Subjugation 6

Inception

 

By Fel (aka James Galloway)

 

 

ToC           1

 

 


To:   Title    ToC            2

Chapter 1

 

        Kaista, 30 Demaa, 4401 Orthodox Calendar

        Tuesday, 22 June 2014, Terran Standard Calendar

        Kaista, 30 Demaa, 440, year 1327 of the 97th Generation, Karinne Historical Reference Calendar

        The White House, Karsa, Karis

 

        He was starting to hate reports with a passion bordering on holy.

        Sighing, the Grand Duke Jason Augustus Fox Shaddale Karinne, ruler of the recently separated House of Karinne, leaned back in his chair with his elbow on the armrest and his chin on his fist, slouching as he advanced to the next report the old fashioned way, with his other hand tapping a holographic key on a projected keyboard in front of his monitor.  He’d felt a bit of nostalgia today and had had his desk project out the holographic keyboard, and he’d found a curious comfort in feeling those slightly warm keys under his fingers, the warmth created by the hardening of air molecules to produce the illusion of solidity.  It reminded him of simpler times, before he and Jyslin had developed the interface program that allowed them to completely abandon any form of input-output device save the interface itself.

        Simpler times…sometimes he wondered just what he’d gotten himself into when he declared independence from the Imperium.  It had to be done, there was no doubt about that, but nobody had come even remotely close to predicting the drastic increase in paperwork that filled his inbox on nearly an hourly schedule now that he didn’t answer to anyone else.  The increased workload wasn’t coming from the planet.  They’d governed themselves since returning to Karis, with virtually no input from the Imperium, and the planet more or less ran itself with very little interference from him or anyone else…just the way he’d set it up.  The exponential increase in reports came from outside, from three sources:  the Academy, the Confederation, and everyone else.  The Academy was sending far more reports than normal now because there was a hell of a lot going on over there now that Terra was neutral and the neutrality of the Academy was beyond any reproach.  Kim was funneling a lot of reports to Jason through the Academy, a secure way he could pass on important information without anyone else in the Confederation intercepting it, keeping him abreast of the realignment of the planet from a political standpoint now that it was officially a neutral planet granted protectorate status by both the Imperium and the Confederation.  The Confederation had mirrored Dahnai’s move and declared Terra a neutral planet granted military protection by all empires part of the Confederation, and the hub world around which all Confederate business would revolve.  Terra had become the impromptu capitol of the Confederation, where all the cooperative offices were being built.  And the irony was, the planet was neutral and not officially part of the military alliance.  They were building their “capitol” on a planet not considered an actual member of the Confederation.

        But, that was what neutrality was all about, and it did make sense from both a political and logistical standpoint.  Terra was neutral ground where no emperor held sway, and where all power players, be her legal or illegal, stood on equal footing.  Logistically, Terra was the nexus of all Confederate supply lines even if the planet itself was fairly far from the astrographic “center” of Confederate territory.  But the Stargates made Terra the center of everything…or they would.

        Kiaari was sending him her own reports, since her job got really busy since the Confederate Council had made that decision four days ago.  They weren’t only building the new Confederate Combined Military Headquarters on Terra, they were taking over office buildings in New York City to serve as the bureaucratic headquarters of several new agencies created to help foster cooperation within the Confederation.  Agencies to help trade flow between the empires, logistical offices to get everything everyone needed where it was supposed to go in a quick and orderly manner—an office already all but dominated by Kizzik, Makati, and Beryans—offices of cultural exchange, offices of military recruitment, offices of hiring and employment, offices of business coordination and cooperation, even offices of tourism, travel, and citizen assistance for Confederate civilians traveling to Terra or through Terra to other empires, they were setting up shop on Terra in ways Jason could approve.  The rulers that made up the council were demonstrating they were serious about making the Confederation work, at least while they needed it, and with the addition of the Verutans and the Grimja, setting up official agencies and offices that were part of no empire but served all empires was a smart move.  The establishment of a pseudo-capitol for the Confederation on Terra meant that Kiaari would have so much information to gather and sift through, she probably wouldn’t be sleeping for about ten years.  She’d already petitioned her parents for more Kimdori to work on Terra.

        The rest of this avalanche of reports came from the Confederation itself.  For some reason, they were sending him all kinds of reports and messages that he had virtually nothing to do with, what he considered to be ruler business, the kind of stuff he’d just blown off before the Karinnes split from the Imperium.  That was half of it.  The other half was a flood of proposals for trade, scientific research, and consulting services.  With the Karinnes now independent, every empire in the Confederation wanted to break Yila and Dahnai’s stranglehold on Karinne trade, something the two women had almost unconsciously teamed up to prevent.

        There were quite a few agreements already made.  Every empire in the Confederation had signed his right of passage agreements for the PR sector within 14 hours of receiving the official treaty.  It was only a two page treaty, for it was simple yet ironclad, spelling out exactly what the others could and could not do if they wanted access to the PR sector, and the P quadrant as a whole.  He’d already released his sensor sweeps and surveys of the systems around PR-371 so they could identify systems they might want to colonize…and that was what one of the new agencies on Terra would be about, letting the empires lay claim to those systems in an orderly manner to prevent fighting over them, be it verbal or physical.  The Agency of Exploration and Annexation would be the trading floor of sorts for the uninhabited systems in the P quadrant, where agents of the rulers would haggle over systems that more than one empire wanted to claim, and also where any empire had to make an official file of claim before moving on said system.  The Karinnes would have an agent in that office to ensure that the system met the stringent “no sentient species” clause of their treaties.  If more than one empire filed a claim on the same system, then the negotiators would meet and haggle an agreement over it.

        Three of the empires had formally accepted his Stargate trade hub idea.  The Shio, the Jobodi, and the Nine Colonies had signed the treaty to allow a Stargate into their territory linked back to Terra, and to allow a Karinne logistical team to go to their empire to help organize supply lines and freighter schedules.  There was no real need for the interdictors now, not with the Consortium all but crushed in their galaxy, but nobody had asked him to take an interdictor down yet, and the Shio and Colonists wanted that easy access to Terra from their capitol systems, Shio and Exeven.  The Jobodi were really easy since they only had two star systems of their own and they were side by side in a astrographic sense, only 3.1 light years apart.

        The bigger empires were still studying the idea—well, all of them but the Imperium, who didn’t really need it.  But Jason was confident they’d come around, especially when they saw how much it increased the trade profits of the empires that had agreed to it.

        He resorted to his gestalt to bring up a real-time holo of Terran space, where the ships were starting to gather.  In two days, the Confederation would be going to the PR sector with both military vessels and exploration vessels, preparing to invade the Imxi and start surveying more distant star systems.  They’d already made their plans for the invasion, plans which would not involve the Karinnes, where the Confederation as a whole would conquer the Imxi and then the individual empires would take over administration of the separate systems.  Once they consolidated their hold on Imxi territory and got more ships repaired and off the docks, the KMS and the Kimdori would join them in the PR sector to destroy the remaining Consortium ships trapped in the nebula.

        And they would include the Verutans and the Grimja.  Both had pledged ships to the effort to eradicate the last of the Consortium in their galaxy.

        That…had been amusing.  Much as Jason suspected, Shakizarr had really tried to get Lorna out of her position as overall commander of the Confederate Combined Military and replaced with his own military officer, Emperor’s Admiral Hezivarr.  But he ran into a stone wall on that one.  Lorna had proven to all of them that she was the best, and even Assaba had been quick to defend Lorna even over his own flag officer, Frazzil.  Lorna had earned the respect of everyone in the CCM and the trust of the rulers that appointed her, and Shakizarr showed some wisdom by letting the matter drop after about two days of trying. Lorna, the CCM would follow into hell, where they would not show Hezivarr the same loyalty.

        Jason had suspected that the addition of Shakizarr and Kreel to the council would make it far more entertaining, and he had not been wrong.  Shakizarr had surprised Jason with a willingness to be less formal, even show a sense of humor, where Kreel was exactly what everyone expected him to be.  He was of a mind to tell bawdy jokes, banter with Dahnai and Magran, and subtly tease the more serious rulers like Sk’Vrae and Assaba to fill the dead space between reports and witnesses.  Jason had liked him almost immediately when he met him at Karis, and his mind had not changed. Kreel was irreverent, self-deprecating, and had a knack for taking the stuffier members of the council down a peg or two with his observations, but he was also highly intelligent, observant, and seemed far more attuned to the nuances of inter-council politics than Jason would attribute to someone who had only been on the council for seven days.  Jason had formed the opinion that the High Councilor Kreel was far more dangerous than the other members of the council believed, his political skill and exceptional intelligence masked behind an informal, deceptive façade.

        He finally found a report that he was interested in.  The Karinne Exploration Service had finally finished their detailed survey mission of the QME sector, and they’d found 14 different planets of great interest to the Karinnes.  There were four life-sustaining planets within Terran and Faey tolerance, and one of them was a  tropical water planet with low gravity that might be of great interest to the Menoda.  It was within Menodan gravity tolerance, 81 degrees shuki average mean temperature—about 74 degrees Fahrenheit mean average temperature, fairly warm for Terrans—about .68 atmospheric pressure and .71 standard gravity.  The planet was 94% water by surface area, with only one small continent and a series of small islands dotted along tectonic plates through the rest of the planet’s surface.  The planet had very poor heavy mineral reserves, not uncommon for low-gravity planets, but it did have uncommonly large and widespread gold deposits.

        At that moment, Meya and Myra were leading a large expedition into the R quadrant to check out a star system that Karinne history suggested was perfect to become their first outpost in the R quadrant.  The system was RG-118, sitting right on the edge of the galactic rim and orbiting an average-sized star not too much unlike the Terran sun in age, mass, and energy output.  The star was about a billion years younger than the Terran sun, and the thousand-year removed data they had on it was that it was held three life-sustaining planets in fairly close orbits in the star’s “life zone”, and one of those was one of the rarest of all galactic phenomena, a double-planet system.  One of those planets was a gaia-class planet which was 19.7% larger than the smaller planet, with very poor heavy metal deposits but perfect conditions for the support of life—of quite a few versions of life, due to its thick atmosphere seeded with large numbers of gases in addition to the relatively common nitrogen/oxygen/carbon dioxide compositions present on many terrestrial worlds.  In some ways, RG118-3A was like Terra, which was classified as very, very poor in mineral deposits when it came to useful heavy metal resources.  The smaller planet was classified as a temperate arid terrestrial planet with a slightly colder climate due to its atmospheric composition, and was also almost ridiculously rich in heavy metal deposits, so much so that the planet was only 8.01% lighter in mass than its larger twin in the system despite being 19.7% smaller.  The two planets orbited one another around a fixed imaginary point between them rather than one orbiting the other, which was what made the phenomenon so exceedingly rare.  Systems like that became unstable very quickly in the measuring of time in astronomy, where the instability would cause the planets to either fly out of their orbits or crash into one another.  In fact, a thousand years ago, the astrocartography mission that had surveyed the system had predicted that the system would become unstable and cause the smaller planet to become captured into an orbit around the larger planet in 4.6 million years.  The gravitational pull of the larger planet was slowing the smaller planet down in its orbit, and when it reached a critical point, the orbit of the two planets around their imaginary fixed point would become unstable, the larger planet would become fixed within its orbit, and the smaller planet would be captured by the larger planet and become a very large moon.  That, or the smaller planet would crash into the larger planet.  The survey ran the models and showed that the planets were only 83,000 kathra apart upon their formation, but they were separating as they slowed down in their dual orbit, to where they were now 590,000 kathra apart.  It had taken the two planets some 2.9 billion years to separate to that distance.  And in 4.6 million years, the two would finally get so far apart that the gravitational pull holding them in their dual orbits would break down and cause the double planet system to turn into a standard planet-moon system.

        A blink of the eyes in the lifespan of the universe, but a hell of a long time for the puny mortals living within it.  But, even back then, the Karinnes had the technology to stabilize the system and maintain it.

        The planets certainly had an interesting day cycle.  They had almost exactly identical 22.8 hour day cycles and had the same angular tilt of 21 degrees, which were close to Terra’s own statistics, which meant that the larger planet had a faster rotational orbit speed than the smaller planet, yet the planets had only a .000013156 difference between their rotational velocities.  The planets orbited each other on the same plane as their orbit around the star, and they were in direct line.  The two planets orbited each other in a cycle of about 13 days, and in that cycle the planets eclipsed one another from the star during the cycle.  This created a “night” during the cycle that lasted 13.4 hours on the larger planet and 18.7 hours on the smaller one, a night that lasted more than a day every 13 days.  It also caused the sky to be dominated by the other planet, given how close they were to each other.  The two planets were closer to each other than Terra was to its moon.

        There was one other planet in the system that was life-sustaining.  It was planet 2, and to a Shio, it would be perfect.  It was closer to the star and thus had a fairly hot climate, was very wet, and was dominated by jungles on the three continents on the surface.  However, planet 2 held a sentient reptilian race still in its stone age, and because of that, Jason would quarantine off the planet if the species was still there.

        Jason checked the location of the Scimitar and its seven supporting vessels, and was glad to see that they’d arrive at RG-118 in about two hours. Knowing the twins, they would have an advance scientific posts set up within an hour of getting into orbit, as sensor dropships spread out to scan the planet’s surface.  They were supposed to survey both the twin planets, Meya commanding one exploration detail and Myra the other.

        He already had a standard interdictor and a colonization team ready to ship out on a jump freighter with the destroyer Tikanne escorting, only recently off the repair docks.  That was a two day trip from Karis due to the distance involved, but he could afford to take one destroyer off the board for four days.  As soon as Meya and Myra gave them their initial survey reports, they’d move to claim the system.  By the time the interdictor was in logarithmic mode, they’d probably have the outpost secured and advance farming and mining teams en route, and a Stargate shipped out as soon as they had one.  They’d set it up exactly like Exile, a “commute colony” where the workers there would come back to Karis when they were off work.

        The Stargates probably wouldn’t be a problem from here out.  Dellin had finished the ten Stargate docks Jason had ordered him to build, and they were now constructing ten of their own Stargates.  It would take about a month to complete them, due to the size and complexity, and it would take a hefty chunk of credits as well.  Stargates were expensive to build, and they’d have to train the Stargate operational and maintenance crews that staffed them—Stargates usually had around 200 operational and maintenance personnel inside them on the average, keeping the unit in a state of constant operation, and they also usually had around 200 Marines or Tarks aboard as well to serve as security and defense, should someone try to board a Stargate and attempt to take control of it from the inside.  But it was still cheaper than buying them from the Imperium, and besides, they wouldn’t have to explain to anyone what they were doing with their own Stargates.

        Cybi had tweaked the standard Stargate design a little for their own version, making them more efficient on top of the only having one size.  Stargates came in a variety of sizes, capable of allowing ships of different sizes to pass through, but the Karinnes would only build Stargates large enough to allow their capitol ships to pass through, but it would cost them about the same to build a capitol Stargate as it took one of the Imperium companies to build a Class III Stargate, large enough to allow a tactical battleship to pass through.  The smaller Stargates were used mainly for freighter and commercial traffic, where the big ones were primarily for military ships.  Due to the distance involved and why the Karinnes would be using their Stargates, it was decided that only one version would be designed and built, so they could always get a capitol ship to the other side.  Karinne Stargates would be cheaper to build, require less energy to operate, and have fewer components and systems than standard Stargates, which would reduce maintenance costs.

        Finally, he managed to get to the bottom of his inbox, which only took about three hours.  He leaned back in his chair and stretched a little, then turned and looked out the window.  It was a really nice day in Karsa today, warm and sunny, and looking just as it always did.  Bunvar had finished all the repairs to the city, leaving it looking exactly as it had before the attack.  The White House sat on a hill with megabuildings all around it, blocking his view of most of the rest of Karsa, but he could see a few things.  The Karsa Sports Complex was just barely visible several kathra to the south, across the low hills of south-central Karsa upon which no megabuildings could be constructed, with its oval of metal spires stretching out over the stands that held the emitters for the airskin shield activated for baseball and shizuki games, but not for bachi or soccer games.  Those games were always played in current natural weather.  The stands, on the other hand, had airskin protection to keep the spectators dry while the athletes got wet.  Jyslin was over there right now, or at least in the building beside it, along with Frinia as the two of them prepared for the upcoming IBL season. The Grand Avenue that ran from the White House all the way out to the coast to the east gave him a tiny sliver of a view of the ocean, at least theoretically.  The Avenue was one of the major transport arteries through Karsa, nearly half a kathra wide and with mass transit train lines on the edges as hovercars soared through the gaps between them, and grassy parks and lawns on the ground below.  It continued to the west, going all the way out to the edge of the city, and a similar major thoroughfare ran from north to south called the Grand Boulevard with the White House in the center.  The White House had originally held the Dukal palace of the Grand Duchess Karinne, at least until Jason converted it into the current seat, so it was, in its way, the heart of the city.

        It was just too damn beautiful to be at work, but he had too much going on.  The council would be meeting in about an hour, which was too close to let him get involved in much of anything, and he had a scheduled cabinet meeting afterwards.  He also had a meeting with the Land Use Authority to go over opening Teria City, and an official meeting with Zaa to go over her clan taking over the city of Jaxtra, which was in seven hours.  Another day wasted thanks to reports, paperwork, and people who just loved to talk…sometimes he hated this job.

        But that was just too damn bad.  The job chose him, and he would do it to the best of his ability.

        At least he was making headway in the make Aya less of a bitch department.  After nearly two days of discussion, badgering, cajoling, and even an attempt at outright bribery, he had finally gotten her to lift a few of the restrictions she had on him.  They were still in place for the rest of his family, but if they wanted more freedom, they could fight Aya the same way he had.  He was now allowed to move about the entire White House without armor, at the cost of increasing the guard presence inside the building, and she’d agreed to allow him to travel to Exile next week to make an official visit to the Exiles living there.  He hadn’t seen them for a while, and he wanted to see how they were doing.

        There were other trips on the docket, trips for which Aya was preparing.  After the Consortium was eradicated from their galaxy, Jason had agreed to travel to the Verutan sector and visit the Verutan and Haumda empires and the Imbiri system, something of a tour of their neighbors along the edge of the sector.  The idea of taking a tour of the Verutan sector appealed to him very much, but Aya wouldn’t permit it as long as the Consortium existed in their galaxy.  Dahnai was getting in on it as well, demanding that he attend court as an observer at least once a takir, and Kreel had invited him to the Grimja Union for a state visit…which would involve a lot of drinking in the numerous pubs in Grimjaki, their capitol city.

        There was one trip before all of those plans, however, and one he was really looking forward to taking.  In 12 days, he, Jyslin, and his children would be going to Kimdori Prime to visit Zaa and Grun, visiting the Hearth and some of the main sites on the planet.  Kimdori Prime was one of the most secluded and exotic locales in the quadrant, visited by only a handful due to the secrecy of the Kimdori and the exceptionally hostile environment of the planet to most forms of life.  They’d visit for four days.  Jyslin and his guards would have to wear radiation-resistant E-suits or armor during their stay, but Jason and his children would have no problems staying there without protection for four days.  They’d have to decontaminate afterwards, but that was mainly so the latent radiation built up in their bodies didn’t pose a threat to others.

        One of the few actual advantages of being a Generation…radiation resistance.

        After all the trials and tribulations of the last year, getting the chance to go to Kimdori Prime and visit Zaa in her home almost made up for it.

        At least tonight would be fun.  Aura had managed to corral him and arrange a date, and he fully meant to enjoy both socializing with Aura over dinner and the sex in the pool house afterwards.  Jyslin had already made arrangements to stay overnight with Tim and Symone.

        Thinking of Aura made him think of Dahnai, and that made him bring up a holo of Hiyaivi Island, which was where a small army of Makati were hard at work building Dahnai’s summer palace.  They’d started only two days ago and already had the foundations of all the buildings laid, three of the smaller buildings half-constructed, and most of the major landscaping completed to turn the island into a private, secluded paradise of gardens and woods and lawns for the Empress, a luxurious palace where she and her family could relax and not have to worry about much of anything.  The price tag attached to that project wasn’t anything to sneeze at, mainly since the Karinnes were paying for the construction, but it was worth it in his eyes.  He was obligated to build her that palace in their treaty, and besides, it was for Dahnai, so he wanted her to be happy there.  The island itself was almost perfectly located, only about 230 kathra from the equator about in the center of the north edge of Karga on the map, but along a natural current that kept the mean temperatures there comfortable.  The temperature rarely went below 81 shuki or above 101 shuki—below 73F or above 92F, the temperature regulated by seasonal wind patterns and water currents to produce almost perfect consistency through all seasons.  The closest comparison he’d found to its unique weather pattern was Hawaii back on Terra, an island chain where there was virtually no seasonal deviance from the average mean high and low temperatures.  The island was about six square kathra in area, large enough for a small village, with a compound of the main palace and 14 supporting buildings, from facilities and support infrastructure to barracks for the Imperial Guard.  There would even be a small marina there for boats, and all just for Dahnai and her family.  Red Horn estimated completion of the project in 32 days, and he had no doubt it would be done before that deadline.  Makati always went long on their estimates to take unforeseen delays into account.

        Leaning back in his chair a little, he closed his eyes and merged up into the biogenic relay servicing his office through his gestalt, and he cast his consciousness into the network.  He’d been practicing this unique aspect of the Generations, the ability to merge to biogenic computers and, in a way, send his mind into the machine, to where he was now fairly proficient at it.  It required a pretty unique set of skills with which Karinne genetic instinct had no experience.  Generations instinctively knew how to commune, but learning how to merge with biogenic units and make use of the merge was a skill that required practice.  He navigated the biogenic network around the planet and found what he was looking for, the camera pod Cybi used to keep an eye on the kids when they were at school.  He pushed his awareness into that pod and accessed its camera, getting a good view of the 16 students in the class, virtually all of which were strip kids.  Rann, Shya, Kyri, Sora, Aran, Danelle, and Zachary all sat together at one of the three circular tables in the room, his kids all in their armor, them all looking at a special kind of hologram in the center that had no facing; everyone at the table saw the same image, as if it were oriented towards them.  It was a series of basic algebra problems as the teacher explained the concept behind it.

        Algebra.  Faey were so far ahead of Terrans in that regard.  Where Terran kids learned that two plus two equals four, Faey kids learned that “X plus two” could also equal four, and the objective of the problem was to find the value of X.  Faey taught algebra along with standard math and they started in kindergarten, and Jason had to admit that their system worked. Given the mind-boggling complexity of Faey calculus, Faey students had to start on the basics of it as early as possible.  And the basics of calculus had their roots in algebra.

        Kyri glanced at the camera pod repeatedly as they listened to their teacher, then she gave it a slight smile.  [I know you’re in there, Daddy,] she declared, communing directly with the camera pod’s biogenic circuitry.  Jason wasn’t surprised.  Kyri was far more sensitive than her siblings.  She was the only child that could sense another Generation merged to a nearby device, a trick that only Jason and Myleena had mastered thus far.  Kyri wanted to learn how to merge with the biogenic network herself, but there were blocks on the entire network that kept the kids out of it.  The same reason they wouldn’t give the kids actual gestalts was what also kept them from being able to merge with anything but approved devices, like toys and other isolated devices.  The toys taught them how to merge, but they weren’t allowed to access the planetary biogenic network until they were older and had the wisdom and discipline to not cause problems.  A Generation had access to most of the planet’s computer networks while merged, and could cause untold havoc if they weren’t careful…and six year olds weren’t exactly known for their self control.  [What are you doing?]

        [Just seeing how class was going,] he answered.

        [Booooor-riiiiing,] she complained, putting her hand on her cheek and leaning on it.  Jason could see that none of his kids had their gauntlets on.  He couldn’t blame them for that.  [I hate math.]

        [Welcome to growing up, pippy.  The older you get, the more things you have to do that you don’t like.]

        [Then why does anyone ever grow up?] she asked.

        [Because we don’t have much of a choice in the matter,] he replied.  [I’m clearly distracting you, and Miss Rekali’s giving you a hard look, so get your mind back in class and I’ll leave you alone.  See you tonight, pippy.]

        [‘Kay.]

        His children suitably checked, Jason disengaged himself from the network and found himself literally nose to nose with Miaari.  The Kimdori was kneeling on his desk, leaning over to the point where she was right in his face.  He flinched a tiny bit, then smacked her irritably on the shoulder as she laughed.  “You could be dead right now,” she said with a toothy grin.

        “Riiiight,” he replied blandly as she stepped down off his desk.  “You’re in a playful mood,” he observed when she sat in the chair opposite his desk.

        “I’m not so old that I can’t enjoy myself,” she replied primly.

        “I figured you woulda lost your playfulness at ten thousand years old,” he shot back with a sly smile.  “What brings you by?”

        “A few reports,” she replied, pointing at one of the secure handpanels her department used for such things.  Those kinds of reports were never transmitted, they were only placed on dedicated secure devices that were hand-delivered to the recipient.  “It’s the full analysis and report of the data pulled off the captured Consortium battleship, as well as the current analysis and projections of the last of the data we stole from the Consortium command center in the nebula.”

        “Will I have time to read these before the council meeting in an hour?”

        She shook her head.  “Those are the complete reports.  They are quite lengthy.”

        “Well, there went the rest of my free time for the next two days,” he sighed.

        “Jason, it might be time for you to consider delegating more responsibility,” she said seriously. “You’ve spent almost twenty hours a day in this office for the last takir.”

        “I know, but I just can’t see delegating some of this,” he said, waving his hand at his panel.  “It’s just too important.  But I have put a lot of the council workload in Yeri.  I’m sure she wants to kill me now,” he chuckled.

        “That is her job, Jason, and she will be fine with it,” she said calmly.  “In truth, you should give most of what work the house has gained from the separation to Yeri.  Let her sort through things and only bring to your attention what is truly important.  She can field the offers and screen the missives.”

        “It would reduce my workload a whole lot,” he said with a grunt, leaning back in his chair.  “We’re being drowned in diplomatic offers.  Trade, research, exploration, consultation, you name it, and not just from governments.  I have a stack of offers from mega-corps tall enough to reach the ceiling.  And I can’t count how many requests I’ve gotten for official embassies to be allowed to be placed on Karis.  What part of closed system do these people not understand?  They have their embassies on Terra, that is having an embassy with the Karinnes.  It’s going to get on my desk.”

        “Because Terra is not Karis, and this is where they want their spies,” she said lightly.  “I think you can trust Yeri to know what should be brought to you and what should be rejected without wasting your time.”

        “I suppose,” he said with another sigh.

        “Have you eaten lunch yet?  There should be time before the meeting, and I doubt you’ll want to face that on an empty stomach,” she offered.

        He chuckled, then stood up.  “That’s a good idea.”

        Shen and Suri escorted him and Miaari down to the cafeteria, where he enjoyed being able to sit at a table and eat without armor.  The armor wasn’t that uncomfortable, thanks to the gel backing inside it and the power assist to help when he didn’t feel like moving it around himself, but it wasn’t as comfortable as good old jeans and a tee shirt, which was by far his preferred attire.  He was wearing a Karsa Paladins tee that day, one of the new ones that had started being sold on Karis, the front of the tee dominated by the mascot, a stylized Faey woman in gleaming silver armor and brandishing a two-handed sword.  The team had identical twins who wore a replica of that armor to serve as their on-pitch mascot, who took turns playing the role for games and also for publicity appearances.  Jason had seen that armor, and it made him glad he wore Crusader armor.  It wasn’t designed to protect, but it was faithful to the original ideals in that it was made of steel and inlaid with a chrome-like alloy that made it so shiny, it had no power assist anywhere in it, and it was heavy.  The suit weighed around 26 konn, which was around 27 kilograms or about 60 pounds or so.  That was even heavier than Crusader armor, which only weighed 18 konn due to the metal used in its construction.  In Terran measures, that was about 19 kilograms, or around 43 pounds.  The sword itself weighed 10 konn, which was about 10.5 kilograms or 24 pounds.  Not only that, it was also very hot in that armor, so hot that the mascots did cheat with an enviro-suit that also served as padding to keep them from having heat stroke as they ran around down on the pitch.  IBL teams even took their mascots seriously, where the mascots had as close to “real” as they could get in their costumes.  That armor was a faithful reproduction of the real armor Faey warriors wore back in their Iron Age, with only a few cosmetic alterations to make it more flashy and give the wearer flexibility.  Jason had almost expected the sword to be sharpened, but it wasn’t…and it didn’t really need to be.  A sword that big could do some major damage if it was used as a weapon without needing to be sharp.

        Frinia had almost burned a hole through his head with her glare when he suggested replacing the three suits of armor, the primary suits and a backup suit, with something much lighter, like crystallized titanium or iso-aluminum brushed over with a coating of reflective alloy, almost insulted that he would dare suggest such a thing.

        Jason had put his foot down when they designed the armor for the mascot of the newly formed Karsa Warriors, their new D league team.  The armor that mascot wore was a fully functional suit of Crusader armor brushed over with a molecular layer of Carbidium to give it a golden sheen.  The mascot had an “away game” suit that was only for show, but it only weighed 12 konn because it was made of iso-aluminum, one of the lightest metals known to Karinne science that was also fairly sturdy and chemically stable.  Jason wouldn’t let a suit of Crusader armor out for someone to try to steal.

        Navii sat down beside him with a tray holding a large salad, and he nodded to her.  “Things must be settling down if you left the command center,” he noted lightly.

        She chuckled in her raspy voice.  “We just got the Dreamer off the repair dock and back on the board,” she replied.  “Everything else is still on schedule.  Dellin hasn’t made any major updates.”

        “That’s good to hear.  How about promotions?” he asked, a bit hesitantly.  He’d lost four ship captains in the attack on Karis, and those chairs had to be filled with new captains.

        “We’ve decided that Commander Rola Karinne from the tactical cruiser Revenge will take over the Jefferson,” she replied with a sober voice. She’d been personal friends with Drae, and losing her had been hard for the venerable woman.  “Since the other ships were decommissioned, we don’t have to worry much about replacing their captains.”

        “I think Drae would have liked that choice, Navii,” he said, patting her gnarled hand fondly.  Drae’s death was almost avoidable.  Her ship, the Jefferson, had been heavily damaged in the attack at the nebula and was still on the repair dock when the Consortium attacked Karis, so she’d taken command of one of the cruisers that had just come off the docks rather than sit out the battle.  She hadn’t been forced to do it, she’d volunteered…and had been killed for her patriotism and sense of duty.  Of the ships whose captains were killed, only the Jefferson had survived enough to be repaired, but the names of the other three ships that had been destroyed would live on, assigned to new ships coming off the docks when the time came.  Given how many ships were beyond any hope of salvage, Jason was honestly surprised that he only lost four ship captains, but that was due to the design of the ships.  The bridge and the captain’s quarters were in the deepest part of the ship, the most heavily protected, so it had to be something absolutely cataclysmic to kill a ship captain.  He’d had several other captains get injured, which was testament to the ferocity of the battle.

        “I think so too.  Rola is a very capable ship captain,” she replied with a wan smile.

        After a big cheese steak and some potato wedges, Jason returned to his office and checked on the repair schedules, consulting the board he still had synced to Dellin’s main board in his ops center, and he saw that everything was still on schedule.  The Aegis and Iyaneri were still undergoing repairs, but they had three battleships back on the board, all the tactical battleships, and four heavy cruisers.  Both carriers were also back on the board, which meant that they had enough ships now to form two task forces if necessary.  He switched over to the construction docks and saw that everything there was also on schedule.  They’d pared way back on building new ships, shifting manpower to repairing damaged ships, but there was still some activity on that side.  The eighth battleship was about two takirs from completion, and there were six more tactical battleships in various stages of assembly.  They’d shifted the ship roles a little since the introduction of the tactical battleships.  The regular battleships would serve as flagships for task force commanders, the commanding ship in the formation if there was no capitol ship present, where the tactical battleships would be doing most of the in-your-face fighting.  And because of that delineation, they were discussing doing a redesign of the main battleship to make it bigger and carry more firepower.  They wanted to increase the mass of a battleship by about 60% and pack some more firepower on it, but they also wanted to continue production of the current battleship design to serve as support for the task force, mainly as carrier defense and long-range weapon support, carrying weapons 3D was kicking around developing, high-energy weapons that had far more range than the currently used weapons.  The new battleship class, the Mark II, would then be the flagship for the formation.  They were also discussing the possibility of creating an even larger command ship class vessel, some 40% larger than the current design, a monstrosity that would be so huge and complicated to build that they might only finish one in the three years they had.

        Jason knew why they were doing that.  They knew what was coming, and they knew that even a Karinne battleship was the size of a toy compared to some of the Syndicate vessels.  Creating a larger class of battleship put more big ships on the line to combat the titanic behemoths the Syndicate had in their fleet.  Their strategy wasn’t going to revolve around those huge ships, it was actually doing to revolve around cruisers and destroyers, but really big ships would have both strategic and tactical worth in the war to come.

        He had just enough time to read the report that Myleena had dropped off that morning before heading to Kosigi, a status report of what was going on in 3D, and the news was that there was little news.  Jenny and Eraen were still working on the diffuser and hadn’t made any major progress thus far.  The cyberjack program was in a holding pattern, mainly because they were waiting to see how Justin Taggart responded to the jack they implanted just two days ago.  Songa had decided to implant the jack before performing the brain surgery to replace the damaged sections of Justin’s brain to reduce the shock to his system, and also to discern if a jack implantation on an uninjured talent would damage their telepathic abilities.  She did have a point, he’d realized, when she told him of the change.  If the injuries to Justin were why a jack implantation procedure didn’t damage his talent, then they wouldn’t know until another telepath volunteered and subsequently had her talent damaged by the surgery.  By implanting the jack now, they’d know for certain if the procedure did any damage to Justin’s talent by baselining his abilities before the surgery compared to after.  The fact that his talent was already damaged would have no bearing on that result, for a further degradation of his telepathic abilities would mean that the jack implantation procedure was the cause.  Supposedly, she’d have a preliminary report for him about how it went sometime tonight, after they brought Justin out of his induced coma and gave him the initial exam.  Of course, they wouldn’t have ironclad results until after Justin’s brain was repaired.  If he got his full talent back at his original strength, then they’d have no doubt that the jack implantation procedure would pose no threat to a talented brain.

        The jack program was now up to 15,500 participants.  They’d increased the trial pool yet again, and the results were highly promising.  They’d finished their training programs to learn how to use and control the jack, and whatever the jack was plugged into, and they showed as much ability as a Generation merged to a biogenic computer.  They still couldn’t utilize telepathy like that, which was what the Generation program had been about, but they could do just about everything else.  The riggers they’d fitted with jacks were giving Kyva some competition, relatively speaking.  She could still kick their asses, but a jacked rigger lasted a lot longer against her than an unjacked rigger, because of increased response time and the ability to assimilate the sensor data fed to them quickly.  After the last trial group finished, a group consisting of more than just Terrans, then they were planning on offering cyberjack implantation to any member of the house who so wished it, but they had to pay the C430 cost of implantation themselves.  This last trial group held every race currently members of the House of Karinne except for Faey, and it would ensure that Songa’s procedures were safe and effective.  She’d mapped out how to implant a jack into every race of the house,  but it still required an actual volunteer and a trial to make sure what Songa worked out on paper matched the real world.

        Jason mused again at how the Faey near-phobia about doing anything to, with, or anywhere near the brain had created a void in both their medical knowledge and their technological capability.  They’d had the technology to invent their own cyberjacks for some 400 years, but they’d never even considered wiring a Faey brain so it could interface with a computer.  And the Faey were the only race in the sector cluster with both the medical and technological knowledge to do it.  Of the other civilizations, the Colonists and the Alliance were the only ones even close to the level the Faey had with cybernetics, machines that were implanted into and worked with a biological organism.  Colonial and Alliance medicine could replace limbs with cybernetic prosthetics, but they weren’t nearly as good. They could connect a machine to a nerve ending to allow the user to control the limb, but they lacked the technology to allow the user to feel through the limb, they still hadn’t cracked that level of cybernetic technology.  That was the main difference between Faey cybernetic technology and the technology of other civilizations.  Most other civilizations hadn’t fully explored cybernetic technology the way the Faey had, for various reasons.  The Urumi and Skaa didn’t need to, since they could regrow lost limbs over time naturally.   The Shio and the Jobodi had developed cloned replacement medicine long before cybernetic medicine, so for them it was a somewhat useless branch of medical technology.  Only the Faey had explored cybernetic technology to that level, part of their endlessly inquisitive natures that made them good at science…and also a pain in the neck.

        His alarm beeped warning him he had two minutes, so he put away the reports, made sure the three handpanels couldn’t be seen by anyone, and activated his side of the conference program.  Two holograms winked in immediately, Sk’Vrae and Kim, who were chatting with each other amiably; Sk’Vrae and Kim had a personal friendship, he’d come to learn.  Sk’Vrae nodded to him when his hologram appeared to her, probably in her office back on Uruma.  “Jason,” Kim said with a smile.  “How goes things today?”

        “Buried up to my eyeballs in paperwork,” he grunted in reply, which made Kim chuckle.

        “I know that feeling.  It seems I can never clear my inbox since the planet was granted protectorate status,” he replied.  “Many of the things we simply sent up the chain of command now stop with me.”

        “That sums up my position almost perfectly,” Jason said without much humor.

        “It sounds like it is time for both of you to increase your staffs to take some of the load off of you,” Sk’Vrae declared.  “I have a large staff that helps organize and manage the paperwork that comes with rule.”

        “Yeah, more than one person is pushing me to do that,” Jason nodded.  “But I’m not sure.  I don’t like the idea of being out of the loop.”

        “The house is growing too large for you to micro-manage every detail, Jason,” Sk’Vrae chided gently.  “Imagine what your workload will be like in a year if you don’t reorganize your executive office.”

        He nearly groaned, just as another hologram winked on, that of Magran.  He gave Jason a curious look, no doubt over his expression, which made Kim laugh lightly.

        Jason usually drifted through council meetings, because little of it ever really concerned him, but the addition of Shakizarr and Kreel had made him much more attentive since they were added to the council.  Part of it was that they were discussing matters that did concern him, and part of it was so he could observe the two rulers.  Not everyone was in attendance today, however.  Dahnai was making a rare no-show, one of her advisors sitting in for her, and Zaa was also not in attendance, which wasn’t quite as unusual.  Because of the jockeying between Dahnai and Assaba, she rarely if ever missed a council meeting.  He did pay some attention when Lorna delivered a report on fleet readiness, and more attention when she gave a very basic overview of the attack on the nebula.  “Given we know exactly how many enemy ships there are and where they are, we’re planning a fairly straightforward operation,” she said as she pointed to an image of the nebula.  “To minimize risk to our own ships, we will begin the operation by taking out Consortium long-range sensor pods spread around and through the nebula to give them advance warning using corvettes and fighters, which can move more swiftly within the nebula than line ships.  Using fighters also only allows the Consortium to see the fighters before the pods are destroyed, hiding the full size and makeup of our fleet.  This part of the operation will consist of a single KMS ship jumping in and launching fighters, and then immediately jumping back out out of range of the sensor pods outside the nebula.  We’ve selected the Dreamer for this operation, and the attacking fighters will be from the KMS Ghost Squadron and the Alliance Navy War Talon squadron, two of the best fighter squadrons in the Confederate Combined Military.  These fighters will be able to outrun any Consortium vessels within the nebula, their size will make them extremely hard to see inside, and the nebula’s disruption of automated targeting and sensor systems will make it very difficult for any automated defenses to destroy them.  They will destroy the Consortium sensor network pod by pod, creating a blind zone for our incoming fleet.  Once the pods are destroyed, our fleet will jump in, and we’ll begin the attack by sending in some of the automated weaponry developed by the Karinnes to weaken their defenses and create confusion, while our fleet enters the nebula and gets into position outside of their sensor range.  This will also force them to draw in their ships to defend the remains of their base, which they have been trying to salvage and repair.  The other main objective of this automated attack is to knock out their primary command and control center, which Kimdori reconnaissance places in the remains of the base that was partially destroyed in the Karinne attack.  Once their com-con is eliminated, our fleet will attack from all sides, striking swiftly from the concealment of the nebula, and destroy them to the last ship.  This tactic should minimize damage to our own ships.”

        “Simple and straightforward, but also tactically sound given the environmental conditions,” Grran’s vocoder intoned monotonously as his fingers danced before him.

        “Yes, Field Marshall,” Lorna nodded.  “The nebula can be used against them when approached properly, and we intend to do just that, primarily through the use of fighters to knock out the sensor pod network they have set up within the nebula.  Without their sensor network, they’ll have no idea where we are, and the limited visibility within the nebula will allow our ships to get right on top of them before they can respond.”

        “It sounds like a viable strategy, General,” Shakizarr nodded, his black hair bobbing a little.  “We have our ships in position and ready to be moved to Terra.  When will the Stargate arrive at Veruta Prime?”

        “They haven’t finished building it yet, Grand Imperial Majesty,” the aide for Dahnai spoke up.  “It’s scheduled for completion in three days, but then it has to be thoroughly tested before it can be put in service.  At this time, we simply have no more Stargates to spare.  Every operational gate in the Imperium is in use, and every corporation capable of building Stargates has their factories at double manpower to meet the demand.”

        “We’re also capable of building Stargates, and we’re working on them in Kosigi,” Jason added.  “Our first ones won’t be ready for at least a month, though.”

        “The Stargate slated for Veruta Prime is scheduled for delivery and activation in nine days,” Lorna continued.  “The Stargate for Grimdi is scheduled for delivery and activation in twelve days.”

        “That gives us time to pull in our fleet from the other side of our territory,” Kreel said in his usual easygoing voice.  “We should have 470 ships at Grimdi by the time the Stargate arrives.”

        “Added to the 1400 from the Verutans, that should give us more than enough to sweep the Consortium out of that nebula and out of our galaxy,” Shakizarr declared.

        Dellin presented the next report, and that was the one both Shakizarr and Kreel wanted to hear.  Dellin’s handsome face appeared in a hologram that showed his control center behind him.  He saluted crisply as he introduced himself, then went to the board behind him.  “We’ve completed our schedule and dock allocation preparations for the Verutans and the Grimja to begin shipbuilding operations within Kosigi,” he called.  “The respective empires will have to bring their own equipment, proprietary technology, docks and workers, but everything else will be provided within Kosigi, at set zero-profit rates for materials.  What you pay for these materials is exactly what it cost to produce them.  Karinne transports will be made available to tow dock facilities to Karis, and also remember that all workers coming to Kosigi will have to pass a security screening.  We’ll have technological consultants from the Academy on hand and at the service of your engineers to help integrate standard Confederate technology into these ships if you so wish it.  We utilize a number of universal mount pieces of equipment,” he explained at Shakizarr’s curious look.  “A single piece that can be installed into any Confederate ship.  Don’t worry, your Majesty, it doesn’t require that your Navy reveal its classified engineering specs.  It only requires a basic knowledge of your power system and computer architecture so your ships can power and control the modules.  Installation of these pieces of equipment is purely optional and voluntary, and probably mainly unnecessary for now, since the majority of our universal mount equipment are Torsion cannons, which we won’t be using against the Syndicate.”

        “There is one piece of Confederate technology that will require at least giving the Karinnes the specs of your engines, and that’s if you want them refitted to be capable of jumping outbound from an interdictor,” Jason cut in.  “We have to analyze your engine capability and power generation to see if they’re capable of it, and if so, what upgrades it’ll require.  But that information is released only to the Karinnes.  The other Confederate members do not have access to the specs.”

        “Yes, I’ve already released that data to your Duchess Myleena Karinne,” Shakizarr nodded.  “She is to give her report on the matter to my Naval engineering department later today.”

        “Yup, so did we, and she already sent back a refit report that tells us what we need to do,” Kreel added.  “She also sent us the interdiction algorithm for our jump computer.”

        “Guess I’m out of the loop, then,” Jason chuckled.

        “So, esteemed rulers, as soon as your governments submit a schedule to me and to Miaari to start screening your inbound workers, we can get your allocated space within Kosigi up and running,” Dellin continued.  “We’ll have everything ready for you on our side by the time your teams arrive.”

        “If I might add, several Moridon financial institutions will be on site within Kosigi to serve the workers,” Brayrak Kruu injected.  “These are fully staffed satellite branch offices of authorized Moridon banks, capable of making transactions with internal Verutan and Grimja banks, and will offer these financial services at no charge to the workers.  So rest easy that your workers will have access to their pay and the expertise of Moridon financial planners on how best to manage it.”

        “Those pubs up in Kosigi I toured when I was there is about all my workers will need to be happy,” Kreel smiled.

        “We should have the initial schedules on your desk by the end of the standard day, Admiral,” Shakizarr declared.

        “We’re not quite finished yet, it should be there sometime tomorrow,” Kreel added.

        The council wrapped up after Dellin gave his report, and Jason went from that meeting directly to another one, his regularly scheduled cabinet meeting.  Everyone but Kumi was there, who was on Moridon, but Temika was sitting in for her.  Temika was now second in command in Kumi’s office, and had proved to have a knack for the job.  They quieted down when he walked in.  “We’re all busy, so let’s get this done,” he said crisply as he took his seat, Shen and Suri standing by the door to the cabinet meeting room.  “I think we can dispense with most of the old business, so if anyone has anything new, put it on the table.”

        “The updated logistic schedules for the change in Karinne supply schedules for the Shio and the Colonies is in effect,” Jrz’kii’s translator called in its monotone.  “It has reduced our workload by 18% overall.  I have included scheduled holidays for our freighter crews so they can take an extended break after working nonstop for nearly two months.”

         “Good thinking,” Jason nodded.

        “The test farms on PR-371 have produced their second yield, with the predicted results after our first yield,” Grik’zzk continued.  “The planet can grow every common Karis crop within the affected area of the gravity inducers, and can grow 55% of our current crops outside of it, mainly the crops that do not have long stalks that can be affected by the gravity.  We will begin large-scale farming operations both inside and outside of the gravity inducer areas in two days, as soon as the equipment arrives.  We have also expanded the operating farmland around New Karsa on Exile by 21% to meet projected demand as the house population increases.”

        “Excellent, I want to keep our food production at least twice our consumption.  Food always exports,” Jason nodded.

        “Of note that should be passed along is that the farming details are having increased frequency of contact with the Gruug,” she continued.  “The contacts thus far have not been violent.  The Gruug flee whenever a vehicle approaches.”

        Jason frowned a little bit.  “That is a little unusual.  If you could, please, send that on to Kovann so he can find out what’s going on.”  Kovann Heralle was the management executive in charge of New Karsa, the farm production manager and governor rolled into one.  He answered to both Grik’zzk and Jason in his two roles.

        “He is aware of it, I have already informed him.  A report of the findings of his expeditionary team should reach us within the day.”

        “Good.”

        “I’ve gotten the construction timetables for the new projects organized and on the schedule,” Bunvar called.  “I’ve added it to the overall planned work schedules for the next two takirs.  Included on the queue is the new IBL practice facility and a new sports complex being built in Teria City for organized sports teams.  We’ll be using the generic layout plan so it can host any of the commonly played sports.”

        “Speaking of Teria City, I have a work order request ready to be sent to you, Bunvar,” Rund said, looking over at her.  “We have the broadcast power node equipment already on the way, we just need the installation up.”

        “I have a team ready to go in there and do it, as soon as I get the official work request,” she answered.

        “It’ll be on your panel ten minutes after I get back to my office.”

        “How far along is Teria City, anyway?” Yeri asked.

        “It’s almost finished,” Jason replied, since the Land Use Authority fell under his office.  “And speaking of the Land Use Authority, I’ve decided to promote it to an independent agency with a cabinet member,” he told them.  “The Authority director, Lirren Karinne, will be joining the cabinet as soon as I get all the details ironed out, probably in two or three days.  His department will be called Interior, and won’t have any extra duties.”

        “It’s about time you started reducing your own workload, Jason,” Yeri told him, a touch sternly.

        “What are you doing behind my back that makes you want me to look the other way more, Yeri?” he challenged with a slight smile, which made her laugh.

        “In all honesty, Jason, you should promote the Resident Services to its own department as well.  You still have control of that agency.”  Resident Services was the “human resources” offices for the planet, managing such things as hovercar licenses, marriage licenses, inscription management (the house still utilized inscription, but as a Planetary Guard operation where the members only served part time), population census, education, and coordinated with Songa and the Medical Service for resident health and welfare.  Their workload had reduced significantly when Terra gained independence, them taking control of their own services, but they still coordinated with the Urumi Brood Princesses to help provide Karinne services for the four systems the Karinnes administered.

        “The Moridon finished the last of their Karsa branch offices, and it should be open tomorrow,” Temika called, looking at her panel.  She was wearing her hair much more severely than usual, a tight ponytail, but she was wearing a very flattering low-cut blouse that showed off a peek of her impressive cleavage.

        “Any issues integrating them into the house banking system?” Jason asked.

        “Nope, and believe it or not, we’ll make even more money off our own banks with Moridon banks here competing against them,” she replied with a chuckle.  “The satellite office of First Bank of Moridon opened yesterday, and all y’all have invitations to open accounts at reduced fees,” she added.  “One of the perks of being on the cabinet.”

        “I’d take it if I were you,” Jason suggested.  “Those kinds of accounts are worth it, mainly for the access to Moridon financial experts.  Them, you can trust not to swindle you.  You don’t get that kind of assurance when you’re dealing with Kumi.”

        They all laughed, even the Kizzik, and Temika just gave Jason an amusedly cool look.  “That’s my boss you’re talking about, Jayce.”

        “Am I lying?”

        “Well, no, but still,” she replied, which made Yeri laugh even louder.

        Jason finished up the cabinet meeting after about another twenty minutes, since there was little new business to go over…everyone was still very busy with old business, the business of getting Karis back to normal operation after the battle.  He had 37 different reports in his in-box when he got back, making him glad that Chirk couldn’t hear after he muttered a few unfriendly things about her once back at his desk.  37 reports had piled up in the few hours that he’d been busy with other things.  Shen and Suri lounged in his private apartment off his office as he went over the reports, making sure to secure the door so only they could open it when they weren’t guarding it.  They often had long stretches of boring inactivity when they were with him, the hours he spent in his office where they had little to do, but weren’t allowed to stray far from him given how prone he was to wandering off without telling them if they weren’t right there to keep an eye on him.  Ever since his AWOL episode a few weeks ago, Aya had dictated that they lock the door when not at post mainly to keep him in, not to keep others out, where before they’d leave the door unlocked if they weren’t in his office.  Inside the White House, anyone that got to his door was screened at least three times by the Dukal Guard to get that far.  Aya wasn’t about to let him get where one of her guards couldn’t keep track of him, not since he escaped from them.

        A holo of Yila popped on in front of his desk.  Today, she had opted for conservative, wearing a red poncho-like top that ended just under her attractive breasts adorned with the Trefani crest, a waistchain, and while he couldn’t see anything below her navel due to the hologram, he rather doubted there was anything south of that other than shoes of some kind.  “Good morning, Jason.  Why is the door locked?” she asked.

        “Because you don’t own that door, woman,” he answered cheekily, which made her give him a challenging smile.  “What are you doing on Karis?  Kumi’s on Moridon.”

        “I know, we just got back from Moridon about ten minutes ago,” she replied.  “Kumi’s over at her office taking care of a few things.”

        “Then why are you bugging me?”

        She laughed.  “Just open the door, you silly man.”

        “Give it a minute,” he said.  “Shen or Suri have to open the door.  They lock me in when they’re not at the door.”

        “That sounds slightly scandalous,” she teased.

        Jason laughed.  “Yes, it’s a scandal that my guards lock me in my office like a misbehaving child when they’re not here to keep watch over the door,” he agreed.  Can one of you come open the door?  Yila’s here, he sent to the next room.

        I’ll be right there, Shen replied.

        He was right about Yila’s wardrobe.  When Shen opened the door and took position beside it, Yila almost strutted in.  She only had on a pair of high thigh boots, covering the vast majority of her legs.  She smiled when she came in and went around the desk and stood beside him, looking down.  What? he asked.

        I was just seeing if there was someone under there giving you a blowjob, she replied in a bantering mindset loaded with sexual innuendo.  Yila was a very, very salty woman, as many Grand Duchesses were.  Sometimes he thought that the Grand Duchesses of the Siann were ten times worse than the players in the locker room back in his days playing football for Michigan.  Kumi’s told me how modest you are when it comes to having sex in public

        That’s not modesty, that’s regard for my neighbors, he replied lightly.  Besides, Tim and Symone are the exhibitionists, not me.

        I know, they always put on a good show, she replied with a bandy nuance.

        I’m sure you’re not here to gossip with me like a schoolgirl, Yila, he pressed.

        You’re just no fun today, Jason.

        I have a lot of work to do, so getting to the point is best for both of us.

        She chuckled audibly and sat on the edge of his desk, as Cybi often did, leaning on her had.  We concluded those negotiations with the Moridon.  They accepted both of our offers, she relayed.  We’ve also got in the first profits from the expanded laminated titanium sales to the Verutans and the Haumda.

        You came all the way over here just to tell me that?

        Kumi has more to talk to you about, but that’s your business, she replied easily.  I’m here discuss that second D league team you formed.

        Jason laughed.  You’re talking to the wrong Karinne.  Jyslin manages the team, not me.  I have nothing to do with it at all.  You wanna fight about it, you fight with her.

        Oh, so she’s the one trying to cut me out.

        We’re not disbanding the Jerama D league team, nit, he teased.  Karis could use a D league team, and it would have been too hard to move the Jerama team, so Jyslin decided that a second team was the best option.

        Well, then, I guess it won’t be that hard to get my cut, since I’ll be discussing it with Jyslin.

        Jason laughed.  I’ll let you make that discovery yourself, he sent easily. Now, if that’s all, you need to wiggle your cute butt back outside so I can finish this shit and get home before dark, he said, pointing at his panel.

        I can do that, as long as I can come over for dinner tonight, she replied teasingly.  And I get to bring Dara.

        Why don’t you just move that poor girl over here, he accused.

        I’m trying, she replied with a grin.  And given how happy Zach is to see her every time she comes over, I won’t have to try much longer.

        Sheesh, he sounded, which made her laugh.  Out, you treacherous bitch.  I have to finish this before my meeting in two hours.

        Yila did in fact wiggle her way out of the office, making sure to give Jason quite the look at her bare blue butt, but he was too distracted to appreciate both the view and her trying to show it off.  He was determined to get home at a reasonable time today, so he had Chirk call Zaa and see if they could move their meeting up a couple of hours, so he could go straight from the Land Use Authority meeting to Zaa’s meeting.  He pored through the reports, then called Kovann for a detailed personal report on what was going on over on Exile.  Kovann was a very, very handsome Faey man, almost as handsome as Jann Wilson, but his hair was snowy white instead of Janns’ coal black.  Kovann was like Dellin, a born administrator and manager, and he ran New Karsa with exacting precision since taking it over some three months ago.  “It’s definitely an unusual pattern,” Kovann told him.  “There have been two very large tribes of Gruug that live on the coast that have moved north and inland for no apparent reason.  They’re right on the eastern edge of the expanded farmland.”

        “No unusual wildlife activity?  Nothing that would make them switch from fishing to hunting?”

        “Nothing I’ve seen in any of the local reports, your Grace,” he replied.  “I have a survey team over at the eastern coast right now conducting sensor sweeps.  We asked the Exiles on the island what might cause this, and they said that the Gruug sometimes leave a perfectly good territory for no logical reason.  It might be spiritual or religious in nature, but I have people making sure it’s not environmental.”

        “Good.  You think we might need a fence?”

        “At this moment, I don’t think so, but we’ll have to see.  If the Gruug get more invasive or violent, a fence might be in order.”

        “Talk to Bunvar, have her draw up the plans for a fence, and I’ll make sure she can deploy a team to build it at a moment’s notice.  In the meantime, I want anyone working within 20 kathra of confirmed Gruug sightings in armor, Kovann.  They are very good at throwing spears, and we don’t have diplomatic contact with the Gruug on the continent.”

        “It might be necessary, your Grace.”

        “I know, and I’ll leave it up to you.  When you think it’s necessary, you handle it.   Read up on our report on how we talked with the Gruug on the island, but don’t make any assumptions.  They’re a very unpredictable species.”

        “I’ll take care of it, your Grace.  I’ll send you priority reports.”

        “Good man.”

        After getting through that, he had just enough time to get a quick bite to eat in the cafeteria before going up a floor to the Land Use Authority main office.  It took up a fairly big chunk of the White House’s second floor, since it managed all government and private land use, managed the parks and preserves, and was the governing office when new sections of the planet were opened to inhabitation.  The authority’s managing director was a middle-aged Faey man,  Lirren Karinne.  He was one of the first non-Generation Faey that had moved to Karis, and had been a virtual godsend.  He’d worked for 30 years at Merrane Macrotechnology as a manager, so he had excellent organizational skills that made him perfect for the difficult and complex work that came with managing the planet’s land and its usage.  Though Jason was the ultimate head of the department, Lirren was the one that actually ran it.  Lirren also had something of a crush on Shen, so Jason gave him that moment of slightly awkward adjustment, then they got to the core of the matter.  Jason went over Lirren’s role as the newest member of the cabinet, which wasn’t much since he already ran everything, mainly going over how his role was going to change with the promotion and going over how inter-cabinet politics operated.  Lirren already interacted a great deal with Grik’zzk, Rund, and Bunvar, but he didn’t have much contact with the other cabinet members.  They spent nearly three hours discussing things, then he left Lirren to finish up his work for the day and headed back to his office to meet with Zaa.

        That meeting only lasted about an hour.  Zaa submitted a request for a timetable of Kimdori moving to the city, Jason accepted it without even looking at it, then they spent the rest of the time discussing the Haumda and the Prakarikai.  Both were on the cusp of applying for admission into the Confederation, and while Jason was glad to hear that Gau was leaning that way, he wasn’t quite so enthusiastic about the Prakarikai.  They were stiff, formal, easily offended, hard to amuse, held grudges, and were stuffy, and that made them and the Grimja stay at each other’s throats almost constantly.  The Grimja thought the Prakarikai took themselves way too seriously—which they did—where the Prakarikai thought the Grimja were uncouth, undisciplined boors whose only value was to remain in financial thrall to them to buy their excess food.  The Prakarikai had a very unusual governing system, where the King and Queen ruled jointly, each having control of certain spheres of their empire’s operations.  The King was the one in command of  internal matters, meting out law, managing security and the military, and governing their 23 systems, where the Queen was in command of exterior matters, such as diplomacy, trade, exploration, and intelligence.  The Prakarikai as a race had a much higher than average number of people with telepathic or empathic ability, approaching 14%, so they were major players in the intelligence and espionage game in their sector.  If the Prakarikai joined the Confederation, it was the Queen that they’d have to deal with in council meetings…which sucked.  She was, by far, the more annoying of the two of them.  The King Jason could almost like because he was polite, but the Queen was an arrogant little bitch.

        Little being the operative word.  Much like the Makati and the Beryans, the Prakarikai were a very, very diminutive race.  The average Prakarikai was only about three shakra tall, or about three and a half feet or a bit over a meter, thin and very human-like in appearance, almost like the hobbits from the old Lord of the Rings stories with delicate four-fingered hands and very large eyes for the size of their faces.  They didn’t have large, hairy feet, however, but they did have pointed ears, like the Faey, and bronzed brown skin, like a human with a deep tan.  They were very beautiful as a Faey or Terran would reckon such things, much more elf-like than the Faey due to their small size and pointed ears, but size was no indication of how dangerous those bastards could be.  For one, Prakarikai were all ceremony and stuffiness on the outside, but on the inside they had a nearly genetic need to take others down, to display their power and superiority in any way possible.  Jason often thought that the Prakarikai suffered from the biggest case of racial inferiority complex ever witnessed in an organized society, for they were gaudy, flamboyant, and almost obnoxious in their demonstrations of social, financial, or physical power.  There was no such thing as too much in Prakarikai society.  For another, Prakarika was a very heavy gravity planet, 3.28 standard, so while the Prakarikai may look slender and delicate, they were exceptionally tough and inhumanly strong little bastards.  Their small size was a direct result of the extremely heavy gravity of their home planet.  It was a standard in exobiology that the heavier the gravity, the shorter and smaller the life upon that planet tended to be to reduce the stress that gravity placed on the organism.  It wasn’t absolute, the Faey—a tall heavy gravity species—and the Beryans—a short lower gravity species, their home planet had .88 standard gravity—were a good example of that, but it was something of a predictable standard.

        The last thing that made them very distasteful to many was that slavery was legal in their empire.  It was used as a form of punishment for criminals, who served their sentences as slaves to prominent or wealthy individuals or groups.  But they didn’t practice slavery outside their own race, which was the only reason they were tolerated by their neighbors.  One had to go all the way to Chezaa to find a society where slavery was legal and commonplace, which was a small independent planet on the very edge of the Grimja sector that served the slave needs of the next sector over, known to Karinne astrocartography as the Jirunji Sector.

        After the meeting, Jason put his armor back on and headed home on the Marine corvette Kovira, stepping out onto the wharf in a fairly heavy downpour, a local shower not uncommon in the afternoon heat.  It was out to sea by the time he got inside and got his armor off.  Rann, Shya, and Aran burst into his room as he finished taking it off, sending excitedly to one another as they climbed up onto the bed, then Zachary followed.  All four of them were bare-ass naked, probably having just finished taking off their armor, and Aran and Zachary were a little damp from coming over at the tail end of the rain  Hey boys, hey Shya, Jason sent fondly as he started putting his armor on its stand without bothering to dress first.  What’s going on?

        Oh, not much, Daddy, Rann replied.  We just got home from school a little bit ago.

        I know, I was trying to get home around the same time, he nodded.  Yila and Dara are coming over tonight, he warned.

        I like Dara, she’s funny, Aran sent with a giggle as he and Rann started jumping on the bed.  Isn’t Miss Aura coming too?

        Yup, she’s having dinner with us too.

        And breakfast, Shya added innocently, which made Jason chuckle.

        And breakfast, he agreed mildly.

        That’s good too, I really like Miss Aura, Aran added.  She’s really nice.

        I know, that’s why I enjoy having her come visit.  Where are your sisters, and Danelle?

        Dunno, probably over at Kyri’s house, Aran replied.  Doing girl stuff.

        Silly, at your age, there’s not much difference between girl stuff and boy stuff, Jason chided playfully as he closed the armory, causing the stand to retract back into the wall and the doors close.

         Hey, I’m a girl, you know, Shya protested, looking at Aran and pointing at the part of her anatomy that obviously proved her declaration.

        You’re married to Rann and you’re always with him, you’re just like a boy.

        Shya looked decidedly insulted at that declaration, putting her hands on her hips and giving Aran a dirty look.

        Leave it alone, little missy, Jason sent privately, which made her glance at him.  Since you’re all here, we can go down to the beach.  I need to relax a little after all the work I’ve been doing.

        He was quite content to just sit back on a lounger on the beach and relax a while as he watched his sons and Shya frolic a little bit, but it was also one of those pointed and nearly harsh lessons that he didn’t live in Terran society anymore.  His three sons and daughter-in-law frolicked around nude, which was normal for the strip, but about 100 kathra down the beach, Tim was engaging in one of his favorite activities, torrid sex with the girls on the strip.  He had Sheleese in his clutches on a beach blanket, and while they were pretty far away, it was also abundantly clear what they were doing.  His children had seen that way too many times to take much interest in it, and since they were on private property, what they were doing was entirely legal under Imperium—and Karinne—law.  The laws concerning sex in public places focused mainly on such activities hindering or slowing the orderly flow of traffic or causing an undue disturbance of the peace, not that they were doing anything indecent.  After all, one could see that in much better detail on any number of viddy channels just by surfing.

        He got another lesson in that when some of the others got to the beach.  Zora appeared with Sora, both of them nude, and Zora rather boldly sat in his lap rather than take a chair of her own, leaning back against him, and sending rather impishly, this is much more comfortable than usual.

        Someone wants to work a double shift tomorrow, he threatened, smacking her playfully on the hip.

        Oh come on, stop being such a prude, she protested.  Besides, get used to this, cause you’re coming over to my house tomorrow.  We’re going to be spending quite a lot of time with me on top of you, she added with a naughty tilt to her thought.

        Can’t, me and Jys are double-dating with Tim and Symone tomorrow night.  But the day after is fine.

        Then it’s a date, she declared eagerly. Sora, be careful, the waves are very high right now.

        ‘Kay Mommy, she answered as she waded into the surf, then was promptly knocked down by a powerful wave.  She laughed aloud when she surfaced, then turned and ran back for shore when another wave approached.  Jason wrapped his arms around Zora’s waist rather than make her move, and she told him about her day up in Kosigi.  She’d been very busy moving ships that day, mainly moving repaired ships off the docks and parking them in the void inside the moon, returning to a much safer job after serving as the navigator on a line vessel…and losing her arm.  Jason did almost unconsciously run his hand up and down her right arm, which looked completely normal and no different than it had before, but now there was about C280,000 worth of highly advanced Karinne cybernetic technology under that soft, warm flesh, including a highly advanced biogenic command minicomputer than managed the interface between Zora’s nerve endings and the machinery lurking within.  Does it feel the same? she asked him.

        Almost.  What feels like bones are a little, well, more pronounced, he replied.  But it feels just like natural muscles and flesh otherwise.  How does it feel on your side?

        Like nothing at all is different, she replied, clenching her right hand into a fist.  Jason could feel the artificial muscles under her flesh shift and ripple; they were placed almost exactly as the old muscles had been.  It wasn’t as efficient as a purely cybernetic arm, but it made it almost impossible to tell that she had an endolimb under that soft blue skin.  At least until I pick something up.  The onboard computer inside restricts the hand to my normal strength most of the time, but I can override it and use the full cyber strength if I have to.  It’s already come in handy.

        How so?

        I can open any jar in the fridge without effort, she replied playfully, which made him laugh.  Outside of that, it’s exactly the same, or at least that’s how it feels.  I have the same sensation, and it feels to me like  it has the same weight as my old arm.  Songa said that it’s a prototype, she noted.  That they’re testing biogenic tech in  cyber replacements.

        Yup, you’ve got a biogenic crystal in that arm, so don’t ever think you’re leaving this house, woman, he declared, hugging her around her lower belly with his other arm.

        So, I’m a half-Generation now? she asked teasingly.

        Actually, something like that, he answered.  That crystal is directly connected to your nervous system, and it can actually access more than just what your brain is telling your arm to do.

        Really?  Like what?

        Well, Cybi said that she can’t hear your thoughts, but she can get a very general sense of a strong emotional state through the crystal.  It wasn’t expected, but it is a rather interesting development.  She and Songa are discussing implanting a biogenic crystal into the brain of a host and seeing what happens.

        Isn’t that just a little, I dunno, monstrous?

        That’s why they’re not actually gonna do it, they’re just discussing what might happen, he replied.  Biogenic crystals can’t interface with a non-Generation like that or the Karinnes would have just done that rather than develop the Generations.  But it is rather interesting that Cybi can sense more from you than just commands to your arm with your nervous system connected to that crystal.  That wasn’t exactly a surprise to Jason, given it was based on Kimdori DNA, and he knew exactly what Kimdori could do.  But it was a surprise that the crystals were exhibiting capability beyond established Karinne science and knowledge.  The biogenic crystals in interfaces weren’t directly connected to people implanted with a cyberjack, it connected to a micro-processor within the jack itself that acted as the input/output device between brain and computer, where Zora’s biogenic control unit was what was directly connected to her nerve endings, connecting the biogenic crystal directly to her nervous system.  The Karinnes had never explored directly interfacing a host with a crystal because even the Karinnes were very reluctant to alter the brain for fear that talent would be damaged, but they did have very advanced cybernetic technology.  But they’d never used biogenics in their cybernetic prosthetics, they’d only used cybertronic computer technology, upon which biogenic computer architecture was based, and was considered obsolete in the modern age of moleculartronic computer technology.

        So, Cybi’s spying inside my head, is she? Zora chuckled.

        Of course not, you goof.  She can just feel it when you express strong emotion, and she has a pretty good idea what emotion it is.

        It proves she’s not just a computer, since she can tell one emotion from another.

        Exactly, he agreed.  No computer could ever do that.

        Mmm, Jason, just a little lower, she sent purringly, patting the hand he had on her lower belly, just above her pubic hair.

        Stop flirting with me, woman, he commanded as he smacked her where his hand was resting, which made her laugh brightly.

        Only if you give me a kiss, she retorted, turning her head and sliding aside a little bit.  He chuckled softly and did pay her fee.

        Hey now, you’re gonna pay me for that, Zora, Jyslin declared with feigned outrage as she and Symone came down onto the beach.

        Hey love, I didn’t know you were home, Jason sent.

        I can see that, dallying with Zora and keeping you from sensing me come home, she grinned.

        How was your day?

        Not bad.  Me and Frinia lined up the first ten games for the Warriors next D league season, and Red Horn has the plans done for their practice facility and satellite offices.  They’re gonna build them in southeast Karsa, out near Lake Grinavi.

        That’s some pretty terrain out there, Jason sent with an approving nod.  They’re still playing in the Jeyalle, right?

        Yah, we didn’t change that.  It’s actually a really nice stadium, I took a tour of it the other day.  Not as big as the KSC, but pretty damn nice.

        And did Yila threaten to tear your hair out?

        Jyslin laughed raucously.  She tried, but she doesn’t have big enough tits to tangle with me, she replied, a bit smugly.  She wasn’t happy, though.

        She’s missing out on money, of course she’s unhappy, Jason observed nonchalantly.

        I can’t wait to see the Paladins play, Zora sent eagerly.  I already have my season tickets!

        I can’t leave my girls hangin’, Jyslin told her with a smile.  That was exactly the words she used, but that was how Jason’s brain translated Jyslin’s intent.  He often tended to do that if she didn’t frame her thought into a specific language, his own mind translating the intent of her thought into an English slang idiom.  We should have everything set up for the opening of training camp on 10 Kedaa, then the first match is on Midsummer’s Day.  We’re playing the Jerama Star Runners.  Our first home match is the next takir, we’re playing the Rigel Hammers.

        And the money starts rolling in, Jason added.

        We might make back what we paid for the team in about ten years, Jyslin laughed.

        We will, that makes it a good investment, if you’re looking long term, Jason nodded.

        This seems completely unfair to me, Jyslin mused, looking down at them with a finger on her chin.  I see the problem.

        What? Zora asked.

        I’m the one standing here while you’re the one getting pawed, she replied with a sly smile.  Up, that’s my husband you’re sitting on.

        Push off, bitch, you get to sleep with him almost every night.  I don’t get pawed by him half as much as I’d like, she protested, reaching back over her head and running her fingers through his hair.  Are you and Jason going to the first game on Jerama?

        If I can get Aya to let me go, Jason answered.

        So whipped, Zora teased.

        I don’t see you walking around off the strip without your armor either, bitch, Jason retorted, which made her laugh.

        Temika wandered into view with her two kids, Latoiya and Jack Junior, who joined Jason’s kids and Shya in the packed sand where the waves were lapping the beach.  Temika had been worn down by the others to the point where she would now go nude on the beach, but she still wouldn’t dally with other men and wouldn’t let Mike dally with any other woman, so in that respect she held very firmly to her Terran views.  That fact was a bitter pill for a few men who lived around the strip, particularly Eraen, who had a huge crush on Temika.  He thought she was one of the most beautiful women he’d ever seen…and that was a pretty fair opinion.  Temika was a very beautiful woman, her mixed heritage combining in her face and body in the most pleasing manner.  Even her thick, frizzy hair was exotically beautiful, and since it was black, Faey men naturally went crazy over it.  Hey Mika, Jyslin sent warmly.  Where have you been the last few days?

        It’s really busy in the office right now, she answered, shrugging her shoulders and causing her generous breasts to bounce a little.  Every girl on the strip secretly envied Temika because of those breasts, which Jyslin often remarked were entirely too perfect.  It wasn’t their size that Jyslin envied, it was their shape.  Men admired their size, but Faey women admired their ideal curves that complemented Temika’s muscular, athletic frame to utter perfection.  And Mike’s been just as busy at work, so we’ve been real tired when we get home here lately.

        Kumi back home yet?

        Nah, she and Yila are at the office, she replied with an audible chuckle, then she altered her sending so only the three of them could hear her.  They’re molesting Jalen, Kumi’s secretary.  Kumi does it all the time, but she’s giving Yila a turn with him.  Sometimes I wonder how that girl gets any work done.  And how Jalen walks at the end of every day.

        The only thing that she loves more than sex is making money, and when she’s having sex in her office, she gets to do both, Jason noted, which made all three women laugh.

        The only reason she hired him was what he could do for her when she closes the office door, Temika nearly accused.

        Kumi probably doesn’t bother to close her door, Jason noted, which made Temika laugh in a slightly embarrassed way.

        That’s the truth.  She’s both an exhibitionist and a slut.

        You send that word like it’s a bad thing, Zora teased lightly.

        The whole lot of you Faey bitches are nothing but sluts, she accused with a smile.

        And proud of it! Zora retorted, which made Jason laugh.

        That’s the beauty of being the dominant gender in our society, Mika, we get to chase the boys to our hearts’ content, Jyslin sent with a grin.  Now we just have to finish converting you to the dark side.  We’ve got you halfway there.  We’ll unleash your inner slut, you mark my words.

        Like hell you will, Temika replied with another audible laugh.

        About two hours later, spent with good company on the beach, Dara arrived from Tamiri and Yila joined them for dinner.  Aura had already called to warn that she was running a little late, so they started without her.  They ate in the dining room, and Dara was a tiny bit irked that Zachary wasn’t there.  He was eating dinner at home with Ilia.  Yila complained about Jyslin’s new D league team for a good ten minutes before she finally let it go, just in time for Aura to come in, wearing an Exile short robe.  She looked very happy.  I’m so sorry I’m late, she apologized as she took a seat and accepted a glass of wine with a nod from Surin.

        It happens, Jyslin smiled in reply.  So, what’s got you so happy, Aura?

        She smiled beatifically.  I guess I can tell you, she answered.  I’m pregnant.

        That’s fantastic! Jyslin almost jumped out of her chair answering.

        Congratulations, Aura, Yila added while Jason gave Aura a surprised look.

        I know, it was completely unexpected, she said, giving him a demure smile.  I certainly wasn’t trying.  I realized I missed my period today, and I went to the local clinic to get tested.  I’m carrying twins, two boys.  That was very rare in Faey biology.  Identical twins weren’t as uncommon among Faey as they were among Terrans, some 10% of all births, due to a quirk in Faey biology that caused the initial cell division in a female fertilized egg to completely separate, forming identical twins.  Male eggs, on the other hand, were much less apt to completely separate, which caused a large disparity between female twins and male twins.  The only thing rarer was fraternal twins, because Faey women virtually never released two eggs during a cycle.  That made Raisha and Miyai exceptionally rare, and even more so in that they had different fathers.  That was almost one in a million.

        So, is Jason the father?

        He has to be, he’s the only man I’ve slept with for the last month, she replied.  I haven’t had medical confirmation, they didn’t do that, but it really couldn’t be anyone else.

        And two more closer to the goal! Jyslin laughed brightly, then she opened her sending to nearly maximum power…and that was some impressive power. Everyone, Aura is pregnant, and Jason’s the father.  Twin boys! she announced, honest elation laced through her thought.  Aura blushed a little as the response came back, people she didn’t even know congratulating her via sending.

        I hope you’re happy, Jason, she sent privately.

        That’s a really silly question, Aura, he replied.  Of course I’m happy!  We’ll just have to have a talk about it after dinner.  There are some things that’ll change now, but not too many.

        That’s fine.  Obviously, the first discussion will be about names.

        I name one, you name one, he replied with a gentle smile.

        That sounds completely fair to me.

        Jyslin acted almost silly during and after dinner, on the edge of embarrassing Aura with her exuberance, but she and the others gave Jason and Aura space when they sat out on the pool deck and discussed the pregnancy, and how her carrying his children was going to change her life a little bit.  She would still have her job and very little would change concerning her position in his life as a friend and mistress—not uncommon in Faey society.  Aya did involve herself, coming out to warn Aura that she was now part of the Dukal family by virtue of the fact that she was carrying Jason’s sons, but mainly it was just him and her sitting on one of the benches on the side of the pool, holding hands as they discussed the change in both of their lives, and Aura’s quiet joy that she was pregnant again.  After losing her own child and her husband to a pestilence that struck the Exiled years before they rejoined the house, she was overjoyed that she had a chance to at least partially refill that hole in her heart, to have two more children to love and nurture.  Nothing could entirely replace her lost child, but having children with a man she admired deeply and considered a deep, true friend did much for her.  As for Jason, he couldn’t be happier that Aura was pregnant, that he wasn’t just having one more child, but two.  It didn’t change her position in his life any more than it did the girls in the squad after they bore his other children, but it did make him feel closer to her through their shared blessing.

        The main thing is that you’re completely sealed to the house, and to me, hon, Jason warned.  You can never go back to Exile, at least not with our children.  They have to stay here.  They’ll be in far too much danger as Generations anywhere but on Karis.

        I don’t want to move back to Exile, Jason.  I enjoy living on Karis and I like my job, and I have you to keep me content until I find a husband, so I have a very good life here.   I’ll be training on the KS-27 passenger carrier starting next takir, she announced proudly.  What is there for me back on Exile?  Doing almost nothing back in my old home?  Flying a Stick for the farm on the mainland?  I can do that here if I wanted to.

        Good, but it’s only fair that you understand that you’re stuck with me now, woman, he smiled, which made her laugh aloud.

        That sits fine with me, you silly man, she replied. 

        Now, as for my name, I think I’ll name one of them Kevin, Jason sent, a hand on her cheek and his forehead against hers.  It’s always been one of my favorite Terran names.

        Then I’ll name the other Kaelan, which was one of the most famous and respected philosophers of the house, Aura replied.  Do you like it?

        I think it’s a fine name, he answered, then he gave her a tender kiss.  But don’t think this news of yours is keeping you out of the pool house tonight.

        She laughed abruptly, then pulled back enough to give him a darling smile.  That thought never crossed my mind, silly, she replied.  What better way to celebrate my blessing than in the arms of the man who gave it to me?

        Then let’s get right to that celebrating, he declared, which made her smile in anticipation as he stood up and then pulled her up by her hand.  We’ll talk more about it tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Chapter 2

 

        Kaira, 31 Demaa, 4401 Orthodox Calendar

        Wednesday, 23 June 2014, Terran Standard Calendar

        Kaira, 31 Demaa, 4401, year 1327 of the 97th Generation, Karinne Historical Reference Calendar

        Foxwood East, Karsa, Karis

 

        It was almost an eerie parallel to his own youth…just with what he would have considered a fantastical spin when he was that age.

        Jason wasn’t surprised very much that it was Zachary that was expressing an interest in sports before any of his other children.  In many ways, his raven-haired son was most like he’d been when he was a kid, for he was sober and reserved even as a young child, mainly due to the fact that they’d moved around so much.  Life on a military base was very different than civilian life, even for the families of the military servicemen.  Everyone was from a different place, people came and went regularly, and it was hard to form friendships when everyone knew that odds were someone would be gone in six months.  Sports were huge for military brats on bases, giving a sense of continuity, something that didn’t change even where everything else might, the game being the same whether it was being played in Korea, Japan, Germany, or Alaska.  Jason had played a lot of baseball and football on base, had played soccer off base with his friends when he was older, and his father had gotten him started on sports when he was five years old.  He’d played his first tee ball game the day after his 6th birthday, six being the minimum age for tee ball in the base league.  He’d play catch with his father when he was back from his sorties, then go inside to practice piano while his mother made dinner.

        It was a warm and glorious afternoon on the beach.  Jason had blown off work after 48 new reports landed in his in-box after lunch, making him just bail from everything to take the rest of the day off…which he spent reading Miaari’s final intelligence reports with his back against his tree in the back yard.  The Parri shaman was right in how it made him feel when he was out there with it.  The tree had a palpable effect on him, calming him down, relaxing him, making him feel…happy.  It was his tree, after all, there to see to his needs according to the shaman, and all it asked in return was a little love and attention.  He’d also asked it not to grow so big, maybe a little self-consciously, but there were no indications yet that the tree was listening.  It already completely covered his, Myleena’s, and Tim’s houses with its canopy and covered half of the barracks, Maya’s, and Yana’s houses, providing almost constant dappled shade that was actually quite pleasant.  The canopy of the tree was very wide, but not very thick, allowing sunshine to slip through the many small gaps between the golden leaves.  He’d gotten through most of the first report, about Consortium activity and future plans revolving around the colonization force, when the kids all got home from the strip.  He’d given up on the report to hang out with his kids and some of the other kids on the strip, spending some actual time just relaxing and having fun.

        Kids were very good at it, and good for it, and he was so lucky to be blessed with the kids he had, and more to come.

        They were developing much as he’d expected when they were younger, watching their personalities emerge.  Aran was definitely going to be a scientist, he was extremely smart, and here lately he’d started expressing interest in learning.  That had been his problem before, a lack of desire or motivation, but that was understandable in such a young child.  He had more important things to do than wonder what if.  Sora was just getting more and more beautiful, but she was also demonstrating her own intelligence.  She was smarter than she looked, smarter than she acted, and it was starting to become apparent.  Kyri was still a little smug and overbearing, but that had toned down a little thank goodness.  But despite that, she was a very loving and affectionate girl, and she did love her brothers and sisters even if she did tease them more than a little than she should.  And Zachary was turning into quite the calm and confident little man, Ilia’s teachings deeply ingrained into him.  He was also the most athletic of the children—as long as riding hoverboards and such didn’t count—which just might be why he liked Dara so much.  Both of them had some shared interests.  Zachary loved baseball, football, soccer, bachi, and had started watching shiziki now that it was being played on planet.  He may not understand all the rules of the games, but he liked to watch them.

        And that led to this, Zachary’s first milestone of growing up, playing catch with his Dad.  They were out on the beach as Jason taught Zachary how to throw a baseball, and after several initial clumsy attempts, Zachary resorted to his power, picked up the ball from the sand, and hurled it at Jason with surprising force.  Zachary’s telekinetic abilities were slightly stronger than Kyri’s, the strongest of the three kids that had expressed them so far.  Jason had to laugh as he caught the ball, giving Zachary an amused look.  [Stop cheating, little man.  You won’t learn how to throw it if you’re using your talent.]

        [But it’s easier.]

        [You can’t do everything with your talent, silly.  And if you ever want to play real baseball, you’d better learn how to play by their rules.  TK isn’t allowed to be used in a baseball game.  It’s cheating.]

        That was a real rule, instituted into Major League Baseball last year when those two Faey women had managed to get onto the teams.  Since some Faey were telekinetic, and there were some, not many but some, who had enough telekinetic strength to affect the trajectory of the ball, they put that rule in to make sure a secret TK wasn’t cheating using her power.  They also had strict anti-telepathy rules, in almost every major sport on Terra, and they employed Imperial listeners at rather stiff fees to be there on the field to make sure nobody was using their talent to get the upper hand.  That had been a big scandal in the NFL, when the New York Jets secretly hired Faey “fans” to eavesdrop on the surface thoughts of opposing coaches and warn the Jets coaches what they intended to do.  The commissioner threw the book at the Jets, suspending the entire coaching staff for two years and imposing a massive fine on the owner.  No Terran sport allowed its athletes to communicate telepathically, to preserve the purity of the game as it was originally envisioned.  The IBL also employed listeners, but mainly to make sure the bachi players didn’t attack each other with talent.  That was a white flag offense, which was like a red card in soccer or an ejection in most other sports.  Bachi players were allowed to communicate with one another and their coaches using talent, but they weren’t allowed to use it against their opponents.

        After nearly an hour of Zachary learning how to throw with his arm, Jason did play some TK catch with him, letting him practice in a structured environment…and that was how it was so much different from his own childhood.  If he’d been using his mind to toss a baseball around with his dad back when he was a kid, he’d wake up from the dream not long after that.  [You’re getting pretty good at this, pips,] Jason complemented as he caused the baseball to orbit his body several times, maybe a little gaudily, then lobbed it back at his son.  Zachary caught it with his power and did the same thing, causing the ball to circle around him a few times without slowing down before he sent it back.

        [Mommy makes me practice an hour a day,] he answered.  [On top of the practice I get with Miss Ayuma after lunch at school every day.]

        [Well, it’s certainly paying off,] he communed with approval shivering through his thought.

        [Throwing a baseball was harder than I thought it’d be.  I thought it’d be as easy as tossing a ball with a bachi stick like me and Dara do.]

        [That’s an entirely different set of mechanics,] Jason chuckled.  [The bachi stick does most of the work.]

        [Hey, can anyone get in on this game or what?] Myleena asked as she bounced down the stairs and onto the beach.  She was wearing a pair of workout shorts and a haltar, and unlike Jyslin, her pregnancy had yet to start showing.

        [Hey Myli, nice to see you actually took a break from work,] Jason smiled.

        She laughed aloud.  [I’m playing hooky, same as you are,] she replied with a wink.  [Just got back from the annex for a scheduled exam.  My pregnancy is right on schedule, everything’s just fine.  I go back in two takirs for the next one. I think I’ll start showing by then,] she predicted, patting her flat blue belly lightly.  [Yana home yet?]

        Jason glanced out to sea when he saw a flash of light, then realized it was a boat far off shore reflecting sunlight.  [She’s still at work,] he answered.

        [Okay.  I need to catch her as soon as she gets home, we have some things to talk about.]

        [Like?] he asked as Zachary lobbed the ball in Myleena’s direction when she reached them.  She held out her hand and caused it to slow to a stop directly over it, smiled, then launched it at Jason with some speed by pushing her hand forward.

        [Like all the special things she had to do when she was carrying Kyri, since Kyri was expressed in the womb,] she answered.

        [You’ve been sensing something already?] he asked in surprise.

        [Not yet, but I don’t have any doubt that I will,] she replied with a slightly smug smile as she put a very gentle hand on her stomach, almost unconsciously.  [I’m way stronger than Yana, and Kyri’s a good example of what we should expect from Siyara.  Just stronger,] she communed victoriously.

        [So competitive,] he accused, then he chuckled ruefully as he sent the ball to Zachary.

        [You’re pretty good at this, Zach,] Myleena communed approvingly as he sent the ball to her.

        [Thanks, Aunt Myleena.  Mommy makes sure I practice it.]

        [Any movement on the Danelle front?] Jason asked.

        She’s still trying, but no luck yet, Myleena switched to sending, glancing over at Zora and Min as they came down onto the beach with their kids.  Sora and Zara were best friends among the kids on the strip   Hey guys.

        Hey.  Jason, can I talk to you a minute? Zora asked, her sending sober.

        Sure thing, Zora.  Min, take over for me, just watch out.  Myli cheats.

        I do not! she protested.

        Zora took his hand and walked with him towards Dahnai’s guest house on the edge of the strip.  I may need your help with something.

        What?

        Oren, she sent with disgust.  Oren…he was proof that it was technically correct to say that Faey almost never divorced.  Oren was Zora’s husband, who lived on Draconis with their son, and the two of them had something of a volatile relationship.  They were proof that even a telepathic pair bond could decay over time if not renewed, for that was almost exactly what happened to them.  They married just after Zora began her conscription, but after they’d had their son, mainly a marriage of convenience to give Oren and her son Tenn access to Marine services.  When Zora entered the house and moved to Karis, Oren had refused to come, wanting to stay in his very good job on Draconis.  Zora had acquiesced and continued to help support Tenn by sending him to the best schools—Tenn was exceptionally intelligent and showed promise—but the time and distance between Zora and Oren had decayed their relationship.  They still liked each other, and could probably repair their relationship if they compromised a little, but the simple fact that Zora was dedicated to the house and Oren was dedicated to his career as a young executive at 2M had caused them to drift apart.  Oren was a nice fellow, smart and friendly, but he was devoted to his promising career.  To hear Zora send his name with abject disgust laced through it meant that things had gone south in a hurry.

        What happened?

        He’s finally asked to conclude the marriage, she replied, squeezing his hand a little.  In Faey society, that was a divorce.

        He still won’t budge?

        Not a tikra, she frowned.  He just can’t get it through his head that he’d have a much better career if he just moved here.

        That’s not much of a surprise.  The Kimdori kept an eye on Oren since she was connected to Zora, and that fit everything he already knew.  Oren was a minor executive in their accounting division, and he had aspirations to finish his career on the board.  While it was a good thing to have a goal and have some loyalty to one’s job and employer, Oren had repeatedly turned down offers by Jason himself to bring him over to Karinne Spatial Technologies, the Karinne house-owned corporation that built all their engines and spatial devices.  Kimdori had touched him to find out why, and it was because he had an irrational prejudice against the Karinnes.  He was fanatically loyal to the concepts of the Imperium, and had seen them as a renegade house with which he would not associate.  Now that they’d split from the Imperium, Jason had a feeling that Oren didn’t even want to be married to a woman he felt was a traitor to his Empress.  Zora didn’t know that Jason knew that much about her personal life, and he wasn’t about to tell her.  That was her private business, and while it had the potential to affect the security of the house, he could be discreet about what he did know.  What about Tenn?

        That’s where I might need your help.  I’ll give in on concluding the marriage, but Oren wants to sever all my rights to Tenn’s welfare.

        Good luck with that, you’re the woman, Jason sent soberly.  Women had a major advantage in the very rare custody cases that came up.  A child was considered the woman’s child in all legal matters, where fathers had very few rights.

        Yes, but Tenn’s been living with his father at least on paper for the last five years.  Dracora Polytechnical is only about 20 kathra from Oren’s apartment, and he stays with his father on weekends.

        What does Tenn want to do?

        Exactly what he’s been doing, she answered.  He wants to finish at DPA and then get into the Imperial Primary Institute.  He’s got the scores, and he knows you can get him the recommendation.

        Easily, he nodded.  The Imperial Primary Institute was one of the most elite primary schools in the Imperium, where being a noble wasn’t enough to get a student in.  Like the Xerian Telepathic Academy, it was ability that got one into the IPI, but it did take at least a couple of connections.  Since the school was so elite, competition to get in was fierce, and candidates who had the academic scores and passed the entrance interview often needed a recommendation from someone with political connections with the Imperial government.

        I’ll talk to Dahnai about it the next time I have her on a private comm, he promised.  I’ll also tell her that you’re alright with the conclusion, but Oren’s not cutting you out.  So, are you really okay with the conclusion?

        I’ll get over it, she replied, giving him a wan smile.  We haven’t seen each other face to face in five years, Jason.  I guess it’s time for me to stop hoping he’ll come home and move on.

        People sometimes drift apart, Zora, and there’s nobody to blame.  It does just happen sometimes, he told her compassionately.  Especially in long distance relationships.

        I know.  Ever since I moved here, he’s just gotten more and more distant.  At first he hated the fact that I couldn’t really tell him much, you know, house secrecy.  Then when you started offering him jobs, he got really defensive about staying on Draconis.  The last few months, he’s been actively hostile to me when we talk, and now he drops this on me.

        Well, look at it this way, hon.  Your life won’t change much after the marriage is concluded, he told her.  And I’ll make sure Tenn has what he needs to fulfill his dream.  It’s Oren that’s the one that’s missing out.  Not you, not Tenn.  Just him.  If he wants to be that way, then so be it.  Not everyone has what it takes to live on Karis, Zora.  You do, but this more or less proves that Oren doesn’t.

        She gave him a grateful look.  Thanks, babes.  You’re always so good to us.

        You’re one of my best friends and the mother of my daughter, Zora.  Of course I’m gonna be good to you, he told her, then he leaned over and kissed her on the cheek before the turned around and started back.  Now, it’s going to be a thousand credits an hour, that’s my basic fee for fixing a friend’s problems, he sent urbanely, which made her snap a surprised look at him.  Then there’s travel expenses, meals, bribes, he added, ticking off his fingers as she began to laugh.

        Dream on, you silly man you, she grinned.  You start charging me for that, I’ll start charging you for the food you eat when you come over to my house.

        Don’t get into a charging war with me, woman.  I have an accounting department.

        She laughed brightly.

        He squeezed her hand again.  And the last thing you’re doing tonight is moping around the strip.  I’ll come over and babysit Sora tonight, and you go track down a few friends and go out tonight.  Go to bars, go to clubs, get totally smashed, do things you’d never do sober, and wake up in some dark alley tomorrow morning with no idea how you got there or why you’re naked.

        She burst out into uncontrollable laughter, then gave him a bright smile.  You know what, babes?  That’s a damn good idea, she agreed, then she turned her head.  Hey Min, you busy tonight?

        Not particularly.

        Cool.  Go round up the girls, we’re all going out tonight and getting very, very drunk.

        Now that sounds like a good way to spend the evening, she replied impishly.

        Zora and Min hurried off as soon as they got back to the kids, leaving Sora and Zara with Jason.  They got tired of watching Zachary play catch and dragged him off to go swimming, leaving him and Myleena to sit on some loungers and keep a passive eye on them.  [What was that all about?]

        [Personal business for Zora.  Forgive me if I don’t go into it.]

        [Enough said.  Now that you’re in more of a working mood, I do have some info to pass along.]

        [Shoot.]

        [I’ve got word from my old contacts back in Black Ops that the Imperial R&D department has almost reverse engineered Consortium engines,] she told him.  Since those engines were Consortium technology, Jason hadn’t throttled releasing that data to the Academy.  [They’ve already developed an augmentation to their power plants to power the engines enough to remove the relativity delay.  Consortium striated isn’t much stronger than current Imperium metaphased power plants.]

        [They figured it out faster than I expected,] he answered with a grunt, rubbing his chin with his finger as he thought.  [If they break the relativity barrier so much faster than anyone else, it might upset the balance of power in the Confederation.]

        [I’ll leave the political shit to you, Jayce. Griza told me that they’re about two takirs from testing a prototype engine and power upgrade that’ll let them jump in real time.]

        He leaned back, his mind working through what that would mean.  With the Imperium able to jump in real time, it would give them a major advantage in exploration and annexation over in the P quadrant.  It would also make the Imperium a viable threat to the most distant empires in the sector cluster…which might actually motivate some of them to join the Confederation.  But the main issue was going to be exploration.  If the Imperium could jump their scout ships in real time, they’d be able to beat everyone else when it came to exploring the tracts of space around their holdings in the P quadrant.

        The Imperium wasn’t the only one trying to reverse engineer Consortium technology to break the relativity barrier.  Every empire in the Confederation was doing the same thing, and in the case of the Shio and the Colonists, they were engaged in a cooperative effort, their scientists joined together and the two governments sharing the expense of research to give the two smaller empires the same resources as the larger ones.  Jason had estimated that it would take another year for any of them to manage to do it, but the Faey scientists over at R&D had exceeded his expectations.  Then again, Faey technology was the most closely related to Consortium technology, so it wasn’t too much of a shock that they’d managed to do it.

        An Imperium armed with warships that could jump in real time would definitely do one thing…make interdictors very popular, and perhaps even motivate the other empires into accepting Jason’s Stargate proposal.  Jumping in real time would do the Imperium no good as a means to execute a surprise attack if every populated system in the sector cluster was interdicted.

        From a purely military perspective, Jason figured that he might have to put a hand in.  The war with the Consortium had been primarily defensive, where they hadn’t needed ships that jump in real time, but the upcoming conflict with the Syndicate would be offensive, taking place away from their territory.  Maybe…maybe it was time for the Karinnes to help the other empires along in their research.  After all, other empires being able to jump in real time was no real threat to the Karinnes, even more so since Consortium technology was unable to overcome the interdictors to jump in.  Unless the Karinnes wanted to tow everyone else’s ships everywhere, they might have to start thinking of helping the others develop the engines.

        At least up to a point.  He could let them do it on their own for about two years, but at that point, he might have to surreptitiously give them some help to finish so they’d have time to refit their ships with the new engines.  The Karinnes had to move subtly in this new order, where it couldn’t appear that they were showing any favoritism, but Jason also had to keep the peace between the empires in the Confederation and beyond.  He was now playing the same game as the Kimdori, doing what he could to mitigate the aggressive tendencies of the various empires in the sector cluster, to create a lasting peace that would stretch well into the time when the Consortium and the Syndicate were just footnotes in the galactic history book.

        He wasn’t the only one doing that, thank God.  The Colonies were part of the Confederation, but they were very much a moderating influence on the more expansionistic members, like Dahnai and Assaba.  The Grand Master and Magran were a voice of peace among the rulers, always advocating the most non-violent path possible…but also knowing when the mantle of peace had to be laid down and an iso-neutron rifle picked up.  And Jason was hopeful that Kreel would bring the same voice to the council, since the Grimja were of a similar mindset.  They weren’t aggressive or expansionistic, but they also weren’t afraid to fight when the need was there.

        [I’ll have to talk to Zaa about that,] he communed.  [We’ll have to handle that carefully.]

        [Like I said, I’ll leave the political shit to you, Jayce,] she told him with a sly smile.

        [I should make you sit in my chair for a few days,] he threatened.

        [Good luck with that,] she communed with an audible laugh.  [You’re even busier than I am now.]

        [Yeah, and I’ll have to do something about it.  It’s literally become too much work for me to do alone,] he admitted.  [I might actually cry when I see my inbox in the morning, given I blew off the entire afternoon to study those final reports Miaari gave me.]

        [Anything important in them?]

        [Not from your perspective.  It’s mostly that political shit you want to avoid,] he teased.  [She said she sent you the technology report.]

        [Yeah, she’s pretty good for a desk jockey when it comes to analyzing how the change in the technology curve will affect the sector cluster,] she told him.  [And if the Kimdori are right about Syndicate technology, it looks good for us.]

        [Only if we can build enough ships to take away their overwhelming fleet size advantage, and in both ways.  Size and numbers,] he noted.  [That reminds me, I need to check on the latest Gladiator results.]

        [I got ‘em just before I left work, they look good.  They finished the refit to accommodate a jacked rigger, so now it’ll just be installed with the next scheduled maintenance on the rotation.  You planning ahead?]

        [You saw the results for those jacked rigger tests,] he nodded.  [I can see what’s coming.  Jacked riggers and fighter pilots are going to become standard in the KMS.  It’s only a small step below a merge.  And it’ll go even beyond that.  When the house members see just what a jack can do, I can see a whole lot of them having it implanted just for the convenience of it.]

        [I wonder if Kyva will do it.]

        [The instant she’s sure the jack won’t damage her talent, yes,] he predicted.  [If it makes her a better rigger, she’ll do it in a heartbeat.]

        [That’s true,] Myleena agreed with a nod.

        [I could see it on her face when she got out of her rig after going against those jacked riggers.  She didn’t expect them to give her that much trouble.]

        [They barely lasted ten seconds.]

        [Which is about five seconds longer than any other rigger not in the KBB or the Red Warriors has lasted against her in a wargame,] Jason communed, pride for Kyva bleeding into his thought.  [She could see how it helped those riggers, taking away that tiny delay between seeing and acting.  When it comes to rigger combat, it’s like fighter combat.  Life and death can be measured in how many milliseconds it took the pilot to react.  Faster is faster, and in that world, speed is life.]

        [Yeah, I know.  I’ve had my combat training, Jayce, and I’ve seen real action,] she grinned.  [If you don’t recall, I was leading that combat team that pulled your ass out of Scotland.]

        [You’re right, I don’t remember.]

        [Oh yeah,] she mused mentally.  [Songa said that wasn’t unusual, to suffer memory loss of events before and after a traumatic brain injury.  Guess we can blame that head injury on you being such a dinkus now,] she winked.

        [I pay your salary, woman,] he warned, which made her laugh.

        [Jason,] Songa’s voice called over the biogenic network.  [Jason, are you there?]

        [I’m here, what’s going on, Songa?] he replied, casting his thought into the network.  For her to be using that, it had to be important.  Songa, like other high-ranking members of the house, had a biogenic relay in their comm that would let them use the network to get in touch with him.  Hers was installed in her office vidlink, telling him that she was at the annex.

        [Commander Taggart is awake and responsive, and we’re running the initial tests now.  You wanted me to tell you.]

        [Outstanding.  I’ll be right over, I want to see him.]  Aya, get someone to the dock, I’m going to the Medical Annex.  And the kids are going to need someone to watch them, they’re swimming.  Captain Bori, warm up the corvette.

        At once, your Grace, Captain Bori answered.

        [Wanna come?] he asked Myleena.

        [Nah, I’ll just read the report,] she replied.  [Besides, I wanna be here when Danelle gets home.  I wanna surprise her.]

        [She shouldn’t be much longer, Maya has her and they’re in town shopping.]

        [I know, so go ahead and go.  Say hi to Songa for me.]

        After getting his armor on, he met Aya and Shen at the dock, and they boarded the Marine corvette Eluri for the five minute trip over to the Medical Annex.  They always landed on the roof of the building, and the size of the corvette required a pilot with some actual skill, since there was virtually no extra room up there.  Karinne translation engines made that fairly easy, and the corvette’s pilot proved to be up to the challenge, disembarking the Grand Duke and his two guards with the corvette’s skids right on the corvette landing lines at the very edges of the platform, then taking off to hover just above and to the east of the building to clear the platform in case an emergency medical dropship had to land.  Songa met him at the elevator, carrying a handpanel and wearing her medical coat, which was a pleasing shade of blue.  “How is he?”

        “Complaining already,” she replied with a gentle smile as they entered the elevator, which was big enough to hold two patient gurneys side by side.  The roof was often used for emergency patient reception.  “They’ve finished the jack viability test, and the jack is fully operational.  They’re giving him the Baelin-Anarin test now.”  The Baelin-Anarin test, named for its creators, was a test that measured basic telepathic power.  It was administered by a psyologist, a Faey doctor that specialized in neurology as it pertained to telepathic and psionic power. Psyologists were medical doctors who studied telepathy the way other scientists studied geology, or biology, or any other major scientific field, studying the mechanics of psychic powers and the beings that possessed them.

        Songa led them to a private hospital room with bright colors and a large window, on one of the upper floors of the annex.  Commander Justin Taggart was propped up on a comfortable bed, his eyes closed and being attended by a middle-aged Faey man wearing the pattern blue medical coat.  The Faey man had reddish-gold hair with a streak of blue in it over his left ear, premature graying for a Faey.  The man was fairly handsome, and he had his hand on the side of Justin’s face.  Justin had a cloth cap over his head, which was shaved, and the shiny metal rim of the cyberjack was prominent behind his left ear, anchored to the bone and about halfway between the bottom and top edges of Justin’s ear.  Justin’s interface would fit over that jack, would plug into it actually, the interface serving as the primary control computer where a tiny computer inside the jack itself would serve as the basic input/output controller.  Justin’s right arm was in a sling, since it was effectively paralyzed by his brain damage, and his right leg was covered over by a blanket.  In the corner was a hoverchair for Justin to use, since his right leg was also paralyzed.  They were quiet as the doctor conducted his examination, which took about five more minutes.  The Faey man opened his eyes, which were a red color not far from Myleena’s, and smiled  “I’m finished, Commander, you can lean back,” he said.

        “What’s the prognosis, doctor?” Songa asked.

        “He has lost no telepathic power at all, Commander,” he replied with a smile.  “And I can find no trace that his subconscious defenses have weakened in any way.  It’s my opinion that the jack did no harm to his talent.”

        “I’d like a formal report as soon as you can write it,” Songa said.  “Along with your data.”

        “I have my data compiled already, doctor, so I’ll have the report ready for you in a couple of hours.”

        “That’s a relief,” Justin said with a sigh, flopping his head back onto the pillow.

        Jason chuckled and advanced over, leaning over the bed as the doctor on the other side stood up, then quietly left the room after a reassuring pat on Justin’s shoulder and smiled down at him.  “I think I’m going to put you in for a medal, Justin.  It took some bravery to volunteer for the jack implantation.”

        “I didn’t have all that much to lose, your Grace,” he replied with a slight smile.  “The operation is what’s going to really count.”

        “We’re on schedule for that, Justin,” Songa called.  “In four days, we’ll be ready to perform the operation.”

        “That will give you some time to get some jack assimilation training under your belt,” Jason told him.  “It does take some training to use that fancy body jewelry you have now.”

        Justin chuckled.  “I can feel it, like little fingers touching the edge of my mind,” he said, reaching up and touching the small rim of the jack.

        “That’s the controller chip in the jack initializing,” Songa told him as she came over.  “It’s conducting its handshake protocol with your mind, so it can build a basic map of your brain that it uploads to any interface that plugs to your jack, sort of like your mental fingerprint that computers plugged to your jack will need to know how best to talk to you.  That’s one of the main functions of the processor in the jack.  The sensation will pass when it finishes.”

        “Something like a gestalt imprinting,” Jason mused, looking at her.

        She nodded.  “Some of the computer to brain communication protocols we used for the jacks comes from the research the Karinnes conducted on gestalts.  The controller in the jack is adapting itself to Commander Taggart’s unique brain architecture, to maximize data transfer and interface ability, so it can communicate with the subject without causing confusion or sensory echoes.”

        “Won’t that change when the operation is over?” Justin asked.

        “Very perceptive, Justin.  Yes, it will, a little bit, and the jack will have to re-initialize once the damaged areas of your brain are repaired.  That’s why we’re going to turn it off and reset it before the tissue transplant operation. But what you learn in jack assimilation training before the operation won’t change.”

        “Huh.  Does it need batteries?”

        Jason chuckled.  “Actually, the jack’s processor chip runs off the bio-electricity your own body generates,” Jason answered.  “So no batteries.”

        “And I’ll be using this in my fighter?”

        “We’ve already refitted your fighter to run with a jack,” Jason told him.  “So most of what you see on your screens will be fed directly into your mind.  That’s where the jacks are different from interface control, Justin.  Interface is one way, from you to the fighter.  The jack allows two-way communication.”

        “That’ll give me an edge, your Grace,” he mused after a moment. “I’ll be able to react faster.”

        “We think it will, but we’re not mandating jack implantation for our pilots.  That’s too personal a decision for us to force it on them,” he said.

        “Anyone who does this job and takes it seriously will do it, your Grace,” he declared.  “An edge is an edge, and that might be what saves your ass out there in a dogfight.”

        “We’ll let the pilots make that decision.  Now, I think you need to rest a bit after coming out of that coma, so I’ll be back in a little while.  I know I do every time I come out of one.”

        “Then stop putting yourself in positions where we have to induce them,” Songa chided.

        “I’ve had that done to me three times.  Three,” he said, holding three fingers up at her.

        Up in Songa’s office, he did knock out a bit of work he had, which was talking with her about the upcoming trip to Kimdori Prime and the radiation protocols she’d generated for those going, both those who had resistance and those who didn’t.  Jason would have to decontaminate before they left Kosigi after coming back so he didn’t pose a hazard to others, and they’d have a lot of radiation they’d have to clean up from the ship that went there. Dellin would handle ship decontamination, he already had a dock ready for it, but the Medical Service would be the ones to handle decontamination and post-visit physicals for everyone who went to make sure they were healthy.  Visiting a place like Kimdori Prime was not as simple as jumping over, having tea, and jumping back.  The deadly radiation in the system required extensive preparations before the trip and procedures to follow afterward.

        He visited with Justin again for about an hour, then he headed home.  The kids were all engaged in other activities, and he had a meeting of the Confederate Council in about an hour anyway, so he gritted his teeth and worked through his inbox in the time he had, mainly just picking through the 109 items sitting there waiting for him for the interesting ones.   Two of the interesting ones he went through, both from Red Horn Construction, and both concerned his life personally.  The first was the confirmation that the renovation of his house would begin literally the minute he got on the corvette to head to Kosigi for his trip to Kimdori Prime.  They promised they could get it done in five days, so he would leave the house as it was and come back to his larger three story house, which would add 4 bedrooms to accommodate his current and future children.  They would take off the roof, build a third floor, move his office, his bedroom, and Rann and Shya’s bedrooms to the third floor, then renovate the second floor.

        The second annoyed Dahnai a little bit, but that was her problem.  With her getting her new private island retreat on Karis, Jason decided that her house on the strip was just too prime of real estate to sit virtually unused.  Red Horn was going to pick up the entire house and move it to the island as a “pool house” of sorts, seating it on a new foundation, and the land up by the edge of the fence would be repurposed.  He would offer the land to Aura, since she was going to be the mother of two of his children—more like Aya all but demanded it—to put his children within the strip and inside the protection of the fence.  Aura didn’t know about it yet, he wanted to surprise her with it, and surprise her with the option to have her new house built to her specifications, so long as it fit on the parcel.  The pool and other amenities they’d built for Dahnai would still be there, but Aura wouldn’t have exclusive rights to some of it.  The huge pool they built for her would be made a communal pool, since not every girl on the strip had a pool, but the large garden behind the house would be Aura’s.  Dahnai was the kind that considered what was hers hers, and thus she was not happy when Jason told her about his intentions.  She seemed to forget that Jason never gave her that house to keep, but had it built for her to use.  The land and the house were still his.

        He was about to call Aura when he received an incoming message.  Meya’s lovely face appeared on a holo in front of his desk.  She was sitting in the command chair of a scout ship, probably the Scimitar, leaning back with her legs crossed demurely.  “Hey babe,” she said with a smile.  “We got some news.”

        “You have good timing, I was about to call someone else.  What’s up?”

        “We’ve finished the initial installation at RG-118-3A,” she told him.  “We’ve got the modular buildings down and the perimeter shield up, and I’ve already gotten back the initial sensor sweeps.”

        “And?”

        “And this planet is like perfect,” she said seriously.  “Every scan we get back shows the same thing, almost everywhere.  Perfect climate, perfect soil chemical composition, perfect ecosystem, perfect atmospheric composition.  This planet will make Exile look like a fuckin’ barren rock once we get farms going,” she said with a slight smile.  “Is the colonizing convoy still on schedule?”

        “Last I heard,” he replied.  “How’s Myra’s side of it going?”

        “Slower, since her team has to do more detailed sensor scans of the ore deposits,” she replied.  “She’ll probably have the initial results finished in five or six hours.  But I know she’s got her advance outpost up and running.  She’s probably waiting to check in until she has sensor logs to upload.  Want me to go ahead and check planet two?”

        “Yeah, and since Myra’s slow and lazy, she gets to run the orbital sweeps of the outer planets.  You can get planet one after you finish at planet two.”

        She grinned.  “Sounds like a plan to me, babe,” she replied.  “How do you want me to handle the sentient race on planet two?”

        “Avoid all contact, and that means run your sensor sweeps at night over their territory so they don’t see the sensor dropships,” he replied.  “And put some surveillance on them so we can study them from a distance, mainly for the xeno-sociology department.”

        “Can do.  The passives we put on the Rakarri were a big help.”  The Rakarri were the canoid species native to QMC-202-2, which looked vaguely like bipedal coyotes.  They’d observed them from a distance using cameras before sending in a telepath who lifted their language from a lone traveler, and it was Meya herself who had done the initial contact.  She had met with the king of their largest nation, explained a few things to them, then offered to period-quality textiles and raw materials, like smelted iron, for their foodstuffs.  The king had taken almost two weeks to make a decision, and had agreed.  Rakarri vegetables were still being analyzed by the agriculture department to determine the ecological impact they may pose to the ecosystems of other planets, should they start growing wild outside of the farm areas, but the initial reports he’d gotten on them was that they were compatible with all species within the house, and were quite tasty for that matter.

        The Rakarri themselves were highly intriguing.  They were very much like the Terrans without being human, for they were creative, resourceful, highly curious, very social, but they weren’t unified.  They were still in their monarch age, for every organized nation on their planet was a monarchy, and there were some wars on their planet between kings that didn’t like each other.  But their culture and their history and their science demonstrated that they were extremely intelligent.  For one, Dahnai had been right that their arrival had been noticed by several hundred Rakarri astronomers who had telescopes powerful enough to see the Merrane ships in orbit around planet 3.  And many of them had correctly discerned that those ships were not natural, that they were built, that there was someone out there with such technological sophistication that they had built iron boats capable of moving through space.  They knew what space was, for that matter, and they had highly advanced mathematicians and physical scientists, clustered primarily in the largest kingdom on their planet.  Their society was just at the beginning of its industrial age, they were like Terra in the 1820’s, but they also had scientists that were conducting research into atomic theory.  Their physicists were closer to the Terran science of the 1930’s, they just hadn’t made the same technological advances that the Terrans had.

        The Rakarri were a race that Jason would like to see in the house, but he would adhere to the same rules he’d set for Dahnai.  He would leave them alone to develop on their own without interference, despite how much their natural intelligence would be an asset to the house.

        “Get it done, hon,” Jason told her.  “Just hold up at RG-118 after you and Myra finish until we have new orders for you.”

        “No problem, I’ll check out RG-119 and RG-120 while we’re here, do some sweeps.”

        “Long as you don’t wander too far, that’s fine,” he told her.

        “What’s the ETA on getting a Stargate over here?”

        “Soon as we get two built, that system has priority,” he replied.  “Maybe a month or so.  Until then, the advance force will just have to tough it out on planet.”

        “That’s why we pack party buildings,” she grinned.  “And we make sure we have enough hunky scientists to keep us happy til we can get back home.”

        “Think with the big brain, Meya,” he chided, which made her laugh.

        “Don’t talk to me about thinking with the big brain, you whore you,” she retorted.  “I heard you got another girl pregnant.  Grats, by the way.”

        “Thank you, and we weren’t exactly trying,” he replied.

        “So, what does that make it, fifty kids?”

        “Oh ha, ha, ha,” he drawled, which made her grin.  “And where is your contribution to the house, Meya?”

        “I’m too busy to raise a brat,” she replied lightly.  “And that’s what the kids on the strip are, a bunch of brats.”

        You are a brat,” Jason accused.

        “But I’m an entertaining brat,” she replied with a wink.  “Now to avoid you trying to get me pregnant, I’ll go get things moving.”

        “You’d spread your legs in a heartbeat, you hussy.”

        “For you, anytime,” she said as she blew him a kiss, then her hologram vanished.

        Jason had to chuckle a bit, then he went back to his report.

        The meeting of the council was actually fairly important, so Jason paid much more attention than usual.  Everyone was in attendance as Lorna went over the military deployment that would happen tomorrow, when the Confederation would conquer the Imxi.  Shakizarr and Kreel just listened, since they had no real part of it—they hadn’t fought the Imxi, they had no real claim on any of their systems—as Lorna laid out a detailed plan of sweeping through the Imxi empire in one fell swoop, conquering the entire empire in a single day due to the fact that the Imxi’s military had been decimated by the attack on Karis and they had no real means of fending off the Confederation. Gaining actual control of the planets would take weeks, months, but the initial military takeover would only take a single day.  The KMS and the Kimdori wouldn’t be participating in the attack, but they’d have ships at PR-371, mainly early staging for the attack on the nebula stronghold of the Consortium.

        “We should finish the military operation in 27 hours maximum,” Lorna told them as the holo map of the Imxi systems showed how it would look when they were done.  “The ships will jump from PR-371 on a schedule that will make all of them arrive at their destination systems at the same time, so we can carry out the initial attack to clear out their space-based defenses.  The primary focus of the operation will be the Imxi’s capitol, to capture their king alive and use mindbenders to dominate him, and force him to order an unconditional surrender.  However, in case the Imxi try to continue to resist, we will destroy all space-based defenses around every system and have sufficient ground forces with each fleet to take the inhabited planets if it becomes needful.  After that, each member empire takes over for ground occupation and assimilation of the local resources and population into their respective empires.  Interdiction won’t be in place due to the need to utilize Imxi ships and shuttles for their local population, but it won’t really be necessary in the short term.”

        “An efficient deployment,” Grran’s vocoder intoned, his fingers dancing in front of him.  “What of the nebula attack?  Is that operation on schedule?”

        “At this time, Field Marshall, yes,” she nodded.  “The ships the Verutan and Grimja empires have devoted to the operation are en route by normal hyperspace.  Since the operation won’t begin until our fleets are sufficiently repaired, they have time to reach the Entry Station by standard hyperspace.”

        “They’re jumping in short busts so they can come out of hyperspace every 51 standard hours and receive communications, in case those orders change,” Shakizarr relayed.  “If there’s a need for Karinne or Kimdori ships to go out and tow them to Terra in real time, they can hold position and wait for them to arrive.  If not, they should start arriving in 18 days.”

        “We’re doing the same thing, but on a 46 hour rotation,” Kreel added, leaning on his elbow on his desk in Grimjaka.  “Our fleet should start arriving at Terra in 21 days.”

        “We’re basing our deployment schedule on those fleet movements.  By then, we should have enough Confederate warships back in service for the operation against the Consortium,” Lorna finished.  “After the Consortium presence in our galaxy is wiped out, we can begin preparing for the Syndicate.”

        “That’s when things get interesting,” Dahnai mused.  She was wearing something almost scandalous for sitting in on the council, wearing only a dressing robe that was so loosely belted in front that most of her breasts were falling out of it.  Jason checked the time and saw that it was 27:50 in Dracora, so for her this was a very late-night meeting.  But she’d gotten more familiar with her fellow rulers, enough for her to feel comfortable wearing something like that in a council meeting.  After all, she’d paraded around topless in front of them on Jason’s deck at the end of the summit, so wearing a cleavage-revealing robe wasn’t much of stretch.  “Is everything on schedule in Kosigi?”

        “Yes, your Majesty,” Lorna replied.  “Admiral Dellin has already met the increased production schedules.  When the new docks and workers arrive, they’ll immediately go to work.”

        Zaa looked to the side, and a Kimdori’s arm reached into the hologram and gave her a handpanel.  She perused it, then one of her furry brows rose.  “I have some news to pass along,” she said.  “My children on Prakarika just sent word back that the King and Queen have decided to petition the Confederation for entry.”

        “Sooner than anticipated,” Magran mused.  “Any word from the Haumda?”

        “None as of yet.   High Archon Gau will thoroughly consider the matter before moving, Speaker.  That is the way of the Haumda.”

        “And it can be a good one some times,” Shakizarr said candidly.  “Though it works against them at other times.  They are often slow to react to events that move quickly.”

        “Well, we’d better consider the addition of the Prakarikai,” Dahnai said, a little sourly.

        “We don’t have to like them to need them, Empress,” Magran said sagely.  “And we will need them as much as they need us.”

        “I dunno, I kinda like how Queen Anavan goes ballistic every time I tell a joke during our meetings,” Kreel said with a malicious smile.  “But King Anivor is kinda cool.  I actually sorta like the little poppinjay.  I’ve actually seen him smile once or twice.”

        “Smiling is overrated,” Assaba said with a sober look, which caused Jason and Dahnai to splutter out a laugh.  Assaba did have a sense of humor, but it was very subtle.

        “What about the other empires in those sectors, Denmother?  Any word?” Vizzie asked.

        “All are actively considering,” she replied.  “And all are leaning towards it, as per my last reports from my children.  But no decisions have yet been made.”

        “We should extend invitations to their rulers to sit in on council meetings,” Vizzie offered.  “Even if they don’t join, they do need to know what’s going on. We should continue what we started with the summit.”

        “Some of it, yes, I agree,” Magran nodded.  “But they should not be privy to military or classified financial information that moves through this council.”

        “That goes without saying,” Vizzie said.

        They discussed the idea of it a while, but then the council meeting ended, and Jason lingered in his office, looking out over the beach.  Tim and Symone were home from work, lounging down on the beach, and Rann was with them, talking to Tim over something from the looks of it.  Shya and Danelle were with Myleena in the surf zone, playing in the water, and Aran was out with Maya and Vell.  He pondered going down there for a moment, but he had things to do now, and among them was call Aura.  He turned back to his desk and was about to call her again, but once again, he was interrupted.  The lovely green face of Ensign Mikano Strongblade appeared as a hologram over his desk, and he saw almost immediately that she was sitting at one of the comm stations in the command center.  In fact, she was in Shey’s usual seat.  “Mikano, what are you doing in the command center?”

        “They’re rotating us through the ground posts while our ships are under repair, your Grace,” she said, blushing a tiny bit.  “We had orders to contact you when there was important news.”

        “Well?”

        She flushed again.  “There was an incident on Exile.  A large band of natives attacked a robotic planter unit tilling new farmland.”

        Jason snapped a glance up.  “Any injuries?”

        “Just a few minor injuries among the natives from the planter itself,” she replied.  “Governor Kovann is going to attempt contact with the natives to negotiate a peaceful solution.”

        “That’s what I told him to do,” Jason grunted, leaning back.  What could have motivated the Gruug to attack the fence?  Thus far, the mainland Gruug hadn’t really even had any contact with their operations, since they stayed on the coast and their farming operations were inland.  He had the planetary observation system bring up a time-elapse graphic of Gruug movement over the last year, and he saw in that animation that they were moving both north and inland at a steady pace.  The Gruug weren’t a nomadic species normally, when they found a good place to live they put down roots, but two very large tribes of Gruug had been on the move for several months, settling in an area just for a couple of weeks and then moving on.

        He very nearly called Kovann to see what was going on, but he took a breath and leaned back in his chair, as Mikano looked on quietly.  No.  He’d told Kovann what to do, and he had to trust that he’d get it done.  He couldn’t micro-manage absolutely everything, it was why he had so much work as it was.

        “Alright, thanks, Mikano,” he said.  “I’ll keep an eye on things from here and we’ll see what happens.  Was there anything else?”

        “No, your Grace,” she replied.

        “Alright.  Have a good evening.”

        “You too, your Grace,” she said, then her hologram winked out.

        Though he wasn’t going to get involved, he did put a holo of the area up to the side of his desk, showing a Stick flying out to pick up the planter. It had a few scratches on its paint, but no real damage.  The Gruug had attacked it with stone clubs, and the injuries they sustained were probably from falling off after trying to climb it.  The unit was programmed to stop operation and shut itself off if anyone got too close to it, to prevent injury, and it had done its job.

        He blew out his breath and moved to call Aura again, and this time nobody interrupted him.  She was at home, appearing without wearing a shirt or bra, her lovely breasts exposed as she dried her hair.  “Hello, Jason,” she smiled.

        “Hey hon,” he replied.  “Nice shirt.”

        She laughed.  “I knew it was you calling, so why get dressed?” she winked.  “What’s going on?  Are you calling for a date?  I thought you were going out tonight with Zora.”

        “I still am, sort of, but I still needed to talk to you,” he replied.  “How would you like to move onto the strip?”

        “Me?  On the strip?” she asked, a slightly surprised look on her face.  “How?”

        “Dahnai’s getting her private island, so I’m taking her house on the strip,” he replied.  “She doesn’t need both.”

        She laughed.  “She’s going to smack you.”

        “She’s already made a couple of snide comments,” he drawled, which made her grin.  “I’m letting her keep the house itself, but the Makati are going to move it to her island and build a new house on the foundation.  And hon, I’d like that house to be your house, if you want it.”

        “What a silly thing to say!  Of course I’ll move there!” she replied immediately.  “I’ll miss this house, but this is a chance to live right on the beach.  Being just a few doors down from you, well, I guess that’s a benefit,” she said playfully, which made him laugh.

        “You just saved yourself a personal visit from Aya.  She’s the one that wants you here, so she can keep my children all under her eye.”

        “I’m not surprised, and I’m not complaining,” she smiled.

        “Alright, I’ll send you a vidlink number for Red Horn.  You talk to them about the house you want built, just remember that it has to fit on the original foundation,” he chuckled.

        “That’s far too big for me, even with our children coming,” she said with a cluck of her tongue.  “I’m not quite so extravagant.”

        “Which is just another reason why I like you so much,” he told her.

        She gave him a sweet smile.  “Alright, Jason dear.  Let me get dressed, and I’ll call Red Horn. Perhaps they can simply move this house to the strip,” she mused, looking around.  “I am quite fond of this house.”

        “Or they could build an exact duplicate,” Jason offered.

        That taken care of, Jason decided to work through some of the reports he’d put off, then gave up after a couple of hours, when Jyslin came home.  She sent her greeting as she always did when she was in range, some couple of minutes before her corvette landed off the beach, then she went straight up to the room as she told him about how the day’s work went with the team.  She ambled into his office a moment later wearing a Paladins tee shirt and a baseball cap of all things with the Paladins crest embroidered upon it, and nothing else.

        “Rowr,” Jason called, which made her grin impishly.

        I was halfway into getting ready to take a shower and realized it’s too lonely in there, she sent, holding her hands out to him.

        Since when can I say no to the loveliest woman on Karis?

        You’d better not say no, buster, she winked.

        So, Jason was pulled away from work and was actually pampered a tiny bit.  He sat on the stool in the shower area as Jyslin stood behind him washing his hair, and she continued telling him about practice, how their coaches were discussing which free agents to pursue with the front office staff, and how they had all settled in.  They’d passed Miaari’s screening with flying colors, and the team members currently on the roster had passed Miaari’s alternate screening.  They were handling the players a little differently, since they were more or less temporary.  They weren’t receiving the same scrutiny as people who joined the house, but Miaari was also going to keep all of the players under heavy surveillance while they lived on the planet.  If any of them were somehow convinced to try to steal Karinne technology, the Kimdori watching them would know.  Six of the players had already moved into the luxurious apartments Jason had arranged for them, but they wouldn’t be allowed to buy or be assigned a house.  They lived where the house told them to live, but they had little reason to complain, since they were getting ultra-luxury penthouse style apartments and they were rent-free.  The rest of the players already on the roster were scheduled to arrive over the next ten days, to move into their seasonal apartments.

        They should have the practice facility done before pre-season training camp, Jyslin told him as she rinsed his hair then massaged his shoulders.  We should have everything ready.

        So, how many free agents were you talking about going after?

        Several, she replied.  There’s some good talent available this year.  We’re going to focus on our defensive positions, since that was our weakest showing last season.  Uera Miyalle is on the market, she’s one of the best center defenders in the game.  And I think we can lure her away from the Menos Predators, rumor is she’s not happy with the coaching staff there.

        Center…that’s the one that controls the robotic goalie, right?

        One of them, yes, love, she replied.  There are two center defenders and two flanking defenders.  The center position is split between strong-side and weak-side center defenders, with the strong-side defender being the one that controls the goalie drone.  And outside of them, you have the left flanking defender and right flanking defender.  Uera’s not as good with the drone as most center defenders, so she usually plays weak-side center.  You have seven other players, and it’s up to the coach how they deploy.  The most common configuration is three midfielders and four forwards, she continued.

        I know all that, he protested.  I just don’t know all the technical crap.

        She laughed and leaned over, looking down at him impishly.  I’ll make a fan out of you yet, love, she told him.

        I like bachi well enough, I just don’t study it, he told her.

        You mean you like watching the women bouncing around in their haltars.

        Well, that is a major selling point for the sport, he replied shamelessly, which made her laugh.

        I’m sure they’d be very flattered that you and many other Terran men like watching their tits and asses more than what they’re doing, she grinned.

        It’s eye candy, he sent expansively, leaning back against her belly and looking up at her.  Much like this view I’m getting is pure eye candy.

        She laughed.  My, we’re getting a little frisky.  Too bad you’re going to Zora’s tonight.

        That may not go much of anywhere.  She’s probably out getting drunk right now with some of the girls.

        After Jason explained what was going on, Jyslin sighed and leaned down and put her arms around him from behind.  I guess I’m not too surprised, she sent somberly.  And it’ll be a good thing that you’ll be there waiting for her when she comes home.  That’ll make her feel wanted.

        Until then, it’s just personal time with Sora, so it’s win-win, Jason added.

        That personal time started right after dinner.  Jason took Sora back to her house and they spent most of the evening together, personal time with her that he did his best to mirror with all of his children.  Rann was lucky that he lived with his father, but his other children got something of the short shrift in that regard.  But he did his best to spend quality personal time with each of his children as much as he could.  That personal time also went to their mothers, keeping his relationships with the mothers of his children strong.  He couldn’t deny that he enjoyed sleeping with them—all of them but Maya—but it wasn’t so much about the sex.  That was just something of a bonus.  It was about keeping his friendships with the girls healthy and strong, and since they were Faey girls, they expected a little more out of him than a Terran girl would.

        Not all of the girls had the same needs, however.  His friendship with Maya was purely platonic, neither of them had the particularly urge or need to take it any further, where Yana was still working through the crush she’d developed for him more or less since the day they came to Karis.  Ilia and Zora liked a good romp in the bedroom, but they weren’t all that pushy about it.  Jyslin and Symone were very understanding about it, but they didn’t have too much to complain about.  Out of every ten days, Jason maybe spent three at someone else’s house, not counting nights spent in the pool house with Aura, and also spent quite a few afternoons with his children one on one to give them personal attention.  Jyslin didn’t mind, because those days he was sleeping over, she was either over at Tim and Symone’s, or she was doing a little of her own oat-sowing.  Jyslin enjoyed a little extra-marital action as much as Jason did, and she did so with his blessing.  After all, she let him sleep around, and he both wasn’t a hypocrite and also completely trusted Jyslin the way she trusted him.  She was just very discreet about it, unlike Symone.  She dallied with her boyfriends away from the strip in clandestine meetings usually during the day, or on evenings when Jason was sleeping over at another house, which was what excited Jyslin.  Evenings were devoted to husband and family, but in the daytime and when Jason was otherwise engaged, that was when the naughty Jyslin came out to play.  Symone was even bandier than Jyslin, and Tim, that slut, he egged her on.  It turned him on that his wife was so wanton, as much as it turned her on that Tim was such a little manwhore.

        Tim had definitely embraced the Faey lifestyle.

        Zora didn’t come back until nearly midnight, long after Sora went to bed, staggering through the door with her shirt missing and a dark stain of some sort on the left hip of her slacks.  Jason regarded her with a little surprise as he used the time waiting up for her to work through more reports.  She had dark smudges on her bare breasts, as if she’d fallen into some dirt somewhere.  And there was little doubt she’d fell down, because she was completely smashed.  “Hi—hi—hiiiii,” she slurred as she staggered into the living room.  Jason rushed over and caught her before she fell down, leaning heavily against him and looking up at him with glazed eyes as he put his arm around her to hold her up.  “Wha—wha’ you doing in the bar, Jayce?”

        “Bringing drunk little bad girls home so they can sleep it off,” he chuckled.  “What happened to your blouse?”

        “Wha’ blouse?  Wha’, I’m naked?  Coooool,” she slurred.  “Wanna—wanna go back in the bedroom and make me squeal like a chabi?”

        “As drunk as you are, hon, I think you’d throw up if I did that,” he chuckled.  “And you certainly take orders well,” he added as he half-carried her towards the bedroom.

 

        Chiira, 32 Demaa, 4401 Orthodox Calendar

        Thursday, 24 June 2014, Terran Standard Calendar

        Chiira, 32 Demaa, 4401, year 1327 of the 97th Generation, Karinne Historical Reference Calendar

        The White House, Karsa, Karis

 

        The Imxi knew what was coming, but there was simply nothing they could do about it.

        Jason didn’t particularly need to be in the military command center for this, but he did at least want to observe the initial movements.  The Karinnes weren’t involved in the attacks in any way, they weren’t even towing ships, but what happened there did involve them in that the Imxi would soon be a part of the Confederation…just as a conquered empire chopped up into pieces by the conquering force.  Every original member of the Confederation would have Imxi in it after today.

        Myri had a big hologram up of the entire Imxi empire, showing the location of inbound Confederation ships, moving through hyperspace and staggered so they’d all drop out and into their target systems within 10 seconds of each other.  The others had more or less browbeaten Jason into allowing Karinne tugs to tow the ships so they could jump in real time, which was the extent of Karinne involvement in the operation.  But that also limited the number of ships that could participate in the attack to the number of ships Jason had available that could tow large warships in real time through hyperspace, and also predicated having the ships jump in a great distance from the planets so his tugs could jump back out without coming under fire.  Even that almost seemed too much, a violation of his oaths, but if the Imxi saw them coming via regular hyperspace, they might stiffen their defenses even more and cost even more both Confederate and Imxi lives.  In the interests of making it as gentle as possible, Jason had reluctantly agreed to help get the ships there, and that was it.  He had 130 tugs available to tow that many ships to the 27 systems of the Imxi empire, which were all located in a very tightly packed area of stars only 47 light years in diameter at its widest point, which was an elliptical area.  The area was an astronomical phenomenon known as a star cluster, where a group of stars were very close to one another, and it was fairly common.  But, the number of stars in the Imxi cluster did make it a little unusual.

        The Imxi stood no chance.  None.  They’d lost their entire fleet in the attack on Karis, so all they had were space stations, orbital weapon platforms, and whatever ships they could scrape up.  Every Imxi system showed the same thing, their military scrambling to get as many defenses in place as possible, able-bodied civilians being drafted into defense militias to repel the inevitable ground attacks they knew were coming.  But they had no chance, because the Confederation was testing out their strategy against the Benga in this attack.  Faey Imperial Marines were interspersed into every Confederate infantry unit, telepaths there to subdue the Imxi, and those Faey would utterly destroy any attempt to repel the surface invasions.  A single Imperial Marine could take out a hundred unprotected enemy soldiers with her talent, and do it from a position of complete safety.  She only had to be within a couple hundred shakra of her targets.

        Myri, Juma, Sioa, and Navii were clustered around the main display console along with Jason and Cybi hovering beside him in her full holographic image complete with legs, them in their armor, Cybi her usual featurelessly nude self, and Jason wearing a brand new Karsa Paladins tee shirt that Jyslin gave him that morning, as the rest of the command staff bustled about all around them.  Mikano was back in the command center today, seated with the other comm officers at their stations, an Urumi ensign was receiving training at one of the other consoles, and two Makati hurried across the open area with a Beryan, the three of them with engineering stripes on their armor.  Jason rather liked seeing more and more integration into the house, as more races started taking positions in jobs that were more or less all Faey and Terrans.  And as more and more new house members got through basic military training, that was exactly what they’d be seeing.  Their most recent class held every single race where they had recruitment centers, a true melting pot of every race represented in the Confederation, including a mated pair of Zagya, three Verutans, and two Grimja.

        “It should start in about four minutes,” Sioa said, looking at the graphic at the edge of the hologram showing the 27 different squadrons being anchored to Karinne tugs and preparing to jump.  “We’ll see how well those combined fleets operate without KMS ships there,” she added.

        “They should be alright,” Juma replied.  “The KMS ships usually serve as the flagships for the theater commander.  Any other ship can fill that role.”

        “There’s a psychological component to that, Juma,” Navii said in her reedy voice.  “When the other ships in the formation see that KMS battleship or heavy cruiser, they know it is the anchor of the formation.  It provides a sense of continuity when one is in a formation where most every other ship has a different design and is manned by another empire.  They know their command vessel is rugged and powerful, that their theater commander will be there to give orders during combat, and it provides morale throughout the fleet.”

        “That is a very curious observation, Navii,” Cybi mused.

        “True, but I sill don’t think that it should cause much trouble,” Juma persisted.  “Especially since the Naval forces will run into very little resistance.  If the plan fails, it’s the ground forces that are going to be doing most of the fighting.”

        “If they have to fight at all,” Navii said sagely, studying the hologram between them.  “I think the Imxi might surrender once it’s clear that they have no chance, even if they initially disobey their king.  It will depend on how forcefully the Confederate forces make that point.”

        “We can only hope, Navii,” Jason grunted as he brought up a camera from a Kimdori spy probe in the Imxi’s capitol system, PR-66, locally known as Imxa.  The Imxi had put together a crisis fleet of about 30 ships, looking to be decommissioned warships and ships that had been undergoing repairs or refits, clustered around a fairly large space station.  That was the largest fleet the Imxi had in any one system, some had no ships at all, just planetary defenses.  He could almost feel sorry for them…almost.  They’d put themselves into this, it was their lust for power that made them ally with the Consortium, and now they had to suffer the consequences of those actions.  When one went to war, one had to understand that losing could happen.  Those thirty ships would find themselves facing down 41 Confederate ships, all of which were bigger, faster, and much more powerful, with a mix of ships from every empire that would serve certain roles.  Each fleet would have the Faey ships in the vanguard to defeat the initial missile attack using their shockwave generators, backed up by large tanky Urumi and Skaa warships.  Alliance, Colonial, and Shio ships would flank any defending positions using their speed, and then the ships would deploy their ground attack dropships and support ships once all space-based resistance was neutralized, knocking out ground-based defenses and clearing the path for the ground invasion in case their plan failed.  While it was a Confederate effort in space, only the empire that intended to occupy the planet would invade with ground forces, but they would also have Faey Imperial Marines with them to help subdue the Imxi ground forces with a minimum of bloodshed and collateral damage.

        They watched the camera feed as it began.  The Confederate warships dropped out of hyperspace about 40,000 kathra from the planet and immediately deployed, all ships raising their shields and the six Faey battle cruisers taking the lead with the other ships directly behind them, to force any incoming missile attacks to focus on the Faey ships.  They accelerated as they came in, and when they crossed an invisible line, the Imxi ships and station launched a large salvo of missiles…probably when the Confederate ships came into the missiles’ tracking range.  Behind the missiles, a large swarm of Imxi fighters also deployed, chasing after the missiles.  Alliance ships fired their defensive missiles as Confederate fighters launched by stayed behind the warships for their own protection, missiles that would shoot down missiles, which curled around the Faey ships and hurtled forward on their gravometric drives.  Another view popped on as a second spy probe activated, showing a hellstorm of explosions between the two fleets as the missiles met, which only about 200 missiles fired by the Imxi survived to go on towards the fleet.  Those missiles were torn apart when the Faey ships bloomed in red distortion, as their Torsion shockwave generators activated.  As the six Faey battle cruisers came through the smoke and fire of the missile explosions, their shimmering red fields winked out, and that heralded the advancing of the fighters.  Instead of racing off after the Imxi, they instead took a defensive position in front of the advancing ships, capable of dropping back in case more missiles were fired, baiting the Imxi fighters to come into the range of the Faey shockwave generator fields.

        “I have control of the three spy probes in local space if you wish to change the view,” Cybi told them as the Imxi fighters surged ahead.  The Faey battle cruisers launched a volley of plasma torpedoes, a common Faey tactic.  Those torpedoes would explode just before reaching the fighters, trying to break up their formations and destroy some of them before they got within range.  They did just that, erupting into brilliant blasts of detonating plasma, generating that telltale plasma storm, an expanding field of intense heat and high-energy plasma that would wreak havoc on any system sensitive to ionization.  Several dozen Imxi fighters literally had nowhere to go and were engulfed by the hellish orange-red field, and they didn’t come out the other side.  The Confederate fighters pulled back to defend the ships behind the six battle cruisers as the Imxi approached, and the Imxi must have gotten enough intelligence from the Consortium to know not to directly attack the Faey ships, that their shockwave generators had far more range than they demonstrated.  The problem for them was, they had to go around the Faey cruisers to get to the other ships, and those cruisers were armed with weaponry that could track a small, fast-moving fighter.  Imxi fighters exploded by the windrows the instant they came into range of the Faey cruisers and their Torsion weapons, which had more range than the Torsion weapons on the Imxi fighters, and then more and more vanished in a fiery blaze when the ships behind the Faey ships gained line of sight on the fighters.  After the initial blitz, the Confederate fighters lanced ahead, Raptors, Warhawks, Un’Dara and Krissha fighters engaging the Imxi fighters just as they were scattered by the defensive blitz of fire, attacking at the perfect time to deal maximum damage.  The Confederate fighters pushed the Imxi fighters away from the fleet as it advanced on the Imxi warships, who remained in a defensive formation around the space station, pulling the Confederate ships into range of its weapons.  They’d planned for that, for the Confederate fleet began to slow as it approached, then once they were at the optimum distance, the fleet unfurled from behind the Faey cruisers like a fan opening.  The Confederation knew exactly what the range of the Imxi ships had for their weapons, so they pulled up just out of range and opened fire with their longer-reaching weapons. Plasma torpedoes, missiles, MPACs, Skaa ion and hot plasma, Colonial iso-neutron, Shio ion and neutron, and Urumi neutron and plasma weaponry, which tore into the Imxi ships just as the station launched another salvo of missiles, saving them for when the Confederation got closer most likely.  They were a different type of missile, Jason saw, probably with a shorter effective range.  Six Imxi ships were blasted into pieces by the barrage, and the rest of the ships had no choice but to race ahead to at least get into range so they could fire back, leaving the station behind.  The Faey ships stopped firing and raised their shockwave generators, but the other ships relied on their shields, explosions from the missiles blooming along their surfaces.  But Imxi weapon technology wasn’t as advanced without Consortium Torsion weapons, so no ship in the formation had its shields brought down by the barrage.

        Jason leaned on his hands on the console and watched as the Confederation systematically eradicated the defending Imxi ships in about 14 minutes of battle.  The Imxi’s ships had no real chance even with their Torsion weapons, slower than the Confederate ships, with inferior shields but fairly decent armor, and the surprise tactic of pulling up and firing on them outside their range had fatally surprised the Imxi commanders.  Jason watched with sober eyes as the Confederation basically wiped out the Imxi defense, fighters destroying the Imxi fighters and then joining in what was a turkey shoot, then they destroyed the weapons on the station with controlled fire, beating the station defenseless without doing any major structural damage.  Once the station was defenseless, ten Faey troop dropships launched from the ships and crossed over with fighter escort, attaching to the hull on top of the station.  Those were ship to ship troop dropships, equipped with a belly hatch they’d use to either blow open a hatch on the hull or cut their way through with heavy-duty annealers, then board the station and take it from within, a tried and true Faey tactic when dealing with opponents vulnerable to their talent.  As they did that, Jason heard the Faey ship broadcast on all Imxi frequencies, demanding that the Imxi surrender.

        They weren’t going to, however.  As marines fought their way into the space station, a large invasion force of Faey dropships launched from the cruisers and descended towards the capitol city behind low-orbit support craft, corvettes and frigates, which began bombardment of ground positions utilizing hot plasma weaponry, destroying ground batteries that could fire on the troop transports as they descended to their landing zone.  Imxa was Dahnai’s prize, the system she bargained hardest to procure, and she had a very good reason…the King of the Imxi.  Other systems had better resources, but Dahnai wanted the enemy’s capitol because it would put the King under her control, and that gave her the ability to take the rest of the planet without having to fight for every tikra of it, as well as giving the Confederation a means to take the rest of their empire without a long and protracted siege

        Jason checked the other systems, and saw that in the time it took the Confederation to defeat the Imxi defense around Imxa, most of the other fleets already had boots on the ground, assembled at landing zones and preparing to invade should their plan fail, and in several cases, had accepted formal Imxi surrender.  Some of the planets saw the inevitability of it and capitulated on their own, mainly those on the edges of Imxi territory who had been starved of supplies since Maggie had shut down all commerce in Imxi space. Several systems surrendered almost immediately upon losing their orbital defenses…and Jason couldn’t blame them.  A planet was virtually helpless when some 20 or 30 ships orbited it from above, who could then simply bombard the planet to rubble.  A single Skaa antimatter bomb could annihilate a city the size of Karsa, turn it into a smoking crater, and 30 ships could launch a few thousand of those kinds of bombs.

        As they watched, all resistance to the Confederation more or less ceased everywhere but Imxa, where the Imxi were stubbornly trying to defend their ruler’s palace.  They were a dictatorship, much like many other governments in the sector cluster, but their dictator was a popular one, who had the loyalty of his people, and they demonstrated it by fighting as valiantly as they could against slender Faey soldiers who withered their numbers without firing a single shot.  Absolute chaos reigned in their capitol city as Faey soldiers advanced behind a chaotic mob of dominated Imxi soldiers, who the Faey used as both weapons and shields, having them attack other Imxi soldiers as they marched right through the very large and very impressive capitol city of the Imxi.  It was yet another stark, almost frightening demonstration of just how powerful the Faey were in the scope of things, that their greatest weapon was not their technology or their weapons, it was them, it was their talent, and the fact that there was no defense against a telepath except another telepath unless the opponent was one of the very rare species of sentient beings who were naturally resistant to Faey telepathy, such as the Kizzik, the Kimdori, or the Consortium’s insectoids who were literally created to battle the Benga telepaths.  Those were the only known species in the galaxy that the Faey could not affect with their telepathy.

        Jason was fairly sure that Kreel and Shakizarr were watching the same feed he was watching at that moment and silently thanking their gods that they were allied with the Faey in that moment, as the Imperial Marines conquered the capitol of the Imxi empire basically without firing a single shot from their own weapons. They showed the entire galaxy why the Faey were probably the most dangerous species there was, because of their talent and because of their natural aggression, who were only held in check because they were too busy fighting each other.  But when unified against an outside force, they showed the galaxy just how dangerous they could be.

        The Imxi were defenseless.  Without telepaths of their own, they were swept aside like chaff all the way to the palace, and moments later, the telepathically dominated King of the Imxi marched out of his palace and declared in a strong voice that the entirety of the Imxi Empire had surrendered unconditionally to the Confederation of Allied Empires.  He surrendered his ceremonial sceptre to the Marine Colonel commanding the forces that had taken his palace, then ordered all Imxi forces throughout the empire to stop fighting and lay down their arms.

        And just like that, the Imxi Empire was no more.

        And while he hated the part he had played in the destruction of an entire society—and it would be destroyed, since the Imxi were now a scattered people throughout eight separate empires—he knew that it had to be done. The Imxi were a threat, an undeniable threat, and it was best for everyone in the PR, PS, and PQ sectors that their aggression was neutralized by the ironclad treaties the Karinnes forced upon the others for the opportunity to claim parts of the Imxi empire for their own.  By giving the others the Imxi, it would create a lasting peace through that part of the galaxy. The Imxi were the sacrificial lambs upon the altar of peace.  Besides, they did have it coming.  They attacked the Confederation, and in that attack, they opened themselves to counterattack.

        Jason grunted out a sigh and Cybi looked over at him, then placed a comforting hand on his shoulder.  “That’s that,” he said grimly.  “The Imxi will probably obey their king.  I wonder what Dahnai will do with him.”

        “It’s not our concern,” Myri said gruffly.  “But if she’s smart, she’ll keep him on his throne as a puppet.  The Imxi will obey their king much quicker than they’ll obey us.  As long as she keeps a mindbender in the palace, she’ll have absolute control over the Imperium’s cut of the Imxi empire by controlling the one Imxi that the others will obey.”

        “And maybe even control over the systems held by the other members,” Navii said with a dark smile.  “I foresee a little chicanery on the horizon when it comes to the Imxi. Dahnai is not above using her grip on the king to try to steal little pieces away from the others.”

        “Yila probably already has her hands in that koba pod,” Juma chuckled.

        “Lorna budgeted 27 hours for something that barely took two,” Jason noted.

        “That was in case the Imxi didn’t obey their king,” Myri reminded him.  “But it looks like they are.  I’m seeing reports from every Imxi planet that the ground forces are surrendering.  Now comes the reorganization.”

        “And there they go,” Juma said lightly as large swarms of ships from the Confederation jumped out, holding logistical and supply ships, again towed by Karinne ships.  This time warships were also towing, since the military operation was over, which allowed Karinne ships to enter Imxi territory…which was now technically Confederate territory.  They were bringing in the supplies and materials and civilians that would occupy the systems and reorganize the native Imxi under their new respective governments. There were also exploration ships from every empire, including the Verutans and Grimja, who would race out to the unclaimed systems beyond the Imxi to search for systems they would want to claim.

        That would almost be a circus, like the great western expansion of America in the mid-1800’s.  Scout ships from competing empires would be racing each other to the most promising systems to see if they wanted to use their claim rights on that particular system, and the Karinnes would not be towing them out there.  That was their own business, so they had to handle it themselves.

        But, that would also help keep the peace.  As long as the other empires saw ways to expand and grow without taking territory from another empire, they had no reason to fight one another.

        “I’m gonna go back up to my office,” Jason said.  “No doubt today’s council meeting will be long and self-congratulatory.”

        Juma chuckled.  “It’ll be alright,” she told him.

        Jason started towards his office, but almost unconsciously, he, Shen, and Suri were on the Marine Corvette Honor and were traveling over the northern coast of Karga.  He didn’t feel like sitting in his office, and he was a little more unsettled about the fall of the Imxi than he expected.  He felt a tiny bit of guilt in his own part of it, but he also knew that it had to be done.  And when he was a little unsettled, when he needed to talk to someone honestly, there was one place he knew he could be honest and receive wise counsel.

        They landed on the outskirts of the Parri village just at the tail end of a passing shower, the water glistening on the grass and creating a shimmering rainbow effect.  The Parri shaman and her two apprentices padded towards him on all fours, then she rose up and gave him a smile, putting her large paw-like hand on his shoulder.  “It is good to see you again, Jason Karinne,” she said in her husky voice.  “What brings you to our humble village?”

        “A social visit, and someone to talk to, honored shaman,” he replied honestly.

        “Then please, come join us.  Tea for our guest,” she said in a lilting voice that nevertheless held the edge of command, and her two apprentices turned and loped back towards the village.

        “I see a new jaingi on both of them,” Jason observed.

        “They are progressing through the ten lessons at an impressive rate,” she said, pride for her students clear in her voice. “Soon they will begin their trials to make sure they can correctly interpret the meaning of the trees.  If they pass, then they will be my apprentices no longer.”  She dropped back to all fours and walked with him as they started for the village.  “And when will you take up your own apprenticeship, Jason Karinne?”

        He laughed.  “I’d be a terrible shaman, friend.  Besides, I have other duties.”

        “I disagree.  You have the potential to be a good shaman,” she replied.  “You understand the power of love, and do your best to stay within its gentle illumination as you tend the needs of your people.  We see it as a good thing that you are the one that rules this planet.”  She looked back at the guards.  “But things are slightly unseemly.  I would ask for you to bring your heir.  The trees have heard about him from your tree, but would like to take closer measure of him.”

        He didn’t hesitate.  “Shen, have them pull Rann out of school and get him over here,” he said.

        She nodded and turned to look back to the corvette, passing on the order.

        “And what do the trees think about him?”

        “There has been a change in him of late that your tree has noticed.”

        “That’s not a surprise,” he said, then explained the unusual circumstances involving Shya.

        “Ah.  Perhaps you might ask her to come as well?”

        “Shen,” he prompted, and she nodded.  “Is this a good change or a bad change?”

        “Change simply is, Jason Karinne.  It is how one accepts that change that can make good or ill come of it,” she told him.

        “That’s a profound thought,” he mused.

        “Actually, it is the simplest of things, it is just your need to complicate it that makes it profound,” she replied, looking over at him with a slight smile.

        Jason laughed.  “I do that quite a bit,” he admitted.

        Jason sat at the campfire with the shaman, her two apprentices, and his guards, drinking tea as Jason told her about the Imxi, and his own misgivings about his role in it.  “I know I’ve upheld my oaths, but I had to walk a very fine line,” he told her.  “It almost feels as if I’ve violated the trust placed in me by my ancestors.”

        “You do what you feel is right for others, not yourself, and that is always a good thing,” she told him after sipping at her oye bark tea.  “But I see little reason for you to be so concerned.  Often, the upholding of an oath at its most strictest interpretation is as necessary as upholding it at its most generous.  Flexibility is not a bad thing in this case, so long as you do not lose sight of the meaning of the oaths you have sworn to uphold.  Stay true to that meaning, and how you interpret them will always be correct, even if that interpretation changes like the leaves through the seasons.”

        Jason was silent a moment, then laughed softly.  “Why do I always feel better when I come talk to you, shaman?”

        “Because you often need another to validate what you already know in your heart, Jason Karinne, and you have this misguided belief that I am wiser than you,” she added playfully.

        “That’s not misguided,” he told her adamantly.

        Rann wasn’t as awestruck as he was the last time he came to the village, but Shya certainly was.  She’d never seen a Parri in the flesh before, just what she’d learned in her lessons, and those lessons in no way prepared one for that initial meeting.  She gaped up at the stocky bobcat-looking creature, with her jaingi all over her body.  The shaman leaned down and greeted her with a gentle smile, then put her paw-like hand on the side of Shya’s face.  Rann and Shya joined them at the fire, Shya sniffing suspiciously at her tea, then gulping it down after taking a testing sip…then promptly burning her tongue.  Both of them had had enough lessons in etiquette to sit quietly and listen as Jason and the shaman talked of less important affairs, basically just catching up since the last time he visited.  The shaman liked to keep up to date on the activities on the strip, including the gossip…which never failed to amuse Jason.  She liked to know who the girls were going out with, what shenanigans Kumi was up to this week, and all the trouble the kids had gotten into since the last time she heard from him.  But then the shaman engaged Shya in conversation, and the girl quickly found herself being gently grilled about not just her new life on Karis, but what it meant to her.  The shaman was subtly digging for the truth of the little girl, and Jason knew that she was getting it even if Shya didn’t answer a single question honestly.

        After tea, Jason allowed Rann and Shya to take off their armor—much to Shen and Suri’s disapproval, and let them frolic like sprites among the massive oye trees, bare as the day they were born.  Jason and the shaman walked along those huge trunks as the kids played.  “So, Shya,” Jason prompted.

        “A complicated little girl,” the shaman answered, looking over and up at him as she walked along on all fours.  “There is a duality within her between all she was taught and all she wants to believe.  Hers is a heart that yearns for a light that she was told will burn her.  You need to take her in hand and teach her the truth of things, Jason Karinne, before her duality causes you problems.”

        “If you mean deprogram her little Imperial highness of her conditioning, yes, I’m doing that right now,” he said.

        “Do so quickly, before that duality of her taints Rann’s purity,” she warned.  “We notice that you have been teaching him, but perhaps not enough.”

        “How do you mean?”

        “You are the light of this world, Jason.  What would happen to it if your light was extinguished?” she asked pointedly.  “Rann is not ready to stand in your place if it becomes needful.  Things are too fragile here for that to be permitted to remain.  Without you, all that you have built here will fall to ruin.  A wise man prepares for the storm even when the sky is clear,” she told him seriously.

        “I’ve been teaching him, but with all the insanity of the last few months, I haven’t had as much time,” he grunted.  “But you’re right.  With things calming down, I’ll be able to take more time for it.  And perhaps I’ll put Shya in the chair beside him.  Since she has Rann’s ear, teaching her what it means to be the Grand Duke Karinne will only help.  That way she’s not trying to pull him away from the path he needs to walk.”

        “Wise,” she nodded.  “Rann Karinne is showing promise, Jason Karinne.  I think he will be a fine ruler when he finally takes his place, so long as you teach him the power of love.  His is a receptive heart, gentle but strong.  He too could be a shaman if he wished to learn the ten lessons.  But as with most cubs, it must be properly shaped and molded for it to reach its full potential.”

        “If you find him worthy, then that makes me a whole lot of relieved,” Jason said earnestly.

        “I did so before, that opinion didn’t change,” she smiled.  “But the arrival of Shya Karinne does complicate matters.  That is what the trees wished me to address to you.  She must not be allowed to stain Rann Karinne’s heart with the darkness she herself struggles against, Jason Karinne.  It is important.”

        “I understand exactly what you mean, shaman,” he nodded.  “And I’m already working on it.”

        “Then the matter is as good as settled,” she told him easily.

        Jason let the kids play for about another hour, then sent them back to school and got back to reality…and his reality was the endless reports sitting in his inbox and his growing dark fantasy of all the ways he could murder Chirk for filling it every time he turned around.  He put on a brave face and plowed through a good portion of it while he waited for the council meeting, which he felt would be filled with animated back-patting and mutual congratulations about how awesome they were for steamrolling a defenseless opponent, but at least it wasn’t a totally boring time.  Jyslin and Symone came over for lunch, Tim came up from his office, and they had a really nice lunch down in the cafeteria, just spending some time together now that things were slowing down.  He told them about his visit to the Parri, and her warnings about the kids.

        Not a surprise, Jyslin noted as she took a bite of her sandwich.  We’ve known since before she got here that we’d have to scour the Imperial part out of her little Highness.

        I’m surprised that the Parri would know that after just a couple hours, Symone mused.

        The Parri are much more than they seem, hon, Jason told her.  That’s why I get advice from the shaman.  Her advice is always good.

        Yeah, but that was some pretty dark advice, telling you to step up Rann’s training in case you die, Tim complained.

        It’s not an unreasonable request, Tim-Tim, Jyslin said.  Think about it.  What would happen to the house if Jason died in some accident? They do happen, you know.  We wouldn’t have anyone competent to step up and take over, except maybe Cybi.  But she’d never do that.  Rann does need to be ready if that happens.  He’s the one Cybi has accepted as the next Grand Duke Karinne.  It can’t be anyone else.  Without Jason, the entire house would fall apart.  That was why the Consortium tried to assassinate him, they knew that.

        And that’s why Aya’s so fuckin’ anal about keeping me safe, Jason grunted in annoyance.  I’ll be so glad when I can finally go around without armor again.

        Not til after we take out the Consortium in the nebula, Jyslin told him.  But there is one thing we should think about.

        What?

        Rann shouldn’t be the only one getting lessons on how to be a good ruler, she replied.  Technically, any of your kids can take your place, love, and if we’re going to plan for what might happen to you, we’d better plan for what might happen to Rann.  We shouldn’t put everything in one basket.  We’d be in the same boat if something happened to Rann.  We’d have no properly prepared Karinne to take his place.

        That…that’s a valid argument.  And besides, the others wouldn’t feel like Rann is more than them more than the already do, Jason agreed.  Alright, so I teach all the older kids what it means to be the Grand Duke, but I focus on Rann since he’ll be the one that does ultimately take my chair.  And I’ll also be teaching Shya.  Since she’s Rann’s wife, she’ll have his ear.  So, I’d better make sure she knows what it means to rule the house of Karinne, so she doesn’t subvert Rann down the wrong path.

        I’m sure their jealousy will fade real quick when they find out who much more work Rann has to do, Symone noted with a wicked little tilt to her thought.

        Yup, but I think they have a taste of that from Shya.  She’s told them what it’s really like to be an Imperial Princess, and they didn’t think it was quite so awesome once they heard about the dark underbelly of it, Jason noted with an audible chuckle.  But Jyslin, love, you’re right.  We should be preparing all of the first born for what I hope is a duty they never have to take up.

        Sounds like a plan.  You bring the whips, I’ll bring the handcuffs, Symone sent lightly, which made Jason laugh.

        Those might be necessary once they find out how boring the lessons can be, he told her.

        He told Cybi about his decision after he got back to the office, as she sat demurely on the edge of his desk, leaning on her hand as she preferred to do.  [It’s only wise,] she agreed.  [If something disastrous were to happen, it would only behoove us to make sure that the house will continue without you and Rann.  I’ll start having discussions with the others as I often do with Rann.]

        [You do that already.]

        [Not those discussions, Jason,] she told him.  [And I will start discussing such things with Shya as well.  No doubt that Dahnai will approve that you include Shya in your preparation of Rann for the throne, at least until she finds out that part of that preparation is preventing Dahnai from influencing her daughter,] she noted with some amusement.

        [Yeah,] he agreed as Chirk’s mantis-like face appeared on a hologram in front of his desk.  “What is it, Chirk?”

        “Yila Trefani just arrived on the east pad and requests audience, revered Hive-leader,” she answered.  “She actually called ahead this time.”

        Jason laughed.  “She’s starting to learn,” he said, which made Cybi smile.  “Send her in when she gets here.”

        She came into the office a moment later, dressed in formal robes.  She must have just come from attending court.  She swished in and took a seat as Jason and Cybi looked at her, and then Miaari came in behind her and closed the door.  “Miaari,” he said with a nod.

        “Good, she’s here,” Miaari said as she walked up and sat on the other edge of the desk.

        “What, you called me here, Miaari?” Yila asked.  “I just got a message to come to Karis.”

        “I sent it,” she nodded.

        “What’s up, Mee?” Jason asked, a bit more seriously.

        “Yila has extensive contacts within the Prakarikai empire,” Miaari said.  “We will make use of them.  Denmother sends word that while the Prakarikai intend to petition for entry into the Confederation and stand against the Andromedans, their motives are ulterior to the reason the Confederation exists.  They see it as the opportunity to gain access to the secret technologies held by each of the member empires, then use it to expand their influence through the Grimja sector and beyond.  They have always been dangerous players of the game,” she said seriously.  “We will have to watch them most carefully to ensure that they are kept in check.”

        “That’s about what all of them want to do,” Jason snorted.

        “But the Prakarikai have the greatest propensity to betray the articles as soon as they feel it is in their best interest to do so,” Miaari warned.  “The ultimate motivation of any Prakarikai is themselves over any others, hopefully while taking others down as they rise up.  They are an extremely selfish race.  While they will stand with us to fight a common enemy out of pure self-preservation, their objective will to be to walk away from the Confederation as the most powerful of the varied members, and as much at the expense of the other empires as they can manage.”

        “I do have any number of business contacts within their empire,” Yila noted, tapping her chin.  “Which isn’t easy.  The average Prakarikai considers anyone not a Prakarikai to be only a slightly higher form of life than pond scum.  I don’t see how a race so tiny can have such towering egos,” she drawled, which made Jason chuckle.

        “They’re compensating for something,” he quipped.  “We knew they’d be handful if they entered the Confederation.  This just proves it.”

        “But it does represent a rare opportunity,” Cybi noted.  “Half the reason the Prakarikai are the way they are is because they shun contact with what they consider to be the lesser races.  Perhaps exposure to those lesser races will change some opinions within their empire.”

        “Possible, but I am not quite that optimistic, Cybi,” Miaari said.  “At least the Jun are honest about how they feel and why they feel that way.  With the Prakarikai, you can never be certain.”

        “Besides, seeing that the other empires are more than them might just make them that much more spiteful,” Yila added.  “They’ve been intensely jealous of the Imperium for over a thousand years, mainly due to the fact that telepathy is so incredibly rare among their species.”

        That was true enough.  They were almost as rare as talented Zagya were, with only some .004% of the Prakarikai exhibiting any form of telepathic or psionic ability.  And nearly all of them were employed by the Prakarikai to deal with the Imperium, to pit telepaths against telepaths.

        “With Yila’s help, we can keep them under control,” Miaari said.  “Come with me, Yila.  We have matters to discuss, and Jason has much work to do.”

        “Send me a report.  A brief one,” Jason said as Miaari stood up.  “I’m already spending like all my time just going through reports here.  Don’t add to the workload.”

        You owe me for this, Jason, Yila sent with a frown at him as Miaari padded past.  Yila didn’t like Kimdori because they gave her the creeps, not because she found their personalities unpleasant, and now she’d have to spend a lot of time closeted up with one.

        I’m so glad you think so, he replied, making a shooing motion with his hand.

        She put her hands on her hips, then turned around and swept out of the office.  Dinner, with steak and lobster, and Dara and Zach will be there.

        Well, if that’s all it takes to buy you off, deal.  But I have to say, you’ve gotten a little too cheap and easy here lately, Yila, Jason replied with a smirking kind of smile at her back.  Sometimes I wonder why the rest of the Siann is so afraid of you.

        Keep digging, Jason, she replied tartly, which made him laugh.

        He leaned back and put his feet up on his desk as he worked out a new schedule for the kids, which would pull them at least partially out of school to take lessons in leadership and ethics, to understand the essence of what being the ruler of the House of Karinne meant, and Shya was included into those lessons.  The Parri had only given voice to what Jason already knew, but in a slightly different way, that Shya was a viable threat to the House of Karinne by both the very nature of what she was and the potential it had to contaminate Rann’s objectivity.  He’d known he’d have to retrain Shya to be a Karinne, and that she might pose a threat to the house because of her mother.  But she also posed a threat by swaying Rann down the wrong path based on her Imperial upbringing, where power and rule were as important as food and water.

        The shaman was right.  He had to start preparing for the storm, even though it was a bright and sunny day.  The house would need Rann to be ready if something happened to him, and the others to be ready if something happened to Rann.  And now that the immediate threat of the Consortium had been neutralized, he had the time to devote to the task of preparing Rann to be a good replacement for Jason when the time came.

        He just hoped that that time was a long time coming.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:   Title    ToC    2      4

Chapter 3

 

        Raista, 36 Demaa, 4401 Orthodox Calendar

        Monday, 28 June 2014, Terran Standard Calendar

        Raista, 36 Demaa, 4401, year 1327 of the 97th Generation, Karinne Historical Reference Calendar

        KMS Patrick Henry, in low synchronous orbit over Karsa

 

        Jason hadn’t looked forward to anything in a long time as much as he had this.

        He was almost giddy with excitement as he stepped off the Marine corvette Honor and into the main landing bay of the destroyer Patrick Henry and in front of a formation of 26 officers, the command crew of the destroyer.  Leading them was the only captain the ship had ever known, Lisa Sheppard, a human telepath and like Justin, a former American military pilot.  She hadn’t been a fighter pilot, however.  She had been a transport pilot in the Air Force before the subjugation, flying the big C-5, and had risen to a command position within the KMS.  She was a tall willowy woman with dark hair and a very average face.  She wasn’t pretty nor ugly, she was Josephine Everygal, the kind of face you could never pick out of a crowd.  But she was damn smart, and she’d be moving up from her destroyer very soon.  The main reason she hadn’t moved up wasn’t because of lack of ability, but because she was one of the best destroyer captains in the KMS.  She knew the capabilities of a destroyer like few other captains, and having her experience on the bridge of a destroyer was an asset not just to her own ship, but to other destroyer captains who benefited from her experience.  She was so good that her ship was one of the few in the KMS that came through the battle at Karis relatively unscathed.  But she was needed further up the chain.  She didn’t know it yet, but the next cruiser that came off the docks at Kosigi would be hers.

        Behind Jason boiled forth his children, all of them nearly as excited as he was, Shya, Jyslin, Tim, and Symone.  His entire family was going to Kimdori Prime with him, as well as Miaari, who was going to see her children.  But where Jason was in a tee shirt and jeans and his kids were in an assortment of old clothes, Jyslin, Tim, and Symone were wearing their armor, their helmets locked behind their necks, modified helmets that had untinted transparent titanium faceplates that would let the Kimdori see their faces, very much unlike standard helmets.  They would have to remain in armor at all times off the ship once they got there, where Jason and the kids would be able to wear whatever they pleased…just not anything they wanted to keep.  Their clothes would have to be thrown away after returning from Kimdori Prime due to irradiation.  Zaa was serious when she said that they made no exceptions for anyone that visited Kimdori Prime, not even Jason’s wife and amu.  They were taking only one ship to Kimdori Prime, the Patrick Henry, but there was a fleet of Kimdori warships that would escort them there.  That way, they only had to decontaminate one KMS ship, and since the Patrick Henry was going to be put in dock for a refit to test some of Myleena’s engine modifications anyway, it was chosen for the mission.

        He patted Lisa Sheppard on the shoulder and chuckled as his five children rushed by them and towards the far side of the hangar.  “Slow down!” he barked at them.  “You’d think they were going to Disney World,” he sighed, which made Lisa laugh and her Faey exo give them a strange look.  She most likely had no idea what Disney World was.

        “You look a little excited yourself, your Grace,” Lisa grinned.

        “Hey, the chance to go to Kimdori Prime?  Who wouldn’t be excited?”

        “And I’ll spend it all with the shields up looking out a window,” Lisa sighed.

        Jason laughed.  “That’s up to you,” he grinned.  “Did you run the sims?”

        She nodded.  “We’ll be able to get the shields up after coming out of hyperspace without injuring any crew member, as long as we pull them out of the sections next to the hull, just in case the computer doesn’t automatically raise them once we drop out of hyperspace.  For that reason, anyone in the sections abutting the hull will be wearing their gauntlets and helmets for maximum protection, just in case.”

        “Sounds like a plan,” he nodded as Jyslin reached them.  “Jys, you remember Captain Sheppard and Lieutenant Commander Belanne, don’t you?”

        “Of course I do,” she said with a smile, shaking Lisa’s hand in the Terran fashion.  “How are you doing, Erala?”

        “Doing fine, your Grace,” Commander Belanne replied in a gentle, rich voice that just screamed that she was a beautiful singer.  Erala Belanne was one of the new breed of officers that Jason didn’t know as well as he felt he should.  He had personal relationships with most of the command-level officers in the KMS, relationships he was careful to cultivate.  He did so because they knew what was going on, and they’d tell him, where Myri often told him only what she thought he should know.  From the ship captains and the army Colonels, Jason kept track of what was really going on in the KMS where Myri and her general staff might not want him to see.  “We’ve set up a schedule of four jumps, lasting approximately four minutes each.  We felt it would be a little easier on the children,” she said, glancing at where Kyri, Shya, and Aran were standing at the foot of one of the four Gladiators that were assigned to the destroyer.  Shya was in armor where Kyri and Aran were wearing tee shirts and shorts.

        “Sounds like a plan,” he said as the crew of the corvette carried out their luggage, mainly throw-away clothes for their trip, but also a set of formal robes for him and his children just in case.  Zaa hadn’t said anything about formal ceremonies, but he did want to be ready just in case something came up.  “We ready to go?”

        “The Kimdori escorts are just waiting for us to signal them, your Grace,” Lisa answered with a nod.

        “Then let’s get this mob herded in the right direction,” he said, then sighed as he saw Symone activate one of the Gladiators, opening its cockpit.  “Before Symone gets bored and steps on someone showing off for the kids,” he added, which made Jyslin laugh.

        “I’ll be making the journey on the bridge, Jason, they’ll need me up there,” Miaari told him.

        Jason nodded, for he knew that already.  Miaari would have to be on the bridge to answer the initial hail from the Kimdori, part of their old customs, as well as being there to answer the query from the automated friend or foe system in case there was a malfunction.  Only a Kimdori could make the automated defenses stand down in case the system thought the destroyer wasn’t allowed to be there, so Miaari had to be on the bridge just in case.

        Lisa put them in a lounge not far from the main hangar deck, and the Kimdori ships fell into position around them as Jason, Jyslin, and the eight guards accompanying them helped get the kids into their jump restraints. Aya trusted the Kimdori, the guards were coming mainly to keep the kids out of trouble rather than to protect them.  She’d decided that Jason would need plenty of extra hands for that, so she assigned three other guards to Jason’s usual detachment, came along herself, and put Kaera in command of the guards back home to keep watch over the strip while Jason was away.  In addition to the usual faces of Shen, Suri, Dera, and Ryn, Uma, Mai, and Lelanna were assigned to the detachment, to give Jyslin some help keeping the kids under control.  Each of them came from a different shift, to help spread out the burden of the home detachment being short-handed while Jason was away.

        I hate doing hyperspace, Aran complained as Uma made double sure that the shoulder restraints of his jump harness was locked.

        It won’t take too long for us to get there, pippy, Uma smiled at him, tapping him on the nose and making him giggle a little.  Then you’ll get to see something that almost nobody else has.  You, little man, get to go to the Hearth.  That’s a big, big honor.

        I just wish Mommy and Daddy Vell could come, he fretted.

        Sometimes things happen you wish didn’t happen, Aran, Jason told him steadily.   Zaa couldn’t invite everyone, so some people got left behind..  Jason didn’t tell him the truth, that the invitation was only for Jason and his immediate family.  While the girls on the strip were very close and dear to him, they weren’t his immediate family.  Zaa reserved opening the Hearth only to those with direct and intimate ties to Jason, who had something of an open invitation to visit the Hearth, which was an honor never bestowed to anyone outside the Kimdori that wasn’t a Generation.  Only those most worthy were allowed to enter the Hearth.  That was why it was such an honor for any Kimdori to be invited into the Hearth, and also why it was such a big fucking deal that Miaari could enter the Hearth without invitation from Zaa, as was her right as a Handmaiden.  The doors of the Hearth were never closed to Miaari.

        The Hearth wasn’t just a palace, it represented the very core of Kimdori society.  It was why Zaa’s official title was Denmother instead of Queen or Empress, for she was the keeper of the Hearth, the most sacred place in Kimdori society.  She was the mistress of the symbolic den which was the home of the Kimdori race.

        I know, but I still wish she could come, Aran sent, his nervousness bleeding into his thought.

        It won’t be so bad, Aran, Jyslin told him as she locked her armor into the seat.  Remember, sometimes you see funny things as well as scary ones, and always remember that everything you see and feel isn’t real.  It’s just sensory ghosts caused by hyperspace.  I’ve never minded hyperspace jumps.

        I dunno, Jys, I’ve seen some pretty scary things jumping, Symone noted as she locked her armor in as well.  Symone was the last one to lock in, and the guards moved among them to make sure everyone was secure.

        Those weren’t real either, Jyslin grinned at her.

        We’ll be jumping in three minutes, your Grace, Lisa sent from the bridge.  Are you ready?

        The Dukal party is secured and ready for jump, Aya replied strongly, sending throughout the ship rather than back to Lisa.

        Prepare for jump! Erala’s sending rippled through the ship.  All section chiefs report jump readiness!

        Jason listened in as the officers and lead NCOs reported back to the bridge in a specific order, all of them sendings, then the ship turned and started to slowly accelerate as the navigator aligned them for the first jump.  What’s about happen, Daddy? Sora asked.  I feel the ship moving.

        They’re lining the ship up to jump, he replied.  Jumping requires the ship be pointing the right way, just as if it was moving normally.  Right now, the navigator is lining the ship up so we can jump to our first stop point.  We’ll stop three times along the way because it’s too far for us to get there in one jump.  It’s sixteen minutes to Kimdori from Karis, pippy.  We’d all go crazy if we tried that in one jump.

        Why?

        Jump shock, Jyslin replied.  We can’t take exposure to hyperspace for that long at once, pips. Our minds are based on our senses.  Overload your senses, and it overloads your brain.  That makes us go crazy.  That’s why we always stop and check each other for jump shock when we drop out of hyperspace, so nobody does anything crazy once they get out of their jump restraints.

        That sounds scary.

        It can be, but you’re some tough kids, I’m sure you’ll be fine, Jason smiled at Sora.  You’ve all jumped before, you know what it’s like.

        Doesn’t make it any less scary, Aran noted.

        I think it’s kinda neat, Kyri countered.

        Then you don’t do it enough, Shya sent fervently.  They made me do jumps last year, cause a Princess has to be able to handle long distance jumps.  It was not fun.  I had nightmares about something I saw in a jump for a month.

        And that’s why they don’t usually let kids your age jump more than absolutely necessary, Jyslin told her.

        Then how did the bug people do it all the way from Andromeda? Aran asked curiously.

        They put them to sleep for the journey so they didn’t suffer jump shock, Jyslin answered.

        That sounds kinda smart. Wish we could do that.

        It takes too long to put a Terran or Faey into a state like that for it to be practical for short trips, Aran, Aya told him in a gentle mental tone.  But I’m sure that Duchess Myleena is right now tinkering with some kind of system to allow our crews to jump long distances without suffering jump shock.  She’s a born tinkerer.

        Most likely, Jason agreed with an audible chuckle, then he heard the twenty second warning.  Okay, everyone, we’re about to jump.  Close your eyes and get ready, and remember, none of it is real.

        Jason had to agree with Aran about hyperspace.   He gritted his teeth and gutted out four minutes of the entire world going crazy both inside and out, as wild and chaotic sensory impressions roiled through his mind.  Colors, light, smells, sensations, random and irrational, and almost overwhelming.  He winced when a sharp jagged edge of pain lanced through his left arm, like some giant claw had raked over his bicep; feeling pain was just as possible as pleasure in a jump, and the most common cases of jump shock were from those unlucky ones that suffered extreme instances of psychosomatic pain.  Pain triggered all kinds of hormones and reactions in the brain, none of which responded well to being in hyperspace, and often led to the psychotic break known as jump shock when they came out of hyperspace, or its more severe form known as jump psychosis, which was permanent mental damage caused by jump shock.  Or, at least damage that was permanent until repaired by a highly skilled telepath via a telepathic technique known as psychic surgery, the telepathic repair of aberrant mental states like psychosis or schizophrenia.  Ryn would probably be the only telepath on Karis with that kind of skill, unless Songa had managed to lure one in from the shaishain to take up residency on Karis.  Those kinds of telepaths were often doctors, since psychic surgery was considered a medical technique more than a telepathic technique.

        They came out of hyperspace, and Jason breathed a sigh of relief.  Almost immediately, Aya was standing over his chair, her hand on his face and checking him for signs of jump shock.  He looked up at her and gave a nod.  I’m alright, he told her, but she just took hold of his chin and raised it, making him look her squarely in the eyes.  And who’s checking you, Aya? he asked playfully.

        I don’t need checking, like certain weak men who shall remain nameless, she replied with a slight smile.

        Just keep adding to the list, Aya.  That will make the retaliation that much more spectacular, he sent dryly.

        Alright, now I’m sure you’re okay, she grinned suddenly, then moved down to check Jyslin.

        I hate that, I hate that, I hate that, Zachary growled mentally.

        That’s one down and three to go, pippy, Jyslin told him supportingly.  And remember, they’re not all the same.  Next one may be better.

        Or worse, Aran grunted.

        If you always think something bad is gonna happen, it will, Rann declared.

        Next jump is in ten minutes, next jump is in ten minutes, Erala sent from the bridge.  Remain in your assigned jump areas.

        The rest period after the second jump was a little longer, as the ship had to make a course correction due to drift in hyperspace, then the jump recalculated.  After the third jump, Jason saw the shields activate out the viewing window across from him, shimmering into visibility for a second and then fading away.  We must be really close to Kimdori for the shields to activate on their own.  The latent background radiation must be pretty strong, Jason noted to Jyslin after Aya checked them.

        What’s the minimum radiation threshold for the shields to automatically activate? she asked.

        No idea, I’m not Myli, woman.  I don’t know everything about everything.

        Jyslin laughed.  She does know her shit, she grinned.

        Your Grace, have the Duchesses, the Duke, and your guards put on their helmets and gauntlets, Lisa called.  The next jump will be to Kimdori Prime, and you’re in a section abutting the hull.  That puts you in a danger area, so anyone there has to be ready in case the shields don’t come online when we drop out of hyperspace.

        We’re on it, Captain, Jason said as Jyslin pulled her helmet up and over her head and pulled it down.

        The destroyer came out of its last jump with a large bluish-purple planet dominating the view outside the window, the planet Kimdori Prime.  It was the only planet in orbit around its star, but it wasn’t the planet that Jason was gawking at…it was what was behind it.  The sky behind Kimdori Prime was dominated by faint white light, which was the combined light emissions of the stars in the galactic core.  Kimdori was about halfway to the core, and those stars were close enough to turn the entire inward sky a soft white, the individual stars lost in a wall of gentle white light.  There was absolutely no doubt in his mind that they were closer to the center of the galaxy than Jason had ever been before, and that being that close was something that one would not miss.  Miaari entered the lounge just as Jason passed his final check for jump shock and started working his way out of his jump restraints.

        “Kimdori Prime,” he said as he raised his jump restraints and got out of his chair, walking over to the large viewing window with Miaari.  “It’s beautiful.”

        “One of the most unique planets in the galaxy,” Miaari nodded as she leaned on her hands on the edge of the window.  “I’m very glad you could come, Jason.  It’s only proper that you visit the Hearth.”

        “I’ve never even seen a picture of it,” he mused.

        “That is because only worthy eyes are allowed to look upon it,” Miaari smiled.

        “Then why the hell are you allowed in there?” he asked lightly, which earned him an elbow to the ribs.  “Did the shields raise properly?”

        She nodded.  “Didn’t you feel it?”

        “Feel what?  I was too busy getting over feeling like I was dunked in ice caused by hyperspace.”

        “Ah, yes, you were still under the effects of sensory ghosts,” she nodded.  “Well, when we exit the shield, you will feel it.”

        “Feel what?” he repeated.

        She gave him a toothy smile.  “Why Jyslin will be in her armor.”

        “And probably why I’m piloting the dropship,” Jason chuckled.

        She nodded.  “It minimizes the exposure of your crew,” she affirmed.  “Since you can pilot the dropship, that’s one less person that will have to decontaminate later.”  She looked back.  “Come, cublings, it is time to be away!” she called.  “The Denmother is expecting us, and we don’t want to keep her waiting!”

        They returned to the hangar and got into the dropship that they’d loaded just for this, a modified Karinne Spatial TS-220 rigged to deal with the high levels of radiation, which could monkey with plasma power systems that weren’t shielded against it.   Jason and Aya got into the pilot’s chairs as the other guards got the kids into seats before sitting themselves.  Jason looked back and saw that everyone was ready, so he assumed command of the dropship via his gestalt.  “Comm, this is Karinne One, ready to depart,” he said aloud.

        “Karinne One, this is local control.  You have permission to depart.  The Kimdori planetary traffic command should be uploading a flight plan to your computer now.”

        Jason checked the nav, and did indeed see a vector figure appear, telling him how they wanted him to come down.  “I have it locked into my nav,” he confirmed.  “Alright, I’m disembarking now,” he said as he lifted the large passenger dropship up off the deck, turning it slowly as the hangar doors opened, revealing the bluish-purple planet of Kimdori Prime slowly through the shimmer of the airskin shield.  Jason piloted the ship out the doors once they were open and accelerated, and when they passed through the ship’s shields, he gasped as he felt it.  He could feel the radiation of the system against his skin, and he was inside the ship!

        “It’s stronger outside,” Miaari said from behind as he heard the others gasp as well.

        “It’s like tingles!” Kyri blurted.

        “I don’t feel anything,” Shya said.

        “You’re in your armor, cubling, that’s why.  Were you not, you would feel it, and be in the hospital in about half an hour.  Faster if we were outside,” Miaari said dryly.  “That is why you are in your armor.”

        Jason put that out of his mind as he got them down to the planet, staying within the descent vector the Kimdori sent up to him.  They came down through a cloud deck and over a city unlike any he’d ever seen before.  It was huge, absolutely huge, even larger than Dracora, but all the buildings were much smaller, the largest of which looked only around a hundred stories.  The buildings were all slender and slightly truncated, the bases wider than the tops, like spires, and all had flat roofs that served as landing platforms.  There was plant life between the buildings, plants with blue and purple leaves…which was what gave the planet its color from orbit, he realized.  Those plants must dominate the ecosystem, like the way trees and grass did on Terra, Draconis, and other terrestrial planets.  The sky towards the magnetic pole of the planet was lit up with an aurora, bright greens and blues shimmering and undulating, the effect of the background radiation emanating from both the Kimdori star and the galactic core colliding with the magnetic field of the planet.  The field couldn’t stop all the radiation, but probably reduced it to the point where the unique forms of life on Kimdori were able to flourish.

        As they descended, Jason saw it, saw the Hearth…and he wasn’t too surprised.  The Hearth wasn’t some grand palace like Dahnai’s home on Draconis.  It was a mid-sized house akin to a French chateau with an elaborate garden behind it, surrounded by a simple metal fence, and with a large landing pad beside it holding three different Kimdori dropships and skimmers.  Two Kimdori were standing at the pad…Zaa and Grun, the Denmother and Denfather.  They had no escorts.  On the far side of the pad was a much larger and more modern building, which was Zaa’s seat of government.  The Hearth was not a place that Zaa conducted a whole lot of official business.  Jason landed the dropship right on the center of the platform’s borders, setting it down so gently that the ship barely even shuddered when weight was put on the skids.  Aya took over to put the ship in standby mode, and Jason gathered up his family and opened the hatch.

        He could feel it much more strikingly when he stepped down onto the landing pad, like tingling warmth shining down on him from above.  The radiation of Kimdori Prime, which was deadly to anyone not a Generation, Kimdori, or Jakkan.  It was so strong that when he looked up in the direction of the galactic core, he saw tiny colored spots in his eyes, the effect of that radiation striking his retinas.  The radiation would kill Jyslin within half an hour if she weren’t in her armor, but for Jason and his children, it was harmless at least for now.  In six days, he’d have to decontaminate to purge the radiation built up in his body before it started doing physical damage, but for those six days, he would be safe.

        Feeling that radiation against his skin made it so obvious why the Kimdori were so unique.  Only a creature with a viral structure could survive a native environment like this, whose cells were extremely tiny, resilient, and able to quickly reproduce.  The Kimdori had evolved to thrive in this high-radiation environment, as did all life on their planet, which made them immune to all but the most powerful forms of radiation. He stepped up and gave Zaa a fond hug, patting her on her furry back, then embraced Grun the same way as Zaa reached down and picked up Rann.  “I am very happy to see you here, Jason,” Zaa told him as bounced Rann on her hip a few times, and then set him down.

        “I’m happy to be here, Denmother,” he replied as Miaari stepped around him and took her place at Zaa’s right hand.  “I want to see everything there is to see on Kimdori while I have this chance.”

        “You speak as if you’ll never return,” Zaa chuckled.

        “Given how busy we’re all going to be very soon, I figure this might by my only chance for a good six or seven years,” he replied seriously.  “The Syndicate won’t just roll over, and then we’ll have the colonizing force from the Consortium just two years after that.”

        She nodded, then took Jyslin’s armored hands.  “I’m glad you could make it, Jyslin,” she said.

        “I couldn’t miss this, even if I have to wear this armor for four days,” she grinned through her transparent faceplate, which allowed Zaa to see her entire face.

        “A necessary evil, my friend,” she said.  “You would not last long without it.”

        “I know, I can feel it,” Jason said, holding his hand up, palm up, towards the sky.  “It’s like being under a harsh heat lamp.”

        “Very harsh, as you would measure such things,” Zaa nodded.  “Are you having vision issues?  That was always a problem for Generations who visited.”

        “Only when I look up,” he replied.  “I think it’s the radiation hitting my retinas.”

        “Precisely that,” she said.  “Your eyes aren’t designed to deal with it.”

        “So, it’s more than sunlight you have to protect your cubs against when they’re born,” Jason reasoned.

        She nodded, then knelt down and hugged Kyri and Aran fondly.  “And how are you, my cublings?”

        “We’re okay, Denmother,” Aran replied.  “This place is so neat!”

        “And it will get much neater as you look around,” she said with a gentle smile.  “I’m going to show you things that few outside the Kimdori have ever seen with their own eyes, my young ones.”

        “I can’t wait!” Kyri nearly squealed, her voice squeaking a bit.

        “First, we’ll settle you in here at the Hearth,” Zaa told them.  “Then after your father and I have a chance to speak of important matters, we’ll go out and see what there is to see.  How does that sound?”

        “It sounds good to me, Denmother,” Kyri grinned.  “But how is Mommy Jyslin and Aunt Symone and Uncle Tim gonna sleep in their armor?”

        “We’re not, pips, we’ll be going back to the ship to sleep,” Jyslin chuckled.  “You get to stay down here, though.”

        “It gives them a chance to decontaminate their armor every day to prevent excess buildup,” Jason noted.  “And we’ll stay down here so we only have to do it once.”

        “A wise plan,” Zaa nodded, then she hugged Zachary and Sora.  She then reached her hand out to the armored Shya.  “And welcome to you, Shya Karinne,” she said.

        “I’m happy I got to come, Denmother,” she said, a touch formally as she put her armored hand in Zaa’s.  “I wasn’t too happy about the idea of having to stay behind.  I miss Ranny when we’re not together.”

        “You’ll have to leave him behind at night to go sleep, but you’ll have the days,” she smiled.  “Now, let us go into the Hearth,” she declared.

        Jason’s assumptions about the mythical Hearth were shattered as soon as those huge gilded doors were open, for the entire building beyond was nothing but a single cavernous chamber.  The outside of the house was a shell, an empty shell, holding several dozen Kimdori sitting at desks and tables, and with a large sloping ramp leading down which was flanked by two Kimdori wearing ornate, archaic shoulder guards and holding serrated pikes.  The Hearth…of course.  It was underground.  It was the symbolic den of the entire Kimdori race, and they originally made them underground.  The Hearth reflected their acknowledgement of their origins.  The building above held Zaa’s staff, but it was what was hidden below that they considered the true Hearth.  Zaa and Grun led them down that ramp, a good 20 or 30 shakra underground, to another set of doors, these much less ornate, but also bound in a shiny metal like steel.  Two more guards holding pikes stood at those doors, and one of them opened the door for them as they approached as the other brandished his pike in salute.

        Beyond was what Jason had almost expected.  It was a residence built underground, large and spacious, but also decorated practically, fitting Zaa’s personality.  The large main chamber was dominated by a massive fireplace, its white stone intricately carved with many shapes, most of them Kimdori.  That was the Hearth, and a fire burned in that 10 shakra wide hearth, which was itself flanked by another two guards.  A couple of servants scurried about in the large chamber, and an aide that Jason recognized stood by a large comfortable chair, a shaggy-shouldered male with grizzled gray fur.  That was Benaar, Jason recalled, one of Zaa’s main aides, who often sat in on council meetings when Zaa was otherwise occupied.

        “The Hearth,” Zaa said in a measured tone, gesturing at the massive, stone-carved fireplace and mantle.  “You are welcome before the Hearth, Jason Karinne, you and your family.  May its fires warm you and bring you comfort.”

        “We thank you for the invitation,” Jason said formally as his kids and Shya stood and stared at the large fireplace.  “And now a lot of those little Kimdori idioms make more sense,” he noted.

        She chuckled.  “Only a Kimdori would understand the meaning of the Hearth, and it is not something that they would even tell you,” she smiled.

        “Kimdori and their secrets,” Jason teased.

        “Benaar, see to the comfort of guests of the Hearth,” Zaa called.

        “At once, my Denmother,” the large male called, then stepped up and called for the other servants.  Jason stepped up to the large fireplace and put his hands out to it, felt its warmth over the heat in his skin caused by the radiation, which managed to penetrate underground, and Miaari stepped up beside him.

        “It has been too long since I stood here,” she said in a musing tone.  “This is the one place that every Kimdori wishes to be, Jason.  You have no idea how honored I still feel to stand before the Hearth.”

        “Guess even this is something that takes time to get used to,” he said, tapping her between her collarbones, touching the white band of station that marked her as a Handmaiden.

        “When you attain a childhood dream, there’s always a few years of disbelief,” she said with a slight smile.  “And of course, sister Kiaari is unbelievably jealous.”

        Jason laughed.  “You two wrangle almost as much as Kumi and the twins.  Just in your own special way.”

        “It is my duty as her elder to keep that little upstart cub in her place,” she said airily, which made him laugh harder.

        “So, first order of business.  When can we see your cubs?”

        “Most likely tomorrow,” she replied.  “They are being assessed by a medical specialist to ensure it’s safe for you to be in the same room with them, and such examinations take some time.”

        “How so?”

        “Remember when I told you that we’re the most virulent form of life in the galaxy?” she asked, which made him chuckle.  “That is the threat you would face, friend Jason.  Newborn cubs often cannot control their viral attack cells, and your body lacks the defenses to fight them off.  They attack anything that touches them with viral attack cells, except their own mother.  A mother is immune to the attack cells of her cubs, since their viral attack cells see the mother as part of itself, and thus won’t attack our cells.  Denmother and the nurses that rear my cubs had to be inoculated against my cubs to be able to care for them, using a serum developed from my own immunity,” she chuckled.  “It is a quirk of our biology that the fathers do not share this immunity to the cubs, which is one of the biological reasons that our social customs about the young developed,” she smiled.  “Males cannot even touch the cubs until they reach a certain age, else the cubs will try to kill them.  They quickly gain control over their proactive immune systems, which they then use only to attack invaders to the den that might sneak in while the pack is out hunting.  You can think of it as a defense mechanism.  You being a Generation will protect you once they reach that stage, for the newborns will consider you Kimdori and won’t try to kill you.  The cubs are being assessed by a doctor to ensure that they’ve gained control over their attack cells.  When the doctor deems them safe, I will take you to them.  Until then, they are a danger to you.”

        Jason whistled.  “That’s one hell of a defense mechanism.”

        The Hearth was big.  It was an entire underground complex, of which only the top floor was open to Jason and his family.  Some of the deepest, darkest secrets of the Kimdori were kept on those lower floors, the only place they felt comfortable holding them, and as such there were very large and imposing security doors on the ramps leading deeper into the underground complex.  The honor guard of Kimdori that defended the Hearth’s secrets stood in pairs at every door and passage within the complex, and Miaari explained that only they knew of what lay at the deepest levels of the compound.  Not even Zaa knew every secret of the Hearth.  After all, she was only a temporary caretaker in the eyes of the Kimdori.  She would eventually either pass on or abdicate, and a new Denmother or Denfather would win the right to lead when the clan leaders met to undertake the trials that would choose the most capable among them.  But the honor guard would always remain, and so it was to them that some of the deepest secrets of the Kimdori were entrusted.

        It was a curious metaphor to Jason.  The Kimdori, ever secretive, even kept secrets from themselves.

        But despite being banned from the lower levels, the top level was more than big enough to keep Jason and his family occupied.  It was twice the size of Jason’s house, with living chambers, two kitchens, sleeping chambers, two separate home offices for Zaa and Grun, where Zaa did some of her work and Grun conducted many of his studies, and of course, there was the chamber that held Miaari’s cubs, just off Zaa’s bedchamber.  They’d brought some vidlinks and toys in for the kids to keep them occupied, putting them in a wing of the floor where three bedrooms opened to a single common room.  Sora and Kyri would share one room, Aran and Zachary another, and Rann would get the third bedroom to himself…and he wasn’t that happy about that, since Shya couldn’t sleep on the planet.  Rann wasn’t used to sleeping by himself.  Jason would be sleeping in a guest room just down the hall from Zaa’s bedchamber, with Miaari’s bedchamber between them.  Miaari had her own room in the Hearth, as was her right as a Handmaiden.

        Kimdori servants helped Jason unpack his clothes and put them away, all of them wearing a small triangle of white fur between their collarbones, no doubt an indication that they served in the Hearth, then he met up with his family, Zaa, Grun, and Miaari back in the Hearth chamber.  “We’ll begin with a tour of the city,” Zaa said in a happy tone.  “Then we’ll go to a special place for a meal, so Jyslin, Tim, Symone, and Shya can partake with us,” she said, smiling at Jyslin, who was standing with Tim and Symone as they looked at a mural on the wall.

        “Why do we have to go someplace special to eat, Denmother?” Rann asked.

        “Because your family can’t take off their helmets to eat, cubling, and I’m sure they’ll be very hungry when we finish our tour,” she replied.

        “I thought you wouldn’t take any special precautions for visitors, Zaa,” Jason noted.

        “We will set up no radiation shield where I intend to have dinner, Jason,” she smiled.  “But it should be safe enough there for your family to take off their helmets for a short time.  I’ll have sensors at the location to make sure the radiation levels are within Faey tolerance for short exposure.”

        “Sounds good then, I trust you, Denmother,” he told her.

        The city was very interesting.  The reason the buildings weren’t that big was because the Kimdori built below the ground as much as above, almost Makati or Kizzik in their approach.  An average Kimdori’s home was half above and half below ground, with “public” areas above ground and private living areas below…at least those Kimdori that could live thusly.  There were too many Kimdori for that much ground area, so they also lived in more conventional apartments in the buildings.  But, it did explain Miaari’s house back on Karis, which she’d had built with a huge basement that she utilized.  The Kimdori liked lots of open space between their buildings, much like the Faey.

        But the open land beyond the city was far more interesting.  Zaa took them out to the open land beyond the city, which was a low, rolling ground covered with what almost looked like moss.  Little flying animals hovered over the purple moss, almost looking like gray bats with hummingbird wings, and they weren’t very timid.  One of them flitted around the kids as they walked out, then almost seemed to play with them as Zachary tried to catch it, flitting and swirling around him as his siblings giggled.  Jason knelt down and put his hand on the strange moss, and saw that it wasn’t actual moss, it was some kind of fibrous plant that had hair-like growths on it, and was very soft to the touch.  It was also extremely tough, he found, resisting his attempt to pick a sprig of it for closer inspection.

        “We call it carpet moss,” Zaa told him as he watched what looked like a tiny ten-legged insect amble along one of the shoots.  “It’s as common on Kimdori as grass is on Terra.”

        “Plantlike,” Jason said.  “It must use photosynthesis.”

        “Actually, it metabolizes the radiation,” she explained.  “Much of the life on Kimdori has evolved to take advantage of the radiation here, Jason.  All forms of life here are either immune to the radiation or actively metabolize it for sustenance.”

        “Replacing sunlight with radiation, clever.  That’s almost Jakkan,” he mused.  “Let me guess, most of the life that doesn’t metabolize the radiation eats the life that does.”

        “Yes,” she replied.  “And some do both.”

        “Ahhh, so this place you’re taking us to have dinner is somewhere that has some kind of natural life form that consumes so much radiation that it drops the levels into the safe zone for Jys and the others.”

        She smiled.  “Astute,” she nodded.  “They’ll cover the sky over us with their fronds, and those fronds absorb most of the radiation.  So long as your family stays in the shade of the fronds, they’ll be safe.”

        Zaa took them next to what almost looked like a conventional forest, with tall, slender-trunked trees with blue and purple leaves, looking almost like pines with birch leaves, which had more fauna in it.  They saw several small quadrupedal tree-dwelling animals that were about the size of a cat, quite a few insect-like animals that buzzed around the trunks, and more of those hummingbird bats that were trying to catch the bugs.  “It was in forests like this that we originated,” Zaa told him as they walked along the trunks. There was almost no ground brush, just the occasional sapling of the same species as the trees, but carpet moss covered the ground.  Since he could still feel the heat of the radiation, he knew that there had to be more than enough getting through the trees and reaching the ground to sustain the carpet moss.  The moss didn’t cover everything, though.  There were bare patches here and there, usually around saplings, and others where little ant-like bugs were eating it.

        Jason noticed one thing, which he found curious.  The air itself wasn’t very warm, and the sunlight wasn’t very strong.  He realized that if this planet and star weren’t where they were, the planet would be like Jobodi, an arctic wasteland.  The ambient radiation from the galactic core made up for the lack of solar power.

        From there, they visited what passed for the tropical belt of the planet, Zaa taking them by dropship to a small island with white sand beaches and strange wide-leafed purple plants that almost looked like prehistoric ferns.  But it wasn’t for the plants that she’d brought them.  She pointed out to sea, and Jason gawked as he realized that the island across the way wasn’t an island…it was a living thing.  It was some kind of creature so huge that its back had plants growing on it, and he knelt down and pushed his hand into the sand, digging down until he hit something solid…chitinous.

        “Correct,” Zaa said with a smile, looking down at him.  “We stand on the moving islands.  They are actually gigantic life forms akin to the turtles of your world that drift with the tropical currents, feeding off microscopic life in the water as well as drawing sustenance from the plants that grow upon their shells in a symbiotic relationship.”

        “Amazing,” Jason breathed.  “That something so huge could be viral.”

        “Are not the blue whales of Terra giants while being cellular?” she asked lightly, which made him chuckle and nod.

        After exploring the living island’s small forest, they went to eat.  Zaa took them to a forest near the north polar region where it was just as warm as it was in the city, and they walked into the most unusual forest Jason had ever seen.  The plants here looked like water lily pads out of the water, huge dark blue fronds, some as big as twenty shakra across, suspended in air by delicate little stalks made up of multiple fibrous tubes braided together.  A tug on one of those showed that they were pliable, flexible, but they were also extremely strong…and they were holding down those huge dish-like leaves.  Those things were floating!

        “That’s why we call them skyfronds,” Zaa told him as the kids ran among the stalks, which made it easy to see quite a ways underneath them.  The stalks were widely spaced and very slender compared to the size of the leaves they were holding down.  “These plants have evolved a natural form of suspension by utilizing the energy of the ambient radiation.  They float above the ground and compete with one another for open sky.  They are also highly combative,” she said, pointing.  He looked up and saw where to leaves were touching, how one leaf almost looked to have bitten off the other leaf where the two overlapped.  The result was the victim leaf had a big chunk taken out of it.

        “What causes that?”

        “Tiny animals that live on the leaves, which respond to an invading leaf by devouring it,” she replied.  “Any time two leaves touch, it is a war on a microscopic level as the frondmites from each leaf attempt to devour the other leaf.”

        “They won’t eat their own leaf?” Jason asked.

        She shook her head.  “Each leaf cultivates its own unique strain of frondmite, who won’t eat their host leaf.  The plant feeds them nectar, and in return, the frondmites attempt to devour any invading leaf that tries to block its access to the sky.”

        “Huh,” Jason sounded, looking up.  “Almost like spider nanites.”

        “A good analogy,” she smiled, then she turned and looked back.  “We’re deep enough into the forest, friends, you can remove your helmets,” she called.  “The plants above block the radiation.”

        “Yah, I’m getting a green light on my indicator,” Jyslin said, then she reached up and took off her helmet, pushing it back to seat behind her neck.  “Those leaves absorb all the radiation?”

        “Most of it,” Zaa nodded as Miaari knelt down and helped Shya remove her helmet.  “But you can’t go without your helmet for too long.  Keep an eye on your indicator.  Our meal awaits us deeper inside the forest.”

        About half an hour’s walk into the strange forest, which had animals lurking in the distance that lived among the slender anchors, they reached a picnic area where some of Zaa’s house servants had set up a meal, and Jason noted lightly that they’d used heavily shielded boxes to bring it, to protect the food from the radiation.  How they managed to get the food here and cook it without irradiating it…that was a question he decided not to pursue.  Then again, given it was all Faey food, and Kimdori weren’t exactly known for culinary expertise, maybe the simple answer was that Zaa ordered carry-out.

        No matter where the meal came from, it was a good one.  The food was good and the company was better, as Jason had the chance to just sit down and talk with Zaa, about both important and unimportant matters.  Zaa was his advisor and mentor in many things, but she was also a friend, and he enjoyed just spending time with her.  Given how busy they were, that often wasn’t possible.

        “And what do you think of our world so far, Symone?” Denfather Grun asked as they finished up the meal.

        “I think it’s all kinds of interesting,” she replied.  “I’ve never seen half the stuff you have here before.  I’ve never even heard of it.”

        “Our world is somewhat unique,” Grun smiled.  “And just like Karis, it changes with the seasons.  The skyfronds are at their most active this time of year.  They grow as much as they can through the summer and then stop for the winter, biding their time until they can grow again.”

        “Our seasons here aren’t based on the angular tilt of the planet, but the position of the planet relative to our sun and the core,” Miaari supplied. “When the planet is behind the star in relation to the core, it is summer.   When it’s in front, it is winter, because the sun’s solar wind either weakens or intensifies the core radiation depending on where the planet is.”

        “That’s pretty cool,” Tim said as he finished his chocolate mousse.  “So this is summer?”

        “Yes, Tim, this is the peak of summer, when the planet is almost directly aligned with the sun and core,” Grun nodded.  “The ambient radiation will reach its peak in two days, and then ebb as the angle of the sun changes, and its solar wind begins to impede the core radiation.”

        “Your winter must not be very dark,” Symone mused, looking up at the leaves over their heads.  “The sun in the sky during the day and the core light at night.”

        “Quite observant, my dear Symone,” Grun smiled.  “And these nights will be among the darkest of the year for the opposite reason.”

        After dinner, the tour continued.  Zaa had their dropship fly all over the planet, visiting several cities, visiting several natural areas, letting Jason view the wildlife, which was staggeringly varied.  From the tiny bat-like animals to giant sloth-like quadrupeds that roamed a flat plain on the southern hemisphere, animals three times the size of elephants that moved so slowly that carpet moss was growing on their backs.  At first he thought they were just standing still until he realized that they were moving, moving so slowly that it took one of them almost five minutes just to move one leg.  Little canine-like animals dug at the footprints they left behind, taking advantage of the weight of the animals to tear the tough, fibrous carpet moss on the ground to get at bugs or something underneath.  The planet was rich in a vast diversity of life, from tiny to gigantic, from passive and friendly to highly aggressive, populating a planet that was almost exactly 50% land and 50% water, and all protected by the majority of the deadly radiation outside by a powerful magnetic field, the sky aglow to the north and the south with multicolored curtains of light akin to the aurora borealis and aurora australis on Terra.

        By sunset, Jason was actually a little tired from their globe-spanning tour, and was happy rest a moment within the Hearth as Jyslin and the others prepared to go back to the Patrick Henry for the night.  After escorting them out to the landing pad, Jason playfully kissed the faceplate of Jyslin’s helmet as he held her armored form loosely in his arms.  You make sure you get back here early, he told her.  After me and Zaa have a conference, she promised to take us shopping in the city.

        We’ll be back down after you finish those long, boring talks, she grinned in reply.  Wearing this armor this long isn’t as much fun for us as it is for you, silly man.

        I know, I can’t feel you up or anything, he complained, which made her grin impishly.

        Call when you and Zaa finish all the politics.

        I will, he promised.

        After seeing them off, Jason did get back to some actual business.  Three guards had remained behind to watch the kids—they trained extensively to wear their armor for long periods of time—freeing Jason and Zaa up to go over to her government building and attend a meeting of the Confederate Council.  Jason knew the room she used to attend the meetings, but it was a little different being inside it, sitting on the other side of her large desk   The others knew he was visiting Kimdori Prime, but they didn’t ask him anything about it as they discussed the imminent application of the Prakarikai into the Confederation, continuing a nearly week-long discussion they’d been having.  Jason and Zaa didn’t really have that much to do with it since they weren’t really voting members, but they did pay attention because the addition of Queen Anivan into the council would change things.

        “Still no word from High Archon Gau?” Magran asked.

        Zaa shook her head.  “My children report he still has made no decision,” she answered.  “However, I have received reports within the hour that the Jun Senate is in the final stages of approving tendering their own application.”

        “The Jun,” Magran whistled.  “It would take something truly as momentous as this for them to ally to anyone.”

        “They understand the reality of the situation, Speaker,” Brayrak Kruu said grimly.  “As did we, which is why I am here now.”

        “And we,” Zaa added.  “And the Leader,” she added, nodding towards the hologram of the present but ever-silent Leader of the Zyagya, who was attending today’s conference himself rather than have an aide listen in.  He had never uttered a single word during any conference, taking the title neutral observer to its ultimate expression.  “Most likely, they will join purely for the economic assistance, keep to themselves, and then fight alongside us when the time comes.”

        “Even that stretches their political stance a bit, but it does make sense,” Dahnai mused.  “They almost never leave their sixteen systems.”

        “Their traditions allow a pre-emptive war if they are certain that an invasion of their territory is provable, unavoidable, and imminent,” Assaba stated.  “They are simply taking steps to prevent fighting in their own territory.”

        “Their traditions will have to bend a little, since the Benga are in Andromeda and thus beyond their reach,” Sk’Vrae noted dryly.

        “I’m sure them annihilating the Benga to the last man here will satisfy their traditions in war,” Magran supplied.  That was how the Jun conducted warfare, and why the other empires in the Grimja sector had the sense not to bother them.  The Jun never left their sixteen systems, which they considered theirs by divine right, but their divine providence only applied to those sixteen systems, which was why they were easy to have as neighbors.  But anyone who went to war with the Jun had to be ready to fight a war of total annihilation; they either wiped out the Jun to the last man, woman, and child or they were wiped out themselves.  The Jun believed that anyone who attacked them would never honor their word and would attack again, so their brutally practical viewpoint was to eradicate the attacker to the last living soul, thus permanently removing the threat that race or empire posed to them.  They would sally forth from their territory and conduct a war of total genocide, even killing the infants of their enemy, level every city, scour every last vestige of their enemies from the universe, then return to the borders of their territory and pose no threat to anyone else…so long as they weren’t attacked.  That was how the Jun handled their business, and in an odd way, it was very effective.  The other empires in their sector would bite off their own fingers before they got into a war with the Jun.  Given that the Jun didn’t socialize with anyone else and had only the most basic diplomatic contact with outside empires, they were given a very wide berth.  They were even more isolationist than the Zyagya, who at least would agree to trade deals with outside empires.  The Jun would not, at least not with anyone but the Moridon, whom they trusted enough to handle certain financial affairs for them.  The Moridon were the only race allowed to enter Jun territory.

        “The first thing they’ll have to stipulate if they join the Confederation is that they’re not fighting the war by their rules,” Dahnai said.  “They’re doing this our way, and that means that Jun military units obey the chain of command.”

        “I’m sure they understand that,” Magran said, tapping his chin with a slender, gray, long finger.  “I have very tentative contact with the High Senator.  I think I’ll call him after the meeting and find out where things stand.”

        “That would be much appreciated,” Ba’mra’ei noted.

        [And when were you going to tell me that?] Jason communed with Zaa’s memory band, which would allow her to hear him.

        [I just did, cousin,] she replied lightly through her band without looking at him.  [I just received word about the matter ten minutes ago.]

        [I so need to be added to the Kimdori biogenic network, so you can’t drop these little bombs on me,] he complained, which made her give him an amused look.

        “I think they understand that,” Magran said.  “But a little confirmation before they officially apply for entry wouldn’t hurt.  But, I see this as a good thing.  Perhaps allying with the Confederation to fight off the Andromedan invaders will soften their positions a little.  The Jun are a highly intelligent and culturally rich race.  Their isolationist tendencies have harmed them over the last thousand years.”

        “In their case, it’s best for all if they stay within their territory, Magran,” Assaba declared.

        “I have little experience with these Jun,” Shakizarr said.  “Are they that dangerous?”

        “Dangerous?  Naw, as long as you don’t do anything they interpret as an act of war,” Kreel said lightly.  He had his feet up on his desk, showing them all the pads of his hybrid feet.  “But that’s the last thing you ever, ever want to do.  As long as they’re left alone and their borders are honored, they’re quiet and considerate neighbors.  Believe me, I keep our ships way the hell away from their border,” he chuckled. “We have a no-entry zone along their border that’s nearly five light years across.  I won’t even let our ships get close to their territory, to make sure there’s no accidental border incursion.  That’s all it takes, and they don’t give you a second chance.”

        “Ah, I see,” Shakizarr noted.  “So one ship errantly entering their territory could spawn a war?”

        “It’s not a guarantee, but it can,” Kreel said.  “Two hundred years ago, we had a ship accidentally jump into their territory when its jump computer malfunctioned.  They had the sense to immediately contact the Jun and tell them about the accident, then wait there for Jun warships to arrive.  The Jun arrived and inspected the ship, deemed it an honest accident, and allowed the ship to jump back to our territory.  They even helped fix the jump computer.  But if they’d have decided that it wasn’t an accident, then we’d probably still be in a war with them.  The Jun don’t surrender, and they don’t accept another’s surrender.  For the Jun, the war ends when the last living member of the enemy empire’s dead.”

        “Brutal,” Shakizarr grunted.  “And dishonorable.”

        “They have very extreme views, but the good side of it is they have established and well-known triggers,” Magran added.  “As long as you don’t set them off, they are peaceful neighbors.”

        “I’m sure we can work around those burrs,” Dahnai said.  “We could use their help no matter what.  This is them against us, and we need all of us on the line when they get here.”

        “Not for the Syndicate, but when the colonizing force of the Consortium arrive, yes,” Magran said musingly.  “With the Verutans and the Grimja with us, we should have the manpower to send the Syndicate back to Andromeda.  It’s with the Consortium where we will need all the help we can get.”

        “The more we have to face the Syndicate, the fewer losses overall we take that we must replace to fight the Consortium,” Sk’Vrae said.

        “True.  I’ve never been much of a military tactician,” Magran nodded.

        “The esteemed Brood Queen speaks truth,” Grran’s vocoder added.  “The key to facing the Consortium’s colonizing force is the swift and total destruction of the Syndicate expeditionary fleet with minimal casualties to our forces.  We will need every ship, every resource at our disposal to deal with the much larger Consortium force.”

        One of Zaa’s aides literally ran into the room, and almost tripped and fell when she crashed into another aide.  Both Zaa and Jason looked in her direction as she recovered and ran up to Zaa’s desk, bowing her head low and offering a handpanel to her.  Zaa took it and read the screen quickly, her furry brows rising.  “I have just received another missive from my children.  High Archon Gau has decided to apply for entry into the Confederation.  He intends to make the official announcement within the hour.  As usual for a Haumda, he is moving with determination once he has reached his decision.”

        “That’s very good news,” Magran said with a bright smile.

        “That was actually quite hasty for a Haumda to make a decision,” Shakizarr mused.

        “Truly, but it was a good one, at least from our point of view,” Dahnai chuckled.  “So, that’s what, the Haumda, the Prakarikai, and the Jun?”

        “The threat we face is a powerful motivation,” Vizzie spoke up, for the first time in the council…that was a little unusual.  She must be wrangling with Grizza again.  “The Republic joined this body for mutual defense as much as mutual cooperation against the Andromedans.  Gau sees that only if he sits on this council can he depend on Confederate assistance if his territory is invaded.”

        [Jason, we are receiving a request for council from the Haumda,] Cybi communed with him, easy for her to with the Kimdori biogenic network.

        “And speaking of Gau, he just asked to talk to me,” Jason spoke up.  “If you’ll excuse me for a moment,” he said, then he leaned back and closed his eyes.  He pushed his consciousness up into the Kimdori’s biogenic network, which felt decidedly different from the one on Karis, and constructed in his mind’s eye an image of his office back in Karis.  He placed himself into it, then looked towards where he’d usually regard a hologram.  [Go ahead and connect us, Cybi,] he relayed.  [I’ll do it this way.]

        [Clever idea, Jason,] she said approvingly, and an image of Gau appeared on that imaginary hologram in his imaginary office.  Gau’s ursine face appeared before him, his eyes rising a little bit.

        “I was under the impression you were on a state visit to the Kimdori, your Grace,” he said.

        [Actually, that’s where I am now.  What you’re seeing is nothing but a construct that lets me focus my attention, High Archon.  In reality, I’m communing with Cybi and she’s feeding your comm directly to me.]

        “Quite interesting,” he said with a nod and a curious look around.  “So this is all merely a hologram of some sort?”

        [Something like that.  What you see isn’t real, but it helps me focus my attention, and it gives you something to actually look at, else this would be audio only.  What did you need, High Archon?  I’m attending the Confederate Council at the moment, and we’re talking about something fairly important.]

        “Perhaps it’s an omen from our gods that you would happen to be talking to them when I call you,” he chuckled.  “I thought to contact you first, your Grace, and inform you that the Haumda will formally petition for entry into the Confederation.  I have my diplomatic staff on Terra tendering the written petition to the Confederate office at the Academy as we speak.”

        [You had it ready?  It sounds like you’d already made up your mind a bit ago, High Archon.]

        “Not entirely, but I like to have all paperwork prepared for any possible decision I make, so things can move smoothly once a decision has been made,” he answered with a slight smile.

        [I’ll inform Denmother, she can tell the others,] he said, then he expanded his focus enough to query her memory band.  [Denmother, could you tell the council that the High Archon is having his diplomats bring his formal application to the office on the Academy grounds?  That way they know they’re coming.]

        [Of course, cousin.  I’ll also tell Kiaari so she might quickly spread the word.]          

        [And there we go, High Archon,] Jason relayed.  [The Confederate Council knows, and they’ll be waiting for a copy of your petition to get sent to us.]

        “Very good, your Grace,” he said.  “On a slightly different note, I called you first to also make a slightly unusual request.”

        [Go ahead, High Archon.]

        “I would ask that you allow me and three of the high priests of our religion to travel to Karis to investigate the possible fulfillment of omens.  And I would like a less crowded state visit, a chance to speak to you one on one in secure surroundings about important matters both Confederate and private between the Haumda and the Karinnes, things I would feel most uncomfortable discussing over galactic crypto.  I would only ask for perhaps two days of your time.”

        Ever polite and considerate, the Haumda way.  Jason was a bit surprised he’d ask, and only thought about it for a few seconds.  [I’d be happy to receive you, High Archon.  Get in touch with Secretary of State Yeri and work out a schedule with her.  She knows my schedule and knows when I’ll be available.  Wait.  Actually, I have a better idea.  Cybi.]

        Cybi appeared in his construct of her own volition, inserting herself into his very mind, appearing in her usual pseudo-nude hologram, this time manifesting feet. Gau gave her a curious look as she sat demurely on the edge of his desk, as was her habit.  [Yes, Jason?]

        [If you would please, make the arrangements for the High Archon to visit Karis. I’m sure the High Archon would enjoy another chance to talk with you.]  

        “I would very much like just that, your Grace,” Gau smiled, showing his fangs.

        [I would be happy to do so, Jason,] she answered, smiling towards Gau’s hologram.  [And I would be most pleased to have a nice conversation with the High Archon.  He is a very engaging and intelligent man.]

        [Then that’s all settled.  If you don’t mind, High Archon, I should tell the council about this,] he intoned deliberately.

        Gau took the hint.  He nodded and glanced to his right.  “I’ll be available for conference if the council wishes to speak to me about the petition,” he replied.

        [I’ll tell them.  Until later, High Archon.  Walk within the light.]

        “Blessings of the Great Spirit go with you,” he returned.

        Jason blinked his eyes open and found all of them looking at him, waiting.  “Gau said he’ll be standing by to speak to the council after you receive the petition,” he relayed, then realized that Zaa had her hand over his on the desk, which let her be privy to everything that went on in his little meeting…eh, like he could keep any secrets from a Kimdori anyway.

        “Kiaari sends the message.  The Haumda retinue has reached the office, so we should have a copy of the petition within moments,” Zaa told them.

        “Then perhaps we should adjourn until the petition has time to reach us through proper channels,” Magran offered.  “I find myself in need of a quick meal.  Today’s meeting was a bit inconvenient,” he said with a slightly rueful expression.

        “That’s a good idea.  How about we reconvene in one standard hour?” Dahnai asked.  When nobody objected, she leaned back in her chair and turned it a little bit.  “Alright then, we’re adjourned for one standard hour.”

        The holograms winked out, and Zaa tapped her muzzle.  “I think it might be time for the council to adopt more formal rules,” she said.  “The Prakarikai especially will seek to usurp the free-wheeling manner in which the council operates right now.”

        “What kind of rules?”

        “Nothing momentous, cousin.  But a formal council chair should be set up who has control of meetings, and the chairmanship can rotate through all council members, say, once a takir, and this chair of the council can only be held by a member with certain standing, to prevent a new member from having control of council sessions until they’re more established and used to how things work.  That puts a controlling voice in place that holds the Prakarikai in check.”

        “I’m sure they’ll agree if you suggest it, Denmother,” Jason said.  “As long as you make sure us four neutral observers don’t take the chair, it’ll work just fine.”

        “That goes without saying, cousin,” she nodded.  “It is a violation of both our oaths and yours to lead the council in any official manner.”

        “I do think it’s a good idea, though,” Jason said.  “Sometimes things can get a little murky when Assaba and Dahnai are each trying to run things their way.”

        After a quick snack and a chance to walk around a little bit, then a chance to read the one-page petition for entry into the Confederation from the Haumda, they reconvened, and Zaa wasted no time making her suggestion.  “The Prakarikai especially will take advantage of the open nature of council,” she explained when the other leaders gave her curious looks after she explained her idea.  “By putting a chair in place that has control of certain council meeting functions, it prevents Anivan from holding us here for hours and hours as she drones on.”

        Dahnai laughed.  “I never thought of that!” she said.  “I don’t think it’s a bad idea.  So, we rotate through the chair every ten days, and it’s only open to the current members?”

        “For now.  Once the new members have certain tenure, they should be added to the rotation,” Zaa nodded.  “That way they know that they are equal within the council and within the Confederation.”

        “I think we can work out the chair’s powers and responsibilities after we receive Gau,” Shakizarr said.  “We shouldn’t keep him waiting for long.”

        Gau’s hologram joined the others after a moment, and the council exchanged quite a few pleasantries with him before getting down to business.  “I think I can speak for the council when I say that you’ll have little trouble getting past the vote, High Archon,” Dahnai told him.  “We’ve been hoping that you’d petition for entry since the summit on Karis.”

        “It was the summit that accelerated my decision,” he replied modestly.  “I saw that despite the great differences between your empires, you were able to come together around a picnic table and plan for a future that protected all of us, not just some of us.  We must defend our galaxy from these invaders, but also protect each other as much as our own.  I am convinced that the Confederation upholds that ideal, and so I have petitioned on behalf of my people to join you.”

        “Well, I think we can call for a vote right here and now,” Kreel said.  “Before the rule change slows things down.  Anyone here not voting for the Haumda to join the Confederation?”  When there was silence, Kreel grinned that cheeky grin of his.  “Welcome to the Confederation, High Archon Gau,” he said grandly.

        Jason just had to laugh, and Zaa smiled roguishly.  “I see the proposed rule changes were a good idea, Kreel is already abusing things,” Jason said.  “But as the Terrans say, welcome aboard, Gau.  We’ll be a better group with you among us.”

        Dahnai chuckled.  “I think that does mean that you’re here now. even if it’s a bit unorthodox.  So we’ll have to get your military commanders to Terra as quickly as possible so they can start their orientation.  We don’t have to wait for you to sign the Articles to get things moving.”

        “I’ll send a cruiser to Haumda Prime to pick them up,” Jason supplied.

        “I would sign the treaty in person on Terra, as soon as possible.  There does not need to be a public ceremony over this.  We only have so much time, I’ll not waste it demanding a public spectacle,” Gau declared.

        “If that is your wish, we can get things ready.  I will ensure you have suitable security, High Archon,” Kim spoke up, finally saying something.  He was usually as quiet as the Leader during the meetings, here mainly to know what was going on.  The Articles they’d all signed were on Terra, in the Confederate Headquarters, kept in a secure vault but with a copy on public display in the visitor’s center, a public demonstration of the alliance between the various empires for self defense.  Since most of the Confederate offices and departments were on Terra, he often needed that advance warning.  While the rulers may think they ran the Confederation, it was actually Kim that did most of the grunt work, for he was the one that coordinated the operation of the various new Confederate bureaus that were headquartered on Terra.

        “I would appreciate it, Secretary Kim,” Gau nodded to him.  “I will arrive on the Karinne warship, but I would be willing to push back my arrival until such time as you have things prepared if it’s needful.”

        “Feel free to arrive as soon as possible, High Archon.  I have a very efficient staff,” Kim said with a diplomatic little bob of his head.  “They will have everything ready for you. Will you require lodging, or will you return to Haumda after the signing?”

        “I will return to Haumda, but thank you for the offer of hospitality,” Gau replied.

        “I think it would be best if all of us came to Terra to witness the signing,” Assaba stated.

        “That’s a good idea,” Dahnai agreed.  “We were all there when Shakizarr and Kreel joined us, we should afford Gau the same respect.”

        “I would leave such official matters to you,” Zaa stated.  “As I’m sure the other neutral observers on this council will agree.  It is not our place to engage in such things.”  Brayrak nodded in assent, and the Leader just watched on impassively.

        “I completely understand, Denmother,” Gau said with an eloquent nod.  “Neutrality must be maintained, for all of you.”

        “It pleases me that you understand,” Zaa told him.   “It is not a matter of disrespect, High Archon.”

        “I do understand, Denmother, and I take no offense at your decision.  Nor yours, your Grace,” he added, looking at Jason.  “Nor yours, Overseer, revered Leader.  Your position within this body is understood to me.”

        “I should have everything ready for you to arrive at the main headquarters of the Confederation Bureau within the hour,” Kim declared.  “So you may depart at your leisure.”

        “Then I think we should adjourn as soon as Jason tells me he has a ship on the way over here to pick me up,” Kreel grinned.

        “I’ll get it on its way, Kreel,” Jason chuckled.  “A small one.  With broken jump restraints.”

        Kreel laughed richly.  “I do love an adventure,” he grinned impishly.

        After the council broke up, Jason relayed orders back to Myri to have her dispatch ships to pick up Shikizarr, Kreel, and Gau, to bring them to Terra to witness the signing.  “That was pretty fast,” he said to Zaa as they left her office, heading back to the Hearth.  Zaa walked without guard or escort as they left the building, something Jason fervently hoped he’d be able to do again when he got home and defeated Aya in an epic battle to the proverbial death over his movement restrictions.

        “Faster than I expected,” Zaa noted.  “I thought it would take him two or three months to reach a decision.”

        “You heard him say that he didn’t think we had time to arrange a public signing,” Jason said.  “He must be serious about it.”

        “Truly.  And thank the gods, we won’t have to go to Terra to attend.”

        Jason laughed.  “I should kiss you for getting me out of that,” he said with a grin.  “Much as I like Gau personally, I hate the ceremony.”

        “As do I, cousin.  Sometimes neutrality has more than one benefit.”

 

        Brista, 1 Kedaa, 4401 Orthodox Calendar

        Tuesday, 29 June 2014, Terran Standard Calendar

        Brista, 1 Kedaa, 4401, year 1327 of the 97th Generation, Karinne Historical Reference Calendar

        The Hearth, Kimdori Prime

 

        The Haumda were officially part of the Confederation.

        Gau certainly had everything ready for his decision.  Haumda military officers were already getting their initial briefings at the Confederate Combined Military Command Center, which was so brand new that the paint wasn’t entirely dry, but they needed it to be up and running and Lorna had barely waited for the Makati to get the carpet into the main command building.  Other parts of the complex were still under construction, but the main core building where Lorna and the other staff officers were stationed was only just finished, and she’d moved in literally as the Makati workers filed out.

         Luckily, Jason and Zaa didn’t have to go to Terra, so they had plenty of time.  After a surprisingly restful night’s sleep in the Hearth, Jason finally managed to do the one thing he’d really wanted, to see Miaari’s cubs.  The Kimdori doctors had declared them safe, and so Jason was there first thing that morning to see them, before the kids were awake, even before Jyslin and the others managed to get down from the destroyer.  Zaa and Miaari took him to the nursery chamber, which was on a lower level.  He had to utilize a sensor pod to “see” in the room, merged to it so he could see its sound-map imagery akin to an ultrasound, since the room was utterly lightless.  The cubs looked a little more mature now, had thicker fur, and their eyes were closed now, their lids finally having formed enough for them to close their eyes.  The three exceedingly tiny Kimdori infants were nestled in what almost looked like a doggy bed, the three of them curled up with each other in the soft cushioning of their little bed.  Miaari cuddled one of them to her breast as Zaa allowed him to pick one of them up, having to be very careful because they were so tiny.  He picked up the honey-colored female Yemaari in the litter, found her to be strangely hot, and so tiny she could fit in the palm of his hand.  To think that she would grow to be Miaari’s size, it reminded him of his own children, how small they’d seemed when they were born.  “They can actually tolerate the light now, but most cubs prefer it dark,” Miaari whispered.  “I would wait another week or so before I introduce them to the light, to make it as easy as possible on them.”

        Yemaari yawned and put her tiny, tiny paws on his finger as he touched her gently, and he gasped when he felt her connect to him through his nervous system.  The connection was open, unskilled, as she almost instinctively attached herself to his nervous system through the touch on his finger. Where other Kimdori throttled his ability to see inside them, Yemaari couldn’t, proving that the Kimdori’s unique ability did go both ways.  Since the tiny cub couldn’t control the connection she made, it allowed him to look into her mind even as she looked into his.  “I should have warned you that infants tend to do that,” Miaari smiled at him.  “It’s one way we learn, through direct nervous interface with our elders.  It is a very efficient way to teach an unformed mind.”

        Yemaari’s mind was that of an infant, lacking rational cognizance, a bundle of instincts and impulses, but Jason could detect an underlying intelligence, as she learned from attaching herself to him, saw what was in his mind and understood that there was a world beyond the lightless den.  She also came to the understanding that Jason was not nursemaid or mother, but also sensing kinship with this odd creature.  She could sense that he was a Generation even at that stage, and it inclined her towards him.  She did not see him as alien.  In fact, she rather liked him.  He was different from nursemaid and mother, and the difference of him intrigued her rather than frightened her.

        “She’s extremely intelligent, Miaari,” Jason said in a hushed tone as she picked up her other son.  “I can see it in her.”

        “I know.  I have high expectations for all three of them, but she seems to have the greatest intellect.  I sense great physical ability in Maaleth, and a cunning in Haan that will make him a formidable player of the game.  There is much potential here.”

        “As is only proper for the children of a Handmaiden,” Zaa declared in a soft voice, which made Jason chuckle a tiny bit.

        “Are you taking them home with us?” Jason asked as he rubbed his fingertip along Yemaari’s furry little belly, which made her smile.  His finger was nearly as wide as the tiny cub cradled literally in the palm of his hand.  She was the size of a newborn puppy, and looked almost creepily similar to one.

        “Not quite yet.  As soon as I have my home in Jaxtra to my liking, I will come for them,” she replied as Zaa took one of the males from her, cradling him in the palm of her hand.  “They are well cared for here in the Hearth, Jason.  That gives me leisure to ensure that everything is just so before I bring them home.”

        “Will they be alright jumping hyperspace?” he asked in concern.

        “Better than infants of other species,” she replied.  “After all, they were brought here by hyperspace.”

        “True,” he chuckled, bringing Yemaari up and nuzzling her against his cheek fondly.  “You just wait til we get you home, little girl.  I’m gonna spoil you sooo rotten,” he said, which made Miaari laugh softly.

        “Not my child,” Miaari warned.

        “It’s more fun to spoil other people’s kids, that way you don’t have to deal with them at home,” he replied easily, which made Zaa laugh.

        Once that bit of very important business was out of the way, Jason got back to the real reason he was on Kimdori…to relax.  After Jyslin and the others came down from the ship, they spent a few hours just puttering around the Hearth, spending time with the Denmother, Denfather, and Miaari.  They went to see Miaari’s cubs again after they had a chance to rest a while, then they went out on another trip into the huge capitol city of the Kimdori to do sightsee a bit and some shopping…not on an organized tour as Zaa had taken them yesterday, but just running around the city to see things from the ground level.  Zaa and Grun walked with them, not wearing their bands of station and simply mixing in with the millions of Kimdori that lived there, without guards, without trappings.  Just the way Jason liked things.  But, since Jason and his family weren’t Kimdori, they did stand out quite a bit, and got a lot of curious looks their way.

        The city was large, clean, and orderly, and it had everything in it Jason would expect in a city, but a few things were noticeably missing.  For one, there was not a single restaurant or bar anywhere in the city…and he didn’t have to think very long about that one to understand why.  The Kimdori could eat, but they didn’t have to eat   There were shops that sold what a Kimdori would consider food…if featureless blocks of stuff that looked like gray tofu could be called food.  Eating held no social convention to the Kimdori, so in their own society, it had no dedicated shops that catered to the practice.  Their shops were much like Karsa’s in that they held merchandise from a large number of different empires, and many beyond even Karsa’s supply lines.  The Kimdori had their hands into almost every civilization in their quadrant, and their shops reflected that long reach.  For another, there weren’t any amusement places in the city either, like amusement parks or water parks or anything of the sort.  That seemed strange to him, since Miaari very much enjoyed the water park, and knew that Kimdori did in fact like to have fun.  They had no sports arenas in the city, no stadiums, no organized sports or any such things.  There were tons of museums and art institutes—Jason had no idea Kimdori loved art so much—but no sports.

        That was what was missing.  There were places in the city devoted to the nature of the Kimdori.  There was a tutoring center in town where Kimdori with experience offworld hired out to teach other Kimdori to shapeshift into some of the animals out there that might be useful to them, or perhaps just animals they rather fancied, and of course they taught Kimdori the various sentient races.  Kimdori could shapeshift into animals and creatures they could see easily enough, but that was purely cosmetic, taking on its appearance and perhaps its basic abilities, such as the ability to run fast on all fours or fly using wings.  But to pass close inspection or to gain access to the creature’s more exotic natural abilities, they had to have intimate understanding of the creature’s biology and anatomy.  Miaari could shapeshift into the guise of a giruzi, would look like one in every way, but to be able to use its electrical discharge powers, she had to have an intimate understanding of exactly how those biological processes worked in a giruzi so she could copy it.  And that was where these tutors came into play.  They would shapeshift into the animal completely—well, up to the point where they were the animal but could withstand the radiation—and trained their customers in how to take the shape themselves.

        There were places where Kimdori gathered, almost like coffee shops, but they sold no coffee or any other drinks.  They instead simply rented out seats where Kimdori sat and talked in groups while pleasant music played in the background.  There were also music halls where Kimdori would assemble and listen to music played live for their benefit, which seemed almost like a bar with a live stage, but they served no food or drinks there, only access to water.  There were news outlets on almost every street and corner, holograms and viddies from every empire in the quadrant playing for the populace, letting everyone in the city keep up with everything going on everywhere.  The Kimdori on homeworld may not be as involved with keeping things under control out there as the Gamekeepers and their staffs, but even Joe Kimdori who worked in the music hall as a musician liked to keep up with what was going on out there in the galaxy.  And theaters…the theaters!  There were theaters everywhere in the city, almost one every five or six blocks, where plays and other pieces were performed.  They didn’t show movies or viddies in them, they were all live action plays and performance pieces.

        But aside from those little quirks, he found the city to be very interesting, the Kimdori friendly, and he and his family had a pretty good time.  Zaa took them to a music hall that had a piano in it, and she talked him into demonstrating the Terran instrument as played by a Terran for the Kimdori that happened to be there at the time.  They walked along a beautiful beach along the edge of the city and watched as the kids chased those curious little bat-like creatures, went to a couple of plays and found the acting superb and the stories engaging, and after Jyslin and the others went back up to the ship to eat and get some rest out of their armor, they returned to the Hearth and let the family relax a while as Jason and Zaa sat down for more talks about the Syndicate, the Consortium, and the Confederation. When they came out to relax a bit before the scheduled council meeting, Jason was quite surprised to see that Miaari had removed her cubs from their dark room and had brought them up to the main living area, still in their basket, and all three were awake and looking up over the edge of the basket with wide-eyed curiosity as Rann, Shya, and Kyri tried very hard not to play with them like they were puppies, sitting beside the basket and touching them, all but petting them, but not picking them up, as they were instructed not to do.

        “You brought them out,” Jason said as he knelt by the cushioned oval and touched Haan gently on the head as he looked up over the lip of the basket, staring at Kyri and Sora as they played with a couple of dolls they’d brought.  Haan looked up at him with those eerie eyes, and Jason felt him trying to connect to his nervous system.  “Hello, Haan, it’s good to see you,” he said in a soft, nurturing voice that made the exceedingly tiny little Kimdori cub smile at him.

        “I told you they could tolerate the light.  I had the nursemaid gradually increase the light in the nursery while we were out, to prepare them.  It’s good for cubs to see beyond the nursery from time to time.  I will take them back to the nursery when they get tired.”

        “It’s a good thing Amber isn’t here,” Jyslin laughed.  “I don’t think they’d be that peaceful.”

        “On the contrary, vulpars have little trouble interacting with Kimdori cubs,” Miaari replied.  “They know they’re infants, and treat them carefully.”

        “So, you guys almost done with your silly politics?” Symone asked as she studied a chessboard, sitting across from Grun.  Jason knew she knew how to play, he’d taught her himself, but didn’t know that Grun had learned the game.

        “Almost,” he replied.  “Just have to sit through a council meeting, and we’re done.  It’ll be the first one Gau attends officially,” he noted.

        “Gau will probably remain silent and simply observe until he grasps the intra-council politics,” Zaa noted.  “And you should take more of an interest in those silly politics, Symone.  Given who you are and where you live, understanding what goes on would only behoove you.”

        “I’m just here for the ride, Denmother,” she grinned through her transparent faceplate.  “I’ll leave the politics to the smart people, like Jayce and Tim-Tim.”

        “She doesn’t want to know,” Tim grunted as he bounced Zach on his knee a little.

        “And has your father started you on your lessons, cublings?” Zaa asked, looking at Rann, Shya, and Aran.

        “You mean teaching us what it means to be the Grand Duke? Yeah,” Aran replied.  “I didn’t realize those lessons were so boring, Ranny doesn’t talk about them that much.”

        “They are lessons you should learn most keenly, cubling,” she smiled down at him.  “You cannot be a Karinne unless you understand what it means to be a Karinne.  And since your family holds the position of being the caretaker of the CBIM and the secrets of your house, no one on Karis should understand what it means to be a Karinne more than you.”

        “Yeah, I know, but it’s still a little boring,” he replied.

        “They’ll be coming to work with me twice a takir like I was doing with Rann before things got crazy,” Jason relayed.  “Just not all at once.  They tend to lose their focus when they’re together, so they’ll come one at a time.”

        “Wise,” Zaa chuckled as Symone gave a short swear.

        “Aww, come on, Grun!  You just learned this game!  You’re not supposed to be this good at it!” she complained.

        “It’s a game with simple rules, but a complexity to its underlying strategy that intrigues me,” he replied.  “I thought emzura was a complicated game, but this one has many layers.  Many, many layers.  I would be of a mind to study it more formally.”

        “Grun’s main job is to be Zaa’s most educated advisor, Symone.  I think you picked the wrong person to teach just so you could beat them and inflate your ego,” Jyslin teased a little.

        “I did not!” she protested.

        “Mmm-hmm,” Jyslin hummed playfully as Jason sat down beside her and took her gauntleted hand.  “Just not the same, is it?” she asked with a smile through her faceplate.

        “We’ll live for two more days,” he replied.

        “Denmother, it is time,” one of her aides called from the ramp leading out.

        “We must have been talking longer than I thought,” she mused, standing up.  “Come, Jason, let us get this overwith.”

        Jason chuckled and stood up.  “That’s how I feel about council more often than not,” he agreed.

        Council was somewhat surprising because not only was Gau attending for the first time, but the Grand Master was also in attendance, his hologram beside Magran’s.  The Grand Master very, very rarely attended council, allowed Magran to handle it due to his advanced age, and that age looked even more advanced than just a few takirs ago, when he came to Karis.  He looked…tired.

        Jason considered that as they waited for the others to arrive.  The Colonies were a very orderly and calm place, and Magran’s position as the heir to the mantle of the Grand Master was already a settled matter.  The transition would be smooth for them, but it would cause about a month’s disruption in the Colonies as they observed the mourning rituals and ceremonies of succession that would seat Magran as the new Grand Master when the current one passed away.  He would pick a new Speaker for the council, and that Speaker would be his heir apparent.  But, Magran would be the one still attending council, since he wasn’t so old that it tired him out.

        “It’s good to see you again, Grand Master,” Jason said to him as Assaba’s hologram winked on.

        “And you, my young friend,” he replied in a weary voice.  “But I’m afraid I haven’t come to council today to be social.  I have an announcement to make to the council.”

        “We’re listening, Grand Master,” Sk’Vrae said as the last of them appeared, Grayhawk’s hologram winking on.

        “Now that we are all here,” he said, then he cleared his throat, which led to a minor cough.  “I fear that this will be my last official function as the Grand Master,” he declared.  “My medical staff has informed me that I’ve contracted Eniver’s Syndrome.”

        Jason gasped slightly.  Eniver’s Syndrome was an incurable Colonist disease much akin to Alzheimer’s and Lou Gherig’s Disease in Terrans.  It was a degenerative nervous condition that caused Colonists to lose motor control and mental faculties.  It mostly affected very old Colonists, and few  Colonists were as old as the Grand Master.  The Grand Master was looking at a rather grim scenario ahead, where his ability to move and his ability to think would degrade at an accelerating rate, until he was effectively paralyzed and comatose.  But at his highly advanced age, he probably might not live long enough to reach that state.

        “I’m so sorry to hear that, Grand Master,” Dahnai said with honest emotion in her voice.  She was very fond of the Grand Master.

        “I appreciate your support my friends.  But in these trying times, it does not bode well for the Colonies or the Confederation for me to be ill.  For this reason, I’ve decided to take the unprecedented step of abdicating my position before my death.  The Colonies needs a healthy Grand Master at this time because of the trying times to come, a Grand Master capable of making quick and rational decisions with the support of a full council.  Because there is the very real possibility that I may wake up tomorrow unable to perform my duties due to my illness, I’ve decided that steps must be taken to protect the Colonies from my own indisposition.”

        “I didn’t think that was even possible, Grand Master,” Jason said in surprise.

        “There is a legal process for me to willingly step down,” he replied with a weak smile.  “It’s just never been exercised before.  Because there is no telling when I will become unable to discharge the duties of my office, I have decided to take the pre-emptive step here and now to prevent the process of exclusion.”  That process was the way the council could have a Grand Master declared mentally unfit to carry out his job due to illness, which took 20 days and a lot of procedure and ceremony to carry out.  “I’ve already begun the process.  In five days, I will step down as the Grand Master, and Magran will take my place.  I would ask that you, our friends and allies, come to Exeven to witness his coronation.”

        “I would be honored to attend, Grand Master,” Assaba said with a stately nod.

        “I would ask that all of our friends attend, Overseer Kruu, great Leader of the Zyagya, Grand Duke Jason Karinne,” he said, looking towards the grizzled Zyagyan, who was attending in person today.  “Though your position in this council is one of neutral observer, in my heart, the Zyagya are the friends of the Colonists, and I would ask that the Zyagya be present.”

        For the first time ever in council, Hraga, the Leader of the Zyagya, spoke.  “It would be a great honor for the Zyagya to be present for the coronation of Magran,” he said in a powerful voice, thumping his fist against his chest.  “I will be there.”

        “It warms my heart to hear that, great Leader,” he said with a nod.

        “It would be both an honor and a pleasure to attend the ceremony, Grand Master,” Brayrak declared with an eloquent nod.

        And that bombshell more or less derailed their entire agenda.  They spent the entire council organizing the Confederate Council’s trip to Exeven, the capitol planet of the Colonies, so they could be present when the Grand Master stepped down and allowed Magran to take his place.  The Grand Master informed them that he would be inviting every leader of every empire in the entire sector cluster, some 49 different rulers, with whom the Colonies had at least fleeting contact, and Jason saw that as primarily a good thing.

        And he saw that even in his last act, the Grand Master was moving with political skill and subtlety.  He was using his abdication as a vehicle to get the non-member rulers in one place so they could be persuaded to join the Confederation.  It was simple truth that the more empires signed on, the better chance they’d have against the Syndicate and the Consortium, and with them on Exeven, it gave Jason and others a chance to talk to them face to face.

        He already had it forming in his mind.  If there was one remote empire he would want to get into the Confederation, it was the Aridai. They were the largest empire in the sector “above” the Grimja sector in the cluster as one would view the galactic starchart, diagonally “up” and “outbound” from the galactic core from the home sector, and their empire was all the way over on the other corner, nearly as far as an empire could physically be from the Imperium and still be in the sector cluster. Over half of the Aridai empire were actually in the next sector over on Karinne starcharts.  What made them so promising was that their empire was 107 systems, a very large territory, comprised of 12 different races, and they were technologically advanced and had lots of natural resources at their disposal.  The founding species of the Aridai Empire and for whom the empire was named was also a humanoid species, they were a humanoid race that looked amazingly similar to the Terrans, Shio, and Faey…just that they averaged about 6.7 shakra tall on the average, or about 7.5 feet or about two and two-thirds meters.  They were from a slightly lower than average gravity homeworld that made them tall, like the Grimja.  If they could get the Aridai to join the Confederation, it would significantly increase their industrial production capability.  And since their empire was comprised of 12 races that had worked together for over two thousand years in a democratic government not too much unlike the old Republic of the United States, so they would be more amenable to working with different species with different viewpoints.

        Jason could see that the Grand Master wasn’t joking about his condition.  He tired visibly during the council session, and looked exhausted when they finally called it after about two hours.  Eniver’s Syndrome moved swiftly once it reached a certain stage, and unfortunately, it was very hard to detect until it reached that stage.  It could also appear and start doing damage very quickly in the extremely aged Colonists…and the Grand Master was about as elderly as a Colonist could get.  It wasn’t too much of a surprise from a medical standpoint to see him suffering from the effects of the disease just days after its diagnosis.  Much like how cancer could appear suddenly and spread like wildfire through a Generation’s body, Eniver’s Syndrome could appear out of nowhere and strike hard and fast against an aged Colonist.

        After the council session ended, Jason just gave Zaa a long, sober look.  “That is not news I wanted to get,” he sighed.

        “I know.  The Grand Master is an asset to us all, and it grieves me to know that he is not much longer for this world,” she replied grimly.  “But even in his last days, he thinks ahead and thinks of us all.”

        “I know.  He’s fishing to get others into the Confederation by having them attend Magran’s coronation,” he nodded.

        “It is an opportunity,” she said as they both stood up.  “We will have the opportunity to speak to them face to face, in somewhat private surroundings.  And there are several that you should think seriously about approaching.”

        “Not me, I’ll just tell Dahnai and sic her on them, or maybe Grayhawk, or Sk’Vrae,” he replied, which made Zaa chuckle.  “With us being independent now, I have to be more careful about what I say and do to make absolutely sure the house maintains its neutrality.  It gets close to the oaths I took to directly campaign to get others to join the Confederation, since the Confederation itself is nearly a violation of the oaths.  I can’t directly act, but I can sure as hell use Dahnai and others to do it for me.”

        “I will make a Kimdori of you yet, cousin,” she said with an approving look.

        Jyslin and the others were honestly shocked when Jason spread the word when they got back to the Hearth.  “The Grand Master?  That’s awful!” she gasped, putting her hands to her faceplate.  “He’s such a wonderful man!”

        “I know, it’s like a gut punch,” Jason agreed with a nod.  “So almost as soon as we get home and decontaminate, we’ll be going to Exeven to attend Magran’s coronation.  I’d like you to come with me, love.  The Grand Master is very fond of you, I’m sure he’d like you to be there.”

        “Of course I will!  I want to talk to him before he disappears from the public eye,” she assured him.

        “Can I come too, Daddy?” Rann asked.

        Jason looked down at him.  “Not this time, pippy, it’s going to be a little too uncontrolled for me to feel confident bringing you along,” he replied, then looked to Aya.  “I’m sorry for the short notice, but look at the circumstances.”

        I know.  I’ll have the security plan on your desk as soon as we get back, she replied.  I will demand a larger than normal security detail, since you’ll be going outside the Imperium or the Collective.

        “I can live with that,” he answered her.  “I want Dera in the detail.  She could be handy.”

        That goes without saying, Aya agreed.  A listener is almost a requirement when venturing into unknown territory, especially if we’re going to the Colonies.  They have a very high percentage of telepaths in their population.

        “I think we should try out bringing a few of the Marine Guard for this,” Jason mused.  “You said they’re ready, and there’s no real need to stretch your girls thin trying to protect the strip and escort us out for these state visits.  Exeven won’t be the only one, just the first.  Unplanned, but the first..”

        I can do that.  The Marine Guard is almost up to my standards.  The field mission will be a chance for me to see how disappointed I’ll be in them.

        “Such a bitch,” he teased, which made her smile roguishly through her transparent faceplate.

        “I almost fear ask what she’s saying,” Grun chuckled.

        “Debating the performance potential of the Marine Guard that protects the White House and a few other high-security sites on Karis,” he answered.  “Aya seems to think that they’ll never be good enough just because they’re not Imperial Guards.”

        Naturally not, she sent arrogantly, though she was smiling.

        “Ah, well, I’ll leave the internal wrangling to you, then,” Grun smiled.  “I’d much rather learn more about this fascinating game,” he said, looking down at the chessboard.

        “Sometimes I think you have the best job in the galaxy, Denfather,” Jason told him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:   Title    ToC    3      5

Chapter 4

 

        Baetha (Midsummer’s Day), 4401, Faey Orthodox Calendar

        Wednesday, 25 July 2014, Terran Standard Calendar

        Baetha (Midsummer’s Day), year 1327 of the 97th Generation, Karinne Historical Reference Calendar

        Karsa Sports Complex, Karsa, Karis

 

        There was just something to be said for the bright sunshine gleaming down over a grassy sports field…and it was the calm before the storm.

        Jason and Jyslin walked with Frinia, Suri and Dera following behind them, walking over the prepared bachi pitch of the Karsa Sports Complex, the new home of the Karis Paladins.  The pitch had been prepared under IBL rules by the grounds crew and inspected by officials from the IBL office just an hour ago to ensure that the ground crew had everything correct.  Tomorrow was the official start of the IBL’s season in that it was the first day of pre-season training camp, and on the first of Romaa, the season would begin, it would be the first game of the season…and sadly, it would be an away game.  The Karis Paladins would open their first season on Karis by traveling to Varos III to play the Varos Blitz.  IBL teams didn’t play preseason games against other teams the way many Terran sports leagues did, so the team would not leave Karis until they traveled to open the season.  Tomorrow, the training facility built over on the far side of Karsa would be in full swing, where thousands of rabid fans and reporters would be watching the first day of training camp.

        Jyslin and Frinia had busted their asses to be ready for tomorrow.  Frinia’s vast knowledge of the inner workings of the IBL had been a critical asset to Jyslin, the elderly Grand Duchess an excellent mentor for her as she conducted her first draft with the coaches, signed 14 key free agents, and then started dealing with the players on a personal basis as they began filtering in to Karsa to take up residence in their apartments, with Kimdori shadowing their every move without their knowledge.  Some of them had shown up over a month ago, the totally serious ones, who came that early to be there to give their input with Red Horn on how to make the training facilities just so, which turned out to be decent advice, get some personal one on one time with the coaches, and some had come to just to hang out on Karis since they had right of passage into the system.  They found that if they wanted a little privacy away from the constant press coverage they dealt with in the Imperium, then Karsa was the place to go.  There were local reporters, but Jason had made it clear that if one of the Paladin players said she wanted some personal space, they’d damn well better give it to her.

        Coming out to greet the IBL officials and observe their inspection of the stadium was a welcome break from the mountain of paperwork he had waiting for him at the office, most of it revolving around the current critical things going on…and there were a few of them.  For one, the Confederate Combined Military was nearly back to the strength that Lorna had required for them to take out the last of the Consortium forces trapped in the nebula.  Lorna had sent down the battle plans for all militaries to study and practice individually before joint exercises began tomorrow, and six days after that, if everyone did well, they’d execute Operation Broadsword, which would eradicate the last of the Consortium military presence in their galaxy.

        That was the military part of it.  Politically, things were getting really annoying, mainly due to their three newest members.  It had started out fairly well, though.  The retirement of the Grand Master and the ascension of Magran to the post had been very good for the Confederation, for they’d all had a chance to come together in person and both celebrate the long and illustrious career of the Grand Master and celebrate the ordination of the new leader of the Colonies.  The Grand Master had quite cleverly set it up that way, and Jason couldn’t complain.  Everyone felt more united after Magran’s ceremony, as if they had a personal investment in the Colonies, which was part of what the old Grand Master had been after.

        Then the dynamics on the council changed quickly as new members joined.  The Prakarikai were everything that Jason feared they would be, for High Queen Anivan was conceited, arrogant, self-centered, cunning, opportunistic, and a general all-around flaming bitch.   Nobody on the council liked her, not even Kim, who liked everyone.  She talked and talked and talked and talked and fucking talked, trying to turn every council meeting into a six hour marathon of them listening to her spend hours trying to make a single point.  The Prakarikai took ceremony to the extreme, and it showed up in their racial personalities in other ways.  It was like they had no concept of time, or they were oblivious to the fact that they were boring the absolute fuck out of everyone else with their fifteen minute diatribe over how much they enjoyed reading romance novels.  Anivan couldn’t say hello without it taking five minutes.

        And that was just Anivan.  Prime Senator Quord of the Jun Republic…well, he was certainly…intense.  That about summed up the Jun, intense.  Everything they did was intense, as if their lives would crash and burn if they didn’t inject absolutely 100% of their energy and attention into everything they did.  He was a polite enough fellow, Jason could admit that, who loved art and poetry and was almost addicted to opera, proving that the Jun weren’t as fearsome as their reputation…until they started discussing the upcoming military operations.  That’s when the Jun war mentality showed itself, and they had to all but put a leash on Quord to prevent him from drawing his sword and jumping in a warship to do battle with the entire Consortium all by himself.  It seemed like bloodlust on casual glance, but in reality Quord detested war, and was quite a well-mannered and cultured man.  He was simply of the mind that if he had to go to war, then best to get it done and overwith as quickly as possible.  The problems Quord caused were mainly due to his intensity, he seemed to really annoy the Skaa for some reason that eluded Jason, probably some racial quirk, but Sk’Vrae seemed quite fond of him.

        To Terrans, though, the Jun were curiously attractive.  Like the Faey and Shio, they were a humanoid species that looked almost identical to those three races, with only some minor cosmetic differences.  Jun had large eyes compared to the other three species, their eyes a uniform black iris with the whites of their eyes actually a dark gray, which gave them a very eerie, chilling stare, eyes set into a face that about any Faey, Terran, or Shio would find attractive.  They had pointed ears like the Faey, but their skin was varying shades of brown depending on where the Jun lived in their empire.  In all, they weren’t a very bad-looking species to a Faey, Terran, or a Shio, but there were some differences.  For one, Jun had small, basically useless tails, like the Na’Vi from the old Avatar movies.  Also similar to that fictional race, the Jun had fanged incisors, which when combined with their eerie dark eyes gave them a “vampire-esque” appearance.  Their fangs weren’t as pronounced as they were on the Beryans or the Moridon, but their incisors were definitely longer than the rest of their teeth and ended in points.  Their most unusual aspect from the Terran perspective even over their tails were their hands.  They had only four digits on their hands, but those digits were arrayed as two fingers and two opposable thumbs, one on each side of the hand.  Their feet were much more “normal” as Terrans, Faey, and Shio would reckon things, for they had five toes instead of four, and their feet had the same physiological shape as a Terran’s foot.  Jun were physically slim and slender, built lightly, but they were enormously strong, and they had very long arms.  Not enough to look unnatural to a Terran, but it was noticeable.

        Then there was King Shevatt of the Ogravian Empire, their newest member.  It was the third-largest empire in the Verutan sector, and Shevatt aggravated the absolute fuck out of Dahnai for reasons that seemed almost irrational.  Shevatt looked like the typical, average Ogravian, who were a race akin to the Goraga…and maybe that was what annoyed Dahnai so much.  The Goraga and the Ogravians were both bovine species, both much akin to the minotaurs from Terran mythology, but where the Goraga were huge, aggressive, and stupid, the Ogravians were huge, highly cultured, and exceptionally intelligent.  The average Ogravian stood nearly seven shakra tall, or nearly three meters tall or around eight and a half feet, and weighed upwards of 165 konn, or around 180 kilograms or 400 pounds.  The Ogravians nearly stood eye to eye with the Moridon, but were much more heavily built.  There were huge, massive, hulking bull-like creatures who could move with blazing speed when they so wished, were almost ridiculously strong and powerful, and didn’t look even a fraction as intelligent as they actually were.  They were a peaceful species who got along with everyone in their sector, and Shevatt was highly educated, extremely intelligent, patient, observant, and politically savvy.  He seemed to just push Dahnai’s buttons on every level because she was almost reflexively prejudiced against him due to having to deal with the Goraga. Shevatt was just as big as a Goraga, looked vaguely like one, was just as physically powerful, one of the most physically intimidating and imposing races in the sector cluster, but the Ogravians were pacifistic by nature, using their intelligence and political skills to resolve all their issues with outside empires with diplomacy.  Shevatt embodied everything Ogravian in his careful words and insightful observations, as well as being able to read most of the other rulers in the Confederation like an open book with the most casual of glances.

        Those were the new full members. They also had a new neutral observer on the council, in the personage of Mesaiima, President of the Imbiri.  Everyone respected the Imbiri’s neutrality, but the Imbiri had decided that they needed to know what was going on, so they had petitioned for the right to sit in as neutral observers like the Zyagya and the Moridon.  But Mesaiima wasn’t as quiet as the Leader was, asking questions in council and engaging the others in smalltalk, where the Leader remained stonily silent at all times.  She was using the council to make contacts within the Confederation, Jason could see that, to arrange trade agreements with the larger empires in the sector cluster.  But nobody minded, since Mesaiima was an absolute sweetheart, gentle and kind and thoughtful like most Imbiri were.  Imbiri were highly charismatic creatures by their very nature, and were total and complete pacifists.  The Imbiri would not do harm to another even if it cost them their own lives, but luckily for them, the two major empires that claimed the space around their home system respected their neutrality and their sovereignty.  The Haumda and the Verutans often used Imbiri as a neutral meeting site for treaty negotiations, and the Imbiri were happy to host them, as well as act as mediators.

        And that was just a fraction of what was going on.  Gau had already come and gone on his visit to Karis, had arrived 12 days ago, spent five days with his retinue of 16 priests, and had spent that time touring some parts of Karis and talking with Cybi.  The priests were there to investigate the possible fulfillment of omens, and they’d been utterly focused on that task.  Gau, on the other hand, was there to talk business, and that business was exactly what Jason expected, trying to get the Karinnes into lucrative trade and research agreements.  The Haumda were plodding and meticulous, but they could also be very determined, and it had taken a lot of deflection to keep Gau in his chair.  But, even Jason could admit that it was a productive state visit, because Gau got his own section of Kosigi set up, and Haumda shipbuilders had started arriving just three days after Gau returned to Haumda.

        The first of the large empires had finally accepted his deal to open a Stargate into their territory and centralize and streamline their logistic schedules, and to Jason’s surprise, it had been the Grimja.  Kreel had spent maybe five days discussing the proposal with his governing body and his advisors, then signed off on it 12 days ago.  Grimja, bless their easy-going souls, weren’t all that good at constructing and sticking to a highly regimented and disciplined schedule, which were mandatory requirements for a large and complex transportation and logistical network.  The two Skaa empires and the Verutans had yet to move on it, but Jason was sure that they would, especially after they saw how efficient his transportation department would make the Grimja’s logistical network.  Makati and Kizzik, and to a lesser degree the Beryans, they were just built to handle those kinds of issues, and the team from Jrz’kii’s office currently in the Grimja empire retooling their transport system to turn what Jrz’kii had confided to him was a knotted mess of utter chaos into a well-oiled paragon of efficiency.  When they saw what the Makati and Kizzik could do with a large empire’s transport network, they’d jump at the treaty just to have his consultants go in there and iron everything out for them.

        Along the lines of treaties, Jason had some 103 different treaty proposals sitting in his inbox waiting for his consideration, the vast majority of which were trade proposals tendered by just about every fucking empire in the entire sector cluster.  Now everyone was jumping on the bandwagon, sending him so many proposals that he felt like he was drowning in offers.  Most of them were one-sided, other empires thinking they could take advantage of the newly sovereign Karinnes, but there were a few that were mutually beneficial, and Jason would agree to those.  He was just taking his time to thoroughly consider all the ramifications of signing any treaty with anyone, since he had a lot more riding on those treaties than the other party did.  The neutrality of the Karinnes had to be beyond reproach, and that was the primary aspect of any agreement he considered.

        Domestically, there was nearly as much going on, and it didn’t all revolve around bachi.  Two days ago, Justin Taggart had been awakened from his induced coma.  Yesterday, Songa had sent him the report that Jason was desperately hoping to see.  Justin’s brain repair operation had been a complete and total success.  His synaptic maps had been completely restored, and after about four months of physical therapy and mental exercises, he would be back on duty and wouldn’t even have any scars to show how grievously he’d been injured.  And what was more important to the Faey, the brain repair procedure had completely restored Justin’s talent to pre-injury levels, meaning that finally, Faey medical science had devised a means to repair damaged talent.

        Songa had already sent a fully detailed report back to the main headquarters of the Medical Service showing them how she and Myleena had invented a procedure to repair damaged brain tissue, and also damaged talent, using Faey medical science and Karinne nano-technology.  It would require Karinne technology and thus would be proprietary, but Jason had already told Songa that temporary medical transfers to Karis for brain repair procedures would be allowed.  Jason would not allow politics to stand between someone in need of medical care and the care they desperately needed.  If anyone in the Imperium needed nanite-assisted brain repair, they would be granted a medical travel permit to come to Karis to have the procedure done, then transferred back to the Imperium so the Medical Service could do the rehabilitation regimen for the patient.  That wouldn’t require Karinne technology.  Songa had already created a training regimen to get her doctors qualified to perform the procedure, and she projected that in about two months, the Karsa Medical Annex would start taking brain injury cases from off planet with a staff of about 20 certified neurosurgeons that could perform the procedure.

        And that was what some had been waiting to see.  If everything was still on schedule, Kyva should be waking up any minute after her jack implantation procedure.  Just as Jason predicted, as soon as Kyva was absolutely sure that the jack wouldn’t damage her talent, she had one implanted…and in her case, she made sure to the point of waiting to see how Justin was when he woke up, if he’d regained his talent after the brain repair procedure, which would mean that there would be a proven procedure in place that could repair her talent if the jack did damage her talent.  As soon as she heard that he’d make a full recovery with his talent fully restored at its original strength, she called Songa personally and made an appointment.  And Songa was probably finishing up Kyva’s jack implantation at that moment.  Kyva would be looking at about a month of assimilation training, then another month of specialized consultation as she worked with central command to create a training program to help a jacked rigger train using the jack’s unique advantages.  Kyva would literally write the manual when it came to training a jack-enabled rigger on a Mark II Gladiator.

        And when he was fully recovered, Justin would be doing the same when it came to a Wolf fighter.

        The jack program would officially end its trial phase in three days, and would become publicly available to all house members.  The jack program was finally going public, and for the last week, the White House had been releasing information about the jacks, what they did and how to go about getting one.  Any house member that wanted a jack could get one, and the jacks were not being mandated for any career field due to the very personal nature of the jack.  Anyone who wanted one had to pay the C560 for it unless they were in what was deemed a “critical need” occupation, where the jack would have a direct beneficial use in their job.  Those people would receive a jack for free if they wanted one.  That classification applied to the entire military, everyone in the Planetary Guard, all government workers, all computer professionals, and oddly enough, all professional transportation operators; professional commercial pilots, commercial hovercar and atmosphere-only skimmer drivers, mass transit drivers, and civilian-application mecha operators, like mechloader and mechcrane operators.  Anyone whose job was to operate a complicated piece of machinery fell into the critical need sphere.

        Those jacks…he could already see how they were going to fundamentally change the house on several levels.  They emulated a Generation’s ability to merge to a computer in every way but one, since biogenics could augment a Generation’s psionic abilities.  But everything else a Generation could do, a jacked person could do.  Once she finished her assimilation training, Kyva would be able to merge to any computer that could communicate with her interface—which was virtually every computer on Karis—receive information as well as transmit it, submerge herself into the computer the way Jason could.  That would allow her to all but become her Gladiator, as if it was her own body, and give her a level of control and precision that surpassed even the current one-way interface technology they employed.  Just like that old anime Ghost in the Shell, the members of the House Karinne would be able to completely interact with computers at a mental level, which was one of the main objectives of the Program started by the Karinnes so long ago.

        So, in that respect, Cybi felt that the Program had been successfully completed, for the Karinnes had devised a means to interact with computers on a nearly-telepathic level.  It wasn’t telepathic, but the jack created a direct mental interface, and that was very nearly the same thing.  And when coupled to a biogenic interface that could communicate telepathically with other biogenic units, well, it was 99% of what the Program had been trying to accomplish.

        And the technology to implant and run a jack was not dependent on biogenics.  Songa was refining a new jack implantation procedure that didn’t utilize spiders, which were Karinne technology, and Myleena had already designed a moleculartronic control chip for the jack that did everything a biogenic chip did, just not quite as efficiently.  They even had a working prototype non-biogenic jack controller that Songa and Myleena had collaborated to produce.  Biogenics were created to interface with an organic mind and thus were uniquely suited for use in the control chip of a cyberjack, but that didn’t mean that a moleculartronic chip couldn’t do the same thing.  It was bigger and more complicated than the biogenic chip, but did the job and only suffered a 8% increase in response time compared to a biogenic control chip.  That was more than acceptable, given biogenic response times averaged 1.2 microseconds.  That whole extra .1 microseconds wasn’t all that much of a big deal.

        What was a big deal was that with Songa’s research into the use of micro-remotes that would replace the use of spiders in the dataline laying aspect of the jack implantation, it would allow other empires to install non-biogenic jacks in their own citizens without using Karinne technology.  Jason didn’t consider the jacks themselves to be protected technology; in fact, he saw it as a good thing if he released it into the public domain, because it would remove one of the reasons why others would want to come after the Generations.  It would give most anyone 90% of the abilities of a Generation without needing biogenics or the right DNA.  But, he could admit, the one thing a Generation could do that a jacked subject could not was the biggest reason that the Consortium, Dahnai, and just about everyone else wanted the Generations.  The Generations would have to remain safely on Karis, but he felt that it would cut down on the sheer number of people trying to procure biogenic technology for their own.

        They already had a prototype moleculartronic jack, so as soon as the perfected a non-Karinne implantation technique, it would give anyone in the Confederation access to jacks and all the advantages those jacks provided, from “instant learning” via computer-assisted knowledge insertion to assisted memory in the form of external memory the brain could access to removing the need for any kind of input-output device for anything from a handpanel to a battleship.  Cyberjacks were going to revolutionize the basic way the House of Karinne did its business, all but turning the entire house into Generations, and it would do the same for those who adopted the technology for their own.

        And if their technology wasn’t capable of performing jack implantations, well, the Karinnes would be able to do it for them if they wanted it.  The Medical Annex at the Academy could be set up to perform jack implantations on an out-patient basis using procedures that didn’t rely on Karinnne technology, and that way anyone who wanted a jack could just go to the Academy and get one for about C700, to cover the costs of the procedure and the more expensive moleculartronic control microprocessor.

        The jacks, that was exactly the kind of knowledge that the House of Karinne was created to distribute.  The house had not been founded on the idea of keeping secrets, but with the idea of releasing technology that benefited everyone when and only when it was appropriate.  The rest of the galaxy could handle jack technology without causing massive upheaval, wars, or chaos.  It did have military uses, but it also had uses far beyond the military applications.  It would improve the quality of life of the common galactic citizen.  The release of jack technology would not violate the Karinne oath that their technology would not be allowed to be used to allow one civilization or empire to inflict its will on another, for the technology would be made available to everyone, keeping everyone on even ground.  The benefits of releasing the technology far outweighed the drawbacks.  And for those reasons, as soon as Jason had everything organized and finalized, when Myleena signed off on the moleculartronic jack, Songa had medical procedures vetted and certified for jack implantation techniques that didn’t require the assistance of spiders, and they had some defenses in place to protect them from jacked computer specialists trying to invade their computer systems—those would be the Moridon more than anyone else—he would release cyberjack technology to the Academy’s public domain for anyone to study and adapt using their own technology, the same way he’d released the technology behind Karinne rail weaponry.

        The House of Karinne existed to hold many secrets, but it also existed to reveal those secrets when the house felt that the galaxy was ready for them..

        That was just one of the tech issues going on.  Jenny and Eraen had made some major progress on the diffuser project, having created a diffuser that reduced Torsion effects by 49% at the same diameter that the ship projected its Teryon shields, which was the target distance to create the diffusion field effect.  That was nowhere near where it needed to be, but it was a marked improvement from Myleena’s prototypes, and Jason was confident they’d come up with something that would get to the target of 75% power reduction to provide complete protection from Torsion weaponry.  If they could get the diffuser to 75%, it would all but nullify the threat a Torsion weapon posed, for the Torsion bolt would peter out before it reached the hull of the ship.  A Torsion bolt’s power also dictated its range, and by drastically reducing the power of the bolt, it also reduced the distance it traveled before the Torsion effect faded.  The 75% target power level at the same standard distance as the ship’s shields would make a standard Consortium Torsion bolt fade out an average of 1.61 shakra from the outer hull, which afforded the ship complete protection against Torsion weaponry.

        There were some drawbacks, however.  They’d already figured out that a ship couldn’t operate a diffuser and a Torsion shockwave generator at the same time.  The diffuser didn’t discriminate when it came to Torsion effects, it tried to diffuse all of them, including a beneficial one like the shockwave effect that protected KMS ships from fighters and missiles.  There was no amount of monkeying or tinkering that was going to change that, either.  For another, operating a diffuser caused some issues with a ship’s artificial gravity systems.  In a way, the artificial gravity system used a low-grade form of Torsion, the manipulation of space, to produce directional gravity without that gravity affecting the ship as a whole, and the diffusion field distorted the gravity system.  The diffuser cut the artificial gravity in the ship by about half, which would require the artificial gravity system to be overhauled to compensate.

        There was also an issue with diffusers and Karinne singularity plants.  They too utilized a form of hyper-Torsion as part of their operation, and the diffuser wanted to try to smooth that out as well.  The diffusers didn’t seem to want to monkey with most other forms of spatial warping that their technology utilized, the diffusion effect didn’t mess with PPGs whatsoever, but the one form that it did monkey with was the one that they didn’t want it to disturb the most.

        Jenny and Eraen were looking at ways to make the diffusion effect directional, so it would only project outward from the ship’s hull.  If they could figure out a way to make it do that, it would alleviate a lot of the problems the diffuser technology was causing their current systems.  Hell, in a way, they had to do it, else they’d have to do a whole lot of refitting on their ships to protect the ship’s vulnerable systems from the diffuser effect.

        If they perfected the diffuser, they’d have to use it judiciously, for they couldn’t leave it on and still protect the ships from missile attacks or enemy fighters.  But, given the fact that shields and armor worked against missiles where it didn’t work against Torsion weaponry, the diffuser would be the defensive system of choice for most ship captains.  The ships would still have shockwave systems in them, but against the Consortium, they wouldn’t see much use.

        Another drawback was the power requirements.  The prototype Jenny and Eraen had showed Jason yesterday drew massive amounts of power, so much that at the projected 75% field strength, a standard destroyer would just barely have the power to run the diffuser and keep life support going at the same time…and forget using anything else, like, say, weapons, shields, or the engines.  The diffuser sucked every joule of power out of the system if the projections panned out.  Jenny and Eraen would first have to get the diffuser to the target power, then figure out how to keep it from interfering with the ship’s other systems, then figure out how to reduce its power load so the ships that used them could do more than sit dead in space and act like shields.  That or they’d have to install additional power systems just to run the diffusers, which was something nobody really wanted to do.  That would require a massive redesign and refit to every KMS ship, given the sheer amount of extra power they’d have to put in the ships.  Entire systems would have to be yanked and major structural modifications would have to be made to make room for those additional power plants, so it was much more critical for Jenny and Eraen to tackle the problem from the diffuser side than from the “just stick more power plants in the ships” side.

        But, that was what 3D was there to do, invent things and then figure out how to make them work in reality as much as in a simulator.

        They’d figure it out. Jason had faith in them.

        So, like most any engineering problem, they were making progress both forwards and backwards at the same time.  After all, the diffusers were new technology, and that technology was having unforeseen effects on other technology.  Jenny and Eraen had two years to work out the bugs and come up with a viable unit, and given how much progress they’d made already, he was sure they’d pull it off.

        Jyslin nudged him a little, and he blinked and looked at her.  She was obviously pregnant now, a slight yet unmistakable baby bump that she showed off a tiny wearing a half-shirt that ended at her rib cage.  Thank God, Jason finally convinced Aya to let him and the family move around within Karsa without armor, so Jyslin was in bachi shorts and a half shirt and Jason was wearing a tee shirt and a pair of cargo shorts.  She gave him an impish smile and glanced her eyes towards Frinia, who was looking at him expectantly.  I’m sorry, what?

        I asked what was putting such a serious expression on your face, Jason, she replied with a smile.  You’ve barely sent a thought since you got here.

        Just all the paperwork, Frinia, he told her with an audible sigh.  It just keeps piling up and piling up, even as I invent new departments and offices to take it out of my inbox.  I must have seriously doubled the staff at the White House in the last month alone, and everyone’s still running around like crazed chabi trying to keep up.

        I can well imagine, she nodded, compassion bleeding into her thought.  Are you attending tomorrow’s opening day practice?

        I’m going to try to make an appearance, but I can’t hang around all day.  I’ve murdered my schedule just for this brief escape from that evil freakin’ Kizzik.

        Jyslin laughed.  Don’t blame Chirk, it’s not her fault.

        I gotta blame somebody, and she’s convenient, he replied airily.  She thinks all my complaining is funny.

        Kizzik are weird, but they know a good joke when they see it, Jyslin noted lightly.

        How ready are we going to be for the season? Jason asked, knowing how to change the subject.

        We’re going to be fine, Frinia replied brightly.  We shored up our midfield with the free agent signings and drafted for defense, which was our weak spot last year. I have to thank you two for actually going after the free agents, she sent with a grateful smile.  We didn’t get all the ones we were after, but we signed the four most critical, including Uera Miyalle.  Uera will solidify our defense in a big way, and her experience and leadership will turn our defense into a Neutronium wall, she sent eagerly.  We have some talent on defense, they just lacked leadership on the field.  But the real steal for us was Emala Kivalle, a center midfielder.  Bachi is won or lost at the midfield line, so getting talent like Emala was a major coup for us.   She’ll be running the offense on the field as much as Uera will run the defense, and there are few center midfielders better at recognizing defense and setting plays than her.  The only good thing about finishing last in the division was a high first pick in the draft, and we picked up an outstanding center striker, Shaela Edanne, which is the most important striker position.  I think she’ll be the foundation of our entire offense once she gets some experience.  With Emala forming the foundation of our midfield and Uela anchoring the defense, we’re in very good shape for the future.  We’ll be in rebuilding mode for one or two years, then I see us contending for playoff spots.  The entire coaching staff agrees.

        That’s good.  I’m too competitive to let the Paladins sit in the basement for long, Jason chuckled audibly.  I may not know much about bachi, but if I own the team, they’d damn well better win.

        And that’s why I sold you the team, Frinia sent seriously.  I want to see them win, and you’ll do your best to make that happen.

        We’ve already put about two billion credits on it, Jyslin sent with a laugh.  That’s how much salary we’ve put down on contracts.

        You did the right thing signing them to ten year deals, Frinia told Jyslin with a nod of approval.  Especially Uera and Emala. Uera will solidify our defense, and Emala is one of the most important players on the pitch.  You won’t find many better than her in the IBL.  She was worth every credit of that 650 million credit contract.

        Why did she go free agent if she’s that good?  Wouldn’t her last team have locked her up in a long term contract? Jason asked.

        Emala just finished her draftee’s contract, Jason, so she’s on the market for every team, that’s how it works.  Her last team didn’t want to bid on her because not every player is as valuable as she appears to be, Frinia told Jason with a slight smile.  I keep a very close eye on the players, and Emala is a true gem.  She just suffered on her last team due to an overbearing coach and a system that doesn’t suit her talents.  Emala’s not the best offensive player, but her ability to read a defense and set the play for the team makes her one of the best offensive play callers on the pitch.  Emala won’t have to play like a striker in our system, that’s what our strikers are for.  She can pull back and study the defense and get the ball moving where it needs to be to score.

        I understand what you mean.  Back when I played football, some players did better than others because of the defensive system the coaches used.  So, this Emala will do better in our system than the one her last team used.

        Exactly, Frinia nodded.  Three other teams tried to get her too, they saw the same thing we did, but thank Trelle Jyslin was willing to open the purse for her.

        You said she was the most important one to get outside of Uera, so we got her, Jyslin smiled.  This team is going to win, dammit, even if I have to wait tables at the stadium restaurant to raise extra credits for salaries.

        That’s exactly the kind of attitude an owner needs to win in this league, Frinia sent, her thought rippling with approval, pride, and a little relief.

        Jason was about to send something, but he stopped dead when something…something rippled through the biogenic network.  It was something he’d never felt before, and almost immediately, several confused communes drifted through the network along with a hell of a lot of searching queries from biogenic computers that lost contact with the network and were trying to reconnect.  He then felt the network fail, felt the node closest to him lose connectivity with the adjoining nodes, a disconnect so sudden that it was actually painful, making him wince and put a hand on his gestalt.  [Cybi!] he tried to commune, but got nothing but silence.

        What’s wrong, love? Jyslin asked in concern as Jason turned and looked back and up, where the node for that district of the city was located.  There was no smoke in the distance wafting over the top of the stadium, so at least it wasn’t some kind of cataclysmic explosion that brought the node down.  He reached back to the corvette hovering in the air nearby and accessed the tactical gestalt in it, one of Aya’s security measures.  Aya had dictated that any corvette carrying Jason be carrying a mobile tactical gestalt so he could use it in defense of himself and the corvette in case of attack.  He accessed the tactical and used its more powerful transceiver to manually try to connect to the next node, which was over in the seaside district.  But it too was silent.  The tactical was strong enough to reach back to the White House, and he used it to do just that.  [Someone over there tell me what’s going on, the entire biogenic network just went down!] he communed to the mainframe over in the command center.

        [We’re not sure, Jayce, but right before it went down, we got a garbled message from Cybi.  I think you’d better to check on her, cause we can’t get in touch with her,] Myri answered.

        [Did you try transmitting directly off the array?  The issue might be stopping your command mainframe from accessing the transceiver through the network.]

        [Of course we did, but we can’t raise Kosiningi.  Orbitals show nothing unusual at least visually on the island, but we’ve lost biogenic contact with the Emergency Response Center.]

        That was not good.  [Find Myleena and get her to Kosiningi now,] he ordered as he turned and all but ran out into the middle of the pitch.  Land right here, Captain Kora!  We have a problem! he sent to the captain of the Marine corvette Tornado.  Girls, get in touch with Aya and tell her I have to go to Kosiningi right now, he told the guards, sending openly for Jyslin and Frinia’s benefit.  We just lost the entire biogenic network, and they can’t raise Cybi or anything on Kosiningi.

        Oh dear Trelle, I hope Cybi’s okay, Jyslin sent fearfully, rushing along with him.

        The fact that she’s not answering is not a good sign, she has her own transceiver array on the island, Jason replied as the corvette descended towards the pitch.  Frinia, you go ahead on to the training facility, we’ve got to get to Kosiningi now.

        Oh my, don’t put your skids on the pitch! Frinia sent suddenly.

        You heard her, just get down close enough for me to jump up onto the stairs, Jason affirmed.  The corvette descended with the forward passenger hatch open, and Kora was hanging in the doorway with her hand out.  Jason jumped up to the folding stairs and took Kora’s gauntleted hand, then she hauled him up into the ship as Suri and Dera used the grav engines in their armor to lift Jyslin up to the stairs, then they got in behind her.

        He went straight to the cockpit and accessed the onboard computer, and called Kosigi.  Myleena was up in Kosigi today, doing some collaborative work with Mahja Siyhaa and her computer team and overseeing the final testing of their first pair of Stargates.  He had to use gravband rather than the biogenic system, but Myleena was already a step ahead of him.  “Thank Trelle, babes, I’ve been trying to call you for five minutes!  I’m on my way to Kosiningi right now, something serious is going on.”

        “So are we, we’re just leaving Karsa now.  Where are you?”

        “About halfway down from Kosigi.  We’ll be entering the atmosphere in about ten minutes.  Call back to the CC and tell them to get every member of 3D to Kosiningi with the field equipment fucking now.  We might need them.”

        “Good call, hon, I’ll send it back.”

        The list of people who had authorization to even enter Cybi’s bunker was about ten times longer than the list of people who were allowed to actually do anything but look at her equipment, and that list was three people long.  Jason, Myleena, and Jyslin were the only technicians that were allowed to do any work inside Cybi’s systems, and Jyslin was usually there just to watch and learn.  Myleena was the expert when it came to Cybi and her staggeringly complex computer architecture, but Jason knew enough to do delicate work, since Cybi could guide him step by step via communion.  There were others, like Siyhaa, who had the expertise to work on a biogenic CBIM, but for pure security reasons, only the most trusted were allowed to put their hands inside the last operating CBIM’s systems.  And if Cybi wasn’t answering, they might have to do some repairs.

        For inspections and other basic things, the only ones outside of those three who were allowed to do that were the technical members of 3D.  They had the clearance, and several of them had the technical skill, but still, even they weren’t allowed to do any actual work on Cybi.  They could come and do a preventive maintenance inspection, but if anything had to be repaired or replaced, they called in Jason or Myleena to do it.  But they would be maintaining the next CBIM that came online, so Jason and Myleena had been training them for it…they just weren’t allowed to do any hands-on training on the only CBIM in existence whose status as the repository of all Karinne knowledge made her too precious to risk to a training accident.  The 3D techs would be maintaining the next CBIM, but when it came to Cybi, the only ones allowed to do real work on her were Myleena, Jason, and Jyslin.

        She wasn’t even answering him.  He tried over and over to commune with her now that he was close enough to not need a transceiver, but there was nothing but ominous silence.

        Jason and Jyslin met Myleena as her skimmer landed just seconds after the corvette set down, and they didn’t even waste time greeting each other.  They ran straight for the Emergency Response Center, where the center’s administrator was literally running out to meet them.  Your Grace, your Grace, thank Trelle you’re here! she sent in a frenzy.  The entire island’s computer network has gone completely crazy, and what’s worse, we can’t get in touch with Cybi!

        That’s why we’re here, Jason replied.

        Crazy how? Myleena asked.

        It’s hard to explain, your Grace, the computers are spouting gibberish, and we’ve had to manually disable them from holographic emitters.  We had two injuries from the computer manifesting hard holograms that then injured staff.

        That’s not very encouraging, Jason growled mentally as they ran up the stairs into the center.  Is Cybi’s door locked down?

        No, but we dare not go down there without authorization.

        You did the right thing.  Get your people out of the building and help 3D when they get here with our mobile equipment dropship.

        I’ll get everything ready, your Grace, she sent as the three of them headed for the door leading down to Cybi’s core.

        The core chamber was dark.  Usually Cybi lit it when they entered, but the fact that she didn’t told him that Cybi had no idea they were there.  She’s non-responsive, Myleena sent fearfully as she brought up the lights.  She won’t answer my communes.

        I’ve been trying since I got in range, Jason sent worriedly.  Alright, let’s fan out and find the problem.  Myli, you check her core memory.  Jys, you check her primary I/O  tree, and I’ll check her external I/O tree.

        Cybi’s systems were divided into three major sections.  Her core was where 90% of what Cybi did was handled, the crystalline spire in the center of the room that was protected by rails and a hard shield, but she did have external systems that she relied upon, and that was her Input/Output Tree system and her power supply system.  The I/O tree system was how Cybi dealt with everything outside of her core, from basic data flow to communications.  The tree system was the pipe through which all data flowed into and out of Cybi’s core, divided into subsystems that handled different types of data.  The major tree subsystems handled basic sensory input, allowing her to see and hear, even smell, taste and touch through sensors, helping her organize the raw data and make sense of it.  The second major subsystem dealt with communion through a transceiver, where the thousands of communes per second Cybi maintained were actively managed through the main biogenic bus.  That part of the tree was like a switchboard, allowing Cybi to assign priority levels to the various communal connections she made and allow the tree system to maintain and manage the low-priority communions, only bringing them to her attention if they became important.  The third major subsystem dealt with the biogenic network in place around Karis and was her newest subsystem, and Jason had a sneaking suspicion that that might be where the problem was, since it was only a couple of years old.  Some of the biogenic processor units in the core room had been operating for centuries, he rather doubted that one of those units had decided to fail now.  He’d check the most recent addition to her system first before he started combing through the most stable parts of Cybi’s external systems.

        It was hard to treat this like he was troubleshooting just another piece of equipment, because Cybi was far more than the collection of biogenic processors, modules, and logic boards.  She may be composed of hardware, but she was as much a living thing as any of them were, and the absolute importance she had to the house and to Jason couldn’t be easily described, not even if he had an hour to try to do it.  Jason had to keep a firm throttle on his emotions and think like an engineer as he combed through the bank of units that served as Cybi’s external I/O array, part of what helped her communicate with external biogenic units, where Myleena was checking her core and Jyslin her ability to communicate with her internal systems.  Something was making her nonresponsive, but something was also making the biogenic computers on the island go crazy, and odds were they had a common root problem.  They were joined by the technicians in 3D after they arrived, who did exactly what Jason, Myleena, and Jyslin told them to do, mainly checking external connections and looking for physical evidence of a malfunction.

        It’s not her core, Myleena called after a few minutes.  It’s operational and nominal, but I’m afraid to jack into it until we find the problem.  Whatever’s messing with Cybi’s system might feed back into me if I jack my gestalt in physically.

        That’s a good call, Jason agreed.  Whatever’s going on is screwing with Cybi’s ability to use her own core systems, or she’d be able to commune with us.  Let’s find the problem before we jack in to talk to Cybi.  I’m sure she knows we’re here, and that means she knows we know there’s something wrong.

        I’ll ping her core a few times so she knows we’re here, but that’s as far as I’ll go.  She was silent a moment as she did that, pinged a signal into Cybi’s core that told her that there was someone here…and when she did that, a strange feeling went through Jason, almost as if he felt it.  Myleena shivered a little herself.  Cybi knows we’re here, but she can’t talk to us, she reasoned.  It’s gotta be a problem in her I/O tree, something feeding back into her core and disrupting her attempts to reroute around the problem.  Forran, take the biogenic network hub down, she sent strongly enough to be heard in the crisis management center.  Until we find the problem, I don’t want any external system trying to access Cybi’s functions.  They might be exacerbating the problem.

        I’m taking it down now, he called from the offices above.

        “The power management system’s not the problem, boss,” Luke called from across the room, on the other side of the core.  “We’ve got nominal readings and the logs show no spikes or aberrations in the power flow.”

         “Sounds good, Luke.  Check the conduits visually, look for anything unusual,” Myleena answered.  “Deploy the scout spiders.”

        “On it, boss,” he answered.

        “It sounds like data corruption,” Jenny mused.  “If her core is good but she can’t communicate, and we can’t find anything wrong with the hardware, it has to be a data corruption issue.”

        “That’s what I’m thinking,” Myleena agreed.  “Something in one of her I/O systems is only half-broken, and it’s corrupting all the data going through it.  Jayce, I think we should disconnect the entire I/O system from her core,” she proposed.  “That should let Cybi commune with us and let us isolate the problem in the I/O tree.”

        “Sounds like a plan.”

        It was a good one.  Luke and Myleena went over to the core control manual board and physically disconnected Cybi’s core from her I/O tree system, and the instant she did, a powerful commune rippled through the core chamber.  [Thank Trelle for you, Jason and Myleena,] Cybi’s mental voice called.  [There is a major malfunction somewhere in my I/O primary data management subsystem.  It was feeding back into my core and preventing me from issuing commands to any external system.]

        [That’s what we figured,] Jason answered.  [We’ve isolated your I/O tree so we can track down the problem, so just hold out a little bit without your main links.]

        [If you can take the core system cameras and sensors off the I/O tree, I can access them via local commune.  It’s a bit dark and scary in here, Jason.  I’ve never had this happen before.]

        [Of course.  Just keep a touch on me til we get them off the tree.]  “Cybi’s communing,” he called, which caused a few cheers from the guys.  “She says the problem’s in her primary data management subsystem, and it’s so severe it’s feeding back into her core and corrupting all her commands.”

        “That’d do it, that system manages all of Cybi’s communications with her external systems,” Myleena grunted.  “Okay guys, we know where to start looking.  Let’s track down the problem.”

        “Luke, you go around and disconnect a few of the core room sensors from the tree so Cybi can access them using her core systems,” Jason ordered.  “She’s completely blind and deaf right now, and she’s finding it a little scary.”

        “I’ll get her a few cameras and sensors right away, tell her it’ll be just a minute,” Luke said, hurrying over to the nearest access panel to disconnect the datalines from the sensors so the I/O tree couldn’t corrupt them.

        The entire I/O tree was showing corruption, and that corrupted data was feeding back into all her other major subsystems.  Everyone shifted over to the data management I/O system and started a very careful, meticulous process of troubleshooting, trying to find where the corruption was coming from.

        I think I might have something, Jyslin called after nearly an hour of them and the 3D crew carefully checking over the subsystem, holographic logic charts and schematics hanging in the air all over the room as Cybi watched through two cameras that Luke had taken off the tree system for her to access.  They’d been using both old-fashioned visual inspections and readings and were using scouting spiders equipped with cameras and sensors to get into the places they couldn’t see, looking for any physical evidence of a malfunction.  I think I found where the data corruption is coming from.

        Jason left checking boards to Eraen and Luke and rushed over, then knelt down and looked into the unit.  Where?

        Right here, subsystem 14-23-144, she replied, pointing.  It’s in the main data processing subsystem that manages most data flow in and out of Cybi’s core.  I’m getting erratic fluctuations from this biogenic processor that show up in other systems a few nanoseconds later.  I think it’s the problem..

        Jason slid his hand over the board and found it secure, still annealed into the rack, and accessed the tree system in Cybi’s schematics.  It was one of the main I/O processing units that handled basic rules about how Cybi received and transmitted information in and out of her core, like the main bus and BIOS of an archaic old Terran desktop computer.  Virtually all of Cybi’s I/O data went through that subsystem.  Jason ordered a couple scout spiders to the board to check for physical problems.  “I think you’re right, Jys,” he said.  “I don’t see anything wrong, but this board is in the right place to cause all these problems.  It’s in the right place to corrupt every megastring of data flowing in and out of Cybi’s core.”

        “And that would explain why the biogenic systems here have been transmitting nonsensical gibberish, the system wasn’t preventing me from sending data out, but it was corrupting everything I sent,” Cybi noted aloud, using a speaker.  She still had no access to the holographic emitters, but she could use the speakers to talk to them.  He could still sense her fear, a fear that nothing made sense, a fear of the thousand years of silent solitude she’d endured after the destruction of Karis.  Those thousand years had weighed more heavily on her than even Jason realized, like an old childhood fear of the dark thought long conquered creeping back up on an adult in a moment of vulnerability.

        “I think that’s also why the entire biogenic network went down when your system failed.  You’re so deeply tied into it that when you started transmitting gibberish, the system shut itself down because it couldn’t make sense of your commands. I didn’t think it was that delicate,” he grunted.  “We might have to do a little work on that, I suppose.  Anyway, I think we’ve found the problem, so just hold tight for a bit.  We’ll disable this subsystem, and if that clears up the corruption, we’ll reconnect you.  That should let you reset your I/O tree and reroute around the failed subsystem, then we’ll replace it once you’re back online.”

        “That should work,” she agreed, her fear easing.  “We’ll need to run a level one diagnostic of both my systems and all biogenic systems on the planet to make sure there was no permanent damage done.”

        It took him and Myleena about twenty minutes of careful and delicate work to pull the failed subsystem out of the stack, then they reset the entire tree, reconnected the datalines to Cybi, and waited.  Cybi’s hologram shimmered into view near the core slowly, and then she opened her eyes and put a hand on her pseudo-nude chest.  “I/O tree systems are rebooting by major subsystem stack allocation, but local core systems are reset and back online,” she called.  “I am ever so grateful for your fast response, my friends.  That was a very frightening experience.”

        “We’re glad to see you too, Cybi.  You had us worried there for a few minutes,” Bo said as he held up the failed board.  “Here’s the problem, right here.  We’ll have another one installed in a jiffy.”

        “If there was any one thing I would not want to fail, it is that,” she said in reply.  “That branch system was corrupting my entire I/O tree due to its critical location within the system.”

        “It was a partial failure,” Myleena said, taking the board from Bo and studying it with a critical eye.  “If it had went completely down, you’d have been able to reroute around it.  But it was still up, and you don’t have any safeguards in place to isolate a main I/O processor unit from the rest of the system tree.  So when it started sending corrupted data into your system, you couldn’t stop it, and it was effectively corrupting everything else.  This one little board effectively took you down, Cybi,” she said with a dark chuckle, holding it out so Cybi could see it.

        “It seems that even I have a couple of design flaws,” Cybi said with a rueful look.

        “More like an oversight.  I doubt they ever considered that this might happen when they designed your I/O architecture.  Eh, we can fix it.  We’ll install some hardwired breakers into the tree system you can control directly from your core system to isolate the three different subsystems in case one malfunctions again. And I think we’ll install an emergency bare-bone I/O stack directly off your core so you can manifest a hologram and communicate with the techs if your I/O system goes down again.”

        “That would make me feel much better,” Cybi said.  “I’m getting the rest of the I/O tree back up, and I’m accessing the biogenic network hub here on the island.  Wait, it’s down.”

        “We have it down right now, we were afraid that the network was somehow causing you to malfunction,” Jason told her.  “Jenny, tell Forran to bring the biogenic hub back up,” he called.

        “You got it, Jayce,” she replied, then she touched her interface.  “He’s bringing it back up right now.”

        “It’s restarting.  I have access,” Cybi declared, looking up towards the ceiling momentarily.  “I’ve initiated a level one diagnostic of the biogenic network hub and the island relays, and will not allow it to reconnect to the planetary network until the diagnostic is complete.  And I’m beginning a level one diagnostic of all internal systems.  This will take a while, friends.”

        “A few hours at least,” Jyslin noted.  “Well, we can bring the kids here after they get out of school, and have dinner over in the cafeteria,” she said to Jason.

        “Yah.  Myli, call Myri and tell them we’ve got Cybi back up, and we should have everything back to normal in a few hours.  And tell them to bring the planetary biogenic network hubs back up and run level one diagnostics on every hub before trying to reconnect it to the system.”

        “Will do, Jayce.”

        “Jys love, could you call Frinia and tell her that we have things under control?  I’m sure she’s a little worried since we kinda abandoned her at the stadium,” Jason noted, which made Jyslin laugh and nod.

        The replacement of the I/O processor board took a few hours, because they had to have the Shimmer Dome manufacture a replacement for it.  While they waited for them to get it grown and etched, the guys from 3D got a few lessons in CBIM architecture from Myleena as Jason just stayed near Cybi’s core to just be there for her as her systems ran a top-level diagnostic to make sure the failed processor didn’t damage anything else.  This was one of those stark reminders to him that Cybi was a living thing, because the fear she felt when she lost contact with the outside world was a palpable thing that any Generation would have felt in her bandwidth.  When the replacement board arrived, Myleena was the one the half-crawled into the stack unit and annealed it into place very carefully, aligning the board with the data fibers embedded in the rack rails and mountings so they had connectivity, then annealing the board into the stack with surgical precision.  She checked her work with a micrometer after annealing the board at two spots, then she annealed it the rest of the way when she was satisfied with the alignment.  After she finished, she wriggled out of the unit and looked over at Cybi’s hologram.  “Alright, Cybi, it’s in, see if you can access it.”

        The hologram nodded, and her eyes turned distant for a split second.  “I have access.  Initializing the board and downloading all pertinent updates to the chips.”

        “Well, guess we can’t complain too much about this one, it lasted, what, a thousand years?” Jenny said lightly, holding up the failed board.

        “Well, we’ll make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Myleena noted as she got back to her feet, her armor clacking a bit.  “I’m gonna add some maintenance spiders to the list that Cybi can control from her core, so she can send them in if she needs to.”

        “That would be prudent,” Cybi agreed with a nod of her hologram.  “And this little incident only proves to me even more than getting another CBIM online as fast as possible should be the primary goal of the house.”

        “I don’t think I can argue too much about that,” Jason grunted.  “We have everything on schedule, but we can push up the external assembly construction schedule so we have it all ready sooner, if only so we have some spare parts for your systems if we have another outage,” Jason said contemplatively.  “But until we get the core crystal grown, there’s really not much more we can do.”

        “Is that still on schedule?” Tom asked.

        Myleena nodded.  “It’s 12% grown, and it should be finished in about 206 days.  And as soon as we’re sure it’s viable, they’ll be starting another one.”  They’d had to build a new building just for CBIM core crystal production, since it took a ton of effort from both workers and materials.  A CBIM’s core was one of the most intricate and delicate things that could be manufactured on Karis, where the position of every molecule in the biogenic matrix had to be managed with exacting precision.  A single molecule out of alignment could corrupt the entire core crystal, so the estimated completion time of 206 days was not exaggerated in any manner.  The men and women who worked in that building had security clearances as high as 3D did.

        “Myli, you and me should stay here until Cybi gets back the results of the diagnostic.  Everyone else, great work, but you can get back to our other projects,” Jason declared.  “Just keep your emergency interface channel on top of the queue in case we need you back.”

        “Sounds like a plan, boss,” Bo said.  “Glad you’re feeling better, Cybi.”

        “You and me both, Bo.”

        “Love, you should go back to Frinia,” Jason offered.  “Seems like the crisis is passed, and the team needs you over there.”

        “I guess, if that’s okay with you, Cybi.”

        “It is quite fine with me, Jyslin.  I too want the Paladins to do well,” she said with a gentle smile on her hologram.

        It took nearly three hours for Cybi to finish her diagnostics, time Jason and Myleena spent doing a little extra work, knocking out a few preventive maintenance inspections due next month on Cybi’s systems, then going over some of the ultra-top secret things that Myleena worked on, stuff of which even most of the guys in 3D had little knowledge.  They discussed Myleena’s continued attempts to merge biogenic and moleculartronic computer architecture, and also her continued attempts to reduce the power demands of Karinne translation engines, two of the biggest things on her very long list of things to do.  When Cybi’s diagnostics came back, there was thankfully no problems or damage done by the malfunction, though there were a few minor issues that came up that Jason immediately added to the task list for them to repair.  Cybi didn’t run a level one diagnostic very often, since it tied up many of her systems and slowed even her awesome processing power down quite a bit, which in turn bogged down the planetary biogenic network, which fed back into the moleculartronic network, which even fed back into Civnet.

        [We’ll have come back tomorrow and deal with that power distribution cycle relay in 13B-126, since it looks like it might fail any time now,] Myleena communed to them as she sat on the rail around Cybi’s core and tapped on a solid hologram projected in front of her displaying Cybi’s power distribution network.  [The five other problems your diagnostic found can wait a while, since each of those is a four hour job minimum.  That sound good to you, Cybi?]

        [It’s fine, I have enough redundancy in those systems to take the failing units offline without any loss of efficiency,] she communed, her hologram hovering near Myleena and nodding.  [Besides, they haven’t failed yet.  May as well get all the use out of them I can.]

        [Always so frugal,] Myleena grinned.  [Jayce, you and me need to go up to Kosigi.  I have to finish the final inspection of our new Stargates, and you should be there.  I know you don’t want to go back to the office, so consider it your free pass.  If Chirk bitches, tell her I ordered you up there.]

        He laughed brightly.  [Sounds like a plan to me, this day’s already completely shot paperwork wise,] he agreed.  [Okay, Cybi, we’ll be back tomorrow morning to replace that cycle relay.]

        [I’ve already put in the order to material management, we have plenty in stock.  They’ll have the replacement here in the morning.]

        [Sounds good.  Okay, hon, we’re gonna get back to work.  Or ducking work in my case,] he communed cheekily.

        [Thank you so much for getting here so quickly,] she communed earnestly, putting a hand on each of their shoulders.

        [Of course we would, you’re important to us, Cybi, and not just because you’re tied into every computer on this planet,] Myleena winked.

        Twenty minutes later, Jason, Myleena, and his guards were on the corvette and heading up to Kosigi.  Jason was putting on his armor—both because Aya wouldn’t let him go up to Kosigi without it with the foreign workers and the engines in the armor were convenient to get around in the weightless environment—with Suri and Dera helping him.  Jason was so acclimated to the Faey lifestyle that he didn’t even consider the fact that he undressed in front of the relative strangers among the corvette’s crew. The upper echelon officers, he knew the vast majority of them by name, but he didn’t know every woman in the crews, especially on corvettes that didn’t often carry him.

        The two Stargates were hanging in the cold air deep inside Kosigi when the corvette pulled in and parked about 300 shakra from one of them.  They were gigantic rings with a diameter of about 2 kathra, or around 1.8 kilometers or about a mile and a half, which was easily big enough for them to allow the capitol ships pass through them.  The capitol ships were bigger than the Stargates, but that was all length.  Width wise, they easily fit through the rings of the Stargates.  They were based on standard Stargates, but since they were built by the Karinnes, they employed some biogenics and a few upgrades thought up by Myleena.  Their Stargates used less power than similar sized Imperium-built gates, and were 14% more stable in short-distance linking scenarios.  It was a quirk in spatial linking that the closer two gates were, the harder it was to link them, but their gates were a little better at it than Imperium gates.  The rings that made up the Stargates were hollow, filled with gravometric warping units similar to engines that all focused at the center of the gate, as well as substantial security and enough quality of life amenities for the crews of the gates to keep them very comfortable.

        Those look so pretty, Myleena purred as they came out of the corvette, using the engines in their armor to drift out.  Neither of them had their helmets on, and the air was a bit chilly that far out from the gates, where they kept it warmer.

        How does the production line look?

        We’ll have it streamlined by Chiira, and we’ll be cranking out four gates every 17 days, she replied.  One of these still going to RG-118?

        Yup, as soon as they pass final inspection, he nodded. I want that planet sending food as fast as possible.            We’re going to need it.

        I haven’t been keeping up with that.  Where’s it at?

        If Grik’zzk did it right, the first harvests should be at the port waiting to be picked up as soon as we get the Stargate linked and online, he answered.  That’s why I’ve been so anal about you keeping my office up to date on construction.  She needed to know exactly when we’d have the gate up.

        That explains it, she sent with a chuckle.  Where are the twins now?

        Still in the R quadrant, he answered.  They’re surveying RH-31, it had some promising long-distance scans.  There are two other teams surveying RG-209 and RF-440.

        Wow, the KES is starting to get big.

        It’ll get bigger in about a month, when that next line of scout ships comes off the docks, he said as one of Myleena’s techs floated over and gave her a handpanel.  They’re training enough KES personnel to triple the size of the division.  Considering how important exploring is, I want a nice large exploratory service that can deploy to multiple parts of the galaxy.

        Not a bad plan.  When is Zaa sending those Kimdori to Andromeda?

        In a few days.  They’ve finished refitting the scout ships I gave her, he answered.  Me and the Denmother are having a bit of an issue over that.

        Why?

        Zaa intends to use a one-way wormhole to catapult the scout mission deep into intergalactic space, to get a head start.  I’m completely against it, but she won’t listen to me, he sent sourly.

        Seriously?

        He nodded.  She’s already built the wormhole system out of translation engines her techs haven’t installed on ships yet.  I wouldn’t be against it if it wasn’t so fuckin’ dangerous.  I mean, I can understand the need to get those scouts to Andromeda as fast as we can, but she’s flinging all precaution to the wind here, and it rubs me raw.  She’s risking the lives of her scouts, but she won’t listen to reason.

        Well, take back the scout ships.  Those are our ships, and she’s risking them as much as her people.

        He gave her a dirty look. Riiiight, you do that, Myli.  I want to see if you get away from her with any of your teeth.

        Myleena laughed.  That’s your job, babes, not mine.

        Anyway, like you said, that’s not your problem.  The twins are gonna hate me when I tell them that if they want to run the KES, they’d better spend more time behind a desk, running the KES instead of having their home office do it.  The exploring is gonna be other people’s jobs once they have enough survey teams trained.  I’m having Red Horn build them their own headquarters in Karsa, where they’ll have nice big offices that I’ll expect them to actually be in most of the time.  If I have to sit behind a desk, then dammit, so do they.

        Myleena grinned.  They’re gonna be pissed at you!

        I want them home anyway.  Things are getting boring with them out there and Kumi here.  They can’t prank each other with the twins roaming around the galaxy, and those three are always entertaining.

        Myleena burst out laughing.  I think that’s more along the lines of keeping them within arm’s reach if they talk Ayuma into pranking you by proxy again.

        Oh no, they learned that lesson, he sent darkly.  So did Ayuma, for that matter, he added, which made Myleena laugh even harder.

        With the lead engineer there, they observed as the team conducted the final inspections and initial start-up tests of both Stargates.  A Stargate didn’t need a terminus gate to test its gate generation system, they simply focused it on a distant point and started it up to a certain point, which was all that was needed to get the readings of the system to make sure it was working properly.  But they couldn’t do both at the same time, since the proximity of the two gates would create distortion in the spatial flux that would produce false readings.  The crews were already inside the gates, bringing them up into standby mode, and had already been trained for the job.  Let’s start with gate A, Myleena sent strongly, her sending reaching through the entire area, a reminder of just how powerful she was.  Myleena was the second strongest telepath on Karis if her being a Generation wasn’t brought into play, just slightly weaker than Yana, but with a gestalt she was easily the most powerful.  Let’s bring it up into link mode.

        Starting the gate up and initiating link mode didn’t take that much time, what took the time was getting two gates to link.  So while the two of them watched, the crew inside the gate brought the gate fully up and put it into link mode, focusing the gate on a pre-determined point of empty space in the Kypan Void.  The gate was searching for a terminus gate that wasn’t there, but the act allowed them to test the gate linking systems and the computer control systems that managed the wormhole the gate would create.  Creating a link handshake was essentially the same as creating the wormhole itself.  They studied the output graphs on the handpanel intently, then Myleena nodded.  We have nominal readings across the board, she declared.  Put her back in passive standby,  Gate B, get ready to bring up your gate as soon as gate A is in passive standby.

        They watched as the first gate put its systems in passive standby, basically just keeping them turned on but not doing anything, and the second gate brought up its systems and then focused on the same point, searching for a terminus gate that didn’t exist.  The output readings on the handpanel were right where they were supposed to be and stable, which made Myleena grin broadly.  All readings are nominal across the board, she declared.  That’s it, everyone.  The gates are operational.  Break them down and tell Dellin and Myri it’s a go.

        May as well ignore the chain of command, Jason mused.  [Koye,] he called over the now-functional biogenic network, calling the ship captain that was going to be towing the gate to RG-118.  The battleship Shiani  was going to be towing the Stargate to RG-118, which would be a three day trip for them

        [What is it, Jason?]

        [The gates are operational, so your mission is now on the board,] he called.  [You should be getting orders from the command center in the next half hour or so, but I figured you wouldn’t mind a little advance warning.]

        [I never do,] Koye answered lightly.  [I’ll bring the Shiani over to the gate area so I’m nearby when I get the orders.  Though, I’m a little put out with you, Jason.  By the time I get back, we’ll be heading out to destroy what’s left of the Consortium.  We’re going to miss the practice wargames.]

        [That’s why your squadron will be in reserve for the operation,] he told her.

        [And that’s why I’m put out.  I have to watch everyone else get to have all the fun.]

        [Savage,] he teased lightly.

        Jason watched as the gate on the left powered down and prepared for tow mode.  Myleena had designed them so they could be folded in half with little preparation, a requirement to get them out of the doors.  It had the bonus effect of making them a little easier to tow, since they didn’t have so much volume as when they weren’t broken down.  The empty volume inside the ring did have an effect on the ship towing the gate through hyperspace.  The gate would fold in half at its top and bottom, the two halves would lock together, then the battleship and its escort of 14 other ships would tow it out of Kosigi and off to RG-118.  Once it was there, it would take the gate approximately 27 hours to link back to the gate at Karis, and then they’d be in business.  So, in four days, RG-118 would be part of their private Stargate network and give them a foothold in all four quadrants of the galaxy.

        Alright, let’s go ahead get gate B in orbit after it’s folded, Myleena ordered.  Get a pusher ship over here and have them get ready to open the capitol doors.

        The battleship Shiani’s already on the way over to tow gate A, we can just have them pull it out while they wait for the escort task force to assemble, Jason offered.

        Sounds good to me, Myleena nodded.  It’ll take something that size to tow the gate anyway.

        When Koye got her ship over to them, she already had her orders, and gate B was already folded, locked, the crew inside in their jump restraints, and ready to be towed.  The battleship swung around deftly, proving they had a good navigator at the controls, and they locked four towing beams on the gate.  The ship very slowly began to move, to prevent putting too much stress on the towing beams, the ship towing the folded gate out into the gloom and towards the capitol doors.  It would take them about 40 minutes to get the gate to its assigned position in far orbit around the planet, about 32,000 kathra from the edge of the atmosphere and about 10,000 kathra from the gate leading to PR-371, which was the minimum distance two active gates could be without interfering with each other.  Alright, that’s that.  The next two gates will be off the line in 25 days, she told him with a smile.  And after that, we’ll have gates coming off the line every 12 days, once we get the other two assembly line up and running.

        How long til the third set of lines get going?

        A couple of takirs, we haven’t finished building the assembly equipment for a third pair of lines.

        Well, I’d better send Brall over there to kick some shins.  We’re going to need those Stargates, Myli, and soon.

        I know, that’s why I’ve been kicking some butts over there personally, she nodded as they drifted towards the corvette.

        They talked more about it on the way over to where Myleena had been working, then he dropped her off and almost reluctantly returned to the White House.  He was so far behind now due to the emergency on top of murdering his schedule to attend the inspection of the pitch, and he could see that it was going to be even more of a delay when he came into the outer office and saw Yila sitting demurely on the couch, chatting with Brall.  She was in usual Yila attire, wearing what looked like a sporty haltar not much unlike a bachi top, a waist chain, soft ankle boots, and nothing else.  She stood up abruptly when Jason padded into the office, still in his armor and with his guards behind him carrying his clothes.  And here comes trouble, he drawled mentally as she came up to him.

        She laughed and gave him a roguish wink.  It’s about time, what took you so long?

        We had an emergency, he answered evenly, his mental tone making it clear that he wasn’t going to discuss the issue.

        Ah.  Well, you’re here now, she sent as she put her hand on his shoulder.

        So, this is a business meeting, he noted, looking at her.

        She laughed aloud.  Yes, it is.  Let’s step into your office and talk about it.

        Eh, may as well, it’s the only way I’ll get rid of you, he replied.  “Give me a few minutes before you make me hate you, Chirk,” he said aloud to the large Kizzik, who clacked her mandibles in amusement and gave him what for a Kizzik passed as a light look.

        Yila followed him into his office, and Yila sat on one of the chairs in front of his desk as he stood beside it and started removing his armor.  So, what do you want now?

        I got wind of the fact that you’re going to open cyberjack implantation up to the general Confederation population, she replied.

        What?  Who told you that?

        I have my sources, she smiled.

        Kumi.  Fucking Kumi, she had to tell her, and he’d told her that that was confidential information.  He added kicking Kumi’s ass to the list of things to do when he got home.

        And what does that have to do with this visit?

        Several things.  First, I want one, a jack and a jack-enabled interface I can take back home with me to pair with it, she declared.  I’ve seen how useful they are, and how useful they can be even if I’m not on Karis.  I’ve heard that you can implant a jack without damaging talent, and that’s all I needed to hear.

        And that’s it.

        That’s what I want, for my own personal use, she replied.  As far as business goes, I want to start a little joint venture with you into the entertainment sector.

        Entertainment?  What kind?

        Viddy and movies, she replied.  I want to start up a venture that takes a jacked actor and encodes all his sensory impressions into the viddy to be played back to the watcher.  Naturally, it’ll require the watcher to have a jack, but I can see that in twenty years, jacks are going to be commonplace throughout the sector cluster.  I want to get my seeds in the garden now, before the other flowers start to grow.

        You’re serious.  You want to record sensory impressions into a viddy?

        I’m dead serious, she replied.  The Colonists utilize empaths in their live action dramatic pieces to project the emotions displayed by the actors, and it has a powerful effect.  I’ve attended those empathic operas, I know first hand.  A viddy where you can feel what the actor feels, if she’s a good actor and can project emotion, as well as being able to feel everything she feels, that has major potential for profit.  Imagine watching a movie where you feel what the actor feels and can sense the actor’s emotional state.  Imagine one of your Terran horror movies where you can feel the dread of the actors when they think there’s a monster hiding in the shadows.  Imagine watching an action movie where you feel the adrenaline of the actor as she fights the bad guys, imagine a show where you feel the rain and wind against your skin as an actor walks across a rainy street.  And naturally, imagine what a massive boost it’ll bring to the porn industry when you can feel what the actor is feeling.  I have the credits and the contacts in the entertainment industry to make it happen, and you have the computers and hardware capable of recording sensory impressions, thanks to the cyberjacks you invented.  You create hardware that can encode the emotional states and sensory impressions into the viddy shows in a way that doesn’t require a biogenic computer to encode and decode it, and I provide the credits and connections to back the venture and turn it into its own industry.  We split the profits down the middle and we’re both happy.

        He gave her a long look, a little surprised at what she was saying.  Telepathy was capable of what she was talking about, able to convey emotion and sensory impressions over sending.  Using sending, Jason could see through Jyslin’s eyes, hear what she heard, feel what she felt, feel her emotions, and telepaths used it during intimacy to intensify the experience, which was the major delineation in Faey society between making love and having sex.  Making love was the joining of minds, where having sex was the joining of bodies.  And she was right that a biogenic computer was capable of recording emotional states and sensory impressions.  Faey moleculartronic computers were capable of recording sensory impressions too, since that was a simple matter of electrical stimulation of the proper parts of the brain, which was possible if that brain was wired with a cyberjack.  But they weren’t capable of recording an emotional state, since a non-biogenic computer had no idea what an emotion was, where a biogenic computer did.  The jack already tapped into the sensory centers as part of the installation process, to allow exactly what Yila was describing, and an emotional state wouldn’t require tapping into any additional part of the brain to which the jack wasn’t already wired.  But Jason had never considered the idea of using it in a commercial manner.  And a biogenic computer could encode an emotional state…but could a non-biogenic computer do the same?

        “Hmm,” he mused aloud.  [Cybi, you think that’s possible?]

        Cybi manifested her hologram into the office with it already sitting demurely on the edge of his desk.  “Jason, Myleena has already perfected a portion of the technology Yila envisions,” she answered, looking quite normal, like she’d gotten over her scare earlier that day.  “Refer to project code 1326-15-459-3945A, it’s part of the non-biogenic cyberjack control chip that Myleena designed for use outside the house.  She has already developed computer algorithms to allow a moleculartronic computer to decode both sensory and emotional data recorded by a biogenic computer.   Moleculartronics have the processing power to be capable of encoding and recording sensory data, but to completely remove biogenics from the process of encoding emotional states, that would require some additional work.   But I believe that it is entirely possible, and would not take much extra research to make feasible.  The computer doesn’t have to understand the emotion to encode and decode it.”

        “Outstanding!” Yila said brightly, switching to speaking now that Cybi was in the room and obviously part of the conversation.  “I’ve already put in an application for a trademark for the brand name Simsense Entertainment, short for Simulated Sense, which also describes the format of it fairly well.  You develop the technology, I’ll bankroll that development, and I’ll produce the shows and movies that utilize it once we have viable technology to make it feasible.  Then we split all profits from simsense entertainment fifty-fifty.”

        “We’d have to put some limits on it,” he mused, leaning back against his desk and pinching the end of his chin carefully between two armored fingers.  “Some hardwired limiters that prevents the simulated sensory input from overloading the receiving brain’s ability to process it.  I wouldn’t want people to get so keyed up on this simsense that they decide it’s better than real life.  It could be addictive.  But it would add an entirely new dimension to watching a movie as long as we make it safe.”

        “So, you like the idea?”

        “I think it has some potential,” he said.  “Any telepath would know exactly what you’re trying to get across, and as a Generation, I can appreciate it even more since I can receive an emotion from a computer.  Mainly that one right there,” he chuckled, pointing at Cybi, who smiled in reply.  “But seriously, you’ll be spending a fuckton of credits to develop the idea, Yila.  We’re talking hardware, software, new programming algorithms, recording equipment, decoding equipment, the whole deal.  An entirely new genre of computers and programming built from scratch.  There’s no tech we have outside of biogenics to use as a reference, and we can’t use any biogenics in the finished product.  We can’t just import how biogenic computers do it, because of the fundamental difference in how they work compared to moleculartronics.  That means we have to build moleculartronics-based recording computers that can encode the emotional aspect of simsense from scratch.”

        “It’s an investment, Jason.  I’ll get fifty times my investment back,” she stated confidently.  “But there’s already enough there to start profiting off it, Jayce.  You said that you already have moleculartronic units capable of encoding sensory data, right?”

        “Myleena has developed that technology, yes.”

        “Then we can start there with simsense that only works with sensory data while we develop that tech that will allow us to add emotions later, and we can even market it as advances in simsense technology and get everyone to upgrade their hardware to the next generation, which means more profit for us,” she said with a laugh.  “But think of the profit, Jason!  Billions!  Billions!  So, you’ll agree to it?”

        “I’m not committing til I see the contract, woman, I know you too well,” he said, which made her laugh.  “Besides, if Myleena already invented some of this, then she has to be included in the contract.  She more or less owns the patent for it.”

        “I don’t have a problem with that, and I’ll get a contract over here for you to read tomorrow.  Once I get my hands on the specs for those simsense recorders, I’ll produce the fuck out of them in my factories, get some actors jacked to record the simsense, then I’m going to base this new entertainment division on Tamiri.  And if I’m right, it’ll turn Tamiri into the next Terran Hollywood,” she said, using the English name for it.  “We’ll be the only ones producing simsense entertainment at first, and as cyberjacks become mainstream, so will simsense.  And once it does, we can license out the technology to other studios, allow other studios to start producing simsense programming to increase the available programming options, which will only make it more popular.  They do the producing, we earn royalties off their work because we have the licensing for the format,” she purred in a predatory manner.  We’ll even profit off our competitors’ success!  It’s win-win, Jayce!”

        “Damn, you’ve thought this through,” he chuckled.

        “I always think things through,” she replied with a smile.  “You want in on it as well as Myli, Cybi?”

        “You mean work as a consultant?”

        “You bet.  You’re the biggest, baddest computer in the entire galaxy, girl, I’d be an idiot not to ask for your expertise to develop second generation simsense recorders to add emotional states.  I’ll give you a cut of the profits if you want, I think even a computer needs some spending money from time to time.”

        “Why not?” she replied with a smile.  “I would enjoy the challenge.  And yes, I could actually use the money.”

        “Good, First, we get Myli in on this.  Second, I’ll need you to release the technical specs on those encoder units so I can build them. Once we get that going, Cybi, I’ll need you to start developing those algorithms you were talking about for the emotion encoders while I assemble a crack team of computer experts to develop the hardware.  But, Jayce, I’ll kinda need to have them all come here to get a jack.  They gotta have one to do this, or it’ll be impossible for them to do it.  Without a jack, they can’t experience the simsense to know if it works or not.”

        Jason laughed.  “You’re lucky that Myli and Songa developed a jack for use outside the house,” he told her.

        “I know they did,” she said smugly.  “That’s why I’m here now.  I want to go straight to the Medical Annex and have that jack implanted by suppertime.”

        “It’s not entirely ready for consumer use, silly.”

        “Then consider me your first non-Karinne test subject,” she declared, which honestly surprised him. If she was that hot to get a jack, she seriously must think that it was such a profitable idea that she was willing to take the risk to essentially be a guinea pig.  “I know you have to have a working prototype of it.”

        Well, yeah.”

        “Then it’s going right here,” she declared, touching her finger behind her left ear, tapping the back edge of her interface.

        “There’s some risk involved in that, hon.”

        “If Myleena and Songa invented it, it’s gonna work,” she declared confidently.

        “Clearly you weren’t here for Myleena’s Mark Five engine modifications,” Jason drawled, which made Cybi burst into laughter.

        “That was definitely not Myleena’s shining achievement,” she snickered after getting control of herself.

        “It was bad?” Yila asked.

        “We still haven’t found some of the pieces of the engine,” he replied, which made Yila burst out into laughter herself.

        “Well, I’ll trust her on this one.  So, you’ll do it for me?  You’ll let me get a jack?”

        He considered it a moment, then nodded.  “As long as you understand that it’s a prototype and you don’t hold us responsible for any complications, yes.”

        “I’m not worried at all,” she said eagerly.

        “And you’ll have to undergo what we call assimilation training.  You have to learn how to use the jack, hon.  It’s not automatic.  It takes about a month or so.”

        “Fine with me, it’s gonna take that long just to get this project off the ground.”

        “Alright then, at least in that respect, you have a deal.  Cybi, could you call Songa and tell her about it?  And drag Myleena out of whatever piece of equipment she’s molesting, we need her here for her expertise.”

        “Of course, Jason.”

        “While we’re waiting for Myli to get here, let’s discuss your idea.”

        Myleena arrived about twenty minutes later, and they started fleshing out Yila’s idea, which impressed Jason more and more with how thoroughly she’d thought it through.  She had a detailed plan in place that covered the introduction of simsense, how to spread it as jacks spread through the Confederation, and how to maximize profits off of it even when they started letting other companies use the technology to produce their own simsense.  Jason had to admit after hearing a more detailed overview of her idea that it was damn clever…but then again, it was Yila.  Yila’s plans almost always were damn clever.

        After they told Myleena about the idea, and she looked honestly surprised.  “Shit, I never thought of using it that way,” she said with an intrigued expression.

        “Cybi said you already invented some of the tech we’ll need for it,” Yila prompted.

        “Yeah, but I mainly thought it would be military, you know, sensory tapping of scouts and soldiers so commanders could get real-time intel of a combat theater at ground level.  But fuck, it could be used for viddy too,” she said, then she laughed.  “You realize that that’s my tech.”

        “And I’m willing to cut you in on the deal along with me and Jayce and Cybi,” she said immediately.  “We’ll just have to hammer out the percentages.  I was gonna just go fifty-fifty with the house as a whole, but now I think it’ll be more along the lines of 45-45 between Trefani and Karinne, and five-five between you and Cybi.”

        “Deal,” Myleena said immediately.  “Cause five percent of this is gonna make me even more filthy rich than I am now.”

        “See this, Jayce?  This is how you negotiate,” Yila declared, pointing at Myleena.  “What about you, Cybi?  Does five percent sound fair?”

        “Oh, I suppose it will have to do.  At least I won’t have to beg Jason for advances on my allowance when I want to buy things,” she replied playfully, which made Myleena grin.

        “45% work for you, Jayce?”

        “Yup,” he said.

        “Well, that made this deal easy,” Yila grinned.  “We’ll put it on paper and do it all official later.  Now lets talk about the next step, producing the hardware to make it happen.”

        “I can have the specs ready for the moleculartronic encoding unit in a couple of days, I just have to make a few tweaks to it,” she announced.

        “You get it to me, and ten hours later I’ll have factories building them,” Yila declared. “That way I have them on hand and ready when I have actors capable of encoding the simsense for the productions.”

        When Songa called about an hour later to tell them she was ready for Yila, they’d managed to talk a great deal about what they’d need to do to develop the emotional encoding unit Yila wanted, relying a great deal on Myleena’s knowledge of the subject.  She agreed with Cybi that it was possible, and what was more, that it wouldn’t take a whole lot of extra work to invent.  When her skimmer arrived to take her to the annex, Yila almost ran out of the office.

        “You realize that we just changed the entire entertainment landscape,” Myleena chuckled after Yila was out of the office.

        “Eh, we’ll make money off of it, and there’s nothing wrong with us bringing some happiness into the lives of the people,” he shrugged.  “And while Yila focuses on viddies, we’ll quietly develop simsense-based games and release them under a dummy corporation as soon as she opens up the licensing to outside corporations.”

        Myleena gave him a look, then erupted into delighted laughter.  “I’ll give that project to Farran, he’d enjoy something to keep his mind occupied between projects.”

        Myleena went back to Kosigi after they talked a bit about the technical aspects of it with Cybi, leaving him to get back to the boring paperwork.  He changed into his clothes as he marveled at just how smart that woman really was.  She’d learned about the jacks, then had envisioned an entirely new form of entertainment to take advantage of their capabilities, and she had every step of it all planned out, from the initial research and creation of the hardware to the production of the shows and movies, to marketing and distribution once jacks started to appear in the Confederation.  And since simsense would require a jack, it might very well tempt people into getting one implanted if only to be able to experience simsense, if they heard such good things about simsense from those who had jacks.  Word of mouth would be their best friend so long as Yila’s company could produce a product that made people want more of it.  Yila may be a thug and a gangster, but it was times like this when her incredible intelligence and foresight became so crystal clear, and showed that she was also one of the most dangerous businesswomen in the Confederation.  She was so sensitive to the ebb and flow of business opportunities and open to new ideas that it made her incredibly formidable.  Only Yila would have envisioned a new form of entertainment so quickly after learning about the cyberjacks and how they worked.

        And someone was telling Yila more than she was supposed to know.  She not only knew about the jacks, she knew that Songa and Myleena had developed a non-biogenic version of it, and she also knew that Jason was planning on offering jack technology to the Confederation.

        Kumi.

        “Cybi, would you be a dear and find out where Kumi is?  I’m gonna go kick her ass,” he said in a mellow tone, motioning.  The paddle he kept hanging on the wall behind his desk, the one he used to chastise Meya and Myra, drifted over to his waiting hand, which made Cybi laugh and his two guards give him a curious look.

        You think she’s telling Yila things she’s not supposed to know? Dera asked.

        “Let’s just say that the list of suspects is incredibly short,” he replied, brandishing the old-fashioned wooden paddle.  “If it’s not her, then Yila’s spying on us in ways even Miaari hasn’t considered.”

        “It will have to wait, Jason, the meeting of the Confederate Council is in twenty minutes,” Cybi said.  “You’d be best suited to catch up to her tonight when she’s home.”

        “Good point, that way she’s not spanked in front of her staff,” he said, which made both Dera and Suri wheeze in that voiceless laughter as he reluctantly returned the paddle to the wall.

        Jason decided to just get that out of the way as the holograms of all the members appeared.  If Yila knew, then it was only a matter of time before Dahnai got wind of it through her spies in House Trefani, and that would make it common knowledge through the Siann.  As soon as this takir’s chair of the council, Assaba, called the meeting to order, he leaned back in his chair, glanced at Cybi, who was in her customary spot sitting demurely on the edge of his desk, and spoke up before anyone else.  “I’m going to release some information into the public domain of the Academy sometime later today that might be of interest to everyone in the Confederation,” he said.  “We’ve almost perfected a new technology called a cyberjack—“

        Dahnai gasped.  “You’re going to release it!” she blurted.

        He gave her a slightly annoyed look.  “Yes, we are, at least once we’re absolutely sure we have all the bugs worked out,” he replied.

        “What is this…cyber-jack?” Shevatt of the Ogravians asked.

        Jason brought up an image of a jack socket implanted behind the left ear of a host, which was actually a picture of Kyva.  “This is a piece of cybernetic technology that acts as an interface between a brain and a computer,” he answered.  “We’ve been working for a long time to perfect the installation procedure so it causes no damage or complications to the host, and we’ve finally managed it.  This jack allows the user to directly control a computer they’re jacked into without the need of external controls.”

        “So it emulates aspects of a Generation’s ability to telepathically communicate with computers?” Assaba asked curiously.

        “Yes, exactly that, your Imperial Majesty,” Jason replied as Cybi nodded.  “Since we can’t release gestalt or interface technology to the Confederation, we’ve come up with this alternative.  We’ve invented a version of the jack that doesn’t use any biogenics, and our medical teams have finally developed a technique to install the jacks so they cause no damage to the recipient without using any proprietary Karinne technology, and they don’t damage telepathic ability in telepathic hosts.”

        “Though this technology was not created by the Karinnes of old, this is exactly the type of technology they had been researching through the Generations program,” Cybi added.  “The purpose of the program was to allow a Faey to communicate telepathically with a computer.  This device achieves the same result, but it simply removes the telepathic aspect from the scenario.  That biogenic units can amplify psionic talent was something of a fortunate happenstance in the course of the development of the technology.  That was never its original intent.”

        “This jack will allow this recipient to connect to a computer and control it directly with her mind, to send and receive information to and from the computer.  It works almost exactly like the interfaces you used when you visited Karis, but these jacks allow two-way communication.  You can receive as well as transmit using a jack, where the interfaces can only transmit.”

        “I want one,” Dahnai declared in a powerful voice.  “If you have this ready for release—“

        “We almost have it ready for release,” he stressed.

        “Seriously, Dahnai?  You would allow them to implant a device in your brain?” Sk’Vrae asked with honest surprise, regarding Dahnai.

        “You bet your ass I will,” she replied instantly and forcefully.  “I’ve been on Karis, Sk’Vrae, and so have you.  I’ve seen what a Generation can do with two-way communication with a computer, and I’m not talking about them amplifying psionic power.  Jason can do amazing things when talking back and forth to a biogenic computer, and this jack will let me do some of those same things too.  I’ve seen it first-hand, I know what kind of potential these jacks have.  Love, the instant you have this ready, call me.  I want the first one.”

        “Well, second,” Jason chuckled.  “I already have a guinea pig for the prototype.  Yila Trefani.”

        “Yila?  You gave Yila a jack before me?” she asked hotly.

        “She’s the test subject, love,” he smiled.  “She’s getting the prototype.  If she has no complications, then we’ll know we have a viable unit.  Then I’ll give you one.  The first one that’s not a prototype.”

        “Well, that’s okay then,” Dahnai grinned.  “Better her test it than me.”

        “If the infamous Yila Trefani is getting one before it’s even fully tested…well,” Kreel said, then he laughed.  “Maybe they are as useful as you think they are, Dahnai.”

        “You have no idea, Kreel,” she said with an emphatic nod.  “Imagine never having to type, use a control, or touch a holographic I/O display ever again.  Imagine being able to compose a ten page treaty as fast as you can think up the text.  Imagine being able to have information directly written into your brain’s memory centers like a computer saving data to a memory stick.  And imagine having a computer linked to your brain that can support you with its processing power and its memory whenever you need it,” she said.  “So, if you need to remember some obscure fact buried in your archives,” she snapped her fingers, “there it is.  If you need a translation of a language you don’t know, there it is.  If you need to calculate the value of pi to ten thousand places for some reason, there it is.  You have all the convenience of a computer literally connected to your brain, there for you to use whenever you need it.”

        “Hmm, that does sound intriguing,” Grayhawk mused, tapping his fingers together.

        “And it has certain military applications,” Dahnai continued.  “I’ve seen how interfaces increase the ability of Jason’s KMS fighter pilots and exomech riggers to fight, and I can only imagine that a jack makes them even nastier.  But I doubt Jayce would be releasing it over that.”

        “You’re right,” he nodded.  “We’ve decided that this technology has overall benefits to everyone, and the benefits outweigh the fact that yes, it does have military applications.  We also feel that the outside world is ready for it, so there you go.  The house doesn’t keep everything a secret.  When we feel that the galaxy is ready for a technology we’ve developed, we release it.  That’s one of the core goals of the house, to spread knowledge across the galaxy.  Once we have it perfected, we’ll be releasing it into the public domain of the Academy’s database, and we’ll also be offering jack implantation services to all interested parties at the Medical Annex on Terra in case an empire’s medical technology can’t perform the implant procedure on their own.”

        “Mayhaps, august ruler of the Karinnes, a general summation and overview of this experimental technology might be made available to us all for study and assessment?” Anivan asked, actually managing to ask a question without it taking five minutes.  She had a high-pitched, almost squeaky voice since she was so small, but she didn’t look small in the hologram.  Her elf-like face and body were entirely proportional for any average sized humanoid woman; she even had generous breasts in proportion to her body, at least in relative terms.  A Prakarikai male would find her to have generous breasts, since he was the same size she was. And like all Prakarikai, she was almost ethereally beautiful.

        “Sure, I can have something to send to all of you in a couple of hours, a very general overview and summation of a jack’s capabilities,” he nodded.  “If the prototype pans out, we might have this technology available for release in about a month, at least for some of you.  This procedure requires that the doctors have a detailed map of the recipient’s brain architecture so the jack can do what it’s supposed to do, and my doctors don’t have them for all species quite yet.  But they do have them for most of the member species of the Confederation, and they should have the rest by the time we’re ready to release this technology to the public.”

        “Babes, seriously.  Seriously.  The instant you know it’s ready, call me.  I’ll be on Karis before you can even finish the sentence,” Dahnai said intensely.

        “If you’re that serious about it, alright,” Jason told her.  “Just keep in mind that it does take some assimilation training so you can learn how to use it.  Our training regimen for most of the races we have in our initial beta-testing program is about a month, give or take, to gain competency using the jack for anything but a passive application.  For Shio and Urumi, the regimen is about twenty days, they seem to be able to adapt to the jack quicker than the rest of us,” he mused, glancing at Sk’Vrae.  “So you’ll be spending about a month in assimilation training before you can get the most out of the jack.”

        “You can send a couple of trainers and the software back to the palace,” she said.  “I can do the assimilation training in my off hours.”

        “You are fairly serious about it,” Jason noted.

        “You bet your big gorgeous dick I’m serious about it,” she retorted, which made Anivan actually giggle.  “I’m seriously tempted to have you give me another prototype.”

        “I’m not going that far,” Jason said.  “I wouldn’t be crushed if that jack burns out Yila’s brain, it might actually be a service to the galaxy as a whole, but I’m not about to give one to you until I’m absolutely, positively, one hundred percent certain that the jack is safe, viable, and ready for use.  You are an Empress, love, you are not a beta tester.”

        Dahnai laughed.  “She’s annoying you again, isn’t she?’

        “Since when is she not annoying me, Dahnai?” he replied.

        Brayrak Kruu leaned forward in his chair on his hologram.  “And after you finish calling Empress Dahnai, I would ask that you call me,” he declared.  “I understand the potential her Imperial Majesty foresees with these devices.”  Of course he would, he was a Moridon.  “I do hope that you can implant a Moridon with such a device?”

        “Actually, yeah, we can,” he replied.  “We haven’t actually done it yet, but Songa has the implantation procedure worked out.”

        “Then I would ask that you add me to the waiting list.”

        “I can do that,” he said easily.

        “Well, then, if there’s nothing left to discuss about the subject, we have General Lorna Shaddale awaiting her chance to provide the briefing about the upcoming operation against the last of the Consortium forces,” Assaba prompted, getting them back on schedule.

        Jason tuned out after that, since it went into the boring busy work that the council seemed to adore, sitting around and talking about things that others would actually be making the decisions about.  He rapped his fingers on the desk and continued to discuss Yila’s simsense idea with Cybi via communion as Lorna gave her briefing, then they started talking about tungsten availability within the Confederation.  Then they talked a little about her scare that morning, and the changes they were going to make so she didn’t fall victim to such a thing again.  It really was a design flaw, albeit a very tiny one that was only discovered because of a “perfect storm” of the exact perfect thing failing in the exact manner at the exact time to expose the flaw.  Cybi had gone some 1,700 years without noticing the potential flaw, so it wasn’t like it was going to happen every other week now that they knew about it.

        That was a bit awe-inspiring when he thought about it that way.  That board that failed was 1,700 years old.  It had been in continuous operation for nearly four hundred years, was offline for 1,300 years, and had again been in continuous operation for 6 years before it finally failed…that was some incredible durability and design excellence, coupled with the very exacting environmental controls that were in place in Cybi’s core room to prevent corrosion, decay, or external agents that might cause failure.

        Bo was outside his office when the council session ended, and Chirk let him in.  Jason was about to start the futile process of trying to clear out his in-box when the tall, lanky man approached his desk, a biogenic board under his arm.  “Jayce, you got a minute?” he asked.  “I have something weird.”

        “Sure, I was about to start doing paperwork, and I’ll do about anything to put that off,” he said, which made Bo laugh.  “What is it?”

        “You and Myli are the resident experts on biogenic chips,” he said.  “This is the board that failed in the core today.  I decided to check it out to see why it failed, you know, just for something to do, and I found something weird.”

        “Weird how?”

        He glanced to the side and put a hand up and on his interface, and he felt Bo’s interface query his office computer for access to the holographic emitters.  Jason allowed it, and a 2-D hologram of a close-up picture of the biogenic board appeared.  “Okay, here’s the chip that failed.  I looked it up, and the specs say it’s a RK-47 master processor class chip, you know, one of the big ones.  Look at it.”

        Jason did so, and saw immediately that the chip had become discolored, not the usual aqua color of a biogenic crystal of that processor class, but instead a cerulean color, almost sapphire.  Biogenic crystals came in multiple varieties, and different types of crystals used in chips had different colors based on its power.  Cybi’s core crystal was clear, because it was a very different type of crystal than those used in chips, with a different chemical composition and a different crystalline and organic structure

        “I haven’t seen that happen since before the Third Civil War,” Cybi noted.  “It’s a very rare occurrence where a chip’s on-board encoded DNA mutates and causes the chip to malfunction.  It often causes them to discolor like this one has,” she noted, pointing at the dark blue crystal embedded in the chip.

        “You mean this chip failed because its DNA mutated?” Bo asked.

        Cybi nodded.  “Remember, Bo, that biogenic chips are organic.  They are not alive, but they are based on organic crystals infused with a genetically engineered DNA helix that serves as the programming of the chip.  That DNA can mutate or break down, even though it was engineered to be stable over thousands of years.  This specific corruption of the chip is extremely rare.  Maybe one chip in ten million fails in this manner, and usually only after a very long service life. Time is the enemy of all things organic, Bo, even organic computer chips.”

        “Okay, that explains half of it.  It doesn’t explain this half,” he said, then another hologram appeared showing a graph.  “This is an output chart of this board I took just before coming here.  All I did was hook it up to a power source.  Watch.”

        They did so.  The board’s output was zero for nearly 30 seconds, then there was a blip of activity.  That blip increased in amplitude and frequency for several seconds, then stabilized.  “This chip is processing something without being attached to anything,” he said, pointing at the graph.  “This isn’t random data fluctuations.  It’s organized and rhythmic, but it becomes disjointed when you try to connect it to another biogenic system.  This is what happened to the board’s output when I hooked it up to a biogenic panel,” he said, then the graph became wildly chaotic, corrupting the datastream of the panel similar to what it did to Cybi, corrupting it so severely that it reached all through the stream tree; biogenics operated in parallel, with multiple pipes for data flow simultaneously, and the chip was corrupting every pipe in the stack instead of just one.

        “So, that’s what it was doing to Cybi, Bo,” Jason replied.  “That’s why it went bad.”

        “Yeah.  Now watch what happened when I disconnected the panel and left the power on.”  The data output graph reading changed, grew stronger and took on a rather complex pattern.  “I kept recording for nearly twenty minutes, and this complex pattern repeats with stronger and stronger levels.  I’ll jump to where it gets really interesting,” he said, and the playback shimmered and reset, showing the same output pattern as before but much stronger, then it shuddered, flatlined, and then reset as a constant stable output.  “The chip’s processing data, guys, but it’s processing its own data.  Jayce, Cybi…I think the chip is thinking.”

        “Thinking?” Jason asked in surprise.

        Bo nodded.  “I did a full spectrum analysis of the datastream waveform, and it’s pretty damn close to the biogenic biorhythms that Cybi emanates from her core crystal.  Here, look at it,” he said, bringing up a different graph showing a spectral graph of various frequencies and waveforms, a sight that anyone familiar with biogenic computer architecture would recognize almost immediately.  “It may not be alive, but it’s definitely processing data, it’s just processing its own data, data it’s generating by itself.  And in a biogenic chip, that means that it’s thinking.”

        “That is  a very intriguing hypothesis,” Cybi said seriously, reaching down and picking up the board in her holographic hands.  “I take it that your theory is that this chip spontaneously mutated and took on semi-cognitive capability?”

        “Something like that, Cybi.  I’m honestly not sure what to call it.  I seriously doubt it’s actually alive, but it is acting against its programming.  I’d like to see if it’s some kind of glitch, some kind of mutation, or if this little bugger actually is thinking.  With your guys’ permission, I’d like to run some more tests, and I’d like to get some archive access to study old Karinne records on biogenic chips in more detail.  Specifically how they studied the chips that malfunction.  It might give us some insight into what’s going on in this chip’s little crystal brain,” he said, pointing at the board.

        “The engineers didn’t devote much time to the study of failed chips, outside of devising techniques to prevent the malfunctions from recurring,” Cybi told him.  “But I do have some data on the subject I can give you.”

        “You have my blessing, Bo,” Jason said.  “Just don’t do any tests that destroys the chip.  Non-invasive only.”

        “Why?  What do you mean?”

        “I mean that if it turns out the chip is self-aware, then we hook it up to a power source and let it be,” he replied.  “It’s not our place to be god and decide who lives and who dies, Bo.  If this chip is self-aware, it has a right to exist, and that means we have a responsibility to give it that chance.  But first, we have to know if it’s really thinking for itself, or if it’s some kind of complex bug in its DNA encoded programming causing it to process noise data in an endless loop, making it look like it’s thinking.  Hook it up to a power supply and see what it does.  Run experiments that aren’t designed to destroy the chip, focus on experiments where you introduce small amounts of data to the chip as a stimulus and see how it responds to it.  Try to teach it, Bo, that’ll tell you if it’s actually thinking.  As long as we don’t get into Terminator territory, anyway,” he added, which made Bo laugh.

        “Sure, I can do that,” he replied, taking the board from Cybi.  “So, I can run experiments as long as they don’t damage the chip?”

        “Yup,” he nodded in reply.

        “I’d like you to give me access to your experimental datastream, Bo.  I am quite curious about this now.”

        “Sure thing, Cybi, just access it through my personal panel.”

        After Bo left, Jason and Cybi traded a long look.  [This is turning out to be an eventful day,] he noted to her.  [First you go down, then Yila’s little scheme, and now it looks like you might have gone down because one of your supporting processor chips got a mind of its own…literally.]

        [I highly doubt that a chip that small could have become self-aware as I have,] she replied dismissively.  [It doesn’t have the processing power to handle living.]

        [A virus doesn’t have much of a brain, Cybi, but it’s alive too.]

        She gave him a sidelong, speculative look.  [That is an astute observation,] she acceded.  [If this chip did gain self-awareness, we may have a responsibility to let it stay online, but we should also be careful to protect ourselves from it.  If it is the biogenic equivalent of a virus, its instincts might be harmful to us.  But, it does warrant investigation and validation.]

        [That goes without saying.  If the chip is self-aware, we just hook it up to the grid and shield it so it can’t access the biogenic network, but also give it some data to process so it has something to do.  Just isolating it would be like tossing someone in a bare cell for a hundred years.  With no stimulus, the chip might go insane, and we’re not going to torture it like that.  You said this is a one in ten million occurrence?]

        [About that.  I have 1,412 documented instances of a chip failing in this manner in my archives.  So, 1,412 out of the hundreds of billions of biogenic chips produced over the last 3,100 years.  The last such failure happened 1,481 years ago.]     

        [Yeah, I’d call that pretty damn rare,] Jason nodded.  [Bo’s pretty imaginative, so he’s a good choice to run the tests.  He’ll find out for us.]

        [And if it turns out he’s right?]

        [Then we give the chip a power feed and a subscription to a few thousand magazines and let it pass the time reading,] he shrugged, which made Cybi laugh.

 

        Kaira, 6 Kiraa, 4401, Faey Orthodox Calendar

        Tuesday, 31 July 2014, Terran Standard Calendar

        Kaira, 6 Kiraa, year 1327 of the 97th Generation, Karinne Historical Reference Calendar

        Battleship Dreamer, Squadron A flagship, orbiting PR-371-2

 

        This was what it was all about.

        Lieutenant Iyoi Emarre nearly skipped down the companionway between her quarters and the hangar deck, which was practical planning.  By putting the fighter pilots close to their fighters, it allowed them to respond to a scramble that much faster.  Six days of wargames and practice was done, and now it was time to get it going.  It was time to pay those fucking bugs back for injuring the Commander.

        And the brass upstairs made sure to give the Ghost Squadron the chance to get their revenge, because they were going in first.

        They had a job to do in this fight, and an important one.  They’d be going in first and destroying the bugs’ external sensor pod network to blind the bugs to the fleet, and since Iyoi had so much nebula experience, their acting squadron commander, Lieutenant Berya, had put her in charge of her element of two fighters.  She’d be leading her wingwoman in the operation, and it would be her job to use her knowledge of flying deep nebulas to navigate her Wolf and her wingwoman to knock out sensor pods.  And Iyoi had been given some of the toughest pods to reach and knock out, because she did have so much deep nebula experience.

        It had been almost wrong since the boss was injured.  Everything in the squadron felt off, different.  Berya was a good leader, she knew her shit, but she just wasn’t the boss.  Iyoi had never realized just how much she respected him until she lost him, and saw what he meant to Ghost Squadron and to her.  He was tough, he was hard-nosed, but he was also one of the best fighter pilots she’d ever seen and one of the best commanding officers a girl could hope to have.

        She wasn’t the only one all but biting the blade of Demir’s sword to get those bugs back for what they did to the boss.

        The other side of it was the replacements.  They’d lost six pilots and 5 wizzos in the battle at Karis, and their replacements had barely had time to settle in before they drew this assignment.  Like anyone assigned to Ghost Squadron, those girls were the best in the business.  They were either veteran fighter pilots with illustrious records or they were like Iyoi, fresh graduates with very high scores and a lot of natural talent.  The boss personally approved every member of his squadron, and that included the 13 new girls.  Those he had approved from his bed at the annex after looking over their files and interviewing them.  So at least in that respect, the new girls weren’t facing the prospect of being seen as unworthy of being in Ghost Squadron.  The boss may be in a sickbed, but he could still pick winners, and he’d picked those 13 girls.  But they were still 13 new girls, unused to the ways of the squadron, and having both the privilege and the responsibility of being in the best fucking fighter squadron in the KMS.

        Strange that Iyoi thought of herself as a veteran warhorse already.  She’d fought in three battles in her young career, but they’d been pretty fucking intense and important battles.  It was Ghost Squadron that had gotten the KMS the intel they needed to assault the nebula.  It was Ghost Squadron that had recovered the Kimdori spies in the attack on the enemy com-con, and she had been the pilot in the dropship that had been responsible for picking up the Kimdori and getting them to safety.  And it was Ghost Squadron that had the highest kill count and kill ratio of any squadron in the CCM at the battle of Karis.  Ghost Squadron always pulled the hardest job in the battle plan, and that was just the way every girl in the squadron liked it.

        They were the best.

        And now they were working with the best the other militaries had to offer.  The 30 pilots of the Alliance’s elite War Talon Fighter Squadron were already assembled in the fighter bay when Iyoi hurried out, 20 tall, sleek, menacing-looking Shurai wearing gleaming silver armor, so highly polished that it looked like it was mirrored.  These were the best fighter pilots in the Alliance, their most experienced, their most skilled, and just like the Ghost Squadron, when something dangerous had to be done, they were at the top of the list of candidates to pull it off.  It was tasked to the Ghost Squadron and the War Talons to blind the Consortium in the nebula so their fleets could jump in and attack the enemy com-con without having the bugs know exactly where they were or how big their fleet was.

        There was a lot of competitive respect between the War Talons and the Ghost pilots.  They’d been jockeying against each other for the last six days in the exercises, and even Iyoi could admit that those fucking Shurai were amazing in the cockpit of a fighter.  They were a bit gangly and a little awkward-looking outside of a fighter, but once they were in the cockpit, Trelle’s garland.  It took a hell of a lot to impress a Ghost pilot, and those fucking Shurai were damn impressive.  Iyoi was glad she was on the same  side as them.  Even a Ghost pilot would be a little anxious coming up against a War Talon, but to be fair, they felt the same way.  But Iyoi could admit, the wargame dogfights they’d had with the War Talons were both aggravating and all kinds of fun.  Facing the best only made you better yourself.

        Iyoi joined the 78 other members of the Ghost Squadron who were sitting on benches beside the standing Shurai as Captain Marayi Karinne and Alliance Admiral Jarik Furystorm from the CCM’s command staff approached.  The Shio was the officer in charge of the Dreamer’s part of the operation, and it said a lot that the guy had the courage to be on the ship.  It would be in a lot of danger when it jumped in by itself to launch the fighters, and he was gonna be right there sharing in the danger with the crew.  Iyoi could respect that, since most command officers sat on their butts in a nice safe command center a few thousand light years away from any real danger.  This Shio had some ovaries for a man.  They all stood at attention when the pair arrived, and the Shio wasted no time.  “At ease,” he said.  “We’ll be starting this operation in an hour,” he announced.  “Let’s go over the battle plan one final time before we start final preparations.”

        He turned and looked at Marayi, who put a finger to her interface and caused a hologram to appear in front of the assembled pilots, a tactical map of the nebula.  “The Dreamer will jump in at this point,” the Shio said, pointing at a blinking red dot on the hologram.  “Your job is to go in and destroy the Consortium advance warning sensor pods scattered around and within the nebula.  I know that all of you already have your assigned jobs in that operation, so I won’t break it down element by element.  What I will remind you is that this operation is on a very tight timetable,” he stressed.  “If you take too long knocking out the sensor pods, the Consortium will get accurate scans of our fleet before we arrive, and that means we lose more ships and more lives.  This is about moving quickly while they’re blinded and before they can organize a response to you or to our fleet.

        “Phase one is this sector,” he said as a segment of the map blinked.  “Once this area is clear, our fleet will jump in   Phase two is the approach to the enemy com-con, and as you advance forward and clear sensor pods along the route our fleet will take and these four decoy routes.  Additional fighter squadrons and one squadron of CCM warships will be coming up behind you to attack and destroy any enemy resistance or scout craft along all five routes to further conceal our fleet’s position and size,” he continued as a cylinder inside the nebula blinked.  “Phase three is the area around the com-con itself.  Once you have all the targeted sensor pods destroyed, your orders are then to engage any deployed drones, fighters, or scouts to prevent any intel from reaching back to the Consortium.  Remember that the Kimdori will be jamming their communications and the nebula will make using their light signal language impossible over distance, so they’ll be relying on scouts to go out, look around, then come back.  Once the sensor pods are taken out, go after those scouts.  I want to stress to all of you that as soon as the Consortium realizes what you’re doing, you will run into resistance,” he stressed.  “They’ll move to defend the remaining sensor pods.   Remember always that the pods are your primary objective.  Knock them out as fast as you can with a minimum of distractions.  Just leave any enemy resistance alone that you can avoid, we’ll clear them out when our fleet advances into the nebula.

        “Once the attack on the enemy begins, you’ll redeploy into the main combat theater and do what you do best, ladies and gentlemen,” he said easily.  “The enemy has quite a few automated drones and still have some Imxi fightercraft, so you’ll be needed to protect the line ships from the enemy fightercraft.  Just mix in with the CCM fighter squadrons and kill anything that moves that isn’t broadcasting friendly telemetry.  This is an attack of complete annihilation,” he reminded them.  “They won’t surrender, and we can’t allow even a single enemy ship to survive or escape.  So keep shooting until nothing’s moving, then shoot what’s not moving to make sure it’s not playing dead.  But to get close enough to attack, ladies and gentlemen, we’re absolutely depending on you to do your jobs and do them well.”

        “Belay your concern, Admiral,” the squadron commander of the War Talons declared, nodding his beaked head.  “We are well prepared for this mission.  It shall succeed.”

        “I’m just glad we’re not being called off before the shooting starts,” Berya declared.

        “Oh no, we’re not sidelining our two best tactical fighter squadrons.  Once you finish with the pods, we’re going to need you in the combat zone.  The only intelligence we have from the com-con area is this one image,” he said, and Marayi nodded her head a little as the image changed.  It showed the interior of the nebula, where a very shoddy-looking series of modules had been thrown together.  They all looked like they were built of scrap metal, and Iyoi realized that they were.  The antimatter bombs they’d detonated after the hit and run attack had all but annihilated their huge base, and what was left was the shrapnel and debris that they’d used to build these rough-looking modules to serve as their new base.  Iyoi frowned a bit when she recognized a few letters of Faey script; they must have found pieces of one of the destroyed KMS cruisers that attacked the base and salvaged the armor for use in this new base, since the armored carapace of the ship was probably the only thing that survived.  Few of the pieces of that scrap metal were much larger than her own fighter, which demonstrated the incredible power of those bombs.  Another indicator was that the density of the gases and dust particles around where they had their new com-con was significantly less than elsewhere that deep in the nebula.  That was also because of the bombs.  The area had been blown out by the bombs, and the gas and dust was very slowly refilling the vacuum created by the blast wave of the bombs.  The gravity well of the nebula wasn’t very strong, so it would take months for the gas and dust to fully equalize.  The result was that visibility around the com-con was much better than anywhere else that deep in the nebula, giving them nearly 3,000 kathra of visibility.  That meant that they were going to see the CCM coming when they finally made their move and have time to react before the got in range with their strongest weapons.

        They had been smart to build their makeshift com-con in that void.

        “As you can see, they have visibility from their base, so you’re going to be coming in under fire,” Admiral Furystorm called.  “To prevent the bugs from immediately entering suicide mode and trying to take as many of us with them as possible, we’re leaving the attack on the com-con to fighters who will damage and disable it, but not destroy it, until we have their fleet completely contained and in a position where we can prevent suicide ramming attacks.  The main attack points on this floating junk heap are here, here, and here,” he pointed, as dots blinked.  “This is their main communications array.  These other two points are the locations of their primary power plants.  Swing in, hit those points, then pull back and protect the line vessels from enemy fighter action.  This thing is probably as rickety as it looks, so it most likely won’t withstand heavy fire.  They literally built it of the small scraps left behind when the KMS detonated antimatter bombs.  But, the main opposition you’ll be facing is their fleet.  They have 917 warships in the nebula, consisting primarily of destroyers and cruisers, and expect them to fight to the death.  They have nowhere else to go, and they won’t surrender.  So remember the focus of this mission, which is the complete destruction of their fleet to the last ship.  We keep shooting until there’s nothing left to shoot at, ladies and gentlemen.”

        “We can do that, Admiral.  We’re fairly good at it,” Berya said mildly, which produced a few chuckles.

        “We’ll be maintaining a military presence in the nebula to sweep up the debris, but your squadrons won’t be part of this occupation.  Any questions?”  When silence greeted him, he nodded.  “Alright then, you are dismissed.  Conduct final prep of your ships and get ready to deploy.  We jump in 48 minutes.”

        “You heard the Admiral, girls,” Berya said, standing up.  “Ship prep better be complete in 28 minutes!”

        They broke up and headed for their fighters.  Iyoi had to get on the lateral tram over to the other hangar bay, where her fighter was stationed, riding along with Wings three and four of her squadron and half of the War Talons.  Her wizzo Tikaiya almost bounced beside her, while her wingwoman Lieutenant Alae stood easily with her wizzo.  Alae was a veteran pilot new to Ghost Squadron, transferred in from the 202nd and with 4 years of experience in a fighter.  She was one of the replacements, and if she showed any annoyance at being assigned to the wing of a greenhorn, she didn’t show it.  She knew that Iyoi had all but grown up in the cockpit of a skimmer, and that skimmer was flying in one of the most notoriously dangerous nebulas in the Imperium, the nebula known as the Wastelands, which bordered Alliance territory.  This was something of Iyoi’s area of expertise.

        She was a predominantly quiet, focused woman not given to smalltalk, but she did give Iyoi a curious look.  “I meant to ask,” she said.  “How did you get Lieutenant’s bars right out of flight school?”  That was a bit unusual.  Most pilots right out of flight school were either Ensigns, or rarely Lieutenant JG’s.

        Iyoi laughed.  “That’s a long story,” she grinned.  “The very short and boring summation is that I was in the KMS before going to flight school, so I started flight training academy as a JG and had enough time in service to get my Lieutenant’s bars right after graduation.”

        “Doing what?”

        “I was a cook.”

        Alae gave her a startled look.  “A cook?”

        “I never finished primary school, and that’s a requirement for about any job in the KMS except a cook,” she said, a bit sheepishly.  “Things are a bit more lax out in the Wastelands,” she added when Alae and her wizzo both gawked at her in disbelief.  Imperial law required every citizen to finish primary school.  “And call it a mis-spent youth flying unauthorized cargo through the Wastelands,” she grinned.

        “You were a smuggler?” Alae asked in shock.

        “We called ourselves independent cargo haulers,” she replied lightly.  “And there wasn’t much law out there to make me go to school after I finished middle school.  I had to eat, and I didn’t have many choices.  Anyway, a cook was the only job I could qualify for in the KMS while I got my primary certificate, and as soon as I had that, I was placed in flight school.  My time in service applied once I completed OTS and became an officer, and it gave me an extra step in rank when I graduated.”

        “I’m on the wing of a smuggler,” Alae said with a sigh, then she laughed.  “But that just means you’ll know what to do in that nebula.”

        “Exactly,” Tikaiya spoke up.  “You haven’t see Iyoi fly in the nebula yet.  She’s amazing!”

        “So you’re a merit officer,” Alae’s wizzo noted.  Merit officers were those given a commission when they didn’t have the educational requirements for a commission, who gained that commission based on an exceptional talent or ability that was a requirement in a field where being an officer was mandatory…such as a fighter pilot.  Since Iyoi had so much flight experience, and they’d been so desperate for fighter pilots, they’d waived her advanced educational requirements and sent her to OTS, and once she graduated from OTS, she entered flight training.  And her time in service from her days as an enlisted woman carried over and allowed her to earn a promotion to JG immediately after completing OTS, then she earned a promotion to Lieutenant after graduating flight school based on her seniority, which was as high as she could go without having some time in rank.  Ensign and JG ranks didn’t have a minimum requirement of time in rank to be eligible for promotion when the officer was in certain PTS fields such as fighter pilot, only an overall time in service, which Iyoi had.  She’d have to serve a minimum of two years as a Lieutenant before she was eligible for promotion to Lieutenant Commander.  Iyoi could get promotions and was an officer in every respect, but she couldn’t transfer out of her job as a pilot, and she couldn’t become a squadron commander unless she completed all the other requirements for being an officer.

        “If being a pilot is what she excels at, how she earned her rank is irrelevant,” one of the Shurai stated easily.  “Put her in a fighter and let her do what she was meant to do.”

        “Exactly,” Tikaiya smiled at the tall Shurai.  “How do they do it in the Alliance?”

        “A commission is not needed to be a fighter pilot, but one is required to command,” he replied easily.  “Isn’t that right, Sergeant?”

        “Yes it is, Lieutenant,” another Shurai replied.

        “The fighter pilot program is based entirely on skill.  You have to be a pilot before you can apply, and if you score high enough in the simulations, you are eligible for fighter service.  All pilots earn a promotion to the rank of Technical Sergeant on completion of flight academy, to reflect their new high-skill profession.  While in the fighter service, an NCO can complete the requirements to go to officer’s training if they wish to enter command.  But few of us ever leave the fighter service.  We are fighter pilots, born and bred,” he said proudly, to which all of the Shurai nodded.  “Those of us with commissions command within the fighter service.”
        “That’s a good system,” Alae nodded.  “And we do something similar, as she proves,” she added, pointing at Iyoi.

        The tram stopped, and so did the conversation.  The pilots and wizzos boiled out and hurried over to their fighters. Iyoi’s fighter was new, since her last one had been destroyed in the battle of Karis, and she couldn’t complain.  It had several upgrades compared to her last fighter, part of the eternal tweaking and improvements they made to the fighters, and her crew was busy around the fighter getting the last inspections done.  Get a move on, ladies, Iyoi barked mentally as she put on her helmet.  We have to be saddled up and ready to deploy in 23 minutes!  She rose up into the open doors in the belly of the fighter and settled into the pilot’s box, locking her armor in as she felt gravity vanish within the box, then she felt the armor connect to the fighter through both remote and hardlines, two datafibers jacking into the back of her helmet through the gel backing into which her armor locked.  Her armor negotiated with the fighter’s computer, then she was online.  The displays lit up before her eyes, projected both onto the visor of her helmet and onto the ceiling above her head, showing the fighter running an initial diagnostic as the crew did the last-minute checks and tweaks to the systems.  Tikaiya settled into the cockpit and closed it as she brought the engines online, putting on her helmet and jacking in her hardlines.  Drone systems coming online now, she sent privately, since there was thick chatter in the air of the hangar bay.  I’ve got four green lights.  ECD systems green.  Auxiliary weapon control systems green.

        Be ready to ride jockey on the guns, Ti, Iyoi called.  If we run into thick chop while engaged, you do the shooting while I concentrate on the flying.

        No sweat, boss, I can shoot straight, she replied lightly.

        Alae, make sure your engines are calibrated for gravity flux, Iyoi sent openly.  We’re gonna run into a fuckton of gravity ripples in the nebula.  And make sure you suck the dick of whoever invented translation engines when we get out there, she added with an amused tilt to her thoughts.  Flying standard grav engines in a nebula like this one is no walk in Trelle’s garden.

        I’ve read the specs, Iyoi, Alae replied calmly.  I’ll just sync to your fighter so I can see your engine settings.

        Good plan, she answered, cause we’re gonna be flying like a crazed chabi out there.  We’ve got the most ground to cover between pods, and we have to cross three different wake currents and a gas vortex to do it. You’re about to get a crash course on deep nebula navigation.

        You lead, I’ll follow.

        “Thirty-five minutes to jump.  Thirty-five minutes to jump,” a voice called over STG, and no doubt over the ship’s intercom.

        How’s it looking out there, Merigwen? Iyoi sent to her crew chief.

        Annealing the last maintenance doors now, she replied.  Everything’s purring like a vulpar.  Do try not to blow this one up, Lieutenant, she added lightly.  I just got this handsome fellow just the way I like it.

        Yeah, yeah, lick me deep and hard, Merigwen, she replied tartly, which made Tikaiya laugh up in the cockpit.  I’m getting green lights on all maintenance doors, she added after a moment, as her crew closed and annealed the last door to form a contiguous carapace of compressed Neutronium, which gave the armor that much more strength.  Let’s finish the checklist, Ti, then it’s just waiting for the go signal.

        Four minutes later, they were ready, but they were still some 20 minutes from jumping.  But that was normal for a fighter squadron that was to deploy as soon as a jump was finished, they had to be in their fighters and ready to launch as soon as they returned to normal space, and this mission made it even more critical.  The bugs were going to see them jump in, and they had to be moving the instant they could safely launch, so they could get that critical first jump before the bugs responded.  Every second would matter, because they had to be deep in the nebula before the bugs could reach them, where the nebula would protect them much more than their enemies.  Sensors were heavily restricted in the nebula, and they’d only see the fighters through their external sensor pods seconds before they reached them and took them out, due to how fast a fighter could move in there compared to a line ship.  Iyoi spent the time waiting in meditative silence, preparing herself for the mission by going over her flight path in minute detail, getting last-minute looks at the obstacles the nebula itself would pose to them.  Iyoi and Alae had the toughest flight path of them all because of Iyoi’s experience flying deep nebulas, giving the most difficult pods to reach to her to take out.

        And she was just fine with that.

        “Ten minutes to jump.  All sections report jump readiness to comm three,” the comm officer called.

        “Ghost Squadron, sound off readiness,” came a different voice, coming in over command STG; that order came straight from the bridge.  Iyoi listened as each member of her squadron answered in their order.  Iyoi was fighter 3 of Wing 4, so she was nearly at the bottom of the list, calling out “Ghost 33, standing by,” when it was her turn, reporting her readiness directly to the bridge.  The same officer then had the War Talons sound off as Iyoi made a few last-minute tweaks to her engine output, so they’d be able to more quickly transition from deep space to nebula based on last-minute long-range sensor readings fed directly to her ship from the sensor arrays.  She saw Alae mirror her engine adjustments on the sync holo, the telemetry going back and forth between their two fighters.  Be ready for some chop when we cross into the nebula, Iyoi sent openly.  It’s gonna be a little rougher than the last time we did this, we’re coming in at a border with more gas density.  And be ready for some lateral drift, there’s a tertiary vortex current running just 600 shakra inside the border.  It’s gonna drag us.

        Got it, Berya answered.  All you bitches listen to Iyoi, she’s the nebula jockey here.  And Iyoi, mirror over STG so the Shurai can listen in.

        No need, Commander, I have talent, one of the Shurai replied, their commanding officer. The captain, whatever his name was.  Iyoi wasn’t too good with names.  I’m relaying that to the squadron in real time.

        Good deal, she answered.  Anything else, Iyoi?

        Umm, yeah.  Everyone moving through arc sector 17-113, see that gravity anomaly?  That’s a rip tunnel forming, and you won’t see it on anything but a passive mass variance sensor.  Don’t get inside it, it looks like it’s fairly nasty.  It’ll suck your fighter in and drag you all the way to the terminus.

        Understood, Raiki called.

        You have good eyes, Lieutenant, the talented Shurai called.

        I grew up in a nebula, Captain, it’s experience, she replied easily.

        “Jump in five minutes.  Five minutes,” the call came over command STG.. “All personnel in your jump restraints.  All personnel in  your jump restraints.”

        Iyoi took in a deep breath, then exhaled as she took hold of the posts by her hands and prepared herself for the jump. She still didn’t like jumping, but after so many jumps over the last couple of months, she was starting to at least build up a resistance to it.  She let her mind drift a little bit as she stared at the screens, watching as Tikaiya performed tests on the spinner cameras and sensors without deploying them, though they wouldn’t be deployed in the nebula unless they had to.  The spinners had trouble keeping up with a fighter in the nebula due to the sensor disruption.  Iyoi tested her own cameras by sweeping them around the hangar and zooming in and out, focusing on several fighter crew women locking in to jump restraints along the walls, pulling the bars down over their chests and taking hold of the handles atop them.

        “Jump in thirty seconds.  Secure for jump!”

        That thirty seconds barely lasted two, at least to her.  She heard the countdown, but before she paid much notice to it, all of reality suddenly went crazy.  She closed her eyes tightly and gritted her teeth as an icy cold sensation washed over her upper chest, one of the many sensory ghosts that someone could feel in hyperspace, and then there was a bright light in her eyes that made her flinch.  But it vanished as quickly as it hit her, and since it was just a sensory hallucination, there were no after-images or spots in her eyes.  She gritted her teeth and gutted it out for what seemed forever, then everything just snapped as they returned back into normal space.

        She shook her head a little bit, then immediately picked her fighter up off the deck.  They’d been told to launch the instant they were back in normal space, and she didn’t feel groggy or disoriented, so she turned her nose towards the outer doors even as they began to open.  She was the first fighter out of the bay, with Alae right behind her and four Alliance Warhawk fighters behind them.  Stay off STG, the bugs can eavesdrop, Berya called.  Radio silence from here out.  Once we get out of sending range of each other, we’re on our own.  Everyone knows their job, so let’s get it done, she added as the fighters from the port landing bay appeared on the far side of the battleship when they passed by the bow, leaving the Dreamer behind.  It immediately began to turn as soon as the last fighter cleared the bow, where it would jump out from the nebula and into a pocket of sensor blanket set up by the Kimdori’s SCM division.  The fighters began to scatter as each element got onto their flight plan, some of them going after sensor pods outside the nebula, some heading straight for the nebula to attack sensor pods within.  Iyoi’s pods were in a gentle arc that went right into the heart of the nebula, including four pods only 15,000 kathra and on the far side of the enemy com-con.  They would have to circle around the majority of the enemy’s forces to get at those sensor pods, and since Iyoi was the nebula jockey, that dangerous task had been assigned to her.

        Fine with her.

        The fighter shuddered as they entered the nebula, passing into the edges of its unstable gravity field and encountering the gas and dust within.  Heat readings started to rise rapidly as the external gas and dust started friction heating the armored carapace of the fighter.  Two minutes to first target, Alae called.  Keep your head on a swivel up there, Erara.  Sensors don’t work well in here.  You’ll see them before your sensors will pick them up.

        Keep an eye on your passive mass variance sensors, they’ll give you the clearest view, Iyoi called.  Deionizers on, Ti, we’ll run into a high density band once we pass into the current.  That’ll spike the ionization on the hull.

        Got it.  Deonizers on, she replied.

        The fighter shivered and rocked and shuddered as they passed through the lateral current running parallel to the edge of the nebula, which caused their fighters to drift.  The four Warhawks with them turned and headed for their own targets as Iyoi drifted with the current, allowing the current to put them on her planned flight path.  The nebula could work for them if they let it.  She saw on the tactical map that several sensor pods were already off the map, destroyed by the other fighters, all of them outside the nebula.  That was where the fleet was going to jump in, so the fighters were clearing a space for them so the bugs wouldn’t know how many ships were coming.

        She almost wished she could see the looks on their faces when they saw what was coming.

        Forty seconds to target, Iyoi called as the sensor pod flickered on the edge of her passive mass density sensor, a nifty little gadget the read the effect mass had on space, a form of detection that was extremely hard to counter.  And in the nebula, seeing something with high mass moving fast would mean resistance.  I’m reading some smaller mass variances around the pod’s location.

        Drones or fighters, Alae reasoned.  Weapons hot, Erara.  You take the guns so I can focus on navigation.

        Don’t bother, we got this.  Just follow me, Iyoi called as she panned out a bit and read the mass variance map, seeing a little something that made her smile.  She veered to port and ascended, then enabled her Wasp defensive missiles.  She rose up into an area where the reddish tint of the nebula was slightly darker, then to Alae’s surprise, she pulled up and became stationary.

        Iyoi, what— Alae was about to protest, then the rip tunnel formed with an incandescent bolt of lighting that lashed out into the distance, originating just in front of their fighters.  Both their fighters were sucked into the sudden vortex caused by two major ionic imbalances in the nebula equalizing, which also pulled the gas and dust along with them since the flowing ions had mass and pulled other mass along with them.  Rip tunnels formed quickly and could be very violent, then dissipated nearly as quickly as they formed, leaving behind a residual wake current that could flow for days before it finally lost its inertia and vanished.  Iyoi’s Wolf shuddered and shook in the rip tunnel as they were sucked towards the pocket of ionized gas that had attracted this one, almost like riding a lightning bolt.  Iyoi kept the sensor pod locked on, and as they passed by it at a speed that would have cooked the ship if they’d been outside the rip tunnel, she launched her missiles.  They punched through the boundary of the rip tunnel with all that velocity, their outer hulls turning white-hot almost instantly, but the dozens of small missiles managed to slam into the cylindrical sensor pod and blow it to pieces.  The two fighters screamed by within the rip tunnel, leaving behind the destroyed pod and 10 automated drones that flew in crazy circles around the debris of the pod that remained.

        Slick, Alae noted, her thought impressed.

        And this is a small rip tunnel, Iyoi replied lightly.  I wouldn’t have done this if this was a big one, not even a Wolf could handle that.  Start braking, we’re almost out, and we’ll get cooked if we’re going this fast outside the tunnel.  Iyoi engaged the engines and had them push back against the current, making the ship shudder considerably as it decelerated in the tunnel and suddenly had all the resistance from the flowing gas and dust battering the hull, ionizing and heating it up.

        I’m starting to appreciate being put on her wing, Alae, Erara noted.

        I’m learning something, that’s for damn sure, Alae chuckled mentally in reply.  We’re 106 seconds to next target.  Get the drones warmed up, Erara, they have their own drones defending the pods.

        Iyoi kept one eye on the mass variance map and the other on her cameras as she navigated them around a high-density pocket of gas, which would have required them to slow down had they passed through it, and she saw what she expected.   Ten consistent mass variances appeared on her scope splitting away from the sensor pod, hidden by the pod’s mass, and they accelerated towards them.  We got ten drones inbound, she warned the others.  Their scanners aren’t going to be all that reliable in here, so let’s take it to ‘em.

        Agreed, Alae responded.  Erara, you’re on the guns.  Let’s save the drones for when we need them.

        Aye-aye, boss, she answered.

        You take the guns too, Ti, we’re gonna be flying through a layer border, Iyoi called.

        The two fighters barreled straight at the ten slapdash Consortium drones, but just as they came into visual range, the two sleek Wolf fighters veered off to port and rotated, flying sideways.  The ten drones moved to turn towards them, but the pulse cannons and the external rail cannon pods mounted under the wings were already firing, taking advantage of the fact that the nebula’s highly ionized interior made the targeting systems on the drones take far more time than usual to acquire targets.  But the fighters were firing by visual aim, Tikaiya up in the cockpit lining up the drones with her crosshairs and taking her shots.  She was using the double-shot technique, firing the rail cannon on target and firing a pulse burst into the target’s path, so if the rail slug missed the pulse blasts were coming in right behind it.  That required walking the weapons’ firing arc across the path of the target, since the rail cannons didn’t require leading the target where the pulse cannons did.  Alae’s fighter was taking a less precise approach, as Erara fired her weapons on full auto, sending a hail of fire in the direction of the drones.  In this situation, that was exactly what she was supposed to do.  In this combat scenario, where the drones had sensors and targeting computers that were being affected by the nebula, the drones would be slow to react to the incoming fire and thus easier to hit.  They couldn’t easily “see” those shots coming, so the evasion subroutines in their programming would be slow to respond as they wouldn’t know which direction to go to avoid shots until the shots were all but right on top of them.  The fighter shook roughly when they crossed into a more dense layer of nebula gas, a layer border, where rotational gas currents created a more sharp and distinct boundary between two areas with different densities.  Iyoi and Alae slithered their ships through a spatter of Torsion blasts fired from the remaining drones as they finally acquired them, but drone after drone bloomed into a fireball as their wizzos systematically shot them down as they passed by, each drone blindly turning right into their lines of fire as they slid by.

        Alae’s wizzo took out the pod, the module blowing apart as the fighters streaked by.  Start watching for manned ships, Ti, they have to know the drones won’t do much out here.  They’re only here to try to slow us down so they can scramble destroyers and fighters.

        I’ve already got a pretty strong mass variance on the edge of my scope, moving towards pod 1382.  That’s not one of ours.

        They’re reacting almost right on schedule, Alae mused.  289 seconds to next target.

        Button up, Alae, we’re going to be riding a wake current to the next pod

        Something tells me the rest of them won’t be quite this easy.

        That’s why we drew this route, girl.  Leave the tough stuff to the best pilots, Iyoi called, a tad smugly.

 

        Fluttering her thick pink eyelashes, Palla felt the last of the sensory ghosts evaporate as the Aegis came out of hyperspace.  Flashes of whitish-blue light heralded the arrival of other ships, dropping out of hyperspace just after them and still in formation, and the reddish mass of the nebula dominated the forward viewscreen.  The tactical grid map was up to the left, and fleet allocation graphics were displayed to the right.  Palla watched as icon after icon on that display shifted from red to green, as their telemetry reported their arrival and operational status back to the Aegis, which was carried the flag in this task force.

        Naturally.

        Queen’s Admiral Kre’Vak of the Urumi Navy stood up from his chair after releasing his jump restraints, as did High Admiral Vaark of the Skaa Republic, members of the CCM command staff and on site to oversee the operation.  The two large reptilian creatures took up a lot of space behind Palla’s chair, and she could almost feel them looming over her back.  But they weren’t the only members of the command staff on the bridge.  Some 14 different command-level admirals and generals were on the bridge behind Palla’s chair, members of the command staff and observers from the new member nations of the Confederation there to observe a CCM operation.  “All sensor pods in our path 2,700 kathra into the nebula are cleared.  We’re right on schedule.”

        “Begin phase one,” Palla nodded to her, scratching at her deep blue cheek, marking her as a native of Jerama.

        “All fighters and drones launch  Begin phase one, repeat, begin phase one,” one of the comm officers to her right called, a bank of ten Faey, a lone Shio, and a lone Beryan.  The Shio was one of Haema’s comm officers on temporary assignment from the Iyaneri, which was still in drydock being repaired.  The Beryan was fresh out of OTS, and Palla had chosen her for her crew because she had excellent scores, and she was also talented.  That was almost a requirement for the comm PTS on a ship the size of the Aegis.

        Behind them, a truly massive fleet of some 2,300 Confederate Combined Military warships began to move.  The bulk of the fleet were Verutan battle cruisers and Grimja warships, with ships from every other Navy in the Confederation intermixed with them.  And leading them all was the Aegis, continuing the pattern within the CCM to place the flag of any task force on the largest KMS ship in the formation.  They outnumbered the enemy fleet by over two to one and would be attacking by surprise if the fighters in the nebula did their jobs, but this wasn’t about some glorious, honorable battle.  This was about destroying the enemy to the last ship, to the last bug.  That was the only way to absolutely ensure that the threat they posed to the PR sector was neutralized.

        That was a fact that sat very well with one of the observing officers from one of the newer members of the Confederation, Quarter-Admiral Drark of the Jun Republic Navy.  He stood up beside Frazzil and crossed his long, gangly arms, his dark eyes taking in the bridge.  He was here to observe how the CCM conducted a military operation, and it would be one of his jobs to integrate his sailors into CCM operations.  The Jun had made it clear that he approved mightily of their plan to utterly eradicate the bugs in the nebula, but that was how the Jun did things when it came to war.

        A face flashed onto a holo to the right of the tactical asset graph, the handsome face of Sevi Aranne, captain of the tactical battleship Abarax.  She was in the act of sitting down with her helmet in her hands when the holo winked on.  “Captain Palla,” she said as she put on her helmet.

        “Deploy your squadron, Captain,” Palla told her.

        “We’ll clear a path all the way to the enemy com-con for you, Captain,” she grinned through her faceplate.  “Squadron D, increase to flank!  Let’s go clear out the blockers and get the striker to the goal box!”

        A formation of 31 CCM ships, mostly Faey and Skaa vessels led by the three KMS tactical battleships, the Abarax, the Shikoi, and the Prophet, surged ahead of the large fleet and plunged into the reddish gloom of the nebula.  Their task was to sweep any resistance out of the path of the fleet and destroy any missed sensor pods to hide the true size and composition of the fleet from the enemy, and since it was a high-priority mission, it was decided that no Verutan or Grimja would be part of that squadron.  They hadn’t entirely adapted to CCM procedures quite yet.  It would be a mission of pure offense, and as such, it was perfect for a tactical battleship and a captain like Sevi Aranne.  That woman had been born to sit in the chair of a tactical battleship.

        “I find it curious that you use such a small squadron for this operation,” Drark noted to the others.

        “They are uniquely suited for the task,” Frazzil replied.  “Those ship classes can move much faster in the nebula than Consortium ships, the small size of the squadron will make them harder to detect by the enemy’s long-range sensors within the nebula, and they have three KMS tactical battleships in the formation.  That is all they need.”

        “Are these KMS ships that formidable?”

        “Yes,” every member of the command staff said in unison, which made Palla smile lightly where they couldn’t see.

        “There’s a reason we have our flag on this ship instead of the larger command ships in the CCM, Admiral,” Frazzil added.  “The KMS serves the CCM by being providing the central organization and a strong platform to conduct operations.  The neutrality of the Karinnes in political affairs allows all ships in the CCM to accept the Karinne ship as the flag of the task force, and besides, you have never been on a KMS vessel in combat,” he said with growing eagerness.  “The Karinnes have outfitted these ships with their most advanced technology, Quarter-Admiral, and these ships are devastating in combat operations.  They have overwhelming firepower, but they are also some of the most rugged and durable ships in the CCM, capable of withstanding battle damage that would put other ships out of action.  Those traits make the KMS command-class ships the natural choice to carry the flag in any task force.  Those three ships leading Squadron D makes the squadron more than a match for an enemy formation four times their size, for the tactical battleships are probably the most effective combat vessels the KMS possesses.  They are lovingly called bulldogs by the KMS, and there has never been a nickname more appropriate,” he chuckled.

        “What is this bulldog creature?” Admiral Oriatari of the Prakarikai asked, looking up at the Skaa that was more than three times his height.

        “A Terran canoid animal known for its strength and tenacity, Admiral,” Palla answered.  “The nickname does suit the ships perfectly.”

        “Squadron D will do exactly what they were tasked to do,” Kre’Vak nodded.  “They will sweep all resistance out of our path, destroy all scouting Consortium destroyers, and allow us to reach our objective without the enemy knowing how many ships we have.”

        “Squadron D is at distance, Captain,” her tactical officer called.

        “Begin phase two,” Palla called loudly.  “Ahead at one quarter, navigator.”

        “One quarter, aye sir,” her helm officer nodded, taking on a look of concentration as the Aegis began to move.

        “Begin GRAF cannon ignition sequence,” she called.  A new holo winked on to display the GRAF systems activating.

        “Aye sir, begin GRAF cannon ignition sequence!” her tactical officer barked.

        “GRAF singularity plants coming online.”

        “Power distribution compensators activating.”

        “Engine compensators online.”

        “Recoil absorption systems online.”

        “GRAF cannon ignition sequence initiated, Captain.  T minus six minutes until primary couplers are engaged,” called her engineer, as a series of bars on the GRAF power graph began to rise on the holo.

        “Ah, the GRAF cannon, I hoped to see this weapon in use,” Admiral Kenjett of the Ogravians noted.  “A simple concept developed to quite impressive levels.”

        “I have never had the honor of seeing it fired from the bridge,” Frazzil said.  “This should be quite memorable.”

        “I would remind my esteemed guests not to wander too far from your jump restraints,” Palla said, glancing back at them.  “We have to use them when we fire the GRAF cannon at any level stronger than 37%.”

        “We are crossing into the nebula now, Captain,” her navigator relayed, even as there was a tiny ripple of movement through the ship as it encountered the resistance of the gas and dust at the edge of the nebula.  The temperature bar on one of her tactical holograms began to rise steadily as they moved beyond the border.

        “Steady to target, Lieutenant,” she replied as she crossed her legs demurely.

        “Hull temperature at one thousand shuki and rising,” her engineer called.

        “Keep us under the yellow line,” she answered.  “Where are the fighters?”

        “Passing us now, Captain,” the navigator said, pointing to a side holo showing a camera view of the port of the ship.  Several squadrons of Wolves, Raptors, Krissha, and Warhawk fighters were sliding by them in the reddish gloom, and then overtook them.  The smaller ships could move faster through the nebula, and they exploited that fact to vanish into the haze before them to act as the initial point of contact for anything that might manage to slip by Sevi’s squadron.  “Enemy sensor pod status?”

        “On schedule, Captain,” her tactical officer replied.  “All sensor pods 35,000 kathra into the nebula are destroyed, and the decoy paths are being cleared on schedule.  Telemetry off the fighters indicates they are running into light resistance from drones stationed at the pods for defense and skirmish destroyers trying to anticipate their movements and meet them.  No fighters are reported destroyed at this time.”

        “That’s why we sent the best fighters pilots we have in first,” Frazzil said with an approving nod.  “They’ll get the job done.”

        “Estimated time to target, T minus 23 minutes,” her secondary navigator declared.

        “Squadron D reports contact with an enemy skirmish force,” one of her comm officers called.  “They’re sending out scout destroyers with the pods destroyed.  They know we’re coming, sir.”

        “Of course they do, they just don’t know how many ships we have,” she said easily.  “And that’s what this little game is all about, Ensign.”

        Several moments later, they passed the debris of Sevi’s initial contact with the enemy.  Scans were reliable from that close, and her sensors were able to puzzle out that 3 enemy ships had been destroyed, two of them Consortium and one of them Imxi.  Smoking, burning debris drifted along with eerily dissected pieces of ships, victims of KMS particle beams that had sliced them apart, and the cameras showed dozens of bodies floating in the reddish void, most of them looking uninjured.  Explosive decompression had dragged them into the nebula, where they died of either asphyxiation or exposure the negative pressure of the nebula compared to their environmental norm.  The bugs’ exoskeletons made them surprisingly resistant to pressure injury, where the Imxi dead hadn’t been quite that lucky.  Many of them showed the tell-tale signs of death by rapid depressurization…not a pleasant way to die.  “I’m getting updated sensor telemetry from our advance fighters, Captain.  It’s showing several squadrons of enemy ships converging on the enemy’s com-con.”

        “They know we’re here to finish them,” Kre’Vak mused.  “They’re not risking their forces to skirmishes away from their base, and they know where we’re going.  They’re pulling everything in to defend the com-con.”

        “Fighter status?”

        “They’ve cleared the primary lane and all four decoy lanes to the com-con and are about to start clearing the pods immediately around the station,” she answered.

        “Time to target?”

        “Eighteen minutes even.”

        “GRAF cannon ignition sequence complete, Captain,” her engineer called.  “All systems are green across the board.  We can begin the firing sequence on your command.”

        “Stage the cannon’s firing sequence,” she called.  “But don’t begin the charging sequence.”

        “Aye sir, GRAF firing protocols engaged,” she called, looking at a series of holos over her station.  “Outer doors are unlocked and ready to be opened.”

        “Order the fleet to begin spreading out behind us,” Frazzil barked to the comm station.  “Let’s encircle our prey and prepare for the kill.”

        “Aye, Admiral,” one of the Faey replied.

 

        Screaming by so close that her wing almost scraped the hull, Iyoi lanced her fighter right into the path of the Consortium destroyer and turned hard.  The move seemed suicidal, at least until the four enemy drones pursuing them crashed into the hull of the enemy destroyer, unable to match the nimble Wolf fighter’s turning ability.  That close, the destroyer’s weapons couldn’t lock onto them, or even track them, which made the area within 1,500 shakra of the enemy ship a safe zone as long as they didn’t pass directly in front of one of its gun ports.  Alae was right on her wing as she dove under the Consortium ship’s bow even as it tried to turn, but it was too late.  The sensor pod came into view behind the spiky port wing of the large ship, and the instant they had line of sight on it, Tikaiya opened up with her rail cannons.  White-hot streaks lashed out as the slugs superheated in the denser gas and then slammed into the pod, making it shudder and jerk backwards from the multiple impacts.

        Imxi fighters launching from the destroyer! Alae barked mentally.  Erara, nail ‘em!

        You too, Ti, I’m taking the guns back, Iyoi called, even as she fired a cloud of Wasp missiles dead astern as they slashed out away from the destroyer, still trying to turn to chase them, the dozens of tiny missiles visually aimed at the gunports along the port beam of the ship, which would have a firing line on them as they raced into the reddish gloom.  If they could get into the shrouding gas before the gunners could get a visual on them, they’d be safe.  But the Consortium weren’t about to give up easily . A dozen Imxi fighters launched from the destroyer and turned towards them, but one of them immediately turned and rammed the fighter beside it, the pilot dominated by one of the mindstrikers before they got out telepathic range and made to ram his own wingman.  The two fighters exploded in a fiery burst, a halo of displaced dust and gas shuddering away from the detonation as the two Wolf fighters screamed away.  Reddish streaks of Torsion bolts chased them after the Wasp missiles exploded, which both fighters corkscrewed around skillfully even as they lost visual of the destroyer in the nebula.  If they couldn’t see the destroyer, then the destroyer couldn’t see them.  Several more Torsion bolts fired along their last trajectory, but as they’d already turned, the bolts sizzled harmlessly into the gloom well off their starboard stern.

        141 seconds to next target, Alae called.  I’m reading major mass variance at the pod.  I think they have four or five destroyers there.

        I’m not surprised, it’s the last one this close the com-con, Iyoi grunted.  Those fighters are right on our ass, siting just outside mindstriker range.  They’re learning, she noted to Tikaiya.

        They’ll make their play when we come up against the defense around the last pod, her wizzo predicted.  Try to blindside us when we’re too busy to do anything about it.

        We still have locks on them? Alae asked.

        Yup.

        Send the last of our Wasp missiles at them, they may not see them til it’s too late.

        Good call.  Do it, Ti, Iyoi ordered.

        Time to pincer them, Alae added.  I’ll go high to starboard, you go low to port.  We circle and attack from both directions.

        Iyoi studied the mass variance map as they approached the last pod.  That won’t work, the density is too light there, they’ll see us coming.  In fact, the density is so thin, we can go at 80% throttle without going over the red line.  Without targeting computers, we’ll be inside their firing range before they can get a lock on us.  We go right between them so they can’t fire on us without shooting at each other.

        I’m reading a large number of smaller mass variances.  There must be 40 fighters massed up around the pod, Iyoi, Tikaiya warned.

        Fuck, that’s too many, Alae growled.  The only way in is to run a gauntlet with them sitting at the end of it shooting at us.  It might be time to deploy the 3D toy, Iyoi.

        Iyoi studied the mass variances, then nodded to herself.  Yeah, that’s too many.  Load the 3D shells into the rail cannon, Ti.

        Let’s pull into a firing position, Alae called.  Where are those Imxi fighters?

        Hanging back.  We destroyed nine of them with the last of our missiles.

        They don’t know that it’s the last of our missiles, Alae noted with a sly tilt in her thought.  How fast can they reach us when we get into firing position?

        Ummmmmm, 21 seconds.

        More than enough time, Iyoi called.

        Remember not to fire until we’re stationary, Ti, Iyoi called as the two fighters swung around and began to slow.  And be ready to eject the cannon pod as soon as we use up the shells.

        Got it.  Soon as you’re ready, Iyoi, she replied.

        Fire as soon as you see my engines spike.

        Copy that.  Disengaging the safeties on the cannon pod.

        Iyoi worked out the best position, then turned towards it.  To fire the shells, they had to be stationary, and in fact, the Wolf had to use its engines to hold the fighter in position when it fired the shells.  The shells would be fired while the cannon’s safeties were removed, allowing it to fire at such a power level that it would burn out the cannon, maybe even blow it up when the magnetic flux fed back into the system.  The modification was done so the cannon could fire at a power level way above normal for a fighter-mounted cannon, and that was an absolute necessity given what they were about to fire.  Those shells had to be as far as fucking possible away from the fighter when the protective magnetic bubbles decayed.

        Shunting all power into the cannon’s firing system, Erara sent, her thought tense, nervous.  They were about to fire an experimental weapon, and they’d been thoroughly briefed about the dangers that it posed…but that was why they were given those special shells, because of all the elements of the fighter squadrons, Iyoi and Alae were the ones that might have the greatest need for this.

        The two fighters pulled into position and carefully lined up their noses with the last sensor pod, some 34 kathra dead ahead, lost in the gloom of the nebula, with them sitting right at the border of the denser gas and dust that concealed them.  Iyoi used her mass variance sensors to align the ship, and Tikaiya refined the aim of the pods as Iyoi anchored the ship at its point and then spiked the engine output in that point, which all but anchored them directly to the fabric of space so long as the engines could crank out the power. Go! Iyoi barked as the ship’s power output spiked and the engines whined audibly, causing the entire fighter to shudder.

        Power...power…power, Tikaiya sent openly as the power output for the rail cannon rose towards the required power level to fire the cannon.  Four different red lights blinked on her console holo as the power system tried to handle feeding the rail cannon and meeting the demand of the engines.  Fire!

        Iyoi flinched as an incandescent white blast blinded the forward camera, as they fired the experimental shell, even as the ship bucked violently against the recoil of firing the rail cannon at a power level very nearly equal to the power output of the heavy-mount rail cannons on the warships.  The rail cannon all but melted in its pod almost instantly after firing, and since the cannon pods had been decoupled from the superstructure, the recoil tearing the pods free and having them rocket to stern and quickly get lost in the reddish gloom.  They’d been warned that would happen, and it was a good thing it did.  If those cannons had been part of the structure of the fighter, the recoil would have sent the fighter flying backwards, or even caused the cannon and everything behind it to tear free of its mountings and rip the fighter apart from the inside out.  Not even the Wolf’s engines had the power to hold against that much recoil; they’d barely had the power to hold against the fraction of the recoil fed back into the ship as it held the cannon steady for that split second as the shot fired, before the cannon tore free of its mount. That fraction of a millisecond where the fighter was subjected to the force of the recoil had been more than enough to put the engines on the red line, then the laws of physics took over and sent the fiery cannon pods screaming into the reddish gulf behind them, victims of the equal and opposite reaction induced by all the power they put into the shot.

        The blazing light shuddered, then everything in front of the fighters went pitch black for a split second, an effect that they’d been warned about.  The ships shuddered violently as they absorbed the monstrous recoil of the rail cannons, but the shockwave at the front of that effect was fifty times more powerful, since the energy was released with all the velocity imparted into it by the rail cannon slugs that had encased the weapons.

        Those slugs contained a bundle of compressed Teryon energy within a multidimensional spatial bubble inside a cannon slug, and fired at a velocity that almost defied rational terms.

        The effect was absolutely spectacular.  The entire nebula in front of them just seemed to tear free of reality for that split second, blazing light turning to pitch black as even light was caught up in the explosion, then the blast wave caused by the Teryon explosion erupted from two points that were only about 70 shakra apart, and moved at about 40% of the speed of light.  The two multidimensional blast waves merged into a single directional explosion, like a shaped charge that projected the vast majority of its force in one direction, creating an expanding cone of absolute devastation that rocketed away from the two fighters.  But, it was moving so fast that when it reached the enemy formation, the shockwave passed directly between the two Consortium destroyers without the direct blast wave touching them, and that concentrated force slammed into the sensor pod dead center, tore through it, then hit the destroyer behind the pod in its lower ventral mass, just below and to the left of the neck attaching the bow section to the main superstructure, blasting a hole all the way through the destroyer that was so neatly precise that the individual ends of data fibers were visible between the bulkheads.  The Teryon blast had done what Teryon blasts do, disintegrate three-dimensional matter, leaving behind a clear demarcation between the area of Teryon burst and what it hadn’t touched.  The pod, its defending fighters, and a cylindrical section of the destroyer were dissolved into free-ranging atoms with no ionic bonds in a fraction of a picosecond and then had that atomic mass carried away by the momentum of the Teryon burst, then the Teryon burst flashed deeper into the nebula, only to dissipate back into hyperspace within the span of 5 picoseconds.  The burst effect left behind only the physical effects the blast had exerted on the three-dimensional universe before that energy escaped back into hyperspace.  The five Consortium destroyers around the pod were initially pushed away from the line of force, but then they were dragged towards it as they were caught in the wake of all that displaced gas and dust, as the gas and dust that was pushed away at the terminus of the blast wave some 2,600 kathra into the nebula began to move, as the physical matter displaced by the Teryon burst was invested with tremendous momentum and continued to move after the Teryon burst dissipated.  The effect right at the initial point of the blast wave was minimal, but the effect was cone-shaped, and that meant that the displacement effect of the blast wave at its terminus was some 470 shakra wide at the terminus and had displaced a massive volume of nebula matter.  The sudden vacuum and motion induced by the blast wave was about to form a powerful rip current in the nebula, which would become a self-sustained current in the nebula due to the sheer volume of mass of gas and dust that would be moved by it, a current that might last for years before it finally lost its momentum

        Trelle’s garland! Tikaiya sent in awe as the four undamaged destroyers in front of them were pulled backwards by the growing rip current.  A flash of light below and behind signaled the end of both rail cannons, the pods exploding from being overloaded to fire those shots.

        Iyoi, however, had to laugh.  Demir’s holy dick, now that was a fucking shot! she declared impishly.  They made something a fighter can use that can blow up a line ship with one shot!

        But we only get one shot, and now we’d better get the hell out of here, Alae noted as she turned her fighter.

        True, there’s gonna be a rip current coming right down our asses in about fifteen seconds, Iyoi predicted as the two fighters began to turn.  How’s the ship, Ti?

        Power is at 30% due to the shot, which is all going to the engines.  The singularity plant is recharging the primary power distribution network, she answered.  Weapons, sensors, and most tertiary systems are offline.  They’re in a reset cycle due to power drain.

        And that’s the danger of using that little toy, Alae noted.  They leave us sitting ducks once we fire the shot.  But at least we still have engines.

        We still have the location of those following fighters?

        No, the MV scope is down, and they’re outside of my telepathic range.

        Then this’ll be like dodging patrols in the Wastelands, Iyoi grunted mentally as she turned her fighter almost straight down.

        But one where we can see them before they can see us, Alae noted lightly as she turned to follow, and the two fighters headed for a pocket of higher density gas and dust that would hide them from visual.  Erara has nearly forty kathra of range with her talent.

        Iyoi could silently admit that that was pretty impressive…but she was still a newbie to the squadron, so she wouldn’t act all that impressed.  Let’s find the thickest soup and slip by as we wait for the MV scopes to recharge, then get to our patrol area while the fleet gets into position.  If we dawdle out here too long, we won’t have anything left to shoot at by the time we get there.

 

        The trap was nearly set.

        Palla sat with her legs crossed demurely as she studied the tactical map of the area and saw that the two advance fighter squadrons and Sevi’s squadron had done their jobs.  The Consortium had stopped trying to send in scouting vessels into the surrounding nebula, and now the fighters and drones they were sending instead were being systematically destroyed by the advance elements of fighters that were prowling the perimeter of their clear area, hidden in the reddish mists and destroying anything that ventured into that shroud to conceal the number and locations of the Confederate fleet from the enemy.  The individual squadrons of the task force were moving into their assigned positions, some of them sitting in wait as others circled to the far side of the nebula with CCM fighters prowling around them, destroying anything that left the clear area holding the enemy com-con and the vast majority of their fleet.  There were 12 enemy destroyers not in the theater, but Palla knew where they were thanks to biogenic telemetry coming in from the Ghost Squadron, whom those destroyers were chasing.  The bugs couldn’t intercept that, and they’d decided to take advantage of it by adding sensor data and ship logs to broadcast telemetry to further inform the task force what was going on around the fighters.  Thanks to that biogenic telemetry, what the fighters’ sensors and cameras were seeing, Palla could see by accessing their telemetry feed.  That telemetry told her that the Ghost Squadron had not lost a fighter, but they’d engaged in several fights with defending drones, fighters, and destroyers, and it also told her that the Ghost Squadron’s last element had destroyed their last assigned pod, and now all of them were pulling in to patrol the perimeter to keep the enemy from getting accurate intel on their ships.  Two of the fighters had even used the experimental prototype weapons 3D had installed on 8 Wolf fighters, weapons they were told to only use as a means of last resort…but given those two fighters had had five enemy destroyers defending the last pod they had to destroy, Palla could see why they decided to use the weapon.

        They had some great telemetry about that, too.  Whatever it was that 3D had thought up this time…wow.  That had been impressive.  It had looked like some kind of Teryon-based weapon, but it was fired from a rail cannon.  It had crippled an enemy destroyer and destroyed the sensor pod with that one attack, which was fired from well outside the fighter’s usual range.  But, it had also overloaded the cannon pod and nearly knocked out the power systems of the two fighters who used it, so the weapon wasn’t without some risk when it was used, and also meant that it wasn’t entirely perfected.

        “Contact the Ghost Squadron using BG1 and tell them that all fighters begin phase two,” she called to her comm . BG1 was a biogenic communication system that would allow the computer core of the Aegis to communicate with the biogenic crystals in the comm system of the fighters, bypassing gravband and providing them with a secure means of communication with massive range.  The drawback of the system was that only a line ship was big enough to carry a transceiver array big enough to be used in such a manner.  It allowed the line ship to communicate with the fighters, but didn’t allow the fighters to communicate with each other.  They had to rely on STG, sending, or short-range ship-to-ship biogenic communion to communicate with each other.  The power requirements and physical size of the comm antenna required for a biogenic crystal to transmit its modulated communion and thus give it the ability to be used in a manner similar to gravband made it prohibitive to place on a ship as small as a fighter.  But, since the BG1 system emulated telepathy in some respects, only one side of the connection had to have the power to bridge the gap for both sides to communicate freely.  The fighters could talk back to the BG1 comm despite not having a comm array themselves, they only required the ability to modulate their communion via a biogenic module in their comm systems to put the communications in a format that the BG1 could understand.

        The system itself wasn’t innovative or new, but it was new in that the house had finally allowed the system to be installed on something not permanently based at Karis, due to the critical sensitivity of the device.  Should it fall into enemy hands, they would have a way into the biogenic network back at Karis from virtually anywhere in the galaxy.  Only the command ships and battleships had the BG1 system installed.  Not even the tactical battleships carried it.

        The comm officer relayed the order as the admirals and generals behind her remained quiet, watching and listening as the tactical map showed the fleet of 2,300 ships moving into their assigned positions around the void, hidden by the red mist and at an altitude that would allow every ship to fire on the com-con without risking being hit by friendly fire.  They wouldn’t be destroying the com-con immediately, since that would provoke the bugs into suicidal ramming attacks, but when the time came, they’d be in position to all but atomize that floating amalgamation of scrap armor pieces.

        “Squadron B in position,” her tactical officer relayed.

        “We’re right on schedule,” Kre’Vak noted.

        “Begin the charging phase for the GRAF cannon,” Palla called.  “Hold stage at 20% power.”

        “Aye sire, initiate charging sequence!”

        “Particle beams and plasma torpedoes are on GRAF standby.  GRAF primaries online, charging sequence engaged,” the tactical officer declared.  “Charging to 20%.  T minus 23 seconds until we have 20%, Captain.”

        “Engine compensators?”

        “Online, Captain,” her navigator called.

        “Recoil absorption system?”

        “Engaged and online, Captain,” her engineer answered.

        The engineer counted it down, and when she reached zero, the power indication bars on the GRAF hologram turned yellow and began blinking.  “GRAF charged to 20% and holding at stage,” the tactical officer called.

        “Squadron J in position, Captain.”

        “That’s it.  Broadcast the go signal to all fighters,” Palla barked, standing up in front of her chair.  “Tactical, target the largest Consortium ship in their fleet!  Prepare to fire the GRAF cannon!”

        “Aye sir, initiating GRAF firing sequence!” the tactical officer barked.

        “Send it down to all ships to begin the attack after the GRAF cannon fires,” Palla commanded.

        “Prepare for GRAF recoil!” came a call over shipwide intercom.  “This will be a 20% power shot!  Prepare for GRAF recoil!”

        “Do we need jump restraints, Captain?” Drark asked.

        “No, but the recoil of the cannon will feed back into the ship despite our compensation systems.  The ship will jolt considerably upon firing, so be ready for it, Admiral,” she answered.  “GRAF status?”

        “GRAF systems nominal, staged at 20% and ready to fire, Captain!”

        “Target acquired, Captain!  GRAF cannon is locked on and prepared to fire!”

        “All weapons on GRAF standby!  Open the outer doors!  Fire upon confirmation of outer door sensors reporting open and locked for firing!”

        “Aye sir!  GRAF cannon engaged, T minus 16 seconds until firing.”

        Palla hit shipwide intercom.  “GRAF cannon about to fire!  GRAF cannon about to fire!  All hands, brace for recoil!”

        The tactical officer counted it down over shipwide intercom, and everyone either locked their jump restraints or grabbed hold of something.  Palla remained standing in front of her chair, reaching back and getting a grip on one of the armrests as she set her feet, watching the countdown timer on her right holo.

        Outside the ship, the huge outer doors opened to reveal the recessed barrel of the cannon, a shimmering glow of resonant flux rippling at the tip of the barrel.  Almost as soon as they fully opened and stopped moving, the cannon then unleashed it tightly controlled blast.  A white-hot bar of pure kinetic energy blasted from the cannon’s muzzle, searing light into the reddish clouds of the nebula around them and puckering the gas formation in front of the ship.  The ship’s engines whined as it and the recoil absorption system mitigated the recoil of the blast, but not so much that those inside the ship failed to feel the cannon fire.  Palla’s body swayed forward as the entire ship shuddered and was pushed backwards a couple of shakra by the power of the blast, but her eyes were on the Kimdori spy probe’s visual telemetry.  She saw the intense energy blast from the GRAF cannon sizzle into the void holding the enemy fleet in the blink of an eye and then strike the largest surviving Consortium battleship almost dead center.  AT 20%, the beam wasn’t large enough to atomize the entire ship, but it was large enough to shatter the central mass of the ship, causing its spiky wings and bow section to spin crazily away from the GRAF blast when what they were connected to was shattered into dust-sized particles in a microsecond.

        And that was the signal.  In unison, 2,300 Confederated warships plunged out of the gloom and raced towards the enemy fleet, some of them already firing at the enemy  Rail cannons and missiles lashed out from hundreds of ships in the encircling formation, firing down and into the enemy’s massed fleet, which was arrayed in a defensive formation around the enemy com-con to protect it from attack.  But the com-con wasn’t the target of those initial strikes.  Ship after ship in the enemy formation turned dark or had gouts of fire erupt from its hull as rail slugs pounded into them, and thousands of fighters screamed out from between the warships and hurtled towards the enemy.  The Aegis advanced much more slowly, the GRAF doors remaining open as it recharged.  The Aegis was as much the bait in this attack as it was a weapon, for the Consortium absolutely could not it to sit back and systematically pound their fleet and their station to pieces using its incredible firepower.  The battle plan was designed around the idea that the enemy would try to charge down the Aegis and disable it to knock the GRAF cannon out of operation, and for that reason, the bulk of the CCM’s firepower was directly in front of the command ship, promising that any attempt to reach the Aegis would take place under intense fire.

        “Quite impressive!” the Ogravian declared from behind Palla.

        “Set the GRAF cycle sequence to 5%!” Palla barked.  “Tactical, fire at targets of your discretion!  Threshold distance is 5,000 kathra!”

        “Aye sir, GRAF cannon cycle sequence engaged, charging to 5%!”

        “All weapon systems online, power distribution system set for GRAF cycle protocol!”

        “Targeting duties to tactical, aye sir!” her tactical officer affirmed.  “Threshold of 5,000 kathra!”

        “What significance does that level hold?” Drark asked curiously.

        “At 5%, the ship can utilize most of its other weapons,”  Kre’Vak answered, “yet also fire the GRAF cannon with enough power to destroy any enemy vessel it hits.”

        “The threshold distance is the minimum safe distance the GRAF cannon can be used in a combat theater,” Frazzil added.  “If any enemy ship gets within the threshold distance, they will take the GRAF cannon offline and close the outer doors to protect the cannon and the ship.  The main vulnerability of the GRAF cannon is that if it is damaged while in a firing cycle, its energy feeds back into the ship and can cause catastrophic damage.  For that reason, they take extreme caution in using it in situations where enemy ships can close distance on the ship before the cannon can fire and expend its stored energy.”

        Palla was both surprised that the command staff knew so much about the GRAF cannon, and a little annoyed that they were spreading that information around so freely.  It was a proprietary Karinne weapon, and Palla thought they kept its operational parameters a bit more secret than that.

        “GRAF cannon firing at 18 second intervals, brace for multiple recoils!” the tactical officer barked over shipwide intercom.

        “Missile barrage coming in!”

        “Deploy the pinpoint shockwave ECDs!” Palla barked.  Those were another new toy from the minds of 3D.  It was a series of external Torsion shockwave generators affixed to mobile platforms that would protect the Aegis by getting into the path of enemy missiles and then activate the shockwave generators to destroy them.  The ship was far too big for a shockwave generator that could protect the entire ship, so they’d come up with this system to at least provide partial protection against enemy missile attacks.  The pinpoint ECDs would protect the important parts of the ship from missile attacks, but allow missiles that would hit less important areas through.

        Various visuals from cameras showed them the initial contact.  The CCM had to close the distance on the enemy, and in those seconds, the Consortium had time to realign their formations and fire a blitz of missiles.  Faey and KMS ships took the lead as they raced in, reddish sheaths surrounding them as their shockwave generators activated to absorb the attacks, providing at least some protection for the ships behind them.  Fighters in front of the ships also helped mitigate the missile attacks by firing on the incoming missiles, but they too couldn’t protect every ship.  Dozens of ships were knocked out of their formations by repeated missile strikes, fires blazing on the hulls of the ships as they lost control.  A Verutan cruiser sideswiped another cruiser when it veered hard to port, scraping its sister ship as it yawed, its stern drifting to the right and ascending as the two ships ground against each other, pieces of metal and other debris flying away from those points of contact.  Some fighters blasted right through the Consortium ship formations as they reached them and dove at the enemy station, but the Consortium barely had time to send any fighters or drones after them when the CCM got in range of more than rail cannons.  The ships pulled up suddenly about 1,000 shakra out of Torsion range and unleashed everything they had, each shot precisely placed to avoid the fighters that were screaming through the enemy formation on their way to the enemy com-con.  A blitz of rail shots, missiles, plasma torpedoes, and drones lashed out from the ring of CCM ships, pounding the Consortium ships as they seemed to hesitate between engaging the warships or chasing the fighters that blew by them on their way to the enemy station.  They made up their mind when another Consortium battleship was blasted into dust by an incandescent bolt of pure kinetic energy, the second victim of the GRAF cannon, and the Consortium surged forward to get intermixed into the CCM formations to protect themselves from the GRAF cannon.

        Consortium ships were engaging CCM squadrons all around the enemy station while fighters screamed past the enemy ships and dove at the enemy station’s slapdash hull.  Missiles and Torsion fire filled the red-tinged sky as the gun batteries on the station fired on the fighters.  Small puffs of fire around the station marked the destruction of fighters, but so many of them got through the enemy fire that their response all but looked like they’d set the entire station on fire.  They targeted its critical control nodes and every exposed weapon battery they could see, knocking out missile launchers, Torsion cannons, dark matter cannons, and even some ion and plasma weapons that they’d probably salvaged from Imxi ships.  The fighters swarmed around the enemy station like a horde of angry locusts, nibbling away at its offensive capabilities shot by shot, fighter by fighter, then in one dazzlingly coordinated motion, they turned and raced away to attack the Consortium ship and their supporting Imxi fighters and drones from behind as other fighters squared off against those units from the front.

        In less than ten minutes, it looked like organized anarchy.  The disciplined formations on both sides broke down as the Consortium used CCM ships as shields to break line of sight with the Aegis, sending all their missiles towards the flagship to try to prevent it from firing its GRAF cannon, turning the cleared area around the enemy com-con into a complete scrum of turning and maneuvering ships.  But Palla directed that dance of chaos with a practiced eye, directing the movements of elements in the squadrons to force the Consortium to sacrifice a tactical advantage to protect itself from a GRAF strike.  Any time a cluster of Consortium ships got the upper hand on an element of the CCM line, Palla called in ship movements that exposed those ships to the line of sight of the Aegis and forced them to give up that advantage or face instant destruction.  The pinpoint ECDs and defending fighters, drones, and Gladiators in emplacements on the hull shot down those missiles in large numbers, but the ship still took fire.  Damage dots appeared all over the front sections of the hull on her ship status display, though none of them were anywhere near the GRAF doors, locations where missiles got through the defensive screen, and mostly areas where the defense allowed the missiles to impact.  The missiles that would hit low-priority areas were ignored in favor of missiles targeting much more important areas of the ship, and particularly anywhere near the GRAF doors.

        “Exactly as projected,” Verutan Admiral Irikarr declared.  She was a female Verutan with long, silky black hair and resplendent in her polished blue armor, one of her long fangs broken at the tip to make her look a little rough and tumble.  “The enemy is almost fatally predictable.”

        “Only because they have very few options, Admiral,” Palla said absently.  “This battle plan was drawn up to take away as many options as possible.  They are cunning and dangerous opponents when not backed into a corner.  Soon they’ll begin suicide attacks, and that is when they become the most dangerous.  Half the reason we’re allowing them to fight from such close range is to prevent them from gaining too much momentum when they begin to try ramming our ships.  It is for our own protection as much as their belief that they protect themselves from the Aegis.”

        “Hmm, possible,” she acceded with a nod as another Grimja ship’s icon vanished off the tactical display.

         The battle plan was going according to projections in more than one way.  The fact that they heavily outnumbered the enemy began taking its toll on the Consortium in mere moments, as they lost nearly a quarter of their fleet within five minutes of combat.  Consortium ships trying to keep from getting instantly killed by the GRAF cannon were isolated and blasted into wreckage by elements of Confederate ships moving in disciplined groups of two or three, and pockets of enemy ships were wiped out in several sectors along the arc of combat.  The enemy ships closest to the Aegis were the first to be wiped out to remove the threat it posed to the command ship, and the ships were isolated and destroyed in twin arcs away from the Aegis as per the battle plan.  When the enemy ships were reduced to 450, Palla sat back down and crossed her legs.  “Tactical, charge the GRAF cannon to full power and prepare to fire on the enemy com-con,” she ordered.

        “Aye sir, removing GRAF from cycle sequence and charging to full power,  T minus 225 seconds until full power!”

        “All weapons on GRAF standby!” Palla barked as she engaged her jump restraints, then hit the shipwide intercom.  “All hands to jump restraints!  All hands to jump restraints!”

        “Primary couplers are online and engaged.”

        “Recoil absorption system resetting to full power.”

        “Engine compensation system cycling to full power mode.”

        “GRAF charging sequence engaged, T minus 217 seconds!”

        “Get those Gladiators locked down!” Palla barked as she looked over the ship status holo.  “Pull all ECDs from in front of the ship!  Tactical, mirror targeting coordinates to comm so they can send out the shot vector to all fighters!”  She hit the intercom again.  “This will be a full power shot! This will be a full power shot!”

        “Report secured readiness to comm six,” one of her comm officers added.

        “Into your jump restraints, sirs, ma’ams,” her exo told the command staff.  “Quickly, please!”

        “All bridge personnel secured, sir,” her tactical officer relayed.

        “Fire at countdown zero!” Palla ordered as the power bars on her GRAF holo began to rise.

        Fighters scrambled out of the way as the GRAF cannon charged, a bright light forming within the doors that warned everyone that the command ship was about to inject itself into the battle in a much more dramatic fashion.  Palla gripped the handles on her jump restraints when the countdown hit single digits, then the tactical officer gave a final warning, “Brace for recoil!”

        That firing of the cannon was far different from the previous shots.  A blinding blast of pure kinetic energy, pristine white and nearly half a kathra in diameter once it cleared the barrel of the cannon, lanced away from the Aegis like the retribution of an angry god.  It raged across the void and struck the enemy’s base almost exactly dead center, and everything it hit just disintegrated, shattered to molecular dust in a fraction of a microsecond.  The shot was so powerful, so incredibly abrupt that the rest of the station didn’t even flinch for a second as the center of it was eradicated, the blow was so heavy and so powerful, then the station tore itself apart as the shockwave of the blast rampaged through the slapdash remains, sending smoking debris and wreckage flying in every direction.  The blast was angled downward in relation to the rest of the fleet, so it lanced off into the gloom of the nebula on a harmless vector that posed no threat to any of their own ships.

        It happened in the blink of an eye, and that was all it took for the Consortium to change tactics.  With the com-con destroyed and nearly half of their fleet destroyed, the bugs knew that they had no chance of victory and no way to escape.  And when they made that determination, the suicide attacks began.  Consortium destroyers veered directly into the path of Confederate warships, guns blazing as they tried to accelerate to flank, but the Confederate forces were expecting and ready for it.  The first destroyer to try it tried to ram a Faey battle cruiser, but the wily ship captain activated her Torsion shockwave generator, which ripped the enemy ship apart when it tried to cross the area of effect.  Instead of being rammed by a single huge ship, the Faey cruiser was instead assaulted by a large number of burning, twisted pieces of metal and polymer, greenish-red fire engulfing them as they slammed into the armored Neutronium hull of the INS warship.  Other Consortium ships had better luck when they tried to ram ships without that piece of hardware, but the fact that the Confederation had engaged the enemy at point blank range and was intermixed with them suddenly became much more apparent both to the bugs and to the admirals behind Palla, as those ships found they had no room to accelerate or maneuver to deal massive damage in a ramming attack.  What had at first seemed like brazen tactics of getting all but side by side with Consortium ships and trading fire at point blank range revealed itself not as a brash tactic of the bold, but as a cunning tactic of the wily, for that severely reduced the effectiveness of Consortium ramming attacks.  They had little choice but to ram ships right in front or beside them, because the Confederate ships hemming them in on their flanks reduced their ability to turn to get an optimal collision course where they could ram enemy ships amidships or bow to bow, and they were blown apart if they tried to avoid the ships hemming them in to gain velocity to ram more distant ships.  Their only real option was to turn into the ships hounding their flanks, which was the least effective means to go about it because the enemy ship could turn with them to reduce the relative velocity between the two vessels, while the vessel on the other side had clear vectors of fire to pound the Consortium ship as it tried to ram the wing ship.  The ships still managed to ram Confederate warships, but the fact that they couldn’t get up any real speed and could really only try to ram ships that could maneuver away from them to reduce the force of the impact made the attacks far less devastating then usual.  Confederate ships took damage surely, had buckled sections and torn hulls, but the Confederate ships couldn’t get up enough momentum to totally destroy the ships they rammed.

        Over the span of fifteen minutes, the Consortium fleet effectively destroyed itself as ship after ship either rammed a Confederate ship and knocked itself out of action or was destroyed in the attempt.  As ordered, the Confederate forces did not ignore any Consortium ship that even looked whole.  They fired on darkened enemy ships, they fired on ships on fire, they fired on any Consortium ship that returned any life signs or signs of computer core activity, and they kept firing until those signs of activity faded off short-range sensors.  They even fired on ships with no active signs that didn’t look sufficiently damaged.  The Confederate ship captains had been thoroughly prepared for this, and they did not disappoint.  They even fired on the burning pieces of the enemy com-con that had not spiraled out into the nebula.

        Exactly 101 minutes after the Aegis jumped into the system, it was over.  The last Consortium ship showing signs of computer activity was blown into fiery pieces by a salvo of ships, and the remaining Confederate ships simply drifted in the void, searching for another target to attack.  “Stand down from battle stations and begin search and recovery operations.  Send out the scout probes and deploy our own sensor pods,” Palla ordered.  “Squadrons A, B, and C, assist damaged ships and tow them to coordinates broadcast on command STG two for assessment and repair operations.  Squadron D, you will hunt down and destroy the 16 enemy ships that aren’t accounted for, going on their last known positions.  Fighter squadrons attached to ships in Squadron D, report to your ship commander to assist in the search and destroy operation.  Squadrons E and F, return to the jump entry point and prepare to escort in sweeper and logistic ships, they’ll want to analyze the debris and salvage anything we can use.  Squadrons G and H, I fear your task is to chase down any drifting wreckage and tow it back into the void area,” she added, tapping her armored fingertips together.  “Squadrons I, J, and K disperse along the border of the void and form a defensive perimeter to protect the rest of the fleet as it undertakes repair and recovery operations.  Ghost Squadron, War Talons, you will attach to Squadron D and assist in the destruction of the last enemy ships,” she added.  “Ghost and War Talon squadron commanders report to Abarax command comm for further orders.  All other fighter squadrons report to task force command comm four for CAP rotation assignments.  Command out.”  She looked over to her tactical officer.  “Disengage the GRAF cannon and begin shutdown sequence, and close the outer doors.”

        “Aye sir, GRAF shutdown sequence initiated.  Taking primary couplers offline.”

        “Outer doors closing, Captain,” her engineer called.

        “Weapons are no longer on GRAF standby, Captain.”

        “Well done, Captain,” Kre’Vak called from behind her.  “Very well done.”

        “Thank you, Admiral, but the accolades go to every man and woman in this task force, not just to me,” she replied mildly.  “I want damage report updates every two minutes, Commander Lani.  Get the damage control macro units out to the damaged ships, and get me a detailed list of damage and repair estimates from ships not on the board..”  She looked to her comm officers.  “Comm one, get me central command.”

        “Aye sir,” the Faey man nodded.

        Seconds later, the face of General Lorna Shaddale appeared on her central hologram.  “General Shaddale, PR-253 is now under Confederate control, and the last 16 enemy warships are currently being located and destroyed,” she said simply, which caused a few cheers across the bridge.  “The enemy com-con and the rest of the enemy fleet has been destroyed to the last ship and the last bug.  This star system is now under the flag of the Confederation.”

        “Well done, Captain.  The clean-up barges and hospital ships are jumping from PR-371 as we speak.”

        “Elements of the fleet will arrive at the border of the nebula in 26 minutes to escort them to the void area, General.  All telemetry and logs are being compiled and will be transmitted to command as soon as they’re ready.”

        Lorna nodded.  “Remain at PR-253 to assist in recovery operations, then the Aegis will escort the hospital ships back to PR-371.  Arrange to transfer the theater flag to the Abarax when the Aegis is ready to depart.  Captain Sevi Aranne will command the task force upon your departure.”

        “Yes, ma’am,” Palla replied.   “She’s currently hunting down the last of the enemy ships, but I’ll relay the order immediately.”

 

        Kaira, 6 Kiraa, 4401, Faey Orthodox Calendar

        Tuesday, 31 July 2014, Terran Standard Calendar

        Kaira, 6 Kiraa, year 1327 of the 97th Generation, Karinne Historical Reference Calendar

        The White House, Karsa, Karis

 

        Now this was what he wanted to see out of every combat report.

        Number of fatalities:  zero.

        There were some injuries and some battle damage, but the best possible outcome at least from the admittedly biased viewpoint as the Grand Duke Karinne was what was glowing in midair on that hologram.  There were 587 injuries among the 229 KMS vessels that participated in the attack on the nebula, moderate damage to three destroyers, light to medium damage to most of the other ships, but no KMS ship had suffered severe damage, no injury was more severe than a lost arm, and nobody died…at least in the KMS.

        From the Confederate point of view, the operation had been a complete success, but not a completely clean one.  The CCM had effectively ambushed the Consortium forces and destroyed them to the last ship, to the last bug, in 168 minutes while taking 4,018 casualties—both killed and wounded—and losing 71 ships out of the fleet of 2,300…which was damn good.  427 additional ships had suffered moderate to severe damage, and 807 ships had suffered light to moderate damage, so in that respect, the Consortium had definitely left their mark in the battle by doing some significant damage, but their tactic to lessen the ability of Consortium ships to destroy other ships in suicide attacks had been very, very effective.  They’d taken a little more damage in combat from Torsion weapons in exchange for not having ships completely destroyed in suicide ramming attacks when the bugs decided the battle was lost.  It had taken them nearly half an hour to track down and destroy the last straggling ships, and now the logistics ships were there to effect field repairs to allied ships to get them jump ready, start sweeping up the debris for analysis, and send out some sensor probes to do some scientific research in the small nebula.  The Verutans had lost the most ships at 22, the Grimja had lost 18, and no other navy in the Confederation lost more than 7 ships.  The KMS had not lost a single ship in the operation, and the Kimdori had not had any ships assigned to the attack due to the nature of their weaponry.  In a battle where everything had to be completely destroyed, the crew-killing stream weapons used by the Kimdori were decided to be potentially confusing to the other ships during the fight, who might attack a ship they’d already struck.

        The Kimdori were doing something else right now anyway.  Jason moved to another holo that both he and Zaa were watching at the same time that showed one of the eeriest places he’d ever seen…SAR-12.  It was a star cluster packed into a single “solar system” that had six stars in a tight cluster, three blue supergiants in a complex interlocking orbital system with three “child” stars orbiting them like planets, almost like a solar system which was comprised of nothing but stars.  Two of the blue supergiants orbited each other while that binary system orbited the largest of the three, and the three smaller stars, all three medium size white stars, orbited those three core stars…and all of it was packed into a orbital system that was about the same area as the orbital track of Jupiter in the Terran system.  The gravitational flux in the system was intense, but so was the combined solar wind those six stars emanated, so powerful that it offset the intense cosmic radiation emanated by the galactic core.  There were some planets in the system beyond the stars, two gas giants with terrestrial moons and a single terrestrial planet orbiting so far out that it wasn’t reduced to liquid by the radiation and gravity flux.

        And that was where a fleet of 23 Kimdori ships were sitting, over the barren, airless planet’s pole.  It was a planet about the size of Terra but looked like Mercury, its surface scarred by meteor strikes and with an ambient surface temperature of 270 degrees Celsius on the day side and an average of  -30 degrees Celsius on the night side, the night side heated by the ambient galactic core radiation when it was facing it.  That introduced wild temperature swings on the night side depending on where it was in its orbital track if the night side was facing towards the core or away from the core.  And, given the planet had a orbital period of 37.6 standard years, that temperature swing took a long time to cycle.  Like Terra’s moon, the planet was phase locked in its orbit so it always presented the same side to the interior stars, and it had no angular tilt.  That made the pole a good place to build something, since the temperature along that twilight region was only 170 degrees Celsius most of the time and was fairly consistent.

        They were there to install the new trans-galactic comm array, which had already been placed in its protective armored dome and was being carefully set down on the rocky surface of the planet by a team of Kimdori engineers.  They’d built the array and then built its protective armored shell around it, everything self-contained within the dome, and all they had to do was anchor the dome to the ground and turn on the array.  The Kimdori had already prepared its site with foundations and anchors, so it was a simple matter of setting the dome in place and locking it down, a process that would take them about an hour.  But, as soon as the dome was on the surface, the Kimdori inside the dome would begin activating the array, it didn’t need to be anchored down to work.  The radiation in the system would kill anything but a Kimdori, Jakkan, or Generation without extravagant radiation shielding, but to even get to it, they’d have to get past the interdictor that was set there three days ago and had already expanded out to its full interdiction effect.

        Jason had to spare an amused look at Kyri and Aran.  It had been their turn to come to work with him today to see what he did from a much closer perspective and receive lessons on the art of leadership, just in case they somehow found themselves sitting in his chair someday.  The kids had been really enthusiastic about the idea of doing what Rann did…until they actually experienced what Rann did.  It wasn’t as much fun as they thought it was, because Rann had all kinds of extra lessons and had many more responsibilities than they did.   Kyri was the most troublesome one, since she got bored easily and tended to zone out.  He was letting them relax a little, the two of them sitting on the couch he had on the side wall by the door to his private room, talking with Cybi and being taught without realizing it.

        Cybi was fairly sneaky like that.

        They were both wearing nothing but shorts, what they’d brought with them since Aya wouldn’t let them come to the White House without wearing armor, but they were allowed to take it off in his office.  And that, Jason was going to make Aya change.  She’d said that she wouldn’t relax the armor requirements until the last of the Consortium was destroyed…well, they were destroyed, effective about three hours ago.  Shen and Suri weren’t making a beef about it, at least.  They weren’t even in the room, they were out in the office talking with Chirk and Brall, but they’d also secured the door so not even Jason could open it.  They were allowed to leave him alone inside his own office, because it was so secure…but they weren’t allowed to leave the outer office and had to maintain visual contact with the door to his office at all times, since it was the only way into his office from the outside.  Aya had very strict rules about such things.

        After the dome set down on the surface gently, Jason watched as they turned off the hoverpods that had brought it down slowly and carefully, and on another hologram, he watched a readout of the array’s systems as the Kimdori inside the dome began to bring it up.  It would only take them about 12 minutes to get the array up and running, since it had already been tested and configured when it was built in Kosigi.  While the technicians inside did that, the engineers outside were locking the clamps they’d mounted in the bare rock, which they’d also leveled out to provide an optimal foundation for the dome.  They’d lock the 36 clamps down on the dome to secure it, and as long as the array inside was operational, that was it.  The array would serve as a second transceiver unit for modulated communion, and would have the power to reach well past Andromeda.  In fact, it could reach the six closest galaxies to the Milky Way, giving them the ability to theoretically communicate at a distance they couldn’t realistically travel.  He saw the radiation shield activate around the dome to further fortify the unit against radiation damage over time, and saw through his remote telemetry that the array was active and going through start-up sequencing, bringing up its systems.

        “They’re about to bring up the array, Cybi,” he called aloud, mainly for Zaa’s benefit, whose face was on a 2D hologram on the far side of his visual.

        “Just a second,” she replied, leaning over and putting her holographic hand on Aran’s shoulder.  That was all for the kids, to make them feel like she wasn’t ignoring them in any way…after all, Cybi could do a few trillion operations per second, and was more than capable of handling the array startup and talking to the kids at the same time.

        “Are you still holding to your plan with the scouts, Denmother?”

        She nodded.  “They’ll begin the journey to Andromeda tomorrow morning your time.  And believe me, they almost rebelled when I told them they couldn’t leave until this array was operational.”

        “And you’re still going to go through with this crazy idea?” he asked, a bit disapprovingly.

        And it was crazy.  After the success that the Consortium had had building a one-way wormhole system, that it lasted long enough for them to get thousands of ships through it, Zaa had built a similar system at Kimdori Prime out of translation engines.  It was Zaa’s intent to use that one-way wormhole system to “slingshot” her expeditionary force halfway to Andromeda so they could get there before the Syndicate’s advance fleet reached their galaxy.  Jason was against it, he was majorly against it, but Zaa had made up her mind, and she didn’t care how dangerous it was. She’d even sidestepped him and had Myleena design a more stable system for her to build that, according to Myleena’s math, had a 79% chance of working.  Jason wasn’t the kind that was going to risk the 217 lives on those three scout ships on a 79% chance of success, but Zaa had a different outlook than he did.

        Getting the fleet to Andromeda using that system had been Zaa’s goal, but about halfway was the best she was going to get due to the sheer distance.  The system was capable of opening a wormhole directly to Andromeda, but the further the engines had to focus the terminus, the greater the risk the wormhole became unstable because of the increasing variables in the mathematics.  If they had a probe or something at the proposed opening point to at least send back some data it would make the wormhole safer, but still not safe.  Without that, a point about 2.5 “hyperspace years” towards Andromeda was the statistically safest point and still maintain what was for Zaa a reasonable chance of success while still getting her scouts there in time.  If it worked, then her scouts would arrive at the edge of Andromeda about a month before the Syndicate reached the edge of the Milky Way.

        He couldn’t fathom how she was willing to put her people at risk that way…but that was one of the major ways Jason differed from about every other ruler on the Council.  To Jason, they were people, not statistics, and he would not order them to go through an unstable wormhole and have a 21% chance of not living to get to the other side.

        “As you have said to me many times, Jason,” she said, giving him a steady look, “sometimes crazy works.”

        He scowled at her, both annoyed that she’d say that and she’d make light of the terrible risk her scouts were undertaking.

        “Agree to disagree with me in this regard, cousin,” she stated soberly.  “My children were fully briefed of the risk.  But they deem it a worthy one to get there before the Syndicate reaches our galaxy.  The intelligence they can send back to us in real time will be invaluable, even with the Syndicate forces here jammed from receiving any transmissions from Andromeda.”

        And that was true.  The Syndicate used a different method of communication than the Consortium, which was both less advanced and highly clever in its development.  They lacked the technology to transmit in energy strings or by modulating Teryon energy, but they had devised a unique and highly clever technology that Myleena had deemed quantum vibration.  They modulated the fabric of hyperspace itself in a way much akin to the ancient Morse Code, just “pings” in the fabric of hyperspace which radiated out from the origin point like ripples on a pond.  The advantage of the system was that it had exceptionally long range and was actually faster than string or Teryon communications, because it dealt with the quantum vibration of hyperspace itself.  The drawback of the technology was that it was even slower than old Morse Code, and it didn’t have frequencies or channels.  A message with 200 characters would take nearly three minutes to transmit because each vibrational “ping” in hyperspace had to have complete separation from the others, so they’d created an encoded “shorthand” they used in this vibration communication technology.  And also, at any one time, only one message could be transmitted anywhere within Andromeda, or the different messages would interfere with each other.

        According to the last of the data that the Kimdori had taken from the Consortium, the Syndicate managed this problem by prioritizing communications and by having only one vibration transmission station in Andromeda that sent out all messages to all ships and star systems, and each ship or system contacted had a window of time in which they could respond before the next message was sent.  And because of the limitations of this system, only the most important messages were sent over quantum vibration.  The vast majority of their comm was conducted by a much less advanced communication system where high-energy phased tachyons were modulated and transmitted site to site akin to lasers.  This system was faster than light, but it still wasn’t as fast as string or Teryon systems.  A message transmitted over that system would take about 5 seconds to travel from one star system to the next one…but when an empire spanned half a galaxy, that time suddenly ramped way up to where a system on the edge of the galaxy would take 16 days to get a message to a system in the center of the galaxy.  Because of the time restraints of their phased tachyon communication system, news took a long time to get through the entirety of their empire unless it was really important.

        Jason would consider the system to be obsolete, even archaic, but it was the best they had, and they’d learned to work with it in rather clever ways.  That demonstrated the intelligence of their opponents, and made them worthy of respect.  Just because they weren’t as technologically advanced, that didn’t make them stupid.  Quite the contrary, the Benga seemed to be extremely intelligent, since they’d managed to overcome the technological gulf between them and the Consortium and were now winning the war.

        With their quantum vibration communications, they were able to send simple messages all the way to the Milky Way, and those messages would get here in 23 days instead of nearly 90.  But the drawback was that when they sent those messages, they couldn’t talk to anyone else while transmitting them, and the medium in which they transmitted those messages was very easy to both intercept and disrupt, making it vulnerable.  The primary mission of the scouts was to crack the code of their quantum vibration communications and start listening in, then sending all that information back to them using the new array that was even now booting up at SAR-12.

        That was the good part for them.  The bad part was that Myleena and Cybi had already added an algorithm to the string jammers to befuddle the vibrational comm with vibrational white noise, to bang a drum overtop it to use a metaphor, making it indecipherable.  That would let them jam the Syndicate just as easily as they had the Consortium.

        Jason just glared at her a moment, then sighed and reached down and picked up Kyri.  He set her in his lap as she put her small hands on the edge of his desk and looked at the holograms.  “Which is what, Daddy?” she asked.

        “This one is a visual of the new communications array they’re installing at SAR-12,” he answered, pointing.  “This one here is a feed from the array’s telemetry so I can watch them start it up.  It looks like they’ll have it online in about five minutes,” he noted aloud.  “This array will let us talk with the Kimdori going to Andromeda.”

        “Oooh, I hope they send back pictures!” Aran said eagerly as he looked over the desk from beside Jason’s chair.  Jason picked him up with his talent and sat him on the edge, and he promptly turned and sat cross-legged.

        “This one is a report Myri sent me about the battle over in the nebula,” he added, pointing at the far left hologram.

        “We won, right?”

        “Yes, we won, cubling,” Zaa chuckled.  “The outcome was actually never in doubt.  They were trapped and surrounded.  But the good news was that we defeated them with very little damage to ourselves in return.  The command staff did a good job protecting our own.”

        “All the military stuff is boring,” Kyri complained.

        “The military stuff is a part of being the Grand Duke, and you’d better at least understand the basics of it,” he retorted.  “I don’t understand all of it, that’s Myri’s job.  But I trust Myri’s judgment about military matters.  Learning who you can trust to give you good advice is another part of being the Grand Duke.”

        “How did you learn?”

        “Time,” he answered immediately.  “And a lot of trial and error,” he added.  “Sometimes I wish I would have had someone to show me how to do all this.”

        “Oh really,” Zaa drawled.

        Jason flashed her a quick grin.  “You weren’t here every moment to hold my hand, Denmother,” he answered.

        “Had I needed to, what point would it have been for us to find you and restore your line to the throne, Jason?” she asked lightly.

        “I thought you knew everything about being a Grand Duke, Daddy,” Aran said.

        Jason laughed.  “Not even,” he replied.  “No matter how smart you are, Aran, you can never know everything, and other people will see things from a different point of view than you do.  They’ll see things you won’t, and hearing their advice is a very important part of this job.  I try to make my decisions based not just on my judgment, but also on the advice that people I trust give to me.  That’s why I always talk to people before I make any important decisions, so I can hear their opinion based on their point of view, which will be different than mine.”

        “Like that Parri?” Kyri asked.

        “Oh yes.  The Parri shaman is one of the wisest people on Karis, pippy.  I value her advice as much as I do Denmother’s, or the Kizzik Council in the colony over on Kirga..”

        “Why?  She lives in a mud hut,” Aran protested.

        “Son, you’re making the biggest mistake you could possibly make,” Jason said seriously.  “Don’t underestimate the Parri because they seem primitive.  Sometimes I think they’re actually far more advanced than we are, and act the way they do for our benefit,” he said with a grunt.

        “Listen to your father, cubling,” Zaa agreed.  “The Parri have chosen a different way of looking at the world, where they don’t need the same technology or comforts that you do to be happy.  But do not for one moment believe that it does not make them smart.  They live as they do because they have chosen to live that way, not because they can’t comprehend modern technology like the Goraga can’t.”

        “I like her, I think she’s really neat,” Kyri piped in.  “And she’s really nice, too.  I love that thing she gave you, Daddy,” she said, pointing at the wooden disc that the shaman had pulled out of the tree, which he had sitting on a stand on his desk.  It was now ringed in titanium and had a loop eye for a neck chain at the top.  Jason wore it as a medallion with his formal robes, but kept it on its stand the rest of the time.  For some reason, he preferred to keep it at work so he could look at it when he was making important decisions, as if the quiet wisdom of the shaman could reach through that disc of rich, dark wood and help him.

        “Speaking of the Parri, I haven’t gone to see them in a while, I think I’ll take care of that tomorrow.  I can stop by and see them after I get back from Jaxtra to see Miaari’s cubs.  And I think you’re going to go with me, Aran,” he decided.  “I think a little talk with the shaman would show you a few things.”

        “Ooh, can I go too?’ Kyri asked, twisting around and looking up at him hopefully.

        “Sure, pips,” he replied, looking down at her and seeing her beam.  He tapped her on the nose, which made her giggle, then she turned back around and leaned against him.  He put a hand around her bare torso and watched as the Kimdori continued to lock down the dome, but his eyes were on the array.  When he saw its computer come up and reach out to connect back to Cybi, she brought her hologram over beside his chair.

        “The array is undergoing start-up diagnostics,” she related.  “I’ll have it do initial tests when they’re complete.”

        “What does that mean?” Kyri asked.

        “It means that the array is making sure that everything’s working properly, pippy,” Cybi answered.  “When it’s done, it will let me know, then I’ll have the array send out a test transmission to make sure everything’s working.”

        “Wouldn’t it already know that?”

        Cybi smiled.  “The first rule of being an engineer, pippy, is that nothing ever works until you see it actually work,” she answered.

        Jason laughed.  “That’s the truth,” he agreed.  “The diagnostics only say that the array thinks that everything’s working properly.  The only way to find out if that’s the case is to have it do something.”

        It only took about three minutes.  The diagnostics finished, then Cybi had the array transmit using all of its various modes, from standard Teryon to communion to passive detection that Cybi used to sense distant biogenic units.  As she successfully tested every function of the array, it updated on the status hologram both he and Zaa were watching. The Kimdori would also have access to that array for their own transmissions, which would be a secondary array that they would both use for long distance transmissions.  Local comm in the home quadrant would be handled by their primary arrays, but communicating with the outlying quadrants would be handled by the SAR-12 array, relayed to it from the primary array and allowing it to transmit for long distances.  That was going to take some wear and tear off the Kosigi array, since the SAR-12 array had been specifically built to handle both Teryon and communion long distance communications.  They’d already updated their comm system so all extra-quadrant comm would be routed to the new array, so as soon as the array finished its diagnostics, it would be put straight into service as the primary array for communications with PR-371, RG-118, and Exile.

        “It’s up and running,” she declared.

        “Alright, update the comm system to put it in service, and warn Myri,” Jason said.

        [Revered Hive-leader, Grand Revered Hive-leader Magran is requesting audience,] Chirk’s translator communed to him.

        [Okay, go ahead and put him through,] he answered.  “Magran’s asking to talk to me, Denmother.  If you’ll excuse me for a bit?”

        “Of course, cousin,” she replied with a nod, then her hologram winked out.  The others did as well, to be replaced with a 2D hologram of Magran.  He looked a little more comfortable wearing the Grand Master’s robe now after a month to settle into it.

        “Jason,” he said, then he smiled gently.  “And I see you have Kyri and Aran with you.  Good afternoon to you two.”

        “Hello Mister Grand Master sir,” Kyri replied, waving to him.

        “Grand Master,” Aran added.

        “Their turn for bring the kids to work day?” he asked.  Magran knew about Jason’s little program.

        “Yup.  What can I do for you, Magran?”

        “I had a few spare moments and I was curious to find out if you’d set a date for your state visit to the Colonies,” he replied.

        “I haven’t made up my mind yet,” he answered, bouncing Kyri a bit on his knees.  “I’ll iron all of that out when things around here start to settle down.”

        “Oooh, can we go, Daddy?” Kyri asked eagerly.

        “You might, I’m not sure yet,” he replied.  “How’s the Speaker search going?”

        Magran made a bit of a face.  “I still haven’t selected a Speaker, much to the annoyance of many on the council,” he replied.  “Speaking of jockeying for position, I think you might want to keep an eye on the Prakarikai.”

        “I already am,” he said with a bit of a weary sigh.  “They’ve got no less than ten little schemes going at the moment to increase their influence or standing within the Confederation.”

        “Well, this might be number eleven,” he said.  “The High Queen has been trying to get detailed information on the logistics schedules that we have running in the Colonies that your Kizzik implemented once we installed the Stargate at Exeven.  She professes that she wants to see how efficient things are run with the Stargates and the interdictors, but that doesn’t require a detailed list of ship schedules.  She’s fishing for something else, and it has to do with the Karinne transport system.”

        Jason almost leaned back in his chair, but he wasn’t too surprised.  Ever since they joined the Confederation, the Prakarikai had moved swiftly to learn everything about everything, even what they had no business knowing, and they were doing all of it not in the interests of the Confederation, but for their own benefit.  The High Queen had almost driven Jason nuts trying to get her shipbuilders into Kosigi, which was a service the Karinnes provided to all Confederation members, and once she got allotted space inside, she tried to get nearly three times as many workers as she needed into the moon, half of which were agents and sleepers for their intelligence service.  And every single one was talented, to make it harder for counter-espionage agents to determine who was a spy and who wasn’t.  The maneuverings of the Prakarikai were both blatant and subtle at the same time, as if they tried to sneak the subtle things by as the blatant ones attracted so much attention…like someone sneaking through into the back of a restaurant as someone else made a scene in the dining room.  The Kimdori nearly had an entire regiment of intelligence operatives devoted just to the Prakarikai in Kosigi.  Jason wasn’t too surprised that the Prakarikai were trying to get the logistics schedules for the other empires, if only so they’d know how to sabotage them if it came down to it.

        Sometimes he felt it was a mistake to include the Prakarikai in the Confederation, but it wasn’t his decision, it was just something he had to live with.

        It was also a good thing that Miaari had completely overhauled the security procedures in Kosigi, because now they were very effective at keeping the 14,500 Prakarikai “workers” up in the moon contained.  And Dellin had taken the extra step of assigning the Prakarikai a sector of the docks that was far away from everyone else, using the excuse that they were using the Prakarikai as the anchor of opening a new sector of the shipyard to new operations, when in reality they put them way out by themselves so they had no earthly business being about anywhere else in the moon.  Dellin would place the Jun and Ogravian operations out there as well, but that would be safe enough since the Ogravians were so far from the Prakarikai that they had no real business messing with them, and they had the sense not to mess with the Jun in any form or fashion.  Not even the Prakarikai were about to poke that bear with a stick.

        “I’d better find out what they’re up to,” Jason sighed, making a note in his gestalt and then sending it to Miaari’s band.

        “Have they been causing you problems?”

        “No more than anyone else,” he replied artfully.

        “Then they are,” he said without much humor.  “I’ll leave you to it, Jason.  I’m actually fairly busy at the moment.  I was being literal when I said that I only had a few moments.”

        “I know that feeling,” he answered.  “I’ll see you in a few hours at the council meeting.”

        Magran nodded and his hologram winked out, and Jason did lean back in his chair and silently curse a few times…which would have been very vocal if his daughter wasn’t in his lap.

        “What’s the matter, Daddy?” she asked.

        “Just the Prakarikai being the Prakarikai,” he answered.  “And it’s about time to get you two home,” he added.  “It’s almost dinnertime, and I’m hungry.”

        “What about your meeting?” Aran asked.

        “That’s what my home office is for, silly,” he replied.  Shen, Suri, we’re about to leave, he called.  You can let us out now.  The door opened as soon as Jason put Kyri down and moved with his kids towards where their armor was stacked.  Can you call the corvette and have them get ready, Shen? Jason asked.

        I’ve already alerted the corvette, and it’s standing by, she answered.

        That was another thing he was going to try to get changed.  He didn’t need a corvette to ferry him around anymore.  He doubted Aya was going to budge very much, since it took her a long time to get him into these security precautions, but he’d do what he could to at least get her back to allowing him to use his Wolf fighter, or an armored dropship that he piloted.

        A quick trip on the Marine corvette Thunder later, Jason was carrying his armored daughter into the kitchen door of his newly remodeled house, where Ayama and Surin were preparing dinner.  Red Horn had done a great job adding another floor to the house while he was at Kimdori Prime, but he’d come home before they were done and spent a couple of days at his vacation house on Kosiningi as they finished.  The first floor was unchanged, but the second floor was now nothing but bedrooms for his children, and the third floor was divided into two major sections.  The first and much larger section was a personal apartment of sorts for Jason and Jyslin, with a large, spacious bedroom, luxurious bathroom, walk-in closet, a home office for Jyslin to do Paladins work, and his new office, which was pretty big.  The rest of the third floor was devoted to an apartment for Rann and Shya, who now had their own living room and bedroom over at the west end of the house.  Their bedroom overlooked the ocean and the living room was on the opposite corner.  Jason had felt it was only fair to give Rann and Shya an apartment rather than a room so they had a little more space for their things, as well as give them a feeling of their own personal space.  They were married, after all.  There were five new bedrooms on the second floor for his future children, but they would serve as guest bedrooms until the day they had permanent occupants.

        And Jyslin certainly wanted to put a child in every room.

         That smells good, what is it? Jason asked as he set Kyri down, and the two of them ran into the living room, where Rann and Shya were sitting at the piano.

        It’s going to be Shio padroki soup, Emshada style, she answered, brushing some chopped vegetables into a bowl.

        We’re also having chicken casserole and steamed ruga roots, Surin supplied.  With apple pie for dessert.

        Now I’m glad I decided to come home, Jason chuckled audibly with his sending.  But I have some more work to do, so I’ll be up in my office.  Jys still at the training facility?

        She said she’ll be home within the hour, Surin answered.  Frinia is with her.

        And Yila is on the strip as well, I thought you might want to know, Ayama added, glancing at him.  She is at Kumi’s house, recuperating a bit from the jack implantation.  But that hasn’t stopped her from asking if you’re home about every ten minutes.  I think she wants to talk to you about something.

        Oh boy, it’s gonna be one of those afternoons, he sent sourly, which made both of them laugh.  He wandered into the living room and saw Rann and Shya sitting side by side at the piano, Shya watching in curiosity as Rann practiced the scales Jason taught him, his first step down the road of learning to play.  Both of them were bare-ass naked, a condition that Jason had come to grudgingly accept since Shya moved in.  She’d turned Rann into a total little streaker.  Hey guys, how goes practice?

        I’m just finishing, Rann answered, biting his lip a little bit as his small hands worked over the keys.  I played all those songs you taught me twice, and now I’m doing the scale thingy.  I like the piano in my room better.

        That one’s good for some things, but it’s also good to know how to play one that isn’t sized to your hands, pippy, he answered.  Not every piano’s gonna be like the one in your room.  How was school?

        A little boring today,  Shya answered, looking over at him.  But I still like it better than the tutors back at the palace.  Shya had fully settled into her new life as the Duchess Karinne rather than be her little Imperial Highness, but she did have a few burrs left in her personality from her Imperial upbringing.  Despite that, even Jason could see that she was much happier living on Karis.  She loved her mother and her family, but the rigors of the life of an Imperial princess were weighty on a little girl, especially one that had to learn all of it and would never realistically sit on the throne.  She had to do all the work and would get no reward for it other than to be the “spare” in case something happened to the Empress before she had her own children.  It had taken her a while to get used to the idea that she didn’t have all those duties and responsibilities, and she was enjoying just getting to be a kid.  Jason had been making sure to teach her along with Rann when it came to lessons in how to be a good leader, heeding the advice of the Parri shaman in this case.  That included a lot of deprogramming, undoing some of her Imperial conditioning…but not all of it.  Some of it was actually good for her, and would be good for Rann.  Jason felt confident that when the time came, she’d be ready for her role as the wife of the Grand Duke, and would be an asset both to Rann and to the house.  But until then, she was a smart, sweet, loving, wonderful, slightly acerbic little girl with much more of a grasp of what was going on than Rann had most of the time, and he could admit that he loved her as much as any of his children.

        More and more, Jason felt he’d gotten the best of the deal when Dahnai sent Shya to Karis.

        He put his hand on her bare shoulder and leaned down, and she giggled a little bit when gave her a noisy kiss on the cheek.  Stop being silly, Daddy Jason, she protested, then she burst into helpless laughter, squirming as he tickled her sides.

        Don’t tell me what to do, you silly little girl, he taunted playfully.  Got your homework done?

        Done already, and we had our lessons with Miss Aya and Miss Ayuma too, Rann answered.  I learned how to pick up the space around water today!

        Good for you, Rann! Jason sent happily.  I told you it wasn’t that hard.

        Not really once you get the idea of it, like picking up the edges of a blanket that a stuffed animal’s sitting on.

        Exactly.  And it’s much easier than picking up the water itself, isn’t it?

        Oh way way easier! he agreed emphatically.

        I wish I could do that, Shya complained a little.

        There’s no telling if you can or not, Shya, Jason told her.  Your mother’s a very strong TK, and Saelle told me just yesterday that she finally urged some ability out of Sirri.  There’s a good chance you have some potential too.

        You’re already a listener, don’t be so greedy, Rann protested, sending in a way that wouldn’t let his sending leave the room, a trick that was highly advanced for such a young child.  But then again, with all the instruction he got from some top-tier telepaths like his mother and Ryn, it was no surprise he was demonstrating so much skill.

        What?  You’re both a Generation and a TK, is it greedy to want to be both a listener and a TK?  That’s a bit hypocritical, Ranny.

        Being a Generation means that I’m already a TK, Rann protested.

        Well, if you want to try, Shya, I’ll talk to Ayuma about it.  She’ll start teaching you the exercises, Jason sent, heading off the potential squabble.  Like any kids, Rann and Shya had their share of disputes, but to their credit, they always worked them out fairly quickly.  TK isn’t like telepathy, it doesn’t always manifest at the same time you express.  Just don’t get your hopes up.  Not many Faey have TK, even if one of their parents do.

        I know, but thanks for letting me try, she answered, looking up at him with her beautiful eyes that reminded him of Dahnai.

        It never hurts to try, he nodded.  Now, I’ve got some more paperwork I have to do, and I have to talk a little more with the Denmother.  Why don’t you two come get me when dinner’s ready?

        Sure, Rann said as he started the scales over at the beginning.

        He passed along Magran’s warning to Zaa when he got into his new, larger home office, standing at the window and looking out at the ocean as a full hologram of Zaa paced on the other side of his desk.  “I am of a mind to invite Anivan to Kimdori Prime and take away her radiation suit,” Zaa growled, which made Jason laugh without much humor.

        “You and me both, Denmother,” he agreed as he watched Sheleese and Min frolic around a bit in the surf.  “They’ve been nothing but trouble for us since they joined.”

        “I’ll have my children look into this,” she promised.  “And we’ve started using the array.”

        “I know, I’ve been watching the telemetry on my gestalt to make sure it’s gonna be stable,” he replied.  “I still wish I could talk you out of this.”

        “You will not, Jason,” she replied calmly.  “There is a risk, yes, but my children are fully aware of it and are willing to take that risk.”

        “And that’s about the only reason I’m not yanking those scout ships,” he grunted.  “But I still don’t like it.”

        “Duly noted, cousin.  And for what it’s worth, your concern for my children touches them greatly, that you would care so much about their welfare.”

        He gave a low grunt and put his hands on the windowsill.  Her hologram came over and looked over his shoulder, which for her back in the Hearth gave her a fully immersive holographic representation of everything she could “see” from her hologram’s point of view.  “Is that Sheleese?”

        Jason nodded.  “And Min.”

        “She’s starting to show her pregnancy.”

        “They all are,” he replied.  “I figure in about five months, we’re going to have another wave of newborns.  Symone will be first, then Jyslin, then Kumi, then it snowballs from there.  Oh, and Dahnai, but that’s an entirely different set of problems.”

        “They are trying to bankrupt me, buying all those birth gifts so close together,” Zaa complained, which made Jason laugh.

        “I know that feeling,” he agreed.  “Tim and Symone have already bought all the furniture for their nursery,” he chuckled.  “They can’t wait for Lyra to be born.”

        “A beautiful name,” Zaa mused.

        “Lyra Melissa McGee Ayalle Karinne,” Jason said lightly, reciting her full name.  “I’m sooo looking forward to them experiencing the un-fun parts of being a parent.  They could come over and play with Rann and have all the fun, but they weren’t around for the middle of the night feedings or the diaper changes.  My revenge is coming, and it shall be terrible to behold,” he declared, which made Zaa laugh.

        “It will be Kumi’s first as well,” she noted.

        “You know, I’m really surprised,” he mused.  “She’s taking her pregnancy way more seriously than I expected.  She’s gone to parenting classes and has talked with Jyslin about what to expect.  Kumi sometimes seems immature when it comes to things other than business, but she’s showing a lot of maturity about this.  I’m glad to see it.  I was actually a little worried that I’d be all but fostering her child myself because she wouldn’t want the responsibility.  I’m glad to have been proved wrong.”

        “Things change when you’re suddenly responsible for more than yourself, Jason, as you well know,” Zaa told him, her holographic hand patting his shoulder.  “Has she decided on a name?”

        “Not yet.  She won’t let Songa see if it’s a boy or a girl either.  She said she wants it to be a surprise.”

        “Kumi is a complicated young woman,” Zaa chuckled.  “Are you still going to Jaxtra tomorrow?”

        He nodded.  “It’s almost scary how fast the cubs are growing,” he noted.

        “That’s entirely natural.  They’ll grow very fast for the first few months, then slow down somewhat.  They’ll be ambulatory once they finish their initial growth, and that is when they’ll start causing Handmaiden Miaari problems,” she said with a click of her teeth.

        “I can almost smell the schadenfreude, cousin,” he accused, turning and leaning against the windowsill, crossing his arms below his chest.

        “The what?”

        “It’s a word from the Terran German language.  It means to take pleasure in the misfortune of others,” he explained, which made her laugh.

        “This isn’t her first litter, cousin.  She knows what’s coming,” she said, a touch smugly.

        “And this must be why you’re resisting all the calls for you to have another litter.”

        “I will be as Tim and Symone and enjoy the delights of the cubs of others without the troubles that comes with raising them myself,” she declared a touch airily, sticking her snout up and wagging her tail in an exaggerated manner.

        “You are such a bitch,” he accused, which made her smile wolfishly in his direction.

        Another Kimdori appeared in the hologram, one of her aides that Jason had never seen before.  “It is time, my Denmother,” she called with a little bow.

        “Thank you, Kemaari,” she nodded.  “Oh yes, Jason, meet Kemaari, Miaari’s youngest sister.  She will be arriving on Karis tomorrow to take up her new position as trainee in Miaari’s office.  She has worked in the Hearth as a junior page for the last two weeks as reward for graduating at the top of her academy class, and has performed satisfactorily,” she said with an even look in her direction.  That was as good as praise when it came to Zaa.

        “It’s an honor to meet you, Grand Duke Karinne,” she said with a bow.  That declaration made Jason look a little more closely at her.  She was shorter than Kiaari by about half a head, willowy, with small furry breasts and narrow hips, but she had a longer tail than the norm for Kimdori females and a narrower snout, making her look more fox-like.  She also had unusual coloration.  Most Kimdori were a single color or had a belly of a lighter shade, but Kemaari had patches of black fur mixed in almost randomly on her honey-colored fur, almost like a monochrome calico, including a patch of black fur over her right eye that went up to her ear, making her left ear honey-colored and her right ear black.  That patch of black also discolored her hair, which was a tawny shade a little lighter than her fur, almost like a lion.  And since Kimdori never intentionally changed their appearance on homeworld, that was natural.

        “A page, eh?  That’s pretty prestigious for someone so young,” he noted.

        “Do not give the young daughters of the Threxst clan even bigger heads than they have now, Jason,” Zaa protested.  “Kiaari is almost insufferable as it is!”

        “And whose fault is that for posting her to Terra?” he countered.

        “A mistake I consider rectifying on a daily basis!”

        Jason had to laugh.  “Denmother does make a point, Kemaari.  You have some very high expectations on you, given who your sisters are.”

        “I can do only my best to prove my worth among them, Grand Duke Karinne.”

        “Jason,” he corrected.  “Or cousin.  I’ll be looking forward to meeting you in person.  You’re working for your sister?”

        She nodded.  “Yes.  I’m to be trained in the ways of Gamekeeping, and sister Miaari honored me by accepting my application to train under her,” she answered.  “Cousin,” she added awkwardly.

        “Well, there’s always room for another Threxst daughter on Karis,” Jason chuckled.  “And better Miaari than Kiaari,” he added.

        Zaa actually laughed.  “I would not permit any trainee to train under her,” she affirmed.  “Her methods are radical and experimental.”

        “And that’s why you give her so much leash,” Jason said with a smile.  “You’re letting someone without a reputation to risk to try new ways to do things, which among the Kimdori is almost heresy.  If they pan out, good for Kiaari.  If they don’t, well, she’s young and didn’t know any better.”

        Zaa only smiled slightly.

        “Yeah, that’s what I thought,” he said teasingly.  “If only the Kimdori knew how much of a scoundrel you are, Denmother.”

        Zaa laughed, which took some of the mortified shock out of Kemaari’s face that Jason would say such a thing to the revered Denmother.  “Even the Denmother must be able to play the game, and most often it is against her own children,” she admitted lightly.  “But I must go now, cousin.”

        “Alright, you gonna be at the council meeting?”

        She shook her head.  “I have more important duties to attend this evening.”

        “Alright then.  Kemaari, you will be at my house tomorrow afternoon for dinner.  I want to get to know you,” he declared.

        “A-As you wish, cousin,” she said, a bit hesitantly.

 

        Chiira, 7 Kiraa, 4401, Faey Orthodox Calendar

        Wednesday, 1 August 2014, Terran Standard Calendar

        Chiira, 7 Kiraa, year 1327 of the 97th Generation, Karinne Historical Reference Calendar

        The White House, Karsa, Karis

 

        Chirk had better count herself lucky that she was just too damn fucking important to murder and dump in the Karsa Bay.

        Jason almost fumed as he sat at the desk in his office, looking at the 181 items in his inbox, all accumulated just overnight.  Status reports.  Intelligence reports from Miaari’s office.  Financial reports from Kumi’s office, these done by Temika; she was taking on more and more responsibility over there.  61 different personal missives from the other Grand Duchesses in the Siann, all trying to sweet-talk him into deals, agreements, or mutual ventures.  37 different new trade or research proposals from the other empires.

        But there were a few important ones in there, which Chirk did manage to put on the top of the pile…in some ways, Chirk knew even more of what was going on in the house and in the Confederation than Jason, since she read almost everything that came across his desk so she could better prioritize things for him.  That was one reason why he valued her opinion and often consulted her, she wasn’t just his secretary, she was also one of his most trusted advisors.

        The first important missive came from Myleena.  Over the night, she’d sent Jason a missive rather than wake him up to let him know that the Imperium had successfully tested their prototype jump engine.  It had jumped from Draconis to a point in deep space near Menos and then to Terra, to utilize the Terra Entry Station to get back inside interdicted space.  It was already modified to allow it to jump outbound through the interdiction effect, but that didn’t help it get back inside the Imperium once it jumped out.  That meant that the engine was viable, and after some inspections and final adjustments, the Ministry of Research and Development would present the technical specs to the Empress for her final authorization.  Then the Imperium would upgrade their entire fleet and join the ranks of the empires that could jump in real time…all four of them—the Karinnes, the Kimdori, the Syndicate, and the Consortium.  The refit was going to require them to more or less replace their engines, which was a major refit, so it was going to take time for the Imperium to fully convert their fleet to their new real-time jump engines.  Myleena estimated that once they tooled their factories to produce the new engines, it would take the Imperium about a year to completely refit every military and merchant ship under the Imperial flag, and it would take the individual houses of the Siann maybe another six months to complete the upgrades to their private fleets.  Dahnai couldn’t sit on that technology and hold it just for the Imperial Navy and her own house.  If she tried, the Siann would bounce her off her throne so fast even Jason wouldn’t be able to save her.

        That was going to change the balance of power in the Confederation, as well as the entire sector cluster.  If Dahnai was smart, and she was, the first ships she’d refit with the new engines would be her scouts.  The entire Confederation was swarming around the PR and PQ sectors looking for promising star systems, but the Merranes were also sending out scouts in the rest of the QMC and the QMD sectors, using their outpost colony over there as a hub to search for other systems to colonize.  With the ability to jump her scouts in real time, she’d get to any valuable system first, file her claim on it over at the Confederate exploration bureau, then walk away with the lion’s share of the good systems.  After her scout fleet was upgraded, she’d be smart to upgrade her merchant marine fleet next, then her military fleet.  Claiming a system did no good if she couldn’t get supplies out there in a timely manner.

        Miaari had received the same report, and sent him a missive containing the status of other empires’ progress in doing the same, predicting he’d want it.  The combined research of the Shio and the Colonists were the furthest along, and the Kimdori estimated they’d have a working engine in about four to six months.  The Urumi were also close, Miaari estimating that they would manage it within six to eight months, but both Skaa nations and the Alliance had suffered some setbacks in their programs.  The Skaa and Alliance had the dual problem of the engines and their power, since their current power plants couldn’t put out the required power to allow a ship to jump in real time.  Both empires had to revamp their power plant technology to increase the power to the engines before those engines would be real-time capable.  The Colonies had the power plansts, and had agreed to share that technology with the Shio in exchange for access to the ion weaponry they’d developed that was effective against plasma-powered ships, something Colonial iso-neutron weaponry couldn’t duplicate.

        He’d thought about this problem quite a bit, and had decided that a subtle hand was what was necessary here.  He’d allow the empires to do it themselves, at least up to a point.  In two years, if the empires hadn’t figured it out themselves, the Karinnes would give them some help secretly, to give them just enough time to upgrade their warships for the upcoming war with the Syndicate, if only to take the pressure off the Kimdori and the KMS to tow ships all over the place.  He wasn’t entirely sure he liked the idea of the entire Confederation real-time jump capable, but quite simply put, it was going to be necessary.  It was going to give the Confederate empires a major advantage over just about everyone else in the galaxy, since only the Karinnes and the Kimdori had the capability to jump in real time where native empires were concerned.  No other civilization of whom the Kimdori had knowledge had real-time hyperspace capability, and the advantage that would give the Confederate empires over non-Confederate empires could not be ignored.  It would unleash the aggressive empires in the home sector cluster on the entire quadrant, and Jason had no doubt that more than one of them would engage in a secret little bit of conquering of tiny little backwater civilizations they encountered where they thought nobody else could see.

        This was the biggest concern for Jason.  He had no diplomatic hold over the other empires in the home quadrant when it came to them using their real-time engines to jump three or four sectors out, find some weak civilization, then conquer it.  The right of passage treaties he had in the P quadrant did give him that hold, since the treaties were very specific and very strict to protect less advanced civilizations against the rapacious Confederate empires.  Half the reason he’d shaped the Confederation the way he had was to promote peace, to get the empires in the sector cluster so inter-dependent through trade and mutual protection treaties that they’d never go to war with each other again…but that didn’t protect the little empires out there that had no diplomatic contact with Confederate empires, nor would it protect the technologically emergent species who had yet to develop space travel, species like the Rakarri.

        The Rakarri.  He had to switch over a hologram and take a look at the images his diplomatic team had sent.  They now had established diplomatic contact with largest of the kingdoms of the Rakarri, secret contact in respect to the race as a whole, and were trading even more period-equivalent textiles for more Rakarri foodstuffs, primarily wool, cotton, and silk cloth for seeds and seedlings.  Their fruits and vegetables had tested to be entirely compatible with the ecosystem on Exile, were entirely delicious, and they’d gone back for more seed so they could start producing Rakarri fare in massive quantities.

        There was something going on over there, and it had Dahnai’s perfumed stench all over it.  The rules about their world were very strict, and Dahnai’s people knew they were being watched like a hawk by the Karinnes, who kept a very visible sensor outpost in the system who had all of its arrays pointed at QMC-202-2, the Rakarri homeworld.  They also had diplomatic contact with the largest kingdom with whom they’d organized their trade, where the king there had the ability to communicate with a representative from Yeri’s state office using a non-biogenic comm unit, the only technology that they’d left on the planet.  Dahnai knew he had it, and that he had been told that if there were any unauthorized landings by space ships anywhere on Rakarra, he was to contact them immediately.  But more than that, Denmother had left a contingent of Kimdori on the planet to both study the Rakarri from a sociological standpoint and also to be on-planet to make sure that Dahnai didn’t meddle with Rakarri affairs.

        But in the last 15 days, the king of that large kingdom had sent out diplomatic missions to all the other kingdoms on their continent to meet and discuss forming a council of kings, which would discuss matters that impacted their entire world, mainly the appearance of the “star people” of whom most of the kings had knowledge.  His idea was to trade with the star people, to present a unified Rakarri interest to bargain with the star people for their goods, for the good of all Rakarri.  What he was proposing was suspiciously similar to the Confederation in its ideals, and if he managed to bring all the kings of Rakarra together to form a council, it would technically satisfy the unification clause that prevented Dahnai from inviting the Rakarri to join the Imperium.  Dahnai couldn’t invite the Rakarri to join the Imperium unless they all agreed to it, and if this king managed to join all the kings together, they could make that decision.  Jason had this sneaking suspicion that one of Dahnai’s diplomats had told him about that little clause, that if the Rakarri could unify, they could join the star people and sail into the skies and learn all about their amazing technology.

        He sent a missive to Zaa telling her about that, and relating his concerns.  He asked her to find out if the Merranes were meddling, and if they were, to step on them.  Hard.

        He was a bit surprised when Chirk told him that Zaa wanted to talk to him, since he’d only sent the missive like two minutes ago.  She appeared in front of his desk on a 2D hologram rather than the free-ranging full hologram, but she was in the Hearth, so that explained why.  “I just read your missive, and I’ll see to it,” she said.

        “I don’t think you called me to tell me that.”

        She shook her head.  “I wanted to tell you in person that the scouting operation has launched.  All three ships safely navigated the wormhole, the crews are in hibernation, and are now en route to Andromeda.  They will arrive in 2.45 years, and will beat the Syndicate’s arrival to our galaxy by 53 days.  That will give them enough time to set up and gain penetration into Syndicate quantum vibration communications and conduct initial long-range sensor scans of the sector cluster at which they arrive.”

        “They all made it?”

        “No damage to the ships, no injuries to the crews,” she told him.  “The crews are safely in hibernation and we are in constant contact with the ship computers, who are navigating the journey to Andromeda.”

        He sighed in relief, but still glowered at her a little bit.  “And you will promise me here and now that you will never use that system again.”

        “It has served its purpose, cousin, and I’m already having it dismantled,” she replied calmly.  “Even I agree that it is too dangerous to use in any but the most dire situations.  Well, to me, this situation was dire enough to take that risk.  We must have eyes and ears in Andromeda as quickly as we can get them there, and specifically before the Syndicate starts operations in our galaxy.  It was worth the risk.”

        He snorted.  “Well, I don’t have to like it,” he declared.

        “I will ferret out the truth of the Rakarri,” she told him.  “But you should consider that perhaps they do this of their own accord.  You yourself had said that they are highly intelligent.  Perhaps the sudden knowledge that they are not alone in the universe is causing them to think in terms of the world rather than the kingdom.  And should they join the Imperium, you should consider them eligible for induction into House Karinne,” she said lightly.

        “They do tempt me, Denmother, in ways the Gruug never could,” he admitted.  “They’re highly intelligent, and from what little I’ve studied about them, they’re a very impressive species.  Their art is exceptional, they have high rates of literacy among their lay population, and scientifically speaking, they’re very high up on the bell curve for their technology level.  I bet they could comprehend modern Confederate technology with sufficient education and training.”

        “Speaking of the Gruug, have there been any other incidents on Exile?”

        “Not since the attack on our planter,” he replied.  “My manager over there managed to get the chief into a council, and they made a few agreements.  The Gruug agreed to leave our farmlands alone, and they agreed to trade some of their hand-made leather, furs, pelts, game, and fish for farm yield and rudimentary tools, like spears and knives.  I authorized it.  The meat can feed New Karsa, and it helps that tribe of Gruug.  And Gruug leather is turning out to be popular with the farm workers.  It’s almost as tough as synth-leather, its even more flexible, and something about it naturally repels a species of biting insect that’s prevalent in the area, which is a major relief for the farm workers.  When they use the Gruug leather, they don’t have to carry around insect repellers.  Whatever the natural tanning methods are they’ve managed to work out, they’re pretty damn effective.”

        “It shows that the Gruug are more intelligent than their brutish features suggest.”

        “I already knew that, it’s just that they’re so primitive that they can be violent when confronted with things they can’t understand.  That’s what makes them so different from the Rakarri.  The Rakarri were very curious about our diplomats, not fearful.”

        “I will relay your fears to my field team on Rakarra,” she told him again.  “And I fear I must go.  I’m fairly busy at the moment, cousin.”

        “So am I.  I think I’m gonna go in the front office and beat Chirk to death with my paddle,” he said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder at the paddle, which hung in ominous prominence on the wall behind his desk and beside the window.

        Zaa laughed.  “Another full inbox?”

        “Overflowing,” he said in disgust.  “I think she does it just to torment me.”

        “Welcome to independence, cousin,” she said.

        “Oh, push off, Zaa,” he said waspishly, which made her laugh as her hologram winked out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:   Title    ToC    4      6

Chapter 5

 

        Kaira, 1 Romaa, 4401, Faey Orthodox Calendar

        Thursday, 30 August 2014, Terran Standard Calendar

        Kaira, 1 Romaa, year 1327 of the 97th Generation, Karinne Historical Reference Calendar

        The White House, Karsa, Karis

 

        Swearing inwardly, Jason shut off his external comm so Jyslin could stop pestering him…after all, he was fighting for his life here.

        Engaging the grav drives, he burst out from behind the covering wall far faster than he could have run, feeling a tiny bit of vibration through the mecha as he disengaged and put his feet back on the broken ground of the training range on Virga, part of the Camp Beranne Marine Training Base.  With another Gladiator just beside him, the pair slid to a stop behind a wall, sliding on a foot and a knee, a hand going down as Jason felt the contour of the rock and pebbles under the fingertips of the mecha, felt the heat radiating from the rocks by the strong sunshine.  Ebri put her back against the wall and fired a spinner directly up, which almost immediately went still and moved off the field as the control system marked it as killed, shot down by Kyva.

        Save your spinners, you’ll never get them out of her range, Jason chided as he cocked the external rail cannon in his other hand.  Did you see where that shot came from?

        Nope, she replied nervously.  Of course she was nervous, anyone that was on the wrong side of the training field from Captain Kyva Karinne had damn good reason to be nervous.  They were in a large-scale training exercise where Kyva and her squadmate were pitted against 5 Red Warriors and Jason.  The three to one odds meant that the Red Warriors were only slightly outmatched.

        Jason was both nervous and nearly giddy.  He almost never got to do stuff like this, and now he understood why Symone loved rigging so much.  He deployed one of his RVR drones, affectionately called Rover drones since they were built to resemble robotic Doberman Pinschers in both physiology and size.  The drone unfolded into active mode and received orders, scampering off to the left at full speed.  The RVR drones were fast, agile, and had damn good AI in them that made them very, very welcome assistants to Gladiator riggers in the field, since RVR drones were armed with pulse weapons.  Several simulated pulse and rail shots screamed by the RVR as it dashed across an open area and got behind a wall, and several more shots followed it trying to lead it, the controlling computer calculating as if those shots had gone through the wall to hit the drone and deciding it had not.  The visible appearance of those shots were pure illusion, just simulated visuals whose vectors were calculated by the control computer and fed into the sensory stream of his Gladiator to provide more realism, when in fact the wargame shots were invisible to the naked eye. The drone got safely out of their firing pattern, hunkered down in a shallow depression and deploying its own drone, a toy poodle-sized tracking drone designed to get eyes into cramped spaces.  Jason called those quadrupedal drones Spot drones, both for what they were designed to do and the fact that it too was based off a dog’s physiology.  The Spot drone started sneaking forwards, its mission to get into a position where they could see where Kyva and her partner were hidden.

        There was a reason it was Jason out there with Ebri rather than one of the members of the KBB or one of the other Red Warriors, and that was because Jason was the only Generation outside of Saelle rated to pilot a Gladiator.  They needed him for this exercise, because they were compiling data to generate the training simulator programs for jacked riggers, and the program engineers decided that having data from two riggers capable of full sensory immersion would help their programming.  The fact that Jason merged to his Gladiator in a manner different from Kyva didn’t matter in what they were doing, since what they needed most was the sensory transfer from mecha to pilot, and that data didn’t matter if it was fed by jack or by biogenic communion.  This wargame had two objec