Chapter 1: The Four


Chapman’s Folly, August 8th, 2264


He was adrift in the sea of stars.

Alive, Ivan thought, this is where I’m alive; nothing but stars around me.  He turned his head and saw the other fighters of his squadron behind him in formation.  They did not disturb his illusion.

Lieutenant Commander Ivan Sun was completely immersed in the AI of his S-27 Wraith, the finest starfighter the Federation had built.  Through years of training, he was able to manipulate the craft by instinct.  His body was the fighter, as long as he was hooked into the cockpit.

“Axe to Stone, you reading that lidar contact?”

Ivan willed a screen to appear before him, the glowing ball of his lidar/radar detection screen.  His squadron, Lightning, was scouting ahead for the Ares Battle Group.  They were deep in Bug space and didn’t want anyone sneaking up on them.  The commander had no idea why Chairman Clarke wanted them to get so close to the Bugs... but that really wasn’t his field.  I get paid to blast things, he smiled inside, the Chairman gets paid to tell me what to blast.

At present, though, there was nothing to blast.  “Negative, Axe, I don’t see...”  Suddenly, the blip appeared.  “That’s affirmative.  I’ll call it into the barn.”

The text about the lidar screen said CHECKING SILHOUETTE AGAINST DATABASE but Sun wasn’t about to wait for the comp to finish processing.  This trip has been boring enough as is.  “Lightning Leader to Ares, contact at 342 mark 43.”

Ares to Lightning Leader, can you identify contact?”

Ivan looked at the lidar/radar globe just as the text changed to SILHOUETTE NOT FOUND.  Great, he thought before he replied, “Negative, Ares, contact is unknown.”

“Lightning Leader, transmit information back to Ares.”

“Confirmed.”  Sun was so used to the interface that simply thinking about his actions willed them into operation.  He didn’t need the heads-up display menu anymore.  Ivan could feel the data transmitting back to the star control ship.

With a whim, a zoom screen replaced the lidar/radar globe.  The commander finally got his first look at the intruder in his space.  Cone-shaped, protrusions stuck out of the ship at asymmetrical angles.  There was an organic look to it, like a Bug ship, but Bugs make ugly ships, like they were slapped together out of their own body parts.  This design was fluid, like it was grown that way.

The Bugs took it over, he considered, but if they did, why are they sending only a single ship?  Unless there’s a Bug fleet waiting to ambush us, or it’s a floating bomb, it’s rather stupid.  Of course, those Bug queens could be sneaky...

Ares to Lightning Leader, make a pass of the ship.  Alert Status Two.”

AS2, Ivan shuddered, if the target’s hostile, run like hell.  I love playing canary.  “Confirmed, Ares.”  Ivan switched frequencies.  “Stone to Lightning.  Spread out and follow me.  Let’s see what’s hiding in that tin can.”

His squadron signaled acknowledgement and followed him forward, their Wraiths activating thrusters, screaming towards the strange ship.

A quick look at the lidar showed another squadron filling in their point position.  Good, Ivan thought, we’ll get to the bars early.  The FOF signal told him which squadron took their slot: Vulture.  Commander Grayson’s flight, Sun knew.  He’s an asshole.  Good.  Let him lose some sack time; let the rest of us do the real work.

Ten minutes passed as they approached the alien craft.  Once they were within their own weapons range, Sun called out, “Scanners on full, AS2.  Spread out around the ship and record everything you can.  If you see any power surges, break off.”

“Walk in the park, Stone.”

“Shut your mouth and fly, Axe.  We’re on the clock,” Ivan growled back.

Sun had always thought that Lieutenant Mike “Axe” Prodan was a good executive officer, but he had a tendency to go overboard.  Sound like someone familiar? he wondered... then smiled.  Yeah, guess we’re too much alike.  Now I just need to keep him alive long enough to make his next promotion board.

The squadron fanned out around the cone-shaped spiky ship, keeping a safe distance from the hull.  The twelve fighters of his flight raced past it... except for Axe.  His craft slowly veered towards the larger craft.

“Axe, what are you doing?” another pilot called out.

Sun checked his back and noticed Prodan’s fighter heading for one of the spikes.  “Axe, veer off!”

Right before Axe’s fighter could be smashed into oblivion, he hit its thrusters, vectoring off at an extreme angle and narrowly missing the pylon.

Ivan was mad as hell.  “Axe, what the hell were you thinking?!”

“Sorry,” was the only reply from the comm.  That’s not right, Sun thought.  There’s something wrong with that voice.  Yet he knew the voice was Mike’s, just as he confirmed that the comm came from that fighter.  He’s probably just shaken up, the commander thought, shrugging off his worries, while the rest of his squadron cleared the ship.  The fighters scattered and made a wide swing back around, heading home to the Ares.

Sun gathered the squadron’s scanner summaries into his comp for his report to send back to the star control ship.  The readings were strange, giving a view of the ship’s interior; the exterior and interior were both asymmetrical, like nothing he had ever seen.  Without a doubt, the craft was truly alien.

However, there was one glaring fact that burst out from the data.  No life signs.

They were tracking a ghost ship.

“Lightning Leader to Ares, ready to transmit scan.”

Ares to Lightning, go ahead.”

“Transmitting.”  Sun willed the communication to go through.  “Be advised, Ares, there are no life signs on the alien craft.”

“Confirmed, Lightning.  Upon arrival, report to the bridge.”

“Understood, Ares.  Lightning out.”

That’s the military way, he knew as he flew back to the giant floating city, hurry up and wait.  Report immediately.  Debrief upon arrival.  As if I could tell them anything more than the scanners.

It took an hour to get back to the seven-mile long ship and dock.  When the fighter finally settled on the flight deck, the system disengaged, and Ivan was freed from his metal exoskeleton.

After the initial shock of leaving the AI immersion, Sun felt a few moments of disorientation, as he always did.  The commander had learned long ago not to look back.  If one saw the fighter after immersion, the shell of what you recently just were, nightmares would follow.  Several of his class at the academy had dropped out after their first flight in an immersion craft.  They couldn’t take the transition from man to machine.

When Ivan finally saw Mike, his executive officer didn’t look quite himself.  Ivan couldn’t explain the feeling.  After all, Mike looked exactly the same as when Ivan had last seen his friend, but there was something in Mike’s actions... the way he walked.  It was difficult to put a word to his anxiety, so instead Ivan called out, “Hey, Axe!”

The lieutenant didn’t immediately respond.  As Sun walked toward him, however, Prodan noticed and smiled.  “Hey, Stone.”

Ivan waited until he got close to his face before he whispered, “Axe, what the hell happened out there?”

“What do you mean?”

“What do I mean?!”  Sun felt the anger rising in his cheeks.  “How ’bout almost smashing yourself against that ship?!”

“Oh, that...”  Prodan shrugged.

“Yeah, that.”

“Well... hey, this is me, right?  I had to take a closer look.”

“Closer look?!”  Sun was turning red.  “That’s not just some frigate out there you can buzz, that’s a unknown alien ship!  Did you want them to blast you by mistake, or were you trying to start a war?!”

“They wouldn’t hurt me.”

“Why?  ’Cause they’re all dead?!” Mike looked hopelessly confused, but Ivan ignored it.  By now, the squadron commander’s temper had taken over.  “It doesn’t look good on my record if I can’t control a pilot on my flight!”

“They wouldn’t hurt me.”

“Why?  ’Cause they’re all dead?!”  Mike looked hopelessly confused, but Ivan ignored it.  At this point, the squadron commander was completely pissed off.  “It doesn’t look good on my record if I can’t control a pilot on my flight.  You’re a fucking maniac!”

Prodan gave a blank look, as if he were completely lost.  The look defused Ivan’s anger.  Sun took a deep breath and tried again.  “Look, Mike, they’ll never give you your own squadron if you keep pulling stunts like that.  I’m trying to watch your ass.”  Ivan sighed.  “Just make sure you don’t get it shot off.”

“Okay, I’m sorry.”  The blank look changed, but only slightly.

Ivan patted Mike on the shoulder and forced a smile.  “Come on, I’ve gotta report to the bridge, but I’ll buy ya a drink afterwards.”

“All right.”

As they walked towards the transit shuttle, Sun couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something wrong.  Axe just wasn’t himself.  The attitude, Ivan finally realized, he doesn’t have the attitude.  Most pilots had the devil-may-care attitude—live today, die tomorrow—but Mike had always taken it a step further.  It was in his voice, the way he walked, the way he lived.  The man beside Ivan now had none of those traits.

Maybe he’s still shocked, Ivan decided as he tried to forget the incident.  After all, if I had swiped past certain death, it might take me a while to recover.

Within a few minutes, they reached the bridge.  It was a gargantuan place, heavily armored and electromagnetically shielded, filled with monitors, holographic projections, and controls, all designed to run this floating city.  Fleet personnel were rushing around like angry bees.  In the center of this particular madness, the captain was busy signing datapads and consulting holograms, displaying the recent operational data.  The two pilots went over to her circular desk and saluted.

The flag captain grunted while signing a database.  “Not me, gentlemen,” she replied, gesturing towards the row of panels, “him.”

They turned to look and saw what she was pointing at.  Admiral Montambo, black as night, was overseeing the fighter squadron’s sensor readouts.  He was practically a mythical creature, almost never seen beyond the senior officer’s decks.  Why he was here instead of the Combat Information Center, a room twice as large and better equipped than the bridge, was beyond Ivan.

With trepidation, the pilots walked over to the battle group commander and stood at attention.  Montambo turned to look at them; he seemed bored and stared at them like one would look at an insect.  “You flew past the alien craft?”

“Yes, sir,” Ivan chirped.

“It didn’t react in any way?”

“No, sir.  There were no life signs, no automated systems registering of any kind.”

“Your scans confirm what you say.”  The admiral turned slightly, scoffing a lie he couldn’t prove wasn’t true.  “But what I don’t understand is how a dead ship can change course?”  Montambo pointed to the hologram in front of him.  Sure enough, the alien craft had changed course.  But how? Ivan wondered.

The admiral tapped on the worried sensor tech’s shoulder.  “When will the target reach the fighter screen?”

“Five minutes, sir.”

“Send comm to—”

“Captain!” another tech chirped, “Com signal coming in from alien craft!”

“On screen,” she replied.

A large hologram appeared at the far end of the bridge.  Ivan turned to look at the admiral... and saw Mike touch him on the shoulder.  A shiver went up the senior officer’s spine and Prodan stumbled away.  No one else saw it; everyone else on the bridge was focused on the strange alien face staring back at them.  It was a big brute of a thing; at least four appendages (with hooves) that they could see.  The creature was covered in fur that was falling out in clumps.  His... her... its voice was deep and booming despite its emaciated frame.  “Ja-ree!  Mayto run kalares puto.  Es chen patrain nurak daema deh suron sota.  Ner ilta deh sur oento?”

The admiral looked over at the captain.  “Send a copy to the linguist and open a comm channel on me.”  She did as ordered and soon a beep sounded.  Montambo straightened up and replied, “This is Admiral Montambo of the Terran Federation.”  He pointed to himself and then raised both hands.  “We advise you to stop your engines until we are ready.  Discom.”  The hologram disappeared.

The admiral turned to look at the two pilots.  “The dead speak, too.”  Montambo gave them a huge grin.  “Dismissed.”

Both of them saluted and walked out.  When they got in the transit tube, Mike leaned against the side and shook his head.  “Hey, Stone.  What just happened?  Why were we on the bridge?”

Ivan shrugged.  “I don’t know, Axe.  Guess the admiral wanted to hear it himself.”

“No, I mean...”

“Forget it, Axe.  Let me get you that drink.”


Avalon, Patton Base


It was the same every time; she’d be on the verge of figuring it out and someone would walk in the door.  It was that extra distraction that would always ruin her concentration.  When Dr.  Miranda Mayfield looked up to see the source of it, she froze.  It was a man she never thought would walk into Raptor Headquarters.  “Colonel Dane, pleasure to see you.  Shouldn’t you be dead?”

Vin Dane, with a face that looked stretched and hair so slicked that it didn’t appear natural, smiled a little too widely at her.  “And a good morning to you, Miranda.”  He took a seat on the stool next to her.  Dane stared at her, his eyes spaced a little too far apart.

Mayfield’s brown eyes set in her black skin stared back at him, her hair caught in tight braids running to the center of her back.  She couldn’t help but smile back.  “I thought the guards had orders to shoot you on sight?”

“Guards don’t look at faces, only rank.  They salute, check the clearance, which I have—”

“Head of Military Intelligence, I know.”  With a wave of her hand, the hologram she was working on sank back into the desktop.  “And so you somehow avoided any officers who knew you and snuck back all the way to my lab.”

“Back doors, secret traps...” Vin shrugged.

“The obvious question is ‘Why?’  More accurately, I should ask, ‘What do you think you can get out of me?’”

“Miranda, I’m hurt!”  His smile dripped with sarcasm.

She rolled her eyes.  “Two weeks of your occasional attention...”

“It was more like three.”

“Twenty years ago?”


“Whatever.  Making out in a foxhole while all hell was breaking loose does not ensure undying devotion.”

“It was a hell of a way to meet.”  Vin winked.  “And besides, I saved your life.”

“I saved yours,” Mayfield reminded him.

“I thought we were friends.”

“We are.  But that doesn’t mean you can use me as your link into the TI Special Service.”

“I wouldn’t dream of using you to get to the Raptors.  Besides, I thought we were on the same side?”

“We are, but we work in different areas.  You spy outside the Fed, we spy inside.”  Miranda scratched the side of her head with her stylus.  Her head always itched when Vin was in the room.  “Perhaps I should rephrase the question.  What do you want?”

“I’m here to offer you a transfer.”

“I’m a civilian now.”

“All right, I’m offering you a job.”

“I’m happy here... and I told you no before.”

Dane sighed.  “Then let’s call it a challenge.”  Vin leaned closer to her.  “And I know how much you love a challenge.”

She snorted in disdain.  “What have you got?”

The colonel pulled out a small disc and handed to Mayfield.  “Load this up.”

Miranda took it from his hand, her eyes lighting up, betraying her curiosity.  “What is it?”

“That’s a copy of an ethereal scan done at a monorail station on Arnheim.”

“Near the border?  An ethereal scan?  That takes a lot of juice.  Why would they do an ethereal scan at a train station?”

“Because MI was tracking a human inbound from Jurvain space who didn’t bother checking in at Customs.”

Even Miranda couldn’t hide her interest now.  She inserted the disc in the slot right next the embedded hologram projector.  While it was processing, the doctor couldn’t help but ask, “How did you find him?”

“He wasn’t very clever.  Customs tally showed one missing from the ship passenger list.  Once we ran his ID through the surveillance comps, they located and tracked him.  Then he boarded the trans-planetary shuttle.”


The hologram popped up showing the contents of the ethereal scan.  The colonel just smiled and said, “Take a look.”

Miranda turned to the hologram and stared at it.  The three-dimensional image showed his physical attributes, as would any scan, but his kirlean and arcane auras were present as well.  “The color isn’t right.”

Vin kept smiling.  “Go on.”

“There are some normal human auras present, but they seem to be... overlapped by another.”


“As if there’s two people occupying the same body.”  She flipped through the physical scan.  “Body temp, correct.  DNA checks out, pulse rate...  Vin, this man is dead.”


“No.”  Mayfield continued to scroll through the sensor reports.  “Night walkers have lower than normal body temperature.  Besides...”  She looked back at the colonel.  “They have a distinctive... singular aura.”

“Just a thought.”

“Vin, you wouldn’t come to me with this if this was just a leech.”

“I know.  Keep looking.”

Miranda shrugged and turned back to the hologram.  “This one is distinctly human, but the dominant aura,” she said, tapping her stylus to separate the two characteristics, “is something else.”

“Like someone’s hitching a lift?”

The doctor stared back at Dane.  “If one were to make a rough analogy,” she scoffed, “but the only kind of creature that could accomplish this would be a mage...”  She flinched at her use of the archaic term.  “Er, an awakened of such skill that...”

“That what?”

“That they wouldn’t have to do it at all!”

“Why not?”

Miranda pursed her lips.  “The training required to reach that level of control, to animate a dead body and use it as a shell... well, they could project themselves astrally a whole lot easier.”

“But they wouldn’t be able to affect reality.”

“Not necessarily.  Given a sufficient strength...”  The doctor shook her head.  “No, this is pure speculation, we have no facts.  Besides,” she pointed to the dominant aura, “this controlling force is not human.  But it made itself to look human in order to pass our regular scans.  A customs scan would never have caught it.”

“Is it Jurvain?”

“Don’t think so.  There are no mag... awakened among those aliens, as far as we know.”

“They have the commonality.”

“Perhaps.  I’d need more time.”

“Take it, but hurry.  I need to know.”

Dr. Mayfield turned to look at her friend.  “There’s something you’re not telling me.”

“Quite a bit.  In fact, I have a whole universe of secrets, Miranda, none of which I want to fall into Raptor hands.”

“Specifically this.”

“Right now, I only have a guess.  I need someone uncluttered to take a look at it.”

“Independent verification?”

Dane shrugged.  “If you like.”

“Is it that important?”



“Because...”  She could see the colonel was thinking, trying to find a way not to reveal too much.  “Because if it’s what I think it is, it means invasion.”

Miranda laughed.  “Who would notice another?”

“I’m serious...”

“Come on, Vin, since the 3rd Civil War, we’ve been invaded by every race we know.”

“The Vin Shriak and Vulthra were nothing...”

“You call losing half the fleet in one battle nothing?

“Compared to this.”  Vin pointed to the hologram.  “We need to know what it is, so we can stop it, while we can.”

Miranda shook her head.  “Don’t put any pressure on me, will you?”

“I’ll try not to.”


Port Arthur


Before Sergeant Palencia could turn the corner, a flurry of bullets rained down the corridor.  Stupid, Demar thought, real stupid.  One of those hits the outer hull, and this mining station will be sucking vacuum.

Demar bit down on his dentcom.  “Hostiles located.  Level 4, Junction 6A.  B Quad, flash ’em.”

Before Sergeant Palencia could turn the corner, a flurry of bullets rained down the corridor.  Stupid, Demar thought, real stupid.  One of those hits the outer hull, and this mining station will be sucking vacuum.

Demar bit down on his dentcom.  “Hostiles located.  Level 4, Junction 6A.  B Quad, flash ’em.”

While his troops were moving into position, Demar order part of his nanotech-armored suit to extend itself around the corner.  The Mark 100 Power Armor allowed automatic camouflage, the nanobots adapted to look like the scenery behind them.  It worked beautifully while staying still... but troopers were rarely still.

The nanotech could mold itself into other things—in this case, an extended sensor.  Soon enough, it transmitted the image to the heads-up display inside his helmet.

There they are, he thought, unlucky bastards.  Then he saw a visual distortion in the distance.  B Quad... here they come.  The second he saw something fly through the air, Demar order his suitcomp, “Retract sensors.  Blinders.”

Every sensor on his suit went black as the flash grenade went off.  When Palencia heard the screams, he removed the blinders and walked into the corridor.  As he did, B Quad moved faster, hitting the two gunmen with electro-shock fletchettes, knocking them out.

Demar tongued his dentcom to change frequencies.  When he found his battalion channel, the sergeant signaled, “Level 4 secured.”

“4 Platoon, return to HQ.  Port Arthur is secured.”

“Confirmed.  Discom.”  Palencia then turned toward B Quad, shifting over to the proximity frequency.  “All right, you punks, back up to HQ.  We’ve saved this floating tin can.”

The quad roared with cheers, made frightenly loud by their suits’ amplifiers.  Then Palencia walked away towards the elevators; he was glad it was over.

The Bloc Insurrection had cost too much in personnel and equipment, but Demar was the only one who saw it.  As he pondered it on the trip up levels, the more it made no sense.  Why not let these orientals have their own country back?  After the 3rd Civil War, Chairman Clarke had done nothing but invade and fight off other invasions.  Palencia’s precious Tech Infantry had been decimated to its bare bones.

The Federation needs time to catch its breath, the sergeant knew, or it’ll fall apart.

The elevator opened and Demar stepped out into the commercial center.  Deactivating his camouflage, he ordered the suit to remove the head protection so he could breathe the air.  One sniff filled his nostrils with the smell of burnt wire and ozone.

He walked over to the party; the brass hadn’t waited until the orbital station was secure before throwing a wild blowout.  Palencia knew that his platoon’s commanding officer was somewhere in the crowd.  With some careful searching, he found him, half-soused already and flirting with a fellow lieutenant from another battalion.  His CO noticed him immediately.  “Sarge!  Glad you could make it.  Here, let me get you a drink.”

“Sir, I just came from Level 4—”

“I heard!” the lieutenant replied, speaking a little too loud.  “Damn good job.  I’m sure we’ll all get medals for this.”

“Sir, what about securing the station?”

“The LI will take care of that.”

“If the Light Infantry could ‘take care of it,’ we wouldn’t have been called in to clean up the mess,” Demar said, anger creeping into his voice, “sir.”

“Listen, Palencia,” his CO said, emphasizing his point by gesturing with his beer, “just because they’re not awakened or... changelings,” Demar tried not to notice how the lieutenant avoided the old term werewolf, “doesn’t mean they can’t do their jobs.  Now we’ve got a whole division of Tech Infantry here and another division of LI.  We’ve bagged the angry slant-eyes, and the others are too scared to come out of their rooms.  So, sergeant, there’s nothing to worry about!”

“Are we being shipped out in the—”

“Damn it, sarge, do I have to order you to have fun?!”

Demar took in a deep breath.  “No, sir.”

“Good.  Now get... to... it.”

The sergeant didn’t bother saluting before he left.  In fact, Demar doubted the lieutenant would even remember the conversation.  He may have gone to OCS, Demar thought, but he still thinks like a grunt.

As he was still in power armor, the crowd parted before him.  When he reached the edge, his platoon was waiting for him.  Demar tried to hide a smile, but a grin still leaked out.  At least I beat some discipline in them, he thought.  “I suppose you maggots wanna join the party?”

“Yes, sergeant!” resounded in perfect unison.

“Report to the New Paris, plug your armor back in, stow your gear, and change into some decent fatigues.  Then you can come back.  Just remember not to get too drunk.  You’ve still gotta run maintenance checks on the suits tomorrow.”  There was a pause as he looked at the fine group of boys and girls, knowing that they couldn’t conceive of a time like ‘tomorrow.’  “Dismissed.”

They whooped and hollered as they ran off back to the ship.  Demar just shook his head and resealed his suit.  The sergeant wanted to make one more sweep of the station before he could sleep tonight.  Can’t trust the LI to do anything right, he knew.

As the sounds of partying slowly died away, Palencia had time to think.  No, the Light Infantry weren’t completely worthless.  Those ‘normal’ humans went through similar training, were drafted the same way I did, but they’re glorified policemen.  Speeding tickets, breaking up fights, dispersing assemblies; that’s what they’re good at.  But in war, they’re nothing but cannon fodder.  They don’t have the right instincts for survival.

Then again, if Clarke keeps killing off my boys—the TI filled with awakened and changelings—there won’t be anyone but LI left.  Demar coughed out a laugh.  “I’m getting too morbid,” he said aloud.  “I should have taken that drink.”


Avalon, Capitol Executive Building


Chairman Clarke looked bored... or maybe that’s just me, Amanda Kait thought.  General John Walters, head of the Tech Infantry and member of the Grand Council, was summarizing yet another glorious victory for the Federation... whatever.  Personally, Amanda didn’t think that some Asian ex-monarchists with obsolete weapons posed that much threat to Clarke’s ego.  But apparently they did... ’cause now they’re all dead.

Guess it’s not their fault for dying; no one told them that their emperor got killed in the last Vin Shriak invasion.  Once the Eastern Bloc fell apart, it was only right that the Fed send in the fleet to save them.  But we never told them they couldn’t have their country back... oops.

Walters continued to drone on; Kait repressed a sigh.  If someone had told me how pointless it was at the top, she thought, I wouldn’t have worked as hard to get here.

“...all in all, sir, one hell of a job!” the general wrapped up to expected applause.  Amanda suppressed another groan; I couldn’t take another minute of his thick drawl.

The Grand Council Chairman leaned forward to check the next item on the agenda.  Clarke’s ruffled white hair and unkempt sideburns busted out of his marshal’s uniform.  Despite his appearance, he was in great shape.  He still had an animal look to him, thanks to his changeling heritage.  “Now we will hear from the Minister of Production, M. Kait.”

Amanda stood up from the table and ran through her speech.  It was the same speech she always gave.  After “Ladies and Gentlemen of the Council,” she stopped paying attention.  As long as she changed the numbers, no one noticed that she was saying the same thing.  Production is increasing, new factories were being built, and we’re restoring levels back to pre-war standards.

None of it was true, of course, but no one remained Minister of Production by telling the truth.  Clarke didn’t want to hear the truth, even after twenty years as dictator in all but name, and anyone who did tell the actual facts never remained long on the Grand Council.

When she finished droning on, a wave of relief came over her.  As Kait sat down, she thought, At last, I can get back to work.

“Thank you, M. Kait,” Clarke rumbled out, “but what I don’t understand is how your report conflicts with the one submitted by the Minister of the Fleet, Admiral Nirav Patel?”

Oh shit, she realized, the old buzzard actually paid attention!  Well, that answers where Patel was.  No one drops a negative report on Clarke’s desk and sticks around.  So now I get to take the heat... time to backpedal.  “In what way, honored chairman?”

“Admiral Patel states that he has been unable to receive prompt shipment of replacement parts for the Fleet.  Spare parts are vital to the continued health of our ships.  Now if production is increasing as you say, why do our fighting forces lack for spares?”

When in doubt, reroute.  “Spares are available, sir.  However many of them remain at the factory or in orbital warehouses.  Since the Five Acts places all civilian merchant ships under the control of the military, you may remind the admiral that if he wants parts, all he has to do is pick them up.”  Kait suppressed her smile; freedom of the merchant marine was her own pet project.

“You are well aware, M. Kait,” Minister ben Itzak spoke up, “that those craft are needed to support our fleet’s maneuvers.  There is no use blaming Admiral Patel when you do not produce enough freighters to supply demand.”

What are you playing at, Jakob? she wondered, staring at his curly salt-and-pepper hair.  You think by supporting Patel’s attack, you can grab my position?  Well, I suppose the Ministry of Education is lower on the totem pole.  “It is true,” Kait lowered her head, “that in increasing our ship building facilities, we must strike a balance.  However, since the fleet lacks the spare parts it needs, then it seems pointless to produce as many warships.”  Amanda raised her head, desperately repressing a smile.  “Therefore I ask the Council to increase the percentage of civilian construction to 75%.”

“There’s no need for such drastic measures,” Clarke scoffed.  “With the end of the Insurrection, there will less need for long-range maneuvers.  I will instruct Patel to release more freighters to the maintenance of the shipping lanes.”  The old werewolf looked down at his datapad.  “Since there’s no further business, this meeting’s adjourned.”

All the ministers stood up as the chairman got up and left.  Once Clarke left the chamber, all the members of the executive body milled around and gathered their belongings, but none of them were about to leave.  This was the time for political maneuvering, right after their audience with “King” Arthur.

“I thought you were gone for sure,” whispered General Kathryn Wagenecht, head of the Light Infantry.  Although her army was the largest force in the Federation, they consisted purely of unawakened, and were little more than policemen.  That made her one of the most junior on the Grand Council.

“It takes more than Patel to get rid of me.” 

“Gutless,” the general spat.  “He didn’t have the courage to attack you himself.”

Amanda simply smiled; Kathryn was one of those rare breeds who rose through the ranks on ability, not ambition.  Poor woman, she thought, she’s really not cut out for this battlefield.  “Patience, general.  I’m sure Patel has more broadsides in mind for me.”

“Then I’m probably next.  The admiral has no love for me.  He’d rather replace me with one of his flunkies... Nishijima, no doubt.”

She is really bad at this, Amanda realized.  The general’s making such an obvious alliance that anyone could see through it.  However, one shouldn’t refuse it either...  “I’ve been told that LI are being placed to run the freighters, due to a lack of qualified Fleet personnel.”

“Usually with a chief around to play captain.  It’s embarrassing to have our officers bossed around by ratings.”

“Do you think you could accelerate the transfer program?”

A smile appeared on Kathryn’s face.  “It’s possible.  They’re wanting to free up as many of their own as they can.”

“Good.  I’d hate to deprive the fleet of their resources.”  Kait warmed her new ally with a brief smile, they collected her datapad and walked towards the other side of the table.  As she was angling toward Antonio Villeneuve, Minister of Finance, Amanda saw Jakob ben Itzak maneuvering next to General Walters.  Well, she thought, it’s obvious which side he’s chosen.

Villeneuve was a rather ugly short man, but he compensated for it with an immaculate taste in clothing and jewelry.  In her opinion, it made for an interesting balance.

Antonio noticed her approach with amused disinterest.  When Amanda was close enough, he said, “It’s interesting, don’t you think?”

“What is?”

Villeneuve waved toward ben Itzak.  “The sheep without their shepherd.  Without Patel, they can’t even manage a simple character assassination,” he said, turning to smile at Kait, “unless you are more formidable than you seem.”

“People must say the same about you.”

“People mostly ignore me.”  Antonio shrugged.  “After all, why bother with the old man’s bookkeeper?”

“Because the old man won’t be around forever, and the bookkeeper knows where the secrets are kept.”

The finance minister turned to look at her again, his repulsive face strained in a quizzical stare.  “I am not a sheep, M. Kait.”

“Nor am I, M. Villeneuve.”  Amanda sat down beside him.  “Shepherds exist to protect sheep from wolves.”

“Wolves get shot.”

“So do sheep.”  Kait smiled.  “It simply becomes a question of how you want to live.”

Antonio leaned back in his chair, a smug look on his face.  “I could live quite well as a sheep.”

“Fattened up for the kill?  Look at them, Antonio, you’re no use to them.  Money isn’t real to them.”

“You make it sound as if I have only two choices.  What makes you think I don’t have my own pack?”

“Because you would have leapt on me before Patel did.  After all, you’ve got more dirt on me than the admiral does.”

“Before today, I couldn’t tell who was the bigger threat, you or him.”

“And now?”

Villeneuve sat up and checked his datapad.  “We should talk some more of this, say... over lunch tomorrow?”

“A sheep among wolves?”

“Predators over a carcass.”

“Appetizing.”  Amanda smiled.  “I’ll be there.”

“Excellent.  O’Kim’s should suffice.  I find a good meal can help even the hardest things to swallow.”


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Text Copyright © 2002, 2011 by Marcus Johnston.  All Rights Reserved.
Do not try ANY of this at home.  Making out in a foxhole is a violation of military fraternization regulations.