“Lord Kantor is a driven man. He is self-motivated and unquestionably pious. His valor had been tested in countless campaigns. He is an honor to his Kastra and the Empire. It is the recommendation of this board that he be made Chief Strategist.”

- Excerpt from the War Council concerning the appointment of Lord Kantor to Chief Strategist of the Combined Fleet.

 

Chapter 26

 

 

Kantor watched his main viewer. All the tactical data about the ships that surrounded them was overlaid on the view off their bow. The enemy’s ships were primitive and their tactics smacked of desperation.

Kantor’s mind was not on the battle. He wanted to prove that the planet below them was Kerra-jorro. The only way to do that was to get to the surface and seek out the origin of the River Of Life. The highest mountain of the northern latitude is where the legends said it was located. The city his fighters were attacking lay at the base of just such a mountain. Status reports indicated there was little resistance. Surprising for a home world of any species, doubly so for a religious holy land. His respect for them, what little he had, fell lower still.

“My Lord, the ship we disabled is back,” Varco stated from the Scanner Station.

A new icon appeared to their stern. “Tactical,” Kantor said.

The main viewer switched to show the incoming ship. It was a headless version of the same pathetic white starship that had chased them through the tunnel. It didn’t take long for him to realize that the ship was being pushed by its own head. Kantor was impressed. For an act of desperation, it was brilliant. Tactically, it was pathetic.

Varco looked up from the scanner screens, newfound respect in his eyes for the enemy. “A valiant act, but unsound.”

Kantor agreed. “Finish this, Varco. I’m going to the surface.”

Varco stood up and faced his Captain. Kantor waved control to his First Officer and left the bridge. He headed straight for the flight deck and his personal KIV fighter.

* * *

Devon slid into the cockpit of the experimental Trogen starfighter. Red Allen hung over her shoulder and pointed to the various controls.

“Astronics are standard, flight controls are about the same as a Vickers fighter. She’s got copious wing and rudder for atmo flight and more granular retros for space flight. Oh, and she likes to fan tail at lower speeds, so keep the throttle up more than normal.”

Devon scanned the instrument panel and took in the details. The layout was similar to the other, older fighters she had flown. Her military training still fresh in her mind, she absorbed the new details quickly.

Red lowered his head and sighed. She turned to him. “What is it?”

“I never thought I’d be flying an experimental plane into combat. I’m a test pilot, not a fighter pilot.”

She looked him in the eye and lowered her tone. “You’re the best pilot in the Federation, fighter or not. You can fly circles around those bastards. Just follow my lead.”

They were so close in the cockpit she could smell his breath and a tinge of his after shave. It was not unpleasant. She leaned towards him and kissed him firmly. He touched her cheek with his hand and returned the kiss. They parted too quickly for her taste.

“Good luck up there. Let’s go hunting,” she said.

His dark eyes were confident again as he flashed her a cocky smile and pulled out of her fighter’s cramped cockpit. Devon licked her lips and smiled to herself. The kiss was more interesting than she expected. Clearly there was something sparking between them. Something that she didn’t know she wanted until that moment.

Movement in the sky caught her eye. It was a formation of green enemy fighters approaching the airfield. Her playful smile receded and she started securing herself into the seat. Within minutes the ground techs were backing away from her fighter and she was pulling back on the lifters with her left hand.

The flight of enemy fighters had passed over without firing a shot at them. She didn’t know whether to be relieved or irritated with their indifference. She hated that lack of respect from them. You had to go up and make them take stock of you and that really pissed her off. That and the fact that they had killed so many people she loved. Including Seth and now all the Rangers of her former Company. The anger and unbridled hatred surfaced again, causing her to tremble with rage.

Red Allen was off her port wingtip as they headed for the city center. “What’s the battle plan, Dev?”

“Kill them before they kill you. You heard my lecture to the other pilots. Try and shoot them off-center of their shields. Other than that, you’re on your own.”

There was a short pause before he said, “Copy.”

The smoke rose from the Capital City of Soban like dark clouds of toxic gas. The Federation Capital had never been attacked before. Not for the entire, thousand year history of the Federation. It was a historic moment in more ways than one but all Devon could see was a city in flames. A city that she was now sworn to protect. In all her life as a Senator’s daughter and a Stellar Ranger, she had never truly felt like a Federation citizen until she had joined the military. She had never been particularly patriotic when it came to the Core Worlds. She knew their history and she knew their leaders but she had never really given a damn about the institution itself. Not like her mother anyway.

Seeing the Capital building in flames and the tallest buildings beginning to crumble from repeated attacks stirred feelings of pride and anger inside that she never knew she possessed. Especially knowing that her mother was probably down there somewhere, either dead or about to be unless someone stopped the attackers.

She armed her main guns and picked the nearest formation of green Eight-fighters to engage. Coming in high and at just the right angle to avoid their shields, she opened fire on them. The first few shots fell short but the second time she pulled the trigger her explosive rounds found purchase in alien hardware and the fighter blew apart in a blinding explosion.

The remaining two alien fighters broke apart and she locked herself behind them, pulling up slightly in pursuit. The Trogen fighter was fast, much faster than her old Ranger Scrambler, and its weapons were more powerful. It only took a few yanks on the controls to line up a second shot and take it. This time her rounds impacted the rear shields and penetrated them. The tiny, flat winged fighter started smoking immediately and lost altitude. She squeezed off another burst at it to make sure it was hit and wound up blowing it apart in a fiery explosion that she was careful to steer clear of.

She checked her six and saw that two more enemy fighters were locked in behind her. She quickly gained altitude all the while twisting and turning the Trogen in ways that she doubted even Red Allen had flown it. As she topped out and spun around in a tight turn, the enemy fighters opened up. Their energy weapons overshot her as she dove on them with her guns blazing.

First one and then the other fighter lit up like firecrackers as her rounds exploded across their needle noses. Apparently they had no forward shielding. Either that or she had caught them off guard long enough to send them to fiery graves.

Red was engaging another group of fighters back towards the city. She could hear him over the comm channels hooting and hollering like a kid on a roller coaster. It made her feel better about her own joy in taking down the enemy fighters. Another flight of eight Federation fighters joined the fray. They were guardsman from the nearest city, flying Vickers fighters painted in brilliant blue and red stripes. The enemy was focusing their attack on Soban and ignoring the rest of the planet.

She wondered how the Sokol was holding up as she put her fighter into a circling pattern high above the city. The mid-day sun was filtered by the smoke from all the fires below. Is mother down there somewhere? The Senate building was completely gutted by explosions and fires. Several of the taller bank buildings had fallen; symbols of the corporate states that helped push civilization outward to the stars. It was a terrible sight to behold, a black eye on the face of the Federation.

Movement caught her eye from above. It was a single Eight-fighter flying over the city towards the mountains. Devon wondered why it was flying alone. Whoever it was they didn’t seem to care about Soban. It was deliberately moving towards the snowcapped mountains. She pulled her Trogen into a climb and followed it.

* * *

Kantor headed for the largest peak, ignoring the battle raging over the city. His attention was focused on the mountain ahead, the shape of the peak incredibly familiar to him. There were mountains like this on Voton, his home world. His people lived amongst them for generations. The snow packed peaks were the point of origin of the largest river on Voton, the River Of Life.

But they were also home to some of the oldest surviving caves that had been occupied by early Votainion primitives who were the precursors of society and possessed only the most rudimentary tools. They were known as Votarens and legends, along with archaeological records, said that they were shorter, hairier and had paler skin than the average modern Votainion. But the legends also said the Votarens were not indigenous to Voton. Sky maps on the cave walls referred to different star formations not visible in the night skies of Voton.

Archaeologists had argued for years about what that meant, but the religious leaders were all in accordance. They believed that the Votarens were from another planet and the planet that they came from was Kerra-jorro. Little was known about Kerra-jorro. It was said to live at the river’s head, but nobody could agree just exactly where that was. In modern times, clerics believed it was along the galactic plane; as that was the River Of Life translated to the stars above their ancestor’s heads.

Kantor had seen a blue and white world in his vision. It could have been any of hundreds of such worlds known to exist in the galaxy. But he had also seen a cave entrance in the blue sky, a moon hung low above dark clouds. As he headed for the mountaintop he saw the planet’s single moon hovering just over the darkening clouds caused by the attack on the city below. His vision was coming true and he could sense it in his very soul.

* * *

Commander Varco sat in the Captain’s chair and ordered the destruction of a third starship. They were armed with pitiful projectile weapons but they were surrounding his warship and that made him angry. He hated coming here to the alien’s home world and he hated Lord Kantor for leaving the ship and heading off on some holy mission to find a mythical world. Who cares about that when they were surrounded and taking punishing hits from ships that he should be have been able to outrun and outfight, had he been in a proper formation with a few other warships. Instead, he was in the heart of enemy territory. All alone.

The last volley of enemy fire had taken out several gun ports on the starboard side. He was forced to turn outside to use his port guns. This was unsound tactics, but he didn’t have a choice. Again, he cursed Kantor for leaving him in this bad situation.

“Fire on that headless warship and take it out!” he yelled at his Weapons Station.

Varco didn’t hear the response over the sounds of explosions and billowing smoke along the ceiling of the darkened bridge. More electrical fires were started as components blew out from power fluctuations. Varco swore out loud and moved to the Tactical Station.

“Aim for that second white ship, the one with the maser canons.”

The officer nodded and made the necessary adjustments. The second ship was smaller than the one that had chased them into the tunnel, but it was faster too, and hard to get a lock-on in the heat of battle.

“Fire all canons and then turn here, battle speed,” Varco instructed. Despite the disadvantage his ship was in, he was enjoying the stress of battle. He had always wondered if he had the grit and determination to lead his ship in a difficult battle. Apparently he did as they were holding their own against six enemy ships.

* * *

Gareth pointed to the primitive scanner screens on the bridge. “There were six of them surrounding the alien starship and now there are only three. It’s destroyed one of the Federation ships and the second is crippled badly.”

Eighty-eight was silent for several seconds. “Why should this concern us?”

Gareth expected that kind of blunt response from a slag. “Because the alien ship has pretty much destroyed Soban and if they don’t take it out there could be more alien ships in this system and that could mean the end of the Federation.”

Thirty-seven tilted its tan head and looked directly at Eighty-eight. “That would mean the end of your Silicant Rights Movement.”

“The blue aliens did not attack you or me or any other Silicant on Ocherva. There is no evidence that they are hostile to us,” Eighty-eight said.

Gareth moved closer to Eighty-eight’s face. His own unshaven and dirty face was wet with perspiration. The environmental controls of the ship were broke again leaving it hotter than most of the humans would have preferred.

“We’re traveling pretty fast. And we have a hold full of very hard, very sharp rocks,” he said calmly.

“Yes?” Eighty-eight asked.

“So if we were to aim for that Blue-skin ship and cut loose your cargo… it might ruin someone’s day. Don’t you think?”

“Yes, it would. Mine.”

Gareth laughed and moved away from both androids. He flung a rag that he had in his hand as if to give up. “Good luck with that revolution of yours, tin heads.”

Thirty-seven put a metal hand to Eighty-eight’s shoulder. The black android looked at it with a blank, expressionless face.

“Friend Eighty-eight, I believe the survival of the Federation is in our best interest too. Didn’t you always tell me that Seventy-three foretold the rise of the Silicants through the help and patronage of certain humans?’

“I am certain that it did not mean pirates,” Eighty-eight said.

“Perhaps. But was it not my mistress, Madam Constantine who ordered you to bring the rocks to Selene? Is she not the patron saint of the Silicants?”

Eighty-eight looked at the scanner screens in silence.

* * *

News of the President’s death traveled quickly, despite the chaos of the attack on Soban. Live images of the Capital City under attack and the Presidential residence taking direct hits only fueled the speculation among those living outside the capital. The official announcement came from the secure location just outside the city where Senator Constantine had been taken. There were a handful of politicos gathered in a military command center, standing around a conference table. Gail was the most senior politician having just been taped by the President to be his successor. The official transcripts of that final speech had been recorded for posterity and at this time it made her the President of the Federation. All the President’s senior staff and most of the Senate leaders had been killed at the onset of the attack.

What had been one of her darkest hours as a politician personally, had quickly turned into the darkest moment in Federation history. Nobody had ever attacked Selene before and thus had never had the opportunity to dismantle the Federation’s leadership. There was no provision for what to do when an enemy of the state took out most of your civilian leadership. There was still an orderly transfer of power down the chain of command, but that chain had been broken so far down the line, it was a wonder that a Senate page was not in control of the Federation.

Gail stood before a series of large monitor screens, trying to make sense of the battle in progress both in space and outside the thick, metal walls of her subterranean fortress. The Sokol had been destroyed in action. Captain Raider’s crew was rescued by one of the freighters recruited to help in the attack of the enemy starship. Near as she could tell, Admiral Ganner’s ship was still in action. The suddenly very aggressive enemy ship had now destroyed four starships.

Outside, the smaller attack ships launched by the main starship had largely destroyed the beautiful and historic Capital City. Reports were streaming in from outlying areas of the city of thousands of deaths and as many thousands of wounded people flooding local hospitals. Widespread civilian panic had not occurred, despite the devastation they endured, probably because the attack seemed to be concentrated on the governmental buildings.

It was a helpless feeling watching a battle from a command bunker while your capital burned to the ground. The temperature inside the command bunker was uncomfortably cold. Someone started passing out blankets to the civilian leaders in the room. Gail looked around at them, their faces in shock from the destruction they had seen. The most senior one of the group other than herself was the Senator from Drexel, Uvaren. She walked to his side and they hugged for a moment. Uvaren was the only senator of the three Core Worlds who had survived. Technically, he was the next in command and had she not just been selected as Vice President, he would be the one in charge.

He was nearly ten years her senior and his long white hair was tied back in a single tail. His dark senatorial robes were dusted with concrete and frayed. He had been one of the only survivors of the attack that had killed the President and most of the senate. She could see the pain and anguish in the wrinkles of his face.

“President Constantine you are now the leader of this Federation. God save you,” he said, his voice trembling.

“Thank you, Senator Uvaren. As the second most senior leader here, I must take you as my Vice President.”

He nodded grimly, even though she could see he was as scared as anyone else including herself. He was not of her party, but petty political distinctions seemed unnecessary at this critical hour. The survival of the institution was paramount now.

A military officer with lots of gold on his shoulders reported to Gail. She listened to his status report but only heard a few bits of it. Her mind kept slipping into a daze that was forged from fear and uncertainty. He finished his report and waited for her to respond.

“As acting President of this Federation, I hereby take control of the military, and all civilian annexes of the surviving government. Our first order of business needs to be the destruction of that ship. Take whatever means necessary to accomplish that. Secondly, I want this city under control. Bring in rescue crews form other cities and get the fires put out. We have to see what is left before we can continue.”

The officer nodded but did not leave. She looked at him for a moment and realized that he was waiting for her to say something. But she didn’t know what it was. “That is all.”

He saluted her and left the room. She had no idea how to handle the military. Her aides had always instructed her on what to do in regards to protocol and they were all dead or missing in action. She was on her own.

Protocol was not high on her list of things to worry about at the moment.

___________________

Author’s Comments:

Having Gail become President of the Federation was always in my head as I plotted this story, but making her Vice President be from the opposing political party was a happy coincidence from writing the novel. This will have pay off in the second novel which takes place about two years after this one.

This chapter is setting up events in the next chapter, but I still like the interplay between the characters. Especially the actions of Gareth and the Silicants on his ship. The focus on Varco will become apparent in subsequent chapters.

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