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Subjugation V - Secession by Fel (James Galloway) ©, Cover Image


Subjugation V - Secession

by Fel (aka James Galloway)

 

 

 

Table of Contents                   Chapter 1

 

 

Jason and the Karinnes continue to fight the Consortium while negotiating with Empress Dahnai to split the Karinnes from the Faey Empire.  
To:   Title    ToC            2

Chapter 1

 

        Raira, 10 Demaa, 4401, Orthodox Calendar

        Tuesday, 27 April 2014, Terran Standard Calendar

        Raira, 10 Demaa, year 1327 of the 97th Generation, Karinne Historical Reference Calendar

        Foxwood East, Karsa, Karis

 

        There was quite a bit going on today.

        Jason was up early and downstairs, nursing a cup of coffee as the reddish-tinged blue sun of Karis rose and streaked light across the kitchen table, the atmosphere’s content and the angle of sunlight hitting it turning the sun red as it crept over the eastern horizon.  Nobody else was up yet, and the quiet gave him time to organize the day in his mind.  The most important thing, though not the first on his itinerary, was Miaari.  Denmother would be arriving today to take her cubs back to Kimdori Prime, which Miaari assured him would be quite easy.  Jason had seen a scan of the three tiny, tiny Kimdori within her, two males and a female, which to Jason’s surprise were not very developed, didn’t look like they could survive outside of Miaari’s body.  Their eyes looked to have no eyelids, which explained why their eyes wouldn’t be able to cope with bright light for another couple of months, but aside from that, they looked disturbingly like puppies with their heads mounted on their necks to accommodate a vertical base.  They would stay with the Denmother until Miaari had the time to care for them herself, which Jason fervently hoped would be very, very soon.

        The second really big deal going on today was the arrival of the Iyaneri.  The ship was complete and fully operational, and as soon as it arrived, Admiral Haema Karinne would be taking command of it after a brief commission ceremony.  It was the sister ship of the Aegis, looked exactly identical now that the Aegis had a GRAF cannon installed, and that behemoth was going to make an immediate impact.  With two capitol ships, one could deploy to the PR sector while the other remained at home to play defense.

        And up in Kosigi, the keel of the third capitol ship, given the interim designation Indomitable, was already laid.  Now that Kosigi had doors big enough to let the big ships in and out, there was no reason to hog one of the major stardocks around Kimdori Prime.  They had built a capitol dock, and now the Indomitable was under construction, projected to be completed in 7 months, 3 days.

        On a related note, after a major setback in construction caused by an accident, the first carrier was also going to be commissioned today.  That ship had been assigned to Jaiya, sort of moving sideways from the Trelle’s Gift because she was considered by Navii to be best suited for command of a carrier, and thus far, she had kept her intended name of her new carrier a secret.  She’d spent almost every waking hour on the ship since she was awarded command, studying every aspect of its operation, poring over blueprints and design holos, and assembling her crew.  The command chairs had been shuffled a bit with the opening of a chair on a battleship.  After nearly two days of deliberation, and something of a surprise to Jason, the generals decided to promote Jeya Karinne to the Trelle’s Gift.  Jeya had some of the shortest time in the chair of a big ship, but when Jason challenged their decision, they showed him her scores since taking command of the Temeron.  They had improved vastly since she’d moved up from the cruisers, almost as if the bigger the ship, the better she commanded it.  They admitted they were taking something of a chance putting such a young captain in the chair of a battleship, but the House Karinne promoted based on merit, not cronyism.  Jeya’s command scores beat out the other big ship captains that were under consideration, so Jeya got the chair.  Her youth made them carefully consider that decision, but the numbers were the numbers. Other captains had better scores, but those captains were still settling into their own new commands, and Navii had instituted a minimum command time policy so as not to constantly upset the crews.  Jason had the feeling, after his long talk with Myri, Juma, and Navii, that Jeya was going to be just fine.  Every ship she’d commanded had had outstanding scores, and she was loved by her crews.  That created a series of step-ups in the command structure.  Koye Karinne had been promoted up from the cruiser Imai to replace Jeya on the Temeron, and Miya Foralle from the destroyer Cheyenne had been promoted up to replace Koye.  The destroyer’s chair was being taken over by its exo, a human telepath named Greg Masterson, who joined Pete Abrams as the second of the human male ship captains in the KMS.  Much like Pete Abrams and Justin Taggart, Greg had been a Naval officer before the subjugation, having just graduated from the Naval Academy two years before the Faey arrived.

        The third big thing going on was happening all the way over at PR-371.  Things had more or less stalled over there as his girls got the system defended,  digging in on the heavy gravity, heavy pressure planet and taking delivery of more and more stockpiles of 3D toys, building up until they had sufficient inventory to start operations.  They were also waiting for the Kimdori to finish their surveillance as they used CMS equipped infiltrators and hyperspace probes.  The Kimdori would tell them where to strike, once they fully understood exactly what the Consortium and their subject race there, called the Imxi, were building.  It was a situation akin to the “Sitskrieg” at the beginning of World War II, where neither side was willing to move and the result was a lull in the fighting.  That situation was the same in the home sector, since the Consortium had given up every system they had taken except for Trieste, mainly because the interdictors made attacking anything dangerous.

        They learned that lesson nine days ago, when a trio of Consortium destroyers jumped into the Skaa Republic system of Trazik to most likely conduct a sensor sweep of the defenses for possible future action, relying on their ability to jump in, scan, then jump out before the Skaa could respond.  The KMS and Kimdori had been monitoring, and as soon as they jumped, the KMS jumped an interdictor into the system with supporting Kimdori SCM ships within 90 seconds, and the Consortium ships found out the hard and brutal way that the KMS had come up with a counterstrategy to those probing actions meant to identify weaknesses in uninterdicted systems and follow up with an overwhelming attack fleet that would destroy all population.  The KMS countered those by interdicting those systems behind the invading ships, trapping them in there with the swarming hordes of Skaa defense pickets, virtually uncountable numbers of fighters and corvettes.  Those ships were old, virtually obsolete, but there were so many of them that even highly advanced Consortium ships were overwhelmed by the raw firepower that some 15,000 defensive picket ships could unleash.

        Numbers were the Skaa’s advantage, and they knew how to use it.

        The Consortium learned quickly that sending ships to any system meant that whatever ships they sent there were going to be lost, whether they accomplished their mission or not.  And at this point, the Consortium could not afford to throw away ships.

        Since the probing action at Trazik that cost the Consortium three destroyers, not a single ship had moved from Trieste.

        Myri and the generals were preparing a contingency plan for Trieste in case the spiders failed.  If they were going to just sit in Trieste, then Myri was going to pin them in there like collapsing the opening of the den of an angry bear.  They needed 6 interdictors to completely surround and entrap the Trieste system, placing the interdictors at strategic points so their interdiction fields overlapped Trieste, creating a minimum of .3967 light year void through which the Consortium could not jump, and that was at the tangential border of where two interdiction fields intersected.  The maximum was a 1.49999979917 light year journey across the diameter of the interdiction field, which was two light years across by diameter, one light year across by radius.  Syncing 6 different interdictors so their fields could intersect in common space without interfering with each other was no easy feat, requiring Cybi herself to write the governing algorithm to pull it off.

        However, they couldn’t trap them in Trieste until they were sure that the Consortium couldn’t eradicate the civilian population there.  There were 127 Kimdori infiltrators in various positions in and around the planet killer that they were building, there to sabotage or prevent it from being activated, but what was far more important, there were now six different variants of Myleena’s spiders completely infesting the entire Trieste system.

        The plan to send a cruiser shell filled with spiders had been a complete success.  They’d deployed that little trick 9 days ago, changing the plan slightly once Zaa made some suggestions.  They’d sent in the cruiser shell filled with spiders and carrying an entire hold full of Skaa antimatter bombs, which three Kimdori infiltrator ships had towed in from hyperspace and then released to allow it to drop into normal space on its own, also so as not to put engines on the ship that the Consortium could get their hands on if something went wrong.  The ship had dispersed its nanites well before approaching the planet, dropping out of hyperspace some 320,000 kathra from Trieste II, then a CMS ship already there picked it up and towed it enough to give it enough momentum to close that distance within 1.2 hours.  The ship had SCM on it to prevent the Consortium from scanning it and seeing the bombs, but they’d intentionally left enough holes in how it worked to make them suspicious…after all, the ship was just the decoy, and it had to do its job to hold their attention.  Much as they expected, the Consortium destroyed the ship after penetrating the SCM with a destroyer equipped with sensor pods, hitting it with gravometric missiles and making the thing go up like a supernova, thanks to all those antimatter bombs.  The Consortium knew then that their energy being had failed and that the Karinnes had tried to sneak a Trojan horse in on them, but they didn’t know that all that was just subterfuge.  About two days later, the spiders that the ship had released drifted into the Trieste system, and they did exactly what they were programmed to do.  They infiltrated 2,393 Consortium ships in orbit around the planet, they infiltrated 580 of the 1,317 Imperium weapon platforms the Consortium had taken from the Shio, and some spiders even managed to get down onto the planet via shuttles and dropships, and were slowly spreading out on the planet, seeking out the planet killer and the planetary operations center.  The plan for those spiders was for them to do nothing, at least for now.  They were going to be given time to get into position, spread to more ships, more weapon platforms, and when the time came to either attack Trieste or seal it off behind interdictors, the spiders were there to help protect the Alliance population at the mercy of the Consortium, who had no mercy.

        Of only slightly less importance was that Rann’s birthday was coming up soon, and even more importance, Jyslin’s birthday was in five days.  In the Faey calendar, Rann would be turning six…well, actually, he’d be turning five if he wanted to be technical about it.  The Faey didn’t actually work on that system, however.  They added one year to the birthday because they believed that life started at conception, and that was the day that the Faey truly celebrated.  They also saw age not as a hard number, but as “the current year of your life.”  A newborn was one year old because of the fact they were conceived some 9 months prior, and they were in the first year of life, therefore they were one year old.  Faey gestation was very nearly a standard year, so they just rounded off for the sake of convenience.  A newborn was considered to be one year old, because they’d been alive before birth.  It really wasn’t exactly correct to call it a birthday, though that was the literal translation from Faey to English.  It was more correct to call it the anniversary of life.  It was a quirky thing they did that Jason did himself, since he was living in a Faey system and that was how the government did it…but God, to think of Rann—or any of his children—as a five year old was almost insulting to him.  He was so mature, so intelligent, so educated.  The Faey started teaching their kids literally in the cradle, so while Rann was almost five—six by Faey reckoning—chronologically, it was so easy to think of him more as a seven or eight year old.  When Rann turned six, many Faey would consider him to be starting his seventh year of life, and many of the ultra-orthodox old school Faey, like the Exiled, would actually consider him to be seven.

        Not officially, though.  By official birth records, Rann would be turning 6 on 1 Kedaa, so they had some 16 days to prepare a party and buy presents.  Jyslin’s birthday was on 15 Demaa, and that was a bit more immediate, especially since he wasn’t entirely sure what to get her for her birthday quite yet.

        She wouldn’t care that much.  Faey did celebrate birthdays, but they weren’t as important in Faey culture as they were in Terran culture.  A few congratulations, maybe a present from her parents, and that was it.  But Jason was Terran, and birthdays were serious business on Terra.  He’d gotten her nice gifts and thrown her a party every birthday, almost embarrassing her a couple of times, but this year, with the war and all, he just wasn’t sure what to get her this year.

        Well, one thing he could do was get her family here.  Her parents had never visited Karis before, the visits always Jyslin going to see them, and she hadn’t seen them for over a year.  Jyslin was both always so busy and behind the secrecy firewall of Karis that she didn’t talk to her family as much as she probably should.  But with them being outed, the secrets of the Karinnes exposed by the Consortium, there wasn’t any real reason for her parents to stay on the other side of the line.  Jason had offered to bring them to Karis several times over the years, but for some strange reason, they hadn’t accepted, and back then nobody visited Karis that wasn’t a resident, and there were no exceptions outside the Kimdori.  Jyslin’s father was a factory manager and her mother was a primary school teacher, the reason Jyslin had one of the broadest vocabularies Jason had ever seen in a Faey, and Jason figured that they were too entrenched in their lives and responsibilities to pull up their roots and move to Karis.

        He had to work on that, he supposed.  Her parents currently lived on Jerama III, which was a farming planet and the planet that produced the Faey with that sapphire-colored skin thanks to Jerama’s white star, having moved from that arctic moon when Jyslin’s father got his job managing a hovercar factory owned by House Duralle, one of the smaller minor houses.  Duralle didn’t own Jerama, they just had a factory there due to a trade agreement with House Shovalle, who did own the system.  Duralle supplied hovercars to the Jerama system at a reduced cost, and in return, got a discount on food produced on Jerama for Duralle consumption.

        After just three years, Jyslin’s parents were very dark, a sea blue.  They’d tan nearly to the same color as the native Faey population, and if they stayed there and had more kids, most likely their grandkids would have the same pigmentation mutation as the other Faey natives by the third generation.  Humans, on the other hand, would sunburn within minutes of being on Jerama if they didn’t have sunblock.  Jerama’s atmosphere blocked the harmful UV rays that caused skin cancer, but barely blocked the UV spectrum that caused tanning at all.

        That was a curious aspect of the Faey.  They genetically adapted to different environments very quickly, and would even demonstrate abnormal traits compared to other Faey after being there long enough.  Hara was the perfect example of that.  Her eyes were so adjusted to a nocturnal lifestyle that Karis’ sunlight effectively blinded her, forcing her to wear protective sunshades during the daylight hours.  Jerama’s sapphire-skinned Fay, the Faey like Hara, they were genetic variants of the standard Faey race, produced by adapting to different environments.

        It just showed everyone that while Faey were virtually identical to Terrans, there were some pretty significant differences.

        Ayama set a plate of waffles in front of him silently as he pondered, then set down nectar-honey produced by those Kizzik beetle livestock bugs and mixed with maple syrup, which was actually pretty damn good.  So quiet this morning, Ayama noted lightly.  What’s the matter?

        Pondering what to get Jys for her birthday, he replied privately, so as not to tip off his wife that he was scheming.

        And here I thought you were angry with me over the calendar, she sent playfully.  Ayama had bought a day on the calendar, and in typical Ayama fashion, he had no idea if she was serious about it or if it was some kind of joke.  He’d worked his ass off on Aya’s day, doing some of the hardest menial chores that that vicious bitch could think up.  Ayama’s day comes up, and when he went to finally find out what was on her mind about it, she handed him a keycard to a hotel room and shooed him off.  In the hotel room was a fully animatronic female sex doll, one of the robot sex toys the Faey sex industry manufactured, a bowl of oye fruit, a bottle of All Nighter! male enhancement formula, and a full sized poster picture of Shey on the wall wearing nothing but a smile, finally paying him back for all those times he’d talked to her without putting on clothes.  Shey had already paid for her part in that little joke, spending an entire shift at her console wearing a nothing but a sign on her back that read I will not tease my Grand Duke, but he’d let Ayama slide…because it was funny.

        Revenge is a dish best served cold, and from complete surprise, he warned with a light smile.  Just ask the twins what happens when you get on the list.

        It sounds like someone wants to have a month-long culinary adventure, she threatened, smacking him playfully on the wrist with a wooden spoon.

        I’ll just make you eat everything first, he countered.  I do think it’s about time I had a food taster around  to protect me from poisoning.

        She gave him a lilting smile.  Yes, let me cook the food I’m tasting, so I can prepare myself beforehand, she teased, which made him laugh.

        Bitch.

        Her Majesty isn’t the only one that loves it when you call her names, your Grace, she sent cheekily as she poured more batter in the waffle iron.  Rann, Danelle your breakfast is ready, she sent, adding power to get his attention.  Yours will be ready in just a couple of minutes, my Lady.

        Okay, Ayama. I’m almost ready, Rann answered.

        Whatcha cookin’? Jyslin asked.

        Waffles.

        Ooh!  Be right down!

        So, no ideas for Lady Jyslin? Ayama asked.

        Nothing good yet, he answered with an audible grunt.  I am going to bring her family here for the party and make it a surprise, her parents, Lorna, and her uncle and cousins.

        She’ll love that, she does love her family, Ayama nodded.

        [Jason,] Cybi called.

        [What is it, Cybi?]

        She manifested her hologram, that nude silhouette without detail wearing the original Sora Karinne’s face, the hologram fading into nothingness just below the knees.  She put her hand on his shoulder and leaned over to look down at him.  [I need you at the 3D dock up in Kosigi after breakfast, my friend.]

        [The string jammer?] he asked hopefully.

        [Yes, they’re installing the last lattice arrays now,] she answered, then motioned towards the other end of the table.  Another hologram formed, showing the interior of the 3D drydock up in Kosigi where they were building the string jammer, which looked like an egg with a bunch of TV antennas stuck in both ends.  Much like the carrier, the string jammer had run into a snag that extended the build time, caused by the Shimmer Dome accidentally sending parts that were made wrong.  The lattice arrays, which were the “antennas” that produced the jamming effect, had been grown using the wrong lattice matrix that put so much feedback into the system that it caused an emergency shutdown.   It had taken them nearly six hours of troubleshooting to figure it out when they gave it its initial start-up test, and they’d had to wait three days for the Shimmer Dome to fix the problem and get time on the assembly line to produce the parts.

        That was becoming a problem that Jason had ordered them to rectify.  The Shimmer Dome was running at 138% capacity, and Bunvar already had orders to go in there and expand the complex to give it more production capability.  The Shimmer Dome was now the biggest bottleneck in Karinne production, because all biogenic units and components were only built in that complex, for both the Karinnes and the Kimdori, and virtually all modern Karinne technology contained biogenics in one form or another.  Computers, interface control nodes, biogenic relays, translation nodes, sensors, it was all biogenic, and that meant that anything that was interface controlled had, at the minimum, a biogenic interface control circuit in it.  [I know it’s going to make the day even busier, but you did want to be here when we got it finished.]

        [Well, I can at least come up and hang around until Denmother arrives, and I’ll be close by when she does,] he reasoned, checking the time using his gestalt, then accessing Zaa’s last report of the Iyaneri’s expected arrival time.  Zaa was arriving aboard the Iyaneri, just hitching a ride on it actually.

        Amber jumped up onto the table and immediately sat down in front of her dish, yipping commandingly.  Jason had to pause and watch in amusement as Ayama carried over a small pan holding the vulpar’s breakfast, gana sausage, Terran eggs, and diced oye fruit all scrambled together, and scraped it into Amber’s bowl.  She patted the little vulpar on the head fondly and went back to tending the waffle iron, and Jason had to chuckle a little.  There was no doubt who ran this household.

        [Yes, she’s quite the demanding one, is she not?] Cybi asked lightly, no doubt watching through one of the cameras.

        “You know, Amber, you could say thank you,” Jason said dryly.  Amber flicked both of her tails in his general direction without taking her muzzle out of her dish.  “You little terror,” Jason added, reaching over and pinching one of those tailtips.  Amber gave a squeaky little growl, which made him laugh.  [When is the Iyaneri scheduled to arrive?]

        [It is still at Kimdori Prime.  If there are no changes, it is scheduled to arrive at 12:25 local time.]

        Accessing his gestalt, he saw that it was 07:48, so he had a little under four hours.  It was very nearly the solstice, which would be the longest day and shortest night of the year on Karis, the official start of what passed for autumn in the tropical belt.  In Karsa, the change of seasons affected weather patterns and precipitation far more than temperature.  As fall progressed, the weather systems would shift to come more out of the north, and since that meant that they had to cross the continent, it was the start of the dry season…though when they first got here, that also meant occasional dust storms as winds picked up the bare earth in the unterraformed northern tracts of Karga.  The entire continent was now at least partially terraformed to the point where dun grass carpeted the ground to prevent erosion, the Draconis-origin grass actually was a very tough plant that could grow in very hostile conditions.  There were some bare stretches too on the west side of the continent north of Karsa, where prevailing winds and the Karalla Mountains formed a desert environment.  Naturally, the Kizzik had colonized that area, for they preferred hot, arid conditions like the desert planet of their origin, and quite a few Makati had settled in towns on the edges of the desert, where the dry grassland reminded them of Makan.

        [Well, you can relay a message to the Denmother that we’ll be there to greet her.]

        [I would be happy to do so.  I will also send a message to Chirk that you don’t intend to come to the White House today.]

        [Not unless I have to,] he agreed.

        [I will see you in Kosigi then,] Cybi nodded, then her hologram wavered and vanished.

        Jyslin wandered down, yawning, wearing nothing but a rather skimpy pair of lacy panties.  “Rowr,” Jason said aloud, which made her laugh and slap him lightly on the back of the head as she sat down.

        Rann up yet? she asked.

        On his way down, Jason answered as Ayama put a cup of oye juice down in front of Jyslin.

        Syrup or nectar, my Lady?

        Both, she replied as Ayama picked up a plate of waffles from the warmer, drizzled liberal amounts of both syrup and Kizzik nectar over them, then set the plate before her.  She attacked it immediately.  You’re gonna be in Kosigi today?

        Yup, I’m not going to the White House before Zaa arrives, he nodded as he took a drink of coffee.  The string jammer should be finished today, and I want to be there when we test it.  Where you guys at on that Consortium flagship?

        About halfway done.  We’re starting to tear through its sensor network now.  Their sensors are highly advanced, we’re actually learning a few things, she replied.

        Nice.  I haven’t seen the report yet.

        She nodded. You should have the report on your console over at 3D, if you’d go there, she sent lightly.

        Hey, I’ve been busy, he protested, fetching his floating handpanel from the far side of the table with his power.  As in busy, not that light-assed playing around shit you and Myli are doing up in Kosigi.

        Watch it, buster, she winked.

        Rann hustled into the kitchen, wearing his armor.  Aya wouldn’t even let him go to school without the armor, especially since it had a tactical gestalt in it.  His helmet was locked behind his neck and shoulders in its resting position.  Morning Daddy, Mommy, he sent as he climbed into his chair, and Ayama brought over his waffles, already dressed with syrup and nectar just the way he liked them.

        Morning, pippy, Jason sent.

        Morning baby boy, Jyslin mirrored.  Did you have a good sleep?

        Yeah.

        Where’s Danny?

        She’s coming, he answered as he started cutting his waffles.

        Danelle! Ayama called.  Hurry up, you have school!

        I’m almost ready, Ayama, she replied.  Danelle had been more or less a permanent houseguest for the last two weeks, since Myleena was so busy with the Consortium ship, the string jammer, and the 50 million other things clogging her inbox.  Jason certainly didn’t mind, in his mind, the clever little girl was his adopted daughter.  Daddy Jason, I think I may need you or Mommy, my armor’s not working right.

        Come on down with what you have, pips, and I’ll take a look at it while you eat breakfast.

        I got it on, it just won’t move right.

        Disable the power assist, pips, don’t take any chances trying to come down the stairs if the power assist isn’t working right..

        ‘Kay.  Be right down.

        Danelle hurried down into the kitchen and climbed into a chair, and Jason got up and got behind her, leaning down.  He jacked the handpanel into the armor using the neckport, at least after taking off her helmet, and interacted directly with the armor through his gestalt and handpanel, which was biogenic.  He had the armor run a passive diagnostic while Danelle got to work on the waffles Ayama put in front of her.  What’s the prognosis? Jyslin asked.

        Definitely a problem, looks like with the motion sensors.  I’m not sure if it’s hardware or software.  This is a new one to me.

        Me too, and I don’t remember seeing sensor issues in the bug list, Jyslin agreed.

        Pips, where’s your backup suit?

        Uh, it’s in my room at home.

        Then go change into it before you leave for school and I’ll take a look at this one for you.

        Aww, I don’t like my old armor. It doesn’t have the gestalt in it.

        You shouldn’t be showing off using the tactical anyway, young lady, Jason sent lightly, amusement bleeding into his sending.

        After breakfast, Danelle solved the problem of having to carry her malfunctioning armor back by taking it off right in the kitchen.  Jason found her solution to be both practical and amusing, especially when a naked Danelle hurried out the deck door and headed for her house…but that was Danelle.  Her solutions were usually practical to the point of being not entirely socially acceptable, but that was the mind of a six year old girl who was raised to believe that nudity was entirely proper.  Danelle had similar tendencies when asking questions.  She had very little tact.

        After breakfast, Aya sent the guards out to escort Rann and Danelle to school, Jason picked up his own retinue of Dera and Suri, and they headed up to Kosigi in the Marine corvette Honor.  Jason had Danelle’s armor with him, troubleshooting it back on the tactical deck of the corvette.  Ryn had been going with Rann much more lately, since she was probably the most skilled telepath on Karis and she’d been privately tutoring just about all the kids on the strip both in school and after school.  Shen was her usual partner, so Jason hadn’t been paired with her for a few days either.  With the Dukal family so spread out now and more than one plot against Jason thwarted, Aya had been spending more and more time at the house, overseeing security from her office in the barracks behind the house and ready to dispatch the Rapid Response Team at the first hint of trouble.  That team was a unit of 6 Imperial Guard and 12 Marines in a corvette with two Wolf fighter escorts that stayed in the exact center of all Dukal family positions, minimizing the response time to any one of them as much as possible.  With Jason and Jyslin at Kosigi, Rann in school, Tim at work at the White House in the intelligence office, and Symone doing pusher duty over at the Gladiator factory, the RRT would be in orbit over Karis, right smack in the middle.

        Jason had Danelle’s armor repaired and on its way back to her at school via courier by the time they docked at the 3D bay.  Cybi had wanted him at the string jammer, so that was where he went after dropping Jyslin off at the dock holding the Consortium flagship.  Myleena greeted him at the guarded entry into the contained dock, grinning brightly as she used her armor’s grav drive to move around in the zero-G environment.  Hey babes, we’re installing the last lattice array now.

        Cybi told me, that’s why I’m here.  I’ll be in your hair until Zaa arrives on the Iyaneri.

        I’ll just put you in the naughty box if you cause too much trouble.  This is my dock, she winked.

        Says who?  I’m the Grand Duke here, not to mention I’m still the leader of the Legion..

        Big whoop, I’m the one that makes everything work.  So that makes this my toybox, she sent smugly.

        Someone needs to have her butt taken down a few pegs, Jason sent with a smile.  And what do you know, I outrank you.

        She laughed.  You take my Duchess title, and you’re gonna wake up some morning with far more of a surprise than you ever bargained for, she threatened.  Aya won’t stop me from coming into your house.

        Touché, he returned with a chuckle, rapping his armored gauntlet on her shoulder.

        Jason rolled up his sleeves in a figurative sense and helped them install the last of the lattice arrays, enjoying something he rarely got to do anymore, which was build things.  The string jammer had eight arrays, four on each side of its ovoid central body, which held all the jammer’s circuitry and engines.  The jammer had its own hyperspace jump engines in it, why it took so long to build, so it could self-deploy, redeploy to a new position on remote command, and also remove itself from possible danger.  The jammer would be paired with an interdictor that the jammer would carry in an internal bay, which was one reason why it was so big, and give the string jammer powerful defense.  The jammer could deploy in real time and jump the entire distance in one jump like any other robotic device that had no living things in it, deploy its interdictor, and then pick up its interdictor and move if it was necessary.  For direct threat, such as an asteroid or some space object on a collision course, the jammer was armed with rail cannons and pulse cannons, and was equipped with the strongest Teryon hard shield they could fit in it without interfering with the jammer’s function.  They’d been forced to put the lattice arrays outside the hard shield else the Teryon shield would interfere, but the jammer wouldn’t be slugging it out with enemy ships.  Those weapons were defensive only and geared almost specifically for dealing with rogue objects, not a hostile ship.  If the jammer was under any kind of direct threat from a hostile force, it would pick up its interdictor and jump out…or just jump out and have the interdictor self destruct if it was a panic situation.  The jammers would be controlled by a console over at the military command center, allowing an operator to move the jammers if necessary.

        Once the jammer was tested, they were going to deploy it.  After what happened at Raxxad and Pathrana, they were very wary of putting it in the home sector as first planned, fearing that the jamming of their long-range communications would incite an attempt to eradicate the population of Trieste.  They would sacrifice Trieste if they had no other choice, but they were going to try to avoid that if at all possible.  So, this first jammer was going to be deployed to Exile, in a position where it could jam all of the communications between Andromeda and the Milky Way due to the angular vectors that the intergalactic communications had to take to come from Andromeda to their galaxy.  That one chokepoint would jam any attempt for Andromeda to communicate with any part of their galaxy.  Once they had an idea of what to do about Trieste, the second jammer would be deployed in Alliance space not far from the Imperium border, which would allow that one string jammer to jam all Consortium long-range communications in the entire sector, as well as a whole lot of uninhabited space in the sectors surrounding them, and blanketing about 15% of the Verutan Empire and 12% of the Haumda Federation, which were in the next sector over.  From there, they already had a plan drawn up to completely destroy all Consortium long-range communications in the entire galaxy, which would require 26 string jammers deployed in a specific pattern along critical vectors, which would cripple any attempt for the Consortium to use string communications anywhere that it mattered.  String communications were, in a way, line of sight, meaning that if there was no “direct path” between the transmitter and the receiver, then the transmission would fail to reach the receiver.  The string jammers were designed to more or less put up a wall between the two, and their string jammer placement more or less choked off all the main transmission vectors.  What this meant was that a string jammer would disrupt all communications within its jamming field, but also disrupt any communications attempting to pass through its jamming field en route to a receiver on the far side.  An additional 138 string jammers would saturate the entire galaxy in a string jamming field and make it absolutely impossible to use string communications anywhere in the Milky Way galaxy.  That was the ultimate goal, but in the short term, preventing communications in critical areas was what mattered most.

        Between the interdictors and the string jammers, Jason fully intended to render the Consortium as helpless as a slug on a salt flat.

        Jason got so wrapped up in helping them build the string jammer that he was honestly surprised when Cybi told him that the Iyaneri was an hour out.  The Kimdori were planning a 45 minute jump, giving the crew a chance to rest since not all Kimdori had the same resistance to hyperspace that Zaa did, as well as pausing to inspect the jump engines, which would be the first time they were used when the flagship was fully operational.  Jason headed to the ops center and met Miaari there, then invaded Dellin’s command center to watch its progress on the board.  Down on the surface, Admiral Haema was forming up her crew, some 7,390 Faey, Terrans, Makati, Kizzik, as well as a handful of Shio, Bari-Bari, Jakkans, Shurai, and Beryans, some of the first Alliance races to graduate from the KMS training academy in non-training intensive PTS roles; their Primary Training Specialization, their “job” as it were.  Jakkans were scholastic in nature, so they would excel in the scientific departments, as would the Beryans, who were both highly intelligent and exceptionally cunning.  Bari-Bari, Shurai, and Stevaki were by no means dumb, but Jakkans and Beryans were more or less the scientific specialists in the Alliance.  There were no Stevaki in the crew, at least yet, but the Bari-Bari and the Shurai certainly weren’t hard to pick out of the formations.  Bari-Bari were highly intelligent, versatile, and adaptable, very human-like in that regard, and could be found anywhere in the Alliance, doing most anything, which meant that there would be Bari-Bari in most any department on the ship.  The Shurai down there, seven or so foot tall avioids with feathers, beaks, and taloned hands that only had three fingers and a thumb, were all fighter pilots, the first to rate on the Wolf fighters using an interface.  And holy fuck, were they nasty.  Shurai had reflexes almost five times faster than the average Terran or Faey, and they had flight instincts that made them holy terrors in the cockpit of a ship.  And when they used an interface, which cut down their response times even more due to not having to move to react, their reflexes shot up to nearly eight times faster than a Terran or Faey.  Those two traits made them almost born to fly fighters, but Shurai also excelled in any pilot’s position, even piloting a battleship.  Some of the best scores in the Pilot’s Academy were being posted by Shurai pilots undergoing flight training for big ships after passing basic KMS training.

        Zora had better look out, the Shurai were coming for her job.

        Jason was actually a little surprised when Miaari and Tim came into the command center with a Beryan along with him, wearing the uniform of Miaari’s Intelligence Division. Miaari did say she was hiring some Beryans, and this had to be the first she’d brought into contact with him.  At first glance, Jason could see why the Kimdori had a fondness for Beryans, for both were canine races.  But where Kimdori were anywhere from five to eight feet tall, Beryans were only about three to four feet high, and had short, narrow muzzles that were almost vulpine, expressive eyes that were usually brown, yellow, or orange, and long, slightly shaggy tails with a artificially dyed, colored tip in colored bands that denoted the Beryan’s breed, and therefore their family lineage, which was a big fucking deal among the Beryans.  The banding of the tip was like the tartan of a Scottish clan, identiftying the Beryan’s family to all those around him.  Beryans were fully plantigrade, having no elongated feet, and their arms were slightly longer than normal in Terran proportions.  Not grossly so, but a Beryan’s hands hung just over their knees, where a Terran’s hands would hang just below the crotch.  What Jason found most curious and slightly disturbing about the Beryan race was that the females had permanently pronounced breasts, like Terran, Faey, and Shio women, but they had four of them.  This Beryan was a male, thank goodness, with mottled black, white, and brown fur where Jason could see it, and a tail banded with red, yellow, red, blue, black, and red, which marked him as Ng’grrah-breh, a member of the Ng’grrah family.  Beryans organized themselves by families, in a pack mentality, similar to the clan structure of the Kimdori.  There were only 17 Kimdori clans, but there were 296 different and unique Beryan families, and every Beryan belonged to one of those families.

        Thank God for gestalts that could instantly supply that kind of information, so Jason didn’t have to memorize all of it.

        “Kravakk, might I present the Grand Duke, Jason Karinne.  Jason, this is one of my recent hires, Kravakk Evakk Rahdeh Mragah Ng’grrah of the Ng’grrah-breh,” Miaari introduced.  “He has just been assigned to Tim’s analysis office.”

        “It is good to greet the Highest of High,” the Beryan said, putting a clawed hand over his muzzle and bowing it.

        “I have high expectations of you if Miaari deemed you worth hiring,” Jason told the diminutive canine.  “But the reputation of the Beryans fills me with confidence that you will be a worthy addition to her staff.”

        “You honor me, Highest of High,” the Beryan said smoothly.  In that respect, Beryans were as charismatic as the Shio.  Beryans were glib and well-spoken, and excelled as merchants, politicians, and diplomats.  In the Alliance, the vast majority of embassy workers, diplomats, and ambassadors were Beryan, and as such, they were the race with which other empires had the most contact.

        “Is this your first visit to Kosigi?”

        “Yes, Highest of High.  I have only just completed basic orientation yesterday, and am still settling into the division.”  He looked Jason in the eye.  “If it more suits you to send, Highest of High, I am graced by Mrra-geh with talent.  It’s not nearly as strong as our Faey companions, but it is acceptable.”

        “Wow, a talented Beryan?  How did the Alliance let you slip through their fingers?” Jason asked in honest surprise.  Only about 0.6% of the Beryan race was telepathic.

        “High Miaari made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” he smiled, showing off his little fangs.  “Let us simply say that my resignation tendered to the Organization was…abrupt.  I gave them no chance to try to talk me back into the fold.”

        “He was one of their best,” Miaari smiled.  “But he found my offer far too tempting to refuse.”

        How is he so far? Jason asked Tim privately.

        Fuckin’ scary, he replied.  He doesn’t forget anything, and he talks as fast as Symone does when she wants something.

        Jason had to stifle a laugh.  Better be careful, your job is on the line, Tim.

        Don’t I know it, he agreed without much humor.

        If he’s that good, odds are he won’t be in analysis for long, Jason noted.

        Yeah.  I think she’s just giving him exposure to the different offices.              

        Jason chatted with Kravakk for a few moments as Miaari watched on, then she almost casually stepped up to him.  She didn’t say a word, she simply reached out and put her hand on his cheek, one of the few places she could make skin to skin contact.  Jason felt her reach out and connect to him in the way Kimdori could.  She imparted to him that while Zaa was here to take Miaari’s cubs back to Kimdori Prime, she was also carrying very important and highly sensitive information concerning the Consortium, and also the Syndicate.  Jason nodded silently when he processed that, then put a finger on his gestalt, which was becoming something of an unnecessary habit when communing with Cybi.  [Cybi, we’re going to the White House after we’re done here,] he warned her.

        [Shall I warn Chirk?]

        [Just tell her than I’m not coming to do any business.  This is a meeting, so if you could, have her prepare my office.]

        [I understand.  I’ll have her prepare it for your arrival.]

        Jason spent most of the time waiting talking with Miaari and Tim as Kravakk listened intently, and then the Iyaneri arrived.  It was indistinguishable from the Aegis except by the name painted on the bow in both English and Faey script, and the fact that the Iyaneri was immaculately clean.  After so much action, the Aegis had a few scars and smudges on it that they hadn’t had the time to attend quite yet.  Cosmetics were the last thing on their minds right now.  A holo of the bridge winked on in the ops center, and Admiral Dellin stepped up with Jason and saluted sharply when the Denmother Zaa appeared on the bridge.  “This is the Iyaneri requesting permission to enter the base,” she said formally.

        “Permission granted, Denmother.  Telemetry instructions are being transmitted as per dock assignment as we speak.”

        “Understood.  Navigator, access telemetry instructions and follow them.”

        “At once, Denmother,” a voice replied off the screen.

        “You are looking well, Jason.”

        “It’s nice that you’re not visiting as the harbinger of doom this time,” he noted dryly, which made her laugh.

        “Yes, for once, I am visiting for a happy occasion,” she smiled roguishly.  “Are you prepared to surrender your cubs to me, Handmaiden Miaari?”

        “I am, my Denmother, at your convenience.”

        “I have all prepared,” she replied.  “We will retire upon the transfer of the flag to your command, speak of several affairs, and then Handmaiden will deliver her cubs into my custody.”

        “You’ll have to endure giving me a tour of the ship, Denmother,” Jason said.  “It’s my tradition upon the christening of any new ship.”

        “At least you will know your way around,” she smiled lightly, then the image vanished.

        “Dellin, I’m going to be busy with the Denmother, so delay the christening ceremony of the carrier until I have time to attend, if you don’t mind,” Jason ordered.

        “I’ll see to it, your Grace,” he nodded.

        Jason and Miaari went down to the staging area while Tim and Kravakk returned to work, and he chatted with Haema while they waited for her new ship to navigate to its assigned docking space.  Haema was middle aged as Faey reckoned things, her face showing a few age lines and her lavender hair showing a few strands of blue, which was the Faey version of gray hair, but she was sharp as a tack and still a handsome woman.  She was one of his Imperial steals, had been a cruiser captain before they stole her from the INS, and had worked her way up to the Admiral’s diamond and command of a capitol ship.  The entire crew stared as the massive Iyaneri melded into view through the gloom, a hulking monstrosity whose gravitational pull would have affected the core center of Kosigi and pulled it out of position were it not held in position by gravometric stabilizers and its physical support struts.  Jason, Dellin, Haema, and Miaari went over to where one of those miles-wide supports pierced the core and boarded an elevator, then rode up to a docking facility built right into the side of the support, which was but one function those struts served, forming permanent anchors for construction as well as providing elevator access between the inner core and outer shell.  The Iyaneri pulled up to the docking facility, and four different docking ramps extended from the docking array and connected to its docking ports on its starboard side.  Three of those ramps were for personnel, and one was for cargo and supplies.  The four of them walked down the docking ramp and reached the hull of the ship just as the docking doors opened, and a group of Kimdori led by Zaa stood inside the docking port room.  “Permission to come aboard?” Jason asked formally.

        “Granted, and welcome,” Zaa replied.  Jason stepped up and put his armored hand on her neck, and she mirrored the motion in the standard Kimdori greeting.  “We deliver to you the Iyaneri, Grand Duke Karinne, and I pronounce it operational and ready for service.”

        “Let’s take my tour as the crews transition and they onload the equipment and cargo, then we’ll handle the flag transfer.”

        “Why Jason, do you not trust me?” Zaa asked playfully.

        He laughed.  “I don’t now,” he replied with a smile.  “I better make sure you didn’t use shoddy materials to cut corners and pad your profits.”

        Haema put her finger to her interface.  “Begin crew boarding and cargo onload, Commander Brenia,” she called, utilizing the gravband in her interface.  “We have been granted permission to board.”

        “At once, Admiral.”

        Zaa allowed one of the shipbuilders to conduct the tour for Jason and Haema, showing them all the major departments and explaining the differences in construction techniques they’d used with the Iyaneri since they’d learned so much building the Aegis.  Those learning experiences were already in use in the construction of the third flagship that was happening in Kosigi with Karinne builders and Kimdori consultants.  The Kimdori were training the Karinne shipbuilders in the technique, and it would translate to the third ship being built even faster than the second.  The new ship was exactly the same as the Aegis so Jason already knew his way around, but he found Gremaani’s discussion about improving the construction method sincerely fascinating, from one engineer to another if nothing else.  Jason was one of the few leaders in the Siann that understood all the technical jargon that the Grand Duchesses dismissed as irrelevant science talk.  Haema and Miaari listened quietly as Jason debated the construction changes, learned the guts of it as only an engineer could, and endeared himself to the Kimdori shipbuilder in the process.  By the time they reached the bridge, Gremaani was treating Jason like an old friend, a fact that Zaa found strangely amusing.  The bridge crew had already transitioned by the time they arrived, the Kimdori replaced by Faey, Terrans, one Makati, and a nearly criminally cute Shio female with shimmering emerald hair, to Jason’s surprise, who was sitting at the comm station with three of her other comm officers.  She had Ensign’s bars on her armor over Shio military rank of First Liuetenant, which was also a surprise that a Shio had come out of officer’s academy and training school that fast.  Then again, Javra Blackstone had graduated even faster, and was receiving very good reviews, from Pemai’s reports.  Jason just had to go over and make her uncomfortable.  She looked up at him in surprise, then stammered out a greeting in a very pretty, clear, strong voice that would make her a good choice to sit at the comm terminal.

        But, it was an odd position for a non-Faey to hold, since the captain would often send to the comm officer to relay communications.

        “Another Shio officer, it’s good to see,” Jason said with an earnest smile that made a little dark green creep into the young lady’s cheeks.  Shio had green blood, which was what colored their skin.  “What’s your name, Ensign?”

        “Ensign Mikano Strongblade, your Grace,” she replied, her waist-length emerald hair shivering as her head bobbed.

        “I added her to my crew personally.  I liked her scores in OTS and PTA,” Haema noted from the side.

        “That’s some high praise if Admiral Haema thinks you’re worth her time, Ensign,” Jason told her.  “What brought you to comm?  That’s an unusual position for a Shio in the KMS.”

        “I have talent, your Grace,” she replied, almost self-deprecatingly.  That wasn’t a complete surprise.  Every race around except the Kizzik, Jobodi, and the Kimdori did have some telepathic talent in their ranks, to varying degrees.  The Colonists had the highest percentages among their population, where some 50% of their population had some kind of telepathic or empathic ability, where the other races had a telepathic representation of anywhere between 0.002%-5.5%.  Even the Zyagya had telepaths, albeit maybe a grand total of 5,000 in their entire population.  Most telepaths ended up getting roped into jobs that made them deal with the Imperium, pitting telepaths against telepaths, since the only defense against talent was another talent.  Virtually every single ambassador, diplomat, and embassy worker in the Imperium had talent, from the Colonists to the Zyagya, and quite a few corporate executives as well that did business in the Imperium were telepathic as well.  They would be crippled in business negotiations if they didn’t have talent.

        “Well, that does help when you’re on comm,” Jason chuckled.

        “Another reason I picked her,” Haema agreed.  “I’m not prejudiced against the non-talented members of my crew, but the bridge is far too important a place to have a sending barrier.  Especially at the comm position.”

        So, that told Jason that the Terrans here and the lone Makati were all telepaths.  It wasn’t a mandatory requirement on a bridge to have talent, but it was Haema’s ship, and she could staff it as she saw fit.  Nobody, not even Jason, had the right to gainsay her personnel decisions within the bounds of her own ship.

        “At least here, I don’t feel, you know, different, your Grace,” Mikano blurted, something Jason could understand.  Faey had serious problems outside of the Imperium due to paranoia, since everyone knew that every Faey was a telepath.  The talented members of other races did tend to suffer the same paranoia from their peers if it was found out that they had talent, to the point where many kept it a secret if they weren’t in a job that required them to use it.  For a talented Shio, she was, in a way, among her own, among those who understood her talent and weren’t afraid of it, because they had talent themselves.

        Jason could see the appeal for a telepathic Shio to join House Karinne, if only to be in a place where people weren’t suspicious of her or afraid of what she could do.  And here, she’d receive far better instruction in her talent, since the Faey had raised the training of telepathy to a science.  After all, they more or less had to, since the entire race was telepathic.  Faey middle school and primary school were the only schools in the galaxy where students had telepathy classes as part of their standard curriculum.  It was as ingrained into Faey scholastics as language, art, social studies, science, and math.

        “Well then, do us all proud, Ensign,” Jason said, patting her on her armored shoulder and making her beam at him.

        Jason and Zaa more or less stood to the side as the ceremonial passing of the flag was conducted on the bridge.  Gremaani had the honor of passing the flag as the representative of the building contractor, officially transferring the ship from the contractor to the recipient.  Haema kissed the flag and then passed it to her exo, and Jason stepped up and accepted the official charter of commission from an aide.  He offered it to her, and a floating camera pod took several pictures as they paused with both of them holding it, looking in the camera.  “Are you keeping the name Iyaneri, Admiral?”

        “I am, your Grace.”

        “Then I officially declare that the KMS Iyaneri is commissioned and entered into active service, under the command of Haema Karinne.  May he serve long and well.  Congratulations, Captain,” he stressed with a smile as the bridge crew applauded.

        “Thank you, your Grace.  Note this event in the ship’s log.  Exo, place the flag and charter in the display case in my ready room,” she ordered.

        “Aye, Captain,” her first officer replied, scurrying off to the hatch leading to Haema’s ready room.  “Comm.”

        “Your orders, Captain?” Ensign Strongblade answered.

        “Relay orders to complete crew transitions as soon as possible and begin duty rotations,” she said as she sat in her chair, then gasped, got up quickly, and pushed a laughing Jason into her chair.  “I almost jinxed the whole thing,” she complained, which made Jason laugh harder.

        “This isn’t mandatory, you know,” he said, leaning on the armrest and grinning at her.

        “It is to me,” she said.  She let Jason sit in her chair for about a minute as she issued orders, including a complete systems diagnostic of every major ship operation, then finally let him up and sat in it herself.  “With your permission, Captain, we have some things to deal with,” Jason told Haema.

        “Of course, your Grace.  You have my permission to disembark.  And thank you for delivering him whole and ready, Denmother,” she said, bowing in her chair to Zaa.

        “It was our pleasure, Captain,” she replied regally.  “Come, cousin.  There are matters requiring our attention.”

        Jason took Zaa and Miaari to the White House aboard his corvette, and as soon as they were in his office, he activated secure mode and sat behind his desk.  Miaari sat in one of his visitor’s chairs, but Zaa stood behind her.  She touched her memory band and caused the holo emitters to activate.  “If you would join us, Cybi,” she called.  Cybi’s hologram wavered into view behind Jason’s chair, and she almost immediately sat on the edge of his desk, as was her custom, leaning on her hand and regarding Zaa soberly.  “I have received several packages from our infiltrators in the PR sector, which were of critical importance,” she began.  The holos activated, creating a hologram of a strange spherical ship that had two mast-like projections from its top and bottom.  “My children in the main command center of the Consortium have finally managed to crack their computer security, with the help of Mahja Siyhaa.  She must be granted a bonus for her hard work, Jason,” she noted as she turned to face the ship.  “This is the standard ship that makes up the Syndicate fleet.  It is their mainstay destroyer, to put it in terms, with all other ship classes larger than this.  Jason, this ship is nearly the size of a KMS tactical battleship,” she declared.  “Their largest ship classes are significantly larger than the Iyaneri.  Their size equates them to small moons,” she remarked.

        “What?  That big?” Jason gasped.

        “That explains the Consortium’s complete lack of use of small craft and fighters,” Miaari breathed.  “Against a ship that size, a fighter has limited effectiveness.”

        “It does, as well as their complete lack of tactical experience against civilizations that employ fighters as a core complement of their militaries,” Zaa agreed, touching her band again.  A shockingly human figure wearing a blue tunic and baggy leggings appeared, his skin a greenish tinge like a Shio.  “This is the primary controlling race of the Syndicate.  They are called the Benga.  As you can see, their resemblance to Terrans, Faey, and Shio is quite striking.  However, this race averages fourteen shakra tall.  Some are as short as eleven shakra, while others are as tall as seventeen shakra.”

        “Holy shit, that’s more than three times as tall as we are!” Jason barked.  In Terran measurements, that was just a touch under 17 feet tall, or a little over five meters.

        “Yes.  They are giants compared to most forms of life in our galaxy.  This also explains their preference for massive ships, since they are a giant race,” Zaa intoned.  “My children have managed to download basic technical information about Syndicate technology and capabilities, which they deemed so critical that they forwarded it to us as quickly as possible.  Further and more detailed data are to be sent later, as possible.  I have a file for your analysts to study, but in summary, Syndicate technology is slightly behind Consortium technology.  In fact, most of their technology was stolen from the Consortium.  Their weapons are primarily Torsion, as well as hot plasma.  As yet, they have not yet managed to acquire dark matter weapon technology from the Consortium.  Tactically speaking, KMS ships will be highly effective against the Syndicate,” she surmised.  “My children have run simulations based on this information, and even your Wolf fighters will have impact, due to the firepower of pulse weaponry.  However, their effectiveness diminishes as they come up against larger and larger ship classes.”

        “I get it, they’d be a gnat coming up against their largest ships.  Small moon…that almost sounds like a fucking Death Star from Star Wars.”

        “That is a fitting comparison, just without the planet-killing weapon,” Zaa nodded.  “The Benga are an enigmatic race.  Consortium information on them remarks that they are both skilled orators and deadly soldiers.  Theirs is a warrior society, much akin to your Romans, who employ commerce, diplomacy, and naked force with equal effect to continue their self-avowed mission to expand their influence over all inhabited worlds.  Their system of government is a corporate plutocracy, where the heads of the Syndicate’s mightiest mega-corporations form a governing council that directs all Syndicate activities.  Their entire society is based on these corporations.  Every citizen works for one, is actually owned by the corporation as chattel, whose contracts the corporations buy and sell among themselves as needed.  To say that it is a slave empire would not be incorrect.  The greed of the corporations drives the Syndicate to make war against all others, for they want to own everything everywhere.  Of important note is that they are also utterly ruthless.  Their answer to any challenge to their authority is the utter obliteration of the offenders, their families, their neighbors, and anyone even remotely connected to them.  Power within the Syndicate is similarly ruthless, where the ambitious move up the ladders of power by assassinating those above them while protecting themselves against those below.  Over the last thirty years, the Syndicate has decided that endless war with the Consortium is no longer profitable, and has resorted to truly ghastly tactics to defeat their adversaries, including the destruction of entire planets and wholesale genocide.  Our intelligence suggested that the Consortium are the honorable ones in Andromeda, and this information only confirms it.  The Syndicate is far more ruthless than the Consortium could hope to be.”

        “Given what they’ve done here, I’m not inclined to agree with that,” Jason growled.  “They resorted to sinking themselves to the level of their enemy.  When they did that, they became their enemy.”

        “Yes,” Zaa agreed with a nod.  “For the crimes they have committed here, the Consortium should not be bargained with, only defeated,” she declared.  “We just got back scans from long distance hyperspace probes.  The Syndicate fleets have just come into the very edge of our range.  We have counted them at approximately thirty thousand of various ship classes, though the bulk of their ships are of the destroyer class.  They felt that their smaller, more vulnerable ships would be capable of stamping out Consortium presence in our galaxy and beginning the conquering process.  They are on schedule to arrive in our galaxy just beyond Exile in three years, two months, and nine days by the Faey calendar, right here,” she said as she pointed at a starchart, pointing at the galactic edge very close to Exile.  “This is their first intergalactic troop movement, where the Consortium has been undertaking these actions for the last fifteen hundred years, even before they could jump hyperspace in real time.  Those crossings would take them centuries,” she said evenly.

        “How?  A standard Faey ship would take nearly two thousand years to reach Andromeda from here,” Jason protested.

        “They utilized a technology which Myleena has played with in the past, the hyperspace catapult,” she answered.  “It reduced the relativity delay in hyperspace jumps.  They would jump to another galaxy with all the supplies they needed to build a catapult on the other side.  We have located the ancient catapult they used when they captured the Karinnes, but it was completely destroyed.  It was struck by a meteor storm.”

        “Oh.  Ohhhhh,” Jason breathed, nodding.  “Too bad.  That’s something we could use.”

        “That technology is no longer used now that they can jump in real time, and we have no access to their archived data,” she replied, causing the hologram to shift again, focusing on the PR sector, while the image split and those curved arc sections they were building came into view in a recon image.  “We have also determined what they are building out here,” she said, pointing first to the smaller arced sections.  “As we suspected, these sections are for the quantum phase launcher they acquired from the Imxi.  Using phased Eretrium cores to agitate a bubble of space into a singular quantum state, they then launch the bubble at a speed faster than light.  Their plan is to build the device in stages in the PR sector, then jump them to Trieste and complete the device behind the bulk of their defenses, which then deploy when the device is complete.”

        “Alright, that means we destroy them before they get the chance,” Jason nodded.  “What about the big ones?”

        “Those are part of an augmentation array, to exponentially increase the size of the quantum bubble,” she replied, giving him a steady look.  “They chose Trieste for a reason, cousin,” she added as a new holo appeared in front of the others, one showing the local sector with Trieste on one side of the chart and Karis on the other.  “Their plans are quite ambitious, but also very clever.  As you know, Trieste III has four moons.  The moon of particular interest is this one, which the Bari-Bari who colonized Trieste named Go’jur’mi,” she said, zooming in to show the orbital tracts.  “Every twenty-three days, this moon reaches a perigee that, if it were knocked from orbit by an outside force,” she trailed off, then zoomed the image back out and traced a line away from Trieste….

        And right to Karis.

        “It is quite remarkable that this moon would consistently form a nearly perfect course to Karis were it dislodged from orbit at the right time.  Their plan, Jason, to put it in layman’s terms, is to throw Go’jur’mi at Karis like a baseball.”

        “Well, I would say that I’d have to worry about it in about twenty years, buuut,” he urged.

        “But, they are outfitting the moon with the largest hyperspace jump system I have ever seen,” she replied, zooming in on massive construction efforts, huge pits dug into the surface of the barren moon with a constant line of supply dropships entering and leaving.  “Should they jump the moon at the proper window and use the engines to refine its trajectory, it will be knocked out of hyperspace by the interdictor and then be on a direct collision course with Karis.”

        “How big is that moon?”

        “Roughly the same size of Terra’s moon,” she replied.

        “Holy fuck, that big?  Can we do something about that?”

        “Yes, it could be turned, but this is not a ship, cousin, built to withstand the stresses of hyperspace.  The moon will have so much inherited velocity and gravitational flux, the entire moon is going to shatter during the jump.  It will jump out whole, but jump in as a dense asteroid field as the stresses of hyperspace on an object of such mass that it carries its own significant gravity field interacts with the sheer velocity the moon will be carrying into hyperspace.  A single moon would be very easy to turn aside, but turning aside an asteroid field will be significantly more challenging.  Their plan is to jump this in front of their invading force, using it as both weapon and shield to make trying to attack their ships in transit significantly harder.

        “It’ll be a year—“

        “Jason, it will not.  We have further learned that the Consortium has completed its study and has determined that ships encapsulated within this phase bubble can jump hyperspace without disrupting the phase shift,” she said intensely.  “The key of it is for the ships to jump instantly when the bubble forms, before the ships have too much relative velocity to stably enter hyperspace.  As you know, both inertia and potential energy are saved while a ship is in hyperspace, causing the ship to re-inherit those states when returning to normal space.  If they do it exactly right, they form the bubble, jump their fleet, and then it accelerates to a faster than light speed after it hits the interdictor and drops into normal space,” she told him.  “Their plan is to form the fleet ahead of the moon, beyond its gravity, form bubbles around both the fleet and the moon, then jump the moon and the fleet separately.  They drop out of hyperspace at the interdictor’s edge, the moon shatters from the stress, then the fleet moves into the asteroid field to use it as protection, using their engines and towing beams to keep the debris from drifting to where it isn’t dense enough to protect the fleet.  And mind, cousin that this will all be moving faster than light, which will severely restrict our ability to fire on them.  They have also engineered a defense in case we find some way to launch our own ships at a faster than light velocity to attack them.  Just as our phased energy weapons can fire in, they can fire phased weapons out.  They have appropriated a phased ion weapon technology from the Imxi, and will use those to attack any ships that jump to attack that fleet while in transit.  As you know, ion weapons will affect ships using plasma energy, and with that energy being phased, that means that they would pierce the shields of any of our allies, but not Karinne and Kimdori Teryon shields.  Even if we find some way to achieve faster than light speed ourselves, chase them down, and engage them, we could only effectively attack those ships using KMS and Kimdori ships, which would be vastly outnumbered.”

        “Holy fuck,” Jason breathed quietly.  That was…fucking brilliant.  If they could build a bubble big enough to enclose an entire moon as well as the volume taken up by all those ships, then jump it,  they’d have fourteen days to get their fleet to Karis, and those asteroids would make getting at them much harder.  The only thing that could hit a phased object was multi-phased energy like pulse weapons or MPACs, plasma torpedoes, and objects or energy that was in the same phased state.  And if they had phased ion weapons they could use to fire out, it would make trying to ambush the fleet as it passed by at faster than light speeds really, really, really tricky.  Their only real plans for attacking that fleet if it got in was to refit a GRAF to fire a multiphased version of its resonance beam, which would significantly reduce its power, but would let it hit a ship phased into a singular quantum state. That weapon literally had no range limitation, letting them fire on the oncoming fleet and beat it down to make it much more manageable to take it out when it got to Karis.

        But now, with that moon in the equation, it just got much nastier.  The planetary shield would be assaulted by those asteroids when it came out of phase and reverted to a normal state, which would most likely bring it down and do massive damage to the planet when it was bombarded by island-sized chunks of rock.  They knew that Cybi’s core could retreat into the mantle, which put the big prize they wanted safely out of harm’s way when those asteroids obliterated the surface of Karis and turned the planet into a hellstorm of fire and liquefied rock.  All they had to do was time the attack so Kosiningi was on the far side of the planet when the moon debris started falling.

        “We can’t let them do it, Denmother,” he said in a grim, hollow tone.  “If the spiders somehow fail, even if it means losing Trieste and its entire population, we can’t let them do it.  If they manage to pull this off, they’ll get their fleet here, the debris from that moon will eradicate all life on Karis, and if Cybi isn’t captured, then she’ll be destroyed.”

        “We have time, cousin,” she soothed.  “They do not know we know their intent, and we have the spiders in their system, and that gives us the advantage.  But, to consider the matter, the easiest way to foil this is redeploy our interdictors in a line from Karis to Trieste,” she said.  “If we interdict every shakra of space between here and there, they can’t pull off this little trick.  It shows our hand that we know what they intend, but we do have an option here,” she replied.  “But they are relying on keeping this an absolute secret, for they know we can counter this easily if we know their plans.  That is why they’re constructing the hyperspace jump system inside the moon deep under its surface, and have spread the construction of the quantum device out to hide its purpose from our spies.  They are all but hollowing out the moon to install the hyperspace system, pulling any available jump engine out of a ship that is too damaged to easily repair.  For the moment, let us put this aside and consider instead the Syndicate.  Their combat strategies differ from the Consortium, and as such, we must consider battling them after we have defeated the Consortium.  But, we also cannot ignore the Consortium as a threat.”

        “We fight the current war with an eye on the next one,” Jason grunted, leaning back in his chair.  “I know you ran the sims, Denmother.  How effective is our current strategy of fighter-based tactics?”

        “Against their smaller ships, very effective,” she replied.  “A squadron of Wolf fighters poses a sizable threat to their destroyer class vessels.  But they have too many heavy battleship, flagship, and even larger ship classes to rely solely on Wolf fighters.  I have already ordered an increase in the production of battleship class and larger ships.  I would highly suggest you do the same.”

        “But we can’t shift away from the Wolf strategy because of the Consortium, the Wolf fighters are just too effective,” Jason grunted. “And if the Consortium has no tactics for dealing with Wolf fighters, then neither will they.  It sounds like they don’t even employ fighters.”

        “They do not.  They have a mindset similar to the Urumi, cousin.  Big, powerful ships that can withstand battle damage and simply beat down the opposition.  The Consortium’s ships and tactics are designed around combating the Syndicate, and they are effective.  They use the KMS strategy, actually, employing smaller, highly mobile, very fast ships equipped with powerful weaponry.”

        “That’s why they use such oversized engines on their ships,” Jason reasoned.  “To be more maneuverable than their enemy.”

        “That is their strategy, and as I mentioned, it works.  In a battle between evenly numbered navies, Consortium ships win the battle more often than not.  They have a technological advantage, and they exploit it.”

        “But we have the edge over them,” Jason said, to which Zaa nodded.

        “The only technology the Syndicate employs that the Consortium has yet to truly capture or master is a technology that Myleena has been tinkering with in her spare time,” she said, causing a technical diagram appear on the holo behind her.  It was a Torsion shockwave generator, Jason knew that piece of equipment.  “Myleena has been tinkering with devices she calls Torsion diffusers, a concept based on a shockwave generator, which attempts to smooth out the Torsion effect and reduce the power of the beam, or completely nullify it.”

        “I’ve read her reports on it.  It has some promise, cutting the penetrating power of a Torsion beam, but she hasn’t had much luck getting them to be effective enough to use yet.”

        “This is a technology that the Syndicate has just mastered and installed on all their ships, according to the data that my infiltrators have sent back.  It reduces the power of a Torsion beam by nearly half, but the problem they have with it is that the diffusion effect works both ways.”

        “Dampening Torsion weapons the ship uses itself,” Jason finished.  “In order to attack with their own Torsion weapons, they have to turn off the diffuser, same way we can’t run a shockwave generator and fire through the effect.  Myli’s been having some issues with the idea on any ship with a shockwave generator, because it diffuses the shockwave effect.  And the shockwave is far more important.  Our ships can take hits from Torsion weapons, but the shockwaves protect them from missile attacks that could wipe them out.  That’s why she’s not been too optimistic about it.  She’s only really tried using them on the Aegis, since she hasn’t miniaturized the idea far enough to fit it on a fighter.”

        “This is why the war has turned against the Consortium,” she continued.  “These diffusers weaken their primary long distance weapon and force them to close in range to use dark matter weaponry, or force them to retreat and utilize missiles.  Neither of which are as effective.  At close range, the Consortium’s speed and maneuverability is less effective, given that Syndicate ships are larger and carry far more weapons, and the sheer size of the Syndicate ships makes relying on missile attacks uncertain.”

        Jason could see what she was saying.  The Torsion weapons were the Consortium’s primary weapon against the Syndicate, and the Syndicate had developed a defense that weakened their primary weapon, and then used that defense as a battering ram to steamroll Consortium defenses over in Andromeda.

        “How effective are these Syndicate diffusers?”

        “Unknown, but it must be enough to let them take the upper hand in the war.  It also means that when the Syndicate arrives, our allies will not be effective against them.  They are adapting Torsion weaponry.”

        “Then we need more information,” Jason grunted.  “We need to know if the weapons our allies already use will be effective.  I’m fairly sure that Faey MPAC technology would be effective, but I don’t know about ion and hot plasma weapons, or Colonial iso-neutron weaponry.”

        “I have told my children to bring us that information,” she nodded.  “It again raises a tricky situation, cousin.  We need the Torsion weapons against the Consortium, knowing that that effort we invest in them is effectively wasted when the Syndicate arrives.  Unlike the Wolf fighters, who have value in both theaters, we are using up resources to fight one enemy, which will then put us at a disadvantage against the second.”

        “Fuck,” Jason growled, leaning his chin on his hand and regarding the holo.  “I’m going to have to have a long talk with the generals.  And then I’m gonna have to tear out my hair.  I can’t equip the sector with Karinne weaponry, Denmother.  I took an oath.  And I’m almost positive that Dahnai wouldn’t just hand over MPAC technology.  Even with Torsion weapons, MPACs give her an edge.  Ounce for ounce, they’re even more powerful than Torsion weapons, and if this diffuser technology becomes mainstream, then the Imperium will have a major leg up on everyone else.”

        “I know, but we have some time to consider a solution, cousin,” she nodded.  “What we need is more data concerning the Syndicate.  Detailed analysis of their ships.  Their tactics.  Their technology.  We must find the weaknesses much as we have done with the Consortium, and then exploit it.  I have tasked my children to this, and they will not fail me.  After all, this was but the first packet to be delivered, what they considered the most critical information to get to us.  But in the short term, I would highly suggest a shift in logistic planning.  Reduce your output of Wolf fighters and shift that production into larger class vessels, that way you have blanket coverage against all elements of the Syndicate fleet, yet all those resources will be viable against Consortium ships.”

        “And Gladiators,” Jason grunted.  “If they consider themselves a warrior race, then they’ll definitely initiate ground attacks.  And a Gladiator is virtually the same size as one of these Benga.  I’d love to see one of them come up against Kyva,” he said with dark humor.  “But we can’t ignore the Consortium either,” he growled.  “If they pull off what they’re planning, fuck, they could actually win.”

        “It is devious,” Zaa agreed.  “When will your forces in the PR sector begin their attacks?”

        “They’re gonna start now,” Jason declared.  “We can’t wait for the rest of the equipment and supplies to get there now.  We need you to call in our strikes, Denmother.  Tell us where to point our toys.”

        “I will see to it personally,” she replied with a nod.  “I will have my children prioritize on slowing down or disrupting the completion of the quantum phase device, which will lull them into belief that we don’t know what they’re doing at Trieste.  Theirs was a feint within a feint, causing you to believe they were pulling your eyes away from what they didn’t want you to see, look to the PR sector precisely when they didn’t want you looking at Trieste.”

        “And I fell for it.  Again,” he growled.

        “Patience, cousin.  You are relatively young in the chair.  With experience comes wisdom,” she soothed.  “Besides, you have us.  That permits you certain…growing pains,” she said with light humor.  “Our time grows short.  Cybi, I will download all relevant files directly to you, to distribute as necessary,” she said, looking to the hologram.

        “I am ready.  Allow me access.”

        Zaa touched her memory band, and then she took on a distant expression for a second.

        “Files are copied.  I will place relevant files on the mainframes at 3D and the military command center,” she told Jason.  “All files are available on your home panel, Jason.”

        “Alright.  Let me go talk to Myri and the girls.  When will you be ready to have your babies, Miaari?”

        “Anytime I so wish,” she replied.

        “I would speak with Miaari about personal matters,” Zaa said, putting her hand on Miaari’s shoulder.  “Though I am the foster, she is the mother.  Even my title as Denmother gives me no right to raise her cubs in a manner of which she disapproves.  She must make her wishes known to me.”

        “Alright.  How about we meet back at my house in four hours?” he proposed.

        “That is more than enough time.  I would enjoy Ayama making me some pizza for lunch,” Zaa said, licking her chops in anticipation.

        “I will tell her,” Cybi said.

        Dera, we’re going over to the command center, Jason sent into the next room, where his guards were waiting, probably chatting with Chirk and Brall.  [Myli.]

        [Yeah babe?]

        [Get everyone in the Legion together and be ready to have us all meet, probably in a couple of hours. I don’t have a specific time yet.]

        [Sounds important.]

        [It is.  What I want you to do is take your hands out of that Consortium ship and get together every single megastring of data you have on those Torsion diffusers and get it organized, and pick a team at 3D to take it over and work out all the bugs.  It needs to be viable now.]

        [I’ve been trying—]

        [You’re too busy to keep tinkering, Myli.  Package it up and get ready to hand it off.]

        [You got it, babe.  I have to go back to 3D to do that.]

        [Then do it.  I’ll explain later.]

        [No sweat.  See you soon.]

        “Diffusers?  What idea do you consider, Jason?” Cybi asked.

        “If the Syndicate developed them to the point where they’ve turned the tide of the war, then they can help us do the same thing,” he replied.  “If we can develop a solid defense against Torsion weapons, then we can shift our production to start preparing for the Syndicate now.  We don’t have infinite resources, we have to use them wisely.”

        “But our allies utilize Torsion weaponry.”

        “True, but just like the Syndicate, our allies have other weapons that can be effective if their ships can survive long enough to get in range to use them,” he finished.  “Even Skaa ion and hot plasma weapons will deal damage if the ship is protected from Torsion bolts enough to get in range.  Dark matter weaponry has a far shorter range and doesn’t ignore armor the way Torsion weapons do.  We develop it and offer it to everyone else in the Confederation, stressing that using them diminishes their own Torsion weapons, and with the Consortium armor available to them, it will let them protect their ships.  We’ll let them decide if they want to use them or not.”

        “Clever,” Cybi said with a smile.  “But it reveals our intent to move away from Torsion technology.”

        “That can’t be helped,” Jason grunted.  “The others are gonna be majorly pissed off, though.  Torsion weapons were leveling the playing field, making any war too costly to wage, but with us developing the diffusers, we’re more or less putting things back the way things were when the Faey had the strongest weapons and everyone else built up to combat that advantage.  Not even Consortium armor can really stand up to MPAC weapons for long.  I’ll have to put a serious fucking leash on Dahnai,” he breathed.  “She might start getting expansionistic, especially with the Confederation.  She all but has this idea that she’s the one in charge of it.  It wouldn’t be a stretch for her to start thinking that she should be the Empress of it as well.”

        “I will notify Jinaami to keep a closer eye on her,” Zaa nodded.  “Now, by your leave, cousin, Handmaiden Miaari and I must retire and speak of highly important matters of a personal nature.”

        “Yeah, be my guest, Denmother.  And thanks for not being the harbinger of doom this time.”

        She laughed.  “I am glad you did not start to consider my appearance on Karis to be akin to the angel of death.”

        Jason stood up and beckoned to his helmet on the side table, causing it to float over to him.  He seated it on the back shoulders of his armor, in its locked resting position.  “Alright, let me go break the bad news to Myri and the generals,” he said.  “I’ll do my best to be back at the house in four hours, but I might be late.”

        “We will be there, cousin,” Zaa nodded.

        Jason opened the door and strode out.  “Chirk, arrange transport for the Denmother to my house at the strip, and warn Ayama and Surin they’re en route.  I’ll be over at the command center if anyone needs me.  Come on, girls,” he nodded to Dera and Suri.

        “I will arrange it immediately, your Grace,” Chirk’s monotone translation sounded.  “Would you require refreshment while there is waiting?”

        “I am content, noble Kizzik,” Zaa said.  “But the transport must arrive with haste.  We have little time.”

        “It will be on pad six in four minutes.  If it pleases you, revered Kimdori-leader, I will escort you there.”

        “Please,” she nodded.  “Until later, cousin.”

        “Don’t eat everything in the house,” he replied as they headed into the hallway.

        What goes on, your Grace? Dera asked curiously.

        A change of plans, Dera, he replied, sending privately to his guards.  Zaa brought some critical information about the Syndicate, and it’s going to significantly alter our long-term strategy.

        Ah.  Good or bad?

        Both, he replied as the corridor doors opened, and the Marines stationed at the hallway intersection snapped to attention.  Jason nodded to them as he passed by, turning to the corridor that led to the tram that would take him from the administration building to the military command building.  Girls, send down the order that all Marine guard units in the White House will be carrying external pulse rifles or railguns  from this point forward, he sent back to them.  Make sure they’re the ones equipped with smartgun links.  And from now on, double the number of Gladiators on patrol on the White House grounds.

        The order will be sent immediately, your Grace, the guard replied, and he heard her call out to her commander to relay.

        Your Grace, might I ask why the increase in security? The White House watch captain, Gemai Doyalle, sent.

        Just an overall general increase in security, he answered.  I’ll fully explain the reason for it in a report I’ll have sent down from General Myri.

        Understood, your Grace.  I will call in the additional Gladiators immediately.  All guards report to the armory in standard shift change rotation to pick up additional equipment, effective immediately, her sending rippled across the White House complex.

        Jason walked in on Myri and Navii poring over a starchart of Trieste and its surrounding systems.  He had them call in Sioa and Juma, then he sat down with them at the main holoviewer, a circular device set like a table in the middle of the main command center and brought up the images Zaa brought him, as well as thoroughly explaining everything she told him.  The entire command staff gathered around them, Dellin listening in via holo from Kosigi, and they all listened in attentive silence as he briefed them, then brought up the file that Cybi had transferred to Myri’s office vidlink.  “It’s all in this file, which you’ll need to study.  It lists everything about the Syndicate that the Kimdori was able to pull from the Consortium archives so far,” he surmised.  “What it means for us in the long term is that we have to shift our focus away from the Wolves.  They’re damn effective against the Consortium, but they won’t be as effective against those fuckin’ moon-sized superships the Benga use.  We’ll need more heavy weapons, and that means we have to shift our production to the bigger ships.”

        “Not just the bigger ships, your Grace,” the venerable Navii mused, scanning the file on a handpanel.  “If the Consortium enjoyed tactical superiority utilizing smaller, faster ships that are heavily armed, that same tactic will work for us.  Yes, we’re going to need more ships from the heavy cruiser class and higher, but we should not ignore the value of our destroyers.  A particle beam is going to do damage, even to those megaships, and we can get more particle beams into the theater on thirty destroyers than we will with six heavy cruisers.”

        Everyone listened intently to Navii.  Myri was the one that was in overall command of all house military forces, but Navii was almost legendary in the INS and now the KMS for her military expertise.

        “How many carriers are on the board?” Juma asked.

        “There are eight under construction,” Dellin supplied immediately.

        “Fighters still have use, so we should complete those carriers,” Navii suggested.  “Possibly build one more to bring our inventory to ten.  That allows us to deploy five thousand fighters to any theater quickly, and even one of their moon ships will feel the bite of five thousand Wolves,” Navii said with a malicious smile.  “We should shift our resources to a balanced approach to our fleets,” she continued, bringing up a text list of all available KMS warships.  “We should pursue the idea of a task force able to employ all three major tactical assets to any theater.  Wolf fighters, ranged heavy weapons, and close combat support.  If the description of these Benga turn out accurate, then a major increase in the production of Gladiators is also advisable.  Our infantry will need heavy support against individual infantry elements the enemy can deploy that are the size of a Gladiator themselves.”

        “Well, they’ll be easier to hit if nothing else,” Sioa grunted.  “Our infantry should be able to stand up to their assaults, since we employ superior ground weapons. Even though pulse rifle blasts don’t detonate on impact like MPAC and heavy mount pulse weapons do, they’ll do massive damage to a living being the size of a Gladiator.  Something that size will employ chubchaki tactics.  A frontal assault utilizing heavy armor as a spearhead. Something that big is not built for flanking and slashing tactics.”

        “But, this report said they consider themselves a warrior race, so don’t assume they’ll rely only on their size,” Navii warned.  “Alvarian blood apes are even bigger than these Benga, but they move as fast as a scared chabi.  The largest of them can overtake a hovertank at full throttle.  We’re going to need more information from Denmother Zaa’s spies before we start making assumptions like that. I would wait until we have more intelligence before we start considering ground tactics to use against them.”

        “Listen to Navii, girls,” Jason grunted, nodding.

        “Oh, we do, Jason,” Myri chuckled, smiling at the elderly woman.

        “Dellin, how does it look up there?” Jason asked.

        Dellin glanced to his left, taking a handpanel from someone.  “I can manage a seamless transition to the altered ship projections,” he answered as he looked over his panel.  “We have six docks coming open within the next ten days, and we have twelve other docks under construction, all of which can build anything but a capitol ship.  I have thirty-six docks coming open within the next ten days capable of building anything up to a mark two cruiser.  We’re freeing up one of our big docks with the completion of the carrier, that one could begin on the fourth flagship.  We’d been planning to build another carrier in that dock, but we can shift to another ship class in two days.  I have all the major ship class keels in inventory and ready for use.”

        “I would suggest you go ahead and build that carrier, Admiral, since you’re already set up to do so,” Navii said with a nod.  “Then shift that dock to building a heavy class ship upon its completion.”

        “I’d have to concur,” Myri grunted.  “If he has everything laid out for a carrier, and we need one more, go for it.”

        “I agree.  Go with that, Admiral,” Jason told him.  “We’re going to need you to update our board with most recent list of ship projects and estimated completion times.”

        “I have it right here,” he said, holding up the panel.  “One moment, I’ll update your display with my most recent data, updated two seconds ago.”

        “Good man,” Navii smiled at the hologram.

        “I run a tight base, General,” Dellin replied with a smile and a nod.  “You’ve seen my board.”

        Navii chuckled.  Dellin’s board was his base layout board, where the location and progress of every ship being built as well as every parked ship already completed inside Kosigi was displayed.  Five base officers constantly monitored and updated that board in real time.  A change on a dock was reflected on that board within thirty seconds.  The command center had a similar board, but it updated every hour rather than in real time.  The board shimmered and reset, showing every ship under construction and estimated completion time.  Jason noticed immediately that Dellin had taken the carrier just completed off the list.  Navii stood up and walked over to the board, studying it for a long moment, as everyone remained quiet and let her think.  “I would suggest as a basic precaution that we focus in the short term on mark two cruisers and tactical battleships, at least until we have more detailed information.  Both carry more firepower than their sister class ships, in particular the tactical battleships and their multiple particle beams.  Bulldogs, I believe you call them, your Grace,” she said with a smile over her shoulder.  “An appropriate nickname if there ever was one.  We have found great success with that ship class, and we have few enough of them as it is.  They pair well with the carriers, and they are a generic asset that we can employ with equal effectiveness against both the Consortium and the Syndicate, if Denmother Zaa’s information is valid.”

        “I’ve never known it to be wrong,” Jason noted.

        “Me either, but a wise general never assumes anything, your Grace,” she said calmly.  “You believe what you can see with your own eyes, and take everything else with a fann of suspicion.”  She tapped the crystal of the board, bringing up a list of tactical battleships both completed and under construction.  There were two active and 18 more in production.  She then brought up the battleship list, with four active and 26 in production.  “We have enough battleships on the board, but not enough tactical battleships.  We were waiting to get performance reviews from the ones in service before committing assets to the ship class, and both have performed admirably.  We should turn around every heavy dock to produce a tactical battleship while our small docks rotate to mark two cruisers, build up those numbers, and hopefully by then we have more detailed intelligence to plan our next build rotation.  Juma, how is staffing?”

        “As of right now, we’re just barely holding the line,” she replied.  “We have enough recruits in training to man the ships currently on the board, but if we increase production any more, we’re going to have more ships than we have crews.”

        “That wouldn’t be a bad thing,” Navii said easily.  “Every navy needs a mothball fleet to draw upon in emergency.  We can put those ships in reserve and activate them as needs be, in case we lose ships.  We have very low casualty rates among our naval crews thanks to Crusader armor, so a reserve ship can just pick up the crew of a ship that is lost and get right back into service.  We will even leave them unnamed, so the captains can simply assign the name of their old ship to their new one to provide a sense of continuity,” she chuckled.  “It would also give us real ships to use to train our recruits, rather than simulations, without taking ships out of active service to do so.”

        “That might be useful, General, since our newest recruit classes aren’t showing the kinds of scores I want to see on a ship,” Juma said seriously.

        Navii and Dellin more or less hammered out a new build rotation after new ships were completed and the docks came available, which relegated Jason to the position of spectator…but that was fine.  These were the experts, and this was what he paid them to do.  They discussed the matter for nearly two hours, then Jason managed to extricate himself when they went past his training and understanding.  He walked out of the command center and almost knocked Yila over, who was waiting outside with Kumi, as well as four Marines escorting Yila around the White House as security.  What are you two doing? he demanded.

        Waiting for you, babes, Kumi replied, falling into step with him as he walked down the hall, Dera and Suri behind him.  We need your authorization on a few contracts.

        Contracts?  For what? he asked, giving the fox-faced Yila Trefani a glance.

        Today it’s piracy, not general mayhem, she answered lightly, holding up a handpanel.  The Verutans want an increase in the metals we’re selling them.  I have the freighters for it, but you have to authorize the replication.  Trenirk wouldn’t do it without your consent.

        He’d fuckin’ better not, Jason said with an audible snort.  I can’t okay this right this minute, girls.  We have something going on, and I need to talk to Trenirk about replicated material availability.  Get back with Trenirk tomorrow, and he’ll have the figures for you.

        Sure thing, babes, Kumi nodded.

        What’s going on, Jason? Yila asked privately.

        I can’t explain yet, he replied.  I don’t have all the information myself, so I can’t move until I know more.

        Ah.  Say no more, she nodded.

        Kumi, I need you at the staff meeting.  Yila, feel free to go to my house and wait, we can catch up later.  Just to warn you, Zaa and Miaari are there.

        Ah, no thanks.  Kimdori give me the creeps, she replied.  I’ll go shopping.  You have quite an interesting bunch of stuff in your shops down in the commercial district.  Not often that I can get Verutan silk in one store, and Colonial firepowder in the next.

        We are a multicultural house, he replied lightly.  And go ahead, pay the house back some of those credits you swindled from us in the first place.

        She laughed and gave him a darling smile.  I’ll do just that, Jason.  If I’m staying for dinner, mind if I bring Dara?

        Still fishing for that betrothal, eh?

        You know it.  I’ll cheat outrageously to get Zach.

        Just to warn you, if Dara marries Zach, she moves to this house, he sent lightly.

        She bristled a little bit.  Now wait just a minute! she protested.  Zach is the boy here!

        He’s a Karinne, that trumps him being a boy, Jason answered immediately.  So keep scheming, just understand the consequences if you succeed, he sent lightly as he turned down a different hallway, leaving Yila alone with her Marine escort.

        What do you need me for? Kumi asked.  You know I don’t sit in on staff meetings that often.

        I don’t, I just want to know what she really wants.  I don’t even have a staff meeting.

        She laughed.  Pretty much what we said.  We’ve arranged an increase in our replicated tungsten and titanium sales to Veruta, but we need the replication slots to get the metal.

        And what about Zach?

        She gave him a sideways, clever little glance.  She knows the truth about the Karinnes, Jayce.  She’s trying to get her claws in among the Generations, and what better way than to get her daughter married to one?

        I figured.

        I wouldn’t put my nose up at it if I were you.  It gives her a foothold in the house, but it gives you a foothold in House Trefani.  That works both ways, you know.  You know what the Trefanis are like, babes.  They’re much better allies than they are enemies.

        I’m not sure my father ever dreamed I’d be considering allowing his grandson to marry into the mob, Jason sent darkly, which made Kumi laugh.

        You’re a politician now, Jayce baby.  That’s worse.

        Oh hush, you, he threatened with the back of his armored hand, which made her laugh harder.

        He left the White house aboard the Honor and flew straight to 3D.  Everyone was there, and they settled down the chatter as he and his guards came in through the airlock-like main warehouse door.  “Everyone gather in, we have work to do!” he shouted as he handed his helmet to Dera.  Jason sat at the main conference table and regarded his Terran and Faey compatriots in 3D, which was the original Legion and the scientists and experts they’d recruited from the Imperium.  They all gasped when Jason brought up a holo of Trieste and explained what all the Consortium’s construction was about, then laid it out on the table.  “Alright, we know what they’re doing, and if the spiders fail, we have to stop them,” he said.  “Tom, what are the inventories like over at PR-271?”

        “I think we have enough to do some damage,” he replied.  “We’ve been waiting for the Kimdori to finish their surveillance so they can direct our strike packages.”

        “Well, we should start getting those strike targets anytime now,” he replied.  “We’re going to focus on the Imxi right now and let them think we don’t know what they’re doing at Trieste.  I want you and Bo to ride that bronco, Tom.  Jenny, Myli, what about the spiders?”

        “They’ve spread to almost forty percent of the Consortium fleet at Trieste, as well as nearly sixty percent of the orbital platforms,” Myleena answered.  “You give the word, Jason, and we can fuck them royally with the push of a button.”

        “Good, because we’re going to need it, and maybe sooner than we expected,” Jason replied.  “We haven’t tried their defenses over in the PR sector yet, and they might be waiting for us.  We can’t just assume that our strikes at their construction facilities will succeed, not with literally everything on the line.”  He turned a bit and looked at Gerann.  “How’s the broadcast power conversion going?”

        “On schedule, Jason,” he replied.  “We should have a complete switchover of small-scale units by twenty Demaa, and the industrial applications should be online by thirty-two Demaa.  The planetary use interfaces are already completely converted, and I’ve included a subroutine that shuts an interface down if it leaves its permitted operational areas.  That should prevent the overly curious from wandering where they shouldn’t be.”

        “Excellent, that’ll be a hardwired backup to our software protocols,” Jason nodded.  “Myli, did you get it done?”

        “Sure did, babe,” she replied, holding up a memory stick.  “It’s all on here.  I’m putting Jenny and Eraen on the job.”

        “What job, boss?” Eraen asked.  He was a steal from the Imperial Bureau’s Research and Development department.

        Jason explained the diffusers to the group, and stressed how the Syndicate had used them to turn the war in Andromeda to their favor.  “So, we’re going to work up our own version of it.  Myli’s been tinkering with the idea for a few months now, but she’s too busy to pursue it seriously.  If she put you two on it, then you’re the best suited for the job,” he said, smiling at his fellow Legion member and eager young and brilliant scientist, whose specialty was spatial propulsion, producing better engines for the INS and now tinkering with Karinne translation engines to make them less of a power demand…and that made him perfect to lead a project dealing with Torsion.  “Myli’s had working prototypes, but they haven’t come close to cutting enough power off a Torsion bolt to make a difference.  That’s your job now, and you have the run of 3D until you finish it.  You have priority over everything but the implant project.  And how is that going?” he asked, looking to Olan.

        “Much better than planned,” he replied, standing up.  “Doctor Songa has been of incalculable help. We’ve acquired three hundred volunteers here on Karis to undergo the procedure to do larger scale testing, and they’ve already been implanted with the devices and are in assimilation training.  Myleena’s spiders made the operation minimally invasive, they did much of the work laying the fiber from the inside,” he said nodding at a grinning Myleena.  “The only thing we really had to do was implant the jackport, behind the left ear.”

        “How are the volunteers doing?”

        “So far, it looks very hopeful,” he replied.  “They’re still in assimilation, learning how to control the interlink and the devices attached to it, and there have been only two incidents of side effects, which we were able to correct with secondary procedures.  After just twelve days, they’ve improved dramatically.  We’ve mapped out synaptic implant patterns for Terrans, Makati, and Shio so far, and are currently working on synaptic patterns for Urumi and Skaa.  We also have plans to map out implant procedures for any race that joins the house, just in case they wish to undergo this procedure once it becomes mainstream.”

        “Do those implants interfere with talent?” Leamon asked.

        “Used against them?  Not at all,” Olan replied.  “No telepath has yet dared volunteer for this to see if it can be adapted to use with talents.  And I don’t blame them one bit,” he said with a shiver.

        “Amen,” Gerann agreed.  “No way would I risk that procedure damaging my talent.”

        “Well, send Olan your ideas if you get any about the interlinks,” Jason ordered.  “In the meantime, I want you to get with Trenirk and get some factory space, Tom, and get more toys out to the PR sector.  And kick Myri’s ass to get some of our stuff back from the military.”

        “I love yelling at Myri,” he grinned.

        “Expect the first strike targets to come in over the comm within the hour, so be ready to back up our operators over at PR-371,” he added.  “I just hope Maggie and Jake are ready over there.”

        “Imagine all that time in hyperspace,” Jenny shuddered.  Maggie and Jake were the two 3D engineers that drew the short straw and had to deploy all the way across the galaxy to manage the attack packages.

        “Anyway, that’s about it.  I’m going to go see if they have the carrier ready for christening yet, then get back with the Denmother and discuss some things.”

        Don’t forget, you have the daily briefing with the Confederate Council as well, your Grace, Dera reminded.  In three hours and six minutes.

        “Oh joy,” he said blandly, which made a few of the telepaths chuckle.

        Shall I warn the Honor we’re about to leave? Suri asked.

        “Yeah, go ahead,” he nodded to her, then he turned back to his friends.  “Any questions?”

        “Just one, Jayce,” Bo spoke up.  “When can we get a day off?”

        There were some boos, and Bo was pelted with random pieces of machinery laying around, which made him laugh.

        “Don’t worry, the party’s at my house when we drive the Consortium out of our galaxy,” Jason said as he stood up.  Dera handed him his helmet, which he seated into place.  [Cybi, get me Dellin.]

        [Certainly.  One moment.]  There was a pause.  [Cybi said you wanted to talk to me, your Grace?]

        [I have about a spare hour, Admiral.  Is that enough time to attend the christening of the carrier?]

        [They’ve been holding it off until you had time,] he chuckled.  [Just go straight to it.]

        [Thanks, Admiral.  Tell them we’re on the way up right now.]

        [Will do, your Grace.]

        The corvette Honor took them back to Kosigi, and they docked with the massive new carrier.  It was even larger than a battleship, but it was like a honeycomb inside, massive amounts of empty space to store, prep, launch, recover, and repair fighters.  The final design allowed a carrier to carry 500 fighters at full capacity, as well as all the personnel and equipment to operate and maintain those fighters.  The carrier would have a crew of 3,106, which included both ship operations and fighter support, not counting the pilots themselves.  Though it was larger than a battleship, it had been much easier to build due to the lack of heavy power systems and complex and power-draining equipment, like weapons.  The carrier was designed to be dependent on the escorting ships and its own fighters for its primary defense, always part of a task force of a minimum of 17 ships, from missile gunboats all the way up to escorting heavy ships, be them heavy cruisers, tactical battleships, or battleships.  Because of its size and purpose, the carrier looked unlike any other ship in the KMS.  Most KMS ships were triangular with stubby, narrow wings at the stern that ran along the back third of the ship, vaguely similar to the Star Destroyers from Star Wars, or more closely like the Jedi cruisers from The Clone Wars, but much less vertical.  They were more like flying pie wedges with flared hind ends, the bow 63% as thick as the stern, an angular design that helped deflect incoming fire.  The particle beams on those cruisers were installed in the bow and at the edges of those stern wings to provide maximum coverage.  The wing-mounted particle beams had full 200 degree coverage laterally and 220 degrees vertically, allowing them to fire at least one particle beam at any enemy from any angle, and usually get at least two beams on the target given the bow particle beam emitter had a 155 degree range.  But the carrier almost looked like a bloated whale, with a rounded, tapered bow that expanded radically to form the wide-bodied design that allowed the carrier to launch and recover fighters literally from all surfaces.  It was pretty fast despite its ungainly design, equipped with some hardcore fucking engines that would get it the hell out of there in case of an emergency.

        Jason sat in the cockpit but didn’t fly as the pilot brought them into the main landing bay of the carrier, which was on the starboard centerline not far from the bow, the bay where visitors would arrive.  It was a small bay designed to be just big enough to hold a corvette, and the Honor’s pilot showed her mettle by swinging the corvette around and backing into the bay, since it was too small for the corvette to turn around.  Jaiya was there with two companies of her crew, mostly the higher ranking officers, who all snapped to attention as the corvette’s gangplank lowered.  Jason chuckled and ambled down the ramp and right into Jaiya’s arms, giving her a fond hug rather than a salute, which made her cough a bit uncomfortably.  The pink-haired Faey patted him on the sides.  Not in front of the crew, your Grace, she complained privately.

        Jason laughed and kissed her on the cheek.  “Sorry to take you off your battleship, Jaiya,” he told her lightly.

        “That’s alright, your Grace.  Bigger is bigger,” she winked in reply.  “I may not have the big guns on this boat, but I have lots of toys.”

        “I’m glad you’re not mad at me,” he chuckled.

        “Posh.  Now, we know you don’t have much time, so we should get going.”

        “True enough.”

        Jason visited with the upper officers of the carrier in his usual way, stopping to chat as he was supposedly inspecting the troops, then Jaiya got him on the ship’s internal tram and showed him the ship’s vast interior.  The carrier used cargo trams as the primary means of movement inside, each of the six tram tunnels that ran from bow to stern large enough to put a Wolf on the platform and transport it to another hangar.  The ship had 9 major hangars were fighters were stored, utilizing the entire space by hanging fighters on wall and ceiling racks, a tenth hangar for fighters that required extensive repairs, holding specialized equipment.  The maintenance hangar was in the exact middle of the ship and had dedicated tramlines and elevators to all the other hangars for the fast movement of fighters from hangar to hangar, but they still designed the primary conveyer tramlines to be able to carry a fighter in a pinch…which was fairly foresighted in Jason’s opinion.  She then took him through engineering and crew quarters, then to the bridge, which was a huge affair designed to coordinate and direct its fighters, so it was a massive ops center.  Jaiya’s captain’s chair was in the front around ship control, but her ready room was in the rear of the center, with her personal quarters just behind it…and like all bridges in the KMS, it was actually in the middle of the ship’s bow section, close to amidships, between the two forward hangars and providing protection for the critical command staff.  There were no windows looking out in the bridge, but every wall was actually a monitor to display information along with consoles and display holos all over the bridge.  Jason sat in her chair for a moment as she smiled, then he got up and offered it to her, helping her sit down.  While she was there, he leaned on the arm with his hand and looked down at her.  “So, time to settle the bets, Jaiya,” he said.  “What name are we painting on the bow?”

        “I’ve already had the honor of naming three ships, your Grace, as I have rose through the ranks, and it got me to thinking.  You are our Grand Duke, and you’ve never been given the honor of naming one of your own ships.  So, your Grace, the question is, what name do you want to put on the bow?” she asked with a smile.

        He laughed.  “Nobody’s ever passed on the naming rights,” he smiled.

        “Then allow me to be the first,” she replied cheekily.

        “Well then, if I get to name it, I could make you embarrassed everywhere you go for the rest of your career,” he threatened lightly, which made her gasp and laugh.  “But I won’t do that to your crew.  Instead, how about we name this ship the Brian Fox, in honor of my father and his memory.  He was a fighter pilot, I think he’d have loved having a carrier named after him.”

        “Then that is what he will be,” Jaiya smiled.  “This ship is named the Brian Fox.”

        “Thank you, Jaiya, that means a lot to me,” he smiled.  “I hereby declare that the KMS Brian Fox is commissioned for active duty and ready for service.  May he serve long and well,” he declared in a strong voice.  The bridge crew applauded as his aide presented Jaiya with her ship’s charter of commission and its flag, which she cradled to her breast a moment before handing them to her first officer.

        “Set these in their places in my ready room, Exo,” she ordered.  “Would you like to stay and oversee the boarding of the first squadrons of fighters, your Grace?” she invited.

        “I wish I could, but I’m really busy today, Jaiya,” he replied, leaning down and kissing her on the cheek.  “And you’re busy, so with your permission, I’ll go ahead and head back home.  I have meetings scheduled all day,” he said with a sour face.

        She laughed.  “Much as I enjoy having you at my mercy, your Grace, I suppose that I should let you get back to those dreadfully boring meetings instead of making you stay here and do something much more fun,” she winked.

        “Bitch,” he accused, which made her laugh.

        “You know it.  Now with all due respect, your Grace, get off my ship,” she winked.

        The corvette took him back home and made a water landing, letting him and his guards off as they tied up and prepared to just wait until he needed to go out again.  He took off his helmet and carried it, waving to Ilia and Sheleese, who were splashing in the water of the beach further down.  Hey Jayce, you home for the day? Ilia called.

        I hope so.  I have meetings, but I can do them from my home office.  What are you two up to?

        Day off, we’re just dicking around, Sheleese replied.  Just got home from shopping.

        Well, Yila’s on planet, so she might be having dinner with me, he warned.

        We’ll tell Ayama to hide all the knives, Sheleese replied impishly, which made him chuckle.

        Someday that might be necessary, he agreed as he started up the stairs leading to the walkway that would get him home.

        Zaa and Miaari were in his living room, talking, when Jason stumped in through the deck door.  He tossed his helmet in the general direction of the side table and missed, and left it laying on the floor as he came in and flopped down on his recliner chair, which had been reinforced to handle him sitting in it in his armor.  Dera and Suri shut the door behind him and stayed outside, but Aya padded into the living room and leaned over, wordlessly taking hold of his gauntlet and pulling it off after he unlocked it.  “Thanks, Aya,” he said with a nod.  She knew he hated staying in his armor when he was home.  “How went the conference, Denmother?”

        “Acceptable,” she replied.  “Miaari clearly has much skill and experience in the rearing of young.  Her wishes are what I would do myself.”

        Miaari looked away modestly, a little embarrassed by Zaa’s praise.

        “She does have practice, after six thousand years of raising kids,” he said lightly.

        “I am not that old,” Miaari protested.

        “Until you tell me how old you are, you leave it up to me to guess,” he replied with a grin as Aya helped with his other gauntlet.  “When are you going to have your cubs?”

        “I already have,” she replied simply.  “It is not something I would do as part of a ceremony, my friend.  And it does require certain preparations.  I think that you would have found attending the event to be quite dark.”

        “The newborns are very sensitive to light,” Zaa explained.  “She had need to bear them in a completely lightless environment.  They are currently on board the transport I had brought aboard the Iyaneri under the care of a personal attendant who has extensive experience in such matters.”

        “Damn, I was hoping to be there,” he sighed.  “I hope you at least have pictures?”

        “Of course I do, taken with a special low-light recorder,” Miaari said proudly, touching her memory band.  A holo popped up in the living room showing an extremely tiny little bundle of wet fur, looking strangely unformed, with barely recognizable features and eerie black eyes that didn’t even look to have eyelids…no wonder they were sensitive to light.  They looked premature.  Weirdly cute, but premature.  Two of them had the same color fur as Miaari, while the third had honey colored fur with black hands and feet, color not far from Jinaami.  She cycled through several of the pictures, then brought up a picture of all three nestled in a bassinet.  “This is Yemaari, this is Haan, and this is Maaleth,” she said, pride and motherly love rippling through her voice.  “My cubs.  My beautiful cubs,” she breathed, almost reaching out to them.

        “They show much potential, Handmaiden,” Zaa said with a prideful nod.  “It will be both my duty and my pleasure to care for them until you can take up your duties.”

        “Any time you need to go to Kimdori, Miaari, you just go,” Jason said as he unlocked his vambrace.  “I don’t want your babies to ever not know who their mother is.”

        Miaari gave him a kind smile.  “Not that I ever need your permission to leave, but I am grateful for your sentiment, Jason,” she said.

        Jason laughed.  “Damn Kimdori,” he grinned as Aya popped the seals on the sides of his armor.  “Now excuse me while I go put on something much more comfortable, and we can continue our conference up in my office.”

        A few minutes later, Jason was in a tee and sweatpants, and the three of them continued to discuss Zaa’s information up in his office.  Instead of discussing the Benga and the Syndicate, they instead focused on the Consortium and the PR sector, studying many of the various Imxi systems and the massive construction efforts going on there.  Shipyards and production facilities were studied along with the construction of the quantum phase device.  Zaa had the most recent information, as well as the first strike orders sent from the infiltrator craft surveying the systems.  Maggie and Jake would take those orders, study the systems, and design strike packages of toys that would attempt to sabotage their efforts.  The one thing they couldn’t really use was spiders, since the Imxi systems hadn’t been converted to broadcast power yet, so the spiders would have no power source.  That meant that conventional automated weapons would be deployed, and they also had four solar collectors in their inventory to use as they saw fit.

        “Have you tried to make contact with the Imxi, Denmother?”

        She shook her head.  “They are willing allies with the Consortium, cousin,” she replied.  “They are a species much akin to the Faey, I fear to say, in that conquer and rule are their primary motivations.  They exist in an island of sorts of habitable planets in a cluster, with large tracts of uninhabitable systems surrounding them and separating them from their neighbors.  Those deserts isolate the Imxi from their enemies, but also make conquest nearly impossible given their tech level.  It is a two week hyperspace jump to the nearest neighboring enemy system, at least for them.  Their hyperspace technology has a worse relativity delay than this sector’s norm.”

        “So they’ve barely just started developing hyperspace applications,” Jason surmised.

        “The Imxi see alliance with the Consortium as the opportunity for conquest of their side of the galaxy, with the Consortium allowing them to rule it by proxy.  That was the price they exacted for their willing assistance, one the Consortium was willing to pay, given they have found a kindred species and even intend to use the Imxi as a safe evacuation point in case they must flee Andromeda.”

        “Well, there’s no accounting for taste,” Jason grunted, leaning back in his chair.  “And if they’re willing allies, I see no reason for us to be nice,” he added.  “That means that any Imxi system is a potential target.”

        His vidlink beeped, a timer reminding him about the upcoming meeting.  “That’s the ten minute warning,” he said.  “Do you want to sit in over here, or just stay quiet and let them think you’re unavailable, Denmother?”

        “I will sit in here.  They know I visit Karis from time to time, Jason.  It is no secret.”

        Cybi manifested and joined them as Miaari left his office to let them have their meeting, Cybi sitting on the edge of his desk on one side, and Zaa sitting on the edge of his desk on the other.  Cybi had been of the habit of attending these meetings in person in the last couple of weeks, as if to reinforce to the others just what she was, and a stark reminder of what the Karinnes were fighting for.  Dahnai liked to banter with Cybi, and Magran seemed to have a fondness for her, but it was Grran of the Jobodi that seemed most inclined towards the CBIM.  Their faces appeared near the far wall as a series of flat holograms, and Jason almost reflexively focused on Dahnai’s lovely face.  “Alright, we’re all here.  We were wondering where you were, Denmother, your emissaries simply said you were unavailable.”

        “I am over for dinner, your Majesty.  I am ever fond of Ayama’s cooking.”

        “You’re not the only one,” she said with an honest smile.  “Jason’s servant is one hell of a good cook.”

        “I find myself curious.  Perhaps she might prepare something in the Skaa traditions and have it shipped to me,” Assaba declared.

        “I’ll tell her, your Imperial Majesty, she would find preparing a Skaa meal fit for the Emperor to be quite a challenge,” Jason said earnestly.

        “You’re in for a treat, Assaba,” Dahnai chuckled.  The other rulers had agreed to drop formal titles ten days ago, after nearly a week of wrangling over it.  They would fight over fucking anything, it seemed.  Since Jason wasn’t a ruler, however, he still addressed them with the respect they deserved.

        “Let us settle in and discuss business, my esteemed friends,” Grran’s vocoder intoned as his dexterous fourteen fingers danced in front of him.  “I am happy to report that the factories on Joboda are retooled and already producing Torsion cannons bearing universal mounts.”

        Jason listened only half-heartedly as each ruler brought up the day’s business, discussing production, troop dispensation, and infrastructure related to the war effort.  Jason knew that they’d probably really want to know what the Consortium was doing at Trieste, but Zaa had said that keeping it a secret was imperative, so he held his tongue.  They didn’t let him escape unscathed, however.  “You seem distracted, Jason,” Sk’Vrae noted.

        “I have reason to be,” he replied with a grunt.  “I was going to tell you this after I had some information to pass along, but my forces over in the PR sector are going to be conducting their first attacks any time now,” he announced.  “I’m waiting for reports as we speak.”

        “Finally.  What took so long?” Prime Minister Vizzie asked

        “The kind of warfare we conduct requires a lot more intelligence to do effectively,” Jason replied.  “We were waiting for the Kimdori to conduct thorough surveillance and on-site recon missions to tell us where and how to attack.  We have that information now, so we’re gong to start moving.  When we do, it might provoke a response over here.  They may make noise to try to draw our attention back to this sector.”

        “As we have discussed in the past,” Magran nodded, his black eyes shimmering a bit in the hologram.  “If the Consortium moves out of Trieste, we will be ready.”

        “We have Trieste effectively surrounded and blockaded,” Ba’mra’ei Me’ber stated, “and Alliance sensor posts are tracking every move they make.  They seem remarkably unconcerned about allowing us to monitor them.”

        “Having that many ships in one place makes them bold, and boldness can be a weakness to exploit in the proper circumstances,” Assaba stated.

        “How is the food situation?  Are the transport schedules my transportation secretary drew up still working effectively?” Jason asked.

        “Entirely,” High Prince Grayhawk answered.  “My people are well supplied as we rebuild, and for that, you have my eternal gratitude, your Grace.”

        “The replicated food augments our shipments, but no Skaa goes hungry in the Republic,” Vizzie agreed.

        “I am extremely impressed with your Kizzik allies, Dahnai,” Assaba told her.  “I had no idea they were so exceptional.”

        “It’s the language barrier, Assaba.  They can be very…difficult to understand sometimes.  But we’ve never doubted their intelligence, or their capability.  They have been an integral and vital part of the Imperium for two thousand years.”

        “Kizzik are just built to handle complex logistical problems,” Jason agreed.

        “I find myself considering the possibility of seeking council with you to employ Kizzik logistics consultants, Dahnai.  They might help the Empire improve the efficiency of our own freighter fleet,” Assaba intoned.

        “I’m sure we could come to some kind of mutually beneficial agreement, Assaba,” Dahnai said with a honeyed smile.  “They can be…well, let’s just say that you don’t have a conversation with a Kizzik like you would about any other sentient being.  They’re quite unique.  Intelligent, but unique.”

        “As are we all in the eyes of our creators, my young Empress,” Magran said sonorously, as if he were quoting from Colonist religious texts.  “There is beauty in all life forms, it just sometimes takes study and an open mind to see it.”

        “Speaking of rebuilding, we have received the next round of relief convoys, and have already restored the critical operations at Farroll.  We will be returning to the Allied Congress building within the week,” Ba’mra’ei Me’ber said, and they shifted back to boring reports that Jason didn’t listen to quite as attentively as he should.  He listened to the rulers discuss the rebuilding of the Shio Federation and Alliance, with the Moridon leader, Overseer Brayrak Kruu chiming in from time to time to discuss financing through Moridon banks.  The Moridon weren’t part of the Confederation, but they did sit in on the meetings to provide financial advice and also so they knew what was going on.  The Moridon were just as threatened as everyone else, they just fought their wars with money, not guns.

        The council wound down, and it startled Jason with a request.  “I am of the notion that it might be time for another face to face conference to discuss certain matters in a more intimate and secure format,” Assaba said as they wrapped up.  “I also would like the opportunity to set foot on the fabled planet of Karis at least once in my life,” he added, looking at Jason.  “Would you object to hosting a conference of rulers, your Grace?”

        “Huh?  Of course not, your Imperial Majesty,” he replied immediately.  “Our accommodations may not be up to your usual standards since we’re not used to hosting such nobility, but I’m sure we can make due.”

        “I think that would be a good idea,” Brayrak agreed.  “There are some things that are best not discussed over galactic crypto.  It is a security threat.  Our most critical plans should be formed in a secure setting, and there are few places in the galaxy more secure than Karis.  Even Moridon is challenged by the House Karinne in that regard.”

        “On that we do agree, Overseer Brayrak,” Zaa nodded.  “We must find a time that is optimal for all parties.”

        “Let’s start with ten days from today and work from there, that sound good?” Dahnai asked, and they all assented.  “Okay, unless something changes, we will convene a meeting of Confederate Council members and our most trusted advisors among the Kimdori, Zyagya, and Moridon on Karis in ten days.  I’ve been there myself, my esteemed peers, and trust me, you’re in for a treat,” she smiled at Jason.  “Karis is a place unlike any other.”

        Ten days…that was Rann’s birthday.  That was going to be a seriously busy day if the Confederate rulers were going to arrive, given he’d had several things planned for Rann.  It was going to steal a little of his son’s thunder, but he could still work around it.  If anything, one of his presents could be letting him greet all the different rulers.  He’d have to get the schedules as early as possible, work Rann’s birthday events into the day…somehow.  He couldn’t very well tell them to hold it some other day just because it was his son’s birthday.  He could make it work.  He’d find a way to make it work.

        “I find myself quite eager to see its wonders,” Magran said.

        [That is Rann’s birthday.  Aya is going to kill you, Jason,] Cybi noted lightly.

        [She probably is, and I know.  I’d better wear my armor for the next month,] Jason said, which caused Cybi to chuckle.

        “What did she say, your Grace?” Magran asked curiously.

        “Just reminding me that my security chief is going to spank me for such short notice,” he said, which made Dahnai laugh.  “But don’t let that dissuade you.  We’ll have everything ready.  Not everyone is going to stay in a penthouse suite in a luxurious hotel, but we’ll work something out,” he said, frowning a bit.  “We don’t exactly have extensive facilities to cater to a galactic ruler.  Like I said, some of you might be roughing it in comparison to what you’re used to.  We’re actually a very humble house in that regard.  Pomp and circumstance are not things you find in any large amount on Karis.”

        “We fully understand, your Grace.  Karis is a closed planet not used to a large number of high-ranking visitors,” Ba’mra’ei Me’ber assured him.  “And I am quite happy with average accommodations, as long as you find a bed large enough for me to fit in it,” she added, which made Jason laugh.

        “I’ll have to rush order something suitable from an upscale Alliance furniture outlet, High Staff, but we’ll take care of you,” he replied.

        “I can take care of that for you, your Grace.  I can have a bed fitting for the High Staff en route within the hour,” Cybi assured him.

        “Then that’s your chore, Cybi,” he agreed.  “In fact, I think our esteemed fellow council members might appreciate your personal touch, my friend, so you get together with our Secretary of State and help her make the preparations.  Go kick some butts and get things moving.”

        “It would be my pleasure, your Grace.  I will start with the hotels and procure any suitable suites available.  It will also let us arrange your personal matters that day as efficiently as possible.”

        “You reveal yourself to the common Karisian populace, Lady Cybi?” Magran asked curiously.

        “Of course I do,” she replied lightly.  “After the Consortium revealed my secret, there was no longer any reason for me to remain hidden.  Not all fully comprehend what I am, but they know that I am a member of his Grace’s personal staff, and afford me the respect due that station.”

        “Personal?  What’s—Trelle’s garland, how could I forget?” Dahnai gasped.  “Jason, I’m sooo sorry!”

        “What is the problem?” Sk’Vrae asked.

        “That’s Rann’s birthday!” she declared.  “I totally forgot, or I’d have suggested another day!”

        “It’s alright, Dahnai, we chose ten days, and we’ll work with ten days.  My personal matters don’t give me the right to inconvenience everyone else.  If anything, I can bring Rann with me when I meet all of you as you arrive as part of his birthday present.”

        “I will ensure to bring a present for him when I arrive,” Sk’Vrae told him.  “That will ease the sting of his father being taken from him on his day.”

        “Thanks, Sk’Vrae,” he said gratefully.

        “If the anniversary of one’s birth is so important in Terran society, I would be remiss to ignore the custom myself,” Assaba stated.  “I too shall bring a token of cheer to raise the heir’s spirits on his personal day of celebration.”

        “Just don’t go crazy,” Jason warned, which made Dahnai laugh.  “Rann is a very modest and intelligent boy, and he doesn’t need someone to bring him his own star yacht.  And for the love of God, no pets.  Rann already has a vulpar kit, and she’ll get intensely jealous if someone brings him another pet.”

        “I can give you some suggestions, Assaba.  I know Rann very well, I know what he likes,” Dahnai offered.

        “Well, I could easily see fit to bring young Rann one of the ceremonial swords of the High Prince.  And if Lady Cybi is overseeing our accommodations, I’m quite sure they’ll be satisfactory,” Grayhawk said, giving Cybi a smile.

        “You might be disappointed, your Highness,” Cybi warned.  “His Grace was not being overly modest about our hotel situation.  We only have two hotels that are up to the task of hosting guests of your excellence, and luxury suites within them are few.  I would highly suggest being prepared for rude housing, and it would behoove all of you to limit your retinues to those that can handle a common hotel room with no luxuries.”

        “We can work with what is available, Lady Cybi,” Assaba assured her.  “I am sure I can, as you say, rough it for a few days.”

        Dahnai snorted.  “Don’t tempt him, you should see what he did to me the first time I visited,” she said, which made Jason laugh.

        “A little humility is good for the soul, your Majesty,” he said with a slight smirk.

        “I’m not that humble,” she shot back.

        “Well, if I’m hosting this conference, excuse me if I drop out and start making the arrangements,” Jason said.  “There’s a lot to do.”

        “Of course,” Magran nodded.

        “Sit in for me, Cybi.  Denmother, my office is yours,” he said, standing up.

        Aya was not happy when he sent for her and told her what the Confederate Council wanted.  Ten days?  Ten days?  I barely have the time to prepare for one leader in ten days, let alone ten!  And that’s Rann’s birthday!  I’ll have all of his activities on top of this!

        Eleven, the Moridon are coming too, he corrected, which earned him an ugly glare.  Cybi’s going to help Yuri handle the preparations, so get with them and arrange security.  We’ll put them up in the five big hotels in Karsa.  And I know it’s Rann’s birthday, you dink, you think I’m happy this is happening on his birthday?  Half the things I had planned just got axed, and now I have to work my son in around my schedule like he’s not that important to me, he bristled a bit. Get in touch with Yuri and make it happen, Aya.  And please, keep me informed as much as you can so we can at least get Rann’s party in somewhere in a block where I have the time to show him how sorry I am this happened on his birthday, he added.

        Aya put a compassionate hand on his shoulder.  I will, Jason.  If anything, we can arrange a morning party for him and have Yuri convince the leaders to push their arrivals back into the afternoon.

        That might work..  Make me proud, Aya.  It wasn’t my idea to hold it here, and seriously not my idea to ruin Rann’s birthday.  But I don’t have any problems with playing the host, since you can’t get much more secure than Karis.  If anything, maybe it’ll make them appreciate a little more just how serious we are about protecting Cybi.

        Yuri rushed onto the Strip before he could even talk to her, since Cybi beat him to it, and she looked both frenetic and eager.  “We’re hosting the entire council?” she asked breathlessly.

        He nodded as he looked through the fridge, as Ayama was busy preparing dinner.  Cybi told you?

        Of course she did.  What do you want me to do?

        I thought state was your job, Yuri, he winked.  I’m entirely confident that your preparations will be everything I hope for.

        She gave him a huge smile.  I won’t let you down, Jayce.  So, I have permission to step on toes?

        You can even wear spiked boots, he replied as he fished a bottle of oye juice out of the door.

        She laughed.  I can do that.  Not often I get to flex my diplomatic muscles, she winked.

        Cybi’s going to help, so get with her and hammer out a plan.  I assigned her to the project, mainly to give her something worthwhile to do.  Sometimes she gets a little bored.

        I’ll be overjoyed to have her along, Yuri assured him.

        Remember one thing, Yuri, he sent.  That is also Rann’s birthday.  I want you to try to arrange things so I at least have four or five hours for Rann’s birthday party.  Try to get the rulers to arrive later in the afternoon so we have the morning.  Keep Cybi and Aya as updated as possible so I can arrange my schedule that day.

        Of course I can, your Grace.  Don’t worry, I’ll get you more than enough time for Rann’s party.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a fuckload to do and not much time.

        Go get ‘em, Yuri, he smiled.

        She grinned in reply, then rushed off almost at a dead run.

        Zaa came down into the living room almost the same time that Yila and Kumi knocked on the deck door.  Aya escorted them in, and Yila looked a little unwilling to hang around with Zaa in the room.  However, she came over to Jason and put her hand on his neck.  “The meeting is finished, and I have a precious cargo to return to Kimdori Prime,” she said, glancing at Miaari as she came down the stairs.  “By your leave, Jason, I will return home.”

        “Of course, Denmother.  Thank you for coming.  It was good to see you again,” he said, leaning in and kissing her on the side of her muzzle.

        “Attend, Handmaiden.  There is one final thing I wish to discuss.”

        “Yes, my Denmother,” Miaari said, following her towards the kitchen and the deck door.

        Thank Trelle, Kimdori give me the creeps, Yila sent in relief when they left, flopping down on his couch.  She’d changed into a bra-like haltar top that had a left sleeve that ended at her elbow and a pair of hot shorts, much less formal attire.  She put her feet up on his coffee table, and then accepted a glass of oye juice from Surin after he scurried in.  So, can I stay for dinner?

        Of course.  Dara coming?

        She’s at home waiting for a ship.

        Aya, can you organize that, please? Jason sent.

        I’ll have a ship dispatched immediately, your Grace.

        Where’s Zach? Yila asked.

        Still at school, but he should be home any time now, he answered.

        What are we having for dinner? Yila asked.

        Broiled grall, Terran corn on the cob, ruga roots, imi beans, five spice bread, and jhru pudding for dessert, your Grace, Ayama answered.

        Zyagyan pudding?  Brave.

        Don’t complain til you try it, it’s pretty good, Jason retorted.

        Do you know what’s in it?

        Nope.  I don’t care, he replied.  I learned long ago not to ask.

        Coward, she winked.

        You’d be a coward too if Ayama was your cook.

        I heard that, your Grace, Ayama sent tartly, which made him laugh.

        Then you won’t be ashamed when I tell Yila that you make up ingredients when I ask what’s in something, he shot back.  I happened to find out that krammaki eyeballs are not an ingredient in Fremga stew.

        They are in my cookbook, she replied teasingly.

        There are two rules in this house concerning food, Yila.  First is you never tell Ayama whatever when she asks you what you want.  Second is you never ask her what’s in what she cooks.

        It keeps you on your toes, your Grace, she sent shamelessly from the kitchen, which made Yila and Kumi laugh.

        Bullied by your own servant.  Such a man, Yila teased.

        I put up with it because Ayama’s one of the best cooks around.  Temperamental, erratic, and obnoxious, but sometimes you just work around the thorns when you enjoy the rose.

        You are so getting a special meal now, your Grace, Ayama threatened.

        If I eat it, you eat it, he retaliated.

        I’m not afraid of spicy food, she teased in return.

        Rann and Danelle all but skipped into the living room from the kitchen with Daila, one of the morning shift guards, behind them.  Hello Miss Grand Duchess, Danelle sent, bobbing her head  in a little bow.

        You can call me Yila when we’re here on Karis, little pippy, she smiled, sitting back up and holding her arms out.  Come give me a kiss, Rann!

        Hullo, Miss Yila, he greeted, coming over and kissing her on the cheek.

        How was school?

        Boring, but okay, he answered.  Is Mommy home yet, Daddy?

        Afraid not, little man.  She’s up in Kosigi right now, we had a meeting that slowed her down today.  But, I think she’s worked long enough, lemme get her home.

        Good.

        Jason put a finger on his gestalt.  [Love.]

        [Hey baby, what’s up?]

        [You about done?]

        [I’m boarding the corvette right now.  I’ll be home in about twenty minutes.]

        [Sounds good.  Just to warn you, Yila and Dara are coming for dinner.]

        [I don’t mind, I like Yila,] she replied.

        “She’ll be home in about half an hour, pippy,” he replied aloud.  Now go get your armor off, both of you.

        ‘Kay, Danelle sent in reply, heading for the stairs.

        Ilia, mind if you and Zach come for dinner?  Yila’s here, and she’s bringing Dara. Jason sent, casting out enough to reach Ilia’s house.  She’s doing a rather poor job of trying to throw Zach and Dara together, hoping for a betrothal.

        That sounds nice, I’d like to get to know this little girl a little bit.

        Then come on over.

        The ship is on its way, your Grace.  Dara should be here within an hour, Aya reported.

        Sounds good, thank you Captain, Yila replied.

        Ilia got to know Yila and Dara as they sat out on the deck to eat dinner, enjoying the breezy, warm Karis afternoon.  Dara made sure to sit beside Zach, talking with him as Yila talked shop with Jason and Kumi, discussing some additional metal sales she was trying to arrange with the Haumda.  They made room when Myleena came over, still in her armor, and she plopped down in a chair at the far end of the table.  “Man, what a day,” she said aloud.

        “Busy?” Yila asked.

        “Since when am I not busy, Yila?” she replied with a grunt, causing a grall flank to float up off the platter and onto a nearby spare plate, then the plate came over to her.  Yila didn’t react, mainly because she knew that Myleena and Jason were telekinetic.  How was school, pips? she asked Danelle.

        We learned about fractions today, she replied.  And we went to Karsa on a field trip, to that new museum that has all the bones in it.  It was really neat.

        Sounds like you had a fun day, Myleena smiled lovingly.  Gather your things after dinner, my girl, I’ll be home for the next few days.

        ‘Kay.

        Aww, I like having Danny in my room, Rann complained.

        She does live in her own house, son, Jason sent, a bit amused.

        I heard that you’re pregnant, Myleena.  Congratulations.

        Aww, thanks, Yila, she smiled.  It’s his, she added, pointing at Jason.  We put aside our mutual not-attractiveness for each other and did the deed.  He’s my best friend, I owed him the chance to father one of my children.

        She’s probably the only woman on the strip that isn’t attracted to Jayce, that makes her defective, Kumi teased.

        Hey, different people have different tastes.  I’m not offended, Jason chuckled.  Mainly because I’m not attracted to her that way either.  It’d make it awkward if one of us was and one of us wasn’t.

        True, Yila nodded.  I had that problem when I was younger.  I was lucky enough to have a rather handsome attractive young man be very attracted to me, but I didn’t have the same attraction for him.

        What did you do?

        You think I’m crazy, Kumi?  I laid him every chance I could get, she replied, which made Kumi laugh.  A girl doesn’t pass up an opportunity like that.  I’m not stupid.

        So, you led him on as long as possible to get everything you could out of him, then crushed his hopes and dreams without a second thought, Jason teased lightly.

        Damn right I did, she replied shamelessly, which made Jyslin and Myleena burst out laughing.

        At least you’re an honest pirate, Jason sent, amusement tinging his thought.

        Raping and pillaging is no fun if they don’t know who did it, she winked in reply.

        Jason laughed helplessly.

        I did have a request, Jason, she sent privately.

        Oh, here it comes, he sent cheekily.

        Hush, she shot back, which made him grin.  I would like to come to Rann’s birthday party, both me and Dara.  Is that alright?

        Actually, that’s just fine.  Rann likes you and Dara, and the more the merrier when it comes to a party.  Just remember, only you and Dara are invited.  No entourage.

        Well, can I at least bring my son?  He’s ten, he’s young enough to enjoy a birthday party.

        Well…okay, that sounds alright.

        Who else is invited that I know?

        Dahnai, her family, and Anya, he answered.

        I’ll find a good present for Rann.  Something nice, but not extravagant.  I don’t think you’d let me get away with that, she sent lightly.

        I already laid down the law on the Confederate Council when they talked about bringing Rann gifts, he told her, which made her laugh.  The others gave her a curious look, then shrugged and went back to the public conversation.  Nothing outrageous, and no pets.  Amber would throw a complete temper tantrum if we brought another pet into this house.

        Vulpars are like that, Yila nodded, glancing at the tiny vulpar, who was sitting on the table beside Rann, her own little dinner plate and water dish before her.  Well, thank you, Jason.  I appreciate being allowed to come.

        Don’t worry, I’m sure whatever it is you’re scheming is going to fall apart on you, he replied, which made her grin impishly.

        Posh, I’m not scheming.  I’m just coming to his birthday party.

        Riiiiiight, he answered, which got him that same smile in return.

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:   Title    ToC    1      3

Chapter 2

 

        Daira, 11 Demaa, 4401, Orthodox Calendar

        Wednesday, 28 April 2014, Terran Standard Calendar

        Daira, 11 Demaa, year 1327 of the 97th Generation, Karinne Historical Reference Calendar

        Foxwood East, Karsa, Karis

 

        The first attack was a complete success.

        Maggie had sent back video taken from a hyperspace probe watching the system of PR-106, which was one of the major construction hubs.  The system had three inhabited planets that were packed into an almost shockingly tight series of orbits, the three planets existing in orbits about the same distance as Terra was from Venus, and all three planets were life sustaining.  That was almost unheard of, and something Jason had never seen before.  How those planets formed without crashing into one another was a miracle.  The three planets had all kinds of heavy industry in orbit around them, for it was the Imxi’s primary shipyard systems.  It was also where they were building 26% of the quantum phase device.

        Or…it was where they were building 26% of the device.

        The attack was a great success, but it was also a costly one.  While the Kimdori’s SCM ships could easily fool sensors, what they could not do was fool that clairvoyant energy being, nor did they expect to fool it for long.  The SCM was there to prevent their enemies from seeing them move in, but once they were there, they weren’t worried about being detected.  The Consortium knew that they were there, and had been preparing their Imxi systems for KMS attacks, but it was very hard to prepare for the Legion.

        The initial attack was with Buzzsaws, launched from a suicide freighter, which accelerated at flank right at their primary target, the core body of the quantum phase emitter, on a collision course.  The Buzzsaws were aimed at their primary control station in orbit, while the freighter was careening towards the phase device, but the Imxi and their Consortium allies managed to destroy the freighter at the price of taking moderate damage by the Buzzsaws, as well as a few ships, since the freighter’s engines and power plant were rigged to explode if the freighter lost power, and that massive detonation took out two Consortium destroyers.  Almost immediately, ten more freighters dropped out of hyperspace, and they launched nearly 50% of the inventory they’d brought with them.  This was the most critical target to hit, so they dedicated sizable assets to taking it out.  A virtual cloud of Buzzsaws, missiles, gun drones, and backpack robots carrying other toys exploded out of those freighters, which also turned to try to ram the main body of the quantum phase device.  It was a chaotic swarm of intense action in almost every direction as the gun drones and Buzzsaws tried to get the other devices to their target, attacking anything that fired in that general direction as the backpack robots acted like living shields for the other weapons, jettisoning their cargo boxes when they detected that their destruction was imminent, which sent a cloud of debris floating in the direction it needed to go.  The Consortium desperately tried to protect the device, the control station, and several of the Eretrium arc sections from rampaging missiles and Buzzsaws, with more weapons coming up behind them.  In the chaotic scrum, the Consortium managed to protect the device from the onslaught using their ships, Imxi fighters—which actually looked halfway decent, on par with Skaa Un’Dara fighters, from watching them in action—and automated defense weapon platforms in orbit around the planet.  The Consortium lost 14 ships, 128 automated platforms, and sustained heavy damage to the control station because of Satan’s Marbles, but they managed to fight off the entire onslaught.  Two missiles holding Satan’s Marbles managed to hit the device and deliver their payloads, but the Consortium was ready for that with a sustained magnetic field projected from a nearby ship, pulling the marbles towards the ship and out of the device.

        Then the device exploded like a nova, when it was struck by the intense blast of a solar collector that had been deployed 1.2 light seconds from the system, the entire device contained in a CMS box that opened and deployed the collector.  The Consortium seemed to pause in shock as the incandescent beam of coherent solar radiation lanced in and struck the device, hitting its power plant and causing it to explode, then it fired again 17 seconds later and hit the command station, melting through the connecting neck holding one of its flared wing sections to the main body, causing the entire wing of the station to tumble away and start its death spiral into the atmosphere of the planet.  Two Consortium destroyers quickly turned and raced away at flank speed to get to jump distance, but it gave the collector time to fire again 17 seconds later, another 126 shakra wide blast of overwhelming solar energy lanced into the chaos and struck one of the arc sections of the device, melting it in half almost exactly in the middle of its curved length, as the impact of the beam knocked the piece against its drydock construction scaffolding.  There was no fourth shot, however, for the Consortium destroyers that deployed quickly locked in on the device and destroyed it, but not without taking shock damage when they fired on it just as it was about to fire, all that energy pulled in from the ramjet-style collector unleashed when its guiding force was destroyed suddenly.  Had they fired a split second before or after, the collector would have just blown up, but they had the bad luck of firing when it had all the energy gathered to fire.

        God bless pinpoint targeting systems, capable of letting the collector hit a target the size of a car from over 350,000 kilometers away.

        Even after the attack was over, it wasn’t over.  Every freighter had mines and conduit smashers disguised in the bulkheads and cargo doors that were ejected to open the cargo hangars, the units offline to avoid detection, equipped with broadcast power units attuned to the Consortium’s broadcast frequencies.  Those mines slowly drifted towards the planet, then activated and attacked when they got within range of the broadcast power emanating from their ships.  The Consortium lost two more ships to the mines, making the fatal mistake of not giving those blown doors a wide berth and wandering too close to them as they commenced cleanup operations.  That reminded the Consortium that anything that the Legion left behind could be deadly, even the trash.

        In the end, Maggie and Jake had been right to send all that equipment in, because it kept the Consortium busy while the collector deployed and powered up, but the video proved that the Consortium were adapting to Legion tactics…so that meant that they were going to have to adapt themselves.  The collector had done that job, for it was something new that the Consortium had never seen before.  But, the lack of collateral damage from their other weapons was a bit of a disappointment.  There was supposed to be more damage to shipbuilding docks and other arc sections, but the Consortium had responded quickly and almost perfectly to the toy attack.  They had deployed proper counter-strategies to everything but the conduit smashers and the Buzzsaws, which had no counter-strategy except shooting them down before they could hit something.

        Clearly, the Legion had to get more underhanded…or go back to their roots with surprise attacks rather than frontal attacks.

        So, while the attack was considered a success in that it destroyed the primary target, it had been a failure in the lack of collateral damage inflicted.  It had also proved that the solar collector had been a smashing success.  Jason had gone to bed last night right after ordering more CMS-packaged collectors.  That little toy had some serious potential.

        And they still had the meson cannons and gravity guns in their arsenal to try out as new weapons against their enemies.

        If only they could get some interdictors in place over there to use offensively.  The only time they tried, the Consortium jumped instantly to the interdictor’s location and came in through the effect on a 7 hour sublight cruise, launching a massive barrage of missiles in front of them that could go faster than they could, and arrive in 4.5 hours.  Their clairvoyant energy being was paying special and very intense attention to the Imxi systems, making it hard to move about in CMS.  The thing couldn’t see into hyperspace, they’d worked that out, but the instant anything dropped out of hyperspace anywhere in the PR sector, that energy being knew about it immediately, and it quickly deployed ships to attack the interdictor before the effect put it out of reach.  Their counterstroke was effective, but not unstoppable.  After seeing that report, Jason ordered them to stockpile enough interdictors to interdict every Imxi system in the PR sector at the same time and force them to sacrifice some systems to protect the critical ones.  The Consortium wouldn’t be able to attack all the interdictors, especially when every interdictor was jumped in with a defensive picket that would force them to commit real resources to destroying the interdictor.  And once they knew which systems the Consortium would actively fight to protect, well, they knew where to start focusing their attacks.

        Jason yawned and sat up as daybreak sun poured in through the windows.  He’d gotten up before the alarm by about twenty minutes, mainly because having about ten hours to sleep was usually about three hours more than he needed.  He’d fully adapted to a 29 hour day, but there were times when he slept too long or not long enough, as his 24-hour based body occasionally yearned for the good old days.  Faey had a 30 hour rhythm gleaned from evolution on Draconis, but oddly enough, they needed less sleep on the average than humans, so they still only slept about 7-8 hours a day.  Their telepathic minds were highly organized and developed, and thus needed less sleep to regenerate than non-telepathic humans. Jason himself had never needed much sleep either, which had been really handy at the University of Michigan, and again when he was taking classes in Faey technology.  Jason had been able to go on very little sleep for long periods, but those always came with a “crash” sleep where he was dead to the world for seven or eight hours.

        It was one of the ways that the human telepaths were different from the rest of humanity.  In a way, Cybi had always been correct to call him a different species than regular Terrans, and not just because he was a Generation.  There were very small but very significant differences between the humans and the human telepaths, mainly dealing with mental acuity and basic thought patterns.  Not all telepaths were intelligent, but telepaths were naturally disposed to be slightly more intelligent than Terrans.  Virtually all telepaths had naturally strong minds, capable of discipline, willpower, and virtually all of them had faster than normal cognitive abilities due to how telepaths thought.  The most significant difference was that all telepaths of any race had a natural aptitude to manage multiple tasks simultaneously, able to quickly and efficiently shift their focus from one matter to another.  This was a critical ability that was absolutely required for any but the simplest telepathic applications.  Some telepaths, like the Generations, could actually think of more than one thing at a time, allowing them to perform highly complex telepathic tasks.  Most sentient beings were hardwired to think serially, to think of or be able to pay attention to only one thing at a time, but many telepaths were capable of parallel thought, able to maintain focus on more than one thing at a time.  These were natural aptitudes that allowed telepaths to excel in life, for they had willpower and discipline, and that gave them the drive to achieve goals, and in a way, it was why the Faey were so good at fighting, able to take in, process, and react to vast amounts of information faster than the non-telepathic mind.  The ability to commune, to think and communicate with more bandwidth, naturally required the ability to think in a more expansive way than just one subject at a time.

        Jason was a different species from the Terrans, and even the Terran telepaths, but that did not make him better than them.  It only made him different.

        So, while he was technically married outside his species…he could let that slide.  After all, for him, the pickings were pretty slim, since everyone thought he was the only pure Terran Generation in existence for about five years, before they stumbled across Rahne, and now they knew that he and Rahne and his children were the only Terran Generations in existence.  They were literally a race of seven, with five more on the way; the twins Siyae and Bethany, Raisha, Yana’s son Walter—why she chose Walter instead of Brian was beyond Jason, and Siyara.

        He looked down at Jyslin, who was sleeping on her back with her head turned towards him, and he just had to marvel yet again at how beautiful she was.  Their pair bond was true, he could feel it pulling him towards her gently, inexorably, powerful bonds of love and friendship and trust and companionship that would ensure that they were together for life.  For commoners, the formation of a pair bond was a guarantee of marriage.  For the nobles, who married for political reason, the formation of a pair bond was the realm of amu, the most favorite subject of Faey poets and writers since they invented paper and ink.  The pair bond could bend a little, allow a bonded person to form different kinds of bonds with others, but it always ensured that no matter how many women Jason slept with, or even loved, Jyslin would always be first in his mind, heart, and soul.  She was the one, and he wouldn’t want it any other way.  He leaned down and kissed her gently on the cheek, and almost immediately, her beautiful gray eyes opened and she smiled at him.  “Mmmmm,” now that’s the way I should be woken up every morning.  So, is it morning enough for you to want the morning girl? she asked sensually.

        Can I give you a kiss without turning you on, woman? he accused.

        No.  That is absolutely impossible, she replied impishly, grinning at him as she wrapped her arms around his shoulders.  They had a little episode of some fairly heavy making out, at least until he heard an odd whining sound in the distance.  He glanced at his clock and saw that it flickered as it lost power, and then was brought back up by the power generators in the basement, and almost instantly, surprised sendings spread across the strip and through the upscale neighborhood on both sides of it.

        What the fuck, the power just went down, Jason grunted, sitting up and focusing himself, then casting his sending halfway across Karsa by accessing the tactical gestalt in the basement, far enough to reach the White House when he wasn’t sending with Jyslin.  What’s going on over there? he demanded.

        His gestalt, which hadn’t been switched to broadcast power, started to beep.  He picked it up and put it on, enduring that moment of it intertwining itself into his thoughts, then Rund Hervakk appeared in his mind’s eye.  [Power should be back up in a moment, your Grace.  We had a cascade shutoff.  We’re rebooting the master command system now.]

        [What happened?]

        [I’m not entirely positive yet.  I’ll have a report for you as soon as the power management center tracks it down.  We’ll be bringing up the continent grid by grid, and we’ll start with yours.]

        [Alright.  This doesn’t bode well, Rund.  We’ve never had an unintentional power failure before.]

        [No system is utterly dependable, your Grace.  I’ll call back the instant I know what’s going on.]

        What’s going on, baby? Jyslin asked as Jason rolled over and sat on the edge of the bed.

        Rund isn’t entirely sure yet, something caused the entire continental power grid to execute an emergency shutoff.

        Trelle’s garland, Jyslin send soberly.

        Yeah.  There goes my mood, I’d better go find out what’s going on.

        Oh well, there’s always tonight, she purred, sliding her hand along his side sensually.

        Don’t start or I’ll be calling Aura to come to my office during lunch.

        Jyslin laughed.  So easy to get turned on, she teased with a smile.

        When you do it, you bet your ass I’m easy to turn on, he replied shamelessly as he stood up.  Shey’s image appeared as a holo against the back wall, her using the command center override to get in touch with him directly.  “I know, I already contacted Rund,” he told her.

        “We get the feeling that the plume of smoke to the northwest might have something to do with the power failure, your Grace,” she said, looking down.  The holo split, and an image of smoke rising in the grasslands northwest of Karsa appeared.  “It looks like a major substation had some kind of cataclysmic failure.”

        “Ouch,” Jason noted.  That was about where the Karsa Substation was located, where the industrial, high-capacity plasma exchangers stepped the plasma down from transmission stage to distribution stage.  Fortunately, however, Rund had designed the entire planetary power grid with redundancy.  Backup station Karsa-B would come online to take over for the primary once the power came back up.  The feedback must have went back down the transmission pipes and to the primary singularity plants that powered the entire planet, and caused an emergency shutdown. He opened the armory door and caused his armor rack to extend out, then stepped over to it.  “I’ll be over as soon as I get dressed,” he told her.  “And why are you still at work?”

        “My shift ends in ten minutes, your Grace, but I’ll probably stay over until we get things ironed out,” she replied, glancing at Jyslin.  “I hope you don’t mind that his Grace enjoys parading around naked in front of me, my Lady.  He’s hopelessly incorrigible.”

        Jyslin laughed.  “I like him bold and sassy,” she winked in reply.  “He’s told me that it’s one of your perks for working nightshift.”

        “Oh, it most certainly is,” she replied with a slight smile.  “And he finally got to allow me to return the favor.”

        “I bet it was awfully drafty sitting at your console bare-ass naked, Shey,” he said as he started putting on his armor.

        “I found the experience strangely liberating, your Grace,” she replied with aplomb, which made Jyslin laugh.  “I did enjoy being the only woman in the command center allowed to be out of uniform.  Literally,” she added dryly.

        “Next time I’ll have them turn the climate control way down so it won’t be quite so much fun,” he threatened.

        “Your Grace, if I happened to contact you with nipples starched due to the cold, you might get the wrong impression,” she protested, which made Jyslin roll over on her back laughing.

        “Stop being bad and let me get dressed,” he told her.

        “Of course, your Grace.  I’ll send the warning that you’re on the way.  General Myri will get your chair in the corner ready for you.”

        Her image winked out before he could respond, which made Jyslin laugh harder.  “I knew there was a reason I liked her,” she giggled after she got control of herself.

        “And here I thought making her pull a duty shift wearing nothing but a sign would pull her fangs.  I’m going to have to get creative,” Jason grunted as he connected his breastplate to his backplate and settled them over his shoulders, then went about locking them to the codpiece and sealing the border along his sides.

        “You still haven’t stirred things up between Kumi and the twins yet,” Jyslin winked.

        I haven’t thought of anything good yet, he replied.  They’re getting a little too sickeningly nice to each other.  If they’re not fighting like kree in heat, they’re no fun at all.

        They are going to kill you when they find out that half of what they blame on each other, you’re doing, she winked.

        Life is boring if there’s no adventure in it, he replied dryly.  Kumi and the twins let me act like an arrogant little ass, it’s a good outlet for my delusions of grandeur, he added lightly, which made her laugh.

        Jason picked up Dera and Suri just as they came on shift, then he headed for the White House without even so much as breakfast.  He marched right down to the power management satellite office in the basement of the administration building, where Rund had his main office and his staff monitored the power grid and made any planned changes using simulations.  The place was filled with Makati who were rushing all over the place, and he went right over to Rund Hervakk, who had his horned head bent together with three other Makati.  “What’s the word, Rund?”

        “I was just about to call you, your Grace,” he said with relief, stepping away from them and pointing at a distribution board.  “The failure was caused by a cataclysmic conduit failure leading into this step-down exchanger,” he said, pointing at an icon on the board, its caption [Karsa SS-2B].  “The plasma fed back into the unit, and that triggered a cascade failsafe protocol due to the sheer gigawattage of power buildup.  It looks like that conduit junction might have been defective, but on a microscopic level.  It took it nearly four years to fail.”

        “We’d better inspect all industrial conduit junctions to make sure it was an isolated incident,” Jason noted.  “We can’t afford some kind of microscopic design flaw wreaking havoc with our power system for the next year.”

        “I already have an inspection team assembling to do just that, your Grace,” Rund nodded in approval.  “This was not caused by the broadcast power or anything else, your Grace.  It looks like a simple case of the wrong piece of equipment failing at the right time.”  He snapped his fingers and pointed at a board, which caused one of his lieutenants to rush over there.  “We have primary power back online for all grids, and Karsa is running off its primary backup substation while we effect repairs.  We’re going to shift to the secondary backup station to run the exchangers for two hours once the repairs are complete, give them some operational uptime, then return to the primary substation after the uptime cycle.  We had that planned for Brista, but we may as well do it now.”

        “Good man, Rund.  It looks like this is under control, so I’m gonna go eat some breakfast, then head to my office and tackle my inbox,” he sighed.  “Keep me updated.”

        “I’ll send hourly reports until we’re back to normal operational procedures.”

        Jason nodded.  “Good job, everyone!” he shouted to the office.

        Jason stopped for breakfast in the complex cafeteria, then headed for the office.  Chirk and Brall were already there, sitting at their stations and hard at work, and he stopped at Chirk’s desk and leaned on it with his hands.  “Alright, hit me,” he said without preamble.

        “Your schedule today is light, Revered Hive-leader,” her translator intoned.  “Routine paperwork and three appointments.  Trenirk Bruun of resources in fifty-two minutes, the daily meeting of the Confederate Council at twelve twenty-three, and the weekly meeting of the cabinet at fifteen thirty.”

        “Oh yeah, I need to talk to Trenirk, guess he beat me to the punch and made an appointment,” Jason chuckled.  “Alright, sounds good.  Paperwork?”

        “Nothing out of the ordinary or requiring your immediate attention, Revered Hive-leader.”

        “Good.  Oh, that reminds me.  Schedule a call for me at, umm,” he said, accessing his gestalt, “thirteen forty.”

        “Contacted party?”

        “Rillen Shaddale, Jyslin’s father.  His contact numbers are in the database.  And do not tell Jyslin about this.”

        “I will set up the appointment,” she affirmed.

        Jason moved over to Brall’s desk.  “Whatcha got, Brall?”

        “Just the usual, your Grace,” he replied, bringing up a holo.  “I’m following up on the administration rule changes for residential infrastructure service calls, and the broadcast department finalized the programming lineup changes on planetary vidlink services.  They’re adding nearly five hundred new channels, mainly from outside empires.  Since we have other races in the house now, broadcast incorporated some of their entertainment transmissions into the vidlink lineup.  Half of the new channels are feeds from Alliance entertainment broadcasts, and the rest are Shio, Colonial, Jobodi and Skaa.  Oh, except for five.  We’re bringing two Verutan channels and three Zyagyan channels in as well.  The Zyagyan farming colony on Exile specifically requested those three channels.”

        “Glad we could get them for them,” Jason nodded.  “No doubt one of those channels is the grazkaur channel.”

        Brall laughed.  “Indeed it is,” he replied.  “Violent, nasty sport, that is.”

        “The Zyagya love it, and that’s all that really matters to them, since they play it,” Jason said.

        “True, your Grace, true,” Brall chuckled.  “I have appointments today up in Kosigi and in various spots around Karsa, so get me on gravband if you need me after I leave in twenty minutes.”

        He went back to his office and started tackling his inbox, but he was interrupted barely a half an hour into the most boring part of his job.  “Revered Hive-leader, you have a visitor.  Grand Duchess Yila Trefani is in the reception room.”

        Jason chuckled.  Yila had stayed overnight in the guest house, had even kept Dara with her, and clearly hadn’t gone home yet.  She must be seriously hot for those contracts.  “Go ahead and send her in,” he replied over the intercom.

        Yila came in when the door slid open, wearing something that was quite normal for the Faey but would get her arrested on Terra.  It was a wrap that went over her left shoulder and down her body diagonally, looping around her right waist, which left her right breast bare.  The garment had a left sleeve on it that reached her elbow, with the Trefani crest embroidered into the shoulder of the sleeve.  She had nothing on outside from that except a pair of knee-high boots, leaving her virtually nude.  But what she was wearing was quite acceptable in Faey society, where they considered the nude body to be something beautiful and worth displaying.  It wasn’t uncommon at all to see men and women walking around on a warm day in Dracora wearing nothing but shoes.  She wouldn’t walk around like that in Dracora, though, because of the two small jaingi tattoos that flanked her dark, trimmed pubic hair, which were considered fringe for a Grand Duchess.  But that was Yila, breaking the rules in her understated, subtle ways while appearing completely above board to the community at large, demonstrating her mafia don’s mentality.  She looked around almost as soon as she got into his office, taking in his decorations.  From a football and Michigan jersey hanging in a glass case on one wall, a replica of his jersey from his days as a college football player, to a Jobodi spirit spear, Jason had a wide variety of tirnkets, gifts, and knick-knacks arrayed about the office, but his office wasn’t all that big, nor was it richly furnished  He did have a small bedroom and living room attached to it, like a little apartment where he could relax a little without leaving work, but that was behind a door and solidly separated from his work space.  Not what I expected to see in your office.

        And what were you expecting?

        Something more…grand.

        Then you don’t know me well at all, do you, Yila? he asked seriously as he finished up the form he was working on.  You’re early.  I haven’t talked to Trenirk yet.

        He said he has an appointment with you this morning.   I was hoping it was done already.

        Or that you could just happen to crash in during the middle of it, he sent acerbically.

        Well…mmmmmaybe, she sent lightly, taking a seat in one of the two chairs facing his desk, then putting her booted feet up on the edge comfortably.  So, when will you have an answer for me?

        My, we’re just moving right in, aren’t we? he sent with mild amusement as he read through the next form.  You don’t have that betrothal yet, woman.

        I’m working on it, she admitted shamelessly.  Dara really likes Zach.  And I think he likes her too.  But, there is one thing I wanted to put past you before we get into other business.

        What?

        Well, given Dara wants to play professional bachi, I keep my ear to the ground when it comes to the various bachi leagues.  Well, I happened to find out that Frinia Foralle intends to sell the Velta Paladins.

        The IBL team? he sent in surprise.

        The very one.  Velta has two IBL teams, and the Paladins are a consistent basement dweller, so the price isn’t that outrageous.  And you know that if you want to be taken really seriously in the Siann, your house has to own an IBL team.  It’s a matter of prestige.

        I’m not all that worried about prestige, Yila.

        Well, I am.  I could afford to buy the Paladins on my own, but I thought you might consider going into a partnership.

        You already own an IBL team, Yila.  Aren’t the Tamiri Tigers yours?  And doesn’t that mean you can’t own a second?

        Of course, which is why I’m here talking to you.  Here’s the deal, Jayce.  We go in fifty-one forty-nine on the Paladins, and you are the majority partner.  I’m allowed to be minority owner in a second team.  The Paladins move to Karis, you pick the people to manage the team.  We split away game and merchandising profits fifty-fifty, and home game arena and broadcast profits eighty-twenty in your favor.  After all, you’re doing most of the work.

        You want me to move an IBL team here?  To Karis? he protested.  What part of complete isolation and security do you not understand, Yila?

        Jayce, you could fill the stadium just with your own people, and you already have an IBL-quality stadium in that games arena you built in Karsa that hosts the Karis Planetary Bachi league’s team, the Karsa Knights. How many does it seat, a hundred fifty thousand?  Two hundred thousand?  That’s easily an IBL-level arena.  The Knights and the IBL team can share the arena, quite a few arenas host both IBL and planetary league teams at the same time.  Hell, my arena in Tamirin hosts three bachi league teams, and they don’t have any problems.   The only people that would be coming here would be visiting team.  You could even make agreements with the IBC that only local broadcast crews manage the Paladin home games, and IBC gets the exclusive on their feed off-planet.  It’s win-win, babes.  Karis gets an IBL team, your people get to see IBL-quality bachi live, you get the prestige of being the face of IBL ownership and a seat at the owner’s council.  The only people your Kimdori will have to inspect are the visiting teams’ players and support staff, which you can arrange well before the game itself.  Oh, and both of us make money, she winked.  You said yourself that there’s not as much reason to keep Karis so secret now, babes.  You can keep your security and still bring an IBL team to Karis, and make your Faey house members seriously happy.

        You’re serious about this, he accused.

        I’m completely serious, she replied, taking her feet off his desk and leaning her elbows on it, getting her face closer to his.  I found out that Frinia’s asking price will be a hundred fifty-three billion credits. That’s a price both of us can easily afford if we split the cost.  If we jump on it, we can lock it down before she goes public.  If it turns into a bidding war, it could go as high as five hundred billion, but Frinia doesn’t want to do that to the team.  They have enough problems with their twenty-three season losing record without having to worry about ownership issues on top of it, then the pressure of having to earn that half trillion back for whoever wins the bidding war.  It’s odd, but Frinia cares about the team.  The only reason she’s selling it is she’s not been well, and she doesn’t want to give it to her daughter, who’d be a terrible owner.  Like I said, she cares about her team.

        Well, that explains why you’re wearing that outfit, or lack of one, he accused.  Eye candy to butter me up.

        She laughed.  I usually wear even less around my home estate outside Tamirin, she winked.  Besides, you’re pretty sexy, and a girl doesn’t mind showing off a bit for a sexy guy.

        And you didn’t wear that outfit for any other reason, eh?

        She just smiled naughtily.

        You are such a bitch.

        I know, she purred in reply.  In fact, I already mentioned the idea to Jyslin and Rann over breakfast, she added lightly.

        You didn’t! he sent with an audible gasp.  If Jyslin found out they could buy an IBL team, she would hound him mercilessly to get him to agree to it.  Very few little girls in the Imperium grew up without dreaming of being involved in the IBL in some manner, though usually as a player.  If a little girl couldn’t be a player, then owning an IBL team was the next best thing.

        I didn’t get where I am by being stupid, silly boy, she sent smugly.  I know how to go over someone’s head, and I know who really holds the whip in your house.

        Damn you, woman, I’m gonna murder you!

        Whine all you want, cause I’m gonna get my way in the end, she sent with an audible chuckle.  I always do.

        You drop that bomb on me, and expect me not to throw you off the planet? he retorted.

        As long as I leave with what I want, she sent teasingly, leaning back in her chair, putting her hands behind her head, her feet back on his desk, and grinning at him victoriously.  Besides, I’ll be back as soon as Kumi needs to talk to me.  We never discuss business any way but face to face.  It’s prudent business sense for women that do what we do.

        I can’t believe you, he accused, but in reality, it just showed how smart and how dangerous Yila Trefani really was.  He pointed imperiously at his door.  Out, you treacherous bitch!

        She laughed brightly.  Alright.  I’ll be back after you have your meeting with Trenirk and discuss the metal sales.  And you should expect a call from Jyslin anytime now.

        “Out!” he barked, which made her explode in laughter.  She got up, blew him a kiss, then sauntered her naked, sexy butt out of his office like she owned it.

        Give her twenty years, and she might own it.

        After fuming a bit over her power play, he did sit there and consider the idea from a more objective point of view.  He didn’t give a care for being on the IBL council or any of that prestige shit, but from a pure morale perspective, having an IBL team on Karis would be a good thing.  The team could pay for itself just from ticket sales and merchandising, and Miaari could probably manage the security for their own players and for visiting teams, their players and staff.  And 153 billion was actually a major bargain for an IBL team.  Yila was right that either of them could afford to buy it themselves.

        He considered it seriously enough to call Miaari into his office immediately after his meeting with Trenirk, where they arranged to get the full metal quotas that Kumi was asking for to trade without messing up their other schedules, as well as wrangled more factory space for 3D orders.  Miaari padded in just as Trenirk left and sat in front of his desk.  “What did you need, Jason?” she asked.

        He leaned over his desk and offered his hand.  She leaned forward and took it, and he felt that sense of expansion that came when a Kimdori accessed his nervous system using their uncanny ability.  Instead of spending ten minutes explaining, he related everything in less than a second, and far better than he could have explained it.

        “Hmm, it does have potential,” she said clinically.  “The security for such a venture wouldn’t be that much more burdensome given how many outsiders are already on planet.  I agree that we should permit no travelers to attend the games, make it home planet only, however.  I can manage a couple dozen opposing team members in Karsa, but not several dozen thousand drunken fans.  That is too many to safely manage.”

        “And the inevitable attempts by other organizations to try to get spies in through IBL teams?”

        “I can manage that,” she answered.

        “I can’t believe I’m seriously considering this,” Jason snorted.

        “It is a good idea, cousin,” she answered.  “It is good for the people of Karis to have their own IBL team, and the venture will easily pay for itself. And since we can buy it outright, well, I see no reason to involve Yila in the matter,” she said with a wolfish smile.

        Jason burst out laughing.  “If we backstabbed her like that, she’d declare war on us, Miaari,” he warned.  “Besides, us co-owning an IBL team gives me a hold on her.  And I get the feeling that I’m gonna need a bunch of them.”

        “She is a dangerous woman.  Affable and charming, but dangerous,” Miaari chuckled.  “I’ll put a hand on her and take measure of her true intentions over the idea, then get back to you.”

        “Do that, she should be hovering somewhere near the office waiting for my answer on the trade deal.  But she thinks Kimdori are creepy, so you might want to change.”

        She nodded.  “Look away if it bothers you, friend,” she winked.

        “I’ve seen it before.”

        He only glanced a couple of times as Miaari undertook the rather gruesome process of shapeshifting, but he couldn’t deny that it was damn effective.  Miaari was replaced by a rather cute Faey male staffer that usually worked evenings wearing a standard Dukal office worker uniform.  But Yila wouldn’t know that he didn’t usually work days, and she certainly wouldn’t think twice if Miaari touched her under the guise of a Faey male, since males were very tactile.  “I’ll tell her you’re ready to see her now,” she said in a mellow voice much different from her usual one.

        “Go sic her,” Jason chuckled.  “Band me your answer while she’s on the way.”

        “Will do, friend Jason,” she said as she opened the door of his office.

        “By the way, you look creepy as a male,” he called.

        “Trust me, it’s much creepier for me.  This feels all wrong,” she answered as she pointed down, which made him laugh.

        A few moments later, while Jason was tracking down Kumi to get her to come to his office, Miaari sent him a message using her memory band, which would allow her to do it without speaking.  [She has no ulterior motives outside of getting another grip on you, trying to insinuate herself more and more into the house,] Miaari reported, her band using the biogenic network.  [And she made a rather bold pass at me.]

        [Why am I not surprised,] Jason chuckled.  [So, that’s why she’s after Zach?]

        [Partially.  In reality, half the reason she is so intent on Dara marrying Zach is that she has something of a crush on him.]

        [Yila has a crush on my five year old son?] Jason gasped.

        [Not sexually,] Miaari answered.  [His looks remind her of one of her earliest lovers, for whom she still has fond feelings.  So she is quite inclined towards him.]

        [Ohhh, okay, that’s not so bad,] Jason replied.  In the no-holds-barred realm of Siann politics, well, that was something that Jason could use if it came down to it.

        Yila sauntered back in and took a seat, and Kumi rushed in seconds later, carrying a handpanel.  You wanted to see me, babes? she asked.

        Take a seat, he replied.  Miaari came in behind them, back in her normal form; she hadn’t had to change mass to shift into the Faey form.  “Alright, first order of business.  Trenirk has the space to handle the increase in tungsten and titanium production, and he’ll have those quotas you asked for on the schedule you asked for,” he said aloud as both Kumi and Yila looked at Miaari as she walked in a stately manner around Jason’s desk, then sat on the edge of it.  Both of them had the sense not to object to her being there.  “Now, that second order of business,” he said, looking at Miaari.  “I talked it over with Miaari, and she assures me she can handle the security.”

        “Easily,” she nodded.

        “And despite a certain someone’s attempts to go over my head,” he said, looking at a completely unrepentant Yila, “I’m not too dumb to see the advantages in it.  As long as Miaari assures me she can keep house security, then I’m inclined towards the idea.”

        “What idea?” Kumi asked as Yila all but fist pumped.

        “We’re buying the Velta Paladins,” Yila stated victoriously.

        “Demir’s holy dick, you’re serious?” Kumi gasped.  “I didn’t know an IBL team was for sale!”

        “It’s not common knowledge yet,” Yila replied.  “I keep that vast network of information gatherers for a reason, Kumi.”

        “We and House Trefani are going to enter into a joint venture on it,” Jason told Kumi.  “But those terms aren’t acceptable, Yila.  If our house is the controlling interest, we’re gonna control it.  We’ll let you in for a thirty percent stake.”

        “Bull shit!” she barked, jumping to her feet and glaring down at him.  “You wouldn’t even know about this if not for me!”

        “If I’m taking all the risk, I’m getting the lion’s share of the rewards,” Jason said, unmoved.

        What ensued was nearly four hours of intense haggling.  Kumi and Miaari found themselves spectators as the two most headstrong house leaders in the Siann butted heads like two rams fighting over a flock of ewes.  Yila was highly cultured and civilized, but when it came to money, the dark mafia overlord part of her personality boiled out of her like cancerous ooze.  Every time Jason boxed her into a corner and forced her into a concession, she made veiled threats about costing Jason his profits in throwing her control of so many parts of Imperium commerce at him, threatening to hamstring him.  Jason countered that by causing a Friendly Puppy to float off its shelf and into his hands, and he set it on the desk as a constant visual reminder that Jason Karinne was not afraid of Yila Trefani.  Kumi actually learned a few things about bargaining watching two masters of the craft go at it in a veritable fight to the death over ownership percentages and profit sharing.

        In the end, neither of them was entirely happy, and Jason was actually running late for his Confederate Council meeting.  They had agreed to a 58/42 split in ownership in favor of Karinne, with away games and away game broadcasting split 52/48 in favor of Trefani, merchandising split evenly between the houses, and home game profits split 77/23 in favor of Karinne.  Yila had minority voice when it came to team operations, able to make suggestions, but Jason had control over all team decisions…which he intended to delegate out to experts anyway.  Jason knew almost nothing about professional bachi, but he could find people who did.  In his opinion, the meddling of house rulers in bachi operations was why some teams did so poorly.  Jason was no Jerry Jones.

        The one thing Yila didn’t like in the contract, but she couldn’t get Jason to back down from, was a buyout clause.  After 20 years, House Karinne could buy out House Trefani’s interest in the team for C100 billion plus a percentage based on one year of average profits from broadcast and merchandising.  Further, there was a penalty clause in the contract that would allow Jason to buy out Yila’s interest in the club if House Trefani used its position or its own IBL team to hamper, hinder, or otherwise devalue the Paladins in any manner.  They were allowed to bid for the same players competitively, but if Yila used her knowledge of the Paladin organization as an advantage for her own team, then she was busted and had to sell her interest in the Paladins to Jason for what she paid for the minor interest, as well as every credit of profit the team had earned them.  After a dozen years or so, that would be such a staggering amount that Yila would wet herself at even thinking of trying something like that, cheating for her Tamiri Tigers team at the expense of the Paladins.

        “Kumi, you build the buyout offer.  Expect to have to go up to as far as three hundred billion credits.”

        “I have that in the bank,” Kumi snorted.  “Tell Frinia we can do a credit transfer on the spot.”

        Yila gave Kumi a slightly surprised look.

        “I’ll talk to the legal team about the buyout and make contact with Frinia Foralle after my council meeting, which I’m late for I might add,” he said, giving Yila an accusing look.

        “Well, this was more important anyway,” she said airily.  “After all, this involves profit.”

        Jason had to sigh, which made Kumi laugh and Miaari smile.  “So both of you, out,” he ordered.  “We’ll talk about this more later.”

        Kumi and Yila hurried out, heads together and sending privately, and Jason gave Miaari an annoyed look that made her laugh richly.  “Children will be children, Jason.”

        “I see why you like Kumi so much.  After ten thousand years, you need someone silly around to make you feel young.”

        Miaari swatted him behind the head, which made him laugh.  “Let me get this meeting over,” he said.  “You can do me a favor and start building a security plan for dealing with us delving into the realm of sports.”

        “I’ll have the initial outline on your desk in three hours,” she replied, standing up.

        “Chirk,” he said, into the intercom, “I need to talk to Mayor Dela of Karsa.  Have her come here, we need to talk face to face.”

        “Yes, Revered Hive-leader.  At what time shall I appoint her?”

        “As soon as she can get here,” he replied.  The city of Karsa owned the arena, and by extension Jason himself as the Grand Duke, which put control of it in Dela’s realm.  Jason didn’t have an interior department, he instead split up the planet and put it under control of its regional governors and mayors, with oversight from the Land Use Division, which was an office that answered directly to Jason rather than a department secretary.  In effect, Jason was his Secretary of Interior.  Public use buildings were administered by the elected executive in control where that building was.  Dela was the elected mayor of Karsa, so that meant that her office had operational control over the arena.  “If I’m still in conference, just make her wait til I’m ready.”

        “Yes, Revered Hive-leader.”

        “See you for dinner?” Miaari asked.

        “Only if you’re coming over.”

        “I am now,” she smiled.  “Until later, cousin.”

        Jason secured the office and got the council on holograms in front of him, and he popped on just in time to listen to Dahnai and Assaba squabble over something…probably something of little or no importance.  He cut them off by speaking over them.  “Sorry I’m late, I just got in some information,” he lied artfully, bringing up a holo of the aftermath of the attack on PR-106.  “We executed our first major attack in the PR sector, and it was a success.  We destroyed the main body and one arc section of the quantum phase device the Consortium is building and did collateral damage to twenty-nine Consortium ships and a control station.”

        “How much damage is that in relative terms?” Sk’Vrae asked.

        “It’s set them back nearly two months,” he replied.  “We’re preparing to make two more attacks, at PR-75 and PR-112, with automated weaponry, but the Karinne fleet stationed in the PR sector is going to begin its first probing action of the nebula holding the Consortium’s main command center,” he explained.  “It will be very hard to get in there to get at that station, but we’re going to keep them honest by making them devote defensive resources at the nebula against our ships.  Every ship we can pin down is a ship we don’t have to worry about popping up somewhere else, especially since their ships can’t jump while they’re in that nebula.  The nebula’s mass and gravity field make it impossible.  Consortium hyperspace engines are much less tolerant of gravity fields than standard engines,” he explained.  “That’s why they drop out of hyperspace so far from planets when they attack.  It’s the closest they can get.  What we’re trying to do is effectively blockade them inside their fortress, lay siege to it to use a term, which I think we can do.  As soon as we start poking around their nebula, they’ll bring in more ships to reinforce it.”

        “Well, that’s some progress, at least,” Dahnai said.  “It buys us more time to come up with some way to dig them out of Trieste without them killing off the civilians.”

        “We’re working on that,” Jason said.  “We can discuss it in detail when you come to Karis for the conference.”

        “I expect quite a few briefings on what the Karinnes are up to that you won’t discuss over crypto, your Grace,” Vizzie said calmly, but her eyes were hard.  Vizzie was smarter than she looked.

        “It will take at least two full days,” Jason said dryly, which made the Leader of the Zyagya grin.  He literally never spoke at these conferences, and didn’t even attend half of them.  He usually had an ambassador listening, who didn’t speak either.

        “Then this conference is overdue.  And alert your Secretary of State and Cybi that I have solved a part of your hotel space problem,” Assaba declared.  “I will be arriving in my personal yacht, which be will used as my residence and to house my staff while attending the conference.  It will only need water at least sixty-two Skaa dragtha deep.  It is capable of water landings.”

        “Our harbor in Karsa is deep enough, your Imperial Majesty.  I’ll alert Secretary Yuri of your intentions.”

        “Then you can take the suite intended for me and assign it to another of our worthy associates.”

        Jason daydreamed his way through the rest of the conference, which only lasted about ten minutes, but Dahnai contacted him almost immediately.  Her face appeared on a hologram just on the far side of his desk.  “What is it, hon?” Jason asked as he finished jotting down a few notes.

        “We’re gonna talk about PR-371,” she stated.

        “What about it?”

        “I think you may have forgotten, baby, but you can’t just claim that planet,” she told him.  “You are a house of the Imperium, Jason, no matter how independent you are.  You jumped to that planet while under Imperial authority under the rules of war, that means it becomes Imperium property.”

        “I can make the most basic claim on it, Dahnai.  I can get there.  No other house can,” he replied.  “Now, if you want to arrange shared food profits, that’s fine with me.  The entire reason I’m claiming the planet is because it’s arable, and the Imperium needs more food-producing planets.  But I’m not just giving it to you.”

        “I think you need to remember that I’m your Empress, Jason,” she said with a dark look.

        “And what will you do with it, Dahnai?  Auction it off to the highest bidder, who’s going to just turn around and use it as a way to gain more power, like what was done to my planet?  Not just no, but hell no.  I’m willing to enter into a contract that states that every house in the Siann receives an equal share of all food produced at cost plus one percent to cover maintenance expenses and run the planet as a non-profit, but I’m not going to disrupt the balance of power in the Siann, which happens to keep that sexy ass of yours in your chair.”

        “I don’t want it for the Siann.  I want it.  House Merrane wants it,” she retorted.  “Why do you think I made you give me passage rights through Exile, Jason?  House Merrane is in a weakened position, and we need some additional house assets and the profits they bring, or what happened with Terra and Trillane’s gonna happen again the instant one of the Highborns think House Karinne won’t interfere.  Sure, I’m safe enough on my chair, but how safe will Sirri be?” she asked pointedly.  “The fact that you’re my amu scares religion into all the Highborns, but I have to look at the long-term health of the house, and the Imperium.  You and me won’t be on these chairs forever, Jason.  If I want Merrane to hold the throne after we’re gone, and keep stability in the Imperium, I have to start acting now.”

        He’d thought the same thing himself a few times, but mainly from his point of view, protecting the house against the Imperium when he was gone and some granddaughter of Dahnai’s was on the throne.  It seemed that Dahnai was thinking the same way, and in that respect, she did have a point.  He sighed and leaned back in his chair.  “You can’t have PR-371,” he stated bluntly.  “I have plans for it.  But,” he said, splitting the screen and causing a tan planet to appear.  “This is QMC-202-3, planet three in a seven planet system.  It was charted by Karinne scouts just before the Third Civil War.  It’s 214 light years from Karis.  I’ve had hyperspace probes and some research ships conduct exploration of the system since we found it.  It’s almost exactly like Exile in that it’s a life-sustaining planet in a region that seems completely devoid of spacefaring races.  Gravity, pressure, temperature, and atmospheric gases are all within Faey tolerance.  This planet has a desert climate with heavy deposits of several ores that make up Neutronium, and can be terraformed to become arable, it just lacks water.  But,” he stressed.  “This system also has an arable terrestrial planet, QMC-202-2, which has a pre-industrial society on it that have just started employing steam engine technology.  I wasn’t going to show you this because I didn’t want a repeat of what happened on Terra, but you do have a point.  So, here’s the deal, Dahnai.  We’ll help Merrane get to QMC-202 and allow House Merrane to claim the other six planets, all their moons, and the asteroids and comets. You can have every other asset in the system, but you do not make contact with planet two.  You leave them alone.  They are off limits.”

        “Why?  We’ve incorporated primitive cultures into the Imperium before.  Aren’t you trying to bring the Gruug into Karinne?”

        “No I’m not,” he said intensely.  “I’m sharing the planet Exile with the Gruug.  They’re not part of the house, and there’s no contact between us and them.  And the simple fact of the matter is, Dahnai, I can’t trust you to be as generous with this indigenous race.  I respect the Gruug’s right to live on Exile as an independent entity, but I know you won’t do the same for this race, so I’m going to remove that temptation from you.  That’s my deal.  You can take it or you can leave it.”

        “The point of finding planets is to add their assets to both the house and the Imperium, Jason,” she said patiently.  “The Goraga and the Menoda and the Parri had no problems coming into the Imperium, and the Kizzik and Makati weren’t far behind us technologically when they were added.”

        “You conquered the Kizzik and the Makati.  The other races didn’t put up a fight.  It’s just been so long since then that the modern Kizzik and Makati don’t mind all that much.  They’re Imperial now.”

        “So?  Incorporated is incorporated, Jason.  The modern Imperium wouldn’t be what it is without the Kizzik and the Makati.  We need them as much as they need us.”

        “You’re missing the point, Dahnai.  The point is, this race should have a choice, not you rolling in there with a couple of divisions of Imperial Marines.  I saw my own race get subjugated by the Faey.  I’m not going to be a party to seeing that done to another race.”

        “Then how about a compromise,” she said, leaning her chin on her hand.  “We make contact with this race and give them that choice.  We’ll invite them into the Imperium.  If they say yes, then they’re the eighth race of the Imperium and subjects of House Merrane.  If they don’t, we offer to keep communications lines open, and I won’t claim that planet until they do join us willingly.  Which I think would just be a matter of time,” she said confidently.  “Why would they want to hoe their fields with hand tools when we can make them a hundred times more efficient, bring them technology to make their lives easier, and open the entire galaxy to them?”

        “It’s not quite that easy, Dahnai.  Like most pre-starfaring races, they’re not unified.  They exist in a series of national entities, much like Terra, and they’re not very cooperative with one another.   That means that not all of them are going to be in agreement.  So, until such time that the planet is unified under a single government, they are hands off,” he said sternly.  “You can have every other planet in the system, their moons, every asteroid, but you do not touch planet two or its moons.  In return, we’ll interdict the system and provide towing and transportation in and out until you can arrange a Stargate.”

        She looked at him, tousling her beautiful bronze hair.  “Fair enough,” she finally said.

        “I’ll have your word on this, Dahnai,” he said seriously.

        “Alright, you have my word, Jason.  We can set up some short-term hydroponics until our water replicators get enough water into the atmosphere to start the organic infusion terraforming process.”  Faey water replicators were terraforming equipment that didn’t actually replicate water, they instead replicated hydrogen and oxygen and combined it chemically into water, then released it as a vapor.  It was a basic piece of heavy equipment they used in terraforming operations, transforming desert planets into Earth-like planets by creating water and infusing organic particulates into the desert floor.  This process turned a barren desert planet that was potentially life-sustaining into the rarest of all planets, a blue and green jewel that was an oasis of life in a barren universe.  A standard water replicator was about the size of the Superdome in New Orleans, and House Merrane would deploy about 100 of them in key locations around the planet based on its weather patterns to spread water vapor as quickly as possible.  “Is there any life on that planet?”

        “Some, desert flora and fauna,” he replied.  “No sentient life.”

        “Anything dangerous?”

        “Nothing outrageously dangerous, but do take perimeter fences and shields if you set up any equipment in the equatorial belt.  That’s where the biggest animals are, and like any desert environment, they’re fairly nasty.”

        “Send me the sensor logs and field reports on the system so we know what we’re getting into,” she said.  “But, I do want to make at least diplomatic contact with planet two,” she stated.  “If they’re up to steam engines, no doubt they have telescopes that will notice activity.  Diplomatic,” she said before he could reply, holding up a hand.  “We just call them and say who we are, that the universe is far bigger than they knew it was, and by the way, we’re going to move onto planet three and do some farming and mining since it’s uninhabited.”

        Jason pondered that.  “Alright, I’ll give you that.  We make peaceful contact.  And I’ll even go so far as to allow you to trade period-quality goods for food with them.  No technology.  Just goods.”

        “That was more than I was asking for, but I’ll take it,” she nodded.  “We can get samples of their indigenous food plants and see if they’re worth producing on our own farm planets.”

        He looked to the side, and tapped out a contact number on his console, calling New Karsa on Exile.  Meya’s face appeared on the side, and Myra crowded in beside her.  “Hey baby, what’s up?”

        “Pack up the Scimitar, girls, you’re being sent out.  QMC-202,” he told them.

        “Alright!  We’ve got everything all running smooth here, Jayce, it’s about time we got something new to do,” Myra grinned.

        “You won’t be alone.  I’ve given Empress Dahnai authorization to claim every planet in the system except for planet two, and she’ll be organizing a deployment to colonize planet three.  Go ahead and jump out now on the scout ship and do the initial landing and perimeter setup over the largest mineral deposits, and miners and terraformers from House Merrane will get there as soon as the Empress can arrange it.”

        “You’re being awful formal, Jayce.  I take it her Majesty is listening?” Meya asked lightly.

        “Yes,” Dahnai called over the comm, which made both of them laugh.

        “Yeah, we know who owns you, Jayce,” Myra winked.

        “Unless you want to make another adventure special, get your asses moving, you two,” he threatened, which made them grin.  “Full escort, girls.”

        “We have all the ships here and ready, we were just waiting for you to let us out,” Meya assured him.  “Can we go on with the full scout deployment, or stay at QMC-202?”

        “Stay at QMC-202 at least until Merrane has everything under control, then go ahead and check out QMD-239.  But you have six days only,” he stressed.  “I want you back at New Karsa in six days no matter what.  I’m going to need you two for something else.”

        “You got it, Jason,” Meya nodded, then they winked off.

        “There, everything’s set up, love,” Jason told her.  “Get your people on the move, and we’ll be waiting for you at Exile.”

        “I’ll get a schedule to Myri as soon as I can,” she nodded.  “So, you don’t have every ship over on the far side of the galaxy,” she winked.

        “I have three ships outfitted for exploration and escorting the Scimitar, a cruiser and two destroyers, and we re-refitted the Scimitar back to its original mission as a science vessel.  After all, that’s what it was built for.  That’s what’s sitting out at Exile right now,” he answered.  “The escort cruiser also carries a specially designed interdictor around with it, so they’re safe no matter where they go.”

        “Clever.”

        “I don’t leave my people’s asses hanging out in the wind, love,” Jason replied simply.

        “Alright, let me get on this, get my people moving,” Dahnai said, then she blew him a kiss.  “I can’t wait to see you, Jason.  Make sure Jyslin understands that she’s kicked out of the bedroom when I get there,” she winked.

        “You are just so predictable.”

        “I don’t get to wrap my legs around you half as often as I want to, baby,” she said huskily, giving him a smile.

        “Dahnai, sleeping with me isn’t going to make me change my mind about QMC-202,” he said with amusement, putting his chin in his hand and regarding her.

        “Never underestimate the power of the Imperial pussy, baby,” she purred, then her image vanished in mid-wink.

        Jason just had to chuckle.  Dahnai was never going to change.

        Dela was waiting in his office for him, so he knocked that bit of business out.  She almost fell out of her chair in excitement when he told her about their plans, the elderly Faey woman showing more animation than he’d ever seen out of her…which justified the idea in his mind almost immediately.  If Dela was that happy about them trying to get an IBL team, then most of the Faey on planet would be as well.  And Jason would go to extremes for his people. Kumi ran in as they were discussing the arena sharing time between the IBL and the KPL teams, carrying a handpanel and waving it around.  “I got it!” she cried.  “Yila forwarded a credit line for her portion!  I can pay cash for it, babes!  You talk to her yet?”

        “Not yet, so go back to your office and calm down,” he told her, which made Dela laugh.  “Such a spazz,” Jason sighed as Kumi ran out of the office.

        I heard that! Kumi warned.

        I meant you to, he shot back, which made Dela burst out laughing.

        It took nearly three hours to get to the point where he was ready to talk to Frinia, because he spent most of that time with the legal team.  The sale of an IBL team was serious fucking business, so he needed a great deal of expert advice and opinion on possible conditions of the sale.  Frinia could demand all kinds of things in return for selling the team, and his team briefed him on quite a few different scenarios.  So, when he had Chirk track down the contact number for Grand Duchess Frinia Foralle, Jason felt he was entirely ready for the conversation.

        Frinia was a very curious Grand Duchess.  She was the head of one of the smallest minor houses in the Siann and almost never came to court, yet she owned an IBL team, which was a status symbol among the houses.  House Foralle was quiet and went about its business and didn’t bother anyone, yet Frinia was very good friends with Emae Shovalle, one of the most powerful Grand Duchesses in the Siann.  Frinia was a very hard woman to know, and in all the time he’d been part of the Siann, he’d met her all of three times.  The only reason Frinia had an IBL team was that she managed to win a lottery when the IBL expanded to 64 teams back in 4336, and probably sold her soul to the Faey religion’s devils, the gara uka, the Fallen Ones, to pull off that miracle.

        But, she was friendly enough.  It took him all of ten minutes to get her face on a hologram in front of him, and most of that time was giving her time to get out of the bathtub to come talk to him.  She was an elderly woman even as the Faey reckoned things, but like most Faey, her age didn’t touch her face very much.  She was very thin, almost gaunt, with pronounced cheekbones and a sharp chin, and her white hair had liberal streaks of blue through it, and had turned coarse over the years, which was another indication of her advanced age.  “Well, Grand Duke Karinne, I’m quite curious why you would be calling,” she said, tugging on her bathrobe a little.

        “Just a little business, Frinia,” he replied calmly, leaning on his elbow.  “As you know, I have something of a passing friendship with Yila Trefani.”

        “That young pirate, she’s quite a force,” Frinia chuckled.

        “Well, she heard it through her channels that you’re expressing interest in selling the Paladins,” he continued.  “Don’t ask me how she knows, I didn’t ask her.  But that bit of information has a great deal of importance to me,” he said evenly, which was a polite way for a man to say I want something from a woman.  He always had to mind his Faey manners as a man when dealing with the Grand Duchesses that didn’t know him very well.  Men were very indirect when dealing with women.  They never directly said no, I want, or you’re wrong to a woman.  A man had to be discreet, using formulaic expressions that conveyed those intentions both politely and indirectly.

        “Why am I not surprised,” the old woman cackled.

        “Why are you considering selling, Frinia?  That’s not something that a house usually does.”

        “It’s part being a petty bitch and part doing what’s best for the Paladins,” she replied honestly.  “My daughter is already measuring the curtains in my throne room at our hone estate,” she noted dryly.  “She can smell the crown, Jason, and it’s making her both bold and embarrassing.  And she’d be a terrible team owner,” she added.  “She doesn’t have the temperament or the experience to handle it.  Running our house isn’t that hard.  We only have one planet in the Velta system, one planet in the Imbria system, and a mining colony on a moon over in the Tamiri system.”

        “Which is how Yila got wind of it,” Jason reasoned.

        “Probably,” she smiled.  “Running this house is easier than owning an IBL team.  She’ll be an absolute disaster at it, and my poor Paladins have enough problems.  I can’t compete with the Highborns and all their money over prime talent free agents, and my poor GM and coaches do the best they can with what talent I can afford.  The simple fact of the matter is, Jason, I want to see my team be what it used to be before they removed the luxury tax and salary caps.  I want to see them win, and they won’t do that if my daughter’s running the team.  So yes, I’m considering selling the team.  I take it you’re interested?”

        “I can pay you a hundred and fifty billion, in cash, right now,” he declared.

        “Well, it’s not that easy, Jason,” she smiled.  “Just proving you can afford my Paladins doesn’t mean you can support my Paladins.  Where are they going to play?  Do you have suitable facilities?  An office complex for the front office?  Who’s going to manage the franchise?”

        “Well, why don’t you come to Karis and take a look for yourself, Grand Duchess Foralle,” he offered.  “I can show you.”

        “Then you make the arrangements, and I’ll be there as soon as I get dressed,” she declared, tugging on the lapel of her Terran terrycloth bathrobe, one of the many exports from Terra to the Imperium.

        “Alright.  You’ll be cleared all the way through to Karis.  Just hail the Karinne ships orbiting Draconis, and they’ll escort your ship here.”

        “Then I’ll be there within two hours,” she said immediately.

        After that, he got the last bit of business out of the way, tracking down Jyslin’s parents before the scheduled call he’d put in his itinerary, knocking it out early while he had time and before he got involved with Frinia.  He got her father while he was at work, getting a holo of him sitting at a control console with a factory assembly line behind him, where robots were assembling goods.  “This is Rillen Shaddale—Jason!” he said with a smile.  “It’s good to see you, son!  What brings you by?”

        “Trying to talk you into coming to Karis again, Rillen,” he replied with a smile.   “Just not permanently.”

        “Jyslin’s birthday?” he asked, and Jason nodded with a smile.  “Done!  You’ll, ah, have to help out a little, though,” he coughed.  “I don’t think I can arrange time off that quickly.”

        “I can pull a few strings,” he promised.  “I know the Grand Duchess Ynara Duralle fairly well.  She’ll do me a favor.”

        “Then we’ll be there.”

        “I’m trying for you and Vari as well as Ivin and his family,” he said.  “Think I’ll have problems with that?”

        “With Vari, none, she has plenty of vacation time saved up,” he replied.  “I’m not so sure about Ivin and Yerae.  Ivin has midterms coming up, Yerae still has three months in her conscription, and you know how unforgiving they are in the Academy.”

        “Rillen, I own the Academy,” he pointed out.  “If I say a student gets excused time off, he gets excused time off.”

        Rillen laughed.  “Well, he’s terrified of losing his scholarship,” he grinned.

        “Like that’s gonna happen, I gave him that scholarship,” Jason snorted.  “Who has Yerae’s conscription?  House Denalle?”

        He nodded.  “We were subject to their house when Yerae started her conscription.”

        “I’ll get her some leave, I’ll twist Aniliya’s arm,” Jason mused, making a note.  “I should just buy her conscription and move her here,” Jason mused.  “You know I hate you guys not being on Karis.”

        “I signed a contract, Jason.  And I’m making something here,” he replied.  “I’m rather proud of my factory.  This place was a disaster when I took it over, and now it’s both productive and efficient.  And Grand Duchess Duralle might skin you if you poach me,” he added self-importantly, which made Jason laugh.  “When my contract is over, we’ll talk about it.  Vari won’t mind one way or the other, as long as she can find a job as a teacher.”

        “On this planet, that’s no problem,” Jason assured him.  “But you’d save both of us a lot of gray hair and worry lines, not to mention save me about a hundred thousand credits a year,” he said dryly.

        “What for?”

        “You think I don’t have people near you protecting you, Rillen?” Jason asked bluntly.  “You are my stepfather, and if you didn’t notice, I’m in a slightly sensitive political position.  I have Kimdori in place around both your family and Ivin’s family.  They keep you safe, and it keeps my mind at ease.”

        “I had no idea,” he murmured.

        “You’re an important person now, Rillen, if only because of who your daughter married,” he said dryly.  “I’ve had protection in place around you for five years.  If you’ve never noticed, they’re doing their job,” he chuckled.  “But enough of stuff you can do nothing about,” he grinned.  “I’ll call you back in five or six standard hours, I sorta have a lot going on.  I’ll make some calls and get it organized.  And don’t tell Jyslin, this is supposed to be a surprise.”

        “I won’t,” he smiled.  “I’ll still be at work in six standard hours, Jason.  It’s barely an hour into the workday here.”

        “It’s a little past lunch here,” he replied.  Jerama had a 27.65 standard hour day, not too far off from the Imperium’s 30 hour day, and while the planet had its own day cycle, the Faey that lived on it still worked a 10 hour day, and worked an Imperium-allowed maximum of 70 hours in a takir, or 7 out of 10 days, 70 hours out of 300 hours in the “standard week.”  That was Imperial labor law, and every employer had to observe those rules and fit them into their planet, moon, or station’s local daily time rotation as best they could.  That was a standard through the Imperium, if the planet or moon had a 6 hour day or a 147 hour day, which one planet did have.  Its day was about 7 months of its year.

        “Alright, I’ll be waiting on your call, Jason.”

        “I’ll make sure Chirk reminds me to call before you leave, even if I don’t have everything set up.”

        Jason disconnected the call, then stood up to go to 3D and see how things were going over there.  He still had quite a bit to do, but thankfully he had all day to get it done.

 

        Daira, 11 Demaa, 4401, Orthodox Calendar

        Wednesday, 28 April 2014, Terran Standard Calendar

        Daira, 11 Demaa, year 1327 of the 97th Generation, Karinne Historical Reference Calendar

        Command Ship Aegis, Task Force Seven flagship, orbiting planet PR-371-2

 

        She didn’t like this.

        Admiral Palla Karinne moved through her ready room from her personal quarters to the bridge, passing by her collection hanging on the walls and sitting on shelves within without paying much mind to it.  Her pale pink eyes flinched slightly when she came out onto the bridge deck, which came to attention when the chime on her door called to signal her arrival on the bridge.  “Resume your posts,” she called as she stalked right over to the comm, where three officers with microphones attached to their interfaces for more clear transmissions sat.  “Are you sure it was decoded properly?” she asked, motioning at the handpanel.

        “Yes, Captain,” her primary comm officer, Lieutenant Yari, answered.

        She sighed.  “Get me Station Liberty.  Baroness Maggie MacCleod.”

        Station Liberty was the station they’d towed through hyperspace for three days to get here.  It was part control center and part staging area, filled to the bulkheads with automated weaponry, and while it was the headquarters of all operations at PR-371, in reality the whole thing existed for two people.  Maggie MacCleod and Jake Wagner, two of the original members of the Legion, and representatives from the shadowy government entity known only as 3D.  Most had no idea what it was or what it did, but Palla was high enough in the chain to know the truth of it, and that made those two humans probably the most important things at PR-371.  Cunning and resourceful, the two Legion members were the ones who had real control of this theater.  That was why the orders that came across the galaxy confused her a little bit, and caused her to get some corroboration.  Maggie MacCleod’s face appeared on the main viewscreen as Palla took a seat in her chair.  She was cute even by Faey standards, short and petite, but with stormy blue eyes and flaming red hair.  “What’s up, Captain?” she asked in her unusual twangy accent, product of some place called Texas if she remembered right.

        “We’ve received orders to jump to the nebula holding our enemy’s main command center and gather information, my Lady,” she replied.  “Given I believe those orders entail something you’ll do later, do you have any specific requests on what we look for?”

        “Nothing really.  We have some long-range scans, but nothing solid.  If you can get a sensor dropship into the nebula and get us some internal readings, it might help.”

        “That will be very dangerous.”

        “I know, so I’ll leave the military stuff to the military, Captain.  Do what you think best.  No matter what you get, it’s gonna help.”

        “Understood, Baroness.”

        “Good luck,” she nodded, then her image faded.

        Palla frowned and crossed her legs demurely, which wasn’t that hard in Crusader armor due to its fit, and pondered the situation.  She rapped on the arm of her command chair a moment, then glanced to her left.  “Comm, get me Captain Marayi Karinnne aboard the Dreamer.”

        “At once, sir.”

        “Marayi’s handsome face appeared on the main screen, sitting at her desk in her ready room.  “Admiral, what can I do for you?”

        “We have orders to initiate a probing action against the nebula holding the enemy command station,” she revealed.  “To gather intelligence and survey its defenses and capabilities.  I want to send a sensor dropship into the nebula, and it’s going to need fighter escort.  Given the dangerous nature of that kind of a mission, I need the best fighter squadron in the KMS, Marayi.”

        “The 76th is on standby and awaiting orders, Captain,” Marayi said proudly.  Nobody needed to say who the best fighter squadron in the KMS was.  Everyone already knew.

        “I want you to carry out the initial probing action, Marayi,” Palla ordered.  “I’m assigning Squadron B to your command for this operation.  Jump in, scan as best you can, and try to ascertain their defenses while the sensor dropship enters the nebula and tries to get more refined scans of its interior and whatever surprises it holds.  Find a sensor dropship and the best pilot you can stick in its chair and prepare the ships under your flag to jump to the nebula, Captain.”

        “Understood, Captain,” Marayi said with a nod.  “When do we begin?”

        “As soon as you’re ready.  Orders will be sent down as soon as we get off the comm.”

        “Then we’ll be jumping out in thirty minutes,” she replied, standing up and picking up her helmet.

        “Trelle be with you, Captain.  Be careful.”

        “Always am, sir,” she replied, then Palla cut the connection.

        Aegis out.”  Palla leaned back in her chair, rapping her fingers on the arm, then she hit the intercom button on her chair, one of her hardline connections.  “Commander Grevkik.”

        “Aye, sir?” her Makati engineering officer said.

        “Our enemies are hiding their base inside a nebula.  What do you think can you do about that?”

        The Makati chuckled.  “Oh, there are ways to get around those problems, and a couple that will turn the nebula against the Consortium,” he replied.

        “I want you to sit down with your engineering team and flesh out all those ideas in a report, which you’ll place on my desk as soon as possible.”

        “Give us two hours, sir.  Me and Grzz’kik have been discussing this a little, since we figured we’d be going in there eventually.  We already have a few ideas.”

        “I’ll be waiting to hear them.”

        “Aye, sir.  Two hours.”

        “Very good, Commander.  Bridge out.”  Palla stood back up.  “Send down the orders from Karis command to Squadron B and give them permission to deploy for the mission.  I’ll be in my ready room.  Keep me updated as to Squadron B’s mission status, Commander.  You have the conn, Exo,” she said as she headed back for her ready room.

        “Aye sir,” her first officer nodded.

 

        Commander Justin Taggart of the 76th Tactical Fighter Squadron, nicknamed the Ghost Squadron by most in the KMS, called the meeting of his 39 pilots and 40 wizzos to order.  Most of his girls had been with him long enough not to take the fact that he was a Terran and a man lightly, but his two newest recruits looked a bit irked taking orders from him.  They’d only been with the squadron for about three weeks, coming on board just before they deployed to the PR sector.  A couple of the girls were wearing nightclothes, since they’d been called to the briefing room out of the blue, but they were awake and alert.  Everyone knew something was going on, because the entire ship was ordered to general quarters and the twenty minute warning for jump had been issued.

        “What’s going on, boss?” his wizzo Joae asked.

        “Not sure yet, Captain Marayi ordered us to assemble.  She said she’d brief us personally.”

        “Another drill,” Lieutenant Iyoi growled.  She was the greenest member of the team, just out of flight school.  She had a lot of talent, but like most young pilots, she had something of a discipline problem.  She was also a bit scornful of being assigned under a male commander.

        The briefing room door opened, and the squadron came to attention.  “At ease,” Captain Marayi Karinnne said as she rushed in, clearly in a hurry.  “We’ll make this quick, ladies, Commander,” she said as she touched her interface, and a holo appeared at the front of the room showing a nebula.  “We have orders to probe the defenses of the nebula holding the Consortium’s egg-laying queens and command center.  Squadron B will be jumping out in twenty minutes to execute this probing action.  What I need from you, Justin, is ten pilots in a Wolf and your absolute best pilot that can handle a heavy SSI dropship.  We’re sending that SSI dropship into the nebula to conduct internal scans, and it’s going to need fighter escort.”

        Taggart didn’t even have to think.  “Wing one, you’re on escort duty,” he ordered.  “Wing two in your Wolves and on standby in case a scramble is issued.  Wing three on passive standby and four on regular duty rotation.”

        “Who’s flying the dropship, Commander?”

        “I am,” he replied bluntly.  “What’s the orders?”

        “Once you launch, you have complete discretion, Commander.  We’ll buy you as much time as we can.  Get in there, get as much data as you can, then get the hell out.  The fleet will drop out of hyperspace here and come to the edge of the nebula,” she said, using her interface to put an icon on the holo.  “If we’re forced to retreat, we’ll follow this vector so you can rendezvous with the fleet.  Don’t be late, Commander.  It’s a long flight back to PR-371 from here.”

        “That’s all we need to know, Captain.  Now if you’ll excuse us, we need to get in place before the jump.”

        “Further information will be sent to your ship,” she said with a nod, then she put on her helmet deliberately.  “Good luck, Justin.”

        “Who’s flying your position if you’re in the dropship, Commander?” Iyoi asked.

        He looked at her.  “Berya, you take my place as the tenth fighter in the wing.  Lassa, you have command of Wing Three if you’re called up.”

        “Aye-aye, boss,” both said.

        Iyoi came out beside him as they left the briefing room and entered the hangar.  Come on, Commander, give me a chance! she sent privately.  I can do this!  I grew up flying a skimmer through the Wastelands, I know how to handle nebula turbulence!

        You haven’t even flown your first combat sortie, Lieutenant.

        No, Commander, not a fighter.  I want to second chair the dropship.  I have the rating for heavy dropships, and I have real experience flying nebulas.  I can help.

        He glanced at her.  You have three minutes to armor up.

        Yes! she sent in glee, literally jumping up and pumping her fist in the air.  She then ran for the locker room, her nightshirt riding up to show her bare blue butt.

        On board the sensor dropship, the four sensor officers back in the control compartment were bringing the ship online as Taggart locked himself in his chair and assumed command of the ship via interface.  The cockpit lit up as the ship started startup diagnostics.  Taggart explained what they were about to do as he saw his element of the squadron float up into their fighters.  Swap your drones, Taggart sent.  I don’t want anything with a pulse cannon getting lost in that nebula and picked up by the bugs.  Torsion drones only.

        Got it, boss, Berya sent.  You heard the boss, ladies.  Why don’t I see drones swapping?

        The drones did just that, unlocking from the wings and floating over to the munitions rack on their own engines as the Torsion-equipped drones replaced them, all done by computer control  Deck officers were conducting the final inspections of the Wolf fighters and the dropship as the three minute warning blared over the intercom.  Clear the deck, get in your jump restraints!  We’ll have time when we arrive to finish the inspections! Taggart boomed across the hangar.  Iyoi all but jumped into the second chair and waved her hand in front of the blackglass, which activated her side of the cockpit, then she jacked her interface into the ship using a fiber cable.  Like all military ships in the KMS, it had no manual controls on either side of the cockpit.  Everything was interface controlled, and the hard fiber cable was an emergency backup in case the interface remote system got fried in combat.  It would fly by remote by default, then switch to the hardline connection if there was a problem with the primary system.

        All systems online, Commander, Iyoi reported.

        Sensor systems online and ready, Commander, the sensor officer reported.

        Drone swaps finished, boss, we’re ready to rock, Berya called.

        Taggart called up all the information they had on the nebula as the jump countdown continued.  It was pretty big, and the command center was square in the middle.  Like all nebulas, the density of the gases varied within the nebula, and there were also currents of gas flow formed by its creation and fueled by the nebula’s gravity field, as well as a tiny proto-star that illuminated the entire thing, which was located at the edge of the nebula’s side that faced the galactic core, or inward in naval ship navigator lingo.  If the fleet dropped out of hyperspace in a direct  line to the nebula, they’d arrive on the “southeast ” side of the nebula if inward was east, far enough away from the protostar not to have to worry about it, but close enough for its light to illuminate the nebula’s gas and make flying through it like driving through pea soup fog in twilight.  Taggart plotted a course that would take them on a 26 minute course in and back out in a roughly elliptical route, getting them close enough to get some long-range scans of the command station in the center and relying on the nebula to hide them.  Inside a nebula shields wouldn’t work, MPAC weaponry had reduced range, and the gases created magnetic, ion, electrical, and gravitational fluxes that screwed with sensors.  That was why Marayi was sending in a sensor dropship, so they could get more reliable readings deeper inside the nebula.

        Iyoi, however, disagreed.  That’s not going to work, Commander, she sent quickly, pointing.  This is a primary wake current, it’s going to make it impossible to follow your course.  Do it like this, she said, tracing a different path.  Let the wake current pull us in, get out of it here and swing around for the lateral pass, then hit this branch current here and let it carry us to this point.  Then we punch out and head back to the Dreamer.

        And you’re sure it’ll work?

        I’m positive, Commander.  I was flying worse currents than this when I was fifteen.  This nebula is nothing compared to the Wastelands.  That nebula isn’t for the meek.

        Alright, Lieutenant.  We’ll play it your way.  Send that flight path out to the fighters and the bridge before we jump, so it’s there when we come out.

        Aye, ma’am, she sent and used her interface to lock in the plan and then transmit it to the fighters in Wing A and the bridge, telling the navigator where they intended to go, just in case.

        Don’t call me that, I’m not a Faey.  Call me boss, he sent in irritation.  Human men don’t like being called that.

        Whyever not?

        It’s a military tradition on my planet for men to be called sir, and I was a military man long before we joined the Imperium.

        But only the captain can be called sir.

        And that’s why you’ll call me boss, he sent evenly.

        Aye, boss, she corrected, a bit amused.

        Some people hated hyperspace jumps, but Taggart wasn’t one of them.  He suffered from the hallucinations and the sensations like everyone else, but since he knew it was nothing but sensory ghosts, he was usually more curious about them than afraid, and hyperspace never made him dizzy or sick to his stomach like it did others.  The more intense the sensory ghosts got, the more curious they made him.  He had well over five minutes to study the wildly contorting space around him, eyes open and looking around as Iyoi’s eyes were closed tight under her helmet. The instant they came out of hyperspace, Taggart was alert and moving as Iyoi shook her head and moaned a little bit.  “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that,” she complained in a weak voice.

        “Welcome to the Navy, Lieutenant,” Taggart said crisply.  “Primaries online.”

        “SSI Two, you are cleared for launch,” the order came over gravband.  “Maintain radio silence within the nebula.”

        “Understood,” he called back, adjusting the comm system, then he grabbed the assist posts that kept a pilot’s hands busy while he flew, since many pilots had the habit of trying to “fly” a ship with his hands as well as his mind, and that created a secondary ghost echo in the command stream that occasionally confused the interface control computer.  We’re cleared for launch.  Diamond formation around the dropship, and pay attention to the nav.  Radio silence, so sending only.  Watch it for unmapped currents, watch your spacing, and stay on your toes, ladies.  Nebulas are notorious for rogue currents. Also remember to run your de-ionizers, you’re gonna pick up massive charges on the hull in a hurry out there if we run into high-density gas clouds.  Iyoi nodded approvingly as Taggart picked the dropship up off the deck, then turned it towards the airskin shield.

        Least we’re using translation engines.  Flying a nebula on standard grav engines is an adventure, Iyoi remarked as they cleared the ship, then accelerated geometrically towards the roiling mass of reddish-orange gas, backlit and illuminated by the protostar some 56.5 million kathra from their position.  All that gravity flux plays havoc with them.

        I see you’ve read up on the specs.

        Since the day I got into the flight academy, boss, she replied.

        Taggart picked the dropship up off the deck and accelerated through the airskin shield, and saw the reddish mass before him like a dawn sky.  The fighters came out behind him and assumed the diamond defensive formation, three fighters in front, two to each side, and three behind.  The fighters were synced to the dropship to match speed, and any course corrections Taggart made showed in the fighters’ heads-up displays to let them know exactly where he was going.  The squadron of 15 KMS ships veered off on 16 mark 1, while the dropship and its escorts turned into the nebula along 302 mark 355.  The dropship shivered a little when they crossed into the gas field, then started to vibrate as both ionization and heat guages for the hull began to rise.  Them moving through the gas ionized the hull and caused friction heating.  The sensor officers started their scans, probing deeper into the nebula as they headed inside, as the visual turned into a reddish mist caused by dust particles suspended in with the hydrogen and helium.  Nebula density increasing by six hundred parts per million per second, one of the sensor jockeys sent.

        Keep off STG, send only, Taggart reminded them.  The bugs can access gravband.

        This shit is getting thick, Berya noted from the lead fighter, which was 320 shakra in front of him and slightly lower.  Her Wolf was hazy in the reddish gloom, vanishing into some of the thicker dust clouds.

        Keep your local mass density sensors on primary, Taggart sent.  We’re coming up on the wake current in two minutes.  When we enter it, keep a loose stick, don’t fight the current.  Iyoi nodded professionally as she glanced over at him.

        Surprising you know how to fly a current, but you didn’t know how to navigate through one, Iyoi sent privately, a bit lightly.

        You can cross a current, just takes plotting for the drift, he answered.

        Yeah, but the current will take us right where we want to go, why fight it?

        That’s why we went with your plot, because it does do the job.  We’ll get a nice lateral scan of the interior.  I was going to reduce speed, but I like the idea of keeping moving.  The bugs learn fast, rookie, and they adapt.

        The ship rocked when they entered the current, and Taggart moved into the center of it, allowing the river of gas and dust carry them deeper into the nebula.  The fighters drifted in their formation as Iyoi watched the chronometer, counting the seconds until they veered out for their lateral pass.  I’m getting some contacts, Commander, one of the sensor officers called.  Mass variances at maximum range.

        Debris?

        They’re moving.

        How big?

        I can’t get a solid reading because of the nebula, but it looks around 12 benkonn mass variances.  Maybe some rocky debris, maybe small ships or drones.  I’d lean towards ships, Commander, the mass variances are pretty consistent across all contacts.  That’s not normal for a cloud of meteors.

        Gravity distortion from a grav drive?

        No, Commander.

        Taggart frowned as he veered out of the current and began a lateral pass of the enemy installation, which was still some 25,500 kathra deeper in the small nebula.  But for the sensors on the dropship, that was close enough to get some readings.  What about those mass readings?

        They’re changing course, Commander.  They’re definitely small ships, but they’re not using grav engines.

        “Fuck!” Taggart snapped, jacking the throttle.  He almost rammed Berya when the escorts didn’t react fast enough.  They’ve got fighters!  Taggart barked.

        Where?  I don’t see—

        They’re incoming from three o’clock low, ETA 39 seconds! He replied.  Get those readings, ladies, cause this is about to become a full contact sport! he sent back to his sensor officers as sparks danced along the hull of the dropship, ionization causing electrical discharge.  Do not chase them! Taggart ordered.  Protecting the dropship is your primary goal!

        Deploy ECDs! Berya barked.  Keep them leashed!  Set drones to protect the dropship!

        They passed parallel to the facility lost in the reddish haze, speeding up as they entered a lighter density area of the nebula, trailing sparks and with arcs of lightning dancing between the fighters, dropship, spinners, and drones.  Forty-one contacts, Commander, accelerating!  Definitely fighters, I’m getting energy readings through the static! the lead sensor officer warned.

        They’re not drones?

        I’m getting lifesigns, they’re fighters!

        Well, the bugs have a new toy, Taggart growled as he adjusted course.

        They must have their own fighters, Berya grunted.

        I’m getting an echo at the edge of my scope, boss, Houri called.  Multiple contacts!  Coming in fast!

        Show ‘em why nobody fucks with the 76th, girls! Taggart called.  How much more time?

        Try to give us twenty more seconds, Commander, the sensor officer replied.

        Incoming!

        The enemy fighters streaked in out of the gloom directly behind them.  They were armed with Torsion cannons, and they looked maneuverable.  The pilots in them looked to be somewhat competent, but they were not the insectoids from the Consortium, and that meant they were Imxi.  They’d never come up against Faey before.  I can sense their minds.  They’re not bugs!  Wizzos, nail ‘em! Taggart boomed to his wing’s mindstrikers, who sat in the cockpits so they could conduct telepathic combat while the pilots flew.

        Not all of them, let’s see how well those fighters operate, Berya added.  Don’t nail all of ‘em.

        Yes, nail all of ‘em.  Make them fight each other, we’ll see how good those ships are in case they put bugs in ‘em, Taggart countermanded.

        You got it, boss, Vecha, the closest mindstriker, replied.

        The shooting quickly trailed off as the ten mindstrikers in the fighters around them did their jobs.  They dominated the pilots of the fighters, putting some to sleep after putting them in a parallel course, but actively controlling others, forcing them to fire on each other, releasing them somewhat from their control but convincing them that the other Imxi were the enemy and that they were defending the dropship.  Taggart didn’t relax, for those fighters might just be the vanguard for a Consortium destroyer, and they couldn’t dominate the bugs that would be on that enemy ship.  The enemy fighters were very agile, fast, and like most fighters that weren’t Faey or Karinne, they had almost no armor or defenses.  They relied almost completely on their speed and agility to protect themselves.  They got some solid data on the ships, and then they destroyed all of them but one.  That one Vecha herded along with them, to interrogate its Imxi pilot and analyze Imxi technology.  She had the pilot shut down all the fighter’s communication and telemetry, making it look like his fighter was destroyed along with the rest of them.

        I’m stunned that they made such a basic mistake, Berya growled as they turned back for the edge of the nebula.  They know we’re telepaths.  They know what we can do, like when we took back the Shio and Alliance systems.

        But they didn’t know if the Imxi were resistant to talent, like some races are.  Now they do.  They sent those pilots out as guinea pigs, Taggart reasoned.  They were just a probing action.

        Well, now we have an Imxi to debrief and one of their fighters to take apart, Berya noted.  Their little trick is gonna cost them more than us.

        Maybe.  Maybe not, Taggart grunted as they neared the current that would carry them back out towards the edge of the nebula.  Did you get good readings, girls?

        We got some solid readings, Commander.  We’re good to go.

        Any large ships moving in our direction?

        Yes, but they can’t go that fast in the nebula.  We’ll outrun them easily, Commander.  The bigger the ship, the more ionization and hull heating it causes when it moves around in here.  We can just flat-out go faster than they can.

        Interesting.  Do a full scan of that Imxi ship.  It might have some virus or nasty on it they want us to bring back.

        Starting the scan, Commander.

        Good deal.  Alright, girls, let’s get the hell out of here.

        It took them nearly seven minutes to clear the nebula, and the parting of the red haze revealed far more going on outside than inside.  The ten Wolves, dropship, and their captured prey streaked toward a ferocious battle, as the 15 KMS warships retreated from the nebula with 39 Consortium warships hot on their tails, and the flaming debris of several other of the spike-winged vessels and a different type, a much smaller sleek nacelled corvette class that had to be Imxi, trailing behind the battle.  The retreating KMS ships lanced white bars of death back at the pursuing ships, sharing the sky with plasma torpedoes and missiles as the KMS employed their open-space tactic of holding the enemy at optimal range, within range of particle beams but outside of Torsion range.  Another Consortium ship bloomed in a greenish-red explosion on its port wing as a particle beam sheared through its left wing, slicing the ship in two pieces and the explosion of plasma and decompression causing the small spiked wing and several compartments of the stern section spin away from the main body, fire and atmosphere gouting out of the fatal wound.  Another ship was hit dead center by a plasma torpedo, the entire ship simply dissolving in a hellstorm as the torpedo detonated.  The KMS ships were surrounded in a reddish, wavering aura as their Torsion shockwave generators employed as enemy missiles streaked in, exploding before they reached the shields.  Taggart turned into the planned course of the KMS ships before they made the turn themselves and maxed out the throttle, holding onto the posts as the dropship vibrated from the exponential acceleration, feeling himself being pressed into his armor and the chair as the inertial dampers were overtaken by the inertial force being exerted, and the towing beam they had on the Imxi ship was red-lining, since the Imxi ship couldn’t match their velocity.  The KMS warships made their turn and moved to intersect their course, but they also attracted unwanted attention, as a lone Consortium destroyer came out of the red haze behind them and started to accelerate.

        Consortium destroyer moving to intercept! Iyoi sent, fear bleeding into her sending as the rookie got her first real view of naval combat.  Where did that come from?  They couldn’t have caught up to us!

        Defensive rear, Berya!  Time to use up the drones! Taggart ordered.  Send them in!

        You heard the boss, set drones to attack the destroyer.  Suicide mode!  The forty drones turned and streaked towards the advancing destroyer as the fighters realigned, all ten of them getting behind the dropship to protect it, turning around and flying backwards to point their pulse cannons in the direction of the enemy but still accelerating along the same vector as the dropship.  The drones accelerated far faster than the fighters could since they had no pilots, and both the destroyer and the drones opened fire on each other when they came into range of their Torsion weapons.  28 drones were destroyed as they passed through the optimal range of the destroyer’s heavy guns, but once they got inside, where they couldn’t track well, the drones blasted dozens of smoking holes in the black armor of the enemy ship.  Several more explosions ruptured its hull as the drones continued to fire, then the drones turned and dove into those smoking craters within the destroyer’s armor at full throttle and guns blazing.  The Consortium ship shuddered and immediately started to tumble when the drones crashed into the interior of the ships, huge fountains of flame erupting from the holes, its power blinking on and off several times, and then going dark.

        Recall ECDs, get ready to dock on the Dreamer, Taggart ordered, then he realigned his thinking to command thought.  [We’re coming in hot, Dreamer,] his thought was translated to gravband.

        [Port bow hangar deck, Commander.  Don’t miss the window,] came the reply.

        The intersection of their courses was smooth and without incident.  Taggart turned into the path of the battleship and matched velocity almost perfectly to line the dropship up with the hangar, and the dropship streaked into the hangar and quickly decelerated.  The fighters followed it in, landing skids deploying as Taggart set the dropship on the deck, then Vecha caused the Imxi pilot to land just behind the Wolf fighters and then fall into a comatose state. Do not approach that fighter!  Taggart barked.  Get Medical down here to scan the ship for microbes!  Vecha, keep the Imxi comatose.  Captain, we need your best mindbender down here, we have a prisoner, he sent with enough strength to reach the bridge.

        I saw it.  Everyone in the hangar bay, strap in for emergency jump! Marayi’s sending washed over them.

        Mission accomplished, girls.  Good work, Taggart sent as they felt the ship turn again, then start to slow down to minimum jump speed.  He knew that behind them, the ships were laying down a withering carpet of defensive missile fire which would saturate enemy sensors and force them to break off or get plastered.  Those missiles were MIRVs, and one missile would release 60 separate cluster warheads to form a wall of warheads that would make a ship that didn’t have a shockwave generator really think about trying to fly through it.  Like a spy car releasing a smokescreen, the missiles’ purpose was not to attack the enemy, but to force their pursuers to slow down or break off pursuit.

        The missiles accomplished their goal.  Taggart felt the ship stop decelerating, achieving maximum safe jump velocity, and then they snapped out of reality in the blink of an eye, jumping away from the nebula and towards the safety of PR-371.

 

        Vesta, 15 Demaa, 4401, Orthodox Calendar

        Sunday, 2 May 2014, Terran Standard Calendar

        Vesta, 15 Demaa, year 1327 of the 97th Generation, Karinne Historical Reference Calendar

        The White House, Karsa, Karis

 

        Everything was ready.

        Jason almost skipped down the hall towards his office as tomorrow’s plans whirled in his mind.  Jyslin’s parents, brother, and brother’s family were all waiting to be picked up, and Lorna and her family were already en route, where they would hide on Kosigi until tomorrow.  Jyslin had no idea that her family was going to be at her birthday party tomorrow, and that made all the cloak and dagger worth it.  He had even gotten her the best present any husband could ever give a wife, at least in the Imperium.

        An IBL team.

        Frinia Foralle was in his office that very moment and ready to finalize the deal.  Houses Karinne and Trefani would buy the Paladins for C165,000,000,000 in cash, payable by immediate credit transfer by the attending Moridon bank officials, who had to be there to approve a private, non-governmental transaction of that magnitude.  House Karinne would front the entire payment, and House Trefani would pay their 42% of the buyout price back to House Karinne in yearly installments over the next ten years, which was fine with Jason because it gave him a solid financial hold over Yila…and Yila didn’t mind, because she was confident the profits she earned off the deal would pay the installments, which gave her 42% of a second IBL team with virtually no money out of her pocket.  Frinia certainly didn’t make it easy for them, though.  She had spent three days inspecting the Karsa arena, the city of Karsa, speaking to city residents about their enthusiasm for having an IBL team, almost interrogating Jason, Kumi, Meya Dela, Yila, and even going so far as to interview the groundskeepers in the arena to ensure they were up to the task of managing a bachi field for an IBL team.  She spent nearly nine hours reading Kumi’s buyout proposal, then spent nearly a full day haggling the fine points of the contract, which to her credit completely revolved around ensuring her team was going to be made competitive in the IBL.  She wasn’t selling her team to someone who wanted to have the prestige of being an IBL owner.  She wanted a team owner that cared if the team won.  If she wanted someone that wouldn’t care about the team, she had her own daughter for that.  Jason had played college football and he was extremely competitive, almost Faey-level competitive, and he impressed upon Frinia that while he didn’t know much about bachi, he’d hire the best damn front office and coaches he could find, and he would compete with the Highborns and their bottomless bank accounts for top-tier talent to fill his roster.  After nearly four days of discussion, inspection, and investigation, Frinia haggled a buyout price with Kumi and Yila, and the contract was drawn up.

        And finally, Frinia would keep a 10% ownership stake in the team so she could continue to have a say, as well as earn 10% of all Paladin profits taken equally from both Jason and Yila.  The minority stake would revert back to Jason and Yila upon her death, and the 10% profit sharing would end.  Her daughter would not inherit that 10% team ownership.  Frinia would also help transition the team to Karis, moving the operations from Velta to an office building right beside the arena, four entire floors of office space for the front office to build an operation.  The team would share the training facilities with the Knights for off-season minicamps and workouts until their own could be built, which would take all of two months once Jason put Red Horn Construction on the job, more than enough time to get them built and ready for the team when they started preseason training camp in Kiraa.

        Or, more to the point, Jyslin would be running the team.  Jason was giving operational control of the Paladins to Jyslin.  She wasn’t as busy as he was, and while she did do a lot of work, she would be more than happy to find the time to build a contending IBL team for next season.  It would bring a great deal of positive morale to Karis, the house would profit from the Paladins, Miaari already had an operational plan in place to protect Karis and Karinne’s secrets from interlopers hiding within visiting IBL team organizations, and everyone would be happy.

        This contract signing was taking place well after dark, 2338 by his clock on his gestalt, but his legal team had needed time to read the contract and approve it.  That was fine with him, because he’d had a busy day.  The destroyer Tikanne had just arrived from the PR sector after a three day hyperspace journey back to Karis, and it was carrying an Imxi fighter and its Imxi pilot.   Captain Gai Edanne had delivered the Imxi fighter to Myleena personally, and the pilot went to Ryn.  Ryn was the most highly trained telepath on all of Karis, a mindbender in all but official title, and Ryn had paired with Haelen Karinne, the oldest Generation male and one of the most skilled male telepaths in the house, to give Cybi the ability to upload virtually the pilot’s entire mind right into the archives for analysis and storage and dissemination of the Imxi language.  The Imxi themselves were both humanoid and quite unusual.  They had brutish human-like faces, like Neanderthals, had the same beige coloring as a Terran, and had a very humanoid body that put another peg on the board for the theory known as Gora’s Law.  The pilot was exactly 6 shakra tall, which put him around 6’5” or about 2 meters, and he was hexapoid.  The pilot had four arms, a second set of arms below his normal arms that were more slender and slightly longer than his upper arms, and only had four fingers on each hand, but had five toes on his feet.  He had human-like male genitalia, and a DNA scan showed that he had remarkably human-like DNA, very nearly able to produce children with a Terran or Faey, but not quite…much to the relief of the image-conscious Faey.  This Imxi was ugly to a Faey, and the idea that they could have a baby with something that ugly would be very disconcerting to them.  He was of the same basic family classification as the Terrans, Faey, Shio, and Jakkans—though the Jakkans were radically different form the others, they were still humanoid by classification—in that he only had coarse black hair on his head, in a patch just over his collar bones, above his genitals, and on his forearms and calves.  Jason would classify him as a four-armed Neanderthal and not be far from the mark.

        While he looked brutish, Ryn and Haelen proved that he was pretty damned intelligent.  He was both highly educated and well trained, and had been a fighter pilot for 6 standard years.  The Imxi had just discovered hyperspace technology about 250 years ago, used a mixture of plasma to power their engines and positronic power systems to power everything else, but had not yet mastered spatial technologies.  That meant no phased plasma, no artificial gravity on their ships, no gravometric engines.  Their engines were standard reaction engines, expending fuel in a chemical reaction that produced some pretty incredible energy, more than enough to move their warships, the largest of which were about the size of a tactical battleship. They utilized a very clever form of phased ion energy that was shield-piercing for their weapons before the Consortium gave them Torsion weapons, and the Consortium was upgrading their ships to striated metaphased power systems for them, taking equipment out of damaged ships and refitting them on Imxi craft.  Before the Consortium came along, their technology was bout 2,000 years behind the Faey, and that entire quadrant of the galaxy was similarly technologically backwards.  The Imxi were in the vanguard among their sector’s civilizations, one of the first to develop hyperspace technology, but they were millennia behind the empires of the Imperium and its neighbors.  This Imxi had the intelligence to comprehend modern technology, his race simply hadn’t progressed to that level.  They would have gotten there on their own had the Consortium not given them advanced tech, it would have just taken them time to research, study, discover, and grow.

        That explained why the Kimdori had no information on them.  They really only interacted with civilizations that had enough technological advancement to be a threat to galactic peace, then they moved in and tried to keep war from exploding across an entire sector, or even across a quadrant.  Systems like Terra had no idea that the Kimdori were out there, and if they did, they’d be kissing the Denmother’s feet.  It was the Kimdori’s actions that prevented what happened in Andromeda from happening in the Milky Way, where the entire galaxy came to be dominated by only two pan-galactic empires, which then engaged in a war so ghastly that a normal person would be emotionally scarred for life to learn the extent to which both sides had devolved into monsters.  The Kimdori worked to allow empires to grow and expand, but not become a threat to an entire sector, sector cluster, or even a quadrant, which would lead to galactic aspirations.

        So, while they wouldn’t learn anything from the Imxi from a technological standpoint, they would learn about the Imxi themselves.  Everything that pilot knew, they would know, pulled out of every corner of his mind by Ryn and Haelen.  Their language, culture, customs, the names they gave their own systems and planets, everything would be archived by Cybi into the Karinne knowledge base.  That information might be very useful later on, even if the Consortium knew they had an Imxi fighter and most likely its pilot.  They wouldn’t be able to sneak by anyone by pretending to be Imxi, but the more one knew about one’s enemy, the easier that enemy was to defeat.

        When he reached his office, everyone was there waiting for him.  Two representatives from the First Bank of Moridon, where Karinne had its house accounts, and two representatives from Moridon Pan-Galactic Bank, the bank Frinia’s house used, were in attendance.  Frinia was sitting at the meeting table in the outer office along with Kumi, Yila, Mayor Dela of Karsa, Miaari, and Trameken Lenarre, the facility manager for the Karsa Sports Complex.  Also there were four members of the legal team, holding the approved contract and its three official copies, Ten Marines stood as guards within the room, and Chirk and Brall sat at their desks watching on.

        “Ah, there you are, Jason,” Frinia smiled as he came in, Jason taking off his helmet.  “I was starting to wonder.”

        “I had something important come up, I’m sorry I’m late, Frinia,” he replied as he came over to the table and sat down between Kumi and Yila.  “Is everything in order?”

        “Sure is, babes,” Kumi replied.  “We’ve got the contracts, and we’re all ready to sign.”

        “This contract will transfer ownership of the Velta Paladins from Frinia Foralle, Grand Duchess of House Foralle, to the ownership alliance of Jason Karinne and Yila Trefani, Grand Duke and Grand Duchess of their respective houses.  Transfer of operational control will be immediate upon the filing of this contract with the IBL Ownership Committee,” Jack Weathers, the Terran leader of his legal team, instructed.  “Here to officially witness the signing of the contract and enact the transfer of the agreed to credits are the four members of the respective banking institutions with jurisdiction over the transaction.  All four are officially accredited with the Moridon Overseer Agency as fully licenses, bonded, and accepted Notary Publics, with the authority to witness and confirm this transaction.  Does anyone disapprove of the use of these Notaries in this transaction?” Jack asked.  When silence greeted him, he nodded.  “Very well then. Upon the signing of the contract and transfer of funds, this contract will be filed with the IBL home office immediately by courier, and the Paladin organization will begin moving to its new offices in Karsa.”

        The legal team set down the four contracts, one in front of Frinia, Yila, and Jason, and the fourth on the table in the middle, which would be the IBL’s copy.  “Very well then.  This contract will require only one signature and authorizing thumbprint from each party of the contract. Shall we proceed?”

        The signing ceremony was recorded by one of Cybi’s cameras, where the three house leaders signed the four copies of the contract, affixed their thumbprints to confirm ID, then the Moridons carefully examined each contract and affixed their seals of authorization.  Then came the much more invasive transfer of C166 billion in cash, which required all four bank officials and a dedicated crypto link back to the Council of Finance on Moridon, which had to authorize a private transaction of that size for legal reasons, to prove that the contract price was paid.  After the exhaustive ID scans, which included a DNA sample, the transfer of credit was approved.  A big chunk of the house’s bank account was transferred to House Foralle, but as far as Jason was concerned, he’d earn every credit back.  An IBL team was a gold mine of income.  After that, they traded handshakes and kisses, and the four Moridon took up the fourth contract and immediately left for Draconis, to deliver the transfer of ownership contract to the league’s home office.

        Thankfully, the IBL commissioner and offices had no say in the sale of IBL teams.  Sending them the contract was simply telling them that the team had been sold, and that an alliance of the Houses Karinne and Trefani now owned the Karis Paladins.

        Once the Moridons left, Jason kissed Frinia on the cheek and patted her on the shoulder.  “Call your front office and tell them they’re about to move, Frinia,” he told her.  “I hope they don’t mind changing systems that much.”

        “Suitable severance packages were part of the contract if my front office people don’t want to leave Velta,” she smiled.  “But most of them will move with the team.  They’re devoted to the Paladins, Jason. That’s why I hired them in the first place.”

        “Provided they can pass the security screening,” he reminded her.  That was also part of the contract.

        “I’m sure they will, Jason.  Bachi is their life.  They won’t be a security threat.  They’re working to make the team great.  Just give them the offices and the resources they need, and they can do it.  I’m sure they can.”

        “They’ll get their chance, Frinia, I promise,” he told her.  “Now go break the bad news to them.”

        “I see it as good news, Jason.  With you bankrolling the team far beyond what I could, the Paladins are going to finally compete.  And to me, nothing could make this old woman happier,” she said with a brilliant and earnest smile.  “I just hope I’m still alive the first time the Paladins make the playoffs.”

        “You will be,” he assured her, patting her on the shoulder.

        Jason walked along with Miaari after the meeting ended, Frinia and Yila heading home, Kumi heading for home herself since it was so late, and Jason heading for Miaari’s office.  It was in the same building and down two floors, and when he came in, he saw that her entire staff was in and working, including Tim.  “We’re analyzing the data that Haelen is putting on the mainframe, even as we speak,” she reported.  “We already have the Imxi language fully decoded and stored, available for gestalt download on demand, so a Generation can insert it to one of the other telepaths.  Songa has medically screened the pilot as well and cultured all Imxi common microbes.  Her team is working up cures to the microbes in the Imxi’s body.”               

        “Sounds good.  Written language too?”

        “We have it all,” she nodded.

        “What about the fighter?”

        “Friend Myleena has an engineering team inspecting it.  They haven’t sent any reports yet.  I can almost hear Myleena rubbing her hands in anticipation of something else she can take apart,” Miaari chuckled.

        “You know how she loves her toys, Miaari,” Jason agreed.  “But about all she’ll learn from that fighter is how the Consortium adapted it to their own power system to run the Torsion cannon.”

        “It is probably one of the self-powered models, the bunker emplacement units, so they only had to run control lines so the pilot could fire it.”

        “Probably, he nodded.  “Myli might take their engines apart, though.  Reaction engines like that aren’t something you see in this sector much anymore.”

        “Truly.  They are antiques by Imperium standards, and positively ancient by ours.”

        “Well, if that’s all we have so far, I guess I’m gonna go home.  We have a big day tomorrow.”

        “I’ll have a report ready in the morning, if you even read it,” she said lightly.

        “Hey, some things are more important than being a Grand Duke, and my wife’s birthday is one of them,” he retorted.  “And remember, thirteen hundred hours, my house, party.”

        “Why so late?” she asked lightly.

        “Because my first present to her is making her walk funny for the rest of the day,” he said, which made Miaari laugh.

 

        Kaista, 16 Demaa, 4401, Orthodox Calendar

        Monday, 3 May 2014, Terran Standard Calendar

        Kaista, 16 Demaa, year 1327 of the 97th Generation, Karinne Historical Reference Calendar

        Foxwood East, Karsa, Karis

 

        Jyslin wasn’t the one walking a little funny when Jason finally got out of the bedroom.  She’d been very amorous that morning, and since it was her birthday, he felt honor bound to stay in that room and do his solemn duty until she was completely satisfied.

        What it did do is upset his daily plan a tiny bit.  The Confederate Council was meeting before her party today, the only convergence of times so all rulers would be on their “day” cycle, so the meetings were pretty wildly spread across a day.  It wasn’t easy when the members had activity cycles that ranged from 10 hours to 30 hours, so every day’s meeting time was usually the only window where all involved would be awake and alert.  Some might be there early in the morning, some very late in the afternoon, but that was the only way it could really work.  It was worst when Draconis and Karis were opposite one another, which would be happening in just a week or so.  Right now, Draconis was some 9 hours ahead of them, so in that week or so, day for Dahnai would be night for him, and their council meetings were always crammed into the very end or beginning of the day.  There would be a three day span next week where there would be no window for meetings, either.  When that happened, they went with the window that served most of them, and some unlucky ambassador or two would be sitting in on the meeting in the dead of night to report back to their rulers when they woke up.

        He ate breakfast with one mental eye inward, reading a report on the fighter.  It had the most efficient and powerful reaction engines Myleena had ever seen, giving it nearly grav engine-level velocity, but like any reaction engine in space, it wasn’t as maneuverable.  It had to rely on thrusters to turn, or in the fighter’s case, a clever series of exhaust ports that channeled the engine’s thrust in any direction required, and the thrusters were never as good as a gravometric engine.  The result was a high-speed but slow-turning fighter that was probably superior to any other fighter in the Imxi’s sector, but was no threat to an alert Wolf pilot.  But, the Torsion cannon the Consortium had stuck on it did make it dangerous in that it had a viable weapon.  Miaari had been right, they were using self-powering Torsion cannons not unlike a ground artillery piece, an enclosed unit with its power supply integrated, then rigged up control systems so the unit could interface with the fighter’s computer.  The cannon replaced the bulky ion weapons in the fighter, which allowed them to integrate it inside the fighter’s central body in place of the ion weapon’s main assembly and power supply and fire from a port in the nose, not unlike the gatling gun on the old A-10 ground attack fighter.  The pilot was literally sitting on the barrel of the Torsion weapon, and it was a curious matter of serendipity that the ion array and its power plant that they took out was only slightly larger than the Torsion weapon they installed, making swapping out the weapons very easy for the Consortium engineers.  Metallurgically, the fighter was composed of an inferior version of shocked titanium, a form of altered titanium that was stronger than normal titanium and wouldn’t burn if subjected to intense heat within an oxygen atmosphere, but it did show that the Imxi had some expertise in spacefaring metallurgy.  Their metallurgical skill actually exceeded their other technological fields, such as power generation, propulsion, and shield technology.  Metallurgy seemed to be their specialty, and they knew how to exploit that technological edge against their neighbors.

        Biologically, the Imxi were very similar to Terrans, Shio, and Faey.  They had similar tolerances for heat and air pressure, were slightly more tolerant of cold than the other three species, but they breathed both oxygen and nitrogen…which wouldn’t be a problem on most terrestrial planets, since most had nitrogen/oxygen atmospheres.  Their metabolism was quite unique according to Songa’s report, requiring oxygen for fuel and nitrogen for cell health, which they acquired through aspiration...Songa and her fancy words.  She couldn’t just say they get their nitrogen by breathing.  Their metabolisms were consistent with most carbon-based species, which meant that the Imxi could survive on their food and vice versa. The series of pictures Songa took with her report did creep him out a bit, though.  He’d never seen a four-armed species before, and he’d never dreamed of looking at what he’d call a four-armed Neanderthal.  Low forehead, coarse hair, big nose, wide mouth with heavy teeth, reinforced cheekbones, the Imxi were right behind the Jakkans and the Bari-Bari on the Terran ewww-o-meter.  They were not genetically compatible with Terrans, Shio, or Faey, no doubt much to the eternal relief of all three species.

        Which wasn’t really an indicator, since Shio weren’t compatible with Terrans and Faey either, and all three races looked almost exactly identical.  That green blood of theirs was the big one that made them incompatible.

        Shio…he was starting to wonder if the entire damn race was trying to join the House Karinne.  They comprised nearly 40% of the newest class of 23,995 house applicants, and had held numbers that high since the Shio were attacked. Shio were dominating the orientation classes, the majority race most of the time, with the Faey a distant second.  Then again, Jason knew that Grayhawk was encouraging his people to join Karinne.  The Shio’s planets were devastated and they were in no condition or position to fight, and many of them wanted revenge for what was done to them.  The only way they could really do that was apply to Karinne and join the KMS.  He perused those numbers as he finished up his oatmeal with slices of oye fruit and strawberries in it, and was encouraged a bit.  There were more external races applying now, mainly Skaa and Shio, but what got his attention was that even more Verutans had applied, some 460 of them.

        He almost dropped his spoon when he saw what was on the bottom of the list.  Five Imbiri had applied.  Imbiri!  The Imbiri were a very reclusive and enigmatic species that lived in the Verutan sector.  Much like how nobody bothered the Moridon, the Imbiri were not bothered or harassed by either the Veruta or the Haumda, since the Imbiri system sat on the border between the two empires.  Both empires respected the small system’s desire for neutrality, and often used it as a neutral site for talks.  This was because the Imbiri were complete and utter pacifists.  They didn’t believe in warfare or violence in any form, but they did engage in trade with the empires of the Verutan sector and offered their services as mediators and neutral observers.  The Imbiri were sylvan creatures, almost like the fairies or pixies from Terran mythology, about four or five feet tall, slim, graceful, ethereally beautiful to Terrans, and sporting large chitinous wings that gave them ability to fly.  They were a low-gravity race, however, their home planet .83 standard gravity.  They were extremely intelligent, and favored jobs in the sciences and education, but their code of honor prevented them from developing or building weapons.  Their home planet was held in a natural state akin to a planetary national forest, with only ten major pockets where the Imbiri had their cities, allowed technology to intrude into nature.  Anywhere else on Imbiri, there was nothing but small hamlets and farms that minimized their impact on nature as much as possible.  There was an entire complement of Imbiri at the Academy, both students and instructors, but one didn’t have to be a member of House Karinne to be employed by the Academy.

        You alright, your Grace? Ayama asked.

        Just a little surprised.  Five Imbiri applied for house membership.  I’m kinda wondering why.

        That is interesting, she agreed mildly.  Maybe you should go talk to them.

        I might do that, but not today, he replied.

        After nearly an hour of listening to the council members talk, Jason finally freed himself and ran downstairs, spun Jyslin around in the living room, then kissed her exuberantly.  And is the birthday girl ready for her party? he asked with a smile.

        Not if you make me throw up, I won’t be, she replied with a wink, which made him laugh and set her down.  I’m starting to wonder what you have hidden in your garden, love.  No decorations, no guests?

        We’re not having the party here, silly, he told her.  Now come on.  I had to fight Aya in a duel to the death to get her to let us leave the strip without armor, so let’s not waste this opportunity.

        I’m still very much alive, thank you very much, Aya sent dryly from the barracks next door, which made Jyslin laugh.

        Where’s Rann? Jyslin asked.

        Myli has him, he’s already at the party.  So c’mon, they’re waiting for us.

        The two of them boarded the corvette sitting on the dock without armor, but with all four of his usual guards, and they took off for a three minute journey from the strip to the Karsa waterfront district.  They disembarked at the waterfront pier for the most luxurious hotel in Karsa, the Imperial, where Jason had rented out one of the ballrooms for the party.  Jason went so far as to put a blindfold over her eyes and lead her out of the corvette, Jyslin honestly intrigued.  Jason was making it a mystery, and the Faey in her adored the mystery.  Everyone in the ballroom remained quiet as he led her in, then he stepped behind her and took off the blindfold.   And right in front of her, among her many friends and co-workers on the planet, were her parents, brother, brother’s family, and her aunt Lorna.  “Happy birthday!” they all shouted, but Jyslin was already throwing herself into her father’s arms.

        Papa, I’m so happy to see you! she sent gushingly, surprise and elation threaded into her thought.  She then turned and crushed her mother in an embrace, then her brother and his wife, then Lorna, both laughing and crying at the same time.

        So, can I find guests for a party, or can I? Jason asked lightly as she turned and gave him a fierce hug.

        I can’t believe you got them here without me knowing!

        It’s easy when I can make them work you half to death, he sent teasingly.  You were too busy to notice.

        She laughed helplessly, kissed him, then punched him on the shoulder.  So you’re the reason why I’ve been working so hard!

        Myli was in on it, too, he winked.

        Having her family there made the party a smashing success, at least for Jyslin.  She sat with them for the entire party, catching up with them, as friends and family drifted back and forth to her table to talk to them.  She talked to them over vidlink quite a bit, but it wasn’t the same as having them there, able to hold her two year old niece Jiji who was an absolute cutie, and let her family get to be right there with Rann and hear him send.  Her telling them he could send wasn’t the same as them hearing him send.  For his part, Rann and all of Jason’s other children were drawn to Jyslin’s family, called them aunt and uncle and grandpa and grandma, which surprised Rillen and Vari and made them quite happy.  Kyri and Sora and Aran and Zach weren’t their grandkids, but they were still technically their grandparents since Jyslin was Jason’s wife…sort of.  It was enough for them to happily accept the titles and get to know Jason’s other children, though.  It wasn’t all just local friends, though.  Yila and Dara were there, sitting with Myleena and Kumi at the table beside the table of honor.  Jason didn’t entirely invite Yila, she’d heard about the party and more or less crashed it, and since Zach was going to be there, she made sure to bring Dara along with her.  Yila was getting bolder and bolder, and Jason had the feeling that he was going to have to step on her fairly soon.

        Then came the gifts. Jyslin had an entire table full of presents, and it took her almost half an hour to go through them.  From the silly and naughty—Kumi—to the soberly practical—Navii—Jyslin got clothes, jewelry, art, a Parri Dream Stick directly from the shaman of the Parri village, a device that was supposed to bring pleasant dreams, and Dahnai had sent Jyslin both a gag gift in a fully animatronic sex doll patterned to look exactly like Kellin, so you never miss him read the card, which made Jyslin laugh, to a new double occupancy hoverstroller for the twins.  Jason made sure that his gift was last, because he had it in his pocket.

        When it was his turn, he sat down beside her and fished the envelope out of his back pocket and unfolded it.  “What is this, love?” she asked aloud, so Miaari wouldn’t feel left out.

        “Happy birthday,” he told her.

        She opened it, read the first line of the paper, and then screamed so loud that she scared most in the room half to death.  She literally knocked Jason off the chair when she crashed into him, knocking them to the floor, covering his face with kisses as the gathered friends laughed.

        “Whatever could produce that?” Temika asked with a laugh.

        “He gave me the Paladins!” she screamed.

        “The whut?” Temika asked, but that produced some gasps from the Faey in the room.

        “We bought the Paladins IBL bachi team, Temika,” Yila chuckled from the side.  “And this is the official announcement.  We had the IBL office sit on this until today. In fact, the press release should be going out any minute now,” she added, glancing at her watch, which was a Rolex she bought from Terra that was built for the Faey’s 30 hour day.

        That caused some excitement in the room.  Jason ran some footage of the Velta Paladins for Temika on a holo, then revealed the new uniforms, which were almost exactly the same as the old, just with the Foralle crest replaced with the Karinne crest on the shoulder.  Jyslin received the first uniform jersey, which amusingly the players didn’t wear when they played, just to and from the field, with Jyslin’s name and the number 1 on the jersey, which was always reserved for the owner as a matter of tradition.  “Jyslin’s going to be the one that interacts with the team’s front office,” Jason explained.  “In effect, she’s the one that’s going to be signing the checks, and will be the face of the ownership.  Most of the team’s front office is coming here with the team during the move, and Frinia, the last owner, assures me they’re a good organization.  They do seem to know their bachi.”

        “Ah, ‘kay.  Ah never did watch bachi much.  Ah’m a football kinda gal.”

        That buzz swirled through the room for quite a while, at least until Miaari stalked up to him and put a finger on her memory band.  [I just got some news, Jason.]

        [Good or bad?]

        [I’m not sure yet.  One of my packmates just caught someone trying to infiltrate the biogenic warehouse in Kosigi.]

        [What?  Who?  What happened?]

        [I don’t have the specifics yet.  Cousin Braan is still gathering information.  What he tells me is that it was a sleeper agent, an Imperial mindbender under the effect of a psychic clone.  Not even we can detect that,] she banded to him grimly.  Psychic clones were a division of the psyche, forming a secondary personality that could be as detailed as any real person, with its own memories, history, and if set up right, its own presence in the system.  The other personality was sealed away and required either a telepath to bring it out or some kind of conditioned trigger that caused the personalities to switch.  Psychic clones were extremely hard to do right.  Jyslin could do it, as well as about 300 telepaths on Karis, but Jason himself didn’t have that kind of training.  From the sound of it, this agent was triggered, probably using some audio phrase or specific image that caused the sealed personality to replace the initial one, which in this case would most likely be the spy’s original personality.  They had used the psychic clone to sneak the agent past the Kimdori, but from the sound of it, the agent was caught after she activated and tried to steal something, be it technology or datafiles.

        The reason why Kimdori couldn’t detect a psychic clone was because the sealed second personality was completely suspended, comatose, and thus there was no mental activity to give it away to a Kimdori’s unique ability.  Even a telepath couldn’t detect a psychic clone unless they knew exactly what they were looking for, and they were also very good.  Jyslin could create a psychic clone, but not even she could detect one.  That took very specific training of a level that possibly only Ryn possessed on the planet.  But given how hard it was to create a psychic clone of that kind of complexity and stability—setting one to trigger on some visual or audio trigger was not easy—it wasn’t something Jason had honestly expected to come across quite like this.  Psychic clones became unstable over time unless there was a mindbender there to constantly stabilize it, as Jyslin had to do for Luke when he volunteered to carry a psychic clone back in the Legion days.  If they’d sent an agent here with a psychic clone that was still stable months after creation, then whoever created that clone was a fucking telepathic savant.

        Jason gave Miaari a grim look.  [Holy fuck, if Dahnai has a mindbender that can do that,] he communed, then shook his head.

        [I know.  This will surprise even the Denmother,] Miaari agreed with a nod.  [It also means I will double security at all sensitive locations.  There might be another agent carrying a psychic clone among us, but we will be hard pressed to find it until the clone activates.]

        [I know,] he nodded, then blew out his breath.  Fucking Dahnai.  This was from her, there could be no doubt.  This had to come straight from her stable of most experienced mindbenders, and she was demonstrating that she was not going to stop until she managed to steal Karinne technology.  The fact that she was his amu dorai sure as fucking hell wasn’t getting in her way.  She’d wanted the secrets of the Karinnes since he claimed the house, and since he’d stonewalled her for five years, now that she had access to Karis, she was sending in the spies, sending spies with more and more cunning and complex covers to get them into a position to make an attempt to steal secrets.

        But what earthly gain could it be for her?  She knew that if he found out, he’d have a nuclear meltdown, and he’d find out pretty damn fast. She didn’t know that Cybi could detect biogenic devices, and the instant one was where it wasn’t supposed to be, Jason would know within two minutes.  Did she really think it was worth having Jason have a conniption just to get her hands on biogenics?

        Well, obviously, she did.

        And there were some biogenic applications that didn’t need a Generation.  Their entire interface system was based on biogenics, using a slightly different kind of biogenic crystal that could “read minds,” as it were, sensed thought and reacted to it.  It was the closest the ancient Karinnes had come to their dream of machines that could interact with any telepath.  Any empire in the sector would kill for interface technology.

        [I am quite wroth about this,] Miaari conveyed, anger creeping into her banded communication.  [I am going to contact Jinaami and have her raid the Imperium’s intelligence agency.  We may not be able to detect these psychic clones, but if Jinaami can get her hands on the list of clone-carrying agents they have sent, we won’t have to look.]

        [Good idea.  You have my backing,] Jason agreed.  That wouldn’t be easy.  The Imperium’s sensitive areas were defended by mindbenders, and since Kimdori weren’t Faey, they’d see through a Kimdori’s shapeshift.  For that reason, the Kimdori had to be much more Mission Impossible-esque to get their hands on that kind of information.  Jinaami would call in specialists who would invade the intelligence agency and steal the information from their computers, or get close to high-ranking members and lift that information directly from their minds.

        Damn it.  Just when he thought they had a handle on security, fucking Dahnai sends something new at them, something that actually got into a position to try to steal something.  Zaa wasn’t going to be happy, but this wasn’t Miaari’s fault; in fact, she acquitted herself well by having a security system in place that caught the spy before she could accomplish her mission.
        He sighed, frowning.  There was a reckoning coming between him and Dahnai, he could smell it.  She wasn’t going to stop until he put his foot down, and when he did, she was going to be pissed off.  But if she actually pulled off stealing something, she would force him to do something drastic to get it back, and something that might poison both their relationship and the alliance between Merrane and Karinne, and therefore destabilize the entire Imperium.  She was using the fact that Jason couldn’t back away from the Imperium to send in her spies, abusing the situation, but she didn’t realize that the repercussions if she succeeded could have heavy repercussions, the least of which was the expulsion of every outsider from Karis.

        He had to do something, and do it soon, before this got entirely out of control.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:   Title    ToC    2      4

Chapter 3

       

        Brista, 23 Demaa, 4401, Orthodox Calendar

        Monday, 10 May 2014, Terran Standard Calendar

        Brista, 23 Demaa, year 1327 of the 97th Generation, Karinne Historical Reference Calendar

        The White House, Karsa, Karis

 

        Jyslin was in heaven.

        It’s not every day a girl gets an IBL bachi team for a birthday present.  For the last week, she’d split her duties between 3D and the Paladins, finishing working on the Consortium ship, then overseeing the transition of the team to Karis.  She was there along with Frinia to welcome the front office, all of which had made the move from Veltana to Karsa, settling them into truly huge and luxurious off space, floors 12-26 of the 207 story Bren Isala building right beside the arena.  The building was mostly empty, so it was not a problem at all to secure 14 floors for the offices and organization.  Red Horn Construction was already on the job to build a first class practice facility for the team built to Frinia’s exacting specifications, and they promised to have it done in 27 days.

        Ah, the joys of having a top rate Makati contracting firm at one’s beck and call.

        Actually, the practice facility wasn’t all that far from the strip.  The common practice was to place practice facilities close to where the players would be living to cut down on commute times, so the practice facility was square in the middle of some of the upper class housing not far from the strip, only about 12 kathra away.  There, the Makati would build four full size bachi pitches, workout facilities, training rooms, offices for the coaches and equipment managers, a warehouse for equipment, individual offices and private rooms for every member of the team so they could conduct their business, almost like an apartment complex and office building in the practice facility.  IBL bachi players were paid a hell of a lot of money, and not all of that came from their salaries.  Like pro players back home, they had endorsement deals, investments, side businesses, parlaying their bachi skills into a personal financial empire that would support them when their playing days were over. The average life span of an IBL-level bachi player was 7 years, it was a much rougher game than most people realized, so they had to make sure they made those 7 years count.  And part of what the franchise did was help them do that as much as possible so they could focus on playing the game.

        So, while Jyslin and Frinia got to know each other, even become friends as they worked to bring the Paladins to Karsa, Jason was hard at work on the real stuff…the war.  The energy being had thwarted four other attempts to attack Imxi systems over the week, using its clairvoyance or whatever the hell it did to almost instantly call up a response to anything that Maggie and Jake did over there.  All of their attacks, even the last one that was supposed to be an ambush, had failed.  The Consortium was not stupid, they were adapting to the toybox that his Legion members had taken, but to be fair to Maggie and Jake, they were trying to fight a different kind of war than the one that the Legion usually did.  The Legion was a guerilla operation at its core, meant to strike without warning at targets of opportunity and then fade away.  Jason was asking them to conduct actual warfare, so they were having problems with it.

        The only thing that was really working over there was the solar collector.  They had deployed a second one and gotten a successful kill with it, taking out an arc section under construction at PR-72, which was Gervalxia by Imxi designation.  The energy being had trouble seeing those things for some reason, so it was able to deploy, power up, and get off two shots before Consortium cruisers jumped in to stop it, when Maggie had it self destruct to deny them the chance to study it.  Those two shots were all it needed.  The first cut the arc section in half, and the second cut one of the the halves into two quarters, which would make it extremely hard to simply put the thing back together and repair the cut section.

        Not bad at all for something that ran off a class 7 PPG.  Efficiency wise, it was the best weapon they’d ever built.  A weapon running off basically a hovercar power plant that could blow a hole in anything not made of Neutronium…given optimum conditions, of course.  The only thing that came anywhere near close to that kind of efficiency was the railguns and rail cannons.

        Yeri was hard at work as well.  She’d secured hotel space for the visiting rulers and was hammering out all the details, making sure palatable food was available for all the various species, organizing tours of Kosigi and parts of Karis deemed not high security, and despite Jason’s misgivings, the opportunity to visit Cybi…sort of.  They all knew who Cybi was, they all actually knew Cybi since she did interact with them, but there was no way in hell Jason was allowing anyone not in the highest circles of Karinne anywhere near Kosiningi.  It was the only part of Karis where the KDF had orders to shoot to kill with no warning if any unidentified ship or flying craft violated its territorial space.  But, the rulers would be given the chance to interact with Cybi at a much more personal level

        Yeri was also working out the itinerary with the staffs of the rulers.  It would be a six day conference with the rulers being on Karis for seven nights.  They would arrive late in the afternoon and be given the chance to settle in and rest overnight, then the first day after their arrival would be mainly sightseeing and relaxation after their journey, a little down time for the busy wartime ruler.  The second day would start wth a tour of Kosigi, then they’d have their first major conference at the White House that afternoon, after Sk’Vrae had a chance to sleep and the others had time to rest a little.  The days after that would be with two conferences daily mixed in with personal time and down time for the rulers, with the rulers returning home the seventh morning.  Yeri, Aya, Myri, and Miaari had worked out all the logistics for security, both for the rulers and against the rulers, since each one was coming with a personal staff that would no doubt hold a spy or two.  Jason would almost be disappointed if they didn’t try anything.  Sk’Vrae wouldn’t, though, she had too much respect for Jason to try anything quite so…rude.  Urumi had some unusual social conventions, but they also made them very predictable.

        It was dirty deeds that brought him to work today. He had all four of his usual guards with him today, Ryn and Suri walking behind with Shen and Dera walking ahead, part of the increased security Aya had ordered in preparation for the summit.  Jason had been escorted by all four of his guards since the summit was announced, and would be until it was both over and Miaari gave clearance for him to go back to just two guards.  And most of the guard detachment had been pulling extra time guarding the school.  There were 10 guards deployed in and around the school whenever it was in session, in addition to 25 Dukal Guard, which were the elite guard unit in the Karinne Marines, attached directly to Aya’s Imperial Guard and under her command.  It was the Dukal Guard that guarded the White House, the Shimmer Dome, Kosiningi, 3D, and other highest security locations, and it was Aya that commanded the Dukal Guard, handled the security for them in addition to the strip.  She was a specialist in guarding people and locations, and Myri had been more than happy to give Aya jurisdiction over the places on Karis most needing protection.  The Imperial Guard restricted themselves only to the Dukal family and where they were, but Aya had admitted that the women in the Dukal Guard weren’t bad at all, and she trusted them to keep the most important sites on Karis secure.  It was white-armored Dukal Guard that stood in posts at key intersections in the White House, their white armor with red stripes going down the arms distinguishing them from all other military units.  Much as the Imperial Marines were easily identified by their signature black armor, the Marines in the Dukal Guard wore snow white armor with red stripes and the Karinne crest emblazoned on the breastplate.  The Imperial Guard wore white armor in the palace, but on Karis, they wore black Crusader armor with a gold crest.  Most KMS Marine and Naval armor was black unless they had specialist PTS jobs, the natural color of compressed Neutronium, but the gold crest on the armor made it abundantly clear just who those women were to anyone with absolutely any experience with military heraldry.

        When Jason once asked why Aya didn’t have the guards wear white armor like they did in the palace, she told him it was to remind them that they weren’t in the palace.

        Their destination revealed itself around a corner, the Division of System Intelligence, or the DSI.  This was Miaari’s realm, where she did her job as the Gamekeeper of Karis…one of the most important Gamekeeper positions among the Kimdori, Jason had managed to find out.  It was Miaari’s job to protect the cousins against a repeat of what happened during the Third Civil War, protect technology that the Karinnes developed that the rest of the galaxy wasn’t ready to have quite yet.  And since the Karinnes had more or less opened up to the Imperium, Miaari’s job had become very, very busy.  The three security breaches into the system were just a handful of successes among thousands of attempts, and from more than just Dahnai.  Every single empire in sector and several in the quadrant had made attempts to get surveillance or infiltrators onto the planet, usually in the form of sleeper agents trying to get past the screening process to become part of the house.  Though they were in desperate need of new house members, the screening process had not been changed in any way other than to make it even more stringent.  A hopeful had to pass a background check, a session with a Karinne mindbender—usually a Generation—and then get past the Kimdori…and that was no easy trick.  So far, only one agent had managed to elude the screening process, and that had been someone implanted with a psychic clone.  The main threat was with the temporary workers, whose screening wasn’t as stringent because they were here to do a job and they were confined either to Kosigi or to the northern continent, which had only started the terraforming process.  It was a barren desert up there where they were building a series of factories—almost done with them, actually—then those workers would leave Karis and return to the Imperium.  Most of Miaari’s work dealt with keeping those outside workers under control up in Kosigi, and it was where most of the Kimdori that worked on Karis, the Clan Thresxt, did their jobs.

        Miaari was the Gamekeeper, so it was her clan that was responsible for Karis.  And that in itself was yet another source of pride for her father among the Kimdori.  Her daughter the Handmaiden was entrusted with one of the most critical Gamkeeper posts in the galaxy, while another daughter, the youngest Gamekeeper ever in the history of Kimdori, protected the Academy and Terra, which was also an extremely important position in that so much information flowed through Terra that it was a gold mine to the Kimdori.  Nearly every spacefaring civilization in the sectors making up their entire arm of the galaxy had students, emissaries, and spies on Terra, and Kiaari managed that cesspool of intrigue with an increasingly deft hand.  Kiaari often unearthed new information from Terra long before other Gamekeepers got word of it in other systems.

        Miaari’s office was in the main administration building just two floor below his office, and it was big.  The place was milling with Kimdori, Faey, Terrans, a few Shio, a couple of Makati, and now a few Beryans.  These were the diligent information gatherers, analysts, surveillance personnel, and field agents that Miaari employed to keep Karis safe.  Tim worked there, had his own office just down the hall from Miaari’s, where he worked as an analyst, studying information to exract useful intelligence from it.  He was very good at his job, Miaai had confided, one of her better analysts.  His guards lounged about near Miaari’s main secretary, a very young Kimdori male from her clan here for training, and Jason headed into Miaari’s office.  She was sitting at her desk in discussion with Tim, Kravakk, a Faey woman and a Shio male that Jason didn’t know, which showed him more and more how multicultural the house was becoming.

        “Ah, Jason,” she said as the door closed.  “It’s good to see you, friend.”

        “Well, I’m here, so what’s going on?” he asked, glancing at the Faey and Shio.  The Faey was very young, looking to still be in inscription, tall and willowy, with pale lavender hair and luminous yellow eyes, while the Shio was a very tall man, looking youthful but experienced at the same time, with black hair that no doubt made Faey women look his way and strong amber eyes only slightly darker and richer than the woman’s yellow eyes.

        “Firstly.  Tim and Kravakk you know, friend.  This is Kini Demalle and Kendru Stormfury, two of my more recent hires.  Kini is from the IBI, and Kendru is a recent acquisition from the Shio Federal Investigative Service.”  The IBI was the Imperium’s intelligence agency, the Imperial Bureau of Intelligence.  The Federal Investigative Service was one of the elite law enforcement agencies of the Shio Federation, like the FBI, sent out to investigate and solve the most daring or baffling crimes, or to track down and capture criminals that crossed system jurisdictional lines.  In the Shio Federation, every system was semi-autonomous when it came to law enforcement, so if a criminal managed to cross to another system, the FIS was sent in to hunt down the criminal. The FIS was the only Shio agency that had Federation-wide law enforcement jurisdiction.

        “Your Grace,” they both said, Kini bowing slightly to him.

        “Good to meet you,” he nodded to them, taking the chair in front of her desk.  “Now what’s going on?”

        “Denmother sent me a new packet of information about the Benga,” she said.  “It had little in it, but it was important for one reason.  The Benga are not resistant to telepathy as the bugs are.  In fact, the bugs were engineered to resist telepathy because of the Benga,” she stressed, bringing up a holo of a Benga over her desk.  “Approximately five percent of the Benga populace has some kind of telepathic, empathic, or psionic capability, and they use talent as a weapon, just as the Faey do.”

        “So, Wolf fighters will be effective against them,” Jason declared, leaning on the arm of the chair, a chair designed to handle someone in armor.

        “Yes, your Grace, but on a ship the size of a small moon, even a mindstriker in a Wolf would be hard pressed to take control of someone that could do any real damage,” Kravakk said.

        “That’s a point,” Jason agreed, scratching his chin.  “Did you send this down to Myri?”

        “I will as soon as we finish,” Miaari answered.  “It explains why the Consortium wants the secrets of the Generations so badly,” she continued.  “It also explains why the Consortium will only allow their insectoids to fight.  Anyone else would be vulnerable to Benga telepaths.”

        “Well, I guess we’re going to find out who has better training in about three years,” Jason grunted.

        “I dare say we have the advantage, my Duke,” Kini said dryly.  “After all, we Faey fight each other far more than anyone else.  If anything, Faey have extensive experience fighting against telepaths, where I doubt the Benga have the same background.”

        “I know that my own training in telepathic combat was woefully lacking the first time I faced a Faey instructor,” Kendru said dryly.  “I thought my training in the FIS prepared me for fighting another telepath.  I was wrong.”

        “When did you lock horns with a Faey?”

        “It was in the FIS, my Duke,” he replied.  “We hired her for formal telepathic combat training, in case one of our talented investigators had to capture a telepathic suspect.  We wanted to be ready to fight in the realm of the mindscape. It was a rude awakening,” he grunted.  “But it was a good move for us.  Our Faey instructors prepared us for the day when we did have to capture a talented Shio criminal.  Our Faey telepathic battle training saved our investigator from having his brain burned out.”

        “It is what we’re known for, Kendru,” Kini chuckled.

        “Yeah, I remember those lessons,” Jason noted lightly.  “My wife trained me.  I think I spent about a solid month with a nosebleed.”

        “God, I remember that,” Tim grunted.  “I never believed that a telepath could do half the things that Jyslin could.”

        “Well, Jys is in the top ten percent,” Jason noted lightly.  “She would have been a mindbender if she hadn’t have washed out.  She didn’t have the temperament for it.”

        “Now, as to the other matter.  Ladies, gentlemen, remember that this is privileged information,” Miaari said evenly, hitting a switch on her desk that put her office into secure mode.  When her console beeped, she put her elbows on her desk and looked over at Jason.  “Friend Jinaami has received her orders,” she declared.  “She is even now formulating a plan to gain access to the IBI, so we might get a list of names of the agents they’re sending against us.”

        Kini whistled.  “Dangerous.”

        “We are Kimdori,” Miaari said simply.  “We will succeed.”

        “So, any idea when we might get something back?”

        “That will depend.  As Kini intimated, friend Jason, breaking into the IBI is not an easy task.  Only someone as clever and capable as Jinaami would be able to do it.  It is not a task for anyone but a master Gamekeeper.  The IBI is probably the one place with more mindbenders than anywhere else in this galaxy.  Even for the Kimdori, that is a challenging obstacle to overcome.  The sheer number of top-tier telepaths the IBI employs makes any attempt to infiltrate their headquarters difficult.”

        “Sounds like Jinaami might need some help,” Kini said.  “Even you have to admit, Miaari, the best defense against a telepath is another telepath.  And I used to work there.”

        “Your reports are going to help Jinaami immensely, Kini, but they do know you.  I’m sure they’d love to get their hands on you,” she said dryly.

        Kini laughed.  “No doubt.  I had no real loyalty to them, Miaari.  Like most mindbenders, I wasn’t given much of a choice.  It was work for the IBI or have my brain scrambled.  Sometimes I wondered why in Trelle’s name I didn’t just wash out in phase one.  I think the smart ones did it on purpose,” she growled.

        Kini was a mindbender…interesting.

        “You’re a mindbender, Kini?” Tim asked in surprise.

        Was a mindbender,” Kini corrected.  “But yeah, I went through mindbender training.  It’s more like brainwashing if you ask me,” she said darkly.  “Half my class were psychotic, sadistic bitches.”

        “Being a mindbender requires a certain…enthusiasm for the work, Kini,” Miaari said delicately.

        “Yeah well, I lost that enthusiasm pretty damn fast,” Kini grunted.  “I had the tolerance to do the work, but that tolerance went straight to the bottom of the Jerjik pit after I graduated and the IBI made me interrogate people.  I don’t get off on hurting people.  That’s why I’m here.  I always wanted to go into law enforcement anyway,” she noted.

        “So, Jinaami will be starting her operation very soon.  With any luck, we will know just who programmed that pyschic clone, and who else they have sent carrying them.”

        “Can you find a psychic clone, Kini?” Jason asked.

        She shook her head.  “That’s advanced even in mindbender circles,” she answered.  “I only graduated from mindbender training last year.  You have to earn your diamonds in the IBI before they start teaching those advanced techniques.”

        “If friend Jinaami succeeds, then we won’t need someone with sufficient telepathic training to find a psychic clone,” Miaari noted.  “Now, on to the other matter.  The summit.  As much as we must defend against our allies’ attempts to gather information, this is also an opportunity for us to gather information against them,” she said with a toothy smile.  “I’ve briefed the rest of the office, friend Jason, so let me go over my plans with you.”

        Jason listened along with the others as Miaari went over both her preparations to defend against espionage, and putting non-Faey telepaths into positions where they might skim the surface thoughts of the entourages of the rulers, or the rulers themselves.  There was absolutely no doubt that a majority of those staffers with the rulers were telepaths, since Karis was an Imperium planet that just happened to be the home of the most powerful telepaths in the galaxy, so they’d be insane not to bring telepaths to protect their people from telepathic snooping.  This was where recently acquired people like Kravakk or Kendru were going to come in very handy, since nobody would be absolutely sure if they were telepaths.  Faey didn’t have that luxury, since even civilizaitons with no contact with the Faey had heard about them just through traders and rumor.  Half the galaxy knew that the Faey were a race of telepaths, the only fully telepathic race in the entire galaxy.

        They finished up, and Jason headed for his office to tackle his inbox, as well as attend the daily Confederate briefing.  He was fairly sure that Jinaami was going to be able to pull it off. She was actually one of the most capable Kimdori, her position as the Gamekeeper of Draconis and ambassador to the Faey a glaring indication of her capability.  Zaa wouldn’t put just anyone in such an important position.  Jason had dealt with Jinaami quite a bit over the years, and he’d held certain aspirations to get his hands on her and bring her to Karis, have her work for him…and he also rather liked her.  He was very comfortable calling Jinaami a friend.

        Someone that he wasn’t quite so sure about in the friend department was waiting in his office when he arrived.  Yila Trefani was sitting on a couch to the side, chatting with Brall.  The fox-faced Grand Duchess was wearing something nearly as scandalous as she did when she talked him into buying the Paladins, a simple black haltar-like top with the Trefani crest on it, elegant black slippers, a necklace and waist chain, and nothing else.  She had her legs crossed demurely as she talked to Brall, then smiled when Jason came in.  Jason, she sent easily as she patted Brall on the hand.  It’s about time.

        What do you want, Yila? he asked absently as she stood up and stepped over to him as he approached Chirk’s desk.

        Who said I want anything?

        You’re not wearing panties.  You want something, he answered bluntly as he accepted a handpanel from his Kizzik aide.

        Yila laughed lightly, patting the shoulder of his armor.  Okay, okay, I might have some business I wanted to propose.

        Mmm-hmm, he sounded mentally, nodding at the mantis-like Chirk.  And you’re not sure if I’ll go for it, so you came dressed for negotiation.

        I’m not that predictable.

        He gave her a long, steady look, and a faint flush of purple bloomed in her cheeks.  Come on, let’s get this overwith before I have the daily meeting.  “Hold any calls for a bit, Chirk,” he told her aloud.  “Yila has something on her mind.”

        She nodded silently.

        Yila followed him into his office, then sat on the edge of his desk rather than sit in the chair beside it.  “Cybi, could you come out please?” Yila called.  Lock down the office, Jason, she sent.

        Cybi manifested herself on the other side of the desk from Yila, putting her phantom feet on the carpeted floor.  “What is it, your Grace?”

        “I have some information I didn’t want to bandy around,” she replied, her voice much more serious.

        “What’s going on, Yila?”

         “I don’t have all the information yet, but this is what I have so far,” she replied, reaching under her haltar and pulling out a memory stick.  “I’ve had my people keeping their eyes open for anything weird coming down on my side of the Imperium, and this got my attention.”

        “What is it?”

        “Someone is trying to procure large-scale cloning equipment,” she answered.  “And I mean they want a factory.  It’s being done by a new corporation that formed with some Highborn backers, from house Luralle.  They’re supposed to be a medical supply company, growing cloned replacement organs.  But, the problem is, some of the equipment they’re trying to get through the black market isn’t for growing cloned organs.  It’s for full-sized clones, both the conception tanks and the growth acceleration tanks,” she added, handing Cybi the stick.

        “Full sized?  As in cloned people?”

        She nodded.  “As you know, cloning has been illegal in the Imperium for about three thousand years,” she said.  “You can’t buy those kinds of cloning tanks here, it’s massively illegal.  So, the company’s trying to get cloning equipment from the Alliance.  Full cloning is legal there under certain conditions.  Anyway, since the interdictors make smuggling impossible now, the company’s trying to smuggle them in through the TES.  If they can’t manage it, they’ll bring in Alliance engineers capable of building them from scratch in to do it, but they’d rather have the vats now.”

        Jason frowned, because it certainly did raise a red flag with him.  Cloning anything other than organs or tissues was massively illegal in the Imperium, based on their religious beliefs.  The same reason a Faey woman would never, ever have an abortion unless her life depended on it or undergo in vitro fertilizations was the same reason that they didn’t allow cloning.  A life conceived outside the body and against the natural order was seriously, seriously against all three of their religious teachings.  The very fact that any corporation in the Imperium was even thinking of buying cloning vats large enough to clone a person was a major aberration, and right now, anything that unusual was something that had to be checked out.

        House Luralle…it was the smallest of the Highborn houses, and a staunch ally of House Merrane, as the small Highborn houses were.  Carissa Luralle was a fairly young Grand Duchess that had the sense to stay out of the political machinations and intrigue that plagued court, since her house was small and not in all that much of a solid situation.  She just kept to herself and listened while in court, and because of that, she was one of the few Grand Duchesses in the Siann that Jason didn’t mind talking to all that much.  She was on the Highborn Council, but the other Highborns didn’t think that much of her because her house was small and somewhat poor compared to huge, rich houses like Doralle, Shovalle, Trillane, and Merrane.  Carissa was like Anya and the other five Highborn Grand Duchesses, shunted to the side and forced to play a dangerous game to hold their position without getting pushed into anything stupid by the more powerful and ambitious Highborn houses.  Much like Anya, Carissa openly allied herself to Dahnai and just went about its business while trying to stay out of the way of the more powerful houses as much as possible.

        And now sensible, I don’t take chances Carissa was trying to smuggle cloning equipment into the Imperium?  That wasn’t just unusual, that was bizarre, and that meant that it was something that Miaari had better check out.

        “How much equipment are they trying to get?” Cybi asked.

        “Enough to fill an entire factory, Cybi,” Yila answered.  “My sources say they’re bargaining with Farroll Medical for ten thousand vat systems to grow a clone to adulthood, but they’re also trying to close a deal with Inzik-Ketrik for twenty thousand vat systems.”

        “Thirty thousand cloning units?  That’s some serious credits, Yila.  How can they afford it?”

        “That’s a damn good question I’m gonna find an answer for,” she replied grimly as Cybi slotted the datastick in a handpanel.  “Either they’re sucking a whole lot of Moridon dick, or Carissa’s a whole lot richer than she pretends to be.”

        “I believe I should investigate their computers, Jason,” Cybi said as she seemed to be reading the handpanel, though she was probably directly accessing it through the handpanel.  “They might have more data hidden in their computers that might solve the mystery.”

        “Go for it, Cybi, if that’s what you want to do,” he answered.

        “Well, I feel justified bringing this to you,” Yila noted, leaning on her hand and looking over at Cybi.  “When I heard about this, I immediately thought of the Generations.”

        “Why?”

        “Because if I could, Jason, I’d clone you,” she said directly.  “But I’m not that crazy.  I’m too tied up in the Karinnes, and besides, I’m making way too much money to topple the pillar.  Thirty thousand cloning systems inside the Imperium?  Someone has the same idea, and I doubt it’s Carissa.  She’s too smart to try something like this.  I think someone’s using her house as a front to hide who they are, and they have Carissa by her bush to make her cooperate.”

        “You think so?”

        “Jayce, dear, any of the larger Highborn houses have the resources and the ambition to try something like this,” she told him seriously.  “Even without the biogenics, a Generation is stronger in talent than we are.  Clone up a few hundred thousand programmed soldiers that can kick the shit out of the average Faey soldier, and you’ve got an army capable of challenging Dahnai for her throne.”

        Jason growled wordlessly, then leaned back in his chair.  Fuck, Yila was right.  If they were going to try something like that, they’d have to keep it as secret as possible, which meant they’d have to keep it inside the Imperium.  No way would a Grand Duchess dare try to set something like that up outside the Imperium, not with the very strict entry protocols…it would be hard to explain where all the Faey coming through the TES from some other empire came from, since they’d have no records. And since Generations were stronger talents than regular Faey, it would give that Grand Duchess a strong army of telepaths to overwhelm others.

        Fuck…this was exactly why Jason had pulled all his people back to Karis in the first place.

        “That is a viable concern,” Cybi agreed.  “Any time a Faey starts to dabble in cloning, she has something nefarious and wicked in mind.  It violates the most sacred teachings of Trelle to create a life outside the womb.  Such a life would have no soul.”

        “Most politicians are only as religious as they need to look, Cybi,” Jason grunted, to which Yila nodded with a dark smile.  “Could you take that datastick to Miaari and brief her?”

        “Certainly,” she replied, tucking the handpanel under her arm.  She then picked her feet up off the floor and floated towards the door, which opened for her.

        So, you owe me now, Jason Karinne, Yila sent with a predatory smile, reaching over and patting his cheek with a manicured hand.

        I certainly owe you thanks for bringing that in, he agreed.

        You owe me more than that, and you know what I want.

        I told you, woman, Zach gets to choose who he’s going to marry, he reminded her archly.  There’s not going to be any bethrothal unless he asks for one.  And he’s only five, for God’s sake, he’s too young to make that kind of a life-altering decision.

        I knew who I wanted to marry when I was three, she snorted.

        You had that choice made for you.

        No, I chose Emrin, she answered easily.

        You must not care all that much about him, since I’ve never even so much as seen him at court, he shot back.

        And that’s exactly why I chose Emrin, she added.  He’s sweet, kind, and innocent, and I don’t let him know what I do.  He’s what little bit of a moral anchor I have in this world, she sent with a slight smile.  I don’t love him the way you love Jyslin, but I’m very fond of him, and he’s a wonderful father.  While I’m out swindling pensioners, as you love to put it, he’s making sure our children are raised with love and attention.  He’s the perfect husband for someone like me.

        And how did you decide that when you were three?

        Because he used to share his oye with me, so I knew he was a kind and generous boy.  And my mother always said that kind and generous boys make the best fathers, so I picked him.  Besides, he was really cute.  It took me six years to nag my mother into securing the betrothal, she chuckled aloud.  After all, he was from House Hemalle, so it wasn’t much of a political advantage for my mother to betrothe me to him.

        Where did you meet him?

        He was the son of a minor Hemalle noble that lived on Tamiri.  We’d leased out a mining operation to them, since we don’t do all that much mining  So I saw him quite a bit.  She leaned over and kissed him playfully on the cheek.  But don’t you worry, I’ll convince Zach that Dara is the girl for him.

        You stay out of it, Yila.

        I won’t have to do much of anything, she told him lightly.  All I have to do is bring Dara here.  She really likes him, he really likes her.  Nature will take its course.

        And you’re sure he’s going to pick a girl he only sees maybe once a takir over some girl in his class that he sees every day?  My, we’re very confident.

        Of course I am, it’s the nature of a criminal to be confident, she winked.  Dara’s the mystery, and you know how we adore a mystery.

        Well, at least you’re honest.

        Never accuse me of honesty, Jayce, it’s insulting, she retorted, which made him laugh helplessly.  Now, as part of you paying me back for bringing this to you, you will invite me and Dara to dinner tonight, a nice little intmate dinner with just you, me, Dara, Jys, Zach, and his mother Ilia, she declared haughtily.  You will have Terran steak and lobster, and you will have Ayama make another cheesecake.  In fact, she’s going to make two, so I have some to take home.  Then you will sit with me in the hot tub while we discuss a few business ideas, maybe take a walk on the beach.

        Oh, listen to this.

        I know how to get back what people owe me, Jayce, she grinned, poking the upper chest of his armor.

        How about I put you on the next transport back to Draconis, you demanding little bitch?

        Bring it on, Jayce, I’m not afraid of you anymore.

        I need to fix that, he noted dryly.

        You can try, baby, you can try, she sent patronizingly, patting him on the cheek, then she uncoiled herself from his desk and sauntered out of the office, making sure to wiggle her bare butt for his benefit…mainly because she knew he really admired her butt, thought it was really sexy.  And like any Faey, she loved to show off what a man thought was sexy, which explained her recent penchant for choosing attire that lacked anything below the waist and above the knees.  She knew that Jason thought she had a sexy body, and in particular a very sexy ass, so she’d been showing him as much of her body as possible, particularly her ass.  It was a form of harmless flirtation in Faey society, so he didn’t take it seriously.

        But she was certainly a piece of work.  Sometimes he wondered if it was worth it to be her friend, but what she’d brought to him just a few minutes ago proved she was worth the aggravation.  Yila had her hands elbow deep in almost everything going on in the Imperium, and she was one of the few that could have found out what she’d brought to him…something that made him get a strange sense of dread.

        Clones.  Something about it just made a chill go up his spine, because Yila was right.  Someone out there had finally come up with the one thing he hoped they wouldn’t consider, and that was trying to clone a Generation.  It made him triply glad that the only Generations not on Karis were deeply entrenched in Dahanai’s palace, virtually untouchable to whichever Grand Duchess got that bright idea.

        Even if it didn’t concern him, some house trying to bring in a large-scale cloning operation, well, that was something that Miaari needed to check out anyway.  It was completely against both Faey law and religion, so that meant that it was not something that was meant for anything moral, ethical, or even beneficial.

 

        At least Yila wasn’t being an insufferable bitch.

        He decided to humor her at least to the point where Ayama served grilled steak and lobster, with ruga roots cooked on the grill, salad, imi beans, and cheesecake for dessert.  Dara was running around after dinner with Zach and Rann, heading for the beach so they could build a sand castle, Ilia and Jyslin walking behind them after shedding their clothes, not bothering to go get their bikinis on just to take them off again when they got there, finally adopting Jason’s mentality when it came to the beach.  Jason and Yila, however, stayed behind, and Kumi joined them in the hot tub as the fox-faced, dangeous Grand Duchess broached a few new business ideas to Kumi with Jason there listening, since he had to approve most of them.  Kumi did a lot on her own, but when it came to factory production or replicator access, Jason would find out about it, so they had to tell him about it.  Yila wasn’t proposing anything outrageous, thank goodness, just some trade deals between the Karinne/Trefani business alliance and some of the more distant empires.  They’d gotten their claws into the Verutan sector through metal sales to the Verutans, and there were six other major spacefaring civilizations in that sector, which meant six other potential trade partners.  To trade that far away, what Yila was fishing for more than anything else was space on Karinne freighters not tied up in the Skaa food efforts, since Karinne freighters that weren’t robotic could jump in real time, and that translated to profit.  Karinne also employed robotic freighters, but they didn’t put their jump engines in those, since they were too easy to capture.  The ability to jump trade goods to the Verutan sector in real time was a major cash cow, since it was a 15 day jump from the two closest systems between the Imperium and the Verutan Empire…which ironically was Karis.  From the next closest system, Praxis, it was a 19 day jump to the Verutan system of Urkarr.

        Strange, though, that Yila was getting so…well, cozy with him and Kumi.  She had to have something else up her sleeve outside of just trying to get her daughter married off to Zach.  But, he also couldn’t deny that in a weird way, he rather liked Yila Trefani.  She was an unrepentant criminal, thief, and all around bad girl, but she was also intelligent, charming, and affable.  In some ways, she reminded Jason of Semoya, one of the most well-liked Grand Duchesses, but also one of the most feared.

        But business only went so far at his house before much more fun things presented themselves.  Symone stepped out of her house on the far side of the hot tub deck with nothing but a towel over her shoulder, showing off her sexy body, then she climbed into the hot tub and snuggled up to Jason   Mmmm, hey baby, she purred mentally, putting her hand on his chest. That contact told him everything he needed to know; Symone was on the prowl.

        Well, about time you got home, lover, he told her, looking down into her eyes.  What took so long?

        We had to test over a hundred Gladiators today, she replied.  They’ve almost doubled production of ‘em, so all the riggers are putting in extra time getting them off the line and into service.

        That’s what you do, Symone?  You’re a rigger? Yila asked.

        More or less, she replied.  He won’t let me do anything fun, so I’m stuck testing the units off the production line and making sure they’re ready for service.  But I still get to blow stuff up, so it’s all good, she added with a grin that made Kumi laugh.

        Nothing but practice targets, but at least those don’t shoot back, Jason noted.  Have you tested the missile pods yet?

        Yeah, we just got the first of them three days ago.  They’re pretty cool, she replied.  The missile pods were an external add-on system that the engineers had designed, like the flight pods, that armed a Gladiator with 72 Hellstorm mini-missiles.  They were primarily defensive weapons, the Hellstorms designed to intercept incoming missiles, but they could also be used offensively to fire on enemy targets.  It was a necessary addition since the Consortium used missiles a great deal, giving Gladiators an extra layer of defense on top of their shields and armor.  The Hellstorm system connected to the rig’s left shoulder, across from the railgun scabbard, and it was just one external shoulder-mounted system the engineers were designing for the mecha.  Gladiators were built to be modular, able to equip and utilize multiple external systems, which they called pods.  They were also designing a heavy pulse cannon pod for the Gladiator that could fire a heavy-mount pulse cannon, the kind whose shots explode after penetrating rather than just dissipating like infantry-level pulse weapons did.  The power requirements for the heavy mount version was too much for smaller mecha, and even a Gladiator needed an additional power plant in the pod to augment its own power plant to fire the shoulder-mounted heavy cannon.  It couldn’t fire only on the Gladiator’s power plant.  Well, technically, it could, but the rigger would have to literally shut down every system on the rig except the pulse cannon.  What are you guys up to?

        Not much, just discussing how we can open up new trade routes into the Verutan sector, Yila answered.  After I made him serve me Terran steak and lobster anyway, she added with a sly smile at him.

        Be lucky, I have to suck his dick to get that kind of treatment, Symone replied with a naughty tilt to her thoughts.

        You do not!

        Well, maybe not have to, but I love to do it anyway, she sent, throwing all kinds of sexual innuendo at him as her hand slid under the water meaningfully.

        I think we’re being dismissed, Yila noted lightly to Kumi.

        Not Symone, she’ll do it right in front of us, Kumi answered with a dirty smile.  She’s way more fun than Jyslin is.

        Symone, you dirty girl, Yila laughed.

        I’m the kinky one in the family, Symone sent back shamelessly.  Shall we give them a show, lover? Symone sent as nastily as possible, her hand gripping him…and naturally, she got a response.  She was his amu dorai, she was in the mood, and she knew how to get him excited.  Of course, her tongue in his ear certainly was helping that along.

        He was almost thankful when Cybi broke in.  [Jason, Myri needs to talk to you immediately,] she communed.

        [Thank god, I think you just saved me from a compromising position,] he answered.

        [Symone can be enthusiastic, I’ve noticed,] Cybi answered lightly.

        Sorry, love, Cybi just told me that Myri needs to talk, he said, disengaging himself from her.  She pouted a bit, but didn’t press the issue.

        Alright, but hurry up.  I’ll be in your bedroom, she sent sensually.

        Jason dried off on his way up to his study, and as soon as he got in and put in secure mode, he used his gestalt to get in touch with Myri, causing a wall-sized hologram to shimmer into being on the far side of his desk.  She was in the main situation room along with all the generals, and the place was pretty busy.  “What’s going on, hon?” he asked.

        “The Consortium is on the move,” she replied.  “A significant fleet just jumped out of the PR sector heading here.”

        “How big?”

        “Three thousand ships,” she replied.  “En route to Trieste, and we estimate they’ll be here in about three days.”

        “What?  How much of their fleet is that?”

        “About a quarter of it,” she replied.  “Nearly half of the jumped fleet are Imxi ships.  Those fuckin’ Imxi have a four thousand ship navy.  I don’t see how they fuckin’ paid for it.”

        “Most of them are corvettes and small destroyers, though,” Navii noted.  “Those aren’t that hard to build, at least for us.”

        “How many ships do we have in the PR sector?”

        “Two hundred and nine,” Juma answered.  “As well as a heavy garrison of automated weaponry.”

        “Their defenses?”

        “The Kimdori are conducting surveillance as we speak, we’re waiting for their report,” Juma replied, looking away and pointing at something, then snapping her fingers.  An aide came into the hologram and gave her a handpanel.  “We’re getting some images in from Trieste, as well.  Hold on.”

        The hologram split, and he saw some video of Trieste.  He saw the Consortium moving their ships inside the moon, flying them down the tunnel they dug into the moon to install those hyperspace jump engines.

        “They’re definitely making a major move,” Jason grunted.  “I think when we took out that quantum phase device, they decided to do something else.”

        “Most likely, Jason,” Navii agreed.  “We should alert the war room on Terra and prepare the Confederation for an attack.  I have a hunch that the Consortium is about to launch a major offensive.  I think they’ve realized that the KMS has its forces split between the home sector and the PR sector, so they may try to pull us back here by attacking anything and everything they can using the Imxi ships.”

        “How are they getting those ships here?” Jason asked with a growl.  “The Imxi’s hyperspace technology is about two hundred years behind mainstream.  They couldn’t even manage to jump their ships across the galaxy, yet here are some three thousand Imxi ships in transit.”

        “Odds are they’re being towed behind the Consortium ships,” Juma reasoned.  “Consortium ships utilize those oversized engines, Jason, they could easily tow the smaller Imxi ships through.”

        “Yeah, yeah, you’re right,” Jason agreed.  “They might even be able to tow two or three ships, if they’re corvettes.”  He studied the images from Trieste.  “Is there some way we can break up this little party?  Think we could ambush their fleet in transit to Trieste?”

        “They’re smarter than they used to be, Jason.  They’re not making the jump in one trip.  For one, they have the Imxi with them, so they have to stop and rest.  That’s why I told you it’s going to take three days for them to get here, Jason,” Juma noted.  “If they didn’t have the Imxi, they could have their entire fleet over here in 238 minutes.  With them dropping out and conducting sensor sweeps, setting up an ambush for them wouldn’t be easy.”

        “Well, we can put a few traps in front of them, along the likely trajectories,” Jason grunted.  “That won’t take much in the way of resources, and we might get lucky.  I’ll get 3D on it as soon as I can.”  He blew out his breath.  “Fuck.  Let me get my armor on, and I’ll be in, we can talk about this face to face.  Cybi,” he called.  She manifested her hologram in front of his desk.  “Get the Legion back to 3D as soon as you can, and tell them I’ll be there as soon as I’m done over at the White House.  Tell them what’s coming and to start thinking of ways we can slow down that fleet.”

        “I’ll get right to it, your Grace,” she nodded, then her hologram winked out.

        His hologram split again, and Zaa’s face appeared unsolicited.  “Jason, I see you already know,” she said.  “Generals.”

        “Denmother,” Myri replied with a nod.  “Any word from the surveillance ships?”

        “They’re conducting scans of PR systems now,” she replied.  “But the information I bring comes from my infiltrators on the command station in the nebula.  The fleet from the PR sector was deployed to Trieste in preparation to attack Karis.  My children haven’t discovered the exact means, but they have discovered that the Consortium believes they have an alternate method to bypass the interdictor, using their current technology in some new application.  From what my children report, this is the first of a series of ship movements.  The Consortium intends to bring the majority of the Imxi fleet to Trieste as they build whatever device they plan to try to bypass the interdictor.”

        “Their ships just don’t have the power to overcome the interdiction effect,” Jason protested.

        “I know.  This is something else.  I don’t know what it is yet, and the Consortium is understandingly being extremely secretive about it.  They know we have eyes on the inside, so whatever it is they’ve come up with, it’s only known to only those with critical need to know it.”

        “Juma, I want you to get the Victory and Jenda to tow a Stargate out to the PR sector right now,” Jason said immediately.

        “We don’t have a Stargate to spare, Jason,” Juma protested.

        “We have two available, Juma.  We can take the one in the quasar and keep it linked to its sister gate here, we don’t need those anymore now that we can jump interdicted space,” Jason replied.  “The only reason we left them up and running was as an emergency way into Karis around the interdictor in case a ship without our jump engines had to get here in a hurry.  Denmother, can your ships drag that Stargate out of the radiation shield and bring it to Karis?  But leave the shielding up in the bubble, we might have use for that.”

        “I will do so immediately, cousin,” Denmother said.  She turned her head to look to her side and nodded.  “It will be at Karis in two hours.”

        “Alright, now we get that Stargate to PR-371 as fast as we possibly can, so our ships there can get back here, and also give us a window back to the PR sector.  I’ll tell the Legion to send even more defensive toys there to protect the system while we’re away.”

        “I will keep a ship large enough to tow the Stargate at PR-371 and remove it in case it is threatened,” Zaa offered.

        “That sounds perfect, thank you, Denmother,” Myri nodded.

        “Have them tow that Stargate carefully, General Myri, your towing ship might literally cross paths with the Consortium fleet.”

        “We’ll make sure they take a less direct route, Denmother,” Myri answered.

        “I’ll have a task force ready to take possession of the gate as soon as it gets here, then deploy it to PR-371,” Juma said.

        “I’ll be right over,” Jason said, “unless you have anything more to report, Denmother?”

        “No, I have my own tasks to oversee, cousin.  I will contact you when I have more information.”

        “Alright then.  I’ll be over as soon as I can.”

        “We’ll have your chair ready for you in the corner, Jason,” Myri said with a slight smile, trying to lighten the mood a bit.

        “I proably won’t be there long enough to complain,” he replied.  He got up as the hologram winked off, then he opened to door directly to his room.  Symone was laying on the bed, naked and in a sensual pose, and she stretched languidly as he stepped in.

        It’s about time, baby, I was starting to get lonely.

        I’m afraid you’ll have to go chase down Tim, love, he sent with sincere regret as the armory door slid open, and his armor stand slid out on its motorized mount.  Something really big is going down, so I have to go in to work.

        Aww, come on, I’m seriously in the mood, she complained.

        Baby, believe me, nothing would make me happier than trying to break the bed, but work always come before fun.  It even comes before sex, he sent seriously as he picked up the codpiece of his armor.  Kaera, he called.

        She’s off, your Grace, Hara answered.  I traded some hours with her.

        Hara, track down two guards, I have to go to the White House, and then to 3D afterward, he told her.

        I’ll have them at the corvette as soon as you’re ready.

        Good girl.  Jyslin, he reached out.  I have to go to work, something came up.

        Alright, love.  Danelle’s staying over the next couple of days, so she’ll be here when you get back.

        Okay.  Yila, I’m not coming back, he told her, sending openly.  Something’s going on, the Consortium just made a big move.  Go ahead and head home.

        Kumi offered to take me a couple of nighclubs, I think I’m going to hang around a bit, Jayce.

        Whatever, but I’m gonna be busy.  Probably real busy.

        Keep me up to speed, if you can.

        Aya was off duty, but she rousted Dera and Ryn from the barracks to accompany Jason.  They were standing by the corvette hatch when he got there, and he explained what was going on as he boarded the Marine corvette Broadsword, and sat back in the tactical post as they took the four minute ride to the White House.  When he reached the main command center, Myri already had Lorna and most of the generals and commanders of Confederate forces on holos around the main display console, along with a tactical map of the galaxy showing the position of the Consortium forces.  The Confederate command staff had increased with the inclusion of the Jobodi, who was sitting between a Shio and a Stevak from the Alliance.  The Stevak really stood out.  Stevak were one of the most unusual sentient, spacefaring species in the galaxy, because they weren’t a carbon based life form.  They were silicon based, and that fundamental difference had created, literally, a living thing made of stone.  Stevak had a mineral exoskeletal covering protecting their soft tissues—which was a relative comparison, since they were mineral-based—so they resembled stone-covered, seven foot tall gorillas.  Their arms were so long that they could put them on the ground and walk on all fours just by slouching, kind of like a gorilla, and when they did that, they were capable of bursts of speed of up to 40 miles an hour for short distances.  What made them somewhat disturbing was the fact that their faces had three eyes behind an armored lid that looked like the visor of a helmet, and a small mouth with no teeth, just a ridge of bone-like rock behind their lips that were sharp enough to chop up food and strong enough to crush rock.  Being silicon based, their diet was also radically different from most other species.  They literally ate silicon in addition to the meat of carbon-based and silicon-based creatures, and only meat.  They were incapable of digesting the vast majority of plant-based food.  Things like sand and glass were something of a food source for them as well, what they used to replenish and maintain their armored exoskeleton.  They were a silicon based species that evolved by preying on both carbon-based life forms and other silicon-based life forms that shared their home planet, eating only meat and sand and sandstone.

        What was creepiest was that they were genderless.  A Stevak produced one offspring every twenty years in a cycle they called “the budding,” and it was consistent through the entire race.  Every twenty years, all Stevak returned to their home planet and produced an offspring, all at the same time, which effectively doubled the Stevak population every twenty years.  A Stevak youth couldn’t survive anywhere but on their home planet, due to its unique ecosystem.  Only after they finished growing could a Stevak leave.

        “There’s little doubt that this is meant to be a second offensive against us,” the Stevak declared in its raspy, bellows-like voice.  “With Farroll interdicted, they’re likely to go after the closest systems to Trieste, primarily Stevon and Hashir,” it surmised.  “We should move defensive forces to those systems.”

        “That or an interdictor,” Lorna said, looking at Jason.  “Are there any extra ones available?”

        “Lemme look,” Jason said as he sat down, bringing up the inventory with his gestalt.  “There’s only one available right now, General Shaddale.  So you’d better decide where it’s gonna be the most useful.  But before you start planning, let me give you what Denmother just got in, like ten minutes ago,” he said.  “She got information that this fleet movement is the first of a series of deployments to bring the Imxi fleet to our sector.  Her infiltrators found out that the Consortium thinks they’ve come up with some other way to get around the interdictor, so they’re bringing their fleet in and massing it in preparation.”

        “That does explain a few things, but it doesn’t mean that they’re just going to sit at Trieste,” she answered.  “It would behoove them to harass the local Alliance systems to keep us on the defensive.”

        “That’s true,” Jason agreed.

        “If only we could interdict Trieste, but the Consortium would wipe out the population,” Queen’s Admiral Gr’Vess grunted.

        “That will be our last resort,” Lorna said.  “I don’t think anyone at this table wants to see some five billion Alliance citizens exterminated.”

        “Stevon is the more precarious of those two systems,” the Shio said, wearing Admiral’s rank.  “Our Stevaki friends cannot afford a wholesale disruption of the delicate balance of their home planet.”

        “I should be selfless and discount you, Admiral, but I will not,” the Stevak grunted.  “The Budding takes place in two years.  The preparations have already begun.”

        “Alright, so we interdict Stevon and have the Karinnes add it to the logistical schedule.  Any objections?” Lorna asked.  When nobody at the table said a word, she nodded.  “That means we can concentrate our main defensive pickets at Hashir.  That gives our fleets response to the other Alliance systems in that area,” she said, studying the holographic starmap showing the 12 Alliance systems on that side of their territory, with Trieste being close to the edge.  “From the intelligence we’ve gotten, the Imxi ships won’t be as much as a threat as the Consortium ships, but ships are ships,” she grunted.

        “They’ve been installing Torsion weapons on the Imxi ships,” Jason supplied.  “That makes them dangerous enough.  Did you get the logs and video of the Imxi ships attacking our ships?”

        “We’ve analyzed it, but it doesn’t give us much useful information, Jason,” Lorna chuckled, giving him a wry smile.  “Your ships destroyed them too fast for us to get any real idea of what they can do, especially since they didn’t really fire back.”

        “Well, blame my girls for being smart,” Jason said with a smile.

        “Holding them outside Torsion range is one of our best tactics,” Myri piped in with a chuckle.

        “The big question is what they’re going to do when they reach Trieste,” Lorna grunted, staring at the hologram, which cast a pale light over the scar on her face, which passed down through her eyebrow and upper cheek.  The eye between those scars was cybernetic.  “If they’re starting to mass for an attack on Karis, then their best course of action would be to try to retake the Alliance systems to hide what they’re doing.  But they also wouldn’t want to risk too many ships.  And if the Imxi can’t jump in real time, then they’d have to risk their own ships.  Hmmm,” she mused, studying the map.

        “It comes down to whatever this alternate plan they have is, and how fast they can implement it,” Jason told her and the other military leaders.  “They must have shelved it in favor of the quantum phase device, but when we blew that up, they brought this other plan back out.  Their primary target has always been Karis, and specifically Cybi.”

        “Are your people ready for something like that, your Grace?” the Shio admiral asked.

        “As ready as we can be,” Jason grunted.  “Even with half our fleet in the PR sector, Karis has some pretty heavy defenses.  Our fleet will be the least of their worries when they attack,” Jason grunted.  “But, we do need to slow them down a little, and I think I have an idea how to draw them back to the PR sector.”

        “The nebula?” Myri asked.

        Jason shook his head.  “Denmother got intelligence that suggests that this is the first of a series of ship deployments to bring the Imxi fleet to our sector.  Well, I don’t know how enthusiastic the Imxi will be to leave their own empire undefended when the KMS starts attacking their systems.  And I don’t mean with toys.  Sioa, draw up plans for a ground invasion of, hold on,” he said, bringing up a list of Imxi systems.  “PR-88.  It’s got three inhabited planets, and two of them are arable.  That’s a major prize, and it should foment a little discord between the Imxi and the Consortium.  They may want to conquer and rule, but they may not be so willing to throw all their ships in with the Consortium if it means losing their own systems.”

        “What do we know of the Imxi?” Lorna asked him.  “I haven’t had time to read the reports on them.”

        “They’re vulnerable to talent,” Jason said simply.

        “Ah.  That means the ground attack will be successful,” Lorna nodded.  “Just consider the politics of invading PR-88, your Grace.  I think the Confederate rulers might have something to say about that system.”

        “I have no intention of keeping it, Lorna,” he replied.  “I just want to slow down the Imxi from coming here.  The Karinnes have no desire to hold planets on the other side of the galaxy, especially ones holding a hostile race that’s highly aggressive.  The Karinnes are not conquerers, there is no member of this house that didn’t come to us willingly, and we’re not about to change that policy.  We’ll invade and occupy the system to provoke the Imxi, then pull them out when the Imxi respond.  It’s a delaying tactic, nothing more.”

        “An effective one, if it has two arable planets,” the Shio admiral agreed.

        “It has some possibilities,” Navii agreed.  “We should also consider using small attack craft like corvettes and gunboats to attack Imxi supply routes, ships that can jump in real time and have the firepower to attack and destroy freighters and supply ships quickly, then jump out before the Imxi can respond.  Disrupting the Imxi empire’s operations would make them extremely reluctant to commit the bulk of their forces to this side of the galaxy.”

        “I have lots of toys over there, Navii, I’ll tell Maggie and Jake to do just that,” he said.  “Going after their freighters is more along the lines of what the Legion does anyway.”

        “How many small attack craft do you have over there?” Admiral Gr’Vess asked.

        “There are twenty corvettes and sixteen gunboats deployed with Task Force Seven,” Sioa answered.  “That should be enough to cause some chaos.”

        “That just might work, your Grace,” Lorna agreed.  “Now, how many KMS ships are on the board on this side?”

        “A little over a hundred are available,” Juma replied.  “Including our newest capitol ship, the Iyaneri.  It was commissioned just a takir or so ago, and just finished its initial shakedown cruise.”

        “Good, good,” GrVess chuckled raspily, smiling.  “Those should be kept at a state of constant readiness to respond if the Consortium sortie out from Trieste.”

        “Actually, I think it would be a good idea to bring the Iyaneri to Hashir so we can use it as a command center, and have it there to react if the Consortium moves,” Lorna said.  “Would that be alright, your Grace?”

        “I don’t see anything wrong with it.  Do you guys?” he asked his generals.

        “It would be good to get him out into the theater.  A flagship does little good sitting in orbit at his home planet,” Juma replied.  “I can have a task force ready for deployment in two hours.”

        “We should send the carrier as well,” Myri said.  “They could use some field experience.”

        “And that puts all those fighters in position to fight off a surprise attack,” Juma chuckled with a nod.

        “Alright then, let’s go with that.  We’ll jump the task force to Farroll, so it can sit in defensive picket until the Confederate fleet arrives at Hashir.  How long of a jump is it for Confederate ships from Farroll to Hashir?”

        “Two days, sixteen hours,” the Stevak replied.

        “So they’ll beat the Consortium fleet to Trieste,” Jason noted.  “Good.  How are the defenses at the other systems?”

        “Improving daily, thanks to automated weapon platforms the factories are cranking out,” the Skaa admiral spoke up.  “Every Confederate system not behind an interdictor has both a Skaa defensive picket and weapon platforms in place.  Our allies have graciously allowed us to move our defense ships into Alliance systems.”

        “We won’t say no, Admiral,” the Stevak answered.  “Given you have so many.”

        “Numbers are our strength, my comrade,” the Skaa said simply.  “And it’s easy to defend even with obsolete ships, when you have enough of them.”

        Jason almost chuckled.  He’d seen that particular viewpoint in action, back when the Consortium first attacked the Skaa, and were repelled by uncountable hordes of smaller, older ships.  Their tactic was to build dedicated defensive corvettes and frigates and reinforce them with older naval ships when they were replaced in the active navy with newer or bigger ships.  The Skaa didn’t mothball their old ships, they sent them to planetary defense force pickets.  And now the Skaa had moved their defense forces from interdicted systems to Alliance systems, since they weren’t needed at the interdicted systems anymore.  It must have taken the freighters weeks to tow them all out.

        The Skaa’s advantage was sheer numbers, and they made sure to exploit that even when it came to naval combat.  Trying to launch a ground attack on any Skaa system would be the definition of insanity.

        “Alright, it sounds like that’s our best course of action,” Lorna stated.  “We’ll get the Confederate fleet to Hashir and let the KMS wait at Farroll.  Just have your captain be ready to accept the fleet admiral,” she told Jason and Myri.  “I have no doubt he’ll want to use the Iyaneri for his flagship.”

        “That’s not a problem,” Jason replied.

        “Given how important this operation is to the Alliance and to my own people, I think I’ll handle this personally,” the Stevak declared.  “I’ll depart for Farroll as soon as we’re done here and take command of the theater.”

        “If you want, Admiral Gnud,” Lorna answered.  “It’s certainly your privilege as a staff officer.”

        “My thanks, General,” Gnud replied.

        “Just be a little wary of Captain Haema,” Jason said lightly.  “Her ship is brand new, so I have no doubt she’ll be overprotective.”

        “All captains are when their ships are newly commissioned,” the Stevak replied with a rocky smile.

        “We all have some things to arrange, so let’s meet again in two hours,” Lorna suggested.  “Admiral Juma said it would take two hours to assemble her task force.”

        “About that, General,” Juma nodded.

        “Then let’s reconvene in two standard hours,” she prompted.

        When the holograms blinked out, Jason looked at his three military commanders and their mentor.  Sioa, how many Imxi systems do you think we could overrun in ten days?

        Depending on how we do it, maybe six, she replied.  More than that if we just go in and smash their defenses then jump out, less if we deploy ground forces and try to hold the planets in the systems.

        Alright.  I want you to draw up plans to invade both PR-88 and PR-106 to start out with.  That’s one of their major food producers and one of their biggest industrial hubs.  That should seriously get their attention.  If it doesn’t, then we’ll invade PR-70 and PR-122.  That scatters out the invaded systems to the far corners of their territory and makes it harder for them to consolidate a response without Consortium assistance.

        That’s rather clever, your Grace, Navii chuckled.

        I’ve been known to think of clever things from time to time, Navii, he smiled.  Minimize contact between our ground forces and the civilians, Sioa.  And make sure our rockjumpers can pull out in a hurry when they get the order.  We will not be interdicting. We’ll have one there to turn on in case we think they’re going to send too many to get our girls off the planet, but the idea is to draw them back to the PR sector.

        I know what you mean, and that’ll be relatvely easy to do, she nodded.  After all, we don’t intend to stay there.

        Exactly.  We go in, invade, make a lot of noise, and try to pull the Imxi back to protect their own territory.  Every ship we pull to us is a ship that doesn’t go to Trieste.  Mainly because we’ll be able to blow them up much easier over there, he stressed with a grin.  We do to them what they did to us, make them fight a war on two fronts.

        We do need to interdict, Jason, Sioa injected.  Even if everyone’s all but sitting on the troop ships, it’s still going to take about an hour to get them all out of there.  Besides, if the idea is to keep the Imxi in their own territory, then taking two or three of their most important systems and denying them to them will make them crowd the other systems to keep us from taking them.  Meanwhile, we establish a garrison behind a hard shield in the capitol city of every system to pour salt in their eyes, but otherwise just leave the systems alone.  If that fighter is any indication of Imxi technology, they won’t be a threat to our ground units.  We just establish the hard shield out of Torsion rifle range, and there’s nothing they can do.

        That might work.  How many interdictors do we have available?

        On their side, they have two interdictors on top of the one protecting PR-371.  They’re the emergency backup and the one we were going to put at the nebula to trap the energy beings in the nebula so we could capture them.  There’s none on the board right now over here, but four are coming off the production line in the next 29 hours.  So, if we’re going to do this, I suggest we invade PR-88 and PR-106, like you initially suggested.  We strip them of their biggest food producer and their major industrial center, then roam a strike force around their territory, jumping in, attacking, then jumping out, just trying to do damage and keep them from leaving to protect what they have left.  Guerilla tactics, something I know you’re well versed with, Jayce.

        I like it.  It does maximum damage with minimum risk, Navii agreed with a nod.  We can use a fast attack package of destroyers, corvettes, and gunboats, ships so fast that they can’t possibly hope to keep up with them.

        Myri, that sound good? Jason asked.

        Yeah, I say we go with it, she agreed.

        I’ll make the orders, Juma offered.  Should we just let Palla organize the ground assault, or do you want to do it, Sioa?

        She’s a great captain, but doesn’t have much experience in ground attacks.  I’ll design an invasion plan.  Give me four hours, then we can send down the orders.

        Alright, sounds good.  I’m going to go talk to Miaari, guys, see what the Kimdori know that they haven’t gotten to us yet, Jason announced.  Keep me up to speed on what’s going on.

        No problem, Jayce, Myri nodded.

        Jason went up to Miaari’s office, which was jumping.  Miaari was in, as was Tim and most of her staff, poring over images being fed to them.  When he got to her office, he used her comm to bring up Maggie and Jake.  They looked a little sleep, Maggie’s red hair a serious case of bed head.  “What’s up, Jayce?”

        “Prepare our inventory for something we know how to do, Mags,” he answered, then explained their plans.  “We’ll have much better success choking off their supply lines than we did trying to fight a straight-up war,” he concluded.  “I want the Imxi to be so afraid to jump a freighter that the crews of them make out their wills before departing.”

        Maggie gave a wicked little smile.  “We can do that, no sweat. We’ve already mapped out their main supply routes thanks to the Kimdori, so we know where to set up the ambush spots.  Give us three hours, boss, and we’ll have a plan ready to make those four-armed cavemen wet themselves.  You can talk to Myri and tell her we’re going to need to borrow four of the gunboats over here to carry the inventory.  We can’t use jump boomers for this, we have to jump shit in real time.”

        “Just tell Palla, you guys have blanket authority.  If you need those gunboats, she’ll give them to you.”

        “This is shit we’re good at doing,” Jake added with a grin.  “It’ll almost be like old times.”

        “That’s why we’re the best when it comes to being asses, Jake,” Jason chuckled as Miaari came in.

        “Yup, it’s time for Maggie Mac to go PMS all over the Imxi,” Maggie declared, which made Jake burst out laughing.

        “Don’t have too much fun, Mags,” Jason warned with a smile.  “And give Palla some help with some of our toys.  The KMS is going to invade two systems over there on top of us attacking Imxi supply lines, it’s all to try to keep the Imxi from allowing their ships to be deployed over here.  Mainly, have the solar collectors we still have in stock ready to deploy to back up the ground forces.  One or two shots from one of those will scare the piss out of the Imxi, especially if they can’t do anything about it.”

        “I know just what to do, boss,” Maggie nodded.  “We’ll supply them some of our other toys as well, we won’t need all that many if we’re going after freighters.”

        “That’s why you two are there, guys.  Now do 3D proud.”

        “You bet we will,” Jake nodded, and Jason cut the communication after they said their goodbyes.

        “Any more missives from Denmother, friend?” Jason asked as he got up from Miaari’s chair and let her take it.  It was her office, after all.

        “Not yet, but we’re busy analyzing Go’jur’mi, trying to figure out what they’re up to,” Miaari replied.  “We can’t get anything inside that moon to see what’s going on, it’s too close to the system and they’ll pick up our infiltrators with passive mass sensors.  I think Denmother will authorize field agents to attempt to infiltrate.  We need eyes inside.”

        “I thought we already had them.”

        “No, we have no units inside Trieste,” she shook her head.  “What intel we have from there we picked up from the Consortium’s communications.  We know what they do from their own status reports.”

        “Damn,” Jason grunted, taking off his gauntlet.  “What we need you to do is get in touch with Denmother and explain this to her,” he said offering his hand.  She took it, and he felt that sensation of expansion that came when a Kimdori interfaced with his nervous system.  She took in all their plans inside a second, then nodded.

        “Clever,” she praised as she let go of his hand.  “I’ll inform Denmother, and she’ll direct our surveillance to provide accurate information for Palla and Maggie.”

        Jason sat in the chair in front of her desk.  “We might have to activate the spiders, Miaari,” he said with a dark grunt.  “We have no idea what the Consortium has up its sleeve, and I get the feeling that they’re gonna pull it off as soon as they get those ships to Trieste.  Everything may go to hell in a handbasket.”

        “We may, but not yet,” Miaari replied, putting her elbows on her desk and putting her hands under her muzzle, supporting it.  “Activating the spiders tells the Consortium that we have a presence there.  If they fail, we’ll never get another chance.  We should save the spiders for the eventuality that we have to attack Trieste, or when we’re certain that they’re about to begin their operation.  To use them prematurely gives them a chance to counter them.  We have until those ships gather at Trieste.  Only when they arrive should we consider the spiders.”

        “Yeah, well, I don’t like the idea of letting them gather all those ships in one place, then attacking them,” Jason replied.  “That’s why we’re going after the Imxi, to slow down those ship movements and try to drive a wedge between the Imxi and the Consortium.”

        “Well, either way, there is little else you can do now, Jason,” she said.  “You should go home and get some rest.”

        “No, Lorna’s gonna call back in about an hour, I should be there.”

        “That’s Myri’s job, not yours,” she told him.  “Go home, Jason.  Get some rest, and we’ll get you back up to speed in the morning.”

        “I guess I can,” he yawned. “It’s not that late, but I am a little tired.”

        Jason was taken home, and after saying goodbye to his guards, he carried his helmet up to his house.  Ayama wordlessly offered him a cup of coffee when he came in, and he took it with a grateful nod.  He could sense that neither Jyslin nor Symone were home, but Rann and Danelle was…which was a bit odd.  He went upstairs to take his armor off, bypassing to look in on Rann and Danelle.  They were in his room, awake, playing a game on the vidlink.  Hey kidlets, Jason sent as he came in.  What you doing?

        Just playing a game, Daddy, Rann replied.  What happened that you had to leave?

        The Consortium is making a move, I had to go talk to Myri and Miaari about it, he replied.  It’s almost bedtime, guys, so find a place to wrap it up.  Have you had a bath yet?

        Nuh-uh, Danelle answered.

        Well, finish up your game and we’ll take care of that.  Where’s your mother, Rann?

        She and Aunt Symone went out somewhere.  Mommy said she’d be back before bedtime.

        Huh.  Well, we’ll have everything done before she gets home, That’s her punishment for not being here, he smiled.

        Jason herded his son and his adopted daughter into the bathroom after he got his armor off, and he relaxed in the tub while they showered, pondering the Consortium’s moves.  They must have been working on more than one way to attack Karis at once, just in case the Karinnes countered one of them…which was only smart.  It was what he would do if he were in that situation.  Whatever their backup plan was, it couldn’t be as effective as the quantum phase device, but since he had no idea what that plan was, he almost felt stupid for blowing up the quantum phase device now.  At least, they knew about.  Now he was going to worry about what else they had planned, something major enough to incite a major force movement.  He wasn’t sure how effective attacking the Imxi’s systems was going to be, but it was a good idea.  The Consortium was using the Imxi, and not just for their ships.  Their resources were being used as well, and wreaking havoc on the Imxi’s systems would disrupt the flow of materials and hopefully knock a dent in the Consortium’s master plan, in addition to trying to preven the Imxi from committing their navy to the Consortium cause.

        Knowing the Consortium, they would simply abandon the Imxi to the mercy of the Karinnes, take their ships, then attack Karis with them.  But, the Imxi might not allow that to happen.  The best case scenario was the Imxi declaring war on the Consortium.  The worst case scenario was the Consortium and Imxi military abandoning its civilians to Karinne attack, with the intent of coming back after the fall of Karis and retaking the systems.  It was just going to come down to where the Imxi stood, if their society would allow harm to come to their own to further the Consortium’s goals.

        One thing they’d better start considering is a siege of Karis.  If the Consortium pulled off this plan of theirs and somehow got that fleet to Karis, then they’d be fighting a fleet of thousands and thousands of ships, but those ships would have to get past Karis’ last and strongest defense.

        Jason himself.

        Danelle climbed into the soaking tub and sat on his lap, her little legs straddling his and her hands on his chest, a very improper position given they were both nude…but Faey didn’t think like that.  [Are you alright, Daddy Jason?] she asked seriously.

        [I’m fine, pippy,] he replied, giving her a gentle smile and pulling her into a warm hug.  [Thank you for your concern.  You’re always so thoughtful.]

        [Well, is there anything we can do to help?]

        [Just keep being you, Danelle,] he answered, touching her tiny nose with his own, which made her giggle a little.  [Sometimes I’m amazed that your mother doesn’t murder me for keeping her so busy, which keeps her away from you.]

        [You can be honest, Daddy Jason, she loves that stuff she does.  But I don’t mind, I know she loves me,] she replied seriously.  [And I know how important it is.  Mommy says all the time that if not for her, the Consortium people might destroy our home.]

        [That’s more or less true,] Jason chuckled aloud.  [Your mother’s not just my best friend in all the world, pippy, she’s one of the most important people on Karis.  She’s way smarter than me, so she’s the one that handles all the technology.]

        [Well, at least when she’s busy, I always get to stay here,] she grinned impishly.  [It’s almost as good as being with Mommy.]

        [Don’t let her hear you say that or she’ll tear my hair out,] Jason laughed.  Rann climbed over the side of the tub and promptly fell in, broaching the swirling water and spitting out a mouthful of water.  [Careful there, Rann,] Jason warned.

        [I’m okay, just missed the step,] he replied.  [Look at what I learned how to do today!]

        [Show me.]

        Rann took on a look of intense concentration, then a column of water rose up out of the tub.  He narrowed his eyes, gritted his teeth, then jerked his head, and the water shuddered, then broke away from the water, rising above them as an undulating globe. The globe then changed into a cube, then into a pyramid.  A bead of blood formed under Rann’s little nose as the pyramid rotated over their heads and reformed into a huge sphere of water, then he gave a smile as he deliberately dropped it right over his head back into the tub.  Danelle laughed as the water sloshed over the sides, but Jason was far more impressed than he was amused.  Affecting water like that was not easy, and to form different shapes and hold control over it for that long?  Well, Zach wasn’t going to be the only one with some talent in telekinesis.  Rann wiped at his nose as it started to bleed more seriously, which caused Jason to fetch a rag from the rack with his own power and dislodge Danelle, then tend to his son.

        I’ve told you not to make your nose bleed like this, Rann, Jason sent chidingly as he tilted Rann’s head back.

        Aunt Ayuma says that a nosebleed just means you tried your best.

        I’m going to have a long talk with that woman tomorrow, he sent darkly.

        The good part about that kind of nosebleed was that it ended quickly.  After just a moment, the bleeding subsided, and Jason leaned back and relaxed with Danelle on his lap and Rann playing with a little boat, the two of them chattering at each other via communion.  It surprsied him that they were so good at it…but then again, it was some kind of programmed ability, built right into their genetically modified DNA.  It was instinctual, in a way.

        Jyslin and Symone appeared in the doorway, both of them nude and carrying towels.  There you guys are, she smiled as she came in.  What, you couldn’t wait for us?

        You snooze, you lose, baby, Jason replied with a smile as Danelle sank Rann’s boat, causing a short squabble to erupt.

        Any word on Tim, Jayce?  He had to go to work just like you, Symone asked.

        I saw him there, he’ll be a few more hours, he answered.  They’re working on some fresh data.  Jyslin and Symone got in the shower together and started cleaning off, not afraid to carry on a little bit in front of Rann and Danelle.  Like everyone else, the children knew, in the way of a child, that Jyslin and Symone were amu, were very special friends.  It was hard to explain what imprinting was to a six year old, nevertheless trying to explain a concept like homosexuality as it applied to his wife and amu dozei.  A child could understand the concept of a girl liking a girl, but it got a bit dicey when he tried to explain why Jyslin only like Symone that way, and Symone only like Jyslin that way.  But they didn’t hide their relationship, not from the general public, and definitely not from the children.  Jyslin had completely gotten over her shyness and maybe a little embarrassment over imprinting Symone, and Symone was never that straight to begin with.  Rann understood it better than most of the others, since Symone and Tim spent so much time in the house.  His constant exposure to his parents’ amu gave him a better understanding of the nuances involved…which just proved how mature Rann was, even as his very young age.  Jyslin and Symone finished showering and climbed into the tub, Symone grabbing a laughing Rann and tickling him in her lap, making him thrash around a little bit as Danelle moved from Jason’s lap to Jyslin’s, leaning back against her with Jyslin’s arms around her.

        Well, we’re cozy today, kidlet, Jyslin smiled over Danelle’s shoulder, hugging her a bit.  What’s got you so cuddly?

        Nothin’, Mommy Jyslin.  Just getting a litle sleepy.

        It is close to your bedtime, Jyslin said, looking at the clock over the door.  It was later than Jason thought, almost 2250, and the kids’ bedtime was around 2330.  Faey children slept for about 12 or 13 hours a night, needing much more sleep than an adult, but it worked out fairly well on the strip, since it was very close to the equator and the nights ranged from 13.5 to 16 hours out of the 29 hour day, depending on the time of year.  Rann usually went to bed not long after sunset, and woke more or less right around dawn.  With them being in the start of the autumnal cycle, it meant that he’d go to bed right around sunset so he could wake up around dawn.  As the nights lengthened, however, he’d stay up later and later into the night so he could wake up at the same time every day, to give him an established routine.

        We had a busy day, Danelle told them.  We went to the mountains today and learned about rocks.  It was kinda fun, but we had to walk around a lot.

        That armor can get heavy after a while, Jason agreed with her unspoken comment.  Even with the power assist.

        Yeah.  And after that, Miss Ryn gave us all a long lesson.

        What did you learn?

        How to defend against someone trying to get in our minds, Rann replied.

        She’s training you in combat techniques?

        Well, she said that since we’re the children of the Grand Duke, we have to be able to protect ourselves from bad people.  Miss Aya makes me learn how to wrestle, Rann replied.

        That’s to protect you from Shya, Jason chuckled.

        When can Shya come visit again, Daddy? Rann asked quickly.  I miss her so much!  Talking with her over the interface just isn’t the same!

        I’m not sure, pippy, Jason replied.  Things are very busy right now, and it’s too dangerous for Shya to leave the palace right now.

        Well, I hope we make the Consortium people go away quick, so Shya can visit, he proclaimed.

        Jason chuckled.  I can agree with that, son, he replied.

        They fnished up before Danelle fell asleep in Jyslin’s lap, then dried off and tucked Rann and Danelle in bed.  He then cast out and said goodnight to all his children via telepathy, which was his nightly routine, then Jyslin pushed him towards the bedroom.  Symone said what you did to her, she sent with a smile.  I think you have to be punished for that.

        It wasn’t my fault, it was pretty damn important that I had to go into work.

        There’s no excuse for leaving your amu dozei so horny she has to go chase down Jyslin, Symone grinned as they pushed him into the bedroom.  So you’re gonna spend all night making it up to both of us.

        Well, I think I can live with that, he replied lightly as Jyslin closed the door.

 

        It was a fun night, but a rather rude awakening.

        [Jason!] Cybi called very forcefully, startling him out of a very deep, exhausted sleep.  He jerked and half-sat up groggily, not entirely sure what was going on, at least until Cybi called to him again and shook the cobwebs out of his brain.  Symone and Jyslin were similarly passed out on either side of him in the big bed, and the darkness on the other side of the window told him it wasn’t dawn yet.  He glanced at the clock by the bed and saw it was 0418, still a good two or three hours before dawn.  He sat up fully and scrubbed his face with his hands, then blinked and looked towards the shimmer of light that heralded Cybi manifesting a hologram in the room.  [What is it, Cybi?] he asked, a little more alertly.

        [Miaari needs to see you immediately,] she answered.  [She’s waiting in your den.]

        [Okay.  Give me a second,] he said.  Her hologram winked out, and Jason was left a little blinded with the loss of the light.  He managed to untangle himself from his wife and amu dozei, climbing out of the bed by scooting down and sliding off the foot of it, then he padded for the door to his office without bothering to put anything on.  Miaari was sitting in front of his desk when he opened it, the lights on, and she got up and handed him a robe wordlessly when he got inside.  A hot cup of coffee was sitting on the desk waiting for him, which wasn’t a good sign.  Jason put the room in secure mode after he put on the robe and sat down, then took a long drink of some pretty strong, bracing coffee.  “It must be fucking serious if you’re here at this time of the morning,” he finally said.

        “Oh, it is,” she said with a grim nod.  Cybi manifested her hologram sitting on the edge of his desk, one of her more favorite places, regarding the two of them.  “Jinaami has finished her operation against the IBI.”

        “That was fast.”

        “Jinaami was not put on Draconis because she is inept, cousin,” Miaari said with a dark smile.  “She managed penetration and acquisition of information in remarkable time.  Denmother will be very pleased with her for her swiftness,” she noted.

        “So, did you get the list?”

        She nodded, holding up a handpanel that was on the desk.  “There are nine other agents in Kosigi that are carrying psychic clones,” she answered.  “We know exactly who they are, and we know when they are supposed to activate.  For four of them, we even know the method of activation.”

        “Good.  Tell Denmother to give Jinaami a big kiss from me next time she sees her,” Jason answered.  “But I’m betting that’s not why we’re here.”

        “It is not,” she replied.  “Jason, you must recall Saelle from Dracora immediately.”

        “What?  The IBI is going after her?”

        “They already did,” she replied.  “Jinaami discovered that it is the IBI that bought all that cloning equipment, and they used mindbenders on Saelle’s Merrane husband to dominate him.”

        What?  The IBI attacked Evin?”

        “They did,” she nodded.  “They had him take a DNA sample from Saelle while she slept.  The Kimdori she has with her don’t sleep in their room, Jason.  They didn’t know about this, because the mindbenders erased knowledge of what he had done from Evin’s mind after he did their bidding.  They know how powerful Saelle is in talent, they took no chances she might discover Evin’s unwitting duplicity.  The IBI was of a plan to clone Saelle Karinne, and clone her by the thousands, to create a large segment of population with Generation DNA that could then be used to produce children to increase their numbers.”

        Jason almost felt his stomach drop out.  “Did…did Jinaami recover that DNA?”

        “She did.  It revealed to the IBI that they had been infiltrated, but she deemed it too important to leave.  Jason, Dahnai authorized this operation,” she declared grimly.  “We don’t yet know if she has personal knowledge of the exact specifics of it, but the operation had direct Imperial authorization.”

        Jason leaned back in his chair, almost stunned.  Dahnai…she betrayed him.  She betrayed him as certainly as if she’d stuck a knife in his back.  She’d made all those promises and assurances, then the minute she had Saelle in Draconis, she tries to clone her.

        “Jason.  We don’t know if Dahnai knew just what she was authorizing,” Miaari warned, knowing that look on his face.  “The IBI is notoriously secretive, even when it concerns the Empress herself.  There is a chance that they simply asked her for authorization for an operation that they didn’t explain, or outright lied to her about its objectives.  What we do know is that Dahnai told the IBI to get their hands on biogenic technology.  There is a chance that Dahnai doesn’t know just how far they intended to go, since the Generations themselves are, in a way, part of biogenic technology.”

        “No,” Jason growled, his voice haunted.  “She knew.  I know she knew.  This isn’t the first time she’s tried this shit, Miaari, just not on this scale.  You’ve said it yourself, she doesn’t let her relationship with me stand in the way of politics. And that’s all this is to her, politics.  Fucking politics!” he said with a loud scream, throwing the handpanel across the room, which shattered against the door on the far side.  “I can’t believe she’d go this far!  Trying to clone Saelle?  What are we going to do about this, Miaari?  If we pull out Saelle, they’ll have Raisha!  If Dahnai is willing to go this far, she’d use her own daughter as a guinea pig.  That was why she was so adamant about keeping her!” he raged, getting up and storming across the room, starting to pace.  “She doesn’t fucking care if Raisha keeps her title as a High Princess or not, she just wanted her for her DNA!  She wanted her for the part of me that’s inside her!”

        “Calm down, Jason.  Jinaami is even now trying to get into position to touch Dahnai and take stock.  Let us not jump to any conclusions until she reports.”

        “I want those cloning vats destroyed before they ever leave the Alliance,” he snapped, storming back over to the desk and sitting down, then activating the comm.  “Get me Yila Trefani, and I don’t care what you have to do to get her ass on the vidlink,” he told his board operator over at the White House.

        “Your Grace, Yila Trefani is at Kumi’s house,” the reply came.

        Jason turned his face in that direction.  YILA! he sent with such power that he probably woke up everyone within ten miles of the house.

        Mmph!  What? came her reply.

        Get your ass over to my house right now, he sent, rage bleeding into this sending no matter how hard he tried to control himself.  Wait in the kitchen until we have time to talk.

        What’s going on, Jayce?

        We’re going to do something dirty and underhanded, he replied, venting a little.  So get over here so we can work it out.

        I’ll be right over.

        “Yila’s on her way over,” he told Miaari, clenching a fist.  Fucking Dahnai!  Is this how she honors the bonds between them as amu dorai, to try to steal not just his house’s technology, but the very essence of what the house was?  Trying to clone Saelle?  Trying to breed thousands of Generations using Saelle as the alpha ancestor.  And what would happen to his daughter Raisha once Saelle was out of there?  Would she be the one whose face was stamped over thousands of clones, then used as brood sows?  Was Dahnai so insanely determined that she’d go that far?

        She would.  She was the Empress, and that made her ruthless.

        “Jason.  Only you can recall Saelle,” Miaari urged him.

        Jason gave her a look of equal parts fury and dread, then nodded and looked to Cybi, who looked both very concerned and afraid.  “Cybi, it’s time for you to put a hand in.  Invade the IBI’s mainframe.  See what else they’re doing, then destroy it.  Make it abundantly clear to them that they’ve fucked with the wrong people.”

        “I will attend the matter immediately.  If you will excuse me, this may take some time.  A computer like that will have formidable defenses.  It will take my full attention.”

        “Just be careful, my friend, and don’t hesitate to abort if it’s too dangerous.  You’re too important to me to let some IC system fry your crystals.”

        She gave him a fond smile.  “I will be very careful, my friend.  And your concern touches me,” she said, putting a hand on her upper chest. Then her hologram winked out.

        “I thought of asking her to do just that, but as she said, the IBI’s main computer has fearsome intrusion countermeasure systems,” Miaari said.  “Cybi is far too precious to risk.”

        “I have faith in her,” Jason said.  “She’ll know when to back off if the computer’s defenses are too strong.  Now give me a sec, I’ll get hold of Saelle.”

        He wasn’t wearing his gestalt, so he had to utilize the biogenic network, then relay through the cruiser Hanvari and then through Saelle’s Gladiator.  [Saelle,] he called.  [Saelle, answer.  Answer right now.]

        [What?] came a bleary reply.  Jason forgot that it was the middle of the night in Dracora right now as well.

        [Listen to me, listen to me very carefully,] he communed, making sure that all his fear and concern transmitted through his thought.  [I want you to get your armor on, get in your Gladiator, and get the hell out of there.  Right fucking now.]

        [What’s going on?  Is there a threat?] she asked, much more alert.

        [Yes, Saelle, and it’s sleeping right beside you,] he answered.  [The mindbenders in the IBI broke Evin.  He’s already done something and they wiped it from his memory.  But if they’ve broken him, that means they own him, and he’s a danger to you.  Just get your armor on and leave.  Don’t tell anyone but the Kimdori there, just get your ass out of there.]

        [What did he do?]

        [I’ll tell you when you get here.  Now stop asking fucking questions and get out.  Get out now!  That’s an order!]

        [I’ll be on the cruiser in half an hour,] she answered.

        Jason pinched his nose between his fingers, feeling a headache coming on.  “Saelle’s on her way.  I told her to just get in her Gladiator and take off, and not to tell anyone but her Kimdori.  I hope they can get out of the palace on their own.”

        “Easily, Jason,” she replied.

        Jason waited in tense silence, keeping a touch on the Hanvari, accessing its sensors, after telling its captain, Himari Gemalle, to pick Saelle up as quickly as she could without entering the atmosphere.  The KMS ship picketed at Draonis kept a constant lock on Saelle’s Gladiator as a matter of basic security, which was kept in a secure courtyard under the protection of the Imperial Guard, which was probably the one group that not even the mindbenders of the IBI wanted to cross.  They’d been given orders to defend Saelle’s mecha, and that was exactly what they did.  But they wouldn’t stop Saelle from getting into it and taking off, since it was her Gladiator.  He almost sighed in relief when he saw Saelle’s mecha lift off from the palace and ascend towards the cruiser, using its flight pods.  He even put a visual up from the cruiser’s feed, Saelle’s blue and gold mecha flying up towards them, a railgun in one hand and a large metal case in the other.  That had been her mecha before she took the assignment at the palace, she was a rigger by occupation.  Jason and Miaari watched as the mecha escaped the atmosphere, and about ten minutes of tense silence later, it was in the main hangar of the cruiser.

        And her departure was certainly not missed.  Not two minutes later, as the cruiser broke orbit and haded for the Karis Stargate, Dahnai was beeping his comm using her personal contact number.  Jason shut it off, not even wanting to talk to her until Jinaami got in touch with them, which would tell Dahnai nearly as much as if he’d answered the call.

        He didn’t know what he was going to do.  If Dahnai was personally involved in this…fuck.  What was he going to do?  Declare war on Dahnai the instant Raisha was born and take her by force.  Have the Kimdori steal her?  They absolutely could not allow a Generation to be cloned, and despite Raisha being the daughter of the Empress, she was a Generation first and foremost.  And had Dahnai completely lost her fucking mind?  Right now, of all times, she tries to pull this kind of shit, which would force the Karinnes to do something drastic, and potentially tear the entire Imperium apart?  It was the Karinnes that kept stability in the Imperium, not the Merranes, not the Imperial Navy.  The threat of the Karinnes annihilating any noble house that tried to do what the Trillanes did kept everyone marching in lock step behind Dahnai. She had to be absolutely insane to—

        That would be insane.  Dahnai was ambitious, she was unscrupulous, she was somewhat ruthless, but she wasn’t crazy.  And she wasn’t stupid either.  If she pissed Jason off, she could very well lose her throne, and she knew it.  But it would certainly behoove another house if they could drive a wedge between Jason and Dahnai. Could this be a convoluted plot from one of the Highborns?

        Maybe Miaari was right.  Maybe Dahnai didn’t know the specifics of it.

        Before he could ponder that, Jinaami’s face appeared on his Kimdori dedicated commlink, the same one Zaa used to talk to him when she was calling about something that was highly sensitive.  He immediately reoriented his mind to speak in Kimdori, since their protocols wouldn’t allow anything different, so automatic that he didn’t even think about it anymore.  “Jinaami, thank the Denmother,” he said explosively.  “What did you find out?”

        “I got a hand on Dahnai,” she answered.  “She has partial knowledge of the operation.”

        “Partial how?”

        “She fully authorized the agents sent to Karis to try to steal biogenic technology.  But, she does not have knowledge of the cloning operation.”

        “Well, that’s something, at least,” Jason sighed.  “I’ll have to kick her ass for that.  But how did the IBI set this up without her knowing?”

        “Jason, the IBI does many things Dahnai doesn’t know about,” she answered seriously.  “Dahnai told them what to do, but she didn’t say how, and they’re far more ruthless than she is. They also don’t care about the delicate political balance in the  Imperium right now.  They used Dahnai’s blanket authorization to steal biogenics as a platform to pursue this cloning program.  I’m not sure what the director of the IBI intended to do with the program, I didn’t get a hand on her, but they ceratainly know someone was there,” she said with a grim kind of smile.  “We stole the DNA samples and destroyed the computers they were using in the lab.  I’m going to send one of our computer specialists in to invade their computer to make sure they don’t have that information somewhere else.”

        “Way ahead of you, Jinaami, Cybi is doing just that right now, personally.”

        “She could do it far easier than we,” she reasoned with a nod.  “I just hope her Ladyship exercises extreme caution.”

        “Well, that’s what I sort of suspected,” Jason grunted, leaning back in his chair.  “That Dahnai didn’t know what the IBI was exactly doing.  She’d be insane to piss me off to that extent, since she could lose her throne in the bargain.”

        “But this exposes a grave threat and risk, Jason,” Jinaami said.  “They extracted DNA from Saelle in hopes of cloning a Generation.  Jason, what are we to do about Raisha?”

        “I know,” he sighed, looking at Miaari.  “I once said that there wouldn’t be anywhere safe for the Generations but on Karis after the Consortium outed us, and I hate how right I’m being proved,” he said, to which both Jinaami and Miaari nodded.  “They’ll go after Raisha.  Maybe not the IBI, but someone eventually will.  The entire Imperium knows she’s a Generation, and this little adventure proves that we’re in as much danger from our own people as we are from groups like the Consortium.  Karis is the only safe harbor in a universe where everyone and everything will want us for what we can do.  I’m…I’m going to have to convince Dahnai to give up Raisha, and that might destroy our relationship,” he said with a pained look.

        “I dare say when she finds out what happened to Saelle, she might not be quite so vehement, Jason,” Jinaami supplied.  “Not when she considers that Raisha will be next.  She may send her to you just to protect her from those that would take her for what she is.”

        “Dahnai will have to purge the IBI at the very least, but not even that can ensure that someone else does not have the same idea,” Miaari agreed.  “Unless Raisha wants to live her entire life a prisoner in the Imperial palace, she will never be safe…and them getting to Saelle through Evin proves that not even the palace is entirely safe.”

        “Yeah.  We’re going to have to do something, girls.  Something drastic,” he said, folding his arms on the desk in front of him.

        “What do you mean?”

        “I mean I’m not going to just look the other way over these attempts to steal our technology,” he replied, changing tacks on them, but they seemed to understand where he was going.  “Miaari, seal Karis.  Nobody else from outside will be allowed in the system.  We’ll continue to recruit members for the house, but we’d better be more careful about who we take.  They might try to get someone into the house carrying a psychic clone, or something even more sinister we don’t know about.”

        “I’ve been considering that very possibility,” Miaari answered.  “I’ve changed our induction process to take things into account.”

        “In the meantime, we continue to let them work up in Kosigi, but we kick those people over on Virga off the planet.  We’ll finish building the factories ourselves, we’ll put the Kirgan Kizzik on it.  They can get it done without much effort.  Those workers can just help build more ships.  And I want you to quadruple to surveillance on those outsiders.  I don’t want them to even go to the bathroom without us knowing if they flushed or not.”

        “Locking down all biogenics is also a logical step,” Jinaami injected.

        “We’ve already done that,” Jason replied with a nod.

        Zaa’s face appeared beside Jinaami on the hologram, and she looked pissed.  “Jinaami!  Why did you not contact me immediately?” she demanded.

        Jinaami shrank back a little.  “I was going to contact you the second I finished conferring with the Grand Duke, my Denmother.  You told me to report to him immediately upon the completion of my task.”

        She frowned.  “I did.  Alright, I absolve you of that,” she replied, which made Jinaami sigh.  “Now report your findings to me.  Go over everything you have discussed.”

        They all went over everything they’d talked about, from Dahnai’s knowledge to the very ugly problem of Raisha.  Zaa tapped her fingertips together as she listened, then nodded.  “I agree with you, cousin.  It is time to seal Karis off once again,” she stated.  Miaari, I am sending your clan to Karis to ensure its secrets are protected.”

        “The entire clan, my Denmother?” Miaari gasped.

        “A good portion of it.  You will need the assistance of your pack, and as the clan who restored our cousins to us, it is the right of your clan to accept the duty and the privilege of establishing itself on Karis, as was in olden times.  Clan Grelvth must abdicate the honor they once held in favor of Clan Thresxt.  It will be Clan Thresxt that oversees the training of the young on Karis.”

        “I don’t have any objection to that, Denmother,” Jason agreed.  “How many Kimdori is that?”

        “Those who settle on Karis will number slightly in excess of fifty thousand, Jason,” Zaa replied with a steady look.  “In the olden times, the clan who stayed on Karis dwelled on the Kirgan continent, in the city of Jaxtra, where young Kimdori from all clans were given training.  This requires Kimdori from every field of expertise, from builders and laborers to the clan’s elite operatives, such as Miaari’s family, to support the training operation.  I am sure that we can reach accommodation with the Kizzik already there to allow us to settle in Jaxtra.  The city was rebuilt with the others, and is simply awaiting colonization.  As I understand, Jaxtra is very close to the colony they have built.  They would be our neighbors.”

        “You have my blessing,” Jason said immediately.  “The city of Jaxtra is yours.  I’ll talk to the hive leaders of Kirga and explain it to them.  They’ll probably enjoy having someone else over there to talk to.  Kizzik are actually very social creatures.”

        “The hive mind is strong in them,” Zaa said.  “I will contact your father, Miaari, and make the necessary arrangements.  This is sooner than I intended to restore the clan ways of Karis, but current conditions demand it.”

        “Well, you should have said something, Denmother,” Jason said.  “I have no problems with the Kimdori coming here and establishing a colony.”

        “We felt that the house needed a little more time to settle in before we returned to the old ways, as well as time for us to prepare our current school to be moved, which is no easy thing,” Zaa explained.  “Besides, there is a war going, Jason, and it would have been a distraction for both of us.  But this escalation forces us to play our hand.  Miaari needs many more of her clan there to defend Karis and its secrets, and there is no reason not to simply establish the original training school at the same time.”

        “You draw up the timetable, and we’ll do our best to help you,” Jason told her.

        Jayce, I just got a very nasty call from Dahnai, Jyslin sent.  What the fuck is going on?

        Fuck.  Tell her I’ll talk to her in a few minutes.  Something seriously major is going on, love, and Dahnai’s tangled up in it.  Just tell her I’m in a critical meeting with the Denmother, and I couldn’t talk to her.

        Alright.  Just make sure you apologize very nicely.  She’s seriously torqued off.

        No doubt, he mused darkly.  She must know about the attack on the IBI, and she was right in linking Jason to it.  “Dahnai called Jyslin,” he told the three Kimdori.  “She’s pissed off that I didn’t take her call.  No doubt she knows I was behind the attack on the IBI.”

        “There is little more to discuss, and we have things we must do quickly,” Zaa said.  “Miaari, seal Karis.  Jinaami, be prepared to assist Cybi in any way possible if she requires it.  Also, make preparations to purge the IBI of those not loyal to Dahnai.  If she will not do it, we will..  Jason, you must confront Dahnai.  Her ignorance of the cloning plot is no excuse, and besides, she is directly responsible for the many spies Miaari has uncovered.”

        “Oh, that’s going to be lovely,” Jason grunted, pinching his nose between his fingers.

        “We have our work to do, so let us get to it,” she ordered.  Zaa’s face blinked off the hologram, and Jinaami nodded and her face vanished as well.  Miaari stood up, then looked down at him with compassion.

        “It won’t be so bad, cousin,” she assured him.  “Just smack her nose, then impart to her how serious things have gotten.”

        “Yeah.  Have Yila come up when you leave, I’ll get that out of the way before I talk to Dahnai.”

        She nodded, then put her palm to the plate by the door, which removed it from secure mode.  She left, and almost immediately, Yila rushed in. She was only wearing a pair of blue silk panties, and her dark hair was dishevelled.  About time.  What’s going on, Jayce?

        Yila, I want you to get with Miaari and make sure those cloning units you found never leave the Alliance.  I want them all destroyed, he sent intensely.  Before they even make it to the entry station.

        She gave him a long, steady look, then nodded.  I take it you found out what they were for?

        Oh yeah, I sure fucking did, he replied darkly.  They were going to try to clone Generations in them.

        Who?

        A rogue element of the IBI, he answered.  That’s why we have to destroy them before they get to the entry station, there’s no telling who the IBI’s mindbenders have dominated on the station that might help those vats make it to Draconis.  We have to stop them before the IBI is in any position to get their hands on them.  He blew out his breath.  Dahnai is waiting for me to call her so she can read me the riot act.  I sent the Kimdori into the IBI earlier to get to the bottom of all the spies we’re finding, and they found out that it’s the IBI that’s trying to set up the cloning operation, and they’re doing it without telling anyone what they’re doing.  Dahnai doesn’t even know.

        Trelle’s silky hair, Yila gasped.

        Yeah.  They may not stop just because Dahnai tells them to, so we’re not taking that chance.  You and Miaari get together and make sure those vats don’t make it into Imperium space, Yila, even if we have to attack and destroy the freighters they ship them on.  I’m counting on you.

        We’ll discuss my fee for this service later, Jason, she sent with a wink, trying to humor him a little.  I’ll make sure it gets done.

        Good.  Now excuse me, I have to talk to Dahnai.

        She nodded, then turned and hurried out of his office.

        He steeled himself, then turned his comm back on, which immediately started to beep.  After putting the room back in secure mode from his desk, he got a very angry Dahnai on a hologram in front of the far wall.  “Have you totally lost your fucking mind, Jayce?” she raged almost immediately.  “You attacked the IBI!”

        “I had a damn good fucking reason to attack the IBI,” he shot back.  “I sent the Kimdori in there, and you know what they pulled out?  A cylinder filled with Saelle’s DNA and plans to make a few thousand clones of her.”

        What?” Dahnai gasped.

        “You heard me,” he said with an ugly stare.  “Mindbenders from the IBI broke Evin and had him take DNA from Saelle while she was sleeping.  He’s the only one that could have pulled it off, he’s the only one that has access to her in a private situation, well, outside of you,” he almost snarled.  “The Kimdori stole that DNA back, then they fried the lab where they were holding it to destroy the computers they were using.  And right now, thirty thousand cloning vats are waiting over in the Alliance to be shipped into the Imperium through a dummy corporation that traces back to the IBI.  They were going to clone Saelle, Dahnai.  They were going to make thousands of clones of her.  You don’t order thirty thousand cloning vats for an isolated experiement.”

        “You can prove this, Jason?”

        “When Cybi’s done raking it out of their mainframe, you bet your ass I can prove it,” he replied.  “I also found out that you ordered spies to Karis to steal biogenic units.”

        She blushed furiously, her entire face turning an instant and brilliant shade of violet.

        “That’s how they snuck it by you, Dahnai,” he growled.  “You told them to get biogenics, any way they could.  Well, biogenics don’t work without Generations, do they?  So, after they merrily stole some biogenic units, they were going to clone up Generations to use them, all nicely controlled by IBI mindbenders.  You’d better take a good fucking look under the rocks the IBI are hiding under, Dahnai.  As it is, I’m so pissed off I’m tempted to blow their fucking HQ off of Draconis from orbit.

        “I’ve recalled Saelle.  It’s abundantly fucking clear that she is not safe on Draconis, not even in your palace,” he said with a hiss.  “They got a mindbender into your palace to break Evin, and I’m not putting her anywhere that someone I’m not absolutely sure about has any access to her.  I’ve also ordered the immediately sealing off of Karis.  No more outside workers are coming in, and most likely a bunch that are already here will be kicked out.  I’m delinking the Stargate into hot standby from this side, so you can’t open it without my authorization.  And I swear to God, Dahnai, if I find out you had direct knowledge of this cloning scheme, I’m gonna come to Dracora and I will beat you abslutely fucking senseless,” he said hotly.  “Then I’ll fucking declare war on the Imperium and I will burn every god damn city on Draconis to the ground.  To the fucking ground!”

        “I—I didn’t!  I’d never do that!” she protested.  “Jason, you think I’m stupid?  If I turned the Karinnes against me, I wouldn’t be on this throne ten years from now!  I need you!”

        “You obviously didn’t think of that when you ordered the IBI to steal biogenic devices,” he snapped, slamming his hands on his desk, making Dahnai flinch.  “I am so pissed at you that I can’t even put it into words!  I trusted you, and this is how you repay me?  Does our amu mean anything to you, or was it just a way you could get your claws into me?”

        She looked almost stricken.  “J-Jason, I wouldn’t do—I can’t fake being in love with you!” she protested.  “You’ve touched me, you know my mind!  You know I love you!”

        “Well, I guess love isn’t enough for the Empress,” he said with a hiss.  “Or is it that your politics matter more?”

        She looked away almost unconsciously.  That was exactly where she stood, but she wouldn’t admit it.

        “You promised me Saelle would be safe.  You’ve promised me a lot of things, and about the only thing I’ve gotten out of them were heartburn and disgust.  Well, I don’t trust you anymore, Empress.  You proved that swinging your tits around matters more to you than anything like love, or honor, or integrity.  You played me, Empress, and I’m not giving you the chance to do it again.”  He blew out his breath.  “I’ll have what Cybi uncovers sent to you as soon as she gets it.  I highly suggest you purge the IBI, your Majesty, because they’re operating outside of the bounds of your instructions and knowledge.  Until the summit, I don’t want to talk to you again,” he said flatly.  “I won’t be attending the daily meetings, I’ll have Yeri sit in for me.  I’ll just be too pissed off to be in any way cordial and polite, even to our allies.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, your Majesty, I have to track down and arrest the nine spies you sent to Karis carrying psychic clones.  Expect them back in a couple of days,” he said, then he killed the communication before she could reply.

        Jason leaned back in his chair, feeling a little trembly after that.  He was honestly, rightfully pissed off, and he felt he had the right to be furious after he caught her spying.  But she was going to have her own problems, he could see, mainly with the IBI.  If they could get a mindbender into the palace, if they were willing to send a mindbender into the palace without Dahnai’s knowledge or consent, that said a whole hell of a fucking lot.  Dahnai needed to focus on that particular problem at the moment, so if she thought Jason was too pissed to talk to her, she could put her attention where it needed to be.

        Still…this did not bode well.  If he couldn’t trust Dahnai, someone whose very seat of power depended on Jason and the Karinnes, then his house truly could trust no one outside of the Kimdori.  Dahnai’s spying and this attempt to clone Saelle showed him a dark and unwelcome truth.

        The House of Karinne could not stay in the Imperium.  They could not be theoretically subject to the commands of an Empress they could not trust.  And Dahnai had proved to him that no matter how much she loved him, she would always be the Empress before she was his amu dorai…and perhaps he was naïve to believe that she could be anything other than what she was.  As much as he loved the Faey yet hated what they were, it was all personified in his relationship with Dahnai, a woman he loved, but could not help but be what she was.

        And he couldn’t allow his house to be subject to her.

        She was the Empress, after all.  She could demand, she could order him to open the Stargate, and she could bring her entire navy to Karis and park it in orbit if she wanted to, and Jason couldn’t really stop her, not without committing treason.  The only thing stopping her was the fact that she desperately needed him.  But this proved that when she didn’t need him anymore, she would try to take what he would not give her, her love for him be damned.

        He looked out the window, out over the dim light of pre-dawn shimmering over the rippling surface of the sea, lost in grim thought.  It would be very dangerous to break away from the Imperium, for many reasons.  Dahnai would fight to keep the Imperium intact, and the other empires would fall on Karis like a pack of wolves if the threat of Dahnai dragging the Imperium into it was removed.  Yet, he couldn’t leave things they way they were.  He had worried about the day when some future Empress would demand of the future ruler of Karinne that they turn over their secrets, and with Dahnai’s betrayal, he knew that wasn’t just a worry, that was a mathematical certainty.

        But he’d have to find a way to do it.  The House of Karinne had to be independent, or it was doomed.  If the Consortium or the Benga didn’t wipe them out, then they’d be destroyed by those that called them ally today, or forced into a civil war against the Imperium itself when that future Empress declared the Karinnes outlaws for refusing to hand over their secrets.  He had to find some way to free the Karinnes from the Imperium without starting the Fourth Civil War, and without having a battle fleet of Skaa or Alliance vessels trying to get past the interdictor.

        And he knew for a fact that no Generation, not even him, would ever be safe anywhere but on Karis.

        He sat there in dark reverie, knowing that today, he had reached a crossroads in his life.  After today, nothing would ever be the same, and the fate of the house itself hinged on just exactly what he finally decided to do.  The fate of millions rested on his shoulders, and he had to make the best decision he could.

        He couldn’t let his people down, nor could he ignore the needs of the Generations, the basic need—no, the right—to live their lives without the constant fear of ending up on some lab table.

        Today, things were going to change.  Whether they changed for the better, that, only time would tell.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:   Title    ToC    3      5

Chapter 4

 

        Vesta, 25 Demaa, 4401, Orthodox Calendar

        Wednesday, 12 May 2014, Terran Standard Calendar

        Vesta, 25 Demaa, year 1327 of the 97th Generation, Karinne Historical Reference Calendar

        295th Street and Oceanside, Karsa, Karis

 

        Nobody recognized him…and to him, that was a good thing.

        Jason Karinne walked slowly along a pathway between the Trentor Building and Bayside Arena, a small sports and entertainment complex that hosted a planetary AAA league bachi team, a Karsa Local League soccer team, a Karis Planetary League baseball team, and had just organized and began hosting a Shio verziki team.  Jason walked without escort, without guards, his hands in the pockets of his jeans, just wandering aimlessly as he thought.

        He’d been thinking for two days now, and only one thing had been on his mind, even over the meeting of the Confederate Council that would begin tomorrow.  Yeri had been all but doing his job for the last two days, both organizing the summit and sitting in for him during council meetings, while Chirk and Brall more or less ran his office on their own.

        He was thinking treason.

        That was the non-polite way to think about it.  The simple fact of the matter was, he was thinking of the survival of his house, the survival of the Generations, the very existence of Cybi, and preserving the essence of what it meant to be a Karinne at its fundamental level.  The people around him had embraced that essence and had become Karinnes.  The Faey woman with a teenage son, on their way to the public beach on the far side of the arena.  The quartet of human kids riding hoverboards on the vehicle lane beside the walkway.  The Shio woman in a KMS trainee’s uniform, enjoying herself while on a city pass, passing by a pair of Kizzik nobles and their four drones, which everyone gave plenty of room…not out of fear, but because Kizzik were pretty big and their legs stuck out from their sides a little bit.  A laughing Faey child pulling a gravkite, watching with joyful eyes as the toy spun and whirled at the end of its string, getting further and further away from her parents as they looked at a projected hologram from their interfaces…the way they were dressed, they might be going to the theater on this warm, glorious late afternoon.  They were his people, they were Karinnes, they had left behind their old allegiances and their old loyalties and had embraced the dream, his dream, of prosperity, and above all, peace.

        He walked slowly, others passing him by from behind, his hands in his pockets and his head down.  Aya would kill him for not paying attention to his surroundings, for not wearing his armor, for not having his guards…at least she would when she got down off the roof.  She’d honestly tried to stop him, at least until he stripped her out of her armor in about two seconds and parked her, Shen, and Suri on the roof of Myleena’s house, which was of Faey architecture and possessed of a flat roof Myleena used as a deck.  Aya meant well, and it was her job to keep him safe, but from time to time, she had to be reminded that he really was the one in charge.  He needed to think, and what was most important, he needed to be among those who would be affected by his decisions the most while he thought…the people who depended on him to make well-reasoned decisions.  His girls in the KMS were the most at risk in the immediate future, but it was these people, the backbone of the House Karinne, who were the most vulnerable and the most dependent on him to make careful decisions.  They depended on him for stability and security, they had shown faith in him by coming to a dead planet and breathing life back into it.  They needed him, and he needed to be among them when he made decisions that would most affect them.

        He sat on a public bench and put his elbows on his knees and his hands under his chin, his mind going in circles.  He had to secede from the Imperium, though secede may be too harsh a term for it.  The reality was, he needed to find some way to either convince or force Dahnai to let the Karinnes go, but at the same time, he had a duty to her to help keep the Imperium stable…which wouldn’t be for long once the Dorranes and the Shovalles saw one of the houses of the Siann successfully break away from the Imperium.  It is better to rule in hell than serve in heaven was a saying that many Faey Grand Duchesses would adopt for their own, and it might cause the complete dissolution of the Imperium as house after house broke away so its Grand Duchess could be the Empress of her own territory.  And with their new Torsion weapons, the Alliance and the two Skaa governments might decide to try to capture the renegade houses for themselves, which would turn the Faey into a subject race scattered across three or four different empires.

        It was the mother of all catch-22’s.  Jason couldn’t leave the Imperium without destabilizing it, but he couldn’t stay in it either.  Either he risked the Fourth Civil War that might lead to sector-wide war, or he risked the future of the Generations, and the House Karinne as a whole.

        Dahnai…he sighed.  He loved her.  He loved her deeply, but she could not help but be who she was, and she was the Empress Dahnai Merrane of the Imperium, ruler of 77 star systems and a woman that got what she wanted, no matter who she had to trample under her boots to get it.  He had expected her to send spies, but it still hurt.  It was still a betrayal of his trust, that she would still do something like even when she knew, knew better than most anyone, exactly why he did what he did.  She was a very intimate part of his life even with them living on different planets, and now, now he could no longer trust her.  It was clear that she would not stop until she got what she wanted, and it was just a matter of time before she was buying cloning vats herself.  He loved her, but he couldn’t let that blind him to who Dahnai was any longer.

        Dahnai was now the enemy.

        But, despite that, he did have obligations here.  He didn’t want the Imperium to explode when he left it, and he wouldn’t let the other empires attack the Imperium in its time of political upheaval either.  As much as he hated what Dahnai was and everything she represented, he still loved the woman, still loved the Faey people, and he was hopeful that someday he wouldn’t have to keep the knowledge of the Karinnes away from them anymore.  But until that time, he had to be the one that would protect the Faey, from themselves if needs be.  It was his duty to Dahnai and to the Imperium to keep it stable, because it wasn’t just the lives of the people in his house that were at stake.  He had too much compassion for the people of the Imperium to make them suffer, but he also had a sacred duty to his house to protect his people.

        So, how does one peaceably secede from a government that would fight to prevent it?  How does one secede from a government that depends on you for its basic stability without having things dissolve into civil war?

        That was the question that had tormented him for two straight days.  He had gone over idea after idea, studied it, considered it, then discarded it.  It was a conundrum, mainly because he could see no way to break away from the Imperium without either causing Dahnai to declare war on him, or having the entire Imperium descend into chaos.  Even if she agreed to it, the Highborns would see that as weakness, and it would cause them to either secede from the Imperium themselves or challenge Dahnai for the throne.

        And there were more personal implications for him.  Raisha was just half of it.  He wasn’t sure what he was going to do about Shya.  He had made it clear that his boys would marry who they wanted to marry, and God, did Rann ever want to marry Shya.  It was almost like they’d already pair bonded.  But Shya was Dahnai’s daughter, an Imperial Princess, and there was no telling if Jason could trust her when she was fifteen and came to the house.  Dahnai had some nine more years to prepare little miss High Princess Duchess Consort Shya Merrane Karinne to do her mother a solid and steal biogenic secrets for her.  But, Rann had chosen Shya far beyond the piece of paper that betrothed them, and he wanted to honor Rann’s wishes.  He didn’t want to break his promise to his son.

        Then there was Raisha.  He might indeed start a war when he came for his daughter when she was born, and he fully intended to do just that. When Raisha was born, he would be there to take her home to Karis, to the home of the Generations, to the only place in the entire universe where she could grow up safe.  Not even her title as a Princess would protect her from some diabolical maniac out there with a needle and dreams of empire.  As much as he didn’t like to think of the Generations as weapons, that was exactly what they were.  Jason Karinne was the most powerful weapon on the planet, because he had the strongest merge among all the Generations with Cybi, able to exert the greatest power due to their compatibility.  There were many out there that would treat them like weapons instead of people, assets, things.  The rogue elements in the IBI had wanted an army of Generations, wanted thousands of living weapons.  Though what they could do could be used in a military manner, they were sentient living beings, and they were not weapons.  Making the rest of the sector see beyond what they could do and see them for who they were would be virtually impossible.  Every government in the sector except for the Urumi and several outside the sector had all tried to steal Karinne secrets…good old Urumi, they were anything if not consistent.

        To the rest of the universe, they were numbers.  To Jason, they were people.

        And there were far more people involved in this.  The Karinnes theoretically had five systems in the Imperium on top of Karis.  Terra and the four Urumi protectorates were under Karinne control, and those systems were part of the Imperium.  Dahnai would fight to keep the Imperium together because of the critical assets those systems brought in.  Terra was the second largest food producer in the Imperium, Aurigae was also a major food producer shipping food to both the Imperium and the Collective, and the heavy metals they were bringing in from Bellar was powering the military buildup without draining the Imperial treasury.  Jason had made a promise to his people, the Terrans, to protect them, and he’d made a deal with Sk’Vrae, who might consider the secession of the Karinnes as a violation of their agreement…and he knew fully well how the Urumi responded to such betrayals.  The last thing he wanted to do was run afoul of Sk’Vrae, particularly at this critical time.  Though the Urumi in those four systems were only going to be in the Imperium for thirty years, for those thirty years, they were his people, and he had a responsibility to them.

        They were the very people that surrounded him at that moment.  He looked up and leaned back on the desk and watched them pass by.  Most of them were Faey and Terrans, but with the opening of the house to other races, they were starting to appear in more than just the KMS.  Just watching a moment, he saw a Shio, a Skaa, and a Bari-Bari walk by.  They were people that were depending on him to do his best to make sure that the dream they had when they joined House Karinne would still be there after all this insanity finally settled down.  These were not soldiers, they were the common citizens.  They were factory workers, shop owners, employees, entrepreneurs, adventurers and explorers, those who wanted to breathe life back into a ruined world and restore the soul of the planet, as the Parri shaman might say.

        It was one of those newcomers that sat on the bench beside him, studying a map on a handpanel, looking quite perplexed.  He was a Colonist, about five feet tall and with that big head, large black eyes, and grayish skin that many Terrans equated to the aliens from all the UFO conspiracies.  He was young as a Colonist went, his black hair thick and cropped short on his head, his long-fingered hands wrapped around the small computer.  Colonists had vision issues with the single-sided projection holograms they used in the interfaces to provide a visual interface, so they carried a handpanel, usually linked to their interfaces.  “Excuse me, citizen, I’m looking for the Jentra building,” he said to Jason in a polite voice, speaking passingly decent Faey.  “Might you know where it is?”

        “It’s two blocks that way, on the left,” Jason replied, pointing towards the east.  “It has a big sculpture in the plaza in front of it, you can’t miss it.”

        “Many thanks,” he said, shifting the map on his handpanel.

        Jason leaned back on the bench.  “Mind answering a question before you go?” he asked impulsively.

        “My, certainly,” he replied, looking at Jason as he looked up at the Trentor building and its 138 stories…which wasn’t that high compared to many buildings in Karsa.  The buildings by the ocean tended to be shorter.

        “Why did you join House Karinne?” Jason asked, still looking up.  “What brought you here?”

        “Why, opportunity,” he replied.  “This house is going places, citizen.  And it has nothing to do with the technology or this war.  I could tell when I spoke to the recruiters that they were looking for people with drive, with vision, with determination.  I imagined an entire planet filled with people who wanted to be here, who would roll up their sleeves and work hard for something important to them, and I could see that a planet like that would be a wonderful place to be.”

        “The Colonies aren’t a bad place,” Jason protested.  “The Grand Master is very wise, and he has great men and women advising him on the council.  The Colonies live in peace and prosperity.  It’s one of the most respected civilizations in the sector.”

        “Of course it is.  I love the Colonies, but as much as I revere the Grand Master, I wanted to be part of something special.  And that is what Karis is to me.”

        “Something special,” Jason mused, looking up at the top of the building.  “Thank you, friend.  You’ve given me something to think about.”

        The nameless Colonist wandered off to find the Jentra building, leaving Jason on the bench, watching the people of Karsa wander by, continuing to ponder what he knew would be one of the most important decisions of his life; not seceding from the Imperium, but how he would do it. He sat there as the sun went down, as the walkway lights flickered on, as faint cheers came from the sports arena as a game was being played, as a pair of armored police officers walked by, sending between themselves.  He continued to worry over the problem, discarding several more ideas, sitting there with his chin propped on a hand like The Thinker statue.  He needed to come up with something, because he had to get this out in the open with Dahnai before the summit.   He didn’t want to spring this on her in that kind of a situation, she’d never forgive him, so he had set a deadline with himself to have a decision and the framework of a plan in place by tomorrow.  The summit was in 12 days, so he really had that long to have a plan in place, but he also needed time to work out the specifics.

        At least Dahnai took his warning to heart.  Even now, there was a massive purge going on over in the IBI.  Dahnai was raking her claws through the entire organization, and she was out for blood.  Half the upper management had been fired, several arrested, and she was subjecting the mindbenders to telepathic examination to ensure just where their loyalties lay…and the Imperial Guard was almost drooling over that.  They were shamed, humiliated, and infuriated when they found out that the IBI had slipped a mindbender into the palace and attacked the foster father of the Empress’ future children, and an Imperial Guard was one of the few telepaths in the Imperium capable of putting a mindbender in her place.  They were going to make sure that never happened again, because it reflected on them that someone had managed to get past their security and attack a highly sensitive target within the palace, even if it was theoretically someone on their own side.  Then again, the history of the Faey was filled with betrayals that required the Empress to live in a fortress in the first place.  Faey fought each other even more enthusiastically than they fought outsiders.

         He was still there, sitting on that bench, when the game let out, causing a swell of pedestrians down the walkway.  He ignored them for the most part, at least until a Terran man sat down beside him, a young man wearing a baseball cap with the Karsa Bombers shield on it, which was the local KBA league.  “Jason, whatever are you doing out here?” a female voice asked.

        He blinked and looked up, and was almost surprised to see Molly Fletcher, with Ian sitting beside him.  She was leaning over him, and from the looks of her, life on Karis had been good to her.  She’d lost some of her weight and her hair was much shorter now, but she had the same kind face.  She put a hand on his shoulder.  “Where are your guards?”

        “Right now?  Probably breathing fire and cutting a switch waiting for me to get back,” he replied dryly in English, which made Ian burst out laughing.  Ian was a tall, handsome young man now, 21 years old and taking Academy courses in business management.  Molly and Ian owned a little coffee shop on the north side of Karsa, he recalled, Molly taking her restaurant management skills to their natural conclusion, since she was also a pretty good cook.  “They didn’t want me to leave, and I didn’t feel like debating the point with them.”

        “Well, they’re there for a reason, Jason, seriously,” Molly chided him.  “You shouldn’t be here.”

        “I feel completely safe being on the streets of Karsa, Molly,” he protested.

        “You’re safe from us, but there’s a war going on, Jason.  Even we’ve heard about that energy thing that managed to sneak onto the planet, it was all over the news.  They told us to look out for anyone acting unlike themselves, since the energy thing couldn’t pretend to be the person they were possessing.  Well, there could be another one around with a gun,” she said, her arm on his shoulder hooking under and making him stand.

        “I’m fine, Molly,” he said firmly.  “I just needed some time alone to think, that’s all.”

        “No, it’s not fine, Jason.  If you’re not worried about you, you could at least think about everyone who loves you.  I’m sure they’re worried sick, you wandering around like this.”

        Good old Molly, always knowing exactly how to go for the jugular.  But this time, he wasn’t falling for it.  He sat back down, then surprised her by almost dragging her onto the bench beside him, on the far side of Ian.  “Answer me a question,” he told her.

        “What?  You want to ask questions?” she flared, then she put a finger to her interface.  She gasped when Jason snatched it away with his power, then put it in her hand.

        “Humor me,” he said evenly.  “What would you do if you had to make a decision that was going to start a war no matter how you choose?  Choice A starts the war immediately, more or less when we can’t possibly afford another war.  Choice B puts the war off for maybe a hundred years, but makes it ten times worse for waiting.  If you had to choose between watching people die or knowing that you’re responsible for fifty times more deaths after you’re gone, which would you choose?”

        Molly gave him a surprised look, then fell silent.  Ian too fell silent, looking at the ground, and both of them spent more than couple of moments in thought as the rest of the game’s spectators filed by.

        “I’d say that both choices suck, and I’d be looking for Choice C,” Ian finally said.

        “There is no choice C.”

        “There’s always a choice C, Jason.  Usually there’s a choice D and E, too.  You taught me that in the Legion,” Ian said with surprising maturity.  “You always found another way to do something that nobody else thought of.  It’s why we won the war against Trillane, cause you found Choice C.  It’s why we’re here,” he said seriously.  “There can’t just be an A or B.  Maybe you just need to look at the problem a new way.  That’s something else you taught me.”

        Jason gave the young man a long look, then he chuckled and patted him on the shoulder.  “That’s some good advice, Ian,” he said, then he stood up.  “I think I need to go talk to someone with some insight into my problem.  Who won the game?”

        Ian laughed.  “The Bombers, six to five.”

        “Good,” he replied, then he put his hands in his pockets and joined the tail end of the crowd, looking like any other resident of Karsa.

        It took him about an hour to get back home, and in that time, riding two subways and a tram, he started thinking about the problem as an engineer.  It was a big problem, but it wasn’t a single problem.  If he compartmentalized the issue into individual units, he could find solutions to those unitized problems, which would give him an overall solution.  It was like annealing components onto a moleculartronics board.  There were all kinds of different little things you had to do, but when you finished, it all looked nice and neat and organized and it worked perfectly.

        So, breaking it up into different problems, he foresaw six different individual issues that he had to address.

        The first was the keeping Dahnai on the throne after he was gone.

        The second was ensuring that the Imperium didn’t fly apart after the Karinnes were gone.

        The third was bringing Raisha to Karis.

        The fourth was what to do about Shya.

        The fifth was making sure that nobody else tried to mess with the Imperium after the Karinnes pulled out.

        The sixth was figuring out what the hell to do about Terra and the four Urumi systems, who were Karinne systems but also critical parts of the Imperium.

        And the seventh was ensuring the welfare of the house by making sure no other empire tried to attack Karis once they were no longer any part of the Imperium.

        He sat on the subways and considered individual solutions to those seven problems.  Some he could find easy solutions to, but some were very tricky.  He rode the tram consolidating those problems by finding a common solution that would solve more than one problem.  He then walked the four blocks from the tram station to the gate of the strip, padding along as he considered how to apply those solutions in an interconnected way that solved all seven problems.  He was completely oblivious to the malevolent glares from the guards as he came through the gate, though he did absently intercept Aya as she charged towards him, hanging her in midair as he walked by, her legs kicking in futility and sending both emotions and graphic impulses to beat Jason senseless for leaving the strip…though she could have sent a KMS unit to go get him and they both knew it.  But she knew better, she knew when he got like that, it was best to just back off and shadow him from afar, as he was absolutely certain the guards had done.  He had no doubt that every city camera was tracking his every move, there was a dropship at high altitude with a battery of cameras and sensors watching everything within ten blocks of him, and there was probably a few Wolf and Gladiator units along with Marine units in position for rapid response.  Almost as an afterthought, he dragged Aya along behind him, her still hanging in midair, though she’d stopped kicking, carrying her to the bench by his oye tree, which was really filling out, the canopy thickening and widening over the house.  He sat down and parked her on the bench beside him, then reached over and grabbed her arm, unlocking her gauntlet from her vambrace.

        Just get over it, he sent curtly after he took her gauntlet off, then he took her hand so they would have completely personal and intimate communication, at a level where not even Dera would be able to hear them.

        Aya’s eyes widened in shock when Jason shared his thoughts with her, and his intentions.  Aya knew Dahnai like few others did, even had insights into her that Jason didn’t, and he needed her advice about how to deal with this situation.  He needed to know how the Empress would react, not Dahnai.  Aya was honestly not very surprised that Dahnai had tried to steal biogenics, and even the ultra-loyal Aya had to grudgingly admit that in the face of what happened, that splitting the Karinnes away from the Imperium might be the only way to protect Raisha and all the other Generations.  Aya was flatly resistant to the idea that Dahnai would use her own daughter as a guinea pig, but if the IBI could get a mindbender into the palace, it meant that not even the palace would be safe for Raisha.  If someone wanted her bad enough, they’d find a way to get at her.  After all, they didn’t need to kidnap her, they just needed to get some of her blood.  Getting the stem cells around the stomach would be best for cloning, but sufficient DNA could be harvested from a blood sample to produce viable clones.

        For nearly an hour, they discussed the problem privately, holding hands, as Aya gave him her honest advice, and he found that it was solid and dependable, just like her.  They considered his individual solutions to the seven issues, debated them, expanded the discussion to analyze how the seven issues would interact, how the solution to one might affect another.  They finished up, Jason letting go of her hand, then he leaned over and kissed her on the cheek gently.  Let me go discuss it with Miaari and Zaa, he told her.  I’m sorry I scared you, but you know me.  You can’t keep me locked up in here forever.

        I’m going to prove you wrong, you stubborn man, you, she replied with grim amusement.  I warned you what would happen if you pulled on that leash, Jason.  Don’t even think this is over.

        Usually I’d submit myself for penitence, but not this time.  I needed to go out there, Aya.  I can’t make a decision that affects every living thing on this planet without being out there with them, so they constantly reminded me just what at was stake.  I’m not the house.  They are.

        She gave him a stony look, then sighed and stood up.  She took her gauntlet from him and put it back on.  Still, you will be punished, Jason  Tomorrow, you and me are going to have one of those talks you really don’t like.  It’s going to involve a paddle.

        You’re going to look silly wearing pink armor with little lace ribbons tied all over it, he replied as he headed back to the house.  You’ll look even sillier spending about two hours under the foot of Kyva’s Gladiator.

        I can cheat too, Jason.

        Nowhere near as good as I can, he replied dryly as he went back into his house.

        He went up to his office, sat down, and called Miaari and asked her to come to his house.  He then beeped Zaa asking for an audience, then leaned back in his chair and turned it around to look over the moonlit ocean.  [Cybi,] he called.  A shimmer of light behind him heralded her forming her hologram, and she floated over to the side of his chair and looked down.  He conveyed the meat of his conversation with Aya to her in about a second.  [What do you think?]

        [I think some of it will work, but only if we can secure Empress Dahnai’s cooperation,] she answered.  [Everything will hinge on what she does.]

        [I know,] he sighed.  [I can only pray that she’s the woman I know more than she’s the Empress, especially where it concerns the safety of her daughter.]

        [When are you going to tell her?]

        [Soon, after I have some solid ideas in place of what to do,] he replied.  [This is not a bomb I want to drop on her during the conference.  She needs to know as soon as possible, but not until I have something I can actually tell her.]

        [True.]

        Zaa finally got back to him, a full hologram of her forming on the other side of his desk.  The hologram moved around to the other side of his chair form Cybi and looked down at him.  “This must truly be important,” she noted.  “What decision have you reached?”

        “The House of Karinne can’t stay in the Imperium, Denmother,” he replied in a calm, almost emotionless voice.  “Our only protection is complete autonomy.  If we don’t have that, it’s just a matter of time before Dahnai, or Sirri, or Sirri’s daughter demands we give them everything.  And we can’t do that.”

        “It is a matter that past Grand Duchesses pondered themselves, Jason, when the Empress began to snoop,” she told him calmly.  “But with the secret of the Generations revealed, perhaps this time, it is worth consideration.”

        “Do you think that Raisha will be safe in the palace, Denmother?”

        “No.  I do not.”

        “Then it’s time,” he replied evenly.  “The safety of the Generations is at stake, and more than that.  The safety of the sector is at stake.  The last thing any of us wants to see is ten thousand clones of Raisha grown in a factory, meant to be the breeding stock for an army of Generations, which could flatten any other military in the sector and turn whoever controls those Generations into a conqueror that nobody could stand against, not even us.  That’s what the IBI was trying to do using Saelle, and I’ll be damned if I let them do that to my daughter.”

        “You have considered the intricacies of your decision?”

        “For the last two days,” he replied quietly.  “I think I have a plan, but I need your advice, and that of Miaari.”

        “Dahnai will not be pleased.”

        “I know, but all we can hope is that she sees the practicality of it.  After all, the one that clones that army of Generations would use it against Dahnai first.  If it’s not Dahnai doing it, anyway.  I wouldn’t put it past her,” he grunted.

        “I will be on Karis within an hour,” she told him.  “This, we must discuss in person.”

        He nodded.  “I’ll be happy to have you,” he replied.

        Miaari had a different reaction when she arrived and he told her what he intended to do.  “It was inevitable, Jason,” she told him.  “We’ve had many talks about parts of what you said, but now that the entire galaxy knows about you, complete autonomy is your only real defense.”

        “It’s not gonna be easy,” he grunted.

        “Nothing worthwhile is easy, my friend.”

        When Zaa arrived, they spent more than half the night deep in discussion and debate about Jason’s plan, sitting downstairs in the living room rather than in his secure room, since Jason wasn’t all that worried about who might overhear what they talked about.  Jason had learned over the years that Zaa wasn’t just a powerful ruler, she was a wise ruler, and the one person to whom Jason could take his most difficult problems for good, solid advice.  Of course, she never told him what to do, she always suggested what to do.  But more often than not, those suggestions were exactly what he ended up doing.  They went over his seven individual problems and the solutions, and again discussed the ramifications and collateral actions that would come about because of them.  Zaa liked his solutions for some, was skeptical of others, but she was adamantly against his solution for how to deal with Terra.

        “No, Jason, that would be a monumentally bad idea,” she told him as Ayama, looking a little sleepy, served Jason coffee and Zaa hot chocolate, which she rather fancied.

        “Go to bed, woman, sheesh.  It’s not like either of us don’t know how to make a pot of coffee,” Jason told her, swatting her on the butt as she went by, then took a long drink.  “Why not?  Dahnai will not give Terra up, Denmother.  We just work around that inevitability.”

        “Giving Terra to any other house just won’t work,” she told him.  “You forget, the Academy is on Terra, and the only reason many come there is because of the neutrality of the Karinnes.  If you turn Terra into a partisan system, the Academy is going to suffer.  Unless you move the Academy here to Karis, you cannot relinquish Terra under any circumstances.  But you cannot do that.  Because everyone knows about the Generations, Karis must be a closed system.”

        Jason frowned…that was most likely right.  Jason had been of a mind to simply hand over the system to Anya, because she’d proved over the years she was a fair and compassionate overseer.  She operated completely within the rules Jason had set, and the Surrales were actually very welcome on Terra because of their actions.  The people of Terra trusted the Surrales, and would have accepted being transferred to Anya’s house.

        “So, you think that making Terra a neutral system even within the Imperium is best?”

        She nodded.  “The United Nations has proved that they can responsibly govern the planet.  They maintain their treaties and contracts with the Imperium, but are considered a neutral planet in all political matters.  Dahnai lets them handle their own affairs, and they continue to produce food for the Imperium.  As long as the farms meet the quotas, she has no reason to complain.  It also provides a neutral meeting place for the various governments that doesn’t have the excessive regulations that the Moridon impose,” she noted dryly.  “In addition, it further reinforces the neutrality of the Academy.”

        “What about defense?”

        “No government would be crazy enough to attack Terra,” she snorted.  “At least none in this quadrant.  We simply maintain the TES and interdiction, that should be defense enough.  In fact, it might be to our advantage, Jason.  If we approach the governments of the Confederacy, we can turn Terra and the TES into the entry point for all interdicted systems.  Trade for the entire sector would flow through Terra, which brings your birth planet profit and prestige.  And that importance will also protect it, even above the presence of the Academy.  It will bring the various governments of the sector closer together, sharing a common way station, and that will promote trade and peace.”

        “But it also creates a bottleneck, as well as a means of paralyzing the entire sector by creating an irresistible target to attack,” Jason countered.  “We’d have to do some reorganizing.”

        “Well, we start the conferences in twelve days, and it would be the perfect venue to bring up the idea,” Zaa said with a slight smile.  “We cannot piggyback their freighters with our ships forever, Jason.  They will need a system of trade routes when the interdictors are turned on, and a Stargate hub can provide it.  Dahnai makes a lot of money leasing out her Stargates, with proper protections for them of course, and everyone is safely behind their interdictors, at least as long as they want them.  Besides, the Karinnes becoming autonomous would reassure some of the more skittish members of the Confederacy that they are not handing over the keys to their empires to Dahnai.”

        “That’s a good point,” Jason agreed with a nod.  “I’m not sure everyone will want to turn off the interdictors after we beat the Consortium,” Jason grunted.  “Dahnai would be a fool to get rid of the interdictors when she has Stargates, it makes the Imperium absolutely unassailable by every other government in the sector.  Sk’Vrae has the same good deal going, and I don’t think the Zyagya have ever been this happy with their lone system behind an interdictor and the only way in defended by both us and their ships.  And the cooperation between the Imperium and the Collective can be a model for how we expand things into the Empire, the Federation, the Alliance, the Colonies, and the Republic.  And as long as we can create a viable means of moving goods and ensure sovereignty and security for the systems, the other governments will probably want to keep their interdictors as well.  They provide an almost impenetrable defense to protect their systems from attack, and that fits in with my overall plan to keep the peace in the sector.  You know, just maintain the Confederate treaties even after the war is over.  All the militaries working together, which also prevents any one military from getting any bright ideas, and the governments working in a common logistic system for trade, which increases everyone’s profitability.

        “Now you are thinking like a galactic power player, Jason,” Zaa smiled.  “I’m sure we could work something out that turns Terra into a neutral system but it maintains its contracts with Dahnai.  You need to discuss these things with Secretary Kim, since this is a serious issue for Terra.  As the leader of Terra in your stead, he should have a say.”

        “I know.  I told him I want him here for the summit,” Jason answered.  “But I should talk to him about this before then.  I’ll give him a call and ask him to come to Karis tomorrow.”

        “Good.  Now what about the Urumi systems?”

        “I was thinking that we leave things the way they are.  If I relinquish control of those systems, I’ll have broken my word to Sk’Vrae, and I’m not that stupid,” he snorted.  “Those systems with technically secede along with the Karinnes, but they maintain all their contracts, treaties, and agreements with the Imperium.  In a way, they’ll be jointly held systems, just between three of us instead of two of us.  The Karinnes will administer, the Imperium maintains its contracts, and the deal we made with the Urumi will be upheld.  But I’ll need Sk’Vrae’s approval about anything we do with those systems.  This involves her people, even if they’re theoretically not under her control right now.”

        Zaa took a drink, then sighed.  “The other problems are much more murky.”

        “I know,” Jason almost groaned.  “I can almost see a war starting over Raisha, Denmother.  And then there’s Shya.  As much as I love that little girl, I don’t know if I’ll be able to trust her once she’s Rann’s wife.  When I’m gone, that puts her literally in bed with the Grand Duke.  If she has any loyalty to her mother, it could undermine everything we do.”

        “Faey are a race with little loyalty, Jason,” Zaa said.  “Their primary motivation in all things is self-interest, and Shya is virtually obsessed with marrying Rann.  If she has to choose between Rann and her mother, she will choose Rann.  After all, she’s the second daughter, there’s virtually no chance she’ll ever sit on the throne.  If she is smart, she marries the future ruler of an independent house, and becomes a ruler in her own right.”

        Jason sighed and nodded.  That is what a Faey would do.

        “It also solidifies the ties between the Imperium and the Karinnes.  With Shya married to Rann, it creates an alliance that neither side would willingly break.  Sirri and Rann would be attacking their own families if either ever declared war, if we’re talking about what happens after you and Dahnai are gone.”

        “I know, I figured that that might be a selling point to make Dahnai go for it,” Jason agreed, leaning back on the couch.  “Even though I intend to break away from the Imperium, I don’t want to sever all ties with Dahnai.  I want us to be strong allies, just be in a position where I can protect the house from her.”

        “Again, it all hinges on Dahnai,” Zaa noted.

        Jason nodded.  “Whether this all happens peacefully or it turns into the Fourth Civil War depends entirely on her, but I won’t be talked out of this,” he declared grimly.  “The survival of the Generations is at stake, and it’s my solemn duty to protect my people.  This is the only way I can think of to do it.”

        There was a shuffling from the stairs, and Rann came around and into view.  He was wearing a nightshirt and was yawning, but gave a sleepy smile to Zaa and hurried over to her.  “Miss Denmother!” he declared.

        “Well, good morning to you, little Rann,” she smiled as she picked him up and put him on her lap.  “But it’s the middle of the night.  Whyever are you awake?”

        “I got thirsty, and heard you talking,” he answered as she leaned over and put her muzzle over his shoulder.  “Is it really the middle of the night?”

        “Yes,” Jason answered.  “I think a certain someone is just a little too excited,” he added.

        “Well, maybe a little.  Shya’s going to come to my party!” he said with growing excitement.

        “In two weeks, you silly,” Jason teased.  “I’m almost afraid of how keyed up you’re going to be in a week.”

        Shey’s face appeared as a hologram against the back wall.  “Your Grace,” she called, then she smiled.  “Well, hello Rann.”

        “Hi, miss Shey!” he replied with a wave.

        “What’s going on, Shey?”

        “You said you wanted to be informed when we had news from the PR sector,” she said.  “The invasion of PR-106 has begun.  The invasion of PR-88 will begin in twenty minutes.”

        “Any casualties?”

        “Only light damage to five ships,” she answered.  “We took them completely by surprise, and they had very little defense.  The KMS has the system effectively blockaded, and the ground assault is underway at this moment.”

        “I think we should move up to your study so you can observe the telemetry,” Zaa suggested.  “I’ll put Rann back to bed and meet you there.  I rarely get to tuck in my favorite little cousin,” she said with a toothy smile, making Rann laugh when she tickled his sides.

        Though he’d wanted to invade two days ago, unfortunately, it took Sioa longer to organize a ground attack then she expected because they didn’t have the right maps or intel on the inhabited planets in those systems.  Once she had that, she organized a plan, then they had to wait for optimal conditions.  The Imxi were very capable at night fighting, with eyes that were very effective in low light situations, so they waited for day cycle to coincide at the capitols of all three inhabited planets in those two systems, causing a nearly 30 hour delay in the invasion.  His girls could fight at night as well, but the sheer bravado of a direct assault in broad daylight sent the message to the Imxi that the KMS had little but utter scorn for their military capabilities.

        Jason did just that, moving up to his study but leaving the door unlocked.  Four different holo screens popped up around his desk, and Cybi joined him, sitting on the edge of his desk as he watched a tactical holo of troop disposition, another of naval ship deployment, and camera feeds from his marines who were boiling out of their dropships at that very moment.  The Imxi had responded with tanks and infantry, but they were firing ion weapons.  The Teryon shields on a Gladiator, which his riggers rarely used since they were useless against pulse and Torsion weaponry, made it virtually immune to those weapons, and the Crusader armor his marines wore was able to stand up to multiple hits from ion blasts, which gave his girls formidable protection from enemy fire.  But that didn’t matter all that much, because he watched the camera feeds of entire squads of Imxi defenders as well as fleeing civilians just drop to the ground in large swaths as the mindstrikers in the marine units did their jobs.  There were telepathic techniques for attacking entire groups of people, very advanced ones, a telepath attacking an area instead of a mind, but it wasn’t something that the lay Faey learned in primary school.  It was mindstriker training, a military application of talent taught to those telepaths who specialized in using their talent in battle.  The mindstrikers mixed in with his marine units, added to the talent of the other soldiers, simply withered any resistance, leaving it laying unconscious on the ground or running screaming in circles with two of their four arms holding their heads.  His marine units just marched right up the street, knocking out, subduing, or outright controlling anyone that dared challenge them, to the point where a large contingent of slack-jawed Imxi, dominated by marines, marched in front of them like puppets, demonstrating the utter futility of the Imxi getting within five kathra of a Karinne Marine as well as forming a moving shield of friendly soldiers that made firing at the marines hard to do without the Imxi that weren’t yet taken out by talent killing their own soldiers.

        There was some fighting, however, when the Consortium’s bugs reached the field, looking mainly like construction crews and other technical workers rather than dedicated infantry.  They were wearing armor pieces over their exoskeletons that didn’t look the same as they did on the infantry units Jason had seen when they retook the Federation and Alliance, and they certainly weren’t afraid to fire through Imxi soldiers to hit KMS soldiers.  The mindstrikers simply pulled back and used the Imxi they dominated to attack the bugs, softening them up for when the marines and the Gladiators rolled in and mopped up, done with Gladiators and Wolf fighters.  The bugs didn’t have any of their mantis mecha in the capitol, and after the KMS destroyed all the Imxi tanks, the bugs had no heavy armor or weaponry to try to counter the KMS.  Besides, the Faey had turned the Imxi soldiers against them, letting them stay safely behind the hard shields while they made the Imxi do the fighting for them.  Using that tactic, the KMS swarmed over the Consortium bugs in about fifteen minutes, collected up their Torsion rifles, then marched onward.

        It took his marines only about half an hour to conquer PR-106’s capitol after destroying the Consortium garrison, leaving behind a large swath of unconscious Imxi and dead bugs.

        And that was what made the Faey so fucking dangerous.  Their most dangerous weapon wasn’t their Gladiators or their pulse rifles, it was their talent.  And he had some of the best mindstrikers in the fucking galaxy in his Marine Corps.

        Jason checked out the aftermath.  The navy had destroyed the shipyards at PR-106 rather than capture them, leaving burning hulks of mostly finished ships and a huge debris field of docks and support stations, some of which was falling into the atmosphere to burn up.  The secondary space station at PR-106 was in three pieces, with equipment as well as quite a few Imxi bodies floating around the sliced-up station.  One of the three pieces was tumbling out of orbit, and would hit the atmosphere in just a matter of minutes, probably blown downward by the explosive decompression when a particle beam cut it in half.  That same decompression was what had blown all that unsecured debris and Imxi out into space around the station.  The beams didn’t look to hit anything volatile enough to cause a major explosion, which left the three pieces in almost eerily good condition, with the bulkheads and decks of its internal structure quite visible, almost like an opened dollhouse.  Imxi damage control was never meant to counter something being cut in half—no damage control was, really—which sealed the fate of every Imxi in the station that wasn’t in a pressure suit.  If they were in pressurized compartments within the station and no help came for them, they faced a slow death from either asphyxiation or starvation.  But, KMS recovery units were already moving towards the remains of the station, they’d take the survivors prisoner as well as plunder the station for intelligence and anything that might be useful, mainly samples of Imxi technology, their station’s computer core, and samples of their armor and weapons for future study.

         PR-88 took nearly two hours to conquer by ground, because they had three inhabited planets in the system, but it took all of about ten minutes to secure by space.  The Dreamer led a task force of 17 ships into the system and wiped out the very weak defenses there, since PR-88 was well within Imxi territory and they probably never dreamed anyone would attack it.  All they had were orbital stations and some defense satellites carrying missiles.  The ships split up to attack all three planets at the same time, the interdictor being taken in to planet two, which was the only non-arable planet there.  It was an airless, barren rock a little bigger than Mercury that the Imxi mined for metals, and Sioa had made no plans to take that planet by ground forces.  Fighting to get into their domes might shatter them and kill everyone inside, so they just blockaded off the planet, the Dreamer parked by the interdictor to protect it.  Planets three and four, on the other hand, already had dropships descending into the atmospheres.  Those two planets were one of the most rare cosmic phenomenon in the galaxy when it came to planets, they were a double-planet system of two planets virtually the same size that orbited each other even as they orbited around the star.  There was no fixed planet and orbiting planet, each planet orbited an imaginary axis created by their velocity and gravitational pull, the two planets spinning around that point, eclipsing each other from the star at regular intervals.  Such systems usually weren’t so stable that the double-planet lasted much more than a couple of million years, but those two planets were perfectly stable in their unusual orbit.  For that matter, such systems usually tore each other apart while the planets were forming.

        Both planets were almost tempting to keep.  Planet three was .92 standard gravity, almost Terra’s gravity, and .972 pressure, where planet four was .97 gravity and 1.01 pressure.  Both had the exact same atmospheric composition, well within tolerances, and both planets were dedicated to farming, most likely feeding the vast majority of the Imxi systems.  Jason, Cybi, and Zaa watched as a repeat of PR-106 happened on both planets, as Karinne Marines dominated, knocked out, or drove crazy the Imxi militias that opposed them.  Marines took planet three in little more than an hour, and took planet four literally without firing a single shot.

        Myri and Shey’s faces appeared on a hologram after the ground units set up a hard shield.  “That’s it, Jason.  PR-88 is secured.”

        “Good work,” Jason replied.  “Now kick Maggie in the butt and send out the corvettes and gunboats to paralyze Imxi shipping throughout their entire territory.  Strangle them, Myri.”

        “Easily done,” Myri nodded, then the hologram of her and Shey vanished.

        “It comes down to how attached the Imxi are to their systems,” Zaa noted.

        “Any delay we can cause them in assembling that fleet is time we can use, Denmother,” he replied grimly.

        “Now then, I think we’ve talked enough, Jason.  I am going to stay on planet for the conference, there’s little reason for me to go home now,” she noted dryly.  “And you need to get some sleep.  Rann is going to be very hyper tomorrow.  You’ll need your rest to keep up with him.”

        He passed a hand over his face.  “You’re right.  I am tired,” he said.  “I’ll arrange—“

        “No, I’ll stay in the guest room,” she replied, standing up.  “I am not so pompous as to required luxury, cousin.  I think I can ‘rough it’ for the night, as the Terrans say.”

        “Don’t go all Dahnai on me, Denmother,” he said, which made her chuckle.

        “Good night, Jason.  Sleep well,” she intoned.  She then walked out the door to the hall, but Jason went through the door to his bedroom, where Jyslin was sleeping   He sat on the edge of the bed and scrubbed his face with his hands, worrying a bit over his girls over in the PR sector, now occupying hostile planets to draw the Imxi back to their home territory and foment discord between them and the Consortium, but dreading 1325 and the arrival of Dahnai.  He just hoped they could get through the party before Dahnai had her explosion, he didn’t want to ruin Rann’s day.

        Jyslin stirred on the bed, then he felt her arm drape over his shoulder, pulling herself against his back.  It’s about time.  What’s going on, love?

        I guess I can tell you now, love.  I’ve made my decision.

        And?

        We’re seceding from the Imperium.

        There was a long silence, then her hand gripped his opposite shoulder.  If you think it’s what we have to do, love.

        It’s what we have to do, he replied grimly.  I’m just trying to figure out how to break it to Dahnai, and try to make her understand we don’t want to sever ties with the Imperium.  We just can’t be under her control.  Not now.  What happened with Saelle just can’t be ignored, love, because the next one they target will be my daughter.

        She won’t accept it, Jason.  She’ll fight.

        She’ll want to fight, Jys.  She’s in no position to say no, not when her ass staying on that throne is directly because of me.  It’s not her I’m worried about anyway, it’s the rest of the Siann.  Getting out from under Dahnai will be the easy part.  Making sure the entire Imperium doesn’t implode after the other houses sees a house successfully break away, that’s going to be the trick.

        And that’s why she’ll fight.

        I have a plan for that, he assured her, patting her arm.

        And what would that be?

        Easy.  The House Karinne is seceding from Dahnai’s authority, but it’s still going to be at her beck and call when she needs us.  Say, to put down an insurrection from another noble house.  And besides, Jys my love, don’t forget that every system in the Imperium is interdicted.  Not a ship can move anywhere in Dahnai’s territory without her approval.  And if she turns off the Stargates, then any noble house with designs of breaking away will find itself walled off and starved of supplies and food.  Semoya or Emae might want to break away, but if they do it, they’ll be stranded, isolated, and starving.  As long as we supply interdictors to Dahnai, she maintains an iron grip on every system in the Imperium.

        She was quiet a long moment, then she chuckled softly.  Clever.

        I just need to make Dahnai see reason and not focus on the negatives, he sent wearily.

        What about Shya?

        I’m leaving that up to Rann, he replied.  If he wants her, then I’ll do everything I can to keep the betrothal.  But again, that’s going to hinge on Dahnai.  If she throws a complete temper tantrum, she might revoke it.

        Give her a little credit, love.  I think if you can get her to talk, she won’t be quite so combative.

        And that’s gonna be the trick, he sent evenly.  Now, if you don’t mind, my love, I really need to get some sleep.  I’ve had a very exhausting couple of days.

        Jyslin nuzzled the side of his neck, then started to pull his shirt up.  Then let’s get you undressed and tucked in so I can be your teddy bear, she sent lightly.

        If I did half the things to my teddy bear I’ve done to you, I’d be in jail back on Terra, he noted dryly, which made her burst out laughing.

        Some teddy bears have all the luck.

 

        Kaista, 26 Demaa, 4401, Orthodox Calendar

        Thursday, 13 May 2014, Terran Standard Calendar

        Kaista, 26 Demaa, year 1327 of the 97th Generation, Karinne Historical Reference Calendar

        The White House

 

        The invasion of the Imxi systems had been a success.

        So far, there was no visible reaction from either the Imxi or the Consortium, which meant that the arguing was taking place behind closed doors.  The corvettes and gunboats were already terrorizing the Imxi’s shipping lanes, thanks to the limitations of their old-technology hyperspace jump engines.  They were so antiquated that they could barely tolerate any gravitational well disturbance, requiring Imxi ships to get a serious distance away from the system’s star.  An Imxi ship could only jump if it were the same distance that Saturn was from Terra’s sun, if the system’s star was the same size.  Larger stars required even greater distances.

        Such engines weren’t just used by the Imxi.  Many of the Faey’s older robotic cargo freighters had engines so old that the ship had to be all but outside the system’s planetary orbits to make a jump, like the battered old freighter that brought Jason and the squad to Karis in the first place.  That freighter had had to all but leave the Draconis system, jump, then jump in at the very edge of the Karis system, because its jump engines couldn’t tolerate the gravity well of the star.  For a robot freighter, old engines like that were economical, since there was no crew in it to get bored as the ship came into the system at sublight, and what it was carrying was already scheduled with the time delay in mind. Those older engines also took less power to operate, so they were economical in a power consumption sense as well as a financial sense.

        The damage had been considerable in just 11 hours.  Maggie had gone nuts on the Imxi, deploying mines and automated hunter/killer drones along all the shipping lanes, taking advantage of the fact that the Imxi couldn’t communicate with their ships in hyperspace.  Those freighters and transports literally dropped out of hyperspace into the jaws of an angry lion. Maggie was a bit cruel about it, attacking anything that dropped out of hyperspace, including civilian transport ships…but this was war.  Jason didn’t like it, but those civilian ships might be carrying Consortium bugs, weapons, or supplies for the Consortium attack on Karis, so he had to swallow his disgust at attacking civilian ships and remember that at that moment, anything in the PR sector was a fair target.  Maggie completely paralyzed all logistics in the Imxi empire within 10 hours, and then she started attacking the Imxi military ships trying desperately to secure those hyperspace arrival points to protect helpless ships coming out of hyperspace.  But the Imxi learned quickly that the Legion fought dirty, utilizing CMS-enabled drones, mines, Buzzsaws, and dormant missiles that activated when targets came within range.  She also went low-tech, towing asteroids into the jump arrival points to create obstacles and bottlenecks to fluster Imxi ships and protect their assets.  The mass and gravity of the asteroids messed up the arrival of the Imxi ships, forcing them out of hyperspace before they got to their destination, exploiting the old engines their enemy used and the basic law of hyperspace that prevented a ship from jumping directly across a point of high gravity in real space.  That reached into hyperspace, and older, weaker engines would get knocked out of hyperspace by the distortion gravity put into that domain.

        Hyperspace travel was line of sight unless the engines were of the quality the Faey and other races in the sector had or better.  Only engines like that could pass through the effect that the gravity well of a star had on hyperspace without getting knocked out, because they had enough hyperspace “velocity” to get through the area before the gravity altered their hyperspace inertia.  Engines could only hold the ship in hyperspace if the conditions didn’t change by a large degree, it was that principle the interdictors exploited, creating so much distortion in hyperspace that only powerful engines like the Karinne or Kimdori engines could withstand the constant flux…and even then only with their mathematical expression of hyperspace allowing the jump computer to sync the engines to the effect.  Extremely old engines could get knocked out of hyperspace by a large concentration of mass in their direct path, like a rogue planet, but when a ship was preparing to drop out of hyperspace, the presence of mass close to the arrival point could cause the engines to drop out early, putting them a few thousand kathra away from their expected arrival point.  In stellar travel terms, that was like a dropship landing a half an inch off the landing lines, but it was enough to make the Imxi ships face a good ten to twenty seconds of attack from automated weapons before the Imxi defense ships could arrive to protect them.

        And in typical Legion fashion, as soon as the Imxi figured out what Maggie was doing, she changed tactics to keep them guessing.

        But that was going on over on the other side of the galaxy.  Jason was sitting in his office, his chair turned so he could look out the window, tapping his fingertips together as he proofread and edited a document in his gestalt that was going to make the Imperium go up in flames.  He and Zaa had discussed it again that morning, with Miaari and Cybi listening in, and they’d come up with their strategy for what was going to be an unheard of maneuver.  He and the legal team had gone around and around with the document, him sending it to them, them returning it with language changes or areas where he was going too far, but each draft came back with fewer and fewer revisions.  This last one might be the one they approve.

        It was the Karinne’s Declaration of Autonomy.  To call it a declaration of independence would be correct, but independence wasn’t as technically correct in his mind as autonomy.  He didn’t want a complete and irrevocable split with the Imperium, what he wanted was to be as much a part of the Imperium as possible without being subject to Dahnai.  He intended to retain the military alliance, retain the trade agreements, keep his ties to Merrane to keep that house on the throne, even keep his IBL team. The only thing he wanted was for the House of Karinne to be outside of Dahnai’s ability to command.  That was the only way that the Karinnes would be safe, because he couldn’t trust Dahnai anymore.

        Which sucked.  He loved that woman, and it killed him to know that he couldn’t trust a woman that he loved.  But he was too wise now to let his emotions rule him, where they might have just five scant years ago.  He had truly settled into the role of the Grand Duke Karinne.

        He finished the revisions and sent it back to his legal team to let them read over, confident that they’d approve it without doing more than just pointing out grammar errors.

        He sighed and looked back over his chair as Chirk clattered in on her four legs, carrying a handpanel as she kept her blade arms behind her back, mainly to keep them out of the way.  He wouldn’t know what he’d do without her.  She was a Kizzik, with an alien, insectoid personality, but she was the best damn administrative assistant in the entire Imperium.  She was probably the most powerful person on Karis, truth be told, because Jason more or less did what she put on his schedule, and he rarely if ever questioned it.  He trusted Chirk nearly as much as he trusted his own wife, because she was worthy of that trust.  “Is the cabinet in the meeting room?” he asked.

        “They are,” she answered using her translator.  “I assume you are telling them your intent?”

        “They need to know as soon as possible,” he replied, turning his chair around and taking the handpanel she offered.  He read over the bit of busy work, an authorization for the infrastructure department to being work on a new broadcast power hub, and signed off on it.  Ever since the power failure, Rund and Harvann had been tweaking the power grid so that didn’t happen again.  and it took both of them, since Rund was secretary of power and Harvann was secretary of communications, which had authority over an aspect of the broadcast power system in that it was his communication frequencies the broadcast power used.  “Yeri and Kumi aren’t not the only ones that are going to need time to be ready for it.”  He handed the panel back to her.  “What do you think of it, Chirk?”

        “It is not my place to proffer an opinion, revered Hive-leader.”

        “Be that as it may, I’d still like your opinion, from a Kizzik perspective.”

        “I think it has potential,” she answered, fanning her rather useless wings absently.  “The Karinnes have operated in an autonomous fashion since the return of the house six years ago.  This proclamation only makes it official.  For the house to truly prosper, it needs release from the Imperium.”

        “Why do you say that?”

        “Because most of the plans you make for the house involve a peaceful and prosperous sector, and that cannot come about so long as Empress Dahnai exists as an overwhelming threat to all our neighbors,” she answered.  “The Imperium seeks to conquer and rule, even when such things are not necessary, even when those actions are harmful to the Imperium itself.  The Kizzik are not afraid to make war, but war is waged as a last resort.  It is harmful to the hive as a whole, and only when the harm of not making war overcomes the harm war causes will the Kizzik enter battle.  This is the way you think, revered Hive-leader.  In many ways, you think as the Kizzik think, which is why two separate colonies have moved here.  We are inclined to being part of a house that thinks as we do, a house that thinks of the group over the individual.  The Faey and Empress Dahnai see war as the solution to problems that can be corrected by far less drastic means.  So long as the Karinnes are chained to Empress Dahnai’s bloodlust, they will not achieve their true potential.  The Karinnes are not the Imperium, even if they are subject to it, much as we Kizzik are.”

        Jason digested the mechanical words of the translator, but saw the wisdom within them.  He gave her a single nod and leaned back in his chair.  “Thank you, Chirk.  I value your opinion.  But I must ask, will the secession of the Karinnes cause any discord between the Kizzik and the Faey?”

        “I would guess not,” she replied after thinking about it a moment.  “We Kizzik move very carefully within the Imperium, revered Hive-leader.  I would venture to guess that half the reason that the Most Revered Hive Leaders have not yet moved on your translator offer is because they are pondering the ramifications of the Kizzik becoming move involved in Imperium affairs.  So long as we had the language barrier, we had an excuse to keep ourselves separate.  And the Faey, they would not like our opinions in many matters.”

        Jason just had to laugh.  That was a good reason why the leaders of the Kizzik were being so slow about accepting his offer to sell them the rights to manufacture translator units.  “Well, at least you can speak your mind here,” he told her lightly.

        “Which is why so many Kizzik are here, revered Hive-leader.  Here, we feel as if we belong.  That is the true gift of the House Karinne, that all races and species may come here and feel they are an important part of the group.  Here, all matter equally.  And to the Kizzik, this is a good thing.”

        He gave her a smile, then stood up.  “That’s what we’re aiming for around here, Chirk.  The country where I grew up, America, had a similar mindset.  Its unofficial motto was give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.  That means that in America, everyone was welcome, because in diversity there is strength, but it also meant that anyone could come to America and have a chance to make themselves better, if they worked hard enough for it.  That’s how I try to do things around here.”

        “And there is wisdom in that approach, revered Hive-leader,” Chirk agreed.  “The Kizzik are not xenophobic as many believe us to be.”

        “I’ve noticed,” he nodded, then he stood up.  “Well, let me get in there and shock the hell out of everyone.”

        “Good luck.”

        Jason went down the hall to his cabinet meeting room, and saw all his members at the table talking, and it was a curious mirror of the conversation he’d just had.  He looked at the three Faey, two Kizzik, and three Makati as they talked with each other, with a Terran leading it.  That was the four most active races in the Imperium.  And he could only wonder if there might be a Shio or a Skaa or an Urumi sitting at that table in the next ten years.  “Settle down, guys,” Jason called as Dera and Shen came in behind him, then took their positions by the door.  “Boy, do we have a lot to talk about.”

        “I’ve been hearing some strange rumors, Jason,” Trenirk said.  In these informal situations, they all used first names.

        “They’re true,” Jason replied.  “I’m dropping the mother of all antimatter bombs on the Imperium, Trenirk.  The House of Karinne is going to declare autonomy from the Imperium.”  Jason settled down the explosion of gasps and started exclamations, then sat down in his chair.  “I didn’t come to this decision lightly,” he said as Miaari came in.  She wasn’t technically on the cabinet, but as his chief of intelligence, she often sat in on the meetings.  “In fact, I really didn’t want to make this decision at all, but we found out that it’s Dahnai sending most of the spies we’ve caught.  We can’t trust her anymore, so we’re removing ourselves from her authority.”

        “Holy shit,” Kumi breathed.

        “Yeah, tell me about it,” Jason grunted as Miaari sat down.  “This is the only way we can protect ourselves from the Imperium, because if Dahnai can’t steal what she wants, eventually she’s gonna just come out and order us to open our doors.  And we can’t do that,” he finished.  “So, there it is, guys.  I’m going to give you the same option I’m giving every member of the house.  You can hand in your resignation and return to the Imperium if that’s what you want, because I’m not going to hold you here.  This house has always been about people being here because they want to be.”

        “You’re not going to see any of us get up from this table, Jason,” Yeri declared, to which they all nodded.

        “So, no takers?” Jason asked, then he blew out his breath.  “Thank God.  I’d be lost without you guys.”

        Jason spent nearly six hours discussing his plans and debating them with his cabinet, discussing the impact of independence on the house’s economy, the reaction of the citizens, and the problems that it was going to cause.  The people of Karinne didn’t sign up for the house as being independent from the Imperium, though many did come because it was separate.  The people of Karinne had to choose what to do, he owed them that much, give them the chance to leave before the house split away.  Plans to handle that were made, as well as military contingencies with Myri in case the Imperium tried to fight.  That would be the most unlikely scenario, since all they had to do was delink the Stargate to protect themselves and recall all KMS units within reach of the INS.  His legal team finally got back to him after those six hours, and approved the final draft of his proclamation.

        It was ready.  There was nothing left to do but tell Dahnai, because he didn’t want to drop this on her at the summit.  He steeled himself on his walk back to his office, Shen and Dera following closely behind him, his gestalt assembling the rest of the language of his proposal to Dahnai about the split for her to read, at least after she got over the explosion and she got her temper back.  He closed off his office and sat in his chair, then turned it around to look out the window for a moment of quiet contemplation before he initiated the call to Dahnai.

        There was a soft light behind him as a hologram of her shimmered on the far side of his desk, and that light made him close his eyes and bow his head slightly.  Cybi’s hologram shimmered into being in front of him, and she leaned down and put her hand on his shoulder.  He nodded and sighed, then turned around and faced Empress Dahnai Merrane.

        And she was not happy.  She stood before him in formal robes, obviously just coming from court, her hands on her hips and a stern look on her face.  “Oh, so now you want to talk to me?  After I’ve spent the last two days trying to get past that fucking Kizzik you used to stonewall me?” she asked angrily.

        “The House of Karinne no longer recognizes the authority of Empress Dahnai Merrane of the Faey Imperium,” he said in a cold, quiet voice.  “Due to acts of espionage against us by the Imperial government that demonstrates the unwillingness of the Imperium to respect the agreements and treaties formed between the Empress Dahnai Merrane and the House of Karinne, the House of Karinne officially and immediately withdraws from the Imperium.  A written copy of this declaration is being transmitted to you as we speak, as well as a written treaty to maintain all legal contracts and obligations that the House of Karinne has legally entered.”

        She looked absolutely stunned.

        “The House of Karinne will honor all its obligations to our trade agreements and military alliances.  The House of Karinne will also honor its commitment to keeping the House of Merrane on the Imperial Throne by being at the service of the Empress Merrane should she issue a general call to arms.  The House of Karinne will remain as closely tied to the Imperium as we possibly can be, but we will no longer recognize the right of the Empress Dahnai Merrane to rule over us, not after the Empress Dahnai Merrane personally ordered acts of espionage against the House of Karinne.  The Karinne Military Service will continue to aid and support the Confederate navies against the Consortium, though with us being autonomous, the House of Karinne no longer expects or demands that the Imperium or the Confederacy continue to protect the planet Karis.  The farms of Terra and Exile will continue to supply food to the Imperium, and the House of Karinne will continue to administer the four Urumi systems as per our agreement.  We will honor our treaties and our obligations to both the Imperium and the allies of the Confederacy, but we will no longer submit ourselves to the will of an Empress that has broken her word and violated our trust.  And that is all I have to say,” he said, staring her right in her holographic eyes.  “I’ll give you one standard day to read my proclamation and the attached treaty offer.  Then, and only then, will I talk to you, Empress Merrane.”

        And he cut the comm, causing her shocked face to dissolve into nothingness.

        He bowed his head, feeling cold inside.  Having to do that in the face of a woman he loved, it was like stabbing himself in the chest and then twisting the knife.  Cybi put a comforting hand on his shoulder and patted it, and he looked up at her with emotional eyes.

        “I know, Jason.  But it had to be done.”

        “Sometimes I hate this job,” he said in a bare whisper.

 

        Kaira, 27 Demaa, 4401, Orthodox Calendar

        Friday, 14 May 2014, Terran Standard Calendar

        Kaira, 27 Demaa, year 1327 of the 97th Generation, Karinne Historical Reference Calendar

        The White House

 

        Jason had given Dahnai a full standard day to read his transmitted documents, and he never got out of his office before he and Dahnai had their reckoning.

        When he wasn’t in conference with about everyone on Karis that was important, he was preparing his public declaration.  And while he was doing that, the word had rippled through the entire Confederacy of Jason’s shocking move.  Something that momentous wasn’t going to stay a secret long, not after Dahnai threw what could only be called a raging fit in the throne room immediately after he cut her off.  She actually threw her crown across the room before storming off into her private hallway, causing a startled guard to pick it up and hurry after her.  Rumor quickly spread, someone leaked the confrontation, and then it swept through the Imperium like wildfire that the House of Karinne had declared independence. It was all over the news within two hours, and Chirk was being absolutely assaulted with demands for conference from every Confederate ruler, the Emperor of the Veruta, the High Archon of the Haumda, even the Magister of the Imbiri.

        Jason was too busy to do anything but make plans and prepare his public announcement, but he also got two very shocked visitors in the form of Frinia Foralle and Yila Trefani.  Both were still on Karis, and unlike anyone else, they had the ability to park themselves outside his office and demand vociferously to talk to him.  After the fourth hour of them trying to bull their way into his office, he finally let them in.  He explained things to them as calmly as he could, both what he did and why he did it, then sat with them for nearly three hours to discuss his intention to remain more or less in the Imperium in everything but one aspect, and that was that he would not recognize Dahnai’s authority over him.

        Frinia was an old warhorse of the Siann, and was quite savvy and intelligent.  After she read his proposal to Dahnai which basically let her keep all the benefits of the House of Karinne while only having to accede that Karis was sovereign territory she didn’t control, she tapped her finger to her chin for a moment and gave her opinion.  It does bait the trap, she finally answered.  Your document makes it clear you don’t want to do this, and you want to stay as close to the Imperium as you can.  Dahnai doesn’t lose very much out of the agreement except the ability to order you around…not that she was ordering you around in the first place.  It just makes what we all suspected official.

        What did you suspect?

        That you didn’t answer to Dahnai, she replied.  She’s let you get away with more than she’d ever let any of the rest of us get away with.

        That’s because she needs Jason, Yila injected, her thought contemplative, pondering.  The Merranes aren’t as strong as they used to be, Frinia.  If she didn’t have Jason’s Karinne ships scaring the piss out of Emae and Semoya, we might be in a civil war right this minute.  It’s hard to boss around someone you need to keep your own throne.

        Be that as it may, Jason drew her away from that train of thought, do you see anything in my proposal that the Siann might get pissy about?

        Not really.  The document makes it clear that the Karinnes will all but be part of the Imperium except that they’ll be equals, not subjects.  The only possible problem I see is from some opportunistic Grand Duchess that tries to take over Terra or the Urumi systems under the reasoning that they’re Imperium systems, yet under the control of a rebel house.  Semoya would probably kill her own first born daughter to get her hands on Bellar.  She’d make billions off that planet.

        I worry more about how the Siann will see Dahnai allowing me to secede.

        What can she do about it?  What can the Siann do about it? Frinia replied.  They can’t do shit, Jason.  You have all the koba nuts in the pod in this game.  Without your interdictors, the entire sector would be slaves to the Consortium, and we all know it.

        There might be some minor grumbling, but I don’t think anyone’s gonna do anything crazy, Yila agreed.  The Karinnes have been separate from the rest of us since you restored the house, Jason.  And they were before the Third Civil War, for that matter.  After everyone reads this, they won’t think Dahnai is weak.  In fact, if I didn’t know what I know, I’d almost say that this was a brilliant move by Dahnai.

        How so? Jason asked.

        There are some major opportunities here for the Imperium, Jason.  The Confederacy, I mean.  With the interdictors up all over the sector, it makes the other governments rely on Faey Stargates or Karinne freighters just to get access to their planets.  As long as you keep those interdictors in place, they have to pay us to move their own goods, but the problem is, it also represents a significant risk because, well, it’s us, she sent with a quirky smile.  If I were Dahnai, I’d have kicked you out of the Imperium myself and set you up as an independent client state, neutral in the eyes of our neighbors, then used that neutrality to gain an unbreakable monopoly on all transportation in and out of every major planet in the sector. Not to conquer, but for the money.  Charge the Confederacy a set rate to use the Stargate that makes it just slightly more expensive than standard freighters and logistics, and the money would be rolling in so fast that the Moridon banks would explode from the deposits.  All of them would pay that little bit more to get their goods to their destination in real time, in just hours, where it could take a takir to get a shipment from one place to another without us.  It would also make all of them totally protected by the interdictors, she added.  The only threat would be from the Karinnes with their ability to jump the interdictors, and I’m sure that more than one ruler has worried that Dahnai will order the Karinnes to do just that someday.  If the Karinnes are independent, that threat is removed, and it’ll make them more willing to keep the interdictors and bargain agreements.  That’s what I’d do if I were Empress.

        I think I see what you’re saying, Frinia nodded.  Dahnai uses Jason as a money mint and rakes in the Stargate usage fees.

        With that much money in the treasury, Dahnai could build a system that would make Merrane’s dynasty all but eternal, Yila declared.  Every house would be rolling in credits, to the point where nobody would want to try to take the throne from Dahnai, they’d be making way too much money.  It would be an economic boom of epic proportions.  Nobody would want a house war when everyone’s making so much money.

        I wouldn’t allow a house war anyway, Jason supplied.  I made an oath to keep Dahnai on that throne, and despite her breaking her word, I’m not breaking mine.  Dahnai being on the throne ensures that the Imperium remains stable, and that’s what’s most important to me.  The only reason I’m doing this is because it proves that I just can’t trust anyone, girls.  I mean, they attacked Saelle in the palace, and it’s Dahnai herself sending the spies to steal biogenic technology.

        Dahnai sometimes doesn’t know when what she has in her basket is better than what she sees on the vine, Frinia snorted.  The interdictors make us absolutely unattackable, and with the interdictors up and Dahnai in control of the Stargates at Draconis, no house could even manage to get a fleet there to attack Merrane even if they did try to dethrone her.  For that reason alone, she was totally insane to try to steal from you.  Even after the Consortium and the Benga are dealt with, having those interdictors up in conjunction with our Stargates would give Dahnai an absolute stranglehold on the Imperium.

        That’s true, Yila agreed.  After the interdictors went up, I had to come here and suck Jayce’s dick to get my operations back up and running, she added with a wink at him.

        We’ve always wondered why you spend so much time here, Frinia sent dryly, which made Yila laugh.

        The honest truth is, we have quite a few profitable and entirely legal joint business operations going on, she answered.  The Paladins are only the tip of Demir’s sword, Frinia.  All this honest money is almost making me reconsider crime.  Almost.

        That’ll never happen, Jason sent with dry amusement, which made Frinia laugh.

        [Jason, Myri needs to talk to you,] Cybi cut in.

        [Go ahead and patch her in.]  He glanced at the two Grand Duchesses.  Excuse me a minute.

        [Jason,] Myri’s voice touched him.  [We have a problem.]

        [What?]

        [Empress Dahnai is aboard the Feyari’s Spear and is all but threatening execution to anyone who doesn’t bring her to Karis right now,] she told him.  Jason winced, he’d completely forgotten about the three Karinne ships at Draconis.  The Feyari’s Spear was one of the new Mark II cruisers, only commissioned two months ago.

        [I totally forgot they were picketed there.  Go ahead and order Haya to bring her to Karis, and arrange her to get to my office.  I’m not going out to meet her.]  He looked to the two Faey women.  Dahnai’s on her way here.  I suggest you two don’t even let her know you’re here, or she might think you’re a part of this.

        That’s a good idea, Frinia agreed with a nod.  I’ll be over at the Paladin offices.  I need to talk to Jyslin about a few things anyway.

        And I have a few things to check on with Kumi, Yila added.  I’ll be in the building, but I won’t leave Kumi’s office until it’s all clear.

        Sounds like a plan.  Thank you for your input, ladies, it does make me feel a little better.

        You should have talked to us about this before you told Dahnai, Frinia scolded him.  I’ve been in my chair longer than you’ve been alive, young buck.  I could have helped you break the news without a pissed off Empress coming over here to kick your ass.  And don’t think that she’s not coming for any other reason, she warned with a slight smile.  I suggest you greet Dahnai with your armor on.

        That might be a good idea, Jason chuckled aloud.  Good thing I have my armor here.  Aya lets me take it off as long as I don’t leave my office.

        The two Grand Duchesses stood up, and Frinia came around the desk, leaned down, and kissed him on the cheek.  Go put the armor on, Jason, you’re going to need it.  Let me know what happens.

        I will, he nodded.  He stood up and opened his armor stand closet as the two walked out, then Aya and Dera came in.  Aya would let him be alone with those two.  Dahnai is on her way here, and from the sound of it, she’s breathing fire, he told them as he started taking off his shirt.

        I think she has a good reason for it, Aya sent dryly.

        I have to ask you something, Aya.

        If we’ll leave?  No, she replied.  I’ve told you before, Jason, we were dispatched here.  All of us will remain on Karis until we pension, and not even Empress Dahnai can recall us.

        Even with me openly defying her?

        The Imperial Guard does not involve itself in politics, she replied simply.  We are here because Rann is betrothed to Shya, and I don’t think anything is going to change that.

        I think we agree there, he nodded as he unbuckled his belt.  I’m giving Rann the choice if he wants to keep the betrothal.  My boys get to marry who they want to marry.  I think we all know where he stands in that particular matter.

        He’d kill you if you revoked the betrothal, Dera noted lightly.

        Exactly.

        Dera helped him get his armor on as Aya monitored the arrival of the Feyari’s Spear.  Captain Hariya must have run at flank speed once they came out of the Stargate, because Dahnai was on a dropship coming down by the time Jason got his gauntlet on.  This is bound to get ugly, Aya, Jason sent as he weighed whether or not he wanted to wear the helmet.  I’d like you and Dera to stay in the office, to keep things calm if nothing else.

        I’m not putting a hand on my Empress, Jason, Aya retorted.

        I don’t want you to.  I want you to stop me, he sent pointedly.  I still have an almost overwhelming need to punch Dahnai in the mouth.  I don’t think that’s a good way to start this off.

        Aya smiled.  No, that would start things out on a bad foot, she agreed.  Sit in your chair and don’t get up.  As long as she stays out of reach, you won’t be tempted.  And I mean lock your armor in, she added.

        That’s not a bad idea.  Now I just have to resist using my talent to punch her in the mouth.

        Dera gave that voiceless, wheezing laugh.  Maybe we should remove all unsecured objects, Captain.

        So neither of them can use them, Aya nodded.  Her Majesty is a fairly strong TK herself.  Jason, make sure you stay back inside the radius of the panic shield.  If Empress Dahnai looks about ready to get violent, activate it.

        That’s not a bad idea.  That way we can’t throw things at each other, he agreed as he sat back in his chair.  Like Dahnai’s throne room, there was a hard shield in his office that activated as a wall that bisected his office, the line running just at the front edge of his desk.  If he were ever attacked, the hard shield would activate both in front of his desk and over the window behind him, protecting him.  [Cybi, you’d better be out for this,] he called.  Cybi’s hologram shimmered into being, that nude yet formless silhouette, this hologram complete with feet which she placed on the carpeted floor daintily.

        “Don’t worry, Jason, I will protect you from her,” she said with a light expression as she sat on the edge of his desk, in her favorite spot.

        “I may need it,” he replied aloud.

        It took Dahnai only about ten minutes to get on the ground and into the building, and she was all but running.  She had six of her guards with her, hurrying behind her, as Dahnai stormed into the White House, and Jason made sure that everyone got out of her way and let her get to his office unchallenged.  He mentally steeled himself when Chirk opened his door, and Empress Dahnai Merrane stormed into his office.  She was wearing the armor Jason gave her, the helmet locked behind her head, her tousled bronze hair pulled back in a ponytail that dangled halfway down her back.  “Get up!” she shouted as she came in.  “I don’t want to hit a man who isn’t ready for it!”

        “Sit down,” Jason snapped in a tightly controlled voice as she stomped up to his desk.

        “Don’t you order me around, Jason Karinne!” she shouted in reply.  “I reject your ridiculous declaration!  You are part of the Imperium, and I won’t let you go!”

        “What are you going to do, Dahnai?  Declare war on me?”

        She slammed her hands down on his desk, glaring hotly at him.  “If I have to,” she replied in a seething hiss.

        “Well, it’s your fault it came to this,” he told her bluntly.  “You made it clear that I can’t trust anyone past this solar system, and I have a solemn duty to protect my people, even from their own allies,” he said flatly.

        “Bullshit!” Dahnai snapped, pointing an armored finger at him.  “I have no idea what game you’re playing, Jayce.  Did Yila suck your dick so hard that now she’s got you doing what she wants?”

        “What, you think I wanted to do this?” he shot back, getting to his feet.  “They attacked Saelle in your palace, Dahnai!  And it was your own people!  Do you think the IBI’s the only one with a crazy idea and the determination to give it a try?  This is the only way I can protect the Generations, because if you can issue orders to me, then I can’t guarantee that they’re not being twisted by the people using them to try to get access to us!”

        “I took care of that,” Dahnai snapped, her lip curling into a near-sneer.  “I swept the IBI out.”

        “And who’s to say that the next time it’s not the Bureau of Science?  Or Semoya using falsified decrees?  Do you really think that we’re going to be safe so long as someone else can force themselves into the system?”

        Yes!” she screamed, slamming her hands down again.

        “I’m so glad that you’re so confident, when you’re the one that has the most to gain,” he retorted, sitting back down.  “It gives you more opportunities to try to steal biogenics.  I’m amazed you didn’t have them try to take apart your armor.  Or did they?” he asked pointedly.

        She flushed a tiny bit.

        “They couldn’t figure it out, could they?  Not without the failsafes in the armor warning me, anyway.”  He glanced at Cybi, then leaned back in his chair.  “I didn’t just decide to do this on a whim, Dahnai.  I thought about it very carefully for days.  I tried every way I could think of to stay in the Imperium, but I couldn’t find any way to do it that guarantees the safety of the Generations.  I don’t want to see a few hundred thousand clones of Saelle running amok in the Imperium and trying to take your throne.  The simple fact of the matter is, Dahnai, the only way that the Generations will be safe, and the rest of you will be safe from us, is if we’re separated.”

        “That is such a weak excuse!” she raged.  “Let’s get down to the root of it, Jayce!  Just how far are you willing to take this just to punish me for what I did?  Let’s get it out in the open now, so we can bypass all the typical male torturing!  Yes, I tried to steal biogenics.  Did you think I wouldn’t?  I have as much a duty to the Imperium as you do to your house, and part of that is ensuring it is strong and secure!  Biogenics will make the Imperial military unstoppable!”

        “So, you don’t mind at all destroying everything my house stands for so long as you can conquer more worlds,” Jason snapped.  “Thanks for justifying my decision all over again, Dahnai.”

        “What?”

        “You don’t care about me, my house, or what it stands for,” he replied hotly.  “All you care about is power, that Faey need to conquer and rule.  What’s next, Dahnai, are you going to sacrifice Kellin to Demir just so you can borrow his sword?” he asked, giving her a vicious look.  “If  you don’t care about me, then I guess you don’t care about him either.”

        “How dare you!” she screamed.

        “You once told me a long time ago that I’d have to stop the Faey from being what they are to prevent a war, but I see I failed,” he replied, standing up himself.  “You don’t truly love me, Dahnai.  You think you do, but you love your power more.  When you had to choose between me and it, you chose your power, and the opportunity to get more power.  I tried to save you from yourself, Dahnai, but you just smacked my hand away.  You want that war, Dahnai.  Not with Semoya or Emae, but with anyone you think you can crush under your heel.  The only reason you wanted biogenics was so you could do what the Consortium tried to do, use us to conquer others.  And that is the one thing that the House of Karinne will never allow.  The House of Karinne will never, ever, by any means, allow itself to be used to inflict our will or another, or allow another’s will to be inflicted on the innocent.  That is the most sacred oath I have ever taken, Dahnai, and you don’t care.  You don’t care that it would destroy me to see my biogenics used to conquer others.  You don’t care how I feel or what I think, you only care about yourself.”

        “That’s not true!”

        “Oh isn’t it?” he asked, sitting back down.  “If you cared about me, Dahnai, then why send sixteen different agents to Karis to try to steal biogenics?  What would I do when I found out you were using biogenic technology to make war on the others?  Huh?”

        She was quiet a moment.  “It wouldn’t have mattered.”

        “Right, because you’re the Empress,” he said, tapping his armored fingers together in front of him.  “And that’s exactly why I did what I did.  Because I have to do what you say, and if I don’t like it, then I’m shit out of luck.  Even if what you do goes against everything that my house stands for.”

        “Your house is part of the Imperium.”

        “Not anymore,” he replied evenly.

        “Bull shit!” she screamed.  “We went to war for you, Jason, and this is how you repay us?”

        “I trusted you, and you repay me by trying to steal my house’s secrets?” he countered.  “And more to the point, I’ve kept you on your throne for the last five years, Dahnai, and then you go and bite the hand that holds up your throne?”

        She turned an ugly shade of violet, but said nothing.

        “Let’s make it abundantly clear, right here, right now, Dahnai.  I’m not changing my mind.  It’s been proved to me by you and everyone else that the Generations are not safe so long as the House of Karinne is technically subject to the commands of an outsider.  And we’re not safe anywhere off this planet.  They attacked Saelle under your fucking nose, Dahnai.  Under your nose!  I have a duty to protect what few of us are left, and I can’t do that so long as you can up and decide at any time at a fucking whim that you want the Generations for yourself, or you or one of your descendents decides on a whim to demand me or my descendents to give you access to everything Cybi knows.  That’s not gonna happen.  So, to save the future civil war between the Imperium and House Karinne, we’re making the split now, as peacefully and amicably as we can.  I have to protect my house, Dahnai, and you proved that I have to protect it from my friends even more than I do my enemies.”

        “You about done making speeches, Jayce?” she asked hotly.  “Cause I don’t care if you fucking diatribe for ten hours.  I don’t care what silly-ass reason you use to justify breaking your oath of fealty.  I do not accept it.  There’s only one way you’re leaving the Imperium, Jason Karinne, and that’s over my dead body!”

        “You want a war with me, Dahnai?” Jason asked pugnaciously.

        “Both of you stand down,” Cybi barked, standing up and stepping around the desk, towards Dahnai.  “Jason didn’t make this decision without careful consideration and a great deal of consultation, your Majesty,” she told her, putting her hands on Dahnai’s armored shoulders and making her turn towards her.  “Answer me this.  After knowing what was nearly done to Saelle, can you honestly say that you feel that Raisha will be safe in the palace?”

        “Oh, you better believe she’ll be safe, even if I have to lock it down,” she seethed.

        “So, Raisha will live her entire life imprisoned within your palace,” Cybi noted.  “For she will not be safe anywhere else.”

        Dahnai blinked.

        “Jason isn’t thinking about you and him, your Majesty. He’s thinking about Raisha,” she said calmly.  “That is why the treaties he sent make it clear that the House of Karinne will remain in very close and intimate political alliance with both the Merranes and the Imperium.  The declaration of autonomy literally only applies to one thing, Dahnai, and that’s that it makes Karis sovereign territory where you cannot exert your authority.  But you didn’t read the treaties, did you?” she asked pointedly.

        Dahnai looked a tad guilty.

        “I thought as much.  Had you read the documents he sent, you would see the truth of what he’s trying to accomplish,” Cybi chided.  “Jason isn’t abandoning the Imperium, he isn’t abandoning your house, and he’s not abandoning you,” she said in a reassuring tone.  “But he feels he has a duty to the Generations, to me, and to the house to take steps to protect us now instead of a starting a war in the future, when one of your descendents demands of one of Jason’s descendents the secrets we refuse to reveal.  Look me in the eye and tell me that day will never come, Dahnai Merrane,” Cybi challenged, giving her steady, cool look.

        “We, we could,” she said.  “I can make it clear to Sirri where things stand, and she makes it clear to her daughter, and so on.”

        “And you truly believe that.”

        Dahnai gave Cybi a nearly helpless look.

        “Your attempts at espionage only hurried a decision that he knew he must one day make,” Cybi told her.  “It demonstrated to him that the Generations are truly alone in this universe, where everyone beyond Karis only wants to use them for the power they wield.  Including you.”

        “I do not!”

        “If that were true, then you would have never tried to steal biogenics,” Cybi said simply.  “For they are useless without a Generation.  What would you have done with a biogenic unit but no Generation to pair with it, your Majesty?”

        “They do more than that,” she challenged.  “I once heard you slip that there’s biogenics in this, and I’m no Generation,” she said, rapping her fingertips on her breastplate.  “I’ll bet my left tit that they’re more effective AI control systems than standard cybertronics or moleculartronics.”