to accompany Krys to any meetings she set up, he simply listed Great Cat instead of a name.

“Their kind are not allowed here anymore,” the creature said as he examined the document. “He will have to remain aboard.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Stven said angrily. A small puff escaped from one nostril, but he did not apologize. “My passenger is a wealthy socialite. Her father will fire me if I let her out without protection.”

“I’ll put you in touch with a protection service. Their fees are substantial, but they’re good.”

“I think I’ll bring the cat instead.”

The creature looked at him closely. “I don’t recommend it, Captain. It won’t make it past the perimeter of the port alive.”

“Who’s going to stop a Great Cat?”

The creature lowered its voice. “I don’t like it either, but that’s the way it is. Look around on your way back to the ship. The port is well-defended.”

“Look, her father is a friend of Admiral Stebbenz. Are you going to buck his authority when she calls him?”

“Stebbenz is dead. His replacement instigated the new rules. Sorry.”

The man’s communicator buzzed. He took the call, then looked askance at Stven. “It appears there’s some irregularity with your certificate. Please proceed through the door over there,” he said, pointing down a long corridor.

“Hmm. I think I’ll wait on my ship. If someone has questions, they can find me there.”

He turned and left, his communicator to his mouth the moment he went through the outer doors. “Trouble, M’Sada. Get ready for an immediate departure, and do not ask the port for permission.”

He hurried across the tarmac, but it was a long way to go. Before he’d gone far, several vehicles with armed police came around the terminal building and headed in his direction. The moment they did, two Great Cats descended the ramp at a dead run toward Stven, weapons belts strapped to their bodies. Stven made a quick decision and unfolded his wings, took several running steps, and lifted a few feet into the air. Dragons were not fast, but they were faster in the air than on foot. He was half way to the ship when the port guards opened fire, and one of his wings was hit. He went down, stumbling as his four massive legs took the shock, then he was up and galloping for all he was worth.

Return fire came from the ramp. To his surprise, it was Gordi’i and Kali’i, each aiming two long-barreled blasters from semi-exposed positions at the top of the ramp. All three vehicles were damaged in the space of a few heartbeats, and the police were forced to continue on foot. With a second look at the Great Cats, though, they turned back and took defensive positions behind their smoking vehicles.

Weapons appeared in the hands of the Great Cats, and they opened fire on the vehicles, forcing the guards to keep their heads down. The primary focus of the guards was the cats, but Stven was hit again just as he reached the ramp, the shot ricocheting from the scales on the top of his head to detonate against the ramp. He went down, out cold.

Moving an unconscious dragon was not an easy thing to do. Gordi’i and Kali’i each raced to his side, but they could not budge him. The cats were returning to the ship, each covering the other as they retreated, when two stingers headed their way from the terminal building. Resembling small tanks, the handheld weapons of the cats would be useless against the stingers.

The top turret on the ship opened up, fired twice, and both stingers exploded. The guns traversed to the damaged cars, and the police hiding behind them gave up the fight, running for the protection of the building. The cats joined Gordi’i and Kali’i and managed to haul Stvens’ body onto the ramp. The moment the ramp closed, the ship lifted.

M’Sada and Tarn were in the net, and they were soon joined by Krys. She took the bottom battery of two guns, while Tarn stayed with the top battery. The moment they were away from the port, M’Sada angled the ship toward space.

“Two Empire fighters just lifted from the military port,” Tarn said, almost casually.

“They’ll have a slight speed advantage,” M’Sada answered, as they left the planet behind.

The two fighters gradually closed the gap. “They’re holding position, and they’re holding fire, but they’re in range,” Tarn said. “Our aft shields are full up. Permission to fire?”

M’Sada, busy with flying the ship, thought hard. The trailing fighters were within range, but they weren’t firing. Why not? His upper hands began a rapid preening of his two long antennae as he considered. A couple of answers came to him immediately: either there were other ships ahead that would do the job, or these two wanted to get farther from the planet before firing.

A chill suddenly ran through his body, and the preening stopped. There definitely were ships ahead of him, but they were a long way out. There was only one reason he could think of that would cause the ships behind him to delay firing. They would be using a weapon they did not want the people on the planet to know about, and there was only one weapon he knew of that fit that description: the Chessori mind weapon.

“Cats to the bridge,” he ordered over the communicator. “Crew, standby to disconnect from the net.”

The moment the cats arrived, M’Sada briefed them, then handed the net over to them. Borg was captain, and Kross and Trist each manned a gun battery. The changeover wasn’t a moment too soon. One moment M’Sada was staring at the screens on the bridge, and the next he was rolling across the floor in agony. So, too, were Tarn and Krys.

Borg was cagey. He left the ship on its original trajectory, making it act as if no one was at the controls. The two fighters approached without even putting up their shields, and Kross and Trist opened fire simultaneously, destroying both ships. The mind weapon stopped, and M’Sada and Tarn slowly came to their senses. Krys did not.

M’Sada staggered back into the net, replacing the cats with himself, Kali’i, and Gordi’i. Tarn took one look at Krys and immediately went to her. She was unconscious, her breathing irregular. “She’s in trouble,” he shouted to M’Sada. “I’m off to sick bay.”

“She comes first, Tarn. We’ll mind the ship.”

Tarn picked up Krys’ slim body as if it was a feather and hurried to sick bay. He placed her in an analyzer, then pulled the cover closed. It took a while, and he didn’t understand all the details of the findings, but he understood enough to know that she had some bleeding in her brain. The readings were amber on the screen, indicating only mild concern. Chemicals were administered automatically, and there was nothing further for him to do.

Kross and Trist showed up dragging an unconscious Stven between the two of them. There was just no way they could lift him to a bed or a table. Tarn grabbed a portable analyzer and was in the process of running it over the great body of the dragon when Stven groaned. He came to swiftly and lurched to his feet.

“Ouch!” he said, glaring at everyone. “That hurt.”

“Hey, you okay, Captain?” Tarn asked, concern etched on his face.

“Yea. Just a headache. He extended a wing, careful to avoid hitting anyone, and groaned at what he saw. A wing rib had been shattered. “I won’t be doing any flying for a while. What’s going on?”

“If you’re up to it, you’d better get up to the bridge. We’re in big trouble. Krys is hurt, but I think she’ll be okay.”

The dragon peered at the readout on the analyzer, and a puff escaped from each nostril. “What happened?”

“The Chessori are what happened. Their mind weapon seems to have affected her more than the rest of us. I’ll keep an eye on her. Call me if I’m needed.”

Stven left sickbay dragging a wing. He’d fix it later, if there was a later. He entered the net, but his thoughts were still a little muddled, so he just observed. A full squadron had just come around the planet and was headed their way, but it was a long way away. Two more squadrons, both far out in the system, were headed their way, as well, but they, too, were far off. M’Sada was busy computing the best escape trajectory. Solution after solution appeared, he selected one, then set the ship on its new course.

“It’s not the solution that gives us the most time,” Stven said softly.

“I know. We’re going to have to do it again, jump early. I’ve chosen a course that’s taking us as far below the plane of the ecliptic as I can get us. Are you okay with that? And don’t go getting all puffy on me.”

“I won’t. It’s a good choice. Looks like we have four or five days before we jump.”

“Depends on the range of the Chessori mind weapon, my friend.”

“Those are Empire ships.”

“So were the two fighters that Borg and Trist took out right after we left the planet. Chessori were flying them.”

A deep silence filled the net for a time. “Does that mean what I think it means?” Stven asked.

“Hold your breath, buddy. It can only mean one thing.”

“Surely there aren’t enough Chessori to fill out a squadron.”

“There doesn’t have to be. Who’s going to fight back?”

“But what about the other crewmembers? Surely they won’t put up with the pain and suffering?”

“Would you, if it meant you lived?”

Stven studied the squadrons in the display, his thoughts not on the Chessori but on the unlucky crewmembers who were with them. How had the Rebels convinced them to stay with their ships? Surely, they’d jump ship at the first port of opportunity. Then he wondered… were these ships allowed into port?

“This is big trouble, my friend. Seeton and Buskin can’t fight these guys.”

“Not without a lot of Great Cats, they can’t. And consider this: it wouldn’t take very many Chessori to man the guns of a squadron during a fight. They wouldn’t have to cook or clean or repair, they’d just have to have a pilot and some gunners. They wouldn’t be very effective, but they wouldn’t have to be if their targets were incapacitated. They could take them out at their leisure, just as you saw them do at Dorwall.”

Stven barely caught the puff before it left his nostril. He sucked it in and swallowed, then let his digestive system deal with it. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, but it worked in a pinch. “So a few Great Cats might hold their own against them.”

“Exactly. We need to get the word out.”

“To whom?”

“To someone who can spread it for us. We can’t be everywhere.”

“Seeton or Buskin.”

“Or both. Who’s closest?”

Stven considered. “We don’t know where Buskin is, but he gave us coordinates for a ship that will know, and he won’t be far from there. If we go to Seeton, it’ll take an extra three weeks of in-system travel. Let’s find Buskin.”

*****

Borg and his partners stayed near the bridge as the trailing squadron neared. Stven needed to get as far beneath the system as he could before jumping. He waited until the approaching ships were half a day away, then M’Sada jumped. He laboriously executed one more jump while the AI was down for a beacon change, then they headed toward the rendezvous with Buskin.

Krys was up in a few days, dealing with a headache and blurred vision, but nothing worse. Her healing would continue at its own pace now without stimulants or medicines. She resumed her meditations and a limited exercise regimen, with Tarn always in attendance to keep a close eye on her.

No one needed to state the obvious: something in Krys was more sensitive to the Chessori mind weapon than it was in the others. She suffered physical damage while they just suffered pain. Had it affected her Seer abilities? No one knew.

The rendezvous point was deep in interstellar space, so they were able to jump to it without the three week delay of transiting a planetary system. When they arrived, a full, heavy squadron filled their screens. When challenged, Stven gave the password. The proper password was received in response, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

“We need to see your boss,” Stven said. “Can you give me the coordinates?”

“Sorry, but it’s not our way. Who are you, and why are you here?”

“Our true identity is Rappor. Is that adequate identification?”

“It is. We’ll take you aboard and supply a pilot.”

Stven and M’Sada looked at each other in surprise. “I hate to give up control of the ship,” Stven said, “but from their perspective, it’s a good plan.”

They went aboard the cruiser and were met by a Commodore Gzant. A pilot was waiting with Gzant.

“Do you bring news?” the commodore asked.

“We do. Your welcoming procedures are going to have to change,” Stven said.

Stven, accompanied by Kross, followed the commodore to his office. “What’s up?” the commodore asked when they were seated.

“We have reason to believe the Chessori are aboard some Empire ships. Well… I guess I’d have to call them Rebel ships, now. Are you familiar with the Chessori mind weapon?”

“I’ve been briefed.”

“We don’t know how strong it is or what its range is, but if a single Chessori gets aboard your ship, you will have lost your command.”

“Hmm. I see what you mean. We’re going to have to inspect every ship. That’s a tall order.”

“You have no choice, sir, and you’ll have to stand well off while you do it.”

“Agreed. I’ll need Imperial Marines. Will you inform Admiral Buskin for me? I’d like to stay on station here if possible.”

“I will. Are you receiving many recruits?”

“I’ll leave that to him to explain. Fair enough?”

“It is, sir. We’ll be on our way.”

Rappor’s crew remained out of the net. Only the pilot provided by Gzant knew where they were going, and it wasn’t far. One short jump brought them to the rendezvous point. The pilot was considerate enough to activate the screens on the bridge, and the view they beheld was surprising. Some three hundred ships occupied a position deep in interstellar space.

Buskin met them when they came aboard his cruiser, and he led Krys, Tarn, Stven, M’Sada, and the three Great Cats to his office. “What news do you bring?” he asked without delay.

“It’s not good, sir. We were attacked by Empire ships that were flown by Chessori,” Stven informed him.

Buskin scratched his chin. “I just learned of that possibility myself.”

“You’re going to have to change procedures at the rendezvous point, sir.”

“I know. We’re briefing Imperial Marines as we speak. They’ll inspect each ship before we let them come here. Consider it done, my friends.” He turned to Krys. “Have your visits been successful?”

“Mostly. You can take Sangia Sector off your list. Admiral Stebbenz is dead, and the Rebels have taken over.”

“I’m sorry to hear it. I, too, have news. I just received a visit from Governor Veswicki. The Queen is alive and well.”

“She’s there?” Krys asked, rising to her feet.

“No. Her whereabouts are a secret. Veswicki received a visit from Chandrajuski and two Knights. They’ve been with her.”

Low growls of satisfaction came from the Great Cats. Krys beamed as she turned to Tarn. No words were needed as similar thoughts passed between them. Another of her visions had come true.

“So what happens now?” she asked, turning back to Buskin.

“No changes at present. I’m to continue spreading the word and accepting recruits. I received no instructions concerning you.”

“It looks like you’ve been successful,” M’Sada interjected.

Buskin turned a grim expression on him. “The ships here represent failure, Lieutenant. Each one of them is from a sector or district headquarters that has fallen to the Rebels. My forces are, indeed, expanding, but the Queen’s are not.”

M’Sada’s upper hands began preening the whiskers on his face. “Understood, sir.”

“There’ll be more. I’ll soon begin setting up additional locations for them to gather and train. I have more senior admirals than I know what to do with.”

“Have my brothers come?” Borg asked.

“Some. Not enough, now that we know we might have to fight military ships. Chessori traders are one thing, but military ships seriously add to the difficulties.”

“We’ve set a new process in place aboard Rappor, sir. Our net is given to the three Great Cats when we’re threatened by the Chessori.”

“We’re working on a similar arrangement. It’s the only way I can think of to deal with Chessori ships. Now that Rebel ships are manned by Chessori, I’m going to need a lot of your brothers,” he said to Borg. “We’ve only received two hundred so far.”

“How many more do you need?”

“Thousands if we’re to be effective.”

“Perhaps a personal visit to Brodor by Krys would be appropriate.”

Buskin looked to Krys. “We need you out there spreading the word, but he’s right. We desperately need more cats.”

“I’ll go. It won’t take long.”

“Why don’t we both go,” Buskin said. “ Rappor can stay aboard, and you can enjoy a little break from routine. A visit by me is overdue anyway. I need to arrange a better meeting process with the Great Cats. Right now, the messengers from Brodor send all their recruits back to Brodor and we pick them up there. We need to expand the program to reduce travel times.”

“Senator Truax has a similar problem,” Krys stated. “He’s decided to network his contacts. Have you considered stopping recruitment for a little while? The Great Cats, rather than going to Brodor, could fan out and spread the word. It wouldn’t take as long to reach more cats that way.”

Buskin nodded his head. “And we could establish more rendezvous points. Why have them travel all the way back to Brodor? There aren’t a lot of ships going that way, and the delays are unacceptable. Give me a few minutes to brief a temporary commander, and we’ll get underway. The rest of my fleet will stay here.”

“Would it be possible for me to meet with my brothers?” Borg asked. “I have personally experienced the Chessori mind weapon, and they should know what to expect.”

“By all means. I’ll prepare a shuttle. They’re all training aboard Brigand.”

Borg got up and left without delay. Buskin ordered an aide to get the rest of them settled into temporary quarters, and he gave instructions for his techs to give Rappor a thorough inspection.

Tarn led Krys away from the group. “I’ll get you settled while you’re in sick bay,” he informed her. “You’re going to have a thorough check-up by a real doctor.”

She didn’t argue. She, too, was concerned about any lasting effects from the Chessori mind weapon. A female doctor heard their story, then she shooed Tarn out. Krys spent the rest of the afternoon in sick bay. The doctor determined that minor healing was still taking place, but she could detect no lasting problems.

“You might not be so fortunate next time,” she cautioned Krys. “Another attack, or a stronger, longer lasting attack, might kill you.” She thought for a time. “I wonder if there’s any way to shield you?”

“There’s none that I know of. We don’t have a lot of experience with the weapon. All we know is that its range is not unlimited.”

“Hmm. I wonder if a fluid would weaken it?”

“Ma’am?”

“I think we’ll see about installing a tank on your ship, one that includes breathing apparatus. If you were completely submerged during an attack, its effects might be weakened. At the very least, the tank would assist with immediate healing. They’re quite remarkable for serious injuries.”

“You want me to hide out while my crew is in danger?” Krys asked in disbelief.

“No, I want you to survive. You’re no help during an attack, and your crew might need your help afterwards. Have any of them noted any physical difficulties after an attack?”

“None that I’ve seen.”

“Then one tank will be sufficient. I’ll arrange for some training. It could be helpful under other circumstances as well, if anyone gets injured in some other manner.”

“Does it work for non-humans?”

“For some. Are others injured?”

“My captain is a Rress. His wing took a blaster shot. He’s acting like it’s not a big thing, but I’d feel better if you looked at it, Ma’am.”

Admiral Buskin approved the installation of the tank, and technicians swarmed over Rappor. The largest tank that would fit into the room was installed. It would even hold Stven in a pinch, but more important, it would provide the most shielding possible to Krys, assuming the medical fluids would provide any shielding at all.

Krys, Tarn, Stven, and M’Sada met with Buskin a few days later to compare notes and make necessary adjustments to their plans. He had sent out large numbers of couriers, and while many had been successful, recent visits by some had gone much the same way Krys’ last visit to Sangia Sector had gone. The Rebels were moving quickly, and Buskin believed most senior sector commanders that could be reached had been reached.

“If you’re sending out that many, am I now free to focus on finding the Queen?” Kris asked.

Buskin looked at her kindly. “You’ve always been free to do as you choose. You set the process in motion, and everything my men and I have done is a result of the power of your message. That hasn’t changed. I report to Chandrajuski, let there be no question of that, but until the visit from Veswicki, I’ve thought of us as Krys’ fleet. I still do,” he added, peering carefully into her eyes. “I hope you don’t abandon us.”

Tarn grinned, and M’Sada’s preening became more rapid. Stven narrowly avoided releasing a puff. “Thank you, sir,” she said, clearly uncertain of herself. “I will not abandon you, though I will do the Queen’s bidding. What are you going to do with my fleet?”

“Until called, I’ll keep building, keep waiting, train the cats, and keep my men sharp. That’s not an easy task out here in the middle of nowhere.”

“It sounds miserable. How long can you wait?”

“As long as it takes. I’ve got some excellent contacts at district levels who keep me supplied. I may have to start rotating my men through for shore leave, but we can handle another year, at least. It’s not your problem,” he said with a smile. “We’re going to focus on districts next,” he said. “The Rebels will need a lot of manpower to bring the districts under their control, and it will take a long time. There are thousands of districts, and they will be fertile recruitment grounds for us, I’m certain.”

Krys looked worried. “They don’t have the resources of the sector headquarters.”

“Not so, Krys. In many ways, they are the resources of the sector commanders. Districts don’t have control of large fleets, but they do command squadrons, many, many squadrons, and some of those squadron commanders are going to be loyal to the Queen when they find out about her existence. I’m sending lots and lots of fighters out to as many districts as I can to spread the word. I expect more success at the district level than at the sector level, and remember… every squadron we keep from Struthers is one more squadron for the Queen and one less for him. Equally important, if we get bogged down and can’t win at the top, we’ll have to do it district by district. The more of them we have under our wings, the faster it will go.”

“So we need to prepare new lists?”

“We do. The list of sector commanders is nearly exhausted. Chandrajuski will follow up with the ones we’ve brought back into the fold. Our job is to keep searching for new ones to add to his list. It’s dangerous, but necessary.”

“What’s Governor Veswicki doing?”

“For the moment, he’s consolidating what he has. He’s promised to have ten sectors behind him soon. He’s waiting to make his move until Chandrajuski gives the okay. As you know, the Chessori issue has significantly muddied the waters.”

“Are we all competing for the Great Cats, then?”

Buskin rubbed his chin. “I don’t know. Veswicki hinted at another plan. The First Knight apparently has something in mind, but he’s not ready to discuss it. Until someone comes up with a better plan, I’ll take all the Great Cats I can get.”

“It’s asking a lot of the cats.”

“It is, and even with them, it’s far from ideal. We haven’t been able to test them under battle conditions, but we’re expecting a significant reduction in abilities. The fact that they function at all is our only hope at the moment.”

“The mind weapon is a truly horrible thing. My Protectors struggled mightily to keep going.”

“But they were effective?”

Stven lifted his head. “It’s more like the Chessori were ineffective, sir. Borg chose not to maneuver on the two Chessori. He acted, instead, as if the ship suddenly ceased functioning, as it would have under the influence of the mind weapon. The Chessori approached unshielded, certain of victory. It really wasn’t much of a fight.”

“Hmm. I’ll bet that’s one of the things he discussed in his meeting with his brothers. It’s a good strategy, at least at the start of a battle.”

“But only for a little while,” M’Sada interjected. “If ships manned by Chessori outnumber ships manned by the cats, they could have a real problem on their hands when they merge.”

“Agreed. We’ll have to model things, test them out, and let the cats learn how close they can let their opponents get.”

“Can you do that without the influence of the mind weapon?”

“We can approximate it. We can dial down the effectiveness of the cats’ weapons and find out what works best.”

“If they’re up against Chessori ships, those ships will not be limited in any way. If they’re up against Rebel ships with partial Chessori crews, there could be a huge degradation on the side of the attackers.”

“Exactly, and each situation will have different tactics. Your own encounter with the Chessori suggests something else to me. They approached with high confidence. That might well be a natural trait. If they’ve had this mind weapon for long, it might have become their primary weapon, one they expect to see work in every situation. If so, at least in the early stages of a battle, that would be in our favor. We’re going to reconsider how we position our forces at the beginning.”

“Are there reports of anyone going up against a Chessori ship?” M’Sada asked, his upper hands preening.

“Other than your own and a number of encounters by the Queen, there are none that I know about, at least none that survived.”

“If they rely on this mind weapon, I wonder how good their weapons and shields are?”

“Hmm. Good point. I have a feeling we’re going to find out – the hard way.”

Krys and Tarn remained behind when the meeting ended. “I have a personal request, sir, if you can spare a little time,” she said.

“What can I do for you?”

“I was injured during the Chessori attack on Rappor. ”

“I know. I wish you’d told me. Doctor Qrondra believes you’re recovering nicely.”

“I feel fine, but I have not attempted a vision since the attack. Are you willing to allow an attempt with you?”

Buskin didn’t hesitate. “I’d be honored.”

“If it doesn’t work, I’d like to keep it private for the present.”

“I understand. You might not be completely yourself yet.”

Krys took her seat with a hesitant smile at Tarn. His heart went out to her, but in this area, he could not help. He gave her ten minutes to sink fully into her meditative state, then he asked Buskin to take her hand.

Buskin leaned down and took both of her hands in his. There was no change visible on Krys’ countenance, but a few moments later she opened her eyes to stare worriedly into his eyes.

Her gaze went to Tarn, then back to Buskin who still held her hands. “Thank you, Admiral. I’m back in business.”

He let go of her hands and backed away. “What did you see?”

“I appeared to be looking through your eyes. I think you must have been out in space and in the net because I could see in all directions. Behind you, a blue and white planet was receding. One gray moon hung off to the side. In front of you, far in the distance, an array of many, many ships approached. That’s all I saw.”

“Whose ships?”

“I don’t know.”

Tarn asked softly, “What color were they?”

“Bright blue.”

Tarn and Buskin looked at each other. “Chessori appear in bright blue, sir,” Tarn said.

Buskin nodded, his expression grim as he looked at Krys. “How many were there?”

“Many. Maybe a thousand. The vision was accompanied with words, as some are.” She closed her eyes and said,

“Follow, or lead? Where once it was dirt, a King’s tears now fall through spread fingers. The battle is won, the war lost.”

Buskin’s focus went internal as he considered the words. So, too, did Tarn’s. Buskin spoke first. “We’re going to lose?” he breathed.

Krys spoke softly, not wanting to disturb Tarn who was seated nearby and thinking hard. “The words must be considered in full, sir. When words accompany a vision, they are always in the form of a riddle. Taken in pieces, the words can be misleading. Tarn has had some success with deciphering the riddles.”

She and Buskin waited for Tarn to open his eyes. When he did, he looked unhappy.

“I don’t sense the pattern this time, Krys. Some of it is obvious, but key parts are not, and those parts could entirely change the meaning of the riddle.” His gaze moved to Buskin. “Her visions seem to apply to the one who touches her. Most likely, she has seen something in your future.”

“That much I understood,” Buskin said dryly.

“Follow or lead? That could have several meanings.” He looked at Krys. “Did you get a sense of their meaning?”

“It seemed like a choice must be made.”

Tarn nodded and looked to Buskin. “It could mean you’ve received orders from someone above you that you might have to disobey.”

Buskin frowned. “My sense, as well. I hope it’s not so.”

“It’s the second part that makes no sense to me, sir. Since Daughter is Queen, her husband, Jornell, is King.”

“Not so, Lieutenant. Jornell is dead.”

Krys sucked in a breath, her thoughts on the Queen. “She has a daughter, doesn’t she?”

“She does.”

Tarn frowned. “If we don’t have a king, who’s king is it? We’ve seen the word ‘dirt’ in several of your visions, Krys. It has always referred to a certain individual. We don’t know who he is. Could he be a king?”

Krys shook her head. “We don’t know anything about him. I’ve never sensed he was a king, but I suppose it’s possible. I have no idea what he’s crying about.”

“Nor do I,” Tarn replied. “The rest of the words are well understood by everyone in this room, but what battle, and what war? Is it our war, or is it this king’s war?” He looked to Buskin. “Any idea, sir?”

“No, but your reasoning is helpful. Seen through your eyes, I sense something strongly from the message, and I do believe it is a message.”

“I do, as well, sir, and the vision of a thousand ships is part of it. I believe there is a great battle in your future. I’m concerned about this king’s tears. When I look at the pattern of Krys’ visions, all of them have been of something that was yet to happen, but in every case of which I’m aware, they applied to our war against the Rebels and Chessori. I believe that whatever this king is crying about pertains to us, the Queen, and our own war. In this particular case, I sense a warning more than I sense a done deal.” He looked at Krys. “What is your sense, My Lady?”

“I, too, sense a warning. We’ve spoken of changing the outcome of visions, and this might be a case of doing just that. We were successful once.”

Tarn pursed his lips and nodded. Buskin sat down deep in thought. When he lifted his eyes to them, he said, “It appears, when taken as a whole, that I will have to make a choice, perhaps disobey an order, and if I choose wrong we’ll lose the war. Any idea when this will happen?”

Krys shook her head. “I do not sense imminence. I don’t mean to sound melodramatic, but it’s possible that the fate of the Empire rests on your shoulders.”

*****

When Buskin’s squadron exited hyperspace, only a few civilian traders showed on the screens. Brodor lay some three weeks ahead. Admiral Buskin identified himself and was told to continue inbound but to expect visitors. A ship left the planet soon after. A week and a half later, it was inspected, then invited aboard. Buskin, Krys, and her three Protectors waited on the hangar deck as the ramp descended.

Three Great Cats padded down the ramp, Otis in the lead. Krys shrieked and ran to him, wrapping her arms around the fur of his neck. He suffered her ministrations, though he, too, seemed pleased. A look of sheer happiness filled her eyes as she stepped back from him.

“Welcome to Brodor, Krys,” he stated solemnly.

“It’s so good to see you, old friend.”

“It’s good to see you. I wish the circumstances were different. You are… older.”

“So are you. Is she here?”

“No.”

“I’ve never known you to be away from her.”

“I was wounded. I’m not yet back to my old self. Your brother is well, by the way.”

She grinned. “He’s a Knight now, isn’t he.”

Otis nodded. “He’s wearing Sir Jarl’s pins.”

“Oh, I wish I could have been there. It must have been special.”

“It was. Will you make the introductions?”

Buskin led the small delegation to his conference room. They got down to business immediately.

“I need more Great Cats, Sire,” Buskin began.

“I just arrived back on Brodor, only to find that you’ve absconded with quite a few of my brothers already. What, exactly, are you doing with them?”

“Training them on the net, Sire. They’re the only known tool we have against the Chessori.”

“I’ve been under the influence of this mind weapon many times. It’s not an easy thing to deal with. You expect them to fight and fly at the same time? Finesse is not possible while functioning under the strain of the mind weapon.”

Borg spoke. “I have fought and won in spite of it.”

“How many times, and against how many?”

“Once. We took out two Empire fighters crewed by Chessori. A bit of subterfuge helped, Sire. Kross, too, took out a Chessori trader while piloting a frigate. Sheeb did the shooting.”

Otis nodded. He turned back to Buskin. “How many do you need?”

“As many as you can send, Sire. So far I have twenty-three squadrons to man, and I expect more, many more.”

Otis looked from Buskin to Krys. “You’ve been busy, more busy than I knew. Does Chandrajuski know?”

Buskin answered. “If he doesn’t yet, he will soon. I recently spoke with Governor Veswicki. Chandrajuski can plan for a thousand ships at the rate we’re going.”

“A thousand!” Otis padded across the room, then turned back to Buskin. “The Queen has about 40 at the moment.”

Buskin’s eyebrows rose. “Perhaps I should go to her.”

Otis considered. “No, Veswicki will supply more, and she’s well hidden. I like your plan, and I like the idea of a reserve force. It’s going to take time to gather my brothers together and train them.”

“It is, Sire. I’d like to suggest that instead of sending Great Cats to me, send them after more Great Cats. Build a network, then deliver.”

Otis shook his head. “Had I known of your needs, it would already be in place. I’ll get started immediately.”

“Sire, I don’t necessarily need fully qualified Guardians. I need bodies that can function under the mind weapon. I’ll train anyone you send.”

“You’re running a school out there, wherever ‘there’ is?”

“I’m doing whatever it takes, Sire.”

“It takes a certain… hardness… to function against the scree. Our young ones might not be up to it. I’ll take it under consideration. What else is on your agenda?”

“That’s all I came here to do. We need to work out rendezvous points and passwords, that’s all.”

“It’s not all. There are other developments of which you should be aware. You must visit Chandrajuski personally, and perhaps the Queen, as well. A force the size of yours cannot hide out in obscurity forever – you should be part of whatever plans are being developed.”

He padded away from Buskin for a moment, then turned back to face him, peering hard into his eyes. “You bring great honor to your uniform, Admiral. Chandrajuski chose well. In the Queen’s name, I thank you for what you have done.” He sat, then looked at the two other Great Cats with him. When he turned back to Buskin, he said, “Work out the recruiting details with my men here. I need to spend some time with Krys. If you’ll excuse us, I’ll see you again before I leave.”

“Very well, Sire, and thank you. My plan won’t work without your brothers.”

“Actually, it might. If things go as planned, my men will be a temporary measure. Chandrajuski will explain.” He, Krys, and Tarn left.

“Will you join me on my ship?” Otis asked her.

“Will you join me on mine? I’d like my crew to meet you. None of them has ever met a Knight. They’ve had no proof of the Queen’s existence, only my words.”

“I’d be delighted, and they deserve proof. You and I will need some privacy.”

“I know. I hope you’ll include Tarn. He’s the Guide.”

Otis stopped dead in his tracks, a low growl escaping his throat. He turned to Tarn, looking carefully at the young man before him. After a time, he nodded and held out a hand. “A pleasure to meet you. So we finally know who her Guide is.”

“Uh, not exactly, Sire.”

“You’re not her Guide, the one we were told to expect?”

“I might be, Sire. When her need was greatest, I was there. I believe that was the promise?”

“Then why are you uncertain?”

“I’m no longer uncertain, Sire. I am the Guide, but not her guide.”

“I don’t understand,” he said, turning to Krys.

“Neither did I, at first,” she said. “I was looking for someone to guide me, when that was not what the Leaf People promised at all. They never promised me my own guide, only that the Guide would find me. My visions are for others, Otis, and I’ve never been able to interpret them. Tarn has. He’s their Guide.”

Otis nodded thoughtfully. “You’ve had more visions then. Your skills have improved?”

“Marginally. I wish I had someone who could teach me.”

“You know your next stop must be the Queen.”

She nodded. “I knew the moment I saw you. I’ve not yet met anyone who knows where she is.”

“There’s not a more carefully guarded secret. Keep that in mind.”

“I’m a little more grown up than when you last saw me. Don’t worry.”

“You’re still a cub as far as I’m concerned. Both of you,” he said, looking back and forth between the two. “How have you managed so well?”

“I have a wonderful crew, and your brothers have played their part. We’re all better at what we do because of them.”

“I expect no less of them.”

“But they did it without proof, Otis. They had some hard choices to make, and they made them without proof.”

When they reached Rappor, Krys presented Otis to the crew. They all bowed to him, but he would have none of that.

“Stand, all of you,” he demanded. He looked the crew over carefully and nodded his great head. “A Rress and a Schect. No wonder you managed so well.”

“The whole crew is exceptional, Sire,” Krys said. “Gordi’i and Kali’i are excellent gunners, and they’ve demonstrated their skills with hand weapons as well as ship’s weapons. Engineer Gortlan has managed to get us through several beacon changes, not a fun process.”

“It’s possible to change a beacon?” Otis asked in surprise. “The Queen would have benefited from an ability to do that.”

“It takes special equipment and training, Sire,” Gortlan said. “It requires shutting down the AI completely while in transit. The pilots have an interesting time holding things together while I reboot.”

Otis eyed them all hard. “Your new First Knight transited 800 light years without an AI. His Rider and your Queen kept the net functioning while he made all the jumps manually. It took the better part of a year.”

Stven looked at M’Sada in shock. “You embarrass us, Sire. We struggle to hold things together for a couple of hours.”

“Well, in your favor, the First Knight and the Queen did not know that what they were doing was difficult.” He turned to Krys. “Tell me your story.”

“I think yours is much more interesting.”

“My story is the Queen’s story. It will be told in private.”

“Otis, if your crew was so small that she had to be in the net, I think you know what life is like aboard a small ship. There are no secrets between us. There can’t be.”

Otis sat almost at attention as he considered. “You’re right, Krys. You know, of course, what happened to the treaty mission.”

“We only saw the wreckage. Tarn, Stven, and I were there. We had hoped to rescue you, but I knew we were too late long before we arrived.”

Otis nodded. “We escaped, but someone had altered the navigation program. We ended up far from where we intended. We fled to the nearest world, a world classified as an emerging world. The Chessori tracked us, and a running battle that had begun at the treaty site continued.”

“Tracked!” Stven exclaimed. “I knew it.”

“You’ve seen it?”

“We’ve suspected it. And they have some way of calling ships through hyperspace.”

“We believe they have an interstellar communicator. The Empire does not have the capability, and it places us at a tremendous disadvantage.”

“So that’s how they keep finding us,” M’Sada said. “We hadn’t followed the line of logic all the way.”

“No one else has, either, not with these Chessori. We’re learning as we go,” Otis replied. He looked at Krys. “Remember your first vision, all those years ago?”

“I remember it well. I spent years trying to figure it out.”

“It was fulfilled on the emerging world. I won’t mention the name of that world. You’ll have to be Tested before that happens.”

“Tested!” Stven exclaimed again. A puff escaped from one nostril, despite the presence of a Knight of the Realm.

Otis’ head swung slowly in his direction. “Your next stop will be the Queen. Surely you know that. Do you fear a Testing?”

“No, Sire. I just… well, I never expected to meet a Knight of the Realm, let alone the Queen.” He looked to Krys for support.

Otis turned back to Krys. “She needs you by her side as quickly as you can get there. She’s alone.”

“Alone!”

“In her mind, she’s alone. All her Knights are away on various tasks, and I don’t doubt that Chandrajuski is, as well. She needs a friend, Krys.”

Another puff escaped, and M’Sada was forced to leave, his upper hands working overtime on his antennae as he raced for the exit. Otis looked at Stven with a peculiar look. “Isn’t that considered bad form among the Rress?”

Stven’s head lowered on his long neck. “Sorry, Sire. There’s a reason I’m here instead of there, something about a weak diaphragm. I’m quite the reject.”

“Then I wish there were more rejects. Stand tall, sailor.”

“Yes, Sire,” Stven said, his neck lifting slightly, still mortified.

“You said the vision was fulfilled,” Krys said. “Most of it I understand now, but who is the man of dirt?”

“I can’t say without revealing more than I can before you’re Tested. Let me just say that you could not have been more precise in your original description of him. All your descriptions fit.”

Krys’ eyes rose to the ceiling as she remembered the words of Daughter’s vision.

“You will be so much more, and have so much less. They will best you, but a man of dirt will come to your aid.”

Alone among all her visions, she had been uncertain of one word. The word dirt seemed to carry more than one meaning. The actual word that had come to her was earth, or Earth, but the sense of dirt came through strongly. Her eyes grew large as she considered Otis’ words, but she remained mute as he continued.

“The only survivors of a ground battle on that emerging world were the Queen, her daughter, the nanny, a Rider whose host was dying, myself, and the ‘man of dirt,’ as you call him. Without his help, none of us would have survived. The Queen was forced to do a terrible thing. She stunned this man from an emerging world and permitted a newly fissioned Rider to enter his body.”

Krys sucked in a breath.

“Yes, somewhat akin to what happened to Val, isn’t it? But for the man of dirt who knew nothing of our ways, it was a difficult awakening. It took many months for him to accept the Rider. I might add that the Rider played a major part in another vision, Krys: your vision with Chandrajuski.”

Krys remembered the words:

“Easy to leave, hard to remain. The man of dirt comes to one in shadow. She will die, but death is not forever.”

“She died at the hands of a gleason, but the man of dirt sent his Rider to her. It kept her alive and healed her. I believe she has since returned the Rider to him.”

Stven worked hard to hold back a puff. M’Sada had just returned to the lounge. “Yes?” Otis asked Stven.

Stven was afraid to breath, but M’Sada, too, was intrigued. He asked the question for Stven. “A gleason?”

“You know of them?”

“Only that they’re the stuff of nightmares.”

“They are. One killed me that night, as well.” Krys turned startled eyes to him, and he grinned his feral grin. “Seems we had just enough Riders to go around.”

He turned back to M’Sada. “Recruiting gleasons could not have been easy. It shows how hard the Rebels are searching for the Queen. Know this: she represents failure for them. If the Last of the Chosen survives, the Rebels will be unable to hold the coup together.”

Otis turned glaring eyes to each of them. “Do each of you understand that?” Heads nodded, and he growled low in his throat.

“It might explain why they’ve been looking so hard for us, and why they were so successful,” Stven said. “They probably hoped they could reach her through us. But, Sire, if the gleason killed you and the Queen, who killed it?”

“The man of dirt.”

“He kills gleasons? And Chessori? And he flew halfway across the galaxy manually? Who is he?”

“He’s just a man, but he made the ultimate sacrifice for his Queen, twice. There’s a lot more to him, but his story is for another day. He is your First Knight, a title that has been earned many times over.”

Krys’ eyes sparkled. “I once told Daughter that she would find her knight in shining armor. I didn’t understand how she would do it since she was soon to be part of an arranged marriage, but her husband is dead now. Has she found her knight in shining armor?”

“You’ll have to ask her yourself, Krys.”

She smiled. His words were answer enough, and she was happy for the person who had come closest to being the mother she never knew.

Otis’ story was long, and parts were left out, but when he was done, a fire had been lit under the crew. What they’d gone through seemed paltry in comparison, but when Krys finished their story, Otis assured them it was not. “You’ve served your queen honorably and well,” he said.

He pulled Krys aside. “Is there anything you have not told me?”

“No, Sire. We have withheld nothing of which I am aware.”

“You must go to the Queen, without delay.”

“I will, Otis, but you should know this: I’m needed out here as much as I am there. In part, because I’m helping to spread the word to high ranking officers, but that’s not the main reason. Admiral Buskin has many more resources for reaching these officers, and he’s reached far more than I have. I need to be out here because my visions are helpful to the Queen. To have those visions, it seems I must be in contact with the person who is the focus of the vision, at least most of the time. Some of the people out here are going to play big parts in whatever is coming. If I can offer them guidance, it serves her.”

“She needs guidance, as well, Krys.”

“I don’t have to stay out here all the time.”

“And she might be able to provide you with some tools to help you in your job. It will be up to her. She’s a very smart lady, don’t ever forget. She’s out of her element some of the time, she’s learning how to be Queen just as we’re all learning the craft of state. She’s stumbling occasionally, but she has a plan, and you’re part of it. I’m glad we finally found you.”

“And now I have to go.”

“Yes, to her. I’m not going to tell you where she is, Krys. It’s not because I don’t trust you, it’s because you can’t tell what you don’t know.”

“Stven and M’Sada will have to know.”

“They’re Imperial Officers. They’ll handle the information appropriately.”

“What, kill themselves if we’re captured?”

“They’re fine officers, Krys. I would expect no less in these difficult times, and I’m certain they’ll deliver no less.” He opened his mouth in a leer, showing his vicious teeth. “It’s a good reason to win, to keep fighting under any circumstances, eh?”

In the end, Stven and M’Sada did not learn the location of the Queen. Buskin did, and Rappor remained at her berth in his hangar bay.

*****

The voyage to Shipyard took ten weeks. During that time, Buskin continued working with his staff to develop fighting tactics. Serious fighting would take place eventually, and tactics for fighting squadron against squadron had never been considered during training at the Academy. Worse, it looked like fleets might end up fighting fleets, an extremely complex endeavor. He’d already spent considerable time working on the issue from his hiding place out among the stars, but there were a lot of unknowns, and he was not at all confident of success.

Stven and M’Sada had both attended the Academy, but their training had focused on small unit operations. Chandrajuski had promoted them early, and the requisite advanced training schools had not been provided. Buskin invited them to join with his staff for a glimpse of the bigger picture.

Buskin configured his Operations Center on the cruiser into its simulator mode, and his staff practiced war games. Stven caught on quickly and held his own with the more senior commanders under Buskin, and M’Sada took naturally to the task. He tended to act slower, with more deliberation, but his engagements were often more successful. Some of his suggestions found their way into what was becoming a primer for large battles.

But fighting the Chessori would be up to the Great Cats. Buskin, from his earlier observations of the cats as they trained aboard Brigand, knew that although they were great fighters, they were not well-suited to commanding fleets. Their skills, honed during centuries of survival, focused on individual and small group tactics. Never had the Great Cats been asked to function as squadron or fleet commanders, and they were not good at it. The cats needed to be commanded, if only to be ordered to retreat when appropriate. They didn’t like retreating, and none of them liked calling for help. They wanted a target, and they wanted to stay on that target until it, or they, were destroyed. The trainers aboard Brigand had resorted to keeping an Empire admiral far removed from the battle in an effort to avoid the Chessori mind weapon, and it worked, but it was not nearly as efficient as Buskin wanted.

Stven took to spending long hours with Borg, Kross, and Trist in front of screens, setting up problems and talking them through solutions. By starting with the most elementary tactics, then patiently moving on to more advanced problems, almost like using a textbook instead of the pressure of real time battles on the net, the Great Cats improved their grasp of the larger picture and made real headway.

Buskin was pleased, and he decided to order similar training when he returned to his fleet. In hindsight, he’d been asking too much of the cats who had never had the benefit of Academy training. He would start over at the beginning, just like at the Academy, and advance only when the cats were ready.

*****

Krys was apprehensive at meeting the Queen. She hadn’t seen her for over twelve years now, and she’d been traipsing all over the Empire doing things in the Queen’s name, all without her permission. She felt small again, as if she was the 16 year old waif of a girl Daughter had pulled from an orphanage so long ago.

Tarn sensed her discomfort, but he, too, was concerned about what would happen following their meeting with the Queen. That they would be Tested was not a concern. What would become of Krys’ crew was.

“You know she won’t be upset with you. How could she?” he asked as they did their stretching exercises prior to meditation.

“You don’t know her. I do, but I don’t know how she’s going to take this. Tarn, I’m a Seer, her Seer, but I’m not a politician or an admiral. What we’ve been doing is both of those. She might be offended.”

“Because you brought her a thousand ships? I don’t think so.”

“It’s only three hundred so far, and ships are not her only concern. The image the Empire carries of its Queen is important, and I’ve usurped some privileges in that area.”

“You’ve only done what you felt was necessary.”

“I have spoken for her, Tarn. Many times. I’ve called all these people to her side, and I’ve done so in her name. It’s always been in her name. My name means nothing.”

He leaned forward, his head touching the deck between his spread legs. Two years ago he’d never have been able to stretch like that.

“If you’ve spoken in her name, it was right. I’ve never sensed wrongness in anything we’ve done.” He looked up at her, his chin on the deck as he held the stretch, his eyes meeting hers as she leaned across one outstretched leg. “She’s going to keep you by her side. I’ll be reassigned to another crew somewhere.”

Krys paused, then relaxed her stretch, her mouth settling into a thin line. “You won’t. You’re the Guide. I won’t let her.”

Their eyes locked. She would defy the Queen? For him? Not a chance. “You won’t have any say in it,” he said, straightening up.

She, too, straightened up, very focused. “I will have a say in it, Tarn. I’m not letting you get away that easily.”

“Get away?”

She blinked, then sighed. “How long have we been doing these exercises together?”

“Almost two years.”

“And in all that time, despite the fact that I’m wearing a skin-tight outfit that leaves little to the imagination, you’ve been a perfect gentleman. Why?”

He squirmed, not wanting to answer. When he did, the answer was pathetic. “I’m an Imperial Officer and your aide, Krys. Chandrajuski ordered me to be a gentleman at all times.”

“Pshaw. Are you human?”

“Too human. It hasn’t been easy, but one thing has helped, a lot. You’re special, probably more special than you admit to yourself. I’m slightly in awe of you.” His eyes lowered. “Maybe more than slightly.”

“You’re strong, Tarn, much stronger than me. I’ve been having trouble concentrating when we’re together.”

He closed his eyes. “Me, too.”

“Maybe you should stop being the perfect gentleman. I don’t think your orders were intended to keep two people in love apart.”

His head jerked up, and he locked gazes with her. “You know?” he breathed.

She leaned toward him and reached a hand out to caress his face. “Don’t you?”

He closed his eyes, and a hand rose involuntarily to press her hand closer. “I do know, but in this I sense wrongness. You’re the Queen’s Seer, Krys. I’m just a lieutenant.”

“You’re The Guide, Tarn, one of six people named by the Leaf People. I don’t think rank is the issue here. Look at me,” she demanded. She already had his undivided attention, she could almost feel waves of energy pouring from him, but she needed to look into his eyes. “I’m the Queen’s Seer, but I’m a person, too, and I have need of your love. I love you.”

His eyes closed as he savored the words, words he had wanted to hear for a long, long time. He opened his eyes to meet hers. “I love you, Krys. I’m not sure that changes anything, but I love you.”

Exercise forgotten, he took her hand and pulled her to himself. They lay on the deck, side by side, his hand caressing her face. He leaned down and kissed each of her eyes, saying, “I have so wanted to hold you like this. I love you, My Lady.”

He kissed her lips, and the kiss was returned.

M ike

Chapter Eleven

Training for the Delta Force volunteers headed for Brodor began as soon as they left Earth. Mike lectured on the political situation, the nature of the enemy, descriptions of various ships, weapons, and their capabilities, and he gave everyone an introduction to Jessie who, for most, was their first view of one of the Great Cats they would work beside. The roles these soldiers would play during the coming troubles was fully explained, including the fact that they, themselves, would have to work out methods for teaming up with the cats. He packed as much language training into each day as they could withstand, and with surprisingly good results. These men really were exceptional, and they refused to rely on the translation devices.

Josh insisted that nothing of substance be withheld from his men. He also insisted that, in keeping with the traditions of special operations soldiers everywhere, even senior officers participated in the training, and that included Mike. Daily PT, hand-to-hand fighting, the use of knives and other killing tools, and team tactics were spread throughout the weeks enroute to Brodor. Though these men were intimately familiar with these tools of their trade, they constantly practiced and reviewed.

When Mike wasn’t teaching, they taught him, and they just about killed him. Rank held no privileges with these men. They were all on a first name basis with their superiors, and all were senior enlisted men or officers anyway.

In the beginning they genuinely embarrassed Mike whenever possible, a part of their life that he thought he would never get used to. He had experienced the same feelings during his training in the army, and he didn’t enjoy the harassment any more now than he had then, but he understood its purpose. They were testing his mettle, and he responded by pushing himself hard, harder than he had ever pushed himself in his life.

During every period of physical training he was certain he would fail, and he could not afford to fail in front of these men. He called on Jake.›Help me, buddy. I’m dying here,‹ he cried as his arms shook from the strain of push-ups.

›Help you? Who do you think has been holding you up for the last few minutes? Not you, that’s for sure.‹

›Well, help more!‹

‹I’m dying, too. This is ridiculous. I thought we were in charge.‹

‹Not at the moment. Maybe never with these guys.‹ Mike closed his eyes and pressed on, not willing to fail in front of these incredible soldiers. He might be in charge, but he would never lead them in battle. That he knew for certain.

Josh explained it to him one night as they met for a planning session in his stateroom. “They’re going to get you physically fit, even if it kills you, though they’re sharp enough to not push too far. What you probably don’t know is that you can never get as physically fit as these men just by exercising. These men are hard. They’ve spent years being pushed to the limits of human endurance, and they thrive on it. They know they have no limitations, something you don’t know. It’s not as important for you, and we won’t have enough time to bring you to that level physically, but you’ll be pushed and pushed, and they’ll be watching you. No matter how hard it gets, no matter how much they cajole and laugh, the only real goal they have is to see that you don’t give up.”

Josh smiled grimly. “You can trust them, Mike. Each and every one of them is a teacher. They know their business and have taught many, many others exactly what they’re teaching you.” He leaned forward to emphasize his next words, spoken softly. “They won’t kill you, but don’t tell them I told you so. They don’t want you to know.”

Mike rolled his eyes. So did Jake, figuratively. Would it never end? “And I had thought I’d be bored out of my wits on this trip as I taught them to say ‘See Jane run.’”

“There’s a lot of boredom in the military, but not under these conditions. They’ll learn how to say ‘See Jane run,’ and they’ll learn it well. And the training activities help them to keep perspective. Most everything here is new to them. It’s good for them to spend part of each day doing normal routines with which they’re familiar. We practice these simple things over and over, always focusing on perfecting the basics. Survival rests on mastery of the basics, from physical fitness to shooting accuracy.

“By the way, your favorite taskmaster, Sergeant Jacobs, noticed you’re using your left arm a lot even though you’re right handed. He’s a medic, did you know?”

“No, I didn’t,” Mike answered.

›Some medic!‹ Jake exclaimed.›He’s trying to kill us.‹

“He’s as good as they come. He’s also a sniper and a demolitions expert. If he’s concerned, I’m concerned. Is there something going on with that arm we should know about? We don’t want to cause any permanent damage.”

Mike grimaced as he lifted his right arm and moved it in an arc. It didn’t hurt, not more than the rest of his body, but it was still weak, and he’d been unconsciously favoring it. “Just an old wound. The arm is brand new. I guess I’d better get serious on strengthening it.”

Josh stared at him. “I think you’d better explain,” he demanded.

“Yeah, they had to grow me a new one, shoulder and all. Took months and months. I guess it would be fair to tell your men that we won’t just throw them to the wolves if they get wounded. If they can just stay alive until we get them to a treatment facility, they have a pretty good chance of making it.”

Josh eyed him oddly. “If what you say is true, you might just make a believer out of Sergeant Jacobs. Not that he’ll let up on you.”

›Neither will I,‹ Jake said, disgusted with the whole concept. ›It’s not what I signed on for, but I won’t let you give up.‹

›Thanks, Partner. We’re out of our league here. It’s going to take both of us just to survive. Maybe you should fission another Rider. You might need some help.‹

›Sure, Mike. That’s all I need. You know how hard it was on me with Celine. We don’t get along very well living in the same body. You and I will make it on our own or we will die trying.‹

After morning PT the next day, during which Sergeant Jacobs singled Mike out for an excruciatingly painful round of upper body exercise, Josh called everyone together for a meeting. To Mike’s surprise, Josh called him to the front of the group.

“Today we’re adding a new twist to our training regime,” Josh began. “You all know our mission is to protect the Queen. Mike is going to brief us on his personal experiences of doing just exactly that. Our purpose is not only to learn how to protect the Queen but to know our enemy. As always, there’s nothing more fundamental to our survival than knowing our opponent. If appropriate, we’ll dissect his stories in an effort to improve on the outcome. We might even stage a few examples. You’re on, Sire.”

Mike, still aching and sweaty from the workout, began talking, an activity he would continue for an hour each day for the rest of the trip. He began by breaking his personal experiences down to small parts, telling a different part of the story each day until the story was done. After some sessions, the men broke into teams to discuss better tactics, or in some cases to reenact the story so that weaknesses could be discovered and corrected.

He began with his first sighting of the meteors high up in the sky above Nevada that were, in reality, star ships. The men got their introduction to lasers, blasters, the Chessori, Otis and the Great Cats, stun guns, and the tactics worked out by Mike and Otis to overcome the Chessori. Because of Josh’s insistence that there be no secrets withheld from his men, they also learned for the first time of the Queen’s Touch and of Mike’s Rider, Jake.

He led them through his introduction to George, the Artificial Intelligence that ran the ship. He saw looks of awe on their faces as he described the net, then Ellie’s risky introduction to the net, their attempted escape from Earth only to find the Chessori waiting for them, Reba’s volunteering to join the undermanned crew of Resolve , and the plan executed so well by Admiral Trexler to ensure their final escape into space.

He told of their near disastrous encounter with the Rebel squadron, the tractor beam, and his killing of George when he forced George to circumvent his most basic programming to escape. Then came the months in space as he strove to navigate Resolve across the galaxy without George’s help in an attempt to reach Gamma VI. He described Reba’s plan to surprise the lone Chessori stalking Resolve, the plan’s failure, and their discovery of the emergency stop program that finally led to their freedom from pursuit.

Then came the battle at Gamma VI against the heavy squadron of Rebels and Chessori, the call to arms by the Queen, and the resultant internal mutiny against the Rebel crewmembers of the squadron. He emphasized the leadership of the Great Cats aboard the cruiser as they took the bridge, Val’s appearance on the scene, and the ultimate decision by Val to take Resolve aboard his cruiser.

He gave them something they could sink their teeth into when he told of the fight aboard Resolve as she rested in the belly of the Beta IV. That kind of fighting was something they might one day encounter themselves. He ended that part of the story with his frightening jump onto the scout and his fatal wounding, Jake’s part in saving his life, and the wondrous healing abilities of the Empire.

So that they would fully understand the world to which they would eventually come, Parsons’ World, Mike gave them the background on the planet, its inhabitants, and the role Parsons’ World now played in support of the Queen.

Many hours were spent reviewing the rescue of Chandrajuski, knowing something like this, too, might befall this group.

Jessie told her part in Chandrajuski’s rescue. When called before the group, she began by ordering everyone to place translator devices on their ears. She would brook no misunderstandings of her words.

“We were not concerned in the least about Rebel soldiers, possibly large numbers of them. They were Sir Mike’s problem. Our only targets were three gleasons.”

She paused as she saw the looks of surprise on the faces of these incredible soldiers. “You’re thinking, ‘only three gleasons against six Great Cats?’ I say that was three gleasons too many. Let me describe these hideous creatures. They are humanoid, they stand some seven feet tall, their skin changes color to blend in with their surroundings so they are nearly invisible, and they mind link between themselves. What one knew, the others would know instantly.

“Do you think that’s bad enough?” she asked as her eyes moved over the silent soldiers. “Well, it doesn’t end there. The creatures see into the infrared spectrum, making them effective adversaries even at night. They have four powerful arms, each with a hand, and each finger of each hand is tipped with a vicious claw. They have two circulatory systems, two nervous systems, and a brain that is divided in two. If one-half of the brain is damaged, the other keeps the body functioning. Its abilities are reduced, but this creature has little intellect anyway. All it wants to do is kill and eat.”

She waited to let her words sink in. She saw a lot of calculating minds as they digested her words. Yes, they understood it would be very difficult to kill these creatures.

“There’s always some weakness,” Josh stated from the side of the room where he leaned against a bulkhead.

“True,” Jessie replied. “Gleasons are not smart. They may be cunning on an individual basis, but they are not smart. I have never heard of them acting in a coordinated fashion. Each appears to act on its own, and that is their major weakness. For the purposes of our mission, that was not a weakness we could capitalize on. Additionally, if seriously wounded, gleasons lose their ability to blend in with their surroundings. Their bodies revert to their natural coloring, a dark green. And while their eyesight is superior, their hearing is average to poor. And they stink. Those are the only weaknesses of which I am aware.”

She watched as eyes continued to calculate. Clearly, these men appreciated the difficulty of defeating such terrible foes. “How would you take them out?” she asked the group.

“From afar,” one called out. Heads nodded and a few grim smiles appeared.

“From afar, indeed,” she replied. “But to do that, we had to find them…”

Mike was ready to pick up the story when Jesse reached the part about the last gleason entering Chandrajuski’s home, but Jake stopped him.

›Look at them, Mike. They’re hanging onto every word. She’s a Great Cat, she’s a Protector, and she’s the one they have to learn to fight beside. She’s their future, not you and me. Let her finish her part of the story. Besides, it’s going to get a little personal, don’t you think?‹

Mike looked over the men, and Jake was right. Even Josh was spellbound. It didn’t hurt that Jessie was a great story teller. Even Mike was caught up in her tale, and he had been there.

“When Otis and I raced into Chandrajuski’s home, both of us severely wounded, Sir Mike and Lady Reba were the only ones standing. The scree had taken everyone else out. They killed the Chessori, then disarmed everyone present. Sir Mike was just pulling the Queen to her feet when we arrived. The gleason came in another entrance, stood up, and threw a poisoned knife at the Queen. Otis spotted the gleason, fired at it, then leaped into the path of the knife. I think he was trying to catch the knife, but he failed. The knife went into his own body.”

She paused to let them digest her words. Otis had made the supreme sacrifice for his Queen, and he had done it without hesitation. That was the way of Protectors. She never hinted that such a choice was optional, it was just the way of Protectors.

“Though Otis had wounded the gleason, it rose again. Another knife flew toward the Queen. I tried to intercept it, but I failed. The knife entered the Queen’s heart and killed her.”

Confused looks greeted these words. Josh spoke for his men. “The Queen died?”

“Yes. She died. Sir Mike killed the gleason, then he did something unheard of, something no one from the Empire would even have considered. He asked his Rider, Jake, to go to the Queen. He placed his hands around her neck, and Jake went into her body. When the knife was removed, Jake held her heart together, started it working again, and over time he healed it.

“But that was just the beginning of Jake’s battle. The knife was poisoned, and the poison worked on him, as well as the Queen. His next hours were agony as he held her together.

“Lady Reba followed Sir Mike’s example and sent her Rider to Otis. It, too, spent many agonizing hours trying to keep Otis alive until an antidote could be prepared. We escaped aboard a ship and waited anxiously for the ship’s medic to construct the antidote. It was not a simple process, and I won’t bore you with the details. I will just tell you that she created two possible antidotes, but there was insufficient time to determine which was the correct one. Sir Mike figured it out.”

Confused looks passed between the men. They knew Mike wasn’t a doctor.

›I think it’s your turn, Mike.‹

›No. I hadn’t planned for this to come out, but I see where she’s going with this. She’s teaching them what it means to be a Protector. Let her finish.‹

“You’ve chosen to be Protectors,” Jessie said softly to the soldiers gathered before her. “What would you do in such a situation?” Her eyes delved into the soldiers as she padded back and forth before them. “There are two antidotes. One might work, but the wrong one will kill. What would you do?” she asked softly.

It wasn’t long before Mike became the center of attention again. Awed looks turned his way as the soldiers muttered among themselves. Even Josh looked stunned.

“The answer was simple, was it not?” Jessie continued. “I was there, and I watched as he placed his hands on the Queen and called to Jake. What exactly did you say to him?” she asked, turning to Mike.

“I asked him to put the poison in my body, and I demanded that it be a significant sample,” he answered.

“There was no other option if the Queen was to survive,” Jessie continued. “I’m surprised I didn’t think of it myself. Mike didn’t ask anyone’s permission, he just did it. We waited for the poison to take effect, it didn’t take very long, then one of the antidotes was administered to him. As you can see, our medic chose well. The Queen and Otis both received the antidote, and after many weeks, they recovered.”

She turned to Mike. “I believe my part of the story is done, Sire,” she stated.

“I think all the story-telling is done for today,” he said. “Thank you, Jessie.”

“No. Thank you, Sire. The Empire is forever in your debt.”

The men rose as one to stare at him. There was no clapping, no cheering, they just stood there looking at him, honoring him.

Mike looked at them in return, then said, “You have volunteered to be Protectors. I will accept no less from any of you, nor do I think any of you will accept less from yourselves. Our job is to protect the Queen, period. Some of us will fall, but know this: if the Last of the Chosen falls, Earth will not be far behind. We fight for the Empire, but we fight for Earth, as well. And we’re going to win.”

Josh released the men with a stern command. “Think upon these words. You’re the best of the best, but any of you who are not up to the task, see me in my quarters. Dismissed.”

No one came to see Josh in his quarters. He would have been surprised if they had. During the following days, Mike finished his tale with a description of his trip to Aldebaran I followed by the trip to Earth. The men now knew all the players, they knew the settings, and they knew all the risks of which Mike was aware. He let them understand that there were lots of holes in his knowledge, that they would definitely encounter things he had never heard about or even conceived of, but they knew that their mission had only one purpose: to protect the Queen so she could do her job.

Their physical abuse of Mike did not change during this time, but their attitudes did. They now knew that Mike had passed his tests, tests that were different than their own, but tests nevertheless. And he had met their standard of going beyond human expectations and limitations to come out on top. The changes in their demeanor were sometimes subtle, almost as if instead of pushing him, they were pulling him to achieve more. And though they frequently called him Mike, they just as frequently referred to him as Sire.

Josh credited him with becoming their quarterback. Mike and Jessie had not only given them knowledge, they had given direction, something the men could sink their teeth into. And with a more complete understanding of the big picture, they understood that their success would mean success for Earth, as well.

›Didn’t Josh demand that you hold nothing back?‹ Jake asked him a few days later.

›He did, and I agreed that there would be no secrets withheld from these men.‹

›Don’t you think you left out one teensy, weensy piece of information?‹

›Jake, I have to work with these guys. I need to be one of them.‹

›You’ll never be one of them. You’re a Protector, but not the way they are.‹

›Maybe not, but I’m going to learn as much as I can from them. I can’t do that if I’m treated with kid gloves.‹

›Nor can you lie to them. What will happen to all that trust when they find out you’re King? They’re going to be around Ellie a lot. Don’t you think they’ll find out?‹

Mike blew out a long breath. ›They will, but not until our training is over. I’ll tell them then.‹

›Good idea. They can learn it from Otis or Jessie. That’s probably better.‹

›Look, I just want to be treated as one of them. As nervous as I am about the training on Brodor, I don’t want to be treated as someone special.‹

›The Great Cats will be in charge, and they’re accustomed to training royalty. They won’t let up on you regardless of your position. After all, it’s your life they’re training you to save. And you can never forget that Ellie’s rule is based on truth. Can you base your relationship with these men on anything less?‹

›Of course not. It’s just the timing, Jake. It can wait.‹

›No it can’t, and it doesn’t have to. You’re King, Mike. The best kings lead their men into battle. What better example of Empire rule can you set? As a leader of the Empire, you lead the battle against the Chessori.‹

So he had Josh call his men to the training room once again.

“Jake has reminded me that there can be no secrets withheld from you,” he began. “Did you get the feeling from my tale that there was something special between myself and Ellie? Well, there is. I proposed to her, and she accepted. We’re married now, so that means you’re protecting my wife, not just the Queen. I hesitate to tell you this, but it must be said. As her husband, I’m now King.”

Josh straightened from where he’d been leaning against the wall. “You’re King? King of what?”

“King of a sizeable chunk of the galaxy, Josh. King of the Empire. And in the Empire, that doesn’t mean consort. I rule by her side. Sorry guys, but that’s the way it is. Know that in the Empire, knights and kings don’t just sit around being royalty. We’re on the front lines, right there with you.

“Know this as well: I may be the Queen’s final layer of defense, and the day may come that I’m your only back-up.” He gave them a while to let that sink in, but he could tell there was some confusion. Galaxies were too big and their role in it was not clear, so he brought their focus down a little.

“Remember the tales of King Arthur and his knights of the round table?” he asked. “In those days, kings were the best riders and the strongest swordsmen. The knights were his generals, and they were the best and strongest of his men. Gentlemen, I’m King, and you are, each and every one of you, my generals. We go into battle together, and it will be a hard fight. Teach me well.”

Before reaching Brodor, it was not unusual at all for teams to be battling it out in cargo areas and corridors. They kept clear of the bridge, but the rest of the ship was fair game as they constantly practiced the basics they’d lived with for years. And Mike was part of it. He learned the proper way to hold his weapon at the ready, how to snap it into position for firing, he learned team tactics for moving through a corridor, and he learned how to clear a room, then he learned how to clear a series of rooms. He did not lead, but he learned the mechanics of the ballet these men danced as they leapfrogged through corridors, always providing covering fire and always moving at high speed. Josh grumbled when Mike erred, which he did often, but the team pressed on in spite of his errors, and he got better.

As on Resolve and Beta IV, the one thing he never got to practice was being bored.

Each man fully understood that regardless of what they learned during this voyage, their knowledge and skills would improve under the cats’ tutelage. On reaching Brodor, they would most likely find themselves in the same position Mike had found himself during the first PT workout, and that was okay with them.

*****

Their arrival on the outskirts of Brodor’s system was everything but what they had expected. Mike was called to the bridge. He arrived on the run, hot and sweaty from hand-to-hand training. Josh, Sergeant Jacobs, and Major Washburn, Josh’s executive officer and one of the largest men Mike had ever met, were right behind him. Jessie, as always, had remained at his side. The bridge quickly became a very crowded place. Captain Voorhees was in the process of setting up a tightbeam transmission with the surface.

Voorhees gave a quick briefing. Ahead of them by about two weeks of normal in-system travel speeds was a group of seven warships, a standard Empire light squadron. When hailed, they had not responded. He had no idea who they were or where they had come from.

Otis appeared on the tightbeam and grinned his feral grin when he saw Mike. “Sire, auspicious timing, wouldn’t you agree?”

“What’s up, Otis?”

“The Rebels are what’s up. They’re about a week out. Our ground defenses are ready, but they are probably not sufficient to deter the ships. We might get one or two before they take out the weapons, but that’s about it. My guess is they’re here looking for the Queen, though they might be here simply to wipe out as many of us as they can. Or both.”

“How secure is this transmission?”

“Not very. They’re between you and Brodor. That places them in the reception window. It’s probably safe to assume they have the same equipment, though it will take them a while to latch onto our code, and then only if they’re good.”

“Why so few ships, Otis?”

“It’s more than they need for a blockade. Brodor has relied on Empire protection for many, many years, protection that was suddenly withdrawn when the Rebels took over. Of course, if they land, they don’t stand a chance.”

“We’re pretty limited here, Otis. Let me think for a minute.” Mike thought hard, his mind discarding some options, retaining others. He would have to flesh his plan out with Josh, but he knew the direction they would take, the only direction they could take if Brodor was to survive.

“Switch to general transmission, Otis.”

Otis’ visage disappeared instantly, to be replaced with a normal video link. “Hail, Stardust,” Otis called.

“ Stardust here,” Mike replied coolly.

“I think you’d better break it off, Stardust. Looks like we may have a little fight on our hands here in a week or so.”

“I’m here to recruit Guardians. Can you deal?”

“No deals now,” Otis replied. “We’ve plenty of them here, in fact we’re overloaded for a change. We’ve had a general recall with this rebellion, but this time we need them for ourselves. A lucky break if I ever saw one.”

“My purchase agreement states that I don’t get paid if I don’t bring back at least three of them. I’d offer to help, but I’m just a lightly armed trader. Maybe we’ll stick around to see how things go.”

“Your nickel, Stardust. Brodor out,” Otis replied, signing off.

Stardust continued inbound while Mike held a conference right there on the bridge. As he spoke, he noticed that Sergeant Jacobs in particular, the man who had led the unmerciful hounding Mike received during daily physical training, seemed different for some reason. When Mike looked into his eyes, he instantly saw the reason why: training was over. They were operational now and all part of the same team. Mike explained the situation as he saw it, then turned to Voorhees.

Voorhees wasted no time. “We’re a fast ship. We can micro jump into them without warning. They’ll never know what hit them.”

“How’s your armament?”

“You know the answer to that, Sire,” Voorhees answered. “Serge has outfitted us very well.”

“Yes, but a squadron?”

“No, Sire, it’s not a squadron. It’s a standard light squadron. There’s no frigate, thankfully, and only half the fighters of a full squadron. I don’t want to sound overconfident, but we’re good. The odds are very much in our favor against the fighters. It would be a sure thing if we took them on one at time, but we can handle several without too much risk, and we can micro jump out when the going gets too tough, then come back at them, maybe even singling them out. It will take a while, but we can do it.

“The cruiser worries me, though. We’ll be like flees on a dog against it. We’ll worry it and we’ll bother it, but we won’t be able to take it out. We can, however, micro jump away when the going gets too tough, then come back to bother it again if we so choose. And I have some confidence that we can limit the number of shuttles reaching the ground. We can make it hard for them.”

“How likely is it that these Rebels can take out all, or most, of the cats without ground fighting?”

Jessie answered. “Not likely at all. Compared to most worlds, Brodor is primitive. Otis is prepared, Sire. I’m certain everyone is going native. They’ll be spread out, some holed up in small defensive positions and the rest just roaming free. The cities can be reduced to rubble without any loss of life at all. It will have to be a ground fight. You’ll understand better after you’ve been on the planet.”

“That’s what I was afraid of,” Mike replied. “No one in their right mind would attack Brodor on the ground. They wouldn’t stand a chance. Those are Rebel ships, and they’re carrying Chessori to reduce the cats’ effectiveness.”

Voorhees paled. Jessie’s expression did not change, but she made a simple comment. “They might be carrying gleasons, Sire.”

Mike thought about that, but it didn’t add up. “Your people stood against the gleasons two thousand years ago. Do you think it makes sense to send only one group, knowing the others failed all those years ago?”

“No, Sire, I do not. I state it only as a possibility. It would take many more gleasons than one squadron could carry. In fact, there would be massive numbers of troop transports if gleasons were to be landed. I withdraw my comment.”

“Could they have Chessori and gleasons?” Mike wondered aloud.

“Not likely, Sire,” Jessie answered. “The gleasons would suffer from the scree just as much as my people, and I do not see the gleasons fighting beside anyone, least of all a Chessori who is causing them pain.”

“So we rule gleasons out. Not that it matters: this will be a space fight, not a ground fight. If the Chessori are involved, the Rebels in front of us are not concerned with us in the slightest,” Mike summarized. “I’m a little surprised they haven’t come after us, though. They know we’ll see whatever they do. Does it make sense they’d let us get away to tell the rest of the galaxy?”

Jake answered.›I could argue that one either way. You know there will be survivors to tell the story, there are always survivors. But maybe they’d prefer we got away to tell the story. Politically, their cause would be strengthened by taking out the Empire’s Protectors. The Great Cats have made no secret of whose side they’re on. It’s probably a good move politically. And Mike, it’s just a small attack group. They can’t have the resources to defeat the Great Cats. They’re here to isolate the planet, to keep the Great Cats from helping Ellie.‹

Mike informed the group of Jake’s judgment. To Voorhees, he said, “Captain, I’d like you to keep a close lookout for other ships that might be here to reinforce them. Agreed?”

“Aye, Sire.”

“You know that all of your passengers are immune to the Chessori’s scree and that your crewmembers, including yourself, are not?”

“I do.”

“Okay, men,” he said slapping his hands together and rubbing them together briskly, “we’re going to attack. Captain, you and I will develop the attack plan. Josh, your men will man the weapons. You have a week to learn. Reba did it in an hour. Think you can manage?”

Josh grinned in reply. “How many weapons stations, Captain?” he asked.

“Twelve stations, each with dual weapons,” Voorhees answered.

“Twelve!” Mike exclaimed. “We only had two aboard Resolve, and we managed quite well.”

“Surely not against six fighters and a cruiser,” Voorhees prompted.

“Well… no. What do we do about the cruiser? Can we even take it on? Does it have a tractor beam?”

“The cruiser will not consider us a problem, just a nuisance. Have you ever seen one of these ships up close?”

“I spent some time aboard one. I’ve never fought one.”

“They’re impregnable. It’s why they were built. No one goes up against a cruiser, Sire. They’re close to half a mile long, and they carry ships like this in their belly.”

“You mean there might be more ships showing up to fight?” Mike asked, stealing a quick glance at the screens.

“No, those fighters were probably carried here by the cruiser. I doubt if there are more, though I can’t be certain.”

“And the tractor beam?”

“It most likely carries a tractor beam, though I would not expect it to be used during a battle, only afterwards. The beams don’t serve any purpose other than to move things around or to bring them aboard, and they’re a weak point during battle. Once the shooting starts, we’re the enemy; they won’t want to bring us aboard, they’ll want to destroy us.”

“How is the tractor beam a weakness?” Josh asked, immediately latching on to the one positive thing he’d heard, even though he knew next to nothing about tractor beams.

“A direct hit on a charged tractor beam capacitor would destroy the ship, Colonel. The capacitors are heavily shielded, but no captain would take a chance. You just don’t go into battle with a charged tractor beam. Period.”

Mike asked, “What if it’s already charged up? Or partially charged?”

“Highly unlikely, Sire.”

“Hmm,” Mike wondered aloud. “When we left Earth, a cruiser attempted to take Resolve aboard before the fighting even started.”

“I would say those were special circumstances, Sire,” Voorhees responded. “ Resolve had someone aboard they really wanted, and I doubt if your small weapons would have been of serious concern.”

“But the tractor beam could be a weakness,” Josh replied, pursuing his train of thought relentlessly. “Can we make them power it up? Can we make them want to capture us instead of destroy us?”

“What do we have that they could possibly want?” Voorhees asked. He considered his own words and blinked several times, then answered his own question. “The technology of the micro jump.”

Mike agreed. “They’re going to see us use it. It’ll probably scare the heck out of them, but once they get their act together, they’ll want it.”

“They will,” Voorhees replied thoughtfully, giving the idea serious consideration, then brightening with eagerness. “It might work. The tractor beam is located in the cruiser’s hangar deck. It has to be there to bring a ship aboard. It will be heavily shielded, though the hangar entrance itself is not heavily armored. It can’t be and move swiftly to allow the passage of ships. I’d like to model this before we go any further. If we can get through the shields, and that’s a big ‘if,’ there will be nothing stopping us from reaching the capacitor itself.”

“Any other surprises we should be ready for?”

Voorhees thought for a time. “Nothing comes to mind. I’ll discuss it with my crew to see if they have any suggestions.” He raised his eyebrows, peering hard at Mike. “Keep in mind that I don’t know anything about Chessori capabilities, Sire. If they use this mind weapon I’ve heard about, a lot will depend on how many there are and how completely they can man the ship.”

Mike turned to Josh and his men. “They’re very good. And I mean very good. In at least one case, they were so quick they escaped a perfect ambush by taking the only course of action they could. The decision was made in a split second, it was an unusual solution, and it worked. So be on your toes. Do not underestimate them. And one more thing,” he added to Voorhees. “No one gets away. The Rebels will not learn about our fast ships from me. We will show no mercy. Any problems with that?”

Grim expressions met his last statement. His meaning was clear; they would have to destroy the cruiser, not just wound it.

Training began in earnest. They had one week. During that time Mike had to familiarize himself with captaining the trader, two gunners had to be trained for each gun, just in case, and others had to be trained to repair battle damage. Fortunately, every special operations soldier was a specialist in at least one area, and frequently in two or three areas. Everyone was a weapons expert, and as for the repair side of things, there were plenty of demolitions experts in the group. Trained primarily to blow things up, they were engineers and readily took to the repair side of things, as well.

Gunners, engineers, several officers, and as many others as time permitted had to enter and learn to function within the net. Kirsten, Stardust’s equivalent of George, stayed busy day and night familiarizing the newcomers with the net. Mike and his backup needed the full treatment. The rest only needed to know enough to perform their jobs. The gunners had to see the big picture and coordinate their activities, but they did not have to know how to fly or manage the ship. The engineers only had to learn to follow instructions. Reba had caught on quickly, and so did Josh’s men, but Mike insisted they have a bigger piece of the picture than Reba had when he left Earth. Her usefulness had been severely limited by her rushed training, and he did not want a repeat of that.

Mike’s entrance to the net was fairly simple since he’d been there before on other ships. He found it very different working with Kirsten, whose voice was so sexy and earthy that he had trouble concentrating at first. He wondered at Voorhees’ choice of AI, but he got over it and plunged right in with Voorhees to work out a plan of attack.

He expected Josh to manage the gunners, but to his surprise, both Josh and Sergeant Jacobs declined. Jacobs desperately wanted to join the weapons group, but he admitted, grudgingly, that his primary specialty was that of medic. Though he was good with every form of weapon, there were enough others who were better. Mike thought about inviting him in anyway, he had grown to like and respect the older man, but he decided he could not intervene in Josh’s command. Besides, there might well be a need for medics before this was all over.

Josh chose the gunners from among his weapons specialists, all senior sergeants, then added Major Washburn and a captain to coordinate their efforts on the net. Everyone had a backup, and backups moved in and out of the primary rotation on command of the coordinators so that everyone was comfortable working together regardless of who was in the net.

Josh chose to be Mike’s backup, surprising Mike. “Where will I get a better command view?” he asked Mike as they discussed it.

“Have you ever flown anything before?” Mike asked.

“Only helicopters. Does it matter?”

Knowing that Kirsten would not likely die as George had, Mike admitted that Josh was right. He could command anyone on the ship from the net, whether the orders were given over the net or over a speaker. It was an excellent solution for both of them.

Josh spent endless hours in the net and more endless hours out of the net reviewing the plans and progress of the remainder of his men. Everyone had a job. Those not in the net even practiced belaying boarders, setting up teams of men who could fall back to planned positions as necessary if a boarding occurred, an extremely remote possibility.

Josh and the others on the net got to meet Jake for the first time. Until now, Jake had been just a part of Mike’s tale. Hereafter, he was a real person to them.

Voorhees and his men stayed busy everywhere. His gunners stayed in the net with Josh’s gunners while they trained, his engineer taught Josh’s men how to make simple repairs to the most critical parts of the ship, and his medic spent several days teaching Josh’s medics how to work his equipment. Others demonstrated hand weapons new to Josh’s people. The weapons from Earth fired projectiles. They were good weapons, but blasters were better, and they had a virtually inexhaustible energy supply. There would be no running out of bullets for these men. Actual live fires of the blasters could not take place within the ship, but plenty of dry firing took place.

Mike already knew that Captain Voorhees was competent, Serge held his captains to the very highest standards, but he was surprised at how easily Voorhees agreed to relinquish control of his ship when the fighting started.

“Not a problem, Mike. I was chosen for this command because I know how to put our mission ahead of everything else. Some of my missions have required pretty innovative thinking. This one might top the list, but only because I’ll be out of the picture, probably jerking around on the floor in agony. But know this: your solution fits. My men and I will be out of the net as soon as the last micro jump is executed. We’re smart enough to know that we could take the whole net down with us if there really are Chessori out there.”

He pursed his lips in a frown as he rubbed his forehead. “Don’t get me wrong. I don’t like this, not one bit, but I’m thankful you guys are here. I would not have chosen to engage the Chessori without you. And, Sire… you have a reputation. My ship is in good hands.”

“Maybe we’ll luck out and there won’t be any Chessori,” Mike replied, “because we may end up needing your help in a big way. It seems like every time I’ve been forced to fight, they’ve thrown me a curve ball, something I had no idea was even possible.”

“And it will probably happen here, as well. One of these days you’re going to have to take the time to get trained as a ship’s captain. It only takes ten or fifteen years.”

Mike grew more and more nervous as the time for battle approached. Josh kidded him about it, but privately he admitted that everyone always went through the same thing, and it was a good thing, because it focused the mind on the mission. Everything else became extraneous, of no importance.

Mike had to agree with Josh: his sole focus had become the battle group in front of him, nothing else. His many other concerns about the Empire and Earth had been pushed aside to allow total concentration on the upcoming engagement.

He wondered if the crews in the ships ahead of him, the ships he was about to engage, were going through the same thing, or were they expecting a relatively easy conquest, at least the space-born part of it? They had no inkling of Serge Parsons micro jump, and they had no idea this ship was anything but what it appeared to be, a simple freighter two weeks behind them. Their focus would be on Brodor. He was confident of that much at least. The element of surprise was definitely in his favor.

The time grew near. Everyone needed in the net was in the net, and everyone knew their part in the plan.

Voorhees turned off his beacon and began the hours-long process of micro jumping toward the planet. As they neared the squadron, Kirsten displayed a complex pattern of orbits as the smaller ships supporting the cruiser broke away to encircle the planet. The cruiser moved closer to Brodor than they had expected, probably to use her heavier weapons to more effect, but the lower orbit did not change their strategy.

Voorhees’ navigation was perfect. After executing the last jump, Stardust was behind and above the cruiser. Voorhees and his crew cut themselves out of the net, leaving the Earthmen on their own.

No defensive fire came from the cruiser as Mike maneuvered to place his ship exactly where his gunners’ fire would be most effective. He reached just the right spot, and they started pecking away at several gun turrets on the cruiser, all according to plan. To their surprise, Kirsten’s sensors indicated at least one shield going down, then another began failing. Serge’s weapons were considerably stronger than Mike had expected. His men concentrated their fire on those two locations, taking out one of the cruisers large guns. That did it for the Chessori aboard the cruiser. They lost patience. The cicada sound that accompanied use of the scree started up in earnest. Mike sensed no reaction from his men in the net, though he knew the same could not be said for Voorhees and his men. They would be suffering. So, too, would be any non-Chessori aboard the cruiser.

So, too, was he. Jake was gone, having withdrawn to his left leg, and the leg was on fire. Mike ordered his ship to cease fire and allowed Stardust to drift on her current trajectory, leading the Chessori to believe their scree had done its work. It also gave him time to adjust to the pain in his leg. He wondered how long it would take for the Chessori to take command of the net aboard the cruiser.

It did not take long. Within minutes, the cruiser began maneuvering to shield its damaged areas from Stardust. As he had hoped, Kirsten’s sensors soon showed the tractor beam powering up, and it powered up at a speed he had not known was possible. He guessed he had maybe half an hour before it became operational. His men held their fire, allowing the cruiser to maneuver at will, turning until its tractor beam was pointed directly at Stardust.

The waiting was terrible. Josh spoke softly to him on the net, encouraging him to wait. Mike adjusted Stardust’s roll and pitch in minute increments as the waiting continued, bringing his heaviest guns to bear on the area of the tractor beam. They had determined earlier that a 50% power level for the beam would be sufficient to their needs, but they would wait for 75% just to be sure. If their plan failed, they would micro jump away before the beam reached 100%. They all watched as Kirsten’s sensors indicated a higher power level second by second.

Mike felt a strong sense of deja vu, as if he was back near Earth waiting for the tractor beam to snatch him up. But this time he could do something about it.

Finally the number reached 75%. Mike ordered his gunners to open fire, knowing the heavily shielded area around the tractor beam would be very hard, if not impossible, to penetrate. The Chessori were caught completely by surprise, delaying return fire for a couple of minutes. When the cruiser did return fire, the heavy weapons were devastating. Mike instantly moved the ship, but he could not go far without his gunners losing sight of their target. One shield went down, and Mike rolled the ship to place that shield away from the cruiser. New gunners picked up the target and continued firing repeatedly with Parsons World’s improved weapons into the shields protecting the tractor beam. The Chessori finally realized what was going on and attempted to maneuver away from his guns while shutting down the beam, but they were too late. One shield went dark, followed quickly by another. Stardust, too, was taking many hits, and gunners struggled mightily to hold to the target as Mike maneuvered hard. Soon a third shield gave way on the cruiser, followed quickly by a fourth. Mike lost another shield and rolled further, four gunners losing the target but four new ones picking up the slack.

Stardust suddenly shook, hard. They were holed, a hull breach in cargo hold four. Kirsten slammed appropriate bulkhead doors closed in the corridors leading from the cargo area before anyone realized what had happened. It was truly wonderful having her assistance. Mike suspected there were soldiers in there, but he didn’t have time to worry about them. They were Josh’s problem. Josh quickly organized a rescue party, but Mike cut that part out of his awareness.

He rolled the ship again, and new gunners took up the incessant attack against the tractor beam. Its capacitor beam was shutting down as quickly as it could, now at 35% and falling fast. Then his gunners got all the way through. Mike could swear he heard a ‘boom’ through Kirsten’s sensors as the tractor beam capacitor overloaded, though he knew that hearing sound in space was impossible. Looking through Kirsten’s sensors, however, he saw the flare-up as a huge hole was rent in the belly of the ship.

The cruiser went dead in space. It had not blown up entirely, as they had hoped, but Kirsten’s sensors indicated it could not maneuver. The cicada sound continued for another minute or so, then ceased. He surmised that the remaining Chessori needed assistance from the rest of the crew for damage control. His men kept a tremendous barrage of fire pouring into the cruiser, concentrating on its gun ports. Shields began failing one after another, then flares jetted into space as weapons platforms disintegrated beneath those shields. Sporadic return fire continued after the scree ceased, but it was not terribly effective. Mike constantly jiggered his position relative to the cruiser as he rolled around its length, helping his gunners to take out firing positions one after another.

Captain Voorhees struggled back into the net, still suffering from the effects of the scree but determined to function in spite of it. He studied Kirsten’s data on the cruiser, informing Mike that its power plant was down, at least for the present, but that many hot spots remained from which retaliation could be directed at Stardust.

“This lady is proving to be a tough nut to crack,” he announced. “I was certain the disintegration of the tractor beam would take out the whole ship. Nice job by the way. I’ve got to go, you’ve got company. My advice is that the crew aboard the cruiser has its hands full just trying to survive. If necessary, you can come back later and finish her off. Goodbye.”

Voorhees left the net in case the scree started up again. All six fighters had changed trajectories to intercept Stardust. As Mike watched, those trajectories were refined so that three ships would reach him at the same time. Could Stardust handle three enemy simultaneously?

They had a little time before the shooting started up again. He ordered Kirsten to run a scan on all ships systems, concentrating on shields and weapons. Repair crews were dispatched throughout the ship as necessary to replace dead or weakened parts while Mike got an update from Josh.

“We’re still trying to get into cargo hold four. We’re not real proficient with these space suits yet, and it’s a fairly complex procedure to gain entry. There were three men guarding the outer door, but we haven’t heard from them. They were positioned behind partitions and suited up for just this eventuality, but that was a pretty hard hit. I don’t know if they made it or not. Don’t worry about it, you’ve got bigger fish to fry.”

Mike was gratified as warning sensors for his shields turned from amber back to green one by one. They were almost back to full weapons and shields by the time the scree came again. His men would continue their repair work while Stardust fought on.

Mike’s men got off the first shots. His weapons had greater range than those aboard the small fighters, and it made a difference. Mike reminded Major Washburn of Reba’s tactic of focusing all their firepower on one ship. He instantly took the hint, focusing three guns on the drive of the closest ship. The other two fighters came straight in together, trying to take advantage of Stardust’s concentration on the first ship, but they hadn’t planned on her remaining firepower. The first ship disappeared in a flash of light, then all weapons focused on the two remaining fighters. They tried to flee but were unsuccessful, going out in a flare of light almost simultaneously.

Mike didn’t wait. He went after the three remaining fighters. They scattered, each splitting off in different directions, knowing Stardust could not follow all of them at once and knowing they would win in a stern chase, but they did not take his micro jumping capability into consideration. Mike chose the ship farthest away and ordered Kirsten to set up a micro jump, or a series of micro jumps, to intercept it. He wasn’t familiar enough with her capabilities to make the calculations himself, but he wasn’t needed for that. She complied, and an hour later that ship ceased to exist.

It took eight more hours to track down and destroy the two remaining fighters, but in the end, they, too, succumbed. Kirsten then micro jumped back to the cruiser. Mike held station there, hesitant to finish it off, but knowing he must.

Josh approached him, still within the net, knowing how Mike felt. It was impossible to hide feelings within the net. “Permission to speak, Sire,” he said. Mike sensed an illusory hand going around his shoulder.

“I’m whipped. How about you?” he asked Josh.

“Yup, but we don’t pay attention to that, do we,” he stated. “I have a suggestion. How about we board her, take her over?”

Startled, Mike mentally sat up and paid attention. “She’s done in, Josh. She’s a wreck. Look at her! Let’s finish her off.”

“We can, but if they haven’t deleted their files yet, she might have some treasures for our intelligence people.”

“She’s just an Empire cruiser, Josh. We know everything we need to know about them.”

“You know all you need to know about Empire cruisers, but you might not know everything about this particular one. She has people aboard with knowledge we might be able to use, and she has Chessori aboard. Wouldn’t they be interesting to interrogate?”

Mike paused. “Josh, what if she has one of the interstellar communications devices aboard?” His pulse quickened. “I’d give everything to get my hands on one of those. How would we go about doing it?”

“Haven’t a clue,” Josh said with a chuckle. “First we have to get into the ship somehow, then I guess we have to secure one deck at a time, probably the hard way.” He paused for a time, considering. “Assuming we can get aboard, we can do it given sufficient time. What concerns me most is that they might blow up the ship with us in it. We’ll have a hard time protecting the Queen if we’re all dead. I’d still like to give it a try, though.”

Mike left the net after issuing orders to the gunners to open fire on the cruiser again, concentrating only on taking out the remaining guns. Josh joined him outside the net, followed shortly by Captain Voorhees.

“Captain, I think you can have the ship back again. We’ll stay right here in case the Chessori decide to try their scree on us again, but she’s yours until they do. I need your council.”

“Very well, Sire.” He issued orders to his bridge staff, who staggered back into the net to relieve Josh’s men.

Mike briefed Voorhees as soon as he finished issuing his orders. “Josh here has a wild idea to board her. I like the idea. She might have information we could use. What do you think? Is such a thing possible?”

Voorhees was shocked. “I don’t know!” he exclaimed. “Take over a capital ship? I don’t think it’s ever been done before. Let me give it some thought.” He turned away, then turned back to Mike. “What if they just blow themselves up when they figure out what you’re up to?”

“Can they?”

“I haven’t a clue. We’d better get the Chief up here.”

“And we need someone else. Can you set up a tight beam to Brodor for me?”

“At once, Sire. By the way, well done!”

“We might not be done yet. The hardest part might be coming up,” Mike replied with a shiver.

Otis greeted him with his toothy grin again. “Not bad for a cub, Sire. You’re learning.”

Mike explained their plan and their predicament. Otis’ gaze narrowed to that of a predator as he considered. When he spoke, he focused on Josh. “I look forward to meeting you, Colonel. Your plan is admirable. As to the risk, it is impossible to evaluate. The ship may be capable of blowing itself up, it may just blow up anyway, but you have a couple of things in your favor. One, the survivors are not only in disarray, they are focused intently on damage control. The ship is very severely damaged. I cannot say if they even know you’re out there.

“Three areas of the ship are critical to secure. First, the bridge. Any self destruct orders would have to come from there. Second, the engineering section. That would be the most likely area to initiate a self-destruct. Third, the communications area. If this interstellar communicator is aboard, that would be the most likely place to find it.”

“Otis, how the heck do we go about getting inside?”

“You don’t, but my men can. We’ve trained for this but have never actually done it. I’ll have a dozen shuttles there inside an hour, two at most. They will have the equipment and the manpower to subdue the ship. If we need more, I’ll send more.”

Josh spoke up. “My men would like to assist,” he said.

Otis used the very human gesture of rubbing his chin with his hand. “This is not a training class, Colonel, but your request is appropriate. There are probably Chessori still alive, and if their goal was to invade the planet, there might be a lot of them.” He thought for a time. “Sire, what is your decision. Do we proceed?”

Mike considered his commitment to Ellie and her need for protection, yet he could not pass up the opportunity to get his hands on an interstellar communicator.

“We proceed,” he replied.

“Very well, Sire. Colonel Dace, prepare your men for a briefing as soon as I arrive. I will explain the breaching process at that time. We will invite four of your men to accompany each first-in team, just in case the Chessori are waiting. The rest of your men will follow as soon as we can get them there. I’ll join you as soon as I can.” He signed off.

Mike looked at Josh. “You got your wish. Are you going, too?”

“I hope so. I like to lead from the front, but we have three fronts. I need to be wherever I can be of the most use, probably somewhere where I can communicate with all the teams, or maybe with a reserve force. I’ll discuss it with Otis.”

“You’ve got an hour or two. Better get your guys saddled up.” As Josh turned to leave, he asked one more question. “How are the guys that were in cargo hold four?”

“Alive, but pretty banged up. Internal injuries. Sergeant Jacobs doesn’t know if they’ll make it or not. The ship is well equipped, but it can only do so much. He’s earning his pay today.”

Mike went to sick bay to check on the wounded men. One had died, the other two were in a bad way and would not fight again, but Jacobs and the ship’s medic were keeping a close eye on them. Mike brought both of them up to date, and Jacobs accompanied him as he left. Mike lifted his eyebrows in a question.

“They’re under good care, Sire. I think I’ll be needed elsewhere today. I’m not going to sit this one out.”

Mike nodded soberly. There would definitely be need of medics with the teams, and these medics were fighters as well.

They went to the hangar deck to welcome Otis aboard. All of Josh’s men were there. Mike reminded them of the part Otis had played in saving the Queen, and he reminded them that Otis was a Knight of the Realm. He then piped Otis aboard, a small ceremony that Voorhees helped set up.

Thirty Great Cats accompanied Otis, all business. They padded among Josh’s men, the men studying the cats while the cats studied the men, each taking the measure of the other, each wondering if they could ever learn to work effectively together. The cats clearly had superior strength and reflexes, everyone in the room knew and accepted that, but Josh’s men had all seen their share of action and had lived through it to reach this point.

They were the best Earth had to offer. They held their heads high, unafraid of the testing to come.

Otis left them to their perusal for a time, then ordered everyone to the adjacent cargo bay that Josh’s men had been using as a training room. He inserted a chip into the overhead presentation system as Josh’s men attached translating devices to their ears. He brought up a schematic of the cruiser and explained its general layout, then he brought the bridge area into detailed focus.

“Team A will breach here,” he said, indicating the appropriate area. “We will use a shaped charge to blow a hole in the outer surface of the ship. These ships are very hard; it will take several charges to breach. Inside the outer hull is an inner hull which contains the air inside the ship. It will be much easier to breach. We will place a hardened cylinder against the hull, secure it with a glue-like substance, then use another shaped charge to breach the inner hull. When this is accomplished, we will close the inner door of the hatch, enter the outer door and close it behind us, then pressurize and open the inner door.

“This will be a dangerous time. Only one or two will be able to enter the ship at a time. One cat and one human will go first. Since this is in the area of the bridge, you can definitely expect to encounter Chessori. Another cat and another human will enter next, followed by the remainder of Team A.

“Your shortest route to the bridge is directly below the breach in the direction of the front of the ship. Make certain you are properly oriented before entering. You can’t afford to go off in the wrong direction. Each of you will be carrying detonation cords to breach the bridge hatch which is armored and probably locked.

“Your mission is to secure the bridge, its occupants, and to lock down the computers. The computers can be voice activated, so you will have to be quick if anyone is alive on the bridge. We would like to interrogate any survivors, but you have no restrictions against killing anyone on the bridge in order to accomplish your mission.

“Team B will breach here,” he explained pointing to the engineering spaces. “You will enter through the Chief Engineer’s office in the same manner and secure it. I do not anticipate encountering Chessori in this area, but the humans will team up as already discussed just in case. We will send a follow-up team as soon as the shuttle is clear since this is, by far, the largest critical area to secure.

“Team C will breach here,” he explained pointing to the communications area. “It is absolutely critical that you secure all equipment and computers in this area. It potentially holds a great prize. You will take great care to prevent destroying the equipment.

“The rest of you will follow as soon as the shuttles can get you there. Three shuttles will be held in reserve. They will reinforce where needed. Everyone will be in protective suits until the Team Leader decides the suits are no longer necessary.”

He began to describe the few essential hand signals the teams would use in case of communications breakdowns, but Jessie spoke up. “Not necessary, Sire. I’ve taught them the basic verbal commands as well as the basic hand signals. I vouch for their understanding.”

“Excellent,” Otis exclaimed. “Are they proficient with the protective suits?”

“Reasonably proficient, including in vacuum. They have never experienced weightlessness, though.”

Mike was startled. He hadn’t even considered the fact that the ship might not have its artificial gravity functioning. There were infinite amounts of additional instruction Josh’s men needed, but there just wasn’t time to cover every eventuality. Mike was certain their mettle would be tested this day. Had he chosen wrong? Was he sending them to their deaths? He looked at Josh, who returned a grim nod. He knew his men, and he knew they would give it their very best even if it wasn’t enough.

Otis and Josh broke the men into teams, and the first three shuttles departed, followed soon after by the rest. Mike led Otis and Josh to the bridge where they would wait until needed.

Josh kept his translator device in place – it was essential that he communicate clearly with Otis. He and Mike entered the net and called up the communications channels of the boarders, of which there were four. Each team had a separate channel, and all team members had access to the command channel. Josh communicated with Otis over the bridge speakers and discovered that Kirsten could easily handle the two-way translation. They were both able to converse with no difficulty through Kirsten’s interaction while remaining in direct contact with all the team members. Josh, wishing he was aboard one of the shuttles, knew deep down that he was in the right place, a place where he could easily and effortlessly communicate with his men through the magic of the net. Otis was in overall command of this operation, a point which he emphasized and a point which Josh seconded without hesitation.

The first three charges went off simultaneously. After that, they went off as quickly as they could be placed. The hatches were soon in place and the inner hulls breached, though it took a good hour before the first team made it in. Shortly thereafter, Mike felt the scree. Voorhees and his crew almost took him and Josh out with them before he was able to get Kirsten to disconnect them. When they got their act together again, pandemonium had broken out on the cruiser. Otis, laboring under great strain from the scree, demanded a report from each Team.

Team A was in the ship. Four cats were down, the humans had gone ahead of the cats, their situation unknown. Josh, in contact with his men, passed a report to Otis that his men had reached the bridge and were placing the charges on the bridge hatch. The cats had free passage to the bridge, the way was clear. The men needed help; they didn’t know how to activate the charges. Otis passed the activation instructions through Josh, then focused on the other Teams. Josh, meanwhile, ordered his reserves to deploy to each hatch and be ready to move in.

Teams B and C completed their breaches and entered. Team B, in the engineering section, had sporadic contact with the Chessori but pressed on and quickly secured the engine room and engineering spaces, then began moving slowly forward through the ship. They soon called for reinforcements; there was too much ship to cover, and they didn’t want to spread the team too thin.

Team C, in communications, became pinned down in the corridor as soon as they entered. They needed reinforcements, human reinforcements if possible. The area was crawling with Chessori.

Otis gave Josh the go ahead. Josh, in turn, passed the word to his men aboard the reserve shuttles to move in. The shuttles were not able to dock, however. The pilots, all Great Cats, got close, but they could not operate the shuttle controls with the great finesse a docking required. The scree demanded incredible inner strength for the cats just to function at a minimal level, let alone the high levels needed for docking.

Josh’s men, knowing Team C was in dire straits and desperate for help, called on Josh to command the pilot to let all the air out of the ship and to go weightless. They swam to the exit, attempting to line up just as if they were preparing to jump out of a plane. It was a pretty ragged lineup as they exited one at a time, launching themselves at the nearby hatch through the vacuum of space. It was a disaster looking for a place to happen, but everyone made it to the lock with only a few minor injuries from hard landings. Otis passed instructions through Josh on how to work the lock mechanisms, and they eventually got the job done. Josh passed the idea on to the other teams, and they followed suit. Some thirty humans poured through each breach as fast as they could operate the locks.

Two of Josh’s men were lost on entering the bridge. Two Chessori there were taken out by the two remaining humans who stood guard over the Rebels writhing in agony on the deck. They were soon joined by the cats and the bridge was secure.

Reinforcements poured into the breach in engineering, fanning out forward and aft to search the ship for surviving Chessori, securing Rebel crewmen as they went.

Team C encountered the stiffest resistance, not because they faced the most Chessori, but because they couldn’t blow the place up to get at them. Their job was to take the communications section with minimal damage. The reinforcements added greatly to their firepower, but there was limited space to maneuver.

One of the Great Cats angrily entered a compartment adjacent to the main communications compartment, motioning six humans in before him. He struggled with a heavy gun, took aim, and burned a hole through the wall of the communications compartment, then motioned the humans forward. They managed to pick off two Chessori guarding the outer door which allowed access for the rest of the team. After that, Josh’s men used standard room clearing procedures to work their way through the remaining spaces. An hour after entering the ship, the communications section was secure.

A couple of hundred Chessori hounded Josh’s men and the cats as they fought their way through the ship. Josh issued directions to his troops when they became lost, and he sent reinforcements where necessary. The worst battle took place in the armorer’s section where the Chessori had unlimited access to weapons, both personal weapons and heavy guns. These Chessori were true fighters and highly skilled, possibly the ones assigned to root the Great Cats out of their positions on the planet.

A battle raged for hours with little progress, though with great damage to the ship. Mike eventually ordered everyone to retreat to safe locations, then ordered the gunners aboard Stardust to hole the ship in that exact location. The Chessori that didn’t perish from the blasts were evacuated into space by the escaping air. No one wasted the effort to retrieve the bodies.

The cleanup took more hours, but once the last Chessori succumbed, no Rebels proved willing to challenge the cats. It was simply a matter of time as they cleared the vast spaces of the cruiser. The ship was still in grave danger and would never sail again, but the task now became securing it against its own destruction.

Forcing the Rebels to do the work was no problem at all. They were simply told they could not abandon the ship. They would save it or perish.

The cruiser’s captain was brought to Stardust with the last batch of wounded. Josh had left the bridge to check on his wounded men. Otis and Mike stood up as the captain entered the bridge escorted by two of Josh’s men.

“Your name?” Otis inquired. The man’s expression only hardened. It was clear he would not talk easily. “It’s your choice, Captain,” Otis stated plainly. “You can talk now with us, or you can do it later with the experts. I have no interest in what you might tell us anyway.”

The man remained mute. Otis ordered Josh’s men to escort the prisoner to the designated brig area and to secure him hand and foot.

Mike added, “You searched him, right?”

“We did, but we’re not real sure what to look for,” answered the senior sergeant. “What if he has implants or something?”

Mike turned to Voorhees for guidance.

He shrugged. “Who cares if he kills himself?” He held up a hand to forestall argument. “Okay, I’ll detail a crewmember to keep a watch until the medic can check him out, but not before the medic has seen to each of our men. We’ll strip him until then. Let him play with himself if he wants to.”

Then Voorhees brightened and turned to Otis. “Should we just give him to your men?”

“Hmm,” Otis mumbled deeply in his throat. “They’re probably hungry by now. Let me think on it.”

The prisoner showed his alarm but did not speak. He was taken away.

*****

The battle was over, and they had won. Mike and Otis took a break and headed for the lounge. Stepping into the central shaft, Otis chuckled.

“Remember the first time you rode one of these?” he asked grinning. Mike just rolled his eyes, remembering how he had felt about falling down the shaft.

“You’ve come a long way, Sire. I call you a cub no longer. Today was a great day for the Empire.”

Mike thought through the events of the day and shrugged. “As usual, I’m just the hands and feet of the experts, doing their bidding. Josh, Voorhees, and his Chief came up with the strategy we used against the cruiser. You put your breaching plan together with incredible swiftness. I’m impressed, Otis.”

“You led today, Mike. You led well. That included choosing what advice you would use from the experts. It was a very good day, and to top it off, you saved my world from tragedy. Brodor is in your debt. We will not forget.”

Mike nodded absently. Otis took him by the arm, turning Mike to face himself and looking him in the eyes. “Hear me well, Mike. Brodor is in your debt. Think about what I say. We have long memories and do not forget our obligations.”

Mike responded as First Knight. “Sir Otis, Brodor has pledged itself to the Queen. I will not accept anything less or more. Therein lies your duty. Do not forget it.”

“You truly are learning to lead, Sire,” Otis responded with his toothy grin. “That doesn’t change the fact that we have long memories.”

Chapter Twelve

Juster entered Struthers’ office to find him asleep on the couch. He turned around and left, gently closing the door behind him, advising Jirdn that Struthers was not to be disturbed. Jirdn understood and nodded. Struthers had not been sleeping well lately. Perhaps with a little extra sleep he might return to a semblance of his old self.

It was just as well, Juster decided. He wasn’t in the mood for another tirade, and this one would be deserved. He had sent the picket force at Brodor in to attack the planet without Struthers’ approval and had lost touch with the ships. He would take the blame, and that was okay, but what had happened? No one knew what defenses Brodor had, but surely they weren’t capable of taking out a cruiser. And not a hint of what had gone wrong.

He slumped in the chair behind his desk deep in thought. How had the cats done it?

R eba

Chapter Thirteen

Reba didn’t know it, but she and her men were destined to lead the Queen’s first major assault against the Rebels. The battle would take place at Orion III, and its outcome would heavily weight the scales of success or failure for the Queen.

Among her one thousand men from Earth, she alone knew the mission, she alone spoke the language, and she alone was responsible for ensuring her soldiers were prepped and ready to go on arrival at Orion III. In addition, she had yet to earn the trust of her men, a motley group of special operations soldiers chosen from across the globe.

Reba and the group’s commander, Colonel James Waverly, a middle-aged, barrel-chested Ranger with wide-set eyes and hair showing the first flecks of gray, had eight weeks to pull the men into a viable fighting force. They lifted from Earth two months after Mike and Trexler, all one thousand men crammed aboard a trader headed for Orion III. She had no idea if Val was still there, but she allowed herself to hope.

She and Waverly drove the men unmercifully, and the men reveled in the hard work. Reba went into the ship’s net to begin their training, using the net to communicate with everyone at the same time regardless of which compartment they were in. She lectured them on Empire politics, descriptions of the expected situations they would encounter, an explanation of the Chessori scree, and lots and lots of language lessons. The men would be issued translator devices before going into action, but they needed to learn the language of Empire as soon as they possibly could.

She worked with Colonel Waverly and his command staff to develop tactics for the missions she anticipated, then she joined Waverly and a small group of hand-picked veterans to test those tactics, making modifications when needed before disseminating the plans to the rest of the troops. Waverly and his staff then supervised long hours of squad practice, ensuring the men learned their way around the ship, knew how to open and secure doors and hatches, use the lift shafts, and all the thousand and one things new to them.

Though basic fighting skills and tactics did not change, using those skills aboard a spaceship added a new dimension to those tasks.

Waverly declared war on nationalism. He would brook no in-fighting among his men. Diverse cultures and backgrounds intrinsically fostered separatism, but Waverly fought it at every opportunity, forcing teams to work together in spite of their differences, sometimes because of their differences. His officers were always on the prowl looking for problems of this nature, and penalties were severe, not unlike those the men had suffered through in basic training. No one wanted kitchen duty, and no one wanted to spend days inventorying supplies, but teams who didn’t get along found themselves doing just those things.

The men were all specialists, trained to work in small groups to combat terrorists, rescue hostages, and deliver hard blows to enemy command structures. They knew how to get in quickly, hit hard and fast against overwhelming opposition, then get out if necessary. Their small squad skills were already honed to perfection, though they did not function particularly well as a large group. Using these men to take a beach or to hold a position would be a waste of talent. Ask them to clear a neighborhood or secure a room or a building, and these men would deliver every time.

Moving through the ship soon required great caution as squads roamed everywhere, testing and refining tactics, even learning to don protective suits and operate in compartments open to vacuum.

To do their jobs, these men would need to function on their own at some minimal level aboard various ships of the Empire. Language skills were a serious problem and a first priority. Empire crewmembers they encountered would not have translator devices. Reba’s men could understand what they heard if they were wearing the translators, but they needed to learn to speak, as well.

Reba knew, too, that some of these men would have to learn to function within the net, to take control of ships if and when the Chessori scree came into play. There was just no way she could get them all fully integrated in the time she had. Everyone got an introduction to Norman, enough to plug-in for language lessons, but only a small group, some 150, had completed what Reba considered to be a minimal checkout on the net by the time they reached Orion III. Norman, never needing a break, took them on one at a time ceaselessly, not stressing any particular training such as piloting or weapons, only getting them to the point they could enter the net and communicate with others on the net. It was far from ideal, but it was a beginning. She hoped Val would have other ideas.

He did. Reba’s ship was directed to a berth at the civilian space port where a contingent of Korban’s men met them dressed as civilians. Quarters had been arranged at a conference center, and Val took over the training schedule.

Her reunion with Val, whom she had not seen for almost eight months, took place at the end of a very, very long day that saw all one thousand men installed in quarters and fed. Reba pulled him into an embrace the moment they had privacy, trying to put eight months of need into one hug. He laughed with delight as he pushed her away, taking her face in his hands and planting a kiss on her lips.

“Hi, Lady.”

“Hi, yourself. You’ve been avoiding me.”

“You were too busy to notice. How are your parents?”

“Anxious to meet you, that’s how they are. So am I. Come here. We can talk later.”

M ike

Chapter Fourteen

So Mike’s arrival at Brodor didn’t go exactly as planned. He now had a whole new set of problems to deal with. Clearly, Brodor had become a prime target of the Rebels. Chandrajuski would have to send protection. He would grumble that it would cut severely into his fleet, but he would send the ships. And they needed experts to study the remains of the cruiser. They had no idea if the Chessori interstellar communications equipment had survived the battle.

To top it all off, Stardust could not set down on Brodor to unload Josh’s troops. She had a gaping hole in her side and would need major repairs before entering atmosphere again. Josh’s men would have to transfer to the surface by shuttle in small groups. As soon as they did, Stardust would set out for Parsons’ World, micro jumping all the way. Brodor needed Chandrajuski’s fleet yesterday, and they had a whole batch of prisoners.

What were they going to do with them? They couldn’t leave them on the derelict forever, yet Brodor not only did not have adequate facilities to house them, Brodor refused them entry. Even Otis, with his wider view of galactic issues, supported his people in this. Anyone choosing to attack Brodor would henceforth understand they could not count on Brodor to offer quarter. Such was not the cats’ way. The Rebels could starve or freeze to death in space for all Otis cared.

Chandrajuski would have to deal with these problems in whatever way he felt appropriate. Neither Mike, Otis, or Josh had the time. Their training came first.

The three of them rode down to Brodor together, Otis clearly elated with the respite given to his people. Normally taciturn and a cat of few words, he was positively ebullient this day. “Welcome to Brodor, Mike, Josh. My people… we call ourselves ‘The People,’ but you and most others refer to us as ‘Great Cats’… welcome both of you. There will be no welcoming committee today, but we will throw something together before you leave to honor you and your men. We will name each of your men, names of honor that will become part of our history to be carried forward through the ages.”

“Hold it, Otis,” Josh said, holding up a hand. “I didn’t do anything. My only purpose here is to train.”

Otis sighed. “Are all you Earthmen so stubborn? Of course you did something. You led your warriors through a great battle, the second time in two thousand years that Brodor was singled out by others for annihilation. First, the Empire came to our rescue. Now, Earth has come to our rescue. You selected and organized your men on Earth, you led them into space, and you led them through battle. What does it matter that you did not pull a trigger during the battle? Neither did Mike or I. The battle was won largely because we chose the right soldiers, but also because we made the right decisions during the battle that allowed them to function to their fullest.”

He showed Josh his feral grin before continuing, “Besides, take the credit when you can – there will be plenty of opportunities to take the blame. You might as well try to keep things in balance.”

With a more serious look, he added, “Let me give you your first lesson as a Protector. Before leaving here on assignment, all Guardians and Protectors know there will be failures ahead, even personal failures. But we do not focus on blame, we focus on mission. Even in the midst of failure, the Queen counts on us to continue performing. That takes a lot of maturity. It takes, as well, knowing that we are very good at what we do, maybe the best at what we do. When failure comes, it is because anyone else would have failed, as well.

“We do not give up, ever. Everything is ‘forward’ from here. There is no looking back, no second guessing. If we lose sight of that, all is lost because there will not be a second chance.”

The spaceport surprised Mike, though Josh, never having set foot on any planet other than Earth, hadn’t known what to expect, nor did he care. Stepping down from the shuttle was a very large step for him.

Mike had expected a city. Instead, they stepped out onto a landing pad situated in the midst of a great prairie. The landing area was completely unattended by ground staff. Tall grass came right up to the edges of the pad. On a hilltop far off in the distance he saw a town, but in no way could it be called a city. Spaceports on Parsons’ World, Shipyard, and Centauri III had all teemed with life, but Brodor seemed empty.

He turned to Otis, but Otis was already heading down a dusty track leading to the town. Mike and Josh looked at each other, then gathered up their few belongings and ran to catch up.

When they reached the track, Mike stopped for a moment. He crouched down and gathered up a handful of dirt, then let it dribble through his fingers. As the dust dissipated, he stared up at the sky. The sun was about an hour above the horizon, and the new day was warming. He turned in a circle, taking in the land and the sky, then hustled to catch up with Otis.

“What were you doing?” Josh asked.

“Just getting oriented. It’s a long story, part of my heritage. I’ll tell you about it one of these days. Hey, Otis!” he called. “Where is everyone?”

“Sorry, guys,” Otis said, explaining that there were no large cities on Brodor, nor were there any major highways. There was only one hotel suitable for outworlders, built primarily to house traders, but it was on the other side of the planet. The Great Cats chose to live a simple life, much closer to nature than most advanced species.

“What do you trade, Otis?” Josh asked.

“Our people,” Otis replied. “They are our only external commodity. Hasn’t Mike told you?”

“How can I tell what I don’t know?” Mike answered, slightly miffed. “I know the cats I’ve met have been exceptionally talented warriors, and I know they specialize in protection. Beyond that, I know virtually nothing about you. You haven’t exactly been forthcoming about your people.”

A tiny, bird unnoticed by Mike and Josh, suddenly swooped down on Josh. Otis pushed Josh out of the way and caught the bird in his hand without seeming to hurt it. The thing had vicious looking teeth and claws.

“You don’t want to get bitten by this little guy,” Otis instructed calmly as if nothing unusual had happened. “It’s bite is venomous. One bite will not kill you, but several biting at the same time might. Even one bite would make your next week miserable.”

He flung it back into the air and watched it fly away, uttering under his breath, “Miserable creature.”

He continued on his way as if nothing unusual had happened. Mike and Josh looked at each other in bewilderment, then shrugged and hustled to keep up with Otis, keeping a wary eye out to the sky as well. Their hands stayed near their blasters. How had Otis caught the bird in his bare hand, Mike wondered, and without hurting it? The Great Cats were famous for their quick reflexes, but to treat such a thing so casually struck Mike as pretty unusual.

Otis continued the discussion, explaining that no one knew much about Brodor, and the Great Cats preferred it that way. Josh’s men were an exception. Because of the unusual attempt to unify Terran and Brodor troops, he would hold little back from them.

Brodor’s population was around 100 million, very small by Empire standards. The Great Cats led what most of the galaxy would consider a brutal lifestyle, if they knew about it, though it was a lifestyle the cats chose of their own free will. The cats were predators, had always been predators, and they would continue to be predators, but never against their own kind. There had never been warfare on the planet. Natural prey abounded, and that satisfied their predatory needs.

For most of a cat’s lifetime, if he or she wanted to eat, he or she had to catch and kill their meal. The planet hosted a number of different prey, animals that over many thousands of years had developed their own skills to high levels. Competition was keen on Brodor. The People had been forced to develop their own skills to higher levels or perish. Those that failed did not live long.

The People had developed tools to assist them against their prey, and they were not shy about using them on occasion, but most preferred to hunt with their bare hands and teeth. Despite this anachronistic lifestyle, the cats did not live in poverty. Schools and universities were available to any who desired to attend, and most did attend. The People had their writers and poets and builders and doctors, they were comfortable with the high technology of the Empire, but they had little interest in other worlds. Other than the Guardians and Protectors who, by necessity, spent their lives surrounded by the highest of technologies, most on Brodor used technology in limited ways.

Mike and Josh sensed a rushing sound in the grass beside the dirt track and stopped, turning to Otis with questioning looks.

“I suggest you keep your weapons ready,” he replied to their unspoken question. “This particular little beast usually attacks in groups. The sound you heard is probably a diversion. Best look to the other side of the road, as well.”

Mike couldn’t believe his ears, nor could Josh. They both hesitated momentarily, looking at each other in confusion. Josh gave a hand signal, and they both turned to opposite sides of the road, but they were too late. Two dark brown streaks shot out of the grass at Mike and four more came at Josh. Neither had even raised a weapon before Otis’ blasters, one in each forehand, disintegrated all six creatures. None escaped. Mike and Josh whirled around looking for others as Otis casually holstered his weapons, then continued down the track in the direction of the village.

“Hold it, Otis,” Mike demanded, his blaster swinging uselessly at his side. “What’s going on here?”

Otis’ great head swung back toward them. “Welcome to Brodor, Mike, Josh,” he answered with his toothy grin. “I suggest that if you wish to live very long you stay alert. The creatures that inhabit this world would love for you to let your guard down. A moment is all they need.”

“You mean it’s always going to be like this?” Mike asked, aghast.

Otis turned toward them and sat, his head cocked at an angle. “It was Reba’s suggestion that we train here, Mike. In fact, it wasn’t really a suggestion, it was a demand, and I think I like the idea. Your men will develop a certain minimal level of alertness or they will perish. If they survive, they will have developed a working relationship with my men and a better understanding of their teammates. As I said, outsiders have never been invited to train under the circumstances we live with on a routine basis every day of our lives. This should be interesting.”

Mike gulped but kept looking around as he did so. Josh, too, looked worried, acting suddenly as if he was in a combat zone. And he was. “Do you expect us to kill our own dinners?” he demanded of Otis.

“Not right away. We don’t have the time. My men will not be hunting overmuch, either.”

“I’ve got to get back to the landing sight, Mike,” Josh interrupted. “I can’t let my men walk into this without warning.”

Otis padded back to Josh and glared up at him. “Give my men some credit, Colonel. They’ve all been instructors here at one time or another. And give them a chance to prove their mettle. Your men far outclassed them on the cruiser, and they’re smarting from it. They are not accustomed to being second best under any circumstances.”

Josh’s eyes continued shifting from side to side, waiting for another ambush. “How do you expect us to learn anything if we’re constantly distracted with trying to stay alive?” he asked.

“If you and your men learn that and nothing else, we will have accomplished our goal,” Otis replied matter-of-factly. “You might be the best of the best at soldiering, but that is no longer your task. You’re here to learn how to protect. We’ll cover planning, organization, and the necessary technology, but our job often comes down to the instantaneous reactions of trained men.

“Your men will never be the equal of mine. They are not physically as well adapted for this job,” Otis lectured, “but they will learn to provide backup, and it will be meaningful backup. They will add to the teams’ effectiveness, not drag the team down, or else this plan will fail. Your first month here will be devoted solely to that purpose. All training will take place outdoors. All of you will be forced to be on guard constantly. The lessons you receive during that time will be basic and repetitive, allowing you ample room for distraction. Your second and final month here will include indoor instruction under circumstances that will allow concentrated focus on the material, but we will spend plenty of time outdoors then, as well. Even after graduation when we’re on the job protecting the Queen, everyone’s mettle will be constantly challenged by training events the team leaders prepare. I can’t say your men will be better soldiers when we’re done here,” Otis added as they continued up the track toward the village, “but I promise you that your men will be far better Protectors.”

Otis continued lecturing as they walked, informing them that the Great Cats had, over the centuries, become known as Guardians, sought by the wealthy and powerful throughout the galaxy for their protection skills. Brodor was very, very highly paid for these services. The People fielded one Guardian for about every 200 of The People, meaning there were some 500,000 Guardians in total. Of those Guardians, one in a hundred reached the level of Protector, some 5,000 Protectors in all.

Mike was stunned. “You mean there are only 5,000 Protectors in the whole galaxy?”

“Actually, we’re short a few right now,” Otis responded gravely. “They’ve come on hard times.”

Mike, until this very moment, had never realized just what it meant to be surrounded by Protectors all the time. The cost of protecting the Royal Family must be prohibitive.

“Uh, just how much does the Royal Family pay Brodor for this protection?”

“Nothing,” Otis snapped. “We never charge the Royal Family. It’s a privilege to serve as we do.” Then his lips rose, presenting his teeth in a leer this time. “Don’t worry. We more than make up for it with private contracts. Besides, Brodor’s needs are minimal. We don’t need a lot of income from the Empire. That may be changing. It’s beginning to look like we’ll have to apportion more proceeds to our own protection, but in the past, the Queen has always taken care of that for us. The special skills we sell to the Empire are not appropriate for planetary defense. We’re going to have to bring a whole new group of fighters into existence. As you can see, it has become a problem of the first magnitude, but it is not your problem. We will deal with it.”

“Actually, as First Knight, it might very well become my problem. I might insist that it does. We’ll see.”

The training was everything Otis promised and more. The men were issued stun guns in addition to their personal blasters. Stunning was the preferred method of defending one’s self in the training area, otherwise the whole area would become devoid of life. If a blaster was used by mistake, penalties in the time-honored form of extra physical training befell the unlucky soldier.

Target practice with all manner of weapons was the primary goal of the first month of training. Everyone’s aim was expected to be perfect, whether it be a gun, a knife, or any number of other Empire weapons, most of them simple and old fashioned rather than highly technical and modern. Hand to hand combat was practiced to a certain degree, but the humans could not match the strength of the cats and didn’t have to find out the hard way to know it. Instead, hand to hand focused primarily on identifying the most sensitive zones on many different alien bodies and the weakest spots on body armor.

Early on, Josh’s men paired up with Otis’ cats into teams consisting of six Great Cats and six Terrans, as the men from Earth began calling themselves. The teams proved to be too large and unwieldy and were soon divided in half, doubling the number of teams, each consisting of three cats and three Terrans.

About one-tenth of the cats were Protectors, the rest Guardians, but the Terrans could detect no differences between them and were not told who was which.

To everyone’s surprise, guard duty became the most hotly sought after activity among the Terrans, so much so that Josh had to work out a rotation among his men to ensure everyone spent at least a minimum amount of time in the classroom. All manner of creatures lurked in the wild, but the greatest challenge came from the cats themselves. Cats from the instructor cadre roamed at will, and they took pleasure in surprising the unwary. Josh’s men quickly tired of being made to look inept, always on the losing end of the Great Cat’s sneak attacks and. With his permission, they began actively patrolling the surrounding countryside and setting up ‘hide sites’ from which they could warn others. The hide sites, when constructed properly, and Josh’s men were superb at the task, virtually blended into the surroundings. The instructors soon found themselves forced farther from the main group, and they were eventually forced to plan coordinated attacks in order to get through.

The Terrans had brought Ghilley suits with them from Earth and spent every spare moment preparing themselves to blend in with the countryside. It became a game for both sides, sometimes a dangerous game as many cats and Terrans fell to stunners, but in the end Josh’s men proved their mettle against these cunning teachers.

Otis changed tactics during the third week, sending out six-man/cat teams instead of just the Terrans. There was some disgruntlement among Josh’s men following this announcement – competition had been fierce among the men on the teams, to the point that wagers had become commonplace.

Mike, a hunter since childhood and anxious to prove his mettle, got plenty of opportunity to learn the basics. His team, consisting of himself, Josh, and Sergeant Jacobs, was paired up with Otis, Jessie and one other Great Cat. At Otis’ insistence, knowing that Mike and Josh would spend more time around the Queen than any of the rest and that they might someday find themselves cut off from other support, they focused on the basics: marksmanship and small team tactics. They patrolled, but they spent little time in the hide sites.

Mike clearly dragged down his team’s performance. He was no match for Josh or Jacobs, both tough veterans of many missions, both hardened warriors. No one was surprised: there was just no way he could catch up on their years of experience, nor was he expected to. But as he had aboard ship, Sergeant Jacobs never let up on him, always demanding better performance. And he got better, much better. In addition to improving his skills, Mike got tougher. Gone were any vestiges of underlying fat from his many months aboard ships. He was in better shape than most soldiers on Earth, and he became reasonably well-skilled in the basic skills needed by Protectors.

The Terrans had brought advanced thermal vision goggles with them from Earth, and the goggles proved extremely helpful. The Great Cats had for eons depended on natural selection to hone their skills, preferring to operate unencumbered by advanced technology. They quickly found themselves at a distinct disadvantage in the dark. Though they could move faster and more quietly, they could not see as well as the Terrans. Josh’s men, on the other hand, had specialized for years in night fighting and were as comfortable working in the dark as they were during the daytime. They, in fact, preferred the advantages offered by darkness.

In addition to hand signals, the Terrans and Great Cats developed a fairly refined vocabulary of simple commands. At Josh’s urging, Otis agreed to equip everyone with miniature earpieces, thereby bringing the Terrans’ hearing abilities to a level with the cats. Whispered commands, even in the dark, previously only heard by the cats, kept the whole team in the loop. The Terrans’ night vision advantage, coupled with the cats’ hearing and daytime vision advantages, produced great respect among the instructors, something Otis himself had not foreseen. The mixed teams truly offered advantages, even without the likes of the Chessori to stir up the pot.

The final week of the first month was spent entirely in the field. Individual teams spread out over many square miles planning, executing, and defending against attack.

They moved to different quarters for the second and final month of their training. The new quarters were a partial replica of the Palace on Triton, with vast rooms, smaller personal chambers, and many, many corridors. The training was intense as they focused on learning skills they would need among the civilized worlds, some simple, some highly complex. By the time Otis was done with them, they knew how to operate doors and food dispensers, how to fly and fight from air cars, and they practiced clearing corridors, stairways, and rooms one by one, all the things necessary to find, protect, and remove the Queen from danger.

A full, heavy squadron of Chandrajuski’s ships arrived as their training ended. The ships were staffed with a number of Trexler’s Terran pilots and gunners still learning to work the ships. If the Chessori attacked again, these ships would do their best to hold off the enemy until help arrived.

Mike, tanned, fit, and much more confident of his own personal abilities, followed his men as they boarded another of Serge’s cargo ships for his return to Shipyard and Ellie. His vacation was over; it was time to start looking at the big picture again. He didn’t know what had transpired in the seven months since he’d left Shipyard, but he knew that things never stood still around Ellie. He fully expected to be thrust right back into crisis after crisis. That was okay, provided Ellie was by his side. A long and dangerous road lay ahead, yet a grin of satisfaction found its way to his face as he stepped over the threshold into the ship.

K rys

Chapter Fifteen

The arrival of Buskin’s squadron at Shipyard brought instant attention from ground controllers. As soon as they emerged from hyperspace, they were challenged. Otis had not given Buskin a password, but it turned out that he didn’t need one. The Great Cat Borg came on the communications link, and his loyalty was not questioned. He was told that they needed to go to Parsons’ World instead. That added another few days through hyperspace. When they completed the last jump to Parsons’ World, they were astounded. Many, many Empire ships were spread throughout the system, and they were acting oddly, as if they were in training. Some looked like they were fighting, but no shots were being fired.

Borg came on the communicator again and they were cleared in, but they picked up an escort of two squadrons during the final week.

Buskin’s squadron was not permitted to land. An inspection team came aboard, then Rappor was permitted to land while the rest of the ships remained in orbit. Rappor left her berth on the cruiser with only Buskin and Krys’ crew aboard.

Six Great Cats, three from Rappor and three of the Queen’s Protectors, met at the bottom of the ramp, then Ellie approached the ship escorted by Admiral Jons. Krys, very uncertain of herself, walked down the ramp by herself to welcome the Queen. The moment Ellie saw her, she screamed and ran to the ramp with her arms open wide. Krys, too, opened her arms, and the two embraced.

Ellie stood back from her. “You’re older. I knew you would be, but it’s still a surprise. You look well, my daughter.”

“You haven’t changed at all,” Krys blurted out. “Still as beautiful as always. I feel like I’m home again, Mother.”

“You are home, Krys. Val and Mike will be back soon. I can’t wait for you to see them.”

“Who’s Mike?”

“The man of dirt from your vision, my First Knight, and the knight in shining armor you promised me. I should warn you,” she added with a smile, “he’s uncomfortable with the whole idea of your visions.”

“Well, so am I, my Queen.”

“Can we forget about all that for a while and just enjoy a reunion?”

“We can, but I might have a mutiny on my hands if we do. My crew has waited a long time for this moment. They’re nervous as can be, and I’m not sure they really believe they’re about to meet the Queen.”

Ellie turned to the small group standing at the top of the ramp, then turned back to Krys. “You’re right. I’d prefer a little time alone with you, but it’s not just the two of us any longer. Our responsibilities have grown.” She turned Krys toward the ship. “Come on. I’ll be gentle on them.”

They walked arm in arm up the ramp and stopped. “Stand, all of you,” Ellie commanded. She approached M’Sada. “Lieutenant Commander M’Sada. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

M’Sada, momentarily forgetting himself, blurted out, “You’ve heard of me, Your Majesty?”

“I’ve heard of all of you.” She turned to Tarn. “Lieutenant Lukes, I presume?” Tarn bowed, speechless, and she turned to Gortlan. “Senior Chief Gortlan?”

“At your service, Your Majesty,” he said, going to one knee again.

She turned to Buskin. “You must be Admiral Buskin.”

“At your service, Your Majesty,” he said with a deep bow.

“I only recently learned of your activities,” she said softly. “It is my great pleasure to meet you, Admiral. Has your recruiting been successful?”

“Since each recruit represents a fallen sector or district, I must tell you that I have not been entirely successful. I had 24 squadrons as of three months ago, and that number is increasing almost daily. My preference is for them to hold, not to join me.”

She stepped back from him, but she did not let her gaze leave his eyes. “You speak with wisdom, Admiral Buskin. In you, I believe Chandrajuski chose well. Your present rank is temporary, is it not?”

“It is, your Highness.”

“Your promotion to Fleet Admiral is hereby made permanent. We’ll have a small ceremony aboard your cruiser later. I am in your debt.”

“My men and I do nothing more or less than stand by our oaths, Your Majesty. They would be honored by a visit.”

“It is I who is honored by their efforts. I’ll let them know.” She turned to Krys. “Three of your crew are missing.”

“Not missing, just working, Your Majesty. Captain Stven has learned the hard way to never let his guard down. He’s in the net monitoring activities outside the ship, and his two gunners are at their stations.”

She took a step back. “Otis would be proud of him. I’m proud of him. I, too, endured months of fear, of constant alertness, and I applaud your watchfulness, but you can relax now. You’ve reached a safe haven, all of you,” she said, turning to take in everyone in the group. She turned back to Krys. “Will you take me to the bridge? I’m not certain where it is.”

When they reached the bridge, Stven’s body was resting on the floor, his four legs splayed out and his damaged wing extended slightly from his body. Gordi’i and Kali’i lounged in their seats. All wore the helmets necessary to enter the net. Ellie turned to M’Sada, asking quietly, “May I join them on your net?”

M’Sada’s upper hands began a rapid preening of his whiskers. He, too, spoke quietly. “It’s your ship and your net, Your Majesty, but I don’t recommend it. He has a tendency to ‘puff’ when he’s surprised.”

She smiled. “I spent years on Rrestriss. I’m not unfamiliar with the smell.” She spoke to Cassandra, her Rider. ›It would be best if you stay in the background, my dear.‹

›I understand. Few know the Queen carries a Rider.‹

Ellie sat and donned a helmet, then waited while the net adjusted to her. It had been many months since she’d been inside a net, and the feeling brought back a lot of memories, some bad and some wonderful.

“Permission to come aboard, Captain?” she asked as soon as she was in.

Stven turned his attention away from the ship to focus on this new persona on the net. Words were not necessary within the net, and he knew instantly who she was. His virtual image stared at her, frozen. So shocked was he that he forgot to puff. “Your Majesty?” he finally asked, lowering his virtual neck to the virtual deck.

“Stand tall, Captain,” she commanded. “Be welcome to this world, and if you will, accept my thanks for all you have done.”

The dragon blinked. A small puff escaped, but it was a very small puff. His long neck rose and he was a Rress again, one of the most ancient and respected species within the Empire. “On behalf of my crew, I say, ‘you’re welcome,’ Your Majesty. We haven’t done all that much, but what we have done has required all of us, the whole crew, Krys included. I’m honored to meet you.”

“You’ve clearly taken good care of Krys, who I think of as my daughter, and I shall be forever grateful. More than that, your efforts have succeeded in bringing badly needed resources to me, resources that were unexpected. You’ve held to the highest standard of your oath. Know that I know, and know that I honor you for it.”

His head moved from side to side in wonder. “Such an amazing assignment. To be in the personal presence of Admiral Chandrajuski, Senator Truax, Sir Otis, and now you. I’m slightly at a loss for words, Your Majesty.”

“You’re going to be seeing lots more of me, so get used to it. How is Senator Truax, by the way?”

“I have not seen him since we parted on Mitala I, Your Majesty. His mission is much more dangerous than ours, and I fear for him.”

Her hand went to her throat. “He’s an honored friend. He mentored me during my time on Rrestriss. Did you know?”

“You, too? He gets around, doesn’t he. Uh… no, Your Majesty.”

“I see you’ve been wounded.”

“Just a minor wound, Your Majesty. Krys’ was much worse.”

“She was wounded?” Ellie asked in alarm.

“She was, by the Chessori. This mind weapon of theirs disables all of us, but it causes physical harm to her.”

“I want the full story, but it will have to come later. For now, stand down, Captain. This world is as safe as anywhere in the Empire. Will you join me for dinner?”

Another small puff escaped. “Your Majesty?”

“It’s not that hard of a question, Captain. Just say yes.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

“The rest of your crew will accompany you. Dress is casual, understood?”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

She turned away and went in search of Gordi’i and Kali’i. When she found them, both turned one eye on her while keeping a close watch outside the ship. Stven joined her and ordered them to stand down.

“Senior Chiefs Gordi’i and Kali’i, it is my pleasure to welcome you to my temporary home,” Ellie said.

Both gunners went to a virtual knee before their Queen, but they remained mute. Though excellent gunners, it was the manner of their species to act methodically. Gordi’i, when he was ready, spoke for both of them. “You honor us with your presence, Your Majesty. It is our pleasure to serve.”

“Stand, both of you,” she ordered. She studied the gun controls for a moment, then asked, “May I?” Gordi’i nodded, and she entered the system. Guns had been her specialty aboard Resolve, and she immediately felt at home. Emotions could not be completely hidden within the net, and her familiarity with their chosen specialty could not be hidden from these two experts. It was her way of honoring the positions they held. She played with the controls and the displays for a little while, then relinquished them, saying, “Your efforts on my behalf bring great honor to your uniforms and to yourselves. I will make certain your people hear of what you have accomplished.”

She turned to Stven. “Shall we join the others?”

A very, very small puff escaped. “Would you be kind enough to let me go first, Your Majesty? I know what I look like when I’m in the net. I’d rather be standing.”

“Off with you then. I’m not known for my patience, Captain.”

He disappeared instantly, as did Gordi’i and Kali’i. She took a moment to soak in the feeling of being in a net once again, then she, too, disconnected.

When she emerged, everyone was on their knees. “What’s this?” she demanded. “Stand, all of you. Each of you is special to me, you’re all heroes, and none of you need ever kneel before me again.”

Buskin was first to speak. “I’ve never heard of a Chosen going into a net, Your Majesty.”

“These are hard times, Admiral, and all of us are doing things we never thought we’d do, yourself included. Exceptions have been made, and they’ll continue to be made, with calculation. Your Queen leads from the front, not the rear. Understood?”

A fleeting smile crossed his face. “I do, Your Majesty. It remains my pleasure to serve.”

“We all serve the Empire, nothing more and nothing less, myself included.”

She pulled Buskin aside. “I’d like to invite all of you to dine with me, but truth be told, I don’t have much of a staff. Would you be willing to host us?”

“On my ship? Of course!”

“I’d like it to be just us. I want to hear your stories, and I want an informal setting.”

His gaze rose to the ceiling for a time, then returned to her. “The dinner can be informal, but I beg you, Your Majesty, to consider your entrance. You’re the Queen. My men have been working hard for many months, all in your name, not your person. Might it not be better to appear before them with all the appropriate regalia?”

A warm smile lit her face. “You’re right, Admiral. I stand corrected. Your men will see their Queen at her finest. Set up whatever is appropriate. Have you done this before?”

“No, Your Majesty, but I’ll figure something out. It might not be what you’re accustomed to. My sailors are going to be busy with preparations, and they’ll grumble, but they’ll love it. Will you stay the night?”

“I will, and I’ll inspect the squadron tomorrow if that works for you.” She turned to face Krys’ crew. “We have certain formalities to complete. You’re all heroes, but we’ve learned some things the hard way. Each of you must be Tested.” She turned to Krys. “Do you have a lounge or meeting area on the ship? I’d like to get this over with.”

Krys led her to the lounge and was Tested, then each of the others stood before their Queen, one at a time. It didn’t take long, as Ellie had known it would not. When she was done, she sent for Krys and excused everyone else.

“Stven said you were wounded,” she began as Krys settled into a chair with her legs folded beneath herself.

“Not exactly. I only experienced the Chessori mind weapon strongly one time, and I don’t even remember it. I spent a few days in sick bay, then I was back on my feet.”

“What happened to you?”

“Bleeding in my brain is what happened to me. It was only minor.”

“It doesn’t sound minor to me.”

“It was, Your Majesty. We’re taking special precautions for the next time.”

“There won’t be a next time.”

Krys closed her eyes. She’d known this subject would come up, but she had hoped it wouldn’t come up so soon. When she opened her eyes, she encountered the determined look she knew so well, a look that brooked no argument. “I can’t stay here, Mother.”

“You can, and you will. I’m not going to let you go gallivanting all over the Empire when it could kill you. Besides the fact that I love you, you’re my Seer, as you’ve been telling everyone. I need you by my side.”

“You need me out there more.”

Ellie stared at her. “I do?”

“Yes, you do. I haven’t had a lot of visions, but those I’ve had have been meaningful and productive for you and your leaders. Did you know I’ve actually forecast two major battles, and the commander is forewarned?”

“I do know. Chandrajuski, Mike, and Val met with Seeton and Veswicki.”

“What if I can do more of that?”

“Why don’t you do it for us, instead?”

“Why don’t I do it for all of you. I can come back, you know.”

Ellie brooded. All of her Knights, all of her close friends, were out on assignment, each of them in harm’s way. Must all of her loved ones leave her side?

Krys understood. “I’m sorry, Mother. I, too, would like to stay. I’m terrified out there.”

“Then stay.”

“I can’t. You need me out there more than you need me here.”

Ellie wanted more time to think, but in her heart she knew Krys spoke true. Her visions had, indeed, been fortuitous. She changed the subject. “I have a name, you know.”

“Ellandra of the Chosen. I know, but you’re Queen now, Your Majesty.”

“In private, for some, I prefer my name. I have a new name, given to me by Michael. He calls me Ellie. Will you do the same?”

Krys considered. “In my heart, I think of you as Mother. Those two years we had after you pulled me from the orphanage is a time I will cherish forever.”

“And I still think of you as my daughter. Val is learning to call me Ellie, though it’s not easy for him. I’ve formed an Inner Circle, and he’s a member. Will you join me in my Inner Circle?”

“As the Queen’s Seer, it makes sense. As Krys, I don’t have much to offer.”

“Oh, you might surprise yourself. We’re all young for our positions, and we all make mistakes, but we’ve done a lot of things right, too.”

“You’re alive, and that’s something. I truly feared for you when we arrived at Dorwall.”

“It was a terrible time. Many sacrificed themselves in my name, and I will never get over the sadness it brings to me. This is all so horrible.”

“But we persevere, Mother.”

“We do. And your part in it has been to speak in my name.”

Krys paled, but she had known this would come up. She lifted her chin. “I’m sorry, Mother. It was the only way.”

Ellie smiled fondly at her daughter. “I know. I’m amazed that you managed to deal with all those admirals, governors, and senators so successfully.”

“The Great Cats opened many doors. Those they didn’t open were opened by the locket.”

“Ah, yes. The locket. I’d like it back, Krys.”

“Mother?” she asked in horror.

“It’s time to return it, my daughter.”

Krys pulled the chain from under her coveralls and stared at the locket. Never used until two years ago, it had become a part of the person she considered herself to be, a part of her very identity. She removed the chain from around her neck and held it out to Ellie with a trembling hand.

Ellie took it and stood. “Wait here. I’ll be right back.”

She wasn’t gone long, and when she returned, she had Krys’ whole crew with her. The small lounge was overflowing by the time they all got settled, and Stven had to settle for the corridor, though his head reaching through the door towered above everyone.

She got right down to business, her focus Krys. “As a Friend, you’ve called others to my side. You’ve transcended rank and position to do so, you’ve used my name in the process, and you’ve chosen well. Few exercise such rights. Those that do are called Knights of the Realm. Since learning of your activities, I have waited in hope for your day of Naming. Will you kneel before your Queen, my daughter?”

Krys’ lips trembled. She whispered, “What are you doing, Mother?” forgetting that they were no longer in private.

“It’s time to officially Name you for who you are.”

“Val is the Knight in our family.”

Ellie looked at her kindly, and a little sadly. “Little is known about your parents, but they created two individuals of unparalleled ability. You and your brother are both made of the stuff of Knights, my dear.”

Krys looked to her friends, not only uncertain, but in disbelief about what was happening. Stven nodded his great head, his purple eyes telegraphing triumph. M’Sada’s upper hands were working overtime on his antennae, but he, too, encouraged her with a clicking of his mandibles.

Tarn came to Krys and took her arm, stepping with her to her Queen. “You choose well, Your Majesty,” he said.

She smiled. “In this, I do.”

Tarn helped Krys to go to one knee, not that she needed help had she had her wits about her. She was far more flexible than he would ever be. He stepped back, and Ellie put both of her hands on Krys’ head, then lifted her eyes to her daughter’s friends.

“You are witness to a ceremony few ever see, something very private and almost holy among the Chosen and their Knights. To be chosen as a Knight is not so much an honor as it is a call to even greater sacrifice in my name.”

She lowered her gaze to rest upon Krys. “From the day we met, we’ve both known that our futures were linked. Since then, you have spoken in my name, and to those you have spoken you are called My Lady. It is a title earned and a title respected. Your Naming day has come, and the title My Lady will now be official. You have already demonstrated fealty to the Empire. Krys, do you swear continued fealty to my crown?”

To Krys, Knights of the Realm were legendary characters straight out of the adventure novels she had so cherished during her unhappy years at the orphanage. She wasn’t in their league. Val was, and he had been for as long as she’d known him, but she still thought of herself as the young girl she had been when she first met Daughter. Now, the person she called mother was asking her to leave her childhood behind, to be a woman, an adult… a leader.

She took Ellie’s hands in her own and removed them from her head. She kissed each of those hands, then turned to Tarn, still holding Ellie’s hands. How did he feel about this? The answer to that question was more important to her than the demand from her mother. Did that mean she was already no longer a child?

He returned her look, then went to one knee beside her and touched her cheek. “You are a Knight, My Lady. Say yes.” He kissed her lightly on the cheek, then stood up.

Krys felt an inner strength filling her all of a sudden. Her Naming was unexpected, not something she had sought, but it was okay with him, and it was suddenly right. She looked up into Ellie’s eyes. She wanted to help this woman whom she so loved, and she wanted to help the Empire, knew she could help the Empire. It’s what Seer’s did, at least this Seer.

“I do swear fealty to you, Your Majesty.”

Ellie smiled and pulled Krys to her feet. She reached into one of her voluminous pockets and pulled out two Knight’s Pins. She placed the pins in Krys’ hands, then pressed those hands together within her own. Her eyes closed for a time, then she removed her hands. “Activate the pins, Krys.”

Krys passed her hand over the two pins, and both sprung open. Ellie’s countenance shone forth. Ellie took the pins from Krys, closed them, then pinned them in place on the collar of Krys’ coveralls, saying, “With these tokens, I knight thee, Lady Krys, Knight of the Realm. Your word is my command on all worlds of the Empire.” She drew Krys into an embrace, an embrace that was returned strongly, then turned Krys to face her crew.

“I present Lady Krys.”

Krys turned and buried her head in Tarn’s chest. Ellie stood back in surprise, suddenly fully aware of what this young man meant to Krys. Her heart warmed. Tarn’s gaze met hers, and his arms tightened around Krys. Tarn and his Queen stared at each other for a time, each with similar thoughts. The Naming of a Knight was a call to greater sacrifice. What would that sacrifice entail for Krys? Whatever it was, Ellie read in his eyes that he would be by her side throughout.

She broke eye contact with Tarn and looked to Krys’ crew. “You have stood beside Lady Krys, a woman I call daughter, for many months. You have endured great perils in my name, and Krys informs me that her mission is not yet done. As Empire officers, your Queen charges you to remain by her side for however long it takes to end this rebellion. As Ellandra of the Chosen, I ask you personally to accept this charge. Will you?”

Stven nodded his great head and said yes. M’Sada stopped his preening and clicked his mandibles, then uttered, “Of course, Your Majesty.” Tarn just looked at her and nodded grimly, his arms still engulfing Krys. Gortlan and the two gunners nodded solemnly.

She removed a locket and chain from a pocket and stepped to Stven. “Captain Stven, I Name you Friend of the Royal Family,” she said as she placed the chain over his head. She repeated the process before each of the crew, Naming each of them a Friend.

Tarn came last. She studied him for a moment, then reached into another pocket and removed another locket. “This one belonged to Krys,” she said with a glimmer in her eyes. She placed it over his head, saying, “Tarn Lukes, I Name you Friend of the Royal Family.”

When she was done, she stepped back. “You have seen the power of these lockets. Use them wisely.”

All of them lowered themselves to the deck, but Ellie would have none of it. “We’re off to dinner. I had hoped it would be an informal affair, but we’re going up to Admiral Buskin’s ship, and he has asked for a formal entrance. For those of you who wear clothes, it’s time to dress. I’ll be back as quickly as I can.”

They lifted for the cruiser an hour later, and Ellie again pulled Krys to the side. “Will you stay with me when we go aboard? I’d like to have a Knight by my side.”

Krys smiled. “I will, Mother.”

“Tarn is special, and it shows. I’m happy for you.”

“He’s the Guide, Mother.”

Ellie sucked in a breath. “Are you certain?”

“Yes. In my hour of need, he came, and now he’s far more than Guide. I’ve fallen in love with him.”

“I see that now.”

Krys sighed. “If I could have nothing else, it would be to have his undivided attention in private.”

“You’ve had no privacy? I’m sorry.”

“It’s a small ship. There’s no possibility of privacy.” She blushed, and Ellie laughed.

“I know what you mean. Admiral Jons needs to return to the surface tonight after dinner. Would you and Tarn like to accompany him?”

“Why?”

Ellie leaned toward Krys and spoke confidentially. “I’m staying aboard with Admiral Buskin. My quarters are empty, my dear.”

Krys looked at her in shock. “Mother! You’d do that for me?”

“Not just for you. For him, as well, but only under the condition that he only shares your love, he doesn’t demand all of it.”

Krys’ eyes took on a calculating look. “It won’t be easy to convince him. Chandrajuski ordered him to remain a gentleman.”

“My dear, you outrank Chandrajuski now.”

“But I can’t compel his love.”

“No, you cannot. I faced the same problem with Michael. We’ve managed to work it out.”

“Hmm. You’ll be gone all day tomorrow?”

“At least. I might choose to visit each ship, and that will take longer. Would you like that?”

She smiled. “I’d like that very much, Mother. I love you. I hope you know that’s not going to change.”

“I know. We have too many years behind us and more ahead of us. There are others who will become part of your life, who you will have to share your love with. Did you know Val, too, is in love?”

“No! Who is she?”

“She, too, is a Knight. Her name is Reba, and I know you’re going to like her.”

“Where are they?”

“To the best of my knowledge, Val is on Orion III with Korban. A battle’s shaping up there, and Chandrajuski is pulling out all the stakes.”

“It’s the first battle?”

“Yes. Chandrajuski has not forgotten what Seeton learned from your vision. I think Admiral Buskin will be his reinforcements at Aldebaran I when the time comes.”

“If he’s ready. The Chessori are a serious deterrent.”

“I know. Mike and Reba are working on it.”

“How?”

“We have a lot to talk about. Let’s leave it until later.”

*****

When dinner ended, Krys took Tarn by the arm and led him toward the hangar deck.

“What’s up, My Lady?” he asked.

“Admiral Jons needs a lift back to the surface. We’re taking him in Rappor. You do know how to land this thing, don’t you?”

“Yes, My Lady,” he said stiffly.

A Great Cat met them at the foot of the ramp when they landed. Jons bid them farewell, and Krys took Tarn’s arm and followed the cat. When they arrived at Ellie’s quarters, the Great Cat remained outside the door when she closed it. Tarn was clearly confused, and his uneasiness was clear to Krys.

She was not confused, and she was not uneasy – she was focused. “We have the place to ourselves, tonight and all day tomorrow.”

“My Lady?”

She turned to stare at him, then pulled him to herself. “My Lady, huh?”

“You’re a Knight of the Realm now, Krys, and you really are My Lady.”

“Wrong, Tarn. I’m not My Lady, I’m your lady, for as long as you’ll have me. That hasn’t changed.”

“Oh, but it has.”

She leaned back from him, a mischievous smile on her face. “Do you want it to change?”

“Of course not. You know me better than that.”

“I do. Between us, there is only us, Tarn. I may be a Knight, but I will never command your love. Can you accept me on those terms?”

“I love you, Krys. I’ll accept you on any terms you offer.”

“You’re my knight. You know that, don’t you?”

“I’m beginning to know it.”

“We have tonight and all day tomorrow. It’s the first time we’ve ever had privacy. Will you stay with me?”

“I will. Rank or no, you are my lady.”

“And you’re my man. Mother arranged all this, you know.”

He panicked. “The Queen?” He looked around the quarters. “This is her place?”

“It is, and she’s happy to share it with us, but only so long as you don’t claim all my love. For the moment you have, but in the long run, I think you’re going to have to accept her as part of me.”

“You ask too much.”

“I do, and I will. You’re man enough. Come to me, Tarn.”

*****

Ellie spent two days touring the squadron, then she joined Buskin in his office aboard the cruiser. “You need to meet with Chandrajuski. I expect him back any day. Can you wait?”

He rubbed the back of his neck as he considered. “I’d like to wait, but if he hasn’t entered the system, he’s weeks away. If you know what direction he’s coming from, I might be able to meet him out there when he drops from hyper.”

“Have you spoken with Admiral Jeffers about what’s going on here?”

“I have not, Your Majesty. There hasn’t been a spare moment yet.”

“Serge Parsons and his outlaws have developed some refinements for their ships. We’ve begun a program to refit my ships with these improved systems. When Chandrajuski drops from hyper, he’ll be here in a few hours.”

Buskin stared at her, his mind calculating. There wasn’t much to calculate. “They can jump within a system?”

“Almost into atmosphere, and they have beacons that can be modified at will, or simply turned off without all the difficulties Rappor had to go through. We’re surveying Rappor right now to see if we can give Krys the upgrades. Longer range and more powerful weapons are also part of the package.”

“I’d better talk with him. I want them for my ships, as well.”

“You’ll get them, but it’s going to be a while. Modifying the ships is a slow process, and the ships here will be the first to receive them.”

“There are a lot of ships here. Must I wait?”

“These ships have a special purpose. They will fight the Chessori.” His eyebrows rose. “Did you know your First Knight is from an emerging world?”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

“Did you know that he’s immune to the scree?”

“What’s the scree?”

“The mind weapon of the Chessori. And he’s not the only one. We believe everyone from his world is immune. We’ve brought a number of warriors from his planet, and they’re learning to fly our ships as we speak.”

Buskin leaned back in his chair, thinking deeply this time. When he looked up at her, she waited expectantly. “So that’s what’s going on. We noticed their strange behavior as we were inbound. Training, huh? Can they learn? It’s asking a lot from an emerging world.”

“Your First Knight had about two months of training before bringing me some 800 light years without an AI. We took out a number of Chessori in the process. Not only can they learn, they learn quickly.”

Buskin slapped a fist into an open hand. “They’re immune, they can fight, and they can fly. Can they lead?”

“I didn’t name him First Knight for nothing, Admiral They came with no experience of space travel, but most of them were officers or senior enlisted in their military. They’re all leaders.”

“Did he bring admirals?”

“Yes. Why?”

“Because I’ve been training Great Cats to fly my ships. Until now, they’ve been the only ones who could function against the Chessori. They’re good, but they’re not leaders. I need leaders who won’t be disabled by the Chessori. I only need one or two if they’re good.”

“All the more reason to speak with Chandrajuski. Would you like to meet the leader of these men from Earth?”

“Earth?” he said, scratching his chin. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard of it.”

“You haven’t. It’s the name they call their world. We only have a numerical designation for it. Why don’t we go find him.”

His eyebrows dropped in a question. “Just call for him, Your Majesty.”

“No. He’s extremely busy. We’ll go to him.”

Just before boarding the shuttle, Ralph, her Protector, brought her a message. “Sir Mike and Otis have dropped from hyper, Your Majesty.”

Surprise turned to excitement for Ellie, and a smile lit her face. “Thank you, Ralph. I’ll clear my schedule.”

She and Buskin found Trexler aboard a cruiser orbiting Parsons’ World. He and two other admirals from Earth were in the midst of a simulated battle of fleet proportions and were not to be disturbed. Ellie could have insisted, but she did not. Training took first priority.

Buskin looked thoughtful and turned to the ship’s captain. “I’d like to observe. Can I go in without disturbing them?”

“Yes, sir. You can.” He turned to Ellie. “Your Majesty?” he asked her with a questioning look.

“I have other plans. We’ll set something up for the day after tomorrow,” she said to Buskin.

“Very well, Your Majesty.”

She left, and Buskin went to the operations center, entering quietly. There he found a Schect and three men in strange uniforms, all of them lounging with helmets on, all within the net. He donned a helmet himself and went into the net, remaining in the background.

He observed the three admirals in the midst of an engagement. They had eight squadrons of fast ships against twelve squadrons of Rebels. The Rebels didn’t have fast ships, of course. Four friendly squadrons were heavily engaged against one enemy squadron each. The remaining four friendly squadrons were doing their best to occupy the other eight Rebel squadrons, jumping in and out with hard punches to prevent their joining the main battle. It didn’t look like the battle had been going on for very long.

M’Coda sensed Buskin’s presence and went to him. Both having worked for Chandrajuski, they knew each other fairly well. M’Coda greeted him warmly while keeping his attention on the battle. “I heard you were here,” he said. “How goes your mission?”

“Well enough. I’d like to observe for a while if you don’t mind. What are the parameters they’re fighting under?”

“The Rebel ships are being flown by Chessori. We’ve had to make some assumptions with their performance. Our ships are fast ships, and we have the new, improved shields and weapons, but we’re seriously understaffed. One gunner to each battery is all I’ve given them. It’s all we can muster at present.”

“One gunner for each battery! I wouldn’t have guessed. They’re pretty effective.”

“These guys fight hard, and their flying is improving daily.” As they watched, two enemy squadrons broke away and headed toward one of Trexler’s squadrons that was fully engaged. Trexler broke up two of his harrying squadrons, sending a frigate and six fighters from each to engage the two Chessori squadrons. Buskin sucked in his breath.

“I know,” M’Coda said. “I hate it when he does this.”

“I’ve been working on some tactics of my own,” Buskin said. “I think I’d have pulled the first squadron back.”

“My feelings, exactly. We train to fight as full squadrons, and we always keep them intact.” He spoke to Trexler. “What are you doing, Ray?”

“Let me try this. If I can hold these guys off for just a little while, we’ll improve the numbers.”

“We’ve trained to fight as full squadrons.”

“You have, but my guys are new to this and won’t care. Let’s see what happens.”

The battle rapidly became more complicated. In the space of half an hour, Trexler was forced to divide his two remaining harrying squadrons, leaving eight half-squadrons to hold off eight full Chessori squadrons. His better weapons and shields made a difference, though, and within the next hour the Chessori lost four squadrons. It was now down to squadron against squadron. Trexler had lost six fighters but no capital ships, and it was just a matter of fighting it out now on an equal basis.

M’Coda called a halt to the action. The purpose here today was not to learn to fight squadron against squadron – they already knew how to do that. Today’s purpose had been to focus on fleet tactics.

M’Coda clicked his mandibles when everyone was out of the net, and he began a refreshing preening of his whiskers. “I call that a win, Ray, but I still don’t like it. I’d have sent your eight squadrons up against the twelve Chessori squadrons all at once.”

“I know, but if these had been real ships, and if you surveyed my captains after the battle, I think you’d find they were better focused. Each squadron commander, or half-squadron, had a specific responsibility. They didn’t have to concern themselves with the rest of the battle, only their own assignments, and it let them focus on real tactics rather than just a free for all.”

“Your harrying ships were badly outnumbered.”

“They were already badly outnumbered, but they didn’t have to remain engaged. They hit hard, then danced away, repeatedly. It was only a risk until the first four squadrons were neutralized. Once they were, it was squadron against squadron.”

“We’ll have to repeat this with real squadrons tied into the net. I’m not sure your squadron commanders would have made the necessary adjustments as well as the computer let them. The new program for tying real ships together should be ready soon.”

Trexler nodded. “We can never forget that computers are doing the fighting in these simulators. We won’t really know what we’re up against until it’s the real thing.” He turned to the stranger and stuck his hand out. “I’m Ray Trexler.”

“Oriska Buskin. It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir.”

“You’re the Admiral Buskin?”

“I am, sir.”

“Well, it’s a pleasure, indeed. I didn’t know you were in the area.”

“Just a quick visit. I have a few ships hiding out elsewhere, and I need to get back to them. I’m waiting to see Chandrajuski.”

“I’ll bet you are. How many ships?”

“Three hundred at last count. I’ve been away for four months. I’m certain we’ve had additions.”

Trexler’s eyebrows rose. “Three hundred! You’ve doubled the Queen’s resources.”

“But they’re all outdated now. None of them is a fast ship.”

Trexler smiled, and a glimmer lit his eyes. “I don’t doubt you’ll get your conversions, Admiral.”

“Seems I’m last on the list, though.” He looked from Trexler to M’Coda, then back to Trexler. “That was some fancy fighting. Can we talk?”

M’Coda led them to the squadron commander’s conference room. As soon as they were seated, Buskin dove in.

“I just learned of your immunity to the scree. I’m in the process of recruiting Great Cats. Until now, they’ve been the only ones to successfully function under the scree. It’s tough on them, but they can do it until we get more of you from Earth to replace them, and it looks like that’s going to take a while.”

Trexler nodded. “It will. We’re trying to keep this quiet on Earth. Things will get real bad there when knowledge of the Empire gets out. We have to be selective, and the numbers are going to be small for a while.”

“Can you spare an admiral or two?”

Trexler frowned. “Why?”

“How well do you know the Great Cats?”

“Not well.”

“They’re incredible fighters, and there’s no one better at Protection, but they’ve never been asked to lead on this scale. Quite frankly, they’re not very good at it. They’re fighters, and they lead well in small skirmishes, but they do not lead major engagements well. In our training, my commanders have had to lead from afar in order to avoid the scree, and I’m sure you can see the limitations of that.”

“I can.” Trexler’s eyes rose to the ceiling as he considered, then he looked sharply at Buskin. “How many?”

“I really need one for each squadron, but I can get started with just a couple. I don’t have that many cats yet. Anything will be an improvement over my present situation.”

“I can spare two, but that’s all. Chandrajuski is planning a major campaign soon. I don’t know if you’ll be part of it or not.”

“I know for a fact that I’ll face a thousand Chessori ships sometime in the future. I can’t say when, but I think I’m alone with my own forces.”

Trexler looked at him in confusion. “How can you possibly know that?”

Buskin stared at him for a time, his thoughts considering implications. “Have you met Lady Krys?” he asked.

“Lady Krys? No, sir. Who’s she?”

Buskin’s lips pursed. “She just arrived a few days ago. You and I need to see the Queen, Admiral. I’m not at liberty to say more, but I’d appreciate it if you’ll call me Oriska.”

Trexler’s eyes went to the emblems on Buskin’s shoulders. “You seriously outrank me, Admiral Buskin. I’m Ray, and we can see the Queen right now as far as I’m concerned.”

Despite the gravity of his need, Buskin smiled. “Rank holds little value against these Chessori, Ray. I’m Oriska to you.” He turned to M’Coda. “You as well, my friend. I see that you, too, got a promotion out of all this.”

“Among Chandrajuski’s followers, we’re not focused on rank, only results.”

Buskin nodded his head. “You’re the best tactician in the fleet. I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather see training these men from Earth.”

M’Coda stopped his preening. “I’m not sure who’s training whom,” he said, clicking his mandibles. “These warriors from Earth might be new to space, but they’re creative.”

Buskin shrugged. “We’ve never dealt with tactics on this scale. We’re writing a whole new book, and I’ll take any input I can get. I’ve been working with another of your people, a Lieutenant Commander M’Sada. He’s been quite helpful.”

M’Coda’s upper hands moved to his antennae for a refreshing preening. “Commanders advising senior Admirals. What’s it come to?”

Trexler stood. “To the Queen?” he asked.

Buskin motioned him back to his seat. “She just received word that her First Knight is back. She’s clearing her schedule.”

Trexler smiled. “That’s good news. Have you heard his story?”

“Not first hand. Sir Otis gave Lady Krys some of the details. Quite remarkable.”

“To say the least. So you’ve been to see Otis?”

“He sent us here. Lady Krys has been searching for the Queen for two years. Parsons’ World is a well kept secret. Until the Queen is available, I’d like to discuss tactics with you if you have the time. The tactics we’ve been developing for the Great Cats are quite different than what you were using just now, and I’d appreciate any suggestions you might have to improving them.”

He stared hard at Trexler. “Who knows, you might be commanding my men before too long, and it will be against ten times the number of ships you were just facing.”

*****

Mike and Otis went all the way to Shipyard only to discover that Ellie had left. When they arrived on Parsons’ World and exited the freighter, she was about to throw her arms around him when she suddenly stopped and peered hard at him.

“You’ve changed,” she said, taking a step back.

“What did you expect?” he asked with a grin from ear to ear. “Between Josh’s physical training and Otis’ ideas on outdoor living, I’m tanned and in the best shape I’ve ever been in.”

“Who’s Josh?” she asked.

“You’ll meet him later. Come here,” he said, holding out his arms.

She smothered him in kisses before taking his arm in her own and leading them to her apartment, classes, admirals, and wars forgotten for one day.

There was considerable confusion as her Protectors and their Terran counterparts settled into their new quarters, and she found herself practically stumbling over bodies of one sort or another. She called Otis, Mike, and Josh into a meeting. Ralph, never far from her side, was there, as well.

“This isn’t working,” she stated, brooking no argument. “I have three cats with me at all times plus, now, three of Josh’s men. We’re falling all over ourselves. Otis, something needs to give.”

Otis sat with his tail about his feet, a position Mike had learned was his ‘listening to Ellie’ pose, sort of at attention but sort of insolent as well, something every cat he had ever known excelled at. Otis had never brooked argument from Ellie when it came to her safety, nor would he now even if he wasn’t her personal Protector.

“What do you suggest, Your Majesty?”

“One Terran only,” she demanded. “Everyone else can follow or precede at a distance.”

Otis was stunned, maybe the most surprised Mike had ever seen him. “You would be without a Protector, Your Majesty? The Chosen have had Protectors at their sides for two thousand years. I must insist on at least one of my men.”

Ellie let a glint slip into her eyes, then a triumphant smile lit her face. “Thank you, Otis. I accept. I knew you’d double whatever I demanded, so one of each it is. It’s what I had in mind all along.”

Otis let his steady gaze rest on her for a time. Nothing was said, but waves of meaning passed between the two of them. Cats do that so well, Mike thought, chuckling to himself.

Otis eventually nodded his head. “It shall be so unless we suspect trouble, then Ralph has free reign. He will not be overruled in this,” he added with narrowed eyes.

Though technically not part of her assigned protection team, Josh, Mike, Jessie, and Otis were often in Ellie’s presence, adding to her protection. Nor did she resist. She had always needed people around her and welcomed their presence.

Chapter Sixteen

Ellie’s forces were growing, and as they did the number of key leaders was increasing. She wanted all of them to meet together, but she decided that Mike needed to meet Krys first. The whole idea of visions bothered him, and she suspected that, deep inside, he feared her Seer.

She called Krys to her quarters. She arrived wearing her standard ship attire, nothing fancy for what to her was a visit to the one she called mother. Ellie met her at the door and invited her in.

“There’s someone I’d like you to meet, dear.”

She swept her arm toward Mike, and Krys let out a gasp. Her hand went to her mouth, so in shock that she couldn’t speak.

He held his place, afraid to approach this dark haired, fragile-looking young woman. Her very existence spoke of the ancient shamans of his ancestors. Ellie had warned him, but in his mind he had still expected an old crone wearing a cape and a witch’s hat, bent over from age and arthritis. Instead, before him stood a young woman whose strong resemblance to Val, her twin brother, was undeniable.

Ellie stood back herself, uncertain of the outcome of this meeting and sensing waves of emotion within the room.

Mike was first to speak. “Lady Krys.”

“The man of dirt,” she breathed. “At last.” She stared into his eyes. She had waited long to meet this man, and suddenly, here he was.

“You know me?” he asked.

“I know of you, Sire. You’ve been a thread linking many of my visions, and I saw you clearly in one. You are truly a Great One.”

Mike felt a chill run through his body, and he shuddered. “The very idea of your visions frightens me,” he offered softly.

“They frighten me, too. It is not an ability I want. It just is.”

“You speak the words of your mother.”

“But I am not a Chosen. I’m just Krys, frightened out of my wits most of the time.”

He smiled. “So am I. In that, at least, we are similar.”

“You’re afraid? Impossible. You’re the man of dirt.”

“I’m just a man, Krys, a man from an emerging world who finds himself in over his head most of the time.”

Her lower lip trembled. “But we serve, Sire. We have answered the call.”

He smiled kindly. “We do. I was unwilling at first, but I’ve come around.”

Her eyes widened. “I, too, was unwilling.” She risked a glance at Ellie. “Very unwilling at first. Not anymore.”

Mike felt himself warming to this young woman who had battled her own deficiencies, just as he had, and won. He felt rooted in place and had to force a foot to move in her direction, then another. He stuck his hand out. “Welcome to our small family, Krys.”

She stepped back, her hand held out before her to warn him. He stopped in surprise and stared at her. She lifted pleading eyes to him. “Sire, you are intimately tied to most of my visions, and we have never even met. Touch me at your peril.”

His eyes widened, and he stepped back from her, more frightened than when he had faced the Chessori. They stared at each other, Mike with fear in his eyes, and Krys with understanding and patience.

“I think this is part of our duty, Sire,” she breathed softly.

“I know. I don’t have to like it.” He looked to Ellie for help, but what could she do? He turned back to Krys. “I can’t move my feet.”

Krys nodded. With her gaze never leaving his, she stepped boldly to him and held out both hands in a fist. His eyes left hers to stare at those hands. Then, with pursed lips, he grasped them in both of his own.

The moment they touched, Krys’ eyes glazed over and her body stiffened. She held for long moments, then crumpled to the floor. Mike had felt nothing. He forgot his own fear and scooped her up into his arms. He looked around, then carried her to a couch and sat with her on his lap, her head resting in the crook of his arm. Ellie, truly frightened, knelt before them, her hand on Krys’ face.

“Is she okay?”

Mike felt for a pulse in her neck and found one easily. “She’s okay. Just give her a minute.”

When Krys came back to herself, her eyes opened to find her First Knight’s eyes staring into her own from inches away. His hand brushed at her face and she closed her eyes again, yielding to his comforting touch. “I saw…”

Mike placed two fingers over her mouth. “There’s time for that later. Rest, Krys.” She closed her eyes, and he continued to brush his hand across her face. So young, he thought, and so much depended on the rightness of her visions.

Ellie leaned forward and kissed her forehead. “Would you like me to call Tarn?” she asked softly.

Krys nodded and tried, weakly, to rise. “The Guide should be here.” She looked into Mike’s eyes. “I’m sorry, First Knight.”

“Don’t be. Close your eyes and rest. It’s the least I can do for one of my Knights.”

He felt her body relax, and they stayed that way until Tarn arrived on the run. A Great Cat opened the door for him before he got there, and Tarn came into the room skidding to a halt, Krys his only concern. He knelt beside her and called softly to her. There was no response. He looked up at Mike. “What happened?”

“Actually, I think she fell asleep. She had a vision and collapsed, but she was awake for a minute or so. She’s okay, Tarn.”

“Are you sure?’

“Pretty sure. I’ve never seen her have a vision. This one seemed to take the stuffing out of her. Is that normal?”

“No, it’s not. Not at all. Have you called for a doctor?”

Ellie touched his arm, suddenly more concerned than she had been. “No, Tarn. I’ll do so immediately.”

Krys reached an arm out slowly to Tarn. “I’m okay. I’m awake, sort of.”

He took her hand and looked up at Mike. “Who are you?”

“Around here I seem to be known as the man of dirt.”

Tarn stared at him, blinking, then he bowed his head. “First Knight.”

“Relax, Tarn. Krys is our only focus at the moment.”

The doctor arrived and ran a portable sensor over her body. He pronounced her fine and left. Krys struggled to sit up, glancing with hooded eyes at Mike.

“I’m so embarrassed, First Knight,” she said shyly.

“Don’t be. I’m not. We’re all in this together, young lady.”

Mike and Tarn traded places, and she rested her head on Tarn’s shoulder.

Ellie clapped her hands together. “Well! This has been interesting,” she said to the room at large.

“I’m sorry, Mother.”

“It’s my fault for springing this on you. I’m just glad you’re okay. Are you okay?”

“I am. It’s the strongest, clearest vision I’ve ever had. I was actually able to look around.”

“Are you ready to talk about it, or would you like to wait? Can it wait?”

“It can, but I’m ready.” She looked to Mike. “The vision was of you, of course.”

“Of course?”

“All of my recent visions have come from contact with that person. I don’t know if that’s always necessary, it wasn’t for my earliest visions, but that’s how it’s been. You were walking out of the Imperial Senate chambers.” She looked to Ellie. “He was carrying you in his arms, Mother.”

“Was I…?”

“I don’t know. You were completely limp.”

Mike and Ellie exchanged frightened looks. Tarn shared their concern and spoke softly. “You said you could look around this time. What else did you see, Krys?”

“Before me, a cruiser hovered some twenty feet above the ground, filling the park in front of the Senate. Ramps were just extending to the ground. The remains of a number of stingers were smoking here and there, and many soldiers dressed in strange attire moved among them, some leading or carrying wounded. A number of Great Cats patrolled. I looked behind me, and the senate chamber was full, but all the senators were down. I believe they were under the influence of the scree. Several soldiers stood on the stage. One of them was pointing a blaster at a small group of Chessori, the only others in the room that were standing.”

Mike had risen to his feet as she spoke. “You say the senators were under the influence of the scree, but Ellie wasn’t moving?”

“I’m sorry, Sire,” she said, looking back and forth between him and Ellie, clearly frightened. “She was completely limp in your arms.”

Silence descended on the room. Tarn broke it, moving to kneel in front of her. “You said that’s what you saw. What did you feel, Krys?”

She considered his words, and surprise filled her face. She looked on him with love shining in her eyes. “You ask just the right question, my love. I didn’t know until you asked. I felt… accomplishment and… hope? Yes, hope.” She lifted her eyes to Ellie. “I sensed hope, Mother. I sensed hope.”

Mike had gone to Ellie’s side and pulled her into his arms. Two sets of frightened eyes stared at her. “But you don’t know, do you,” Ellie said softly.

“No, Mother, but the feelings I sensed were those of your First Knight.”

Ellie stared at her, then she turned to Mike and lifted a hand to caress his cheek. “Then I, too, feel hope,” but her actions belied her words. She put her arms around his waist and clung fiercely to him.

Mike looked over her head at Krys, not certain about how he should feel. He wanted to hate this young woman, but as he saw the agony in her eyes, he wanted to hold her in his arms, as well. Clearly, the vision had taken a great toll on her. He reached a hand out to her, and she stood up and took that hand. He pulled her to himself with one arm, Ellie pulled her in with another arm, and the three embraced.

Tarn stood to the side, forgotten. When Mike noticed, he disengaged and stepped over to Tarn. “Ellie told me you had been helpful to Krys with her visions, and I see she’s right. Thank you for your last question. I would not have wanted the vision to end without it.”

“Uh, we might not be done yet, Sire.”

“After what’s gone on here, I think we can dispense with titles. Don’t you think Mike might be a little more appropriate?”

“No, Sire. I’m just a lieutenant.”

“You’ve also been a key player in all of this, and I suspect you’ll continue to be. Ellie considers Krys part of her family, and that makes her part of my family, too. I get the impression that might include you some day, as well, eh, Lieutenant?”

Tarn’s eyes narrowed, and he stepped back from Mike. “That’s the second time I’ve heard the word ‘family’ used here. Are you saying what I think you’re saying, Sire?”

“I’ve only known you and Krys for a short time, but it’s pretty obvious you’re in love. Will that lead to marriage? Is that what you’re asking?”

“Did it for you, Sire?”

“It did. I thought you knew.”

Tarn stared at his First Knight, then grasped his arm and led him away from the women who were, at the moment, wiping at each other’s tears. When they reached the far wall, Tarn stopped and turned to face Mike. “Are you a king, Sire?”

“I’m married to your Queen. She tells me that makes me King. Why?”

Tarn nodded his head as things fell into place. “There’s something about dirt falling through spread fingers, Your Majesty. What does it mean?”

“Just a private thing between Ellie and me.”

Tarn’s lips pressed together in determination. “Explain it,” he demanded.

Mike looked at him with furrowed brow. “It’s nothing important, and it’s private, Lieutenant.”

Tarn took a deep breath, then let it out and said softly. “Then I ask you as family, Mike. It’s that important.”

Mike stepped away, then turned back to Tarn. “Very well. Are you familiar with how Ellie and I escaped from my home world?”

“Not all the details, but in a general way, yes.”

“It was a long voyage, a very long voyage. We were under a lot of strain, and everyone was counting on me to navigate Resolve. I was doing well enough for a while, particularly when we were being tracked, but after we solved that problem, a lot of the stress went away. I expected my skills to continue improving, but they didn’t. In fact, they got worse. I started making mistakes. I missed a few jump entry points, and a couple of calculations went awry. I dug in and flogged myself, but it was obvious to my Rider and to Ellie that something was wrong. To make a long story short, we talked about it, and she even Tested me, not to see if I was true, but to see if she could discover why my performance was slipping. And she figured it out.”

“Figured what out?”

“I come from a long line of ancestors who were closely tied to the land on which they lived. I guess it’s in my genes or something, because I, too, am tied to the land. I didn’t even know it, but when Ellie asked me what I would most like if I could have anything I wanted, I thought for a while, then found myself in my mind reaching for a handful of dirt. I held out my hands and let the dirt trickle through my fingers. Do you see where I’m headed with this?”

Tarn nodded. “The nearest dirt was light years away.”

“Exactly, and that was the source of my distraction. Once I understood, I could deal with it and the problem went away.”

Tarn blinked as his mind reviewed the words of Buskin’s vision, until now unsolved. It was no longer unsolved. “Thank you, Your Majesty. It all makes sense now.”

“What makes sense?”

“I ask your leave to delay the explanation, Your Majesty.”

“Tarn,” Mike said threateningly, “this was all man to man. Why must I wait?”

“Things are going to start hopping around here, Your Majesty. Real soon, and I’m not sure we’re done with the vision Krys just had. Let’s finish that one up before we move on to another. Some of her visions are accompanied by words. Let’s find out if this one was.”

Mike took Tarn’s shoulder and led him back to Ellie and Krys. “Is there more to the vision?” he demanded.

Ellie answered with a grin. “There is. It was accompanied by words. This vision was so strong for Krys that she tells me the words are clear, not a riddle this time.

“Never underestimate your opponent. The man of dirt learned his lesson well. His battle is won, and all is well. Friends and family are all that matter now.”

His eyes lit up, and they shared a moment of triumph. He nodded to Krys, then took Ellie in his arms. “Surely it means you survive.”

“I think it does, Michael. How else could all be well for you? I think my realm will survive after all.”

Mike and Ellie turned to Krys and invited her into another embrace. She, too, enjoyed the moment, though in her mind, she most enjoyed Ellie’s clear display of love for the man of dirt, the knight in shining armor she had foreseen for Ellie so many years ago. Her thoughts turned to Tarn, her own knight in shining armor, and she discovered him standing with his back to them.

“Join us, Tarn,” she called.

He turned to her with a stricken look, and she instantly sobered, misunderstanding his grief. She let go of Mike and Ellie and went to him. “I’m sorry, Tarn. We’re not excluding you.”

“I know,” he said absently.

Alarm suddenly filled her eyes, and she understood the stricken look. Tarn’s gaze lifted from hers to Ellie’s, then to Mike’s. “I hope you’re right, Your Majesties. I’m not certain that you are.”

“Right about what, Tarn?” Mike growled, his arm slowly falling from Ellie’s waist.

Tarn closed his eyes, hating what he was about to do. “What if you’re wrong, Sire? What if it really is a riddle? The words of all the other visions have come in the form of a riddle. Why would this one be different?”

“Because I saw so clearly,” Krys assured him. “I’ve never seen so clearly.”

He shook his head and took her hand. “All your visions have been messages, My Lady. Every single one. Whether it was a message of hope, or a message of instruction, or a message of warning, each was a message, and the message carried by each has been of grave significance to the outcome of this war. Why would this one be any different?”

“But it’s so simple.”

His lips pursed as he nodded his head. “It is… on the surface. I don’t know what happens on Triton with the Imperial Senate, but clearly, something of import takes place. We can’t say for certain that the Queen lives through it, but you sensed that Mike is coming away from this engagement with a sense of hope and accomplishment.”

His gaze rose to take in all of them. “Look deeper, all of you.” He stared at Mike for a time, considering how best to disagree with his First Knight and King. “Someone, or some thing has gone to a lot of trouble to send these visions to Krys. We’ve listened to all the messages, and now the war is over. Right?”

He didn’t wait for Mike to answer. “What if you’re wrong? What if your hope is misplaced, Sire? This being has gone to all this trouble for us, for you, and what if you’ve failed it? Consider the message as if it was given in anger, with disdain. I see the words coming from lips that are curved into a leer.

‘ Never underestimate your opponent. The man of dirt learned his lesson well. His battle is won, and all is well. Friends and family are all that matter now.’ ”

Mike considered the words. “You’re saying that I didn’t learn my lesson well, that all is not well, that friends and family are not all that matter. I’ve missed the boat, so to speak.”

“Partly, Sire. These messages are never simple. I would offer a slightly different interpretation. I want to believe that the source of these visions has not given up on us, will never give up on us. The words might be said with disdain, but I believe there’s still a message here. I believe the first and last sentences have dual meaning. They add to the disdain, but they might also contain a message.”

Mike mumbled the words to himself. “Never underestimate your opponent. Friends and family are all that matter now.” He looked inside himself, then he looked at Tarn. “I must not underestimate my enemy, and friends and family do matter.”

“Put another way, Sire, you have underestimated your opponent, and your friends and family need to be your focus. They’re in trouble. You have a location.”

“My friends and family are here, Tarn.”

“Not all of them, Sire.”

Mike’s eyes narrowed. “You’re right, Lieutenant. They’re on Earth.” He turned to Ellie. “Could we have gotten so focused on the senate that we forgot about the Chessori?”

She looked at him in horror. So, too, did Krys.

Mike turned away from them and paced, a grim expression on his face. He turned suddenly to Tarn. “How much time do we have? Does one follow the other?”

Tarn spread his arms wide. “I don’t know, Sire. I’m guessing at all this just as much as you are.”

“It’s Mike, darn it, and your guesses are a heck of a lot better than mine. What do you think?”

Tarn considered the words again and shook his head. “Do they mean it’s already too late, or do they mean there’s still time? It’s a message of instruction, but the instructions could be taken either way. I don’t know, Mike. I’m not sure it matters.”

Mike stared at him. “How can it not matter?”

Tarn’s eyes shifted from Mike to Ellie. “Because of another vision, Your Majesties.”

Krys sucked in a breath, then shrieked. “Your Majesties?” She stared at Tarn, then whirled to face Ellie. “You married your knight in shining armor, Mother?”

Despite the gravity of the situation, Ellie went to Krys and gathered her in her arms. “Did you expect anything less, my daughter? I wanted both of us to tell you, but your vision intervened. I’m sorry.”

“I’m so happy for you, both of you,” she said, turning to include Mike. “I wish I could have been there.”

“Well, it was quite the private affair,” Mike said with a tight smile. “The vision, Tarn?”

Tarn deferred to Krys, but she didn’t have all the pieces. “What about the hands?” she asked him, thinking of Buskin’s vision.

“They’re his,” he said, brooking no argument.

She nodded and turned back to Mike. “I had a vision of Admiral Buskin several months ago. Do you know him?”

“I know of him. We haven’t met.”

“You know he’s gathered a number of ships to himself?” Mike nodded grimly, and she continued. “In my vision of him, I was looking through his eyes. He was in the net, and he could see all around himself. Behind him, a blue and white planet with a single moon was receding. In front of him, what seemed like a thousand ships were coming his way. Tarn says they were Chessori ships because of their color and drive signatures.” Mike nodded again.

“With the vision came the following words for Admiral Buskin:

‘Follow or lead? Where once it was dirt, a king’s tears now fall through spread fingers. The battle is won, the war lost.’”

Silence filled the room as Ellie and Mike considered the words.

“Have we failed?” Elle asked.

“Have I failed?” Mike countered. He turned to Tarn. “Is it already too late?”

“Krys did not sense imminence with Buskin’s vision. I believe there is time yet. I’m sorry I didn’t figure it out sooner. We could have gotten him started months ago.”

“Started on what?”

“He’s hiding out while he trains Great Cats to fly and fight his ships. It doesn’t matter where he hides. He’ll go wherever you send him. Why not let him do his waiting near Earth? He has a lot of ships, probably more than you have here.”

Mike smacked a fist into an open hand. “Get him in here.”

“Uh, Sire, Lieutenants don’t order Fleet Admirals around. Truth be told, I was just an ensign when all this started.”

Mike reconsidered his demand, then could only smile. A few minutes delay wouldn’t matter. He went over and put an arm around Tarn’s shoulders. “You might have just been an ensign, but I was a civilian. Rank isn’t the determining factor around here. Duty and ability are all I care about. You were right a little while ago when you pulled me aside. You said things were going to start hopping, and you were right then, too. I get the impression you’re right a lot of the time. What’s your official position in all of this?”

“I’m Krys’ aide, assigned by Admiral Chandrajuski.”

“Hmm. She’s a Knight now, and I’m First Knight, so she’s part of my team. That means you are, too. I only accept volunteers. Will you volunteer?”

“Of course, Sire.”

“Okay. We need a meeting, and I don’t know where anyone is. Can you round up Buskin, Trexler, and Jeffers for me, and do it in my name? Say one hour from now?”

Ellie took charge. “Make it two hours, Michael. We have some other business to attend to in the meantime.” She turned to Krys. “You can help him if you’d like.”

Krys smiled weakly. “I recognize a dismissal when I hear one.” She went to Ellie and kissed her on the cheek. “All this aside, I’m happy for you and your First Knight, Mother.”

Ellie kissed her back, on the mouth. “And I’m grateful. What you two have given us today might make the difference between success and failure. You’ve done well, and so has your man. Just don’t stop calling me Mother. Return here when you’ve finished setting up the meeting.”

Krys and Tarn left hand in hand, a Knight and a Friend of the Royal Family.

Ellie stood for a while in thought after the door slid shut behind them, then turned to Mike. “You really want him on your staff?”

“I do. Look at what he just did, and it’s not the first time. Krys has given us the visions, but he’s the one who’s figured them out. If his interpretations are right, he’s given us critical keys to defeating the Rebels, and he might just have saved a whole planet, my planet.”

“Your home, Michael.”

“No, my home is here with you, but it’s my homeland.” He smiled. “Did you see how he pulled me off to the side?”

“No. When?”

“You and Krys were being mother and daughter. He doesn’t take no for an answer, Ellie. In his own mind he’s an ensign, an officer of the lowest possible rank. Despite that, he made a decision he knew was right, and he acted upon it despite the fact that I’m First Knight. And he didn’t just ask for information, he demanded it. He reminds me a lot of Val.”

“I’m not surprised. He’s the Guide.”

“From your story about the leaf people?”

“The very same, only we had it wrong, all of us. Krys discovered that he wasn’t her guide, he was our guide. His purpose is to guide whomever the vision is about. He’s guided Chandrajuski, Korban, Seeton and Veswicki, Buskin, and now you and me.” She kissed him hard. “And now you’re leaving me again.”

“I’m afraid so. I must.”

“When?”

“Soon. We’ll know better after the meeting. I don’t want to rush off with a bad plan. Korban needs help, Seeton is counting on our help, the sectors and districts need us out there in the worst way, and we haven’t figured out how you’re going to deal with the senate. I wish Chandrajuski was here.”

“He’ll be back any day.”

“We’ll wait if we can. Let’s see what the others think. Trexler is going to go ballistic.”

“Does he have time to go with you? Can he afford to be away?”

“Can you imagine him not going?”

“I don’t know. He’s a big picture kind of guy. He’ll go where he’s most needed. I like him, and I’ll miss him if he goes. As usual, I’ll be here alone.”

“You’ll have Otis, and you really must get to know Josh. You’ll like him.”

“We’ll see. I might make some plans of my own.”

“Traveling plans?”

“Maybe. We’ll see how the meeting goes, then I’ll decide.”

He took her in his arms. “But you won’t decide on your own, will you.”

“No, my love. I’ve learned to listen to my counselors. And don’t worry. I have almost 600 Protectors to keep an eye on me.”

“I’d be happier if it was a thousand, ten thousand.”

She snuggled into his chest. “I’m getting low on Knights Pins, and I won’t have the means to add to my supply until we’re back on Triton.”

“Maybe you should just start giving out one Pin. Val and Reba would be happy to part with one, or maybe both of them if that’s what you need. The Pins are helpful, but they’re both strong enough to accomplish things without them.”

“We’ll see, but I won’t send a Knight out without at least one.”

“They’re not Knights because of the Pins, My Lady.”

She smiled. “You speak true, First Knight. I’ve chosen my Knights well, and I’m pleased with each of them, though I fear for them, as well.”

*****

When Tarn and Krys returned, Ellie was ready. She gave each of them a hug, then put both hands on Tarn’s shoulders. “Do you have your locket, Tarn?”

“Of course, Your Majesty.”

“I’d like it back please.”

Tarn stared at her, not understanding. Krys’ hands went to her mouth, and tears started cascading down her cheeks. She knew what this was all about.

Ellie repeated her request. “I’d like it back, Tarn.”

“Of course, Your Majesty. I’m sorry if I disappointed you.”

She took the locket, and it disappeared into one of her pockets. “You have not disappointed me, Tarn Lukes. Quite the opposite. You are the Guide, you have answered the call, and you have acted bravely and rightly on my behalf. The time has come to Name you for who you are. Will you kneel before your Queen?”

“Your Majesty! What if I’m wrong?”

“To be Named a Knight is a call to greater sacrifice in my name, as you know. When a Knight errs, and they do, he acts to correct the error. It’s a difficult thing for some, and for them it’s part of the sacrifice I demand. You have it within you to do so, I know you do, Tarn, and I’m counting on you to be true. The Empire is counting on you to be true. Now will you kneel and swear fealty to your Queen?”

Tarn didn’t need any help, but Krys went to his side and helped him down anyway. She planted a very wet kiss on his cheek as tears continued cascading down her own.

“Tarn Lukes,” Ellie intoned as she placed her hands on his head, “by your actions you have proven your value to me and your Empire. Krys’ visions may be the stuff of legend, but your interpretations of them have given clear direction to admirals, Knights, and your Queen. Entire strategies are now based on your interpretations of these visions, and I believe your interpretations are true. The Empire will be forever in your debt. Do you swear continued fealty to my crown?”

“I do, Your Majesty.”

“Stand, please.” She turned to Krys. “I’m running a little low on Pins. Are you willing to part with one of yours for a while?”

Krys lifted shaking hands to a Pin on her collar, but she couldn’t release it. Mike stepped up to help, then placed it in her hand. She passed the Pin to Ellie with trembling lips. Ellie placed the Pin in Tarn’s hand and closed both of her own hands over his. She closed her eyes for a time, then opened them and released Tarn’s hands.

“Open the Pin, Tarn.”

He passed his hand over the Pin, which snapped open to reveal her countenance. She closed the Pin and attached it to his collar, saying, “With this token, I knight thee, Sir Tarn, Knight of the Realm. Your word is my command on all worlds of the Empire.” She kissed him lightly on the cheek, then he was smothered in Krys’ kisses.

*****

Chandrajuski returned, and they had their meeting. Mike would go to Earth ahead of Buskin to get things started. Trexler, as much as he felt compelled to go, could not. Chandrajuski had decided he’d waited as long as he could for word from Admiral Korban on Orion III. If he was going to take a stand there, it was time to get moving, and Trexler was his senior Terran admiral. If the Chessori were encountered, Trexler had to be there.

Chandrajuski’s gaze moved to Buskin. “We cannot risk losing Earth under any circumstances. Your fleet is probably larger than my own. I hope it is enough, because my ships are fully allocated to the coming battles.”

“Timing is everything, sir. I’ll face a thousand fully-manned Chessori ships. We’re talking at least two-to-one odds here, and at present I only have a very limited number of Great Cats to go up against them.”

Trexler spoke. “You need reserves. So do we. If the reserves are fast ships, they can remain here to protect Parsons’ World, and they can be called quickly to reinforce whoever needs them.”

Chandrajuski nodded and turned back to Buskin. “You need someone to show you the ropes after you get to Earth, and Mike can’t stay long.” He turned to Trexler. “Should we take someone from here, or should we recruit someone there?”

“Ray has already agreed to give me two admirals,” Buskin interrupted. “I’d prefer them already trained.”

M’Coda had joined the meeting along with Trexler. They both looked at each other and said at the same time, “Godfries.”

“Who’s he?” Mike asked.

“The best admiral I have,” Trexler replied without hesitation. “He’s needed here, but now he’s needed there even more. Earth deserves the best we have. He won’t have fast ships, and the cat’s performance will probably not be up to ours when the scree is factored in. He’ll be operating at a significant deficit.” He turned to M’Coda. “Will you consider staying with him to help develop tactics?”

“If necessary. I don’t think it is. He’s pretty sharp.” He turned to face Buskin. “Do you need me there, sir?”

“I’d like to have you, but I think you’re needed here. I have more admirals than I know what to do with. They fled their sectors with their ships, and among them are some excellent, creative leaders. We’ll manage. Our tactics are going to be a lot different than your own.”

“You’ll need to keep us informed,” M’Coda advised. “The day may come when your forces are called to assist us.”

“And you might be coming to my assistance. I don’t want to face a thousand Chessori by myself.”

“Let’s get Godfries in here,” Mike decided. “He needs to know the whole plan.”

While they waited, Ellie broached another subject. She looked to Otis. “Krys is going back out, and I want to add to her Protection. You might not have heard, but she suffers physical injury from the scree. Jake is already at work creating a new Rider for her. The Rider will, I hope, help with any injuries she sustains. She has a good crew, but she only has three Great Cats for protection. Can you spare a few more?”

“I have 600 Protectors who are idle at the moment. How about two teams of Terrans and cats?”

“Oh, that would be wonderful, Otis. Thank you. Hmm, I’m not sure if her ship can carry that many people.”

Trexler leaned forward, his hand thoughtfully rubbing his chin. “I haven’t met her, and I’m vague on what her mission is, but I know your Knights deal with matters of great import to the Empire. Are there more Chessori in her future? Would she benefit from a Terran crew?”

“She already has a crew, a good crew, but they’re not immune. It’s an excellent suggestion, Ray, if we can find room for them.”

“If she needs a bigger ship, we get her a bigger ship.”

“We should include a pilot,” Mike said.

Trexler frowned. “We’re already severely understaffed. Let’s assign Godfries to Earth, I’ll come up with a pilot for Krys, and Godfries and Buskin can train as many more admirals as they need from recruits on Earth. Will that work?”

Buskin was tight-lipped, but he nodded his head. Mike coughed into his fist. “Uh, I think you might want to consult Krys and her captain on this before you assign anyone.”

Trexler smiled. “We will. They’re a small, tight group, and they’ll have to get along with each other.”

“I will Test each of them when you’ve made your final selections,” Ellie added.

Admiral Stuart Godfries arrived and was introduced. “I have a new assignment for you, Stu. You’re going home,” Trexler said gravely. He explained the full situation. When he was done, Godfries leaned back in his seat. Silence prevailed for a time, a long time, as he considered the new assignment. When Godfries lifted his gaze back to the group, he looked first to Buskin, then to Mike, and finally to Trexler.

When he spoke, it was softly. “Ray, you’re thinking too small.”

“I’m not infallible. That’s why I brought you.”

“We’ve talked about how the nations on Earth need something to pull them together before they self-destruct with the knowledge of extraterrestrials. This is the perfect opportunity. I’ll be sitting on literally thousands of potential men and women to man our ships.”

His gaze shifted to Buskin. “If your training facilities are up to it, and the simulations aboard ships are excellent training grounds, we can train our own guys, and they’ll all be immune. We might even be able to ship some back here. In time, we won’t need Parsons’ World for training anymore.”

“Where will you get all the recruits?” Mike asked. “We’re trying to keep knowledge of the Empire a secret.”

“I don’t know, but I don’t think it’s going to stay a secret, not if keeping it a secret means the extinction of our species. We’re better than that. I’m thinking we might bring entire squadrons of fighter pilots on board.”

“You’ll upset the balance of power.”

“Maybe, but what if we rotate recruiting among all the major powers. We give up a squadron, then another country does the same, then another one, and so on. When we’ve gone the circuit, we’ll start over. Everyone will be sucked down at the same time.”

“You won’t keep that a secret.”

“Not for long. We’ll work up to it as quickly as the politicians can get their parts done. In the meantime, I can work some personal contacts.”

He stared around the table. No one rebutted his plan, and he turned back to Mike. “Parsons’ World and Shipyard are converting our ships to fast ships, but it’s a slow process. What’s slowing it down? Production or installation?”

Jons answered. “Installation. Mainly, the guns. They require a lot of cutting and fitting, and these are all special materials that require experienced craftsmen.”

Godfries turned to Buskin. “Do we need the guns, sir?”

“Hmm. Stronger weapons would be nice, but fast ships alone would make a huge difference. We could get by with just installing new AI’s. If we can upgrade the shields while we’re at it, so much the better. The guns could come later.”

“The new AI’s are programmed for the upgraded guns and shields,” Jons said. “I’ll have to find out if we can adjust them without starting over from scratch. I think it can be done.”

“Mike,” Godfries said, “we can do the installations on Earth. We have a tremendous pool of manpower. Just send us a few trainers and all the parts.”

Mike looked to Admiral Jons who shrugged his shoulders. “This is manufacturing stuff, and Serge’s guys are doing all of it. They’re flat out at the moment making the modifications to the ships that are already here. I’ll have to check with Serge and his managers. It will mean a reduction in current output. I don’t know how much.”

“But in the end, it could mean an increase in output, right?” Mike asked.

“Yes, Sire, if we live that long.”

Mike’s lips pursed. Managing resources was always a balancing act, but mismanagement of this one could have dire consequences.

“Stu, you can’t hide all these ships on the ground,” Trexler said in exasperation.

“Not right away, we can’t.” He looked to Buskin. “The mechanics of the situation demand these ships be somewhere within the inner system.”

“Correct. It would be nice if we could station them a quick jump away through hyperspace, just keep a few observers in the system, but if we jump in after the Chessori, it would be a stern chase. We might never catch up.”

“Not without fast ships, and even then we want to hold that secret in reserve until it’s needed. We have to hide out on or near Earth. I suppose Mars might work, but we want to be hidden from the Chessori as much as from the people on Earth.” He looked askance at Mike and waited for his reaction.

Mike thought for a moment, then his eyebrows rose and a smile lit his face. He nodded his head, and Godfries continued. “We hide in the ocean.”

Buskin straightened. “No way!”

“It can’t be done?”

Buskin turned away, a look of intense dismay on his face. “It can for the smaller ships. I’ll have to check to see if it would work for frigates and cruisers. That’s not the issue. These ships will be crewed by Empire crews as well as your own. Speaking just for myself, I’ve spent most of my career in the emptiness of space. The thought of all that water around me makes me ill.”

“Do the crews have to know?”

“They’ll know,” he said, nodding his head. “It would be a terrible test for them. I don’t know if I can hold them together under those circumstances.” He considered the idea, and his shoulders shuddered. “I’ll give it a try. I make no guarantees.”

“We have some pretty sophisticated listening devices spread around our oceans, Stu,” Trexler said. “So do other nations. You’ll be discovered.”

“Time, Ray. I’m just buying time until we no longer need to hide. And we really want to keep the element of surprise if we’re attacked. I’d love for any approaching Chessori fleets to think they’re approaching an undefended planet. How about you, sir?” he asked Buskin.

“To have such an advantage would almost be worth living in the sea for a while.”

“The ship modifications have to be done on the surface,” Jons stated. “The AI has to be completely deactivated, then a new one installed and exhaustively tested before it’s signed off as battle ready.”

Godfries closed his eyes for a moment. “The small ships are not a problem, we can house them somewhere. Frigates and cruisers are a problem.”

Mike spoke up. “I’m an engineer. I think you can hide them in natural formations like the Grand Canyon. Nets could be constructed that would stretch from one side of the canyon to the other, and the nets could incorporate whatever wiring is needed to fool satellites. It would cause a lot of inconvenience, but it could be done.”

“Mountain passes might work, too,” Godfries added.

“Most of them have major roads through them.”

“Hmm. We might have to engineer a landslide or two.”

“You’re talking major inconvenience to the populations,” Mike said.

“Better inconvenienced than dead, Sire.”

“Are you the one to make all this happen?” Mike asked.

“I am if Admiral Buskin will have me.” Buskin nodded his head solemnly in acceptance, and Godfries turned to Trexler. “You’re our commander, sir. I’ll commit to you. Just know that this is just a plan, the broad outlines of a plan, and parts of it aren’t going to work out.”

“The weakest link is politics. You’ll have to go to Earth with Mike. You two can get things started, but you’ll have to continue that battle without him, and it will be a battle that cannot be neglected. You can’t run roughshod over them, Stu.”

“I won’t. I’ve carried the flag before, and I’ll continue to carry it.”

“You’ll carry the flags of many nations on this one.”

“Understood, sir.”

Chapter Seventeen

Mike asked Serge Parsons for an informal meeting. He had some ideas to run by Serge, but he didn’t want the meeting to be official – his thoughts would likely bring ridicule. He never forgot that he was from an emerging world and essentially ignorant of the science and engineering possibilities of the Empire.

The two of them met at a favorite spaceport pub of Serge’s. Mike had no money, but that didn’t bother Serge in the slightest. They sat at a booth in a back corner, far removed from the festivities surrounding the bar area, and Serge ordered drinks for both of them.

Mike studied the clientele. “Pretty boisterous lot,” he commented.

“Actually, with me here, they’ve toned it down a bit. I doubt if they know who you are.”

“Just as well. I’m not even sure who I am any more. How much do you know about me?”

Serge studied Mike for a time before answering. “Not much. Considering the fact that you’re First Knight, my lack of knowledge is surprising.”

“That’s part of what this meeting is about, Serge. I’d like to run a couple of ideas by you, but they’re likely to make you laugh.”

“Why do you say that?”

“You know that I come from an emerging world and that all this is pretty new to me. Your technology is light years ahead of mine, but I’d like to talk to you about technology in spite of that.”

Serge sat back. “Ask away. You told me part of your story the first time we met, and I like your style. If you ever fall out of favor with the Queen, you should look me up.”

“Be careful what you offer, Serge. It could happen a lot sooner than you think.”

Serge smiled. “Not likely. I’ve seen how the Queen is around you. Let me tell you, she was not a happy person before your return. Now, it’s like she’s whole again. I don’t think you’re going anywhere soon. And quite frankly, I hope it works out for you two. You’re both remarkable, to say the least. It’s fun to see you together.”

“Thanks, Serge. Once this rebellion gets settled, I’m going to find myself in a much more complex environment, but I’m not going to worry about that for the moment.”

“It will be much, much more complex. Any idea what my position in it will be? Are you two going to put me out of business?”

“I’m no lawyer, Serge, and I don’t doubt that there are lots of good laws on the books that demand we do put you out of business, but we’re not that way. I have a long memory, and so does Ellie. We won’t forget what you’ve done for us.”

“You might not, but the next First Knight might not feel the same way. Or the next Queen for that matter.”

“Hopefully, that’s a long way off. Besides, you said yourself that you don’t want or need legitimacy. Maybe that’s the perfect position for you. I don’t doubt for a minute that you’ll keep us on our toes, and we’ll keep you on yours. Isn’t that the true challenge you crave?”

Serge smiled. “I guess it is.”

Mike looked him hard in the eyes. “I suggest you look at this time that we’re together in the same way that Ellie looks at a Testing. She never tells what she learned. Never. When we part some day in the future, as friends I hope, whatever has gone on will stay between us, and only us. You’ll have a clean slate. What you do afterwards… well, be as careful as you’ve always been.”

Serge relaxed into his seat. “I like you, First Knight, and I like your methods. I can live with that. It’s never quite so simple, but I can live with it. Now, what technology do you want to talk about?”

Mike squirmed a little. “It’s probably ridiculous. I’ve been thinking about how we’re going to fight the Rebels. We’re far outnumbered at the moment, but squadron against squadron, which is what it’s going to come down to, we’re pretty evenly matched. Those are lousy odds. I’d like to improve on them.”

“So would a lot of others, myself included. What did you have in mind?”

“Several things. Your guys on Shipyard are pretty bright. Is it possible to engineer a computer virus that we could send into their ships to disable them?”

Serge shook his head. “I’ve been running from them all my life, and I already tried that. Didn’t work.”

“Okay,” Mike said, a little disappointed. “I’ve also been thinking about shields. Our laser disintegrators can’t get through them until they’re weakened or destroyed, but we can talk over the communications systems when they open up a channel. Some kind of energy is getting through the shields.”

“It is. The shields are tuned to the frequencies of the lasers.”

“Well, what if we changed the frequency of the lasers?”

Serge sat back in thought. This idea did not merit instant dismissal. After a time, he said, “I’m not a scientist, Mike, but I think the lasers are tuned to the best frequency to pack the biggest punch. I doubt if a different frequency would work as well.”

“If we could get through the shields easier, we might be satisfied with less of a punch.”

Serge just stared at him. “I don’t know. I just don’t know.”

“Okay. Next: I don’t have a clue how shields work, but in my mind I imagine some sort of energy barrier that flows from one side of the shield to the other, sort of like the way magnets have a curved field around themselves. Is it possible to generate a beam of some kind that would disrupt the pattern? If we could make a hole in the shield, we’d be in.”

Serge continued staring at him, but his thoughts were not on Mike. They were on the mechanics of shields and lasers. After a time, Mike realized that Serge’s gaze was on him again. “Where do you get these ideas?” he asked.

Mike shrugged. “I’m just an outsider looking in, Serge. I’m probably seeing things from a fresh viewpoint, that’s all. Chances are good that these ideas have been researched by others, possibly many times.”

“It’s also possible that they have not. Our armaments haven’t changed in generations. We’ve sort of assumed they’re the best they can be. My guys have made some improvements in range and power, but they tell me they’ve taken it as far as they can. Now you’ve got me wondering.”

“And that’s all I’m doing – wondering,” Mike said. “I don’t have the means to pursue these ideas.”

“You might not, but I do. And I will,” Serge answered. “They may come to naught, but I’m going to find out.”

Mike grinned. “That’s more than I had hoped for.”

“Got any more ideas?”

“Not about lasers and shields. But I do have a proposition for you, and maybe a business deal.”

“You know how I operate. What’s in it for me?”

“You tell me. I don’t have access to funds right now, but eventually I will. Your guys on Shipyard design ships, right?”

“Sometimes. We spend most of our efforts on modifications.”

“Then hear me well, Serge. This is important.” He stared hard into Serge’s eyes, knowing that he was about to reveal an Imperial Secret to an individual most of the Empire considered a crook. “You understand that no one can stand against the scree?”

“That’s the rumor.”

“It’s true. Every single creature we know of that’s come under the influence of the scree has been instantly incapacitated, and I mean instantly. Here’s the key: the Chessori are supporting the Rebels at the moment, but If the Rebels win, what’s to prevent the Chessori from turning the scree on the Rebels themselves?”

Serge’s gaze narrowed as he considered the implications, and Mike added a little more to the story. “We have a small group of Chessori traders that are working with us. They tell us that these Chessori we’re fighting are not representative of all Chessori. They believe we’re up against a group of rogue Chessori who are intent on taking over the Empire. With an unchecked scree, they might well succeed. How would you like to be their slave, Serge?”

Serge’s whole world changed in that instant. His body shuddered as a chill ran down his spine. Mike stayed silent while Serge came to grips with this new reality. When he returned his focus to Mike, he breathed, “We have to do something about this. We have to get the word out to everyone.”

“It’s too late, Serge. The Chessori have infiltrated the fleets, and they’ve infiltrated government at the highest levels. We can’t invite them to leave – we have to force them to leave.”

“Is that possible?”

“Maybe. Actually, absolutely yes, but resources are an issue.”

“You have my attention, First Knight. Name your price. I will not be anyone’s slave, nor will my people.”

“I’m immune to the scree, Serge.”

“You’re joking, First Knight. You just said no one is immune.”

“It’s one of our most closely held secrets. And I’m not the only one. Everyone from my planet is immune. We are the only known beings in the Empire that are immune. That makes us the only ones in the Empire who can fight the Chessori.”

Serge stared at him. Mike gave him all the time he needed. When Serge next spoke, he said, “Do your people even have space travel?”

“Not yet. Just a few rockets with chemical boosters that barely make it into space. Why do you think we’re doing all this training here?”

“We’re training people from an emerging world?” Serge said in horror.

“We are, and I’m told they’re giving their instructors a real run for their money. We’re a creative people, Serge, and we’re serious warriors. But my world is essentially defenseless right now. Worse, we’re pretty certain that the Chessori know about our immunity to their scree, and they know where we are.”

Serge’s eyes narrowed, and this time he remained silent. He understood.

“We need to defend ourselves, and the Empire can’t do it for us at the moment.”

“Neither can I. Your best bet is probably to keep doing what you’ve been doing, restoring the Empire and keeping your heads down. Someday the Empire will have enough ships to protect your home world.”

“You’re jumping to the same conclusion as everyone else here. We’re referred to as an emerging world, which basically means we’re treated as children, not yet developed enough to enter the Empire. Our world is not a resource to the Empire, even if our people are. There’s nothing we can do but hope to be saved by the Empire.”

“Right. Just keep your heads down until the Queen gets her act together.”

“We can’t keep our heads down if we’re fighting the Chessori, Serge, and we’ll be fighting them hard. It won’t take them long to figure out who they’re fighting, and when they do they’re going to retaliate.”

“What can be done?”

“Maybe nothing, and maybe a lot. My people are, if nothing else, survivors. I’m asking you to help us help ourselves.”

“How?”

“Front us some engineering and manufacturing costs. If you do, and if we survive, I might be able to repay you some day, either with Empire funds or with funds of our own.”

“What do you want us to build?”

“I want to build ship modification centers on Earth, and maybe do some basic manufacturing. We have a bunch of squadrons that you don’t know about. None of them are modified yet, and the process takes too long for them to wait in line here to get the work done. We’re sending them to Earth immediately in case the Chessori attack. I want to modify them there. While modifications are going on, we’ll be training local recruits, each of them immune to the scree. I want you to send people that can train my people to do the modifications, and as soon as you can, I want to expand that program to include basic manufacturing. We can do our part, Serge. We’re fast learners. We just need someone to show us how to do it.”

“I can understand modifications plants, but what do you need basic manufacturing facilities for? You’re not going to build ships from scratch, and you won’t be able to build AI’s, not for quite a while. We’ll have to build them here and send them to you.”

“Well, there’s more to it. I don’t want to build big ships – we have access to a lot of them already. I want to build a new type of ship, Serge.”

Serge sat back. “You mean you want to start with a clean sheet of paper and design something completely new? We’re in the middle of a war, First Knight.”

“Trust me, I know,” Mike said drily. “I’m not talking about cruisers here, Serge. I want to build little space ships that are as small as you can make them, and I want a lot of them. They’d be all engine, shields, and guns, nothing more. Just room for a minimal crew, say three or four guys. And they wouldn’t need to stay in space for long periods of time, just a week or two. They could be carried in the bellies of larger ships if they have to go very far.”

Serge pondered Mike’s idea. “They’d need to be fast ships.”

“They would, but they don’t need to travel between the stars. In fact, it would be better if they couldn’t. The guys who fly them will be from my world, and some of them will be out for adventure. I don’t want them disappearing off on some personal jaunt across the galaxy.”

“Fast ships can go anywhere.”

“Not if they don’t have adequate life support.”

“Hmm. I see what you mean. That could help keep them small, too.” Serge considered the idea, and his eyes lit up. “Being small, they’d be easy to build and hard to hit.”

“Precisely. But they need to pack a heavy gun or two. I want them able to take on capital ships. I don’t want more fighters – they’re just designed to fight smaller ships. I want something that can take on a big ship. They’ll need guns equivalent to what we have on our cruisers. Keep everything as simple as you can – my people will be maintaining them, and if at all possible, building them. The first ships might have to come from Shipyard, but wherever they’re built, you’ll probably have to build a new plant. Why not just build it from scratch on my home planet? Someday we’ll pay you for each ship that you build, and we’ll pay you a royalty or something for each ship that we build with your plans.”

“You know, we’ve never had to fight on this scale before. What you describe makes a lot of sense, especially if we have to take on the Chessori.”

“We do have to take on the Chessori, Serge, and only my people can do it. Uh… there’s one more thing on my list.”

Serge leaned back in his chair and took a sip of his drink, thinking about all that Mike had said. “First Knight, it’s been a struggle to convince my people to support the Queen, and most still oppose the whole idea. You’ve just given me the tools to convince them. Parsons’ World and Shipyard are many things, but first and foremost, we value our freedom. We won’t be anyone’s slaves. You’ll have your fast ships, your manufacturing facilities, and your tiny little gunships. Whatever it takes, we will support you. But how are you going to do it?”

“What do you think all these people we’ve brought here are for?”

“A thousand? What good is a thousand?”

“It’s a start, Serge. The source of these warriors is not unlimited. Don’t forget, it’s an emerging world, and it has its own problems. We’ll get more, in fact we already have more, and it’s going to work. Very soon now we’re going to clear the Chessori from Centauri

III.”

“ One world?”

“One important world. While we’re at it, we’ll remove the Rebels, then we’ll spread out into the rest of the sectors and do the same.”

Serge leaned back with his eyes closed, clearly upset. “Gods!” he whispered to himself. Then he roused himself, peering hard into Mike’s eyes. “Do you comprehend the enormity of your task? There are 46 more sector headquarters and hundreds of districts in each sector.”

“I think it’s our task, yours and the Queen’s. Don’t you?”

Serge let out a long breath. “We’ll certainly have to play a part. The Rebel threat is bad enough all by itself. I hadn’t figured the Chessori into it properly. I’m glad you have.”

“The Queen has, Serge. And she’s right when she says that final resolution lays in the political arena. I agree with her insofar as the Rebels are concerned, but quite frankly, I’m focused more on the Chessori. We do not have a political agenda to refute them. We have to take them out by force, and only my people can do it.”

“I agree with you, and for purely selfish reasons, we have to protect your world to provide for our own freedom. I’m ready to get started on these things immediately. What’s the other project you wanted to mention?”

“Resolve, and I think all of your ships, have beacons that can be changed. In fact, they can be completely turned off. You’re modifying our ships to do the same. What’s going to happen when the Chessori and/or the Rebels do the same? How are we going to find them?”

Serge’s eyes rose to the ceiling in thought. When his gaze turned back to Mike, he said, “Our AI’s look for beacons. So do the Chessori AI’s, right?”

Mike nodded. “I would assume so. Everyone broadcasts a signal of some sort. We see them, and they see us.”

“For good reason – it’s how we keep from hitting each other. My few ships have not affected the system’s safety, but only because we still see everyone else and we’re few in number. What you suggest is catastrophe.”

“It’s worse, Serge. How are we going to locate them in time to fight them off?”

Mike could see the wheels turning in Serge’s head as he considered space flight from the standpoint of large battles. Before now, his focus had been on single ship operations.

“What if we tuned our sensors to look for drive signatures or something rather than just beacons?” Mike asked.

“They already do, but only at close range. What you’re talking about would require long range sensors that are extremely sensitive, something on the order of space stations, not ships. I don’t know if it can be done.”

“It has to be done, Serge. You know as well as I do that the day is coming when all combatants are going to stop advertising their presence free of charge to the enemy.”

Serge nodded, his lips pursed into a thin line.

Mike added, “If space stations are the only way, then let’s build them, but ultimately we need mobile stations that can travel with the fleet, even if they’re unarmed.”

“Unarmed? You must be crazy. Who would fly it? I wouldn’t even consider stepping into such a ship.”

“If you build it, or teach us how to build it, I’ll get crews. We’ll protect them with regular ships.”

The concept of going into space in an unarmed ship deeply troubled Serge, but as he considered it, his eyes lit up. “Actually, it might be possible. I’m on uncertain ground here, I’ll definitely need to run it by my scientists, but if the ship is not shielded, it would have a much clearer view of its surroundings, and its sensors would be more efficient. We might be able to make it a lot smaller if we don’t have to defend it. I’m thinking about something that acts only as a passive listening post, you understand.”

“It needs to be more than that. If this ever comes to pass, these listening posts will become our command posts.”

“And when the enemy figures out where the commands are coming from, what then?”

“If you build them, I’ll defend them, Serge.”

Serge sighed. “You’re right. Defending them is your problem. Mine is to keep my people free. I’ll get started on these ideas immediately. In fact, I already have an idea for these listening posts.” Mike looked a question at him, and Serge answered. “To get started, we could use space tugs. They’re readily available, and they’re big enough for a significant crew. They don’t have shields, so it will be easy to mount the necessary sensors. We’ll need to install additional communications capabilities, but that shouldn’t be too hard.”

Mike held up his hand. “Not so fast. My purpose in coming here today was to see if these ideas had any merit. It appears they might, though the experts might very well refute them, and that’s okay because at least we’ll get them considering new avenues of thought. Who knows what they’ll come up with? All I want to do is get them to dust the cobwebs off, start with a clean sheet of paper, see about these systems modifications and consider the ramifications of building serious manufacturing capabilities on an emerging world. A few hours, or even a few days, are not going to decide things. I want to run this through channels.”

“Through channels! That could take months.”

“No, it won’t. Chandrajuski’s sharp. Let me plant the idea with him. He’ll work through Jons, who already has a good rapport with your experts, and they can pursue it together. It would speed things along if you were there to give approval to your guys.”

“It’s a good plan, First Knight. I have some convincing to do among my associates, but I won’t delay.”

“I’m going to Earth for a couple of months. I’ll get things started on that end.”

Serge lifted his glass to Mike. “We’re playing for the highest stakes – our freedom. Does the Queen know about our conversation?”

“Not yet, but she will. Know this, Serge: there are no secrets kept from her. I just wanted to sound you out first. Without you on board, this wouldn’t have worked, and I don’t distract her with useless ideas. Since you’re willing to help, I’ll let her know. If there’s anything she can do to help you, don’t hesitate to call her. I’ll be back in a few months.”

Serge looked across the bar room at the raucous crowd. They were his people, and they were depending on him for their continued freedom. He stroked his goatee as his mind considered his future course. Parsons’ World depended on trade, both licit and illicit, but for a while, trading was going to suffer. His resources were going to be devoted to getting these projects for Earth up and running.

“You can let her know I’m on board. You’ll have the resources of Parsons’ World and Shipyard behind you. Don’t worry on that score.” A chill ran through Serge’s body, and he visibly shook once again as he considered the very real possibility of enslavement by the Chessori. His people might be some of the first enslaved, since they competed directly with the Chessori traders.

“We’re counting on the Queen and her Empire, but now my people and I are counting on you, personally, First Knight. We can’t fight the Chessori. You can. We’ll provide the resources, but you have to keep us free. That’s the deal. We’ll worry about the cost later. You’re our leader for the moment, and I’m not going to let you forget it.”

Chapter Eighteen

Lady Krys barely remembered boarding the ship on Parsons’ World. She’d been given a Rider shortly after Tarn’s Naming, and Maelia completely entranced her. Worries about Rebels, coups, the Chessori, First Knights and the Queen, even the dangers of her continuing voyages had been shut out. Maelia had been her sole focus.

Now, days later, she felt as if she’d awoken from a dream. She looked around the room, a room she’d paid little attention to, and it suddenly mattered. Sir Tarn, the newest and youngest of all the Knights, waited half asleep in a chair.

“Hello, my love,” she said.

He straightened in the chair, but he didn’t rise. “Are you back?”

“I am.” She got up from the bed and kneeled on the deck in front of him, resting her head on his lap with her arms around his waist. “Hmm,” she murmured.

He ran his hands through her hair. “So you have a new friend. Is there still room for me?”

She got up and sat on his lap, her hands going around his neck. She gave him a long, lingering kiss. “Is that answer enough?”

An uncertain grin found its way to his face. “What’s her name?”

“Maelia. She says hello.”

“Hello, Maelia.” To Krys, he said, “I’ll bet you’re hungry.”

“Not particularly. I know I was out of it, but I remember you bringing me meals. How long have we been here?”

“Don’t you have another source for answers now?”

“I do, but I’m asking you.”

“We boarded three days ago.”

“I vaguely remember something about going to Earth.”

“We are. We’ll change ships there and get going on our mission.”

She leaned away from him, distraught. “We’ve lost Rappor?”

“For now. She’ll be reconditioned, brought up to date when they can fit her into the schedule. We’re getting a fast ship, one with all the latest upgrades. The Queen is seriously concerned about your well-being.”

“What about Stven and M’Sada and the rest of the crew?”

“All here.”

She smiled and stood up. “Then it’s okay. I need some exercise. It’s been days and days. Care to join me?”

He grimaced. “If you insist. I’ve been skipping my workouts, too. This room’s too small. Let’s go to the exercise room.”

“Can’t it be just the two of us? I don’t know if I’m ready to face the world yet.”

“I don’t think the exercise room is used much. Come on.”

“Let me change first.”

“Don’t bother. This won’t be a serious work-out, just some stretching and a little exercise. You can go as you are.”

Borg, her Protector, waited outside the room, but at a signal from Tarn, he padded away. Krys took Tarn’s arm, but then realized she didn’t know which way to go. In fact, she didn’t even know what ship she was on, but it didn’t matter at the moment. Their mission lay in the future, her present was perfect, and she wasn’t going to disrupt that perfection with details. It was just her, Tarn, and Maelia, and she felt like she was still in a dream, a perfect dream.

Tarn led her to the exercise room, and they settled into their stretches, each silently experiencing the joy of each other and of muscles warming up. She was stretching across one leg with her hands around her foot when a stranger entered the room, the largest man she’d ever seen. Muscles bulged from the arms of a short, white shirt that left his midriff exposed, and baggy pants covered massive legs, each the size of her torso.

He saw her, and brilliant white teeth illuminated his dark brown face in a smile. Large, wide-spaced eyes stared at her for a moment, then he nodded and looked around the room. It was a large room, but he picked a spot near her and sat on the deck. He started his own stretches, and she was surprised at the flexibility of such a large body. He caught her staring at him, and she blushed as she went into another stretch of her own. She couldn’t help herself, so amazed was she at the sheer size of this man who moved so gracefully. She couldn’t keep herself from studying him.

He looked up, caught her eyes on him, and smiled again. “I’m Terry Washburn. Have we met?” he said with a wonderful, mellow voice. However, Galactic High Standard was clearly not his first language. His diction needed a lot of improvement.

“I don’t think so. I’m Krys.”

The man’s eyes moved to Tarn with a questioning look. “Tarn Lukes,” Tarn said brusquely.

“Pleased to meet you,” he said, his diction rough but understandable. He looked at Krys, and she sensed he was looking for the right words. “You have only one name?”

“Just Krys,” she said with a smile.

“It must be a cultural thing,” the man mumbled to himself. His words were in another language, and Krys didn’t understand, but Maelia did. She translated as quickly as the man spoke.

›How did you do that? You know what he said?‹ she demanded in surprise.

›I do. Hmm, this is interesting. He spoke in Mike’s language.‹

›He’s from Earth? You know his language?‹

She felt Maelia smiling, one of the few direct emotions she had felt from her new Rider. The two of them still had a long way to go as two independent people learned to share her body.

›Consider my roots, Krys. I come from Jake, the First Knight’s Rider, and I have Jake’s memories. Of course I understand Mike’s language.‹

Krys leaned forward with her legs out to each side, her elbows resting comfortably on the floor between her legs. She rested her chin in her hands as she studied this giant of a man. “It’s not a cultural thing. It’s just the only name I have.”

He straightened and shook his head. Clearly, he did not understand her words. “Sorry.” He reached into a pocket and pulled out three translator pins. He tossed one to Krys, one to Tarn, and put one on his own ear. Borg chose that moment to enter, and the man tossed another translator to the Great Cat.

Krys had never seen a translator before, let alone needed one. She followed the man’s example and put it on her own ear, then repeated her statement.

“It’s not a cultural thing. It’s the only name I have.”

“Krys,” he said, tasting the name. “A fine name, especially when it’s the only one you have. Pleased to meet you. You too, Tarn Lukes.”

She continued to study him with her chin resting in her hands. He went back to his stretches, but his gaze remained on her. She liked his eyes. His gaze seemed to penetrate, and she sensed intelligence and caring.

“You’re from Earth,” she said.

“I am. And you?”

“I’m really not certain where I’m from. I never knew my parents.” Why had she told him that, she wondered? It wasn’t something she usually shared.

“I’m sorry. That must be hard. I grew up in a large family.”

“Not so hard if it’s all you know, but it would be nice to have a family. I’ll have one of my own one day, if I live that long.” Why had she said that? She glanced at Tarn who was frowning at her choice of words. She reached over and squeezed his hand.

Terry Washburn stopped moving. “If you live that long?”

“Sorry, it just slipped out. Don’t concern yourself. We’re headed to Earth. Are you being sent back?”

He went back to his stretches. “Not exactly. I’m on assignment.” Her eyebrows rose in a question, but he shook his head. “Sorry, Krys. People in my line of work don’t talk about assignments.”

“What’s your line of work?”

“I’m a soldier, and from time to time a ship’s gunner.”

“So that’s why you’re here. Have you seen any action?”

“Some.”

“Some? Is that all you can say?”

“I don’t know how much you know about what’s going on.”

“I know enough to know that you men of Earth are here to counter the Chessori. Have you met them yet?”

“Met them and killed them,” he said matter-of-factly.

“So you’ve experienced the scree. ”

“I’ve seen it in action. To me, it’s just… nothing.”

She shuddered. “I didn’t know that Chandrajuski’s new recruits had seen action yet.”

“I don’t think they have, though I really can’t say. I’m part of another group.”

She sat up straight. Who this man was suddenly fell into place. “You’re with Mike.”

“Sir Mike, Krys. So you know him. Have you heard about what he’s been doing?”

“In general terms. I know you took out a Rebel light squadron at Brodor. Were you involved in that?”

“I was. I was in charge of the gun crews, and I went aboard the cruiser we took over. I think I was the first Terran aboard, though I’m not sure. We were a little busy at the time, and I was just one of three teams penetrating the ship.”

“Terran?”

“It’s what we call ourselves,” he said kindly, the bright smile back in place.

“If you were on Brodor with Mike, you must have met Otis, too.”

He nodded. “I’ve met Sir Otis and passed his course.”

“You’re a Protector, then?”

“The Great Cats are the real Protectors, Krys. Together, we make a good team.”

He had apparently finished with his stretches, because he got up and went over to study the exercise equipment. He ran his hands over a couple of pieces, then stood back and stared at the equipment with his back to Krys and Tarn. It was clear he had no idea how the equipment worked.

Krys got up and went to his side. “These are quite specific. What part of your body would you like to work on?”

“All of it,” he said with a surprised look. “Isn’t that what workouts are all about?”

“Sometimes. Sometimes it’s better to focus on specific parts of the body. Here, try this. You can start with your lower body.”

She had him remove his boots and stand on two separate plates of a resilient material. She thought at first that his feet would be too big, it was important that they not extend beyond the plates, but the plates were just big enough. While the plates molded themselves to his feet, she attached and adjusted a complex set of belts. The belts would force him to use his shoulders as he lifted his feet, thereby distributing the force of his efforts up and down his spine.

She touched keys on a pad and said, “Walk, Terry.”

He walked toward Tarn on the far side of the room as if the plates weren’t even there. She touched more keys, then again, but he just kept walking normally. He gave her a questioning look as he started back toward her. She touched the keys again, and this time a look of satisfaction crossed his face.

“Feels like I’m walking through sand with a backpack on,” he said. “Can you dial it up a little more?”

She dialed it up a lot more, and a smile came to his face. “Better. Do you have anything for my arms and hands?”

“You’re already at 1.3 g’s, Terry. That’s enough for the first time.”

“If you say so, but I don’t want this workout to take all day. Anything for my hands?”

“Later. You get ten minutes with this, that’s all.”

He frowned and continued tromping around the room. “Who are you Protecting?” she called to him.

“At the moment, Sir Mike. He doesn’t need any protection, he’s one of us, but the Queen insisted.”

“He’s one of you?”

“He went through the same training.” He stopped walking for a moment and stared at Krys. “I’d follow him anywhere under any circumstances.”

“I barely know him, but I know what you mean.” Krys put on plates of her own and joined him. “So you’re a Protector and a gunner?”

“I am. I’m rusty on the guns, but I’m getting a little practice each day on this trip.”

“Do you have a family on Earth?”

“I do. My wife, Tanya, and three children.”

Just then a middle-aged, spare man walked in the door dressed in the same baggy pants as Terry, though he wore a longer shirt that was tucked neatly into his workout pants.

“Hi, Terry,” he called, as he found a place near Tarn and settled into some stretches of his own.

“Hi, Tom. This is Krys. The guy beside you is Tarn Lukes.”

Tom nodded to both of them, then stood up and leaned over to touch his toes. He wasn’t anywhere near as limber as Terry, and he struggled to place his hands flat on the floor. Krys stared at him, knowing the exercise was not only crude but potentially damaging. She couldn’t help herself. She went over to him.

“Tom, is it?” she asked.

He pulled a translator pin from his pocket and placed it on his ear, and she repeated herself. “It’s Tom?”

He nodded. “I’m Tom O’Brien. Pleased to meet you, Krys.”

He started back down, and she went down into a crouch with him. “Is that the way you exercise on Earth?”

He turned his head sideways to look into her eyes as he held the stretch. “Actually, I’m a runner. I’m not much into heavy workouts, just stretches before I run. Haven’t found anywhere to run here. I’ve decided to try the corridors today.”

“Can I suggest some alternative stretches?” she asked, worry apparent on her face.

“Afraid the old guy’s going to hurt himself? I’ve been doing it this way for years.”

“Then you probably won’t hurt yourself, but there are better stretches.” She sat on the floor and demonstrated a series of stretches that included the whole body by the time she was done.

He frowned. “That looks complicated. If you have time, I wouldn’t mind starting at the beginning.”

He joined her on the deck, and she started over, slowly. “You’re from Earth, too?” she asked.

“I am.”

“What’s your purpose here?”

“I’m the pilot if we run into Chessori. Not much of a chance on this trip.”

“Have you seen any action?”

“No. Not yet.”

“You’re from an emerging world. It strikes me that we’re asking an awful lot from people who’ve never been in space before. Has the training been difficult?”

“No, but it’s been intense. Flying the ships is fun. Your AI’s are the key. They know the stuff that we don’t, and when we join with them in the net, we just have to think. The AI executes everything at our request, and it takes care of the ship’s systems while it’s doing it. We don’t have to worry about air quality or food or how the toilets flush. The AI takes care of those things, and what it doesn’t take care of, your Empire crewmen take care of. Us Terrans are only needed to fight the Chessori, so we don’t have to worry about anything but flying the ship and shooting the guns. As a squadron commander, I learned all that, then focused on managing the ships of the squadron and coordinating tactics with other squadrons. Tactics are different from what we had on Earth, and the battleground is a little bigger, but fighting is fighting and we’re doing okay with it.”

“Is this ship part of a squadron?”

He smiled. “No.”

“I don’t know what ship we’re on, but this isn’t a cruiser.”

“No. Sadly, it’s not. We’re on a trader.”

“We have squadrons of traders?”

“No, not that I know of. We’re on a quick trip to Earth to pick up Alexis and to drop you and your crew off. Admiral Trexler pulled me from my squadron for this mission. I’ll get another one someday.”

“Oh. I’m sorry. I’m sure it’s a disappointment.”

“It is,” he said, as he copied a leg stretch she was demonstrating. His leg trembled as he leaned across it with his hands wrapped around a foot. He turned his head to her. “I’ll do whatever it takes. We’re not just fighting for the Empire, we’re fighting to protect our home world, and the stakes are the very highest. I’m not after advancement as much as I’m after winning.”

She nodded her head grimly. “We all are. I just hope we’re in time.”

“I’m told our intelligence people believe we have a little time. We’re moving as fast as we possibly can.”

She looked to Tarn with a worri