Lorin Boskie, along with several members of her staff, stood before three giant video monitors, watching the images of Vice Admiral Brunns, Admiral Vin Lugart and Captain Evohn Cystrom, who were in the command center on Clarion. The mood was tense because negotiations hadn’t been going well.
The new Loyalist government was trying to get the TGA command to surrender control of the Intergalactic Fleet. It was the last remaining step toward ending the Tarizon Civil War, a war that had cost the lives of millions of Tarizonian citizens and destroyed much of the planet’s fragile infrastructure. The immediate difficulty was that the Loyalists did not have sufficient firepower in outer space to compel a surrender, thus making these negotiations necessary.
"According to the Treaty of Shisk, command of the Intergalactic Fleet was to be surrendered immediately," Lorin reminded them. "Admiral Lugart, you were supposed to surrender command to Admiral Bovin yesterday, but apparently you denied his ship access to your docking bay."
"I did not sign the treaty," Admiral Lugart replied. "I am not bound by it."
"But General Bratfort did sign it on behalf of the TGA," Lorin pointed out stiffly.
"He had no authority!" Admiral Lugart spat. "Only Videl Lai had the authority to surrender."
"That’s ridiculous. Videl Lai was dead. General Bratfort was next in command. He had the authority."
"He had no authority over the Navy. In the absence of the chancellor, only the General Assembly could authorize surrender."
Lorin glared at the admiral in frustration. Threebeard stood up. "Admiral, you can’t maintain the Intergalactic Fleet without the government’s support. You have no source of food, water, or supplies. Where will you get fuel and ammunition? Who’s going to provide you engineers and technical support? It is useless to hold out. What do you really want? Some kind of deal?"
"Nothing!" the admiral shouted. "We need nothing from you. Videl Lai, whom your rhutz ruthlessly slew, has already provided us with everything we need. Our ships are complete and ready for flight. Our advanced hydroponics will provide us with an abundance of food. Our water is recycled, so we’ll always have an adequate supply. And our crews are quite capable of providing proper maintenance for the Fleet. As for fuel and parts, we have stockpiled all we’ll need for many cycles. Videl Lai built the Fleet to be self-sustaining and, I am proud to say, that goal has been achieved."
"The Intergalactic Fleet belongs to the people of Tarizon, not to a bunch of renegade soldiers," Lorin said. "You have sworn your allegiance to the people. If you don’t stop this insanity immediately we’ll have no choice but to destroy you and the Fleet."
Evohn Cystrom laughed. "You know you can’t do that, Chancellor. All you have are a few Earth shuttles. You can’t touch us."
"Maybe not today. But believe me we will build a fleet and we will eventually find you and destroy you. You’re not going to get away with this."
"We’ve already gotten away with it and there is nothing you can do about it!" Evohn said angrily. "In a few days we will leave Clarion and you had better hope we never come back. Because the only reason we’d return would be to take back Tarizon—and, if we can’t take it back, then we’ll destroy it!"
A chill darted down Lorin’s spine. Although Evohn Cystrom was only a captain, he was Videl’s adopted son, and his passion for his father’s cause was unsettling. She knew that he was capable of the same atrocities that his father had unleashed on the people of Tarizon, without a second thought. It was only a matter of time before his fanaticism drove him to the top, for he’d kill anyone who dared challenge him. Fear and dread overcame Lorin; she knew the cost of this fight would be dear.
"So, you’re going to become intergalactic pirates. Is that what you’re telling us?" Threebeard asked.
"No. Our plans are much more grandiose than that," Evohn replied. "If you’re lucky, you’ll never know what became of us."
The monitors suddenly went blank. Lorin turned to Threebeard, who was stroking his middle beard.
"What do you think?" Lorin asked.
"I’m afraid Earth is in for a lot of trouble. That’s obviously where they’ll be going. Videl Lai didn’t hide the fact that eventually he wanted to conquer Earth. Now, after losing the war here on Tarizon, the Purists have no other choice but to go to Earth, where they will not only have a vast technological advantage, but also the element of surprise. Incredible as it may seem, most Earthlings don’t even realize they aren’t the only sentient beings in the universe. They’ll be sitting dirkbirds for Evohn Cystrom and his gang of thugs."
Admiral Bovin stepped forward. "Madam Chancellor. There is something I don’t understand."
Lorin turned to the admiral. "Yes, what is it?"
"If it is their intention to attack Earth, why are they lingering on Clarion? If they have everything they need, delay can give them no advantage, but could give us time to figure out a way to stop them."
"True," Lorin mused. "Maybe they need time to plan for their invasion of Earth."
"Perhaps, but they’ll have a full cycle to plan on the way to Earth," Admiral Bovin replied.
"Won’t they be in suspension most of that time?" Lorin asked. "I know I was when I went to Earth."
"Yes, Earthchildren were brought back in suspension to save resources and minimize the trauma of their removal, but the crew of an attack cruiser will be fully awake and on duty for the duration of the flight."
"I see. So they would have plenty of time to plan their attack. I wonder why—"
"They’re no doubt waiting for something they think they’re going to need," the admiral finished.
"Or someone," Threebeard suggested.
"Who?" Lorin asked. "General Bratfort?"
"Perhaps? He’d be an asset in developing a strategy for conquering Earth. The Earthlings won’t give up without a fight, and the Americans will be a formidable adversary since we’ve given them much of our technology."
"Old technology," Lorin noted.
"True, but the Purists will not want to spoil Earth’s atmosphere. They will avoid using weapons that will do that," Admiral Bovin said. "If there is one lesson we’ve learned here on Tarizon—"
"Unless they think they are losing," Threebeard interrupted.
"Well, we better make sure they can’t get him," the chancellor said. "Where is General Bratfort now?"
"He’s under house arrest in the governor’s mansion in Shisk," Admiral Bovin said.
"That’s not very secure. Move him to Pritzka Prison."
"But that will violate the treaty," he protested.
"It’s because the TGA is in violation of the treaty that this action is necessary," Lorin said. "Tell General Bratfort that if he can persuade the TGA command on Clarion to surrender, we won’t have to downgrade his accommodations."
"Yes, madam," Admiral Bovin replied. "I’ll get right on it."
Admiral Bovin left, as did several other staff members. Lorin sighed and looked at Threebeard. "Does Commander Lanzia know about this?"
"No, he’s on holiday. I was hoping it wouldn’t be necessary to disturb him. He’s erected an impenetrable barrier to any telepathic communication from me. I might be able to break it, but I didn’t want to make him any angrier than he already is."
"Right. I don’t suppose there is anything he can do about it anyway, but he should be briefed. Send General Zitor to advise him of the situation. He'll want to know that Earth is the likely destination of the Intergalactic Fleet."
"I'll do that, Madam Chancellor," Threebeard said. "May I take my leave? I want to confer with Captain Shilling and see if she’s come up with a way to stop the Intergalactic Fleet from taking off."
"Instead, why don’t we conference her in right now from here? I’d like to be in on that briefing."
"Very well," Threebeard said, nodding to a staff member. "We’ll see if she’s available."
The central monitor blinked, and then Captain Shilling’s image appeared. "Chancellor," she said. "How are you?"
"Not so well, I’m afraid. We’ve just broken off negotiations with Intergalactic Command. They’ve refused to honor the treaty."
Captain Shilling swallowed hard. "Hmm. I was afraid of that."
"So, Captain," Threebeard said. "How are your endeavors coming?"
Captain Shilling grimaced. "I’m afraid I don’t have good news on that score. I did develop a rather reluctant contact on Clarion, whose name I promised to keep to myself. That contact is in a position to know what’s going on."
"Good. So, is there anyone on the command staff who wants to surrender?"
"Yes, many of the junior officers want to, but they are afraid to make their opinions known. Everyone is afraid of Evohn Cystrom and Lt. Lethrow, who has become his henchman. They know Cystrom will have Lethrow kill anyone he suspects is not completely behind him. That’s how Videl Lai operated, and Evohn knows only too well how effective fear is."
"What about an attack on the Fleet?" Lorin asked. "Is that feasible?"
"Not realistically. We have fighters that could attack the base, but once they saw us coming they’d just withdraw into deep space and we couldn’t pursue them."
"Perhaps we should attack them anyway," Threebeard interjected, "just to deprive them of whatever or whomever they are waiting for."
Lorin looked pensively at Threebeard. "Yes, perhaps we should. Is there any way to sneak up on them and catch them off guard, maybe even eliminate the option of leaving Clarion?"
"It’s not likely. They have a very sophisticated detection system. The moment a fighter gets anywhere near the base, they’ll know about it."
"I thought our fighters couldn’t be detected in stealth mode."
"Only in the atmosphere," Threebeard explained. "Our stealth technology was not designed for outer space. Our fighters will appear as bright blips on the Clarion detection screens."
"So, are there any other options?"
"Just one," Captain Shilling said. "I’m working on a plan to sabotage one or more of the ships to prevent them from leaving."
"Really?" Lorin asked. "Whom would you get to do that?"
"I’m not sure, but I’ve got a warning out to the mechanics’ guild on Clarion about the command staff’s refusal to surrender. I’ve suggested to them that they may be in danger. It is my belief that everyone not traveling with the Fleet when it leaves will be killed. Evohn Cystrom will not want anyone left behind to provide us with useful intelligence."
Lorin gasped. "Oh, Sandee. You’re right. I hadn’t thought of that. They won’t leave a living being behind."
"Correct. So I think there will be those who’ll want to help us, if we can provide them a way to escape alive."
"Can we do that?"
"I think so. There are deep bunkers that were built for storage. It was easier to keep the temperature constant underground. If they can escape into the bunkers they might survive a surface attack. We need to make sure the Fleet leaves in a hurry, so they don’t have time to go around and personally kill each and every one left behind. I’m sure they’ll want to destroy the Clarion base and its manufacturing plants to delay the building of our own pursuit fleet."
Lorin felt much better after talking to Captain Shilling. For the first time, she felt a glimmer of hope that the Intergalactic Fleet might be stopped after all. She knew it was still a long shot at best, but at least they wouldn’t have to stand by and do nothing.
"Is there any way we can warn the governments on Earth that the Fleet is coming?" she asked Threebeard after Captain Shilling had signed off.
"No, I’m afraid not," he said. "The only way to communicate with Earth is by Earth shuttle. It would take a full cycle for a shuttle to get there; and even if they were warned, what could they do? They’d have but a few days to mount a defense."
"That would be better than being taken by complete surprise," Lorin reasoned. "We should launch a shuttle immediately. How close to Earth would they have to get before they could transmit a message?"
"About ten days from Earth they could send a transmission."
"So, they’d have ten days, plus every day that we could delay the Fleet’s departure."
Threebeard nodded. "Still, not much time."
"Couldn’t the shuttle be of some assistance in their defense?"
"Yes, it could," Threebeard replied thoughtfully. "It could provide intelligence to the governments of Earth, but as soon as the Fleet realized it was assisting, they’d try to destroy it."
"The shuttles carry a few fighters, don’t they?"
"Yes, I believe each has the capability of carrying ten fighters."
"Good, so we’ll have a little firepower. How about our other shuttles?"
"There are two others operational, but I doubt if the rest are flight worthy."
"Find out. If we can send three Earth shuttles that would be much better."
"Yes, and since we won’t be carrying passengers, I’m sure with a little time we could modify the shuttles to take many more fighters."
"How many, do you think?" Lorin asked excitedly.
"Hundreds, I’m sure."
"Fantastic! Get working on it right away. I want Earth Shuttle 26 ready to leave tomorrow, and the others as quickly as they can be readied."
Threebeard nodded. "Yes, Madam Chancellor. It shall be done, but you know Commander Lanzia will want to be on one of those shuttles."
"Yes. I suppose he will. Tell General Zitor to advise him of our plans and offer him command of the mission if he wants it."
"If he wants it?" Threebeard chuckled. "You wouldn’t be able to keep him away. He’s been dying to get back to Earth."
"Yes, but Lucinda will have something to say about that. Don’t underestimate her. She’s almost lost Leek once, so she’ll put up a strong fight to prevent that from happening again."
Threebeard raised his three eyebrows. "True enough. It will be interesting to see how that battle of wills plays out."
Lorin summoned her chief of staff, Ruffe Marcuzzi, a former senator and friend of her father. He’d stuck by her after Senator Mammett defeated her in her first bid to become chancellor. While she was away working for Leek Lanzia in the Loyalists’ secret headquarters in the Doral Mountains, Senator Marcuzzi and General Zitor had kept her base of support intact. When Chancellor Mammett was killed, she had been the logical choice to succeed him.
"Ruffe. We are going to send Earth Shuttle 26 off to Earth to warn the governments there that the Intergalactic Fleet is on its way. You’ll need to call a meeting of the General Assembly to authorize it."
"Yes, Madam Chancellor. I’ll see to it."
"I want to offer Leek Lanzia the opportunity to command the mission, but I know many in the assembly will be against it. See if that’s going to be a problem."
"Yes, Madam Chancellor."
Lorin pondered the situation. She didn’t want Leek to leave, but she knew him well enough to know he couldn’t be held back when Earth was about to be attacked. She just prayed the General Assembly wouldn’t try to stop him from leaving.
Many would fear that without his leadership the reunification of Tarizon would fail. It had taken God’s deliverance of the holy man, Sandee Brahn, and the super-volcanic eruptions to bring the nations of Tarizon together and end centuries of war and turmoil. Now that the civil war was over, reunification was underway, but there were those who favored the restoration of separate states rather than a single world government. The General Assembly was counting on the Liberator’s influence in keeping Tarizon’s government intact.
Lorin left the command center and went back to her office. Cora Linzing, her executive secretary, stood up when she entered the room.
"Sit down, Cora. There’s no time for formalities. We’ve got a lot of work to do."
"See if you can locate Councilor Shilline. I’d like to talk to him. Tell him it is very urgent. Also, I need to talk to Red, you know, Captain Loonas Levitur. I believe he’s in the city today."
"Yes, of course."
Lorin knew that Red would want to go with Leek to Earth. They were good friends and he’d be very upset if he found out Leek had gone without him. She also needed someone to command the fighters that would be carried aboard the shuttles. Red was a great pilot, a respected leader. He was also one of the "Three Avengers," as Red’s group of ace pilots had been called during the war.
He’d be the perfect choice to go with Leek to Earth. She also thought of Tam, Leek’s other good friend. But he was the commander of the 5th Loyalist Army, and couldn’t be spared.
Later that afternoon, Cora announced that Captain Levitur had arrived. Lorin got up and met him at the door. They embraced. Red was in his full dress uniform and Lorin gave him a once-over.
"How are you, Captain?" she asked. "You look magnificent!"
"Thank you, ma’am. I thought a summons from the chancellor warranted looking my best."
"Well, I’m impressed."
"I think this is first time I’ve worn a dress uniform since the award ceremonies."
Lorin thought back to the ceremonies following the signing of the Treaty of Shisk. She’d hung hundreds of medals on the brave soldiers who’d made it back alive from the front lines. She thought of millions who’d died fighting to restore the Supreme Mandate, thus restoring freedom and justice to Tarizon.
"So, have a seat, Red. I’ve got something important to discuss with you."
"Yes, ma’am," he said and took a seat in front of her desk.
Lorin didn’t take her place behind her desk, but opted to sit in the chair next to Red.
"There’s been an unfortunate development," she began. "The command on Clarion is refusing to surrender the Intergalactic Fleet. We are pretty sure they plan to embark on an invasion mission to Earth at any moment. We are frankly perplexed why they haven’t left already."
"Commander Lanzia was afraid this would happen," Red said. "He mentioned the possibility on more than one occasion."
"Yes, well, he was right. Our only hope is if we can sabotage the ships before they leave."
"Really? Can we do that?"
"Yes, possibly. We’re working on a coordinated operation, both from within and without. But, in case that doesn’t work, we’re sending a few shuttles to Earth right away to warn the people and help them put up a defense."
"As I recall the Intergalactic Fleet is pretty formidable. Will three shuttles have a whisper of a chance?"
"No, but the governments of Earth have many armies, particularly the American government. They might have a chance at defending themselves if they are not taken by surprise, and they have the advantage of the technology that will be at their disposal on our shuttles."
"Well, Madam Chancellor. I’d sure like a ‘piece of that action,’ as Commander Lanzia would say."
"Yes, I thought you would. I want you to meet with General Zitor and get as many shuttles as possible mustered and refitted in the next few days. Also, we’ll need a squadron of fighters for the coordinated sabotage and attack."
"We don’t have much time. We have to have a head start if there is to be any chance of success."
Red stood up as he continued. "So I should get going. I’ve got a lot to do."
Lorin rose and they embraced again. "Goodbye, Captain, and may God and Sandee be with you."
As she was showing Red out the door, Lorin saw Councilor Shilline waiting for her.
"Hello, Councilor," she said, and walked over to him. He stood and they embraced. "Thanks for coming by so quickly."
"Cora said it was urgent."
"Yes, I’m afraid it is."
She brought him up-to-date on the Clarion situation, and on her plan to send a few shuttles to try to warn Earth that the Intergalactic Fleet was planning to invade. She also asked him how the General Assembly would react to Commander General Lanzia’s departure for Earth.
"There will be considerable concern about it, I’m afraid," the councilor said. "He’s immensely popular and many were counting on that popularity to keep the people united behind a central world government."
"Yes. I don’t want him to go, either, but I can’t hold him hostage. He’s earned the right to return to Earth."
"So, what do you want me to do?"
"I’d like you to inform the leaders of the General Assembly of the events currently taking place. I don’t want them to think I’m hiding anything from them, nor do I want them to hear about any of this from the press first. Let them know I’m interested in their opinions on these matters and would welcome their input."
"Of course, I’ll get right on it."
Lorin thanked Councilor Shilline and he left. She hoped he could head off the backlash she expected if she allowed the Liberator to return to Earth. She knew there would be many angry voices when the word got out. She just hoped the people wouldn’t panic when they learned they wouldn’t have their beloved leader to guide them through the difficult times ahead.
Deep down, though, she knew she was in for the fight of her life. She just hoped it wouldn’t lead to a no-confidence vote, and her removal from office. Anger swept over Lorin like a hot desert wind.