Subjugation 7 Photo

 

Subjugation 7

Conviction

 

By Fel (aka James Galloway)


Chapter 1

 

 

Kaista, 11 Demaa, 4404, Faey Orthodox Calendar

Monday, 26 March 2018 Terran Standard Calendar

Kaista, 11 Demaa, year 1329 of the 97th Generation, Karinne Historical Reference Calendar

Karsa Medical Annex, Karsa, Karis

 

        Some things never got old.

        With a loving smile, Jason Augustus Fox Shaddale Karinne, Grand Duke of the House of Karinne and ruler of six planets, looked down at the newest member of the family, one Terry Timothy Fox McGee Ayalle Karinne, his son.  His newborn son, only five hours old, who was sleeping peacefully in his arms as Symone stirred out of a recovering nap in the bed beside the crib, in the heavily utilized post-natal recovery room in the Karsa Annex of the Karinne Medical Service.  He was the last one left in the room after Symone held court with family and friends who had gathered for the birth, and while he was the last one there, with all the work he had to do today, he really should have been the first one to leave.  But priorities were priorities, and his children always came first.

        Sometimes, things just happened in ways that made him wonder if some things were fate.  Just yesterday, Jyslin was in this very same room, recovering from the birth of their twins, Jonathon and Julia.  In just two days, he’d become a new father twice, and what made things so odd, Symone had delivered the day after Jyslin.  The only thing that would have made things even more suspicious would have been if they’d delivered on the same day, within hours of each other, as Kumi and Myleena had with Jysara and Siyara.  But, Jysara wasn’t his, where the new twins and Terry were…mostly.

        He would never tire of looking down at a new child, a new life, and what had become the butt of quite a few jokes around the strip, Jason had a lot of practice at it.  Little Terry here had pushed his kid count up to 22…which was a number that seemed both absolutely outrageous and just right at the same time.  Jason had 22 kids by 14 different mothers.  It seemed, well, sleazy thinking of it that way, but to a Faey, that just meant that he was a man’s man, doing what men were supposed to do in Faey society, get women pregnant.  Jason had more or less honored the wishes of all the strip girls to father a child by each of them, even Myri, who had been the last and had borne their son Zaen just two takirs ago.  He’d fathered sets of twins with Lyn and Bryn—those girls were almost getting silly with their need to be twins that had twins—and had finally succumbed to Sheleese’s incessant nagging over it.  After he impregnated Sheleese, Myri quietly approached him about it, which had honestly surprised Jason since she’d never shown the slightest inclination to have a child with him.  So, the eleven children he had with the strip girls were initially out of duty to the house, then were a duty out of friendship.  The other three women that fell outside of them weren’t much of a stretch, either.  Myleena was his best friend, Kumi was his extremely good friend, and Aura was his girlfriend.  And while it seemed like Jason was a complete manwhore of Tim levels of manwhore-ness, in reality, Jason hadn’t spread his genes outside of a very small circle of women who were very intimate parts of his everyday life.  The ten women who made up the original members of the House of Karinne, one of which was his wife, his amu dozei, his amu dorai, and two women who were among his closest and deepest friends.

        But this baby, this one he owed.  This was his child with Symone, honoring their bonds as amu dozei, and while he technically had no legal rights to Terry, he was still Jason’s son, and a Generation.  Tim was listed as the father in the birth record, the husband of the mother, but Jason was listed as the donor, how the Faey classified a father not the husband of the mother.  In Faey society, Terry was Tim’s son in all ways, and Jason had no say in how they raised his son outside of the fact that he was the mother’s amu dozei, with the influence he could exert through that relationship.

        Tim had reciprocated, and it was an almost surreal repeat of history.  Jonathon Jason Fox Shaddale Karinne, or Jon as he was already being called, was Tim’s son, where Julia was his daughter.  Dahnai had already started teasing Jyslin over copying her, having twins by two different fathers, but in Jyslin’s case, it probably wasn’t all that much of a shock.  After all, she had sex with both Jason and Tim on a regular basis, so quite often, the semen inside her was a mixture of the two of them.  That a sperm from each of them found an egg wasn’t quite so surprising.  It was quite surprising in Dahnai’s case, since she didn’t have sex with both Jason and Kellin very often at all.  Unlike Dahnai’s girls, however, Jon wasn’t born a Generation the way Miyai was.  Jon was completely Tim’s son, with no in-utero alteration of his egg or zygote by his sister’s DNA. But it did make it a little special for Jyslin to have a child by both her husband and amu dozei at the same time.

        While Jason was obviously the most prolific father on the strip, he certainly wasn’t the sole reason that the strip was absolutely awash with kids now.  The older generation, Rann and the other kids born from the “first wave,” were all around 7 or 8 years old now, with the “second wave” as Jyslin often jokingly called them anywhere from nearly three to just over a year old.  There was a “third wave” of infants, as some of the women on the strip had already conceived and born children after their second, and there was even a fourth wave on the horizon, which was Maya.  She had born Aran, she had born Tika by another Generation, she had just given birth to Suli just three months ago, which was her third Generation-born baby, and they’d found out three days ago that she was pregnant again, this time by Vell, and that was almost a shock to both Maya and Songa.  Faey women were very nearly infertile for over a year, nearly two, after giving birth, but Maya had conceived just one month after giving birth.  That was very unusual.  In Faey biology, the longer after a birth, the easier it was for a woman to get pregnant, but a pregnancy so soon after childbirth was very odd in Faey medicine.  It wasn’t impossible, it was simply improbable.

        He wasn’t alone in his admiration of the baby.  Surrounding him were four holograms, each representing the four active CBIMs operating on Karis.  Cybi and Cyra hovered to each side, while the Kosiningi CBIM, Cyvanne, was in front of him, bending over a little to regard the tiny new addition to the Dukal family.  Standing beside Cybi was the odd hologram out, a male hologram that represented the newest CBIM, the Kirgan CBIM Cylan.

        Cyvanne had been in operation for about a year, and she had replaced Cybi as the disaster and recovery CBIM on Kosiningi.  She now operated the Karinne Emergency Response Agency and performed all of Cybi’s original, pre-Third Civil War duties.  Those weren’t challenging enough for a CBIM, however, so she kept herself busy as a secondary CBIM that assisted the other CBIMs with secondary processes when they were hit with spikes of work, most often assisting Cybi in her role as the science and research CBIM.   Cylan had only been operational for two months, and had just completed his probationary period and had taken over all Kirga operational processes, and like any new CBIM, he hadn’t quite developed his own personality quite yet.  He was still more programming than personality, but he was learning and growing, and he was demonstrating his uniqueness in many ways.  Cybi worked for Myleena and Myri, Cylan ran Kirga, Cyra ran Karga, Cyvanne ran KERA and assisted the other three CBIMs with extra processing power when necessary, and the CBIM that would run the Virgan continent was about four months from completion.

        Jason found it intriguing that Cylan identified himself as male while the other CBIMs all identified themselves as female, even the five CBIMs that had been destroyed in the Third Civil War.  But as soon as Cylan—then named Cyla—had been given the option to change his hologram to suit his personal tastes, he chose a male hologram of a soft blue color, short hair, and with a masculine version of Sora Karinne’s face.  As soon as he did that, Jason changed his name to Cylan to represent that choice, and since then, everyone considered him a male, including Cylan himself.  It made Myleena go over his core with a fine tooth comb, but she found no anomolies.  Cylan was just “born” male, he identified as male, and for all intents and purposes, he was a male.  He was as much male as Cybi and Cyra were female.  Cyvanne…well, Cyvanne was a bit of a wild card.  She was much more whimsical than the other CBIMs, and didn’t stick with a single holographic representation for long.  She changed her hologram’s appearance about once a month on the average, always trying out new appearances, even taking on holograms of other species, just for the experience of it.

        Cyvanne had the soul of an artist.

        [He is very tiny,] Cylan noted, making sure to commune only with the other CBIMs and Jason so as not to disturb the sleeping newborn.

        [He is actually fairly large for a newborn Faey-Terran hybrid,] Cyra answered, reaching down with a golden holographic finger and touching it to Terry’s forehead.  [And he follows the usual pattern.]

        That he did.  He had Jason’s caucasian beige skin, Symone’s pointed ears, Jason’s green eyes, Symone’s high-cheeked features, and metallic colored hair, a kind of dark, steely gray, which was not normal for a Terran but completely normal for a Faey.

        [3.9 konn, 21 tikra,] Jason declared proudly.  [And he has a strong grip.  He’s a future football player for sure.]

        [I think you’re counting the chickens, as Terrans say,] Cybi noted.

        [He’s the largest son I’ve had as a newborn, he’d better be a football player,] Jason retorted pugnaciously.  [Rann will succeed me, Aran’s gonna be a scientist, Zach shows no interest in sports outside of bachi, and the other boys are too young to see where they’re going.  I’ve gotta push one of my boys into sports, so I may as well pick on the one that showed the most promise at birth.]

        Cybi slapped him very gently on the shoulder, since he was holding Terry, which made him grin impudently at her.  [That isn’t your decision, that’s Symone’s,] Cybi warned.

        [Like I can’t make Symone do what I want her to do,] he snorted.  [Blow in her ear a little bit, stick my dick in her, and she’s as compliant as a little puppy.]

        [Such a high opinion of your amu dozei,] Cyra noted slyly.

        [Hey, truth is truth,] he replied shamelessly, then he carefully put his sleeping newborn down in the cradle by Symone’s recovery bed.  [But, as much as I’d love to hang around here, afraid I have to get back to work,] he added with regret twining through his communion.  He stepped around Cyra and leaned down and kissed Symone on the forehead, which made her stir and open her beautiful eyes.  Hey love, afraid I have to go, he told her gently, stroking her hair away from her face.  You gonna be okay?

        Of course I am, silly, this isn’t my first walk through the garden, she replied with a beautiful smile.  Just send that goofball of a husband of mine in here to keep me company.

        He’s out in the hall hitting on the nurse.

        That’s my Tim-Tim, she sent impishly.

        You have totally ruined him, you know that?

        You call it ruining, I call it perfecting, she told him with a grin.  Where’s Jys?

        I’m right here, silly, Jyslin replied as the door opened.  She was walking a little gingerly, still recovering from her own childbirth just yesterday, but she was pushing the hovercarriage that held her twins, Jon and Julia.  Jason had to look down into the stroller when she brought it up to the bed, to marvel at his daughter and his adopted son.  Julia was an exact copy of Jason’s mother in all ways except her skin color and ears.  Blond hair color, blue eyes, French cheeks, narrow nose, she looked exactly like his mother’s baby pictures, and the resemblance was so uncanny that Jason had changed their planned name for her on the spot and instead named her after his mother.  Jon looked like Tim in the eyes and chin, but he had Jyslin’s cheeks and her auburn hair, a true product of both his parents.  When are we getting you out of here, baby?

        Songa said I can leave in about an hour, I’m in observation, she sent with a dry tilt to her thought and a roll of her eyes.

        You’re in observation because of the heart palpitations you suffered during delivery, dear, Songa sent from the nurse’s station outside, her thought stern.  You’re not leaving until we’re absolutely sure it was because of that gigantic beast you pushed out.

        Hey, that’s my son you’re talking about there, woman, Tim injected.

        He may be your son, but it was Jason’s genes that caused your wife to give birth to a giant, she sent playfully in reply.  I might have to check to see if there’s any Bari-Bari in his ancestry.

        Ha, ha, ha, Jason shot back.  At least you could have said it was Keelo.

        But that’s not nearly as insulting, dear, she sent sweetly, which caused Symone to stifle a laugh.

        Bitch, I know where you live.

        And I know where you live.  Do you really want to play that game with me, dear?

        Oh, I do now, he promised.

        As Luke says, dear, bring it on.

        With pleasure, he answered, then kissed Symone on the lips, then had to untangle himself when she got way more into it than a woman who just gave birth six hours ago should.  You be good, baby, and I’ll see you when I get home.  You should be back by then.

        I better be, she agreed with a smile.

        With a commune to the CBIMs to tell them he was off, he worked his way out of the room, out of the ward, then out of the annex, heading for his hovercar.  He was alone, in a tee and jeans, and it had been a hard won battle with Aya to get back to that kind of freedom for him.  For nearly a year, she’d allowed him to drive himself in a hovercar and go without armor, but she’d also warned him that when the Syndicate forces were on the verge of arriving and the house shifted back to an active war footing, he’d be back in armor and back to being escorted.  And he’d agreed to that if only to have window of unrestricted movement. Aya did keep a rapid response team one minute away from him at all times, just in case, in the form of a corvette that quietly shadowed his every move whenever he was in his hovercar, or hovered just overhead whenever he was out of his car and among the people of the house.  But to get freedom from his armor, he had agreed to wear a personal hard shield, one of the newest inventions out of MRDD.  It was a unit the size of a frisbee that attached to his back, like the data discs from the Tron movies, which he wore as part of a harness over his tee shirt, that he could activate whenever he was in danger.  It created a personal Teryon soft shield that was strong enough to take several shots from an MPAC or pulse rifle before failing, and that would give the rapid response team the opportunity to react.  It also reacted to kinetic energy, which would allow it to stop a rail slug.  But like the shields from the Dune series, it didn’t react to low kinetic energy, which would allow someone to punch through it.  But, since Jason was highly skilled in unarmed combat, Aya deemed that a reasonable tradeoff for Jason.  Jason could defend himself hand to hand, a fact he had proven several times in the past.

        The Syndicate.  As of that moment, they were four months, two weeks, two days from the edge of the Milky Way galaxy, and the Confederation was ready and waiting for them.  They had built a truly massive fleet to deal with them, to the point where the Confederation nearly matched the sheer number of ships the Syndicate had sent, though those ships weren’t nearly as large as Syndicate vessels on the average.  The Confederation was starting to ramp up, to call in their forces from their member nations and start the training refresher simulations to get them ready to face the gigantic ships of their foes.  They had battle plans to fight the Syndicae, drawn up based on Kimdori surveillance of the incoming fleet and Consortium data taken from their enemies, so they were not going to be taken by surprise the way the Consortium had surprised them.  They would be ready.

        The Confederation…it was almost a zoo now.  It had gotten to the point where Jason rarely if ever attended council meetings, because of the sheer number of member nations that were part of it.  The Confederation now consisted of 90 rulers representing 141 different unique empires, both active members and neutral observers.  One ruler, High Chancellor Holikk of the Subrian Coalition, himself represented 51 other empires.  He was the ruling executive of the P Quadrant’s own version of the Confederation, an alliance of 51 different governments that owned nearly half of the territory in the P Quadrant, each empire a truly massive piece of territory numbering hundreds of star systems.  Instead of all 51 governments sending their own representative to the Confederation, they allowed Holikk to represent the entire Coalition in Confederation matters.  In the home quadrant, every empire in the sector cluster except the Chezaa was a member of the Confederation, as were empires from the R quadrant, the P quadrant, and the Q quadrant, making the Confederation truly a galaxy-spanning organization.

        Then there was A.  Observer A, neutral observer of the Ruu, which was an enigmatic, mysterious race from the Q Quadrant.  Their technology was either on par with Karinne technology or surpassed it, but much to the chagrin of the rest of the Confederation, the Ruu were just as stingy with their secrets as the Karinnes were.  Observer A was nearly as quiet as the Leader in council sessions—when he bothered to attend—and his inclusion on the Confederate Council was purely for “scientific” reasons, at least so he said.  He was there because of the Academy, and only because of the Academy, because the Ruu had taken great interest in it and had sent many of their people there to both be instructors and students.  Observer A thought the Academy was the best thing his people had discovered in millenia, a grand endeavor by many governments and species united in the common interest of learning, and often lamented why his people hadn’t thought of building it first.

        Every quadrant had representation in the Confederation, and had for over a year.  Over the last two years, the six empires in the RK sector had, one by one, joined the Confederation.  The Strath-Zegra had been the first, and the Dominion had been the last.  It had been the first major decision of the new Emperor of the Dominion, Hrathin, who had succeeded his father, immediately ended the war with the Keelo, and petitioned for entry.  Hrathin had no illusions about what was coming, and he had put aside local feuds in the sector to protect his empire from a larger threat.  Empress Voss of the Crai Empire was the sole active member from the Q Quadrant, since the Ruu were neutral observers.  The Crai’s domain was over by the border of the P Quadrant, leaving the region closer to the S Quadrant curiously devoid of advanced, spacefaring species.  There were thousands of low-technology civilizations, but very, very few who had interstellar capability.

        The Rakarri were the norm on that side of the Q Quadrant, though they couldn’t be called low technology anymore.  They had joined the Imperium nearly two years ago, and had very quickly adapted to Imperium technology.  Rakarri were just starting to graduate from Faey primary school-level education and were starting to enter Imperium Academies.  In just a few years, there would be Rakarri entering the Imperium workforce with degrees and technical training certificaitons that would let them work with Faey technology.  There were already plenty who had tradeskill certifications.  Many Rakarri blacksmiths, ror example, had taken Faey metalworking training and earned tradeskill certification, and now they were doing metalwork for construction projects on Rakarr.

        And those didn’t count the 32,105 Rakarri who were currently in training in the House Karinne.  Jason had been swift to get his people on Rakarr and recruit Rakarri into the house.

        Jason landed his hovercar on his pad at the White House, where Miaari was standing, waiting for him, scratching absently at her white-furred tummy, just above her navel.  Even after so long, she still sometimes did that, scratched or patted or touched the white bar of a Handmaiden that ran down her chest and belly, almost constantly both amazed and humbled that it was there.  Beside her was Kemaari, who was holding a handpanel, and a Prakarikai that was part of her office.  The diminutive female was named Lessira, and she was one of Miaari’s best agents.  Lessira was short even for a Prakarikai, but she was absolutely adorable...like a china doll strong enough to shatter his thighbone with one punch if she was miffed.  She was also an exceptionally powerful telepath, on par with Jyslin, with formidable telekinetic ability.  “And how is the cub?” Miaari asked as he opened the door of his car and climbed out.

        “Handsome and healthy, thank you,” he replied, accepting Lessira’s tiny yet powerful hand.  “It’s good to see you back on planet, Less,” he told her.  “How was Terra?”

        “Thank you, your Grace,” she said in her high, nearly squeaky voice.  Lessira had shed a great deal of Prakarikai stiff formality since coming to Karis, which Jason suspected was half the reason she came here.  She wasn’t like most of her people, she didn’t find a four hour diatribe over how pretty a flower was to be very interesting.  That made her an anathema among her people, so she just went out and found other people more like her.  “And it was cold and rainy in New York the whole time I was there.”

        “If Kiaari finds out you’re nosing around her territory, she’s gonna bite you, Mee,” Jason noted, which made Miaari smile slightly.

        “And who’s going to tell her, Jason?  You?” she challenged.

        “Annoy me enough, and I just might,” he replied threateningly.

        “Besides, this had nothing to do with her territory.”

        “Tell her that.”

        “I’ll let her figure that out herself,” she replied as the four of them started for the building.  “If she can’t, she has no business being Terra’s Gamekeeper.”

        “Well, what did you find out?”

        “Nothing I didn’t already know, but we needed confirmation,” she replied as they entered the building, the armored Dukal Guard saluting as they passed.  Both of the guards flanking the doors were Faey, which was getting rare anymore.  The Faey were still the most populous race in the house, with Terrans just behind them, but more and more races were starting to be represented in the Dukal Guard, the elite division of the Karinne Marines that protected the most important sites on the planet.  The Dukal Guard was a reflection of the house itself.  The three of them followed him all the way to the office, where he nodded to Chirk, Brall, and his newest inner office employee, Brall’s assistant Verra, whom had been promoted up from the main administration office down the hall.  Verra was a female Beryan—those four small breasts never failed to creep Jason out a tiny bit, but not every bipedal mammal had two pronounced breasts—who had adopted a truly radical new practice among Karinne Beryans, not dying her tail in her family’s colors.  Her tail was dyed in the colors of House Karinne, blue, white, gold, and red, as if to declare that she had a new family.  She held down the fort for Brall while he was out of the office, doing some of his paperwork, but she also went out on her own to make sure things were being done in accordance with the Grand Duke’s wishes.  Brall was just one man, so he brought in Verra to be the second shin-kicker.  And that she could do like a champion, both kick shins and make sure things were being done the right way.  Dera and Suri were standing by the door to his office, nodding to him as he passed.  Though they didn’t follow him around anymore, Aya made sure that Imperial Guards were always where he was, where he was going to be, where he was supposed to be, or really damn close by.  He still tweaked Aya’s nose a bit from time to time by sneaking away or telling her he was going to be somewhere else, but she endured it with her usual stoicism…and now Aya had a paddle hanging behind her desk in her office in the barracks, an eternal warning that not even the Grand Duke Karinne was too important to spank like a naughty child when the situation demanded it.

        Miaari tapped the control console by the door, and the window behind the desk shimmered when she put the office in secure mode.  “Alright, Less, shoot,” he said as he went around his desk and flopped down in his chair.

        “As far as I could find out, your Grace, the hack attempt didn’t have help from anyone on Terra,” she began as Kemaari silently handed him the handpanel she’d been carrying, which had Lessira’s full report in it.  Six days ago, someone tried to hack into the Karis computer network, trying to get in through Civnet.  Cybi and Siyhaa both had responded immediately to the attempt, crushing it, and now Miaari was on the trail of the perpetrator.  “Siyhaa traced it back to New York, but it was a proxy for the origin.  Nobody in 2M had any direct knowledge.  The hack came from outside and it was all by computer.  It was a remote hack, and whoever did it was very, very good.  That’s what we already knew, but now we have confirmation that our intel was good.”

        “Kiaari’s agents have already closed the hole they used to get in,” Miaari added.  “They got in through Merrane Macrotechnology’s Terra mainframe, which as you know, is corporate and outside sister Kiaari’s direct control.  She sent her team in to fix their security flaw, then told them of the fix.”

        Jason laughed.  “Typical Kiaari,” he said.

        “She does have her own style,” Miaari noted, Kemaari’s tail wagging a tiny bit at mention of her sister.  Kemaari adored Kiaari, mainly because they were much closer in age.  “I’ve sent Mahja Siyhaa the task of hunting down our attackers, because now it falls fully into her area of expertise.”

        “It won’t take her long.  Nothing ever does,” Jason chuckled dryly as he put his feet up on his desk.  “So, we just wait to see what Siyhaa finds out.”

        “As you said, it will not take her long,” Miaari agreed.

        “Did you bring back a snow globe, Less?” he asked.  Lessira had developed a liking for snow globes, and whenever she went to Terra, she always picked one up from where she visited.  She had some 28 of them on a shelf behind her desk.

        “Two, I was in both New York and Los Angeles,” she smiled.  “I’ll send you pics of them.”

        “What were you doing in L.A.?”

        “I came in through the L.A. starport, so Kiaari didn’t notice me right off,” she replied with a slow smile.  “And I left about two steps ahead of some of Kiaari’s agents.”

        Jason laughed.  “So, you field the angry call yet, Mee?”

        “She’s left four messages for me,” she replied blandly, which made Jason laugh even harder.

        “Sounds like you girls have everything under control,” he said.  “I’ll read through your report when I have a chance, Less.  Good work.”

        “Thank you, your Grace,” she replied in her squeaky voice, bobbing in a bit of curtsy.

        The three of them excused themselves, and Suri and Dera came in and took seats over on the far end of the office, which wasn’t all that unusual, leaving Jason to get to work.  Symone’s labor had murdered his schedule today, and now he had to play catch-up.  Any other day he’d have blown most everything off, but today was not one of those days, because two very important things were happening today.  It was his good luck that both were happening this afternoon, so he didn’t have to miss the birth of Terry.  The first was beyond his control, because Ba’mra’ei was due to arrive on Karis in about two hours, part of a state visit that had been on the schedule for nearly a month.  Ba’mra’ei had fulfilled Graith’s term as the High Staff, and Alliance law said she couldn’t serve another term immediately afterward.  She was bringing her successor Ethikk Gra’Krenn to meet Jason, who was a Beryan.  She wouldn’t have been offended at all if he didn’t show up to greet her, but this way he didn’t have to leave her and her successor stranded at the starport.

        The second big thing that was happening today was within his control, because the first—and only—Fleet Flagship was coming off the dock, and in five hours, it would be formally commissioned.  It had taken them nearly three months to design it and fifteen months to build it, their answer to the Syndicate’s moon-sized ships.  The new ship was so big that it just barely fit through the capital doors of Kosigi, and that was with the ship turning at an angle to get its stern lined up with the corners of the doors, but despite that, it had been built in an external dock enclosed in a pressurized hard shield to hold in atmosphere that was in orbit around the gas giant planet in the Karis system, planet seven.  They’d built it outside Kosigi because if their math was wrong, then the ship would be stuck inside the moon, making it effectively useless until they widened the capitol door tunnel.  It was an absolute monstrosity, nearly eight kathra long and three kathra wide across the beam in the stern, the widest part of the ship, built in the same triangular, flying pie-wedge design as all KMS vessels, but it lacked the stubby stern wings that the smaller ships had.  More than any other KMS ship, the fleet flagship most closely resembed a Star Destroyer from the old Star Wars movies.  It was made of so much metal that the thing had the same mass as the moon orbiting Planet Four in the Karis system, and building it had almost completely wiped them out of Neutronium to build its carapace outer hull.  It was so big that it couldn’t approach too closely to Kosigi else its mass would affect the moon’s orbit if the navigator wasn’t careful.  Special navigation protocols would have to be put in effect to get the ship to and away from a planet without it affecting the orbital tracks of moons, space stations, or satellites.  Admiral Palla Karinne had been promoted from the Aegis to take command of the new vessel, and Kiya Karinne from the admiralty command staff had transferred out of the command center to take command of the Aegis.

        The new ship had one real function, and that was to serve as the flag for a major task force when taking on large segments of the Syndicate fleet, and to beat the shit out of the enemy during the battle.  It was built with the same mindset that went into tactical battleships, and that was the fact that the ship was there to fight, not to stay in the rear echelon and issue commands.  It would certainly be commanding any task force it anchored, there was no doubt about that, but the ship was armed to the teeth with just about everything that would let it fight Syndicate ships both at long range and toe to toe, if necessary.  It was armed with a GRAF cannon, as well as dozens and dozens of the most powerful weapons they could put on it.  Particle beam projectors, rail cannons, pulse batteries, plasma torpodoes, Coalition disrupors, missile batteries, it was a one ship armada of the most devastating weapons the Karinnes could put on the field.  It also carried four tactical fighter squadrons, two exomech companies, and two platoons of the new Titan exomechs to support it and its task force. The ship was a one man wrecking crew

        Jason already knew that Palla was naming the ship the Tianne, they’d already made out the charter, and Juma had already seated the ship’s crew…all 9,000 of them.  A ship that big needed thousands of crew to keep it going.

        The choice of the name Tianne wasn’t all that surprising.  She was a figure from Faey mythology whose closest comparison to Terran mythology was the Angel of Death, the first child of Aris that wasn’t Baaen, the first of Aris’ many half-god “love children” with mortal men, who was brought into Trelle’s domain to serve the Trinity.  In some ways, Tianne was comparable to an angel, but in their mythology, the “angels” were actually the half-god offspring of Aris and mortal men…and there were thousands of them.  Aris was one seriously fecund girl back in her wilder days.  After being brought into the Faey version of heaven to serve the gods, she was particularly known for being sent out to kill the enemies of her divine mother and grandparents and bring their souls back to Trelle to face her punishment, to be the Angel of Death, and she did it using Demir’s sword.  Demir only went out to do battle when it was a foe so powerful, so formidable, that Tianne could not defeat the foe herself…after all, she was only half god, not a full god, and some of the beasts and monsters and enemies in Faey mythology were extremely powerful.

        She was the only figure in Faey mythology allowed to touch Demir’s sword aside from Demir himself.  Not even Trelle and Aris were allowed to touch Demir’s sword.  Demir was the Swordbearer, but Tianne was known as the Swordmaster.

        And that also fit into Faey mentality, Jason supposed.  Demir’s sword was iconic, as much a part of his identity in Faey mythology and religious lore as Trelle’s hair and garland or Aris’ necklace, but he was a male, and males in Faey society weren’t allowed to fight.  Jason had always found it a little, well, paradoxical that the male god in Faey mythology was the one that carried a sword, but he also almost never used it.  Demir most often lent out his sword to Tianne, and she was the one that used it to kill things.  For Demir, it was a magical artifact that allowed him to bring forth life by letting him prick his finger with it and draw his blood.  And in their mythology, Demir’s sword was the only thing that could hurt a god, so it was with no small measure of trust that he allowed Tianne to use it.

        Barely five minutes after Miaari and the others left, Chirk warned him he had another courier, this time from Kumi’s office.  And in strutted Eliara Lussi, one of Kumi’s best business agents.  She was Sha’i-ree, and what was typical for the race, she was heart-stoppingly gorgeous and bare-ass naked, wearing only slippers on her feet.  Her silky tail swished behind her as she sauntered into his office, her face and body just exuded, oozed sensuality and ripe, inviting promise.  She put most Faey women to shame with her sexiness, a fact that sent quite a few Faey women in the White House into jealous pique.  She had perfect mocha-colored skin, perfect white-gold hair, perfect blue eyes, perfect teeth, perfect breasts, perfect hips, perfect long legs…even her tail was perfect, and Faey women didn’t have tails.  She made Faey women want to have tails.  But make no mistake about it, Eliara was as intelligent, cunning, and ruthless as she was lovely, and she knew how to use her looks to get what she wanted, both out of men and out of business rivals.  Anyone that found Sha’i-ree to be attractive was nothing but a victim awaiting her sensual trap, given Sha’i-ree extremely casual attitudes towards sexual activity.  Anyone.  Eliara was just as willing to use sex to get what she wanted out of a woman as she was a man, and she enjoyed it equally.  “Your Grace,” she said in that husky, sexy, seductive voice, speaking the musical Faey language as if her very words were audial sex.  “The quarterly trades report,” she added, holding out the panel when she reached the desk, leaning over and putting a hand on the desk as she reached it across to him, a move that made her perfectly sized, perfectly formed, and perfectly jiggly breasts do what she wanted them to do.

        Jason had the sense not to fall into that trap, a lesson Tim had to learn over and over and over and over and over.

        But Eliara showed that since the Confederation started expanding in earnest not long after the defeat of the first Consortium invasion, the House Karinne had been expanding much the same way as the Confederation had.  Every single member race of the Confederation from every quadrant except the Coalition races from the P Quadrant were represented on Karis with three exceptions, and they weren’t outlandish ones.  People of the Kirri, the Jun, and the Ruu races had not joined the house, each with its own perfectly logical reasons not to do so.  Kirri did not live where their microbes did not, and Karis didn’t have sufficient saturation to move there on a permanent basis.  The Jun did not leave the Fatherland.  And the Ruu stayed separate from the other races for the same reason the Karinnes did, to protect their secrets.  There were Sha’i-ree in respectable numbers on Karis, more than enough to make them a common enough sight on the street for people not to stare, and Vekk, and Ujjo, and Jhri, and Jirunji, and Udra, and the races of the RK sector, even a small complement of Hrathari, and every other race that had joined since the Consortium had been defeated.  The Coalition races had only been part of the Confederation for the last six months, and since their homes were all the way across the galaxy, they hadn’t really started filtering over to the home quadrant in any real numbers yet.  But even despite that, there were members of 26 of the 89 races represented by the Coalition that had passed screening and were members of the House Karinne.

        “Thank you, Eliara. Where’s Kumi?” he asked.

        “On Terra, your Grace, with Duchess Temika and Duchess Rahne.  They’re finalizing a deal with Coalition Consolidated Metals for carbidium, tungsten, and adronite.”

        “She’s off world?  She didn’t tell me.”

        “Does she ever, your Grace?” she asked with a sensual smile.

        No doubt she raced right off as soon as she was off maternity leave, Dera noted slyly to him.

        She better have put Jana with Maya, or I’m gonna be pissed.

        She did, Suri assured him.  Rest assured, Jason, your daughter is in good hands.

        Better Maya’s than Kumi’s, he sent honestly.  “As a matter of fact, she doesn’t,” he said aloud as he set the handpanel down.  “And I think I’m gonna do something about that,” he added in an ominous voice.  “I’ll check this over when I finish what I’m doing, Eliara.”

        “Very well, your Grace.  Good afternoon to you,” she said, then she made quite a show out of turning around and sashaying her tailed posterior back out the door, pausing to nod and smile at Suri and Dera before leaving.

        She’s certainly trying hard, isn’t she? Suri sent impishly after the door closed.

        Given she’s a Sha’i-ree, I’m surprised she didn’t just go around the desk and stick her hand in his pants, Dera replied, giving Jason an amused look.

        She’s not quite that aggressive.  She enjoys making men come to her, which is completely opposite her cultural norms, Jason sent clinically.  She finds aggressive men to be almost intoxicating, and there’s plenty of them among the Faey, Terrans, and Shio.

        So she gets off on seducing men, Dera noted.

        She gets off on enticing men into making the first move, he corrected.  That’s a bit different from seduction.

        So, she gets off on flirting, Suri deduced.

        Yup.  And the hotter she gets a guy, the more she enjoys it when he takes the bait.

        That’s almost Faey, Dera noted lightly.

        Maybe now you see why she moved to Karis.  Faey women are more her style.

        Jason spent time waiting for Ba’mra’ei going over several reports from the Confederation, dealing mainly with the Coalition.  The Coalition had joined the Confederation—sort of, it was actually more of a merger of two quadrant-spanning cooperatives—six months ago, and the two organizations were still ironing out the small wrinkles, mainly revolving around working out chains of command and lines of communication between the Confederate agencies on Terra and the Coalition bureaus on Cappria, over in the P4EB sector.  The High Chancellor Hovikk sat in on Confederate Council meetings, and the Confederation had an emissary that sat in on the Coalition Congress, which was their council of allied empires.  Since the Confederation had no elected executive, they had selected a ruler to represent the Confederation in the Coalition Congress.  Believe it or not, that job was given to Kreel.  The Coalition rulers found Kreel to be both enigmatic and almost mesmerizingly entertaining, and he served Confederate interests well in his dual role representing the Grimja Union in the Confederation, and representing the Confederation in the Coalition Congress.

        He did such a good job that he’d been re-elected High Councilor just last month, and was secure for another six years as the executive of the Union.  The Grimja would ascend Kreel to godhood if they could figure out a way to do it, both the Grimja lay populace and the other Councilors thought so highly of him.  The Union had never had such growth and prosperity before, had never had a period where some segment of their population didn’t go hungry, and most of it was thanks to Kreel.

        The Coalition was actually quite similar to the Confederation in some of its goals.  It wasn’t a military alliance, however, it was mainly an economic one.  It had been created to foster trade and keep the peace between the member empires through diplomacy, and over time, it had evolved to include mutual defense treaties.  Declaring war on any one member of the Coalition brought all of them into the war on their partner’s side.  They didn’t have a combined military headquarters, though they did often go on military exercises with other member empires.  The Confederation existed to combat the Andromedan invaders firstly, but also to foment trade and peaceful relations between its members.  The Coalition existed to foster economic prosperity and peace among its member nations, but did also defend its member empires from hostile aggression through their mutual defense pacts.  But unlike the Confederation, the member empires of the Coalition weren’t aggressive or expansionistic.  They had lived within their defined borders for centuries, even millenia, and were more than content to grow their economies rather than their territory.

        But that didn’t stop Coalition members from registering with the Confederation Agency of Exploration and Annexation.  Like the Faey and the empires of the home sector, the only way the member empires of the Coalition could expand peacefully was through colonization of distant star systems, and they were more than happy to use the Confederation agency to help them explore open territory, find star systems, and claim them.  The agency didn’t have a sister bureau in the Coalition.  Then again, the Coalition didn’t have real-time jump engines or Stargates either.

        But they would soon.  Already, Academy scientists were working with the various members of the Coalition to upgrade their fleets to real-time engines, to match Confederation technology.  Real-time engines were now mainstream in the Confederation, with almost all of their members having achieved that breakthrough…either on their own or with clandestine Karinne assistance.  They’d managed to upgrade nearly half of the Coalition members to real-time engines, and were working with the other half, those with less advanced engine or power generation technologies.

        Jason often regretted doing that, unleashing empires like the Faey, Skaa, Prakarikai, and the Verutans on the galaxy at large, but it simply had to be done.  The Syndicate had real-time engines, and if they couldn’t match that mobility, they’d be at a major disadvantage in the coming war.  And every empire’s contribution to the war effort mattered, both with the Syndicate and with the coming second wave of the Consortium, which was much bigger.  Jason would just have to keep a very close eye on things and make sure that they didn’t abuse the gift they were given.  Real-time engines gave them the ability to cross the entire galaxy in about two hours, giving Confederate empires galactic reach, which they would need against the Consortium and Syndicate.  But it also opened distant, remote, technologically inferior civilizations to attack, which would make Jason rely more than ever before on the Kimdori to make sure that didn’t happen.

        He managed to clear out his inbox before Ba’mra’ei and Ethikk arrived, which gave him time to look in on his new son a little bit.  Symone had left the hospital while he was bulldozing his inbox, and she was at home and resting in her comfy chair as Terry slept in a hovercrib beside her.  Jyslin was on the couch with Tim, watching viddy and each with one of Jason’s twin girls in their laps.  Both Bethany and Siyae looked to be napping, and Lyra was definitely napping, laying on the end of the couch by her father.  Tim looked almost fatherly with a little girl using each of his legs as a pillow, his hand on Siyae’s back absently as he watched viddy.  Rann and Shya were sitting on the floor playing a game in their interfaces.  The new twins were in cribs by the couch, and Tim and Symone’s maid/nanny Resli was coming in from the kitchen.  They’d hired her not long after Lyra was born, when they found they could use the help around the house, and she fit in very well both in their house and in the strip in general.  Then again, Miaari had found her, so there was no doubt she would.

        Ayama and Surin would have been there, but they had their own child to look after.  They were on official leave right now, because two weeks ago, Ayama had delievered her first, an adorable baby girl she named Sanjira.  Jason and Jyslin would never make her care for their own kids over her newborn, so she and Surin were on leave…which really just meant that they weren’t babysitting outside the house anymore.  They still lived in their apartment in the house, and Ayama would be minding Jon and Julia along with her own baby.  Her daughter would grow up in their house and be as much a part of the family as Ayama and Surin were.  They just weren’t doing any official work right now, Miaari had brought in a temporary maid to do the cooking and cleaning until Ayama and Surin were back on duty.  That maid, a young Shio woman named Seido Sunsinger, was probably going to end up becoming permanent.  They were going to need another hand in the house with so many babies and toddlers running around, and Seido had already proved that she could manage the unique form of chaos that existed within Jason’s house.

        How quickly all those spare bedrooms in Jason’s expanded house filled up.  He almost had to force himself to believe that he had seven children in the house now; Rann and Shya, Bethany and Siyae, Sanjira, and now Jon and Julia.  Rann and Shya were eight, the twins were coming up on three, Sanjira joined them two weeks ago, and now they had their newborn twins, only a day old.  And that didn’t even count Danelle, who had her own bedroom in the house and occupied it more often than not, and the fact that Jason’s other children often stayed over with Rann, creating a constant stream of kids moving in and out of the house.

        Yeah, he, Jyslin, Ayama, and Surin were definitely going to need help, and Seido had proven her mettle in one very important way; she had not yet slept with Tim.

        So much domestic tranquility, and here he was, stuck at work, unable to be a part of it.  Life sucked sometimes.

        The babies made him switch over the Civnet on his hologram and look at the latest round of pictures that Dahnai had released.  The scandal born of Miyai and Raisha had died down over the last couple of years, and besides, nothing stamped out the last flickering embers of a scandal like pictures of a brand new Imperial Prince.  Little Kaen Merrane looked just like his father Kellin, an absolutely handsome little man who had just celebrated his one month “birthday.”  Dahnai was still over at her summer palace, maybe lingering more than a little bit before going back to Draconis, but then again, she’d lingered on purpose to be on Karis for the birth of the twins and the birth of Terry.  She’d been right there when all three were born, since she was their godmother, but she’d had to go back to the summer palace to deal with some issue that had come up in the Imperium not long after Terry was born.  Kaen was a very boisterous little boy, and he was already starting to frazzle Saelle a little bit.  She and Evin had agreed to foster Kaen as well as the twins, extending her contract a couple of years, but that wasn’t a big deal to her.  She enjoyed her job, and besides, now she had a daughter of her own to love and cherish along with her fosters.  Saelle and Evin had celebrated the birth of Laeri Karinne on New Year’s Day, which was considered the luckiest day to give birth.  That meant that Laeri would supposedly have a wonderful life, being lucky enough to be born on the holiest day in the Faey year.  Saelle was certainly milking it, since Laeri meant blessed one in Old Faey.

        And Evin was never leaving Saelle.  When she returned to Karis after completing her fostering duty, Evin would come with her.  Their marriage was no longer simply on paper.

        Kaen wasn’t in the official line of succession since he was a boy, but Faey went completely ga-ga over an Imperial Prince.  He probably got even more attention than his sisters did, because he was a boy, and in Faey society, a prince was by far the fairer royal compared to a princess.  For Dahnai, Kaen was almost a replacement son, for the day she’d been dreading would be coming to pass in five months.  Maer would be turning 15, and on his birthday, he’d be marrying in a grand state ceremony and moving out of the palace.  That was the age an Imperial Prince married, and since the boy entered the house of his wife, Maer would be leaving the House Merrane and entering the House Dorrane as a High Duke, a very special rank reserved only for the male children of an Empress who married into another house.  He would still have the title of Prince, would officially be known as High Duke Imperial Prince Maer Merrane Dorrane, and he would only be outranked by the Grand Duchess and her heir apparent in his new house.

        Maer was on Trivis II right now, spending time with his betrothed, Delia Dorrane, and her family to get to know them a little better before the marriage.  It was a common practice for a prince to spend a few months with the new family, then come back to the palace for a few months to get everything squared away and be there to prepare for the ceremony.  Sirri was in the summer palace with her mother.

        Technically, Shya could be called a High Duchess, but that was a boy’s title, and Shya would punch anyone who tried to add it to her name in the nose.  She was quite content with Duchess Consort, which would become Grand Duchess Consort when Rann took the house throne.

        Jason had seen a lot more pics of Kaen than what was released, and for that matter, he’d held his godson quite a bit.  Just like with her twins, Dahnai had delivered on Draconis and then was on her way to Karis to spend her maternity in her summer palace almost before the doctors cut the umbilical cord.  Dahnai looked for any reason to come to her summer palace, and when she ran out of flimsy excuses, she just came over anyway.  She loved her summer palace that much, to the point where she spent nearly half her time on Karis and the other half on Draconis…and the fact that Jason was on Karis really had very little to do with it.  Sure, he was a bonus, but she just loved the palace that Jason had built for her, a place that was hers, had been built just for her and with her in mind, and a place where she could relax, unwind, and forget about the heay burdens that came with her crown for a little while.  Karis and the summer palace was her sanctuary, her personal, private place, and for the Empress of the Imperium, privacy was a precious commodity that was treasured.

         She wasn’t the only one.  The Grand Duchesses of the Siann loved being invited there, and often, Dahnai had to all but throw them out to make them leave.  They fully understood why Dahnai was always so eager to retreat to Karis, and while they grumbled a bit over how much time she spent there, they couldn’t blame her.  The summer palace was gorgeous, luxurious, and outside the public eye, which meant that Dahnai and the Grand Duchesses who visited could let their hair down and truly relax.  The summer palace had also inspired quite a bit of copycat architecture among the Grand Duchesses as they built new retreats for themselves, spending those obscene profits they were raking in thanks to the prosperity laid at their feet by the Confederation.

        Yila’s newest retreat on Draconis was almost ridiculous.  She must have spent C1,100,000,000 on it, and in a blatant copy of the summer palace, she’d bought a small private island off the coast of northern Vexia and built her manor complex there.  Jason knew for a fact that just buying the island had cost her a  billion credits, and that didn’t even count the cost of the complex she built there after tearing down the estate mansion and everything else that had been on the island.  Yila had leveled a perfectly good 14 bedroom manor just to build her own manor on the site.  And most likely like Dahnai, Yila had taken her maternity leave on her private tropical island.  She’d had a baby boy four months ago, and he was in the care of her house nannies and she was back at work swindling pensioners and stealing candy from babies…maybe even her own baby.

        He wouldn’t put it past her, that was for damn sure.

        So many kids, everywhere.  Sooooo many kids.

        But that was one of the primal forces of life, to procreate, so it was just nature, he supposed.

         He actually found himself with about an hour of free time, which had been in short supply for the last couple of takirs, and honestly debated attending the Confederate Council meeting scheduled to begin in fifteen minutes.  He wasn’t the only ruler that didn’t attend them religiously anymore, that was for certain.  The sheer number of council members made it almost like attending a Colonist dramatic play.  The council meetings nowadays were more for just disseminating information to the various rulers, since all the plans had been made and most of the work had already been done.  Kim more or less ran the Confederation from Terra by managing its agencies, and the council session was mainly there for the aides and surrogates that now attended most of the council sessions to take the information presented in them to their rulers.  The ruler currently holding the gavel did attend—which quickly became a hated task and also made Jason even more gleeful that neutral observers did not hold the gavel—but rarely were more than maybe six actual rulers sitting in on council.  The rest of the attendees were duly sanctioned representatives.

        Jason did that himself.  A good 95% of the time, it was Yeri or one of the CBIMs sitting in on the council session instead of him, a chore they passed between them.

        Fuck that.  No way was he wasting valuable free time listening to someone drone on and on.

        He didn’t want to go home, because he wouldn’t want to leave.  He didn’t even want to merge to a device at home, because he wouldn’t want to leave either.  He couldn’t push up the commissioning ceremony, it would take too long and he’d make Ba’mra’ei and Ethikk wait.  So, he had an hour to kill…what to do, what to do.

        He spent that hour playing Vanguard, which was a massive multiplayer first person shooter that was the current rage with most of the younger adults.  Vanguard was a simsense-capable game that more or less required a jack to play go be competitive, because the top players on the scoreboards for every level were almost always jacked.  And it was easy to tell the jacked players from the “exies,” or the external controller players, by how their avatars moved.  Jacked players had full natural range of motion where people playing on vidlinks or panels moved like avatars in games, with pre-programmed motions and set run speeds and such.  But, since jacks were becoming so prevalent throughout the entire Confederation, nearly half the players in a Vanguard game were jacked.  It was a battlefield simulation game, much akin to the old Teamfortress or Call of Duty games Jason played back in college, where players took on roles in an army and battled another army, the conditions of the battle set by the level and by the controlling computer.  Most of the large-scale missions were “army X attacks a position defended by army Y,” along with options for smaller maps with smaller numbers of players facing off against each other, all the way down to squad against squad skirmish missions, but there were also levels that were two armies racing to reach an objective first, missions where one army attacks another while on the move in open terrain where neither army has a fixed position, and just slugfest death matches on flat empty maps where the two armies just clashed in the middle and saw who killed more players before time ran out.  And given it was all done by jack and was supported by a very beefy central computer, the game had thousands of players on each side.  It was truly army versus army in Vanguard, where players took up roles of infantry, forward controller who called in bombardments, sniper, intelligence specialist, the “spies” on the level that gathered intel to pass on to command, mobile artillery operators, special ops who penetrated enemy lines to conduct strategic attacks on the enemy’s rear assets, exomech riggers, ground support fighter pilots, and both tactical and strategic command personnel.  Players who took command slots had to have a certain amount of experience and a certain player rating to qualify, and one had to “earn rank” in lower command slots to get access to higher ones, almost like a real military command structure.  In the game, players started as infantry, then earned points to undergo “training” to play the other roles, and once they had a certain number of games played and achieved a certain player rating, they could enter command and become corporals that led infantry squads.  From there, they worked up to sergeant, then lieutenant, then captain, then major, then colonel, and then they made General and were allowed to command the entire army during the battle.  Of course, players could ignore commands from officers, but they lost rating points for insubordination, and local command could make battlefield command decisions that countered orders from higher up.  The only guy in the entire game that didn’t actively fight or execute operations was the General.  His sole job was to sit in a protected rear position behind the battlefield, study camera views and the intel supplied by his intel specialists, and issue orders to his army.  Even the colonels in the army were shooting at the other guy, though they usually did it from support corvettes over the battlefield executing airstrikes.

        And there were some damn good Vanguard Generals.  One guy was a total fuckin’ tactical genius, he had a 78% win ratio when he commanded an army, and was so good that Jason had him tracked down…to discover that he was a 19 year old college student on Terra that majored in music and had bad grades everywhere but music.

        Vanguard also had four different branches to the game.  The first branch was the most popular, modern infantry combat.  The second branch was naval space combat, where players controlled ships and battled each other in naval combat, which was the second most popular.  The third branch was fighter combat, squadrons of fighters flying various missions, which was more players versus the scenario than players fighting other players, and the fourth was a medieval infantry game where guns were replaced by swords and exomechs by catapults.  Anyone who bought Vanguard had access to all four branches of the game, but a player had to progress in each branch separately.  Rating earned in infantry combat didn’t carry over to naval combat, and so on.  There were also mods for different eras based on basic combat modes, like the World War II mod for Terran players, and the Second or Third Civil War mod for Faey players.  Mods altered in-game equipment to match the historical equivalents, and many of the mods used mission maps based on the actual battles.  It was almost like re-enactments, but you shot at the other guy with “real” bullets.

        There were also customizable skins in some game modes, and Jason wasn’t too proud to say that the colors of the heraldry of the KMS were one such custom skin, with detail all the way down to the specific heraldry and tailfin icons of individual infantry battalions, exomech companies, and fighter sqaudrons, some of which only unlocked if you earned a high rating.  Elite combat units had elite members, in reality and in the game.  The red exomechs and sword icon of the Red Warriors, the black exomechs with the female ghost icon of the Banshees, the black exomechs and armed Faey icon of the KBB, and the black Wolves and spectre tailfin art from the Ghost Squadron were in the game…and just like the real Red Warriors, Banshees, KBB, and Ghost Squadron, if you rated high enough to use those skins, enemy players were very afraid of you.

        Vanguard was a product of a shell company connected to 3D and MRDD, and Eraen had done most of the coding on the game.  It was also making the House Karinne an absolute bloody fortune.  C20 for the game, C10 a year maintenance fee to offset server maintenance costs and pay for new mission map development…and 136 million active players.  But not all the game’s mission maps were done by Eraen.  The Vanguard Civnet site accepted submissions of player-made mission scenario maps, and maps that were good enough were incorporated into the game and the creator earned himself a C5000 payout and his game handle on the map as credit for being the one that created it.  Some of the most challenging and fun missions in the game were created by players.

        Jason actually loved playing Vanguard.  You were in the game playing within 30 seconds of queueing up, and you could play as long as you wanted or as short as you wanted.  You could leave even during a battle, though if you left early you earned no rating points for that battle, but you did earn experience points based on your performance up until you left, and those experience points could be spent buying access to a new job, upgrading skills to gain bonuses and enhancements, buying equipment to be used on “free” maps with no restrictions like increased armor or weapon boosters, or buying extra command points if one’s rating allowed it to enable the player to more quickly promote up the chain of command, if that was their thing.  Most of the time, Jason played a good old fashioned grunt in the game.  Infantry.  He’d spent most of his XP boosting his infantry abilities, but he had spent some XP buying the rating to drive an exomech and getting his exomech skills up to an acceptable level.  He sometimes played as a rigger for a change of pace, but he liked being just one of the anonymous grunts on the line, shooting at the bad guys, where nobody in his squad had any idea he was actually the Grand Duke Karinne.  He had enough command points and a personal player rating high enough to play as a sergeant—his PPR, Personal Player Rating, was actually high enough to play as a major—but he had never done it.  He made enough decisions in his job on a daily basis, he liked playing a game where his only job was to shoot at the bad guys.  It was almost therapudic in its complete lack of any responsibility.

        He was heavy into it on the Battle of Diamond Citadel map when Cybi’s face appeared as a window on the edge of his vision, since he was merged to his interface and playing the game in jack emulation mode.  He was behind a half-collapsed wall with six of his squadmates, playing defense on the map, holding the Diamond Citadel against the enemy army.  [And how are you doing?] she asked conversationally.

        [Getting our asses handed to us at the moment,] he replied as he raked fire across a wall on the far side of the courtyard, behind which an enemy squad was taking cover.  [They broke through the front gate within six minutes, and we’re holding the courtyard by our fingernails.  Their general is fuckin’ good, we totally bit on that decoy attack on the east wall.  Right now, all I’m doing is holding out for XP before I get my head shot off.]

        [I fail to see why you don’t play as the general.  You could destroy these untrained kids with all your training.]

        [I don’t play this game to make decisions, Cybi, I play this game to blow things up.]

        [You’re not even doing that very well at the moment,] she teased as Jason ducked back behind the wall as the enemy countered, sending a hail of fire in his direction.

        [Bite me, Cybi,] he retorted acidly as he and his squadmates dashed across a break in the wall, exposing themselves to fire for a split second.

        “Grenades!” the squad sergeant’s voice came over his game avatar’s helmet speaker, then the lieutenant commanding their company’s voice overrode it.  “A and B squads, flank the advance to the east!  C and D squads, hold the line!”

        Jason was the first of the group to break for the east side of the courtyard, because it was a good idea.  The enemy had left their east flank exposed in their advance towards the citadel, and flanking from the east would produce some results, might even break their advance and cut off their advance elements.  Jason dashed from the end of the wall to a destroyed exomech, using it as cover, then raced over to a piece of broken wall, kneeling down as the rest of the squad reached them.  The sergeant used hand signs to direct the elements, and Jason nodded and raced across empty courtyard to another destroyed exomech.  The rigger had survived, and was behind her rig with a rifle in her hands—which was well within the game’s rules.  A rigger who survived the destruction of a rig could play infantry until they got back to the support area and got another rig.  “Nice of you boys to join us,” she said dryly as the rest of the squad got behind the rig.  They’d managed to get into position with little attention from the enemy, only a few opponents seeing them.

        “I hope you know how to use that gun, mech jockey,” somoene behind him said.

        “We’ll find out, won’t we?” she challenged.

       “Knock off the chatter,” his squad sergeant barked when he reached them.  “You five, cover fire.  You, rigger, cover fire.  Duke, Jacker, Strongarm, point, take us in,” he said, using their in-game handles.  Jason played as Duke…which wasn’t all that imaginative, he supposed.  “Let’s get in there and bust some heads.”

        “Let’s rock,” the player beside him declared, swinging his gun into firing position.

        [Jason, you do have an appointment,] Cybi warned.  [The High Staff’s ship has come through the Stargate and should make orbit in about ten minutes.]

        [Then I have twenty before I have to get out to the pad, don’t I?] he answered her as he led the charge to a covered position just off the flank of the enemy advance, a great place to really disrupt their movement.

        [Don’t make me pull your plug, Jason,] she warned.

        [Stop mothering me and warn me when their dropship launches, I’ll have plenty of time to get out there,] he answered as he made the position, then immediately rose up over the burned-out hovercar chassis and started firing at enemy soldiers moving up towards the line.  Several players dropped to the ground and vanished—the game’s version of death, they would respawn at their base and one reinforcement point would be deducted from their side. When there were no more reinforcements, players would no longer respawn and would be allowed to watch in passive, “death” mode until the map was won by one side or the other.  That allowed players to keep playing after getting killed, but made dying matter, just like a real battle.  Dying meant you were not helping your team until you resupplied at base and got back to the front lines, and on big maps, that could take a while.

        Whoever sent down the order to flank deserved a field promotion, because it worked.  Jason’s squad and Squad A caused chaos on the east flank of the enemy, stopping their advance and cutting off their front line units from reinforcement.  Their advance sputtered on the east side, and they lost ground as the defenders—Jason’s side—counterattacked in almost perfect coordination with the flanking maneuver.  Jason knew he was playing under a time limit, so he did what he could in the time he had to give his side a chance to get off their losing footing, but he wasn’t being suicidal about it.  He wasn’t costing his side a reinforcement, and if he died before logging out, his replacement would spawn back in the base.

        But he didn’t count on Cybi.  To his horror, Cybi manifested her hologram inside the game, in full view of all the other players, standing just beside Jason and fully exposed to enemy fire.  “Cybi!” Jason gasped.  “You can’t manifest in here, you’re not playing!  Our side could get blackflagged for cheating!”

        Act like a misbehaving child, and I’ll treat you like one,” she said heartlessly as quite a few enemy shots went harmlessly through her holographic form, putting her hands on her hips and looking down at him.  “The High Staff will be on the pad in five minutes, and it takes three to get to the pad from your office!  Now stop playing this game and do your job, Jason!”

        “She won’t be on the pad for six minutes!” he protested.  “I’m keeping track!”

        “Dude, is that your mom or something?” Jacker asked him.  “How is she doing that?”

        “Sometimes she thinks she is,” Jason snorted in reply.  “Alright, alright, I’ll log out now.  But don’t you ever manifest inside the game again.  You could cost every player on my side their rating for the battle!”

        “Next time you ignore me when you told me to remind you to log out, I’ll grab you by the ear and drag you off the battlefield,” she stated threateningly, whch made quite a few people pause in mid battle and laugh.  “Or even worse, I’ll tell all these people who you really are, Jason.”

        “Oh, it is on now, bitch,” Jason growled, hitting his logout button.  That told the game and the command staff that he had to leave before the battle was over, and when that happened, someone in the base who just died but had yet to respawn would be teleported to his position to take his place, so as not to cost his team because he had to leave.  The countdown gave that player time to be ready for the port, and when they ported in, they’d inherit all of Jason’s current equipment, effectively replacing him in the battle.  “You start fucking with what little free time I have, woman, and I’m gonna unplug your core.”

        “Empty threats get you nowhere with me, Jason,” she replied, crossing her arms beneath her pseudo-breasts and giving him an amused look.  “Now log out and get to the pad so you can greet the High Staff without looking like you ran down there at the last second.  That makes you look very rude.”

        “I’m counting down now,” he growled as the three second invulnerability shield surrounded him.  His repacement would have that shield, and that would give them enough time to get to cover before they could be killed..

        Jason threated Cybi with the back of his hand after opening his eyes and standing up, but she just gave him a stern look and pointed at the door.  “Work.  Now. Go,” she ordered, which made Dera and Suri wheeze in voiceless laughter from their position by the front door.

        “I am so gonna get you, bitch,” he threatened as he stalked past her, his guards standing up to escort him down to the pad.

        He got to the pad in plenty of time before the Alliance dropship appeared over the buildings of Karsa with two Wolf fighters escorting it, then it landed gently in front of him as the fighters pulled back up and went over the building.  The hatch opened, and the very different members of the Alliance Council came down the steps.  Ba’mra’ei was Bari-Bari, who were a race of extremely tall, lanky, long-armed simioids.  She towered over Jason—he only came up to the base of her chest—but she made the Beryan with her look like a doll.  He came up to her knee.  Ethikk was a typical Beryan, a race of short, lithe, narrow-muzzled canoids who dyed their tails in a color pattern that denoted their family lineage.  Ethikk was the Beryan member of the Alliance Council, the governing body of their government, five races joined together in a single civilization.  The executive of their government was the High Staff, a position that rotated through the five members of the council on a seven year term.  Ba’mra’ei had replaced Graith, who had died, and their rules said that she could only serve out the remainder of his term.  When the term expired, the next council member in the rotation took the High Staff position, and that was Ethikk. 

        Ba’mra’ei wasn’t crying about it.  She was actually relieved to be relinquishing the High Staff to Ethikk.

        Jason had told them to come in casual garb, that their visit wasn’t going to be official, and they’d heeded him.  Ba’mra’ei was wearing only a kilt-like wrap around her waist, and Ethikk was wearing a Beryan tunic that came down to his knees in a very appealing cream color that went well with his soft brown fur.  Both of them were wearing interfaces, standard jack interfaces spreading through the Confederation like wildfire, since both of them were jacked.  Jason took Ba’mra’ei’s huge, hairy hand, her fingers slightly longer than Jason’s entire hand was, then leaned down and took Ethikk’s paw.  “Ba’mra’ei, Ethikk, good to see you,” he said.  “Welcome to Karis.”

        “I’m very happy to be here, your Grace,” he said with a smile.  “It’s long been a point of jealousy on the council that Ba’mra’ei was the only one that ever got to come here outside of the official summits.”

        “A necessary evil,” Jason told him.  “When we start making exceptions, then everyone expects exceptions.”

        “I completely understand, your Grace,” he said with a fanged smile.  “I understand congratulations are in order?”

        He chuckled.  “Thank you.  Terry was born this morning, and he’s absolutely adorable.  Symone has probably put the pictures on Civnet by now announcing the birth.”

        “Then I think we should get the initial meeting done quickly, so you can go home and fawn over your new cub,” he said.

        “You just became my new best friend, Ethikk,” Jason said, which made both of them laugh.  “Please, come in,” he gestured.  “We both have a reason to get the meeting overwith, sinc Yeri has arranged a sightseeing tour for you this afternoon, which will conclude with a tour of Kosigi by Admiral Dellin.”

        “That sounds quite interesting,” Ethikk said.  “Will it include the famous oye trees?”

        “She can easily add that to the itinerary if you want to see them,” he assured him.  “But you should have been able to see one of them on the way down.  We have one growing right in the middle of Karsa.”

        “I did, and it’s gigantic, but I was told it’s a small one compared to the ones on the north coast.”

        “That’s true,” Jason chuckled as they walked in.  “It’s only sixty Beryan igi tall.  The ones out on the coast are upwards of two hundred and fifty.”

        “That’s why I’d love to see them.  A tree as tall as a building resonates with the Beryan psyche.  It’s a dog thing, your Grace.”

        Jason burst out laughing, understanding the self-depcrating, Terran-oriented joke for what it was.

        Ethikk and Ba’mra’ei certainly made the meeting easy.  They sat in his office and discussed the things Ethikk needed to know about the Confederation and the Karinnes, things that Ba’mra’ei more or less kept secret from her own council, but things that Ethikk would learn as the High Staff.  One of the main reasons for the meeting, however was to introduce Ethikk to the CBIMs.  All four of them were present in the meeting, and he talked with them, got to know the two CBIMs that the Confederate Council almost never saw, Cyvanne and Cylan.  Cybi and Cyra were the “face” of Karis in that regard, the CBIMs that the council knew and interacted with on a regular basis.  They knew that Cyvanne and Cylan were online, but those two were very much in the background, not part of visible Karinne operations.  Cyvanne stayed in the background because it was her job as the disaster recovery CBIM,and Cylan had yet to gain enough experience to take on a full role quite yet.  He was getting there, but he had more to learn before he was ready.

        “Are you going to be joining the council on Prakarika for the summit next week, Jason?” Ethikk asked as they basically just sat around and shot the breeze after going over the meeting’s itinerary.

        “I haven’t decided yet,” he replied.  “You know that me and Anivan don’t get along.  I’m almost afraid  that she’ll try to get me alone and take out my kneecaps.”

        “She’s calmed down a great deal over the last few months,” Ba’mra’ei observed, tapping her round chin.  She had a face more like a chimpanzee than anything else, but had lucid blue eyes.  “I think her pregnancy is mellowing her.”

        “I’m more worried about the low-G members of the council being on Prakarika.  It’s not a very hospitable place for about anyone but a Prakarikai or an Ogravian.  The one time I was there, I had to wear two inducers, just in case the primary one malfunctioned.”

        “It’s not the first time I’ve visited a planet that would kill me if my life support equipment failed,” Ethikk chuckled.

        “It’s the air pressure more than the gravity I worry about,” Ba’mra’ei said.

        “Yeah, I had to wear a helmet when I was there,” Jason nodded.  “It’s outside the safe tolerance for my species without preparation.  I’d have to pressurize first, then decompress afterward.”

        “I’m sure that the Prakarikai have set up suitable enviro modules,” Cybi noted.  “It would look bad if they killed half of their allies, after all.”

        “Anivor’s department, so yeah, I’m fairly sure things will be right.  I just hope you’re ready for a six hour welcoming ceremony.”

        Ethikk laughed.  “That’s what my interface is for, Jason.  Tune out, have it warn me when it’s over.”

        “The Prakarikai do put on a good show.  The problem is, they don’t know when the show should end,” Ba’mra’ei noted, which made Jason chuckle.

        “They said that the welcoming and farewell ceremonies would be brief,” Cylan injected.

        “Brief for them is ungodly long and boring for most everyone else, Cy,” Jason told him.

        “We’ll see,” Ba’mra’ei said.  “One thing I have noticed over the last couple of years is that the Prakarikai are changing a little.  Exposure to the rest of us is causing them to ease back a little on their ceremony when dealing with the outside.”

        “I think Kreel does that to them more than anything else.  It’s hard to be all stuffy and condescending when he’s over there ripping you to shreds with every comment,” Jason said, which made both of them burst out laughing, Cybi and Cyra smile, and the other two CBIMs look at him curiously.  “I think Anivan cried into her pillow when he won re-election.”

        “Barka’s pillar, he is witty,” Ethikk agreed with a grin.

        Chirk came into the office, and Yeri was just behind her.  She was wearing a very nice robe, not formal but still quite snazzy, in Karinne blue and trimmed with gold and with the right sleeve shorter than the left, which was classic Faey tailoring.  “Ba’mra’ei, you’re looking quite well,” Yeri said.  “And welcome to Karis, Ethikk.  It’s good to see you again.”

        “Ah, Yeri!  You’re looking quite well,” Ethikk said happily standing up and taking her hands.

        “I’ve been quite well, Ethikk.  How did your sons do on their exams?”

        “All three scored high enough to get into the prep school we wanted,” he said proudly.  “And they’re already working on the requirements to enter the Academy when they graduate.”  There was no need for him to say which academy…when one said the Academy, one was almost always referring to the Karinne Academy on Terra.

        “I’m sure they’ll get in.  After all, you do have something of an inside track when it comes to a recommendation,” she said, her eyes darting to Jason meaningfully.

        “Why do you think I’m so glad I’m taking the High Staff?” he asked with a sly smile.

        “Rank does have its privileges,” Yeri smiled.  “Jason told you’re ready for your tour, and that you want to add a visit to the oye forest?”

        “Most definitely.”

        “We can do that, no problem.  We can also visit the Parri who tend the trees.  They enjoy hosting visitors.”

        Jason said his goodbyes and let Yeri take over, taking the incoming High Staff on a tour of Karis and Kosigi.  Jason walked out with them down to the landing pad, saw them off in a Karinne luxury dropship, then he walked with Dera and Suri into a zip ship, which then rose up and docked with the destroyer Tikanne, which was hovering about 50,000 shakra over Karis, over the normal skylanes for hovercars.  Captain Gai Edanne met him in the landing bay, a tall, willowy Faey with chalky blue hair not far from the shade of her skin and shimmering ruby eyes, a dark, nearly blood red.  Gai had been captain of the Tikanne for nearly two years, which was her own doing.  She had turned down two offers to captain a cruiser, and Juma had let her stay where she was rather than pull a Sevi on her.  Gai wasn’t attached to the ship so much as she was her crew; if Juma moved her entire crew to the cruiser with her, she’d probably go for it.  “You’re looking radiant, Gai,” he told her after kissing her cheek.  “I thought you were still on maternity leave.”

        “I just came back three days ago,” she replied.  “And thank you for the birth gift, it was lovely!”

        “You’re welcome,” he told her, patting her on the shoulder of her duty uniform.  Since she wasn’t on active deployment, she and her crew were allowed to wear duty uniforms rather than armor.  “Is Finn driving you crazy yet?”

        She laughed.  “He’s certainly loud,” she grinned as they started towards the hatch.  “But I don’t mind.  He’s just telling me he loves me.”

        “No, he’s telling you feed me, woman!”

        She laughed again.  He’s not that bad, she sent, which was one of her little quirks.  Gai often bounced between speaking and sending in a conversation, sometimes in mid-sentence.

        You just wait until he’s a little older, and his lungs grow enough to add a few decibels.

        That’s what soundproof walls are for.

        The destroyer started off as they walked to the bridge, and they were nearly out of the atmosphere by the time they got there.  Jason shook several hands and kissed some cheeks when he reached the bridge, a bridge that showed the diversity the house was developing.  An Urumi sat in the tactical position, the primary navigator was a male Faey, and the secondary navigator was a Shio woman.  “Make for jump distance, Mister Deklin, ahead full,” Gai ordered as Jason met the Urumi tactical officer, a female with a short crest—meaning she was young—named Fre’Litt.  “Plot a jump solution for planet seven.”

        “Jump solution already plotted sir, we’ll be ready for jump as soon as we reach jump distance,” he answered.  “We’ll reach jump distance in twenty one minutes.”

        “Very good.”

        “You know, we could use the Stargate,” Jason noted dryly.

        “It’s faster to jump, your Grace,” she replied lightly as she pushed him into her chair.  “The Stargate is on the far side of the planet.”

        “That’s a fair point,” Jason agreed, which made her smile slightly.

        Jason spent the time getting to jump distance catching up with Gai in her quarters as he changed into his formal robes, Dera and Suri helping him.  It only took him about ten minutes since he was only wearing the outer robe and the vest-like garment that went under it, hiding the fact he had a tee and jeans on under it, and tucking his jean legs into his dress boots completed the deception.  They returned to the bridge in plenty of time to jump.  When they reached jump distance, the ship slowed down.  [Jump in thirty seconds,] the comm officer broadcast over the ship’s internal biogenic network.  And what was a major change from the days before cyberjacks, no one was getting into their jump restraints.  Over the last couple of years, Myleena and Songa had further and further upgraded and refined the technology in the jacks and interfaces to deal with hyperspace.  Myleena had added gyroscopic circuitry into all military interfaces and wrote a program that allowed people to keep their balance, which freed people from their jump restraints.  She had also refined a sensor mesh matrix sytem that gave a Crusader armor wearer the ability to “feel” through the surface of the armor, but didn’t allow pain signals, which had applications far beyond jumping.  Being able to feel something he held in his gantleted hand made a big difference when he was wearing armor.  The tactile sensory mesh allowed him to feel contact, feel the force he was exerting in that contact, feel texture, heat, and cold, but didn’t allow those sensations to go outside the “comfort zone” and become unpleasant.  Since they were in duty uniforms, the crew wouldn’t have a sense of touch during jumping unless they wore sensormesh gloves and gear, which fed tactile contact data to the interface and jack.  Songa and Myleena’s work had freed KMS crews from having to get into jump restraints for jumping operations, something that had not been filtered down to the rest of the Confederation, since they currently only had those systems developed for biogenic units.

        Jason wasn’t getting into a jump restraint either, and that was also thanks to Songa and Myleena.  Jason was one of only three Generations with cybernetic implants in his brain, connected to the sensory centers of his brain the same way a jack was, and those microscopic units were there to do the same thing a jack did.  When in hyperspace, and only in hyperspace, they activated, blocking Jason’s natural sensory feed in favor of sensory input from his external equipment, from something that couldn’t suffer sensory ghosting.  Usually that was his interface, but if he was in armor, he got sensory feed from the armor instead.  Jason, Myleena, and Saelle were the only Generations with those implants, because they were the only ones that had any earthly business leaving Karis for somewhere that wasn’t connected to a Stargate.  The implants gave him the ability to jump without suffering ill effects, just like someone that was jacked.

        That was the only reason a Generation might want to get a jack, but Myleena had fixed it so they didn’t need a jack to get it.

        When they slowed to a stop, the ship jumped, a .16 second pop through hyperspace from Karis II to Karis VII, a jump so fast Jason barely registered it.  The viewscreen shimmered, and they went from a view of deep space to a view of the gas giant planet VII, named Hevalla.  It was slightly smaller than Jupiter in the Terra system, it had a ring system just as extensive as Saturn’s, and it had 83 moons, every single one of them an icy ball not fit for colonization.  Because of the huge gravity well of the planet, they came out of hyperspace nearly 40 minutes from the closest moon…but where they were going was only 15 minutes away.

        It slowly grew in the viewer, until the outline of the Fleet Flagship soon to be named Tianne hung in the distance like a small, pointy little moon.  It was almost mind-bogglingly big, nearly as large by surface area as Jaxtra, a city-sized ship that was built to destroy ships ten times its size.  It was long, sleek, and both elegant and intimidating, elegant in its lines but intimidating in its sheer size, built in the pattern KMS triangular, pie-wedge design, but the lack of the stern wings made the ship look more like an arrowhead than anything else…an arrowhead for some incomprehensibly huge giant, anyway.

        “Captain, dock control just sent an approach vector,” the comm officer called.  “Sending it to navigation.”

        “I have it,” the male navigator, Deklin, confirmed.  “Entering it into the nav computer now.”

        “Very good, Mister Deklin.  Reduce to dock speed once we’re at the shield border.”

        “Aye, sir.”

        The new ship looked to be covered by a haze as they approached,  but that was because the entire ship was enclosed in an airskin bubble, pressurizing the construction zone.  The temperature inside would be cold enough to liquefy the air they imported if not for heaters the size of city blocks stationed at strategic areas inside, which created a constant circulation of air within the bubble, like a constant gentle breeze as air expanded, moved away from the heaters, then cooled.  Over the 16 months since the bubble had been built, the circulating air had established its own natural airflow patterns.  Giant container vessels were already inside, vacuuming up the atmosphere to return it to the Karisian atmosphere.  It would take them nearly two months to vacuum out the air and return the area within to the same vacuum state as the deep space beyond the shield.

        “That is one big ship,” Gai noted lightly as they approached.

        “Not as big as the ships it’s going to be facing, but yes, it’s big,” Jason agreed as the ship started to slow, preparing to cross the airskin shield and enter the atmosphere area.

        “You did the right thing giving it to Palla.  She’s the best suited for commanding it.”

        “An opinion virtually the entire Karinne Navy shares, Gai,” Jason chuckled.  “If Myri and Juma would have given it to anyone else, I think the whole navy would have mutinied.”

        “I hear you gave her a third diamond.”

        “Yup.  She’s a Staff Admiral now,” he nodded.  “She deserves it, given she’s commanding the flagship of the navy.”

        “True.”

        “Besides, Kiya is replacing her on the Aegis, and she has three diamonds.  I couldn’t have the captain of the flagship outranked by a captain on a ship under her.  That would make things…awkward,” he said, which made Gai chuckle and nod.

        “Well, Palla certainly deserves it.  She’ll be sitting in General Myri’s chair someday.”

        “I can’t argue with that prediction.” he agreed.

        Hundreds of small ships were buzzing around the ship as they approached, supply, personnel, and maintenance ships that were finishing up their task of boarding the crew and supplying it as the maintenance ships did last-minute sensor sweeps of the hull, looking for anything that might have been missed the first three times they were done.  It just got bigger and bigger as they approached the docking bay on the port side amidships, where Jason would be boarding the ship on a zip ship, a docking bay large enough for a frigate to land inside it.  And it had been specifically designed to allow a frigate to land inside the flagship through three different bays, the central port and starboard bays and the sterncastle bay.  Jason could see the doors of the GRAF cannon near the bow, over and behind which were the hundreds of different weapon batteries placed along the angled hull so all of them could fire forward, with a 230 degree field of fire.  Dedicated side and stern emplacements gave the giant ship additional firing arcs, including a second GRAF cannon that was in the stern and fired sternward, just in case the bow GRAF cannon was somehow damaged or down due to equipment failure.  Both GRAF cannons couldn’t be powered up at the same time, but the stern cannon did give the flagship more flexibility.

        The flagship was built to be a giant, badass version of a tactical battleship, and it looked just menacing.  There was no doubt to anyone that looked at it that the immense ship was meant to fight, not to sit in the back like the king on a chessboard.

        Palla was standing at the forefront of a formation of nearly 1,000 crew members—the bay was more than big enough to hold them and have plenty of room to spare—in her class A uniform and with her exo beside her, newly promoted Fleet Admiral Samantha Kerry, brought up from her battleship, the Yorktown.  Behind them were the division commanders of the ship, the engineering chief, the communications chief, and so on and so on, and behind them were arrayed the officer corps of the ship, some 1,137 officers ranging in rank from Captain to Master Chief Petty Officer—technically enlisted, but in the Navy, a Master Chief held more clout than most Lieutenants.  And it said a lot to Jason that Palla’s exo was a Terran, since Palla chose her.  Sammy would be called by her title rather than her rank, referred to as exo Kerry rather than by her rank, since she held the rank of Admiral and Palla would be called Captain, and it was a bit unseemly for the exo to be addressed with a technically higher rank than the captain.  Those on the ship with the rank of Captain would similarly be addressed using their job title rather than their rank, out of respect for Palla.  Only one person was called Captain on a Naval line vessel, anyone else who held that rank but not that position had to be addressed some other way.  That was one of those little rules in the KMS, like how most officers were addressed by their rank and first name, since most of them shared the last name Karinne.  There might be three of four Commander Karinnes on a bridge, so it was acceptable on a naval vessel to use first names when addressing officers.  If someone didn’t have the last name Karinne, it was acceptable to address them using their last name.  The zip ship they used to transfer from the Tikanne landed just in front of Palla and Sammy, and Jason climbed out and immediately embraced the pink-haired commander of the new flagship.

        “Hey there, Palla,” he said, patting her back fondly.  “You settled in yet?”

        “I’ve been on the ship for two takirs, Jason,” she replied with a smile.  “I was here to oversee the final refits and initial testing.”

        “Hey, I’ve been busy, I can’t be expected to keep track of everything,” he protested, then he hugged Sammy and gave her a kiss on the cheek.  “And it’s good to see an Admiral’s diamond on this epaulet, Sammy.  Congratulations.”

        “Thanks, Jason,” she replied, then kissed his cheek.  “I certainly like the pay raise.  But I’ll miss the Yorktown.”

        “We always miss our prior commands, Sammy.  I miss the Aegis,” Palla injected.  “And Rola will be a fine captain to command him in your stead.”

        “I picked Rola myself, she’d better,” Sammy declared, which made Jason chuckle.

        “Are Myri and the others here yet?”

        “They’ll be arriving in about an hour, your Grace.  They said go ahead and start the tour.  After all, they’ve been all over this ship for the last month,” Palla replied, rolling her eyes a little bit, which made Jason chuckle.  “They’ll join us for the commissioning ceremony.”

        Jason inspected the officer corps, which for him meant walking around shaking hands, kissing cheeks, and chatting with the officers he knew.  Many veteran officers from other ships were present in the bay, officers he knew, and there were some pretty famous units from within the KMS present as well.  Palla had brought her entire engineering crew from the Aegis, the Shield’s Hammers, onto her new ship, which had caused something of a row since it left such a large void on the Aegis in their engineering department.  And standing among the Shield’s Hammers was now-Lieutenant Rilari Karinne, the reason why they didn’t suffer jump shock anymore.  Jason shook the hand of Commander Justin Taggart as he went down the line, for the Ghost Squadron had been transferred from the Dreamer to the Tianne.  Marayi was pretty pissed about that, that Palla poached her fighter squadron, but it did make sense to put the best fucking fighter squadron in the KMS on the flagship of the navy.  He kissed the cheek of Major Liira Karinne, commander of the 302nd Marine Exomech company, who was making quite a name for herself in the rigger corps.  Her unit was known as the Banshees, and were considered the best exomech unit in the KMS that wasn’t the KBB or the Red Warriors; actually, the Banshees were the Karinne Marines’ version of the Red Warriors, who were Army, whom Juma had assembled in response to the growing fame of the Red Warriors.  Juma formed her own elite exomech company from the best riggers in the Karinne Marines, that could compete with the Red Warriors.  But, since her unit wasn’t Army, she had them in black exomechs like the KBB, just with the female ghost symbol representing the unit instead of the KBB’s nude armed Faey symbol.  But that wasn’t a copy of the KBB, that was more a copy of the Ghost Squadron’s black Wolf fighters with the spectre icon on the tailfins.

        Juma and Sioa were sometimes almost ridiculously competitive when it came to the Army and the Marines, whom Juma commanded.  There was no dedicated commander of the Marines in the KMS structure, that fell to Juma as overall commander of the Navy..

        Liira intentionally chose the name Banshees for her unit to complement the Ghost Squadron, to be the “Ghost Squadron” of the Marine exomech corps, and Jason found it strangely fitting that two units named for undead spirits served on a ship named after the Faey Angel of Death.

        After nearly an hour of chatting with officers, Myri and the full command staff of the KMS joined them, and Palla took them on a tour of the ship.  It had an entirely different layout than a capitol ship did, but a few things were the same.  Engineering was still in the stern section of the ship, the bridge was in the geographic center of the ship, to afford the bridge maximum protection, and the main engines and hyperspace jump engines took up the most volume of the ship compared to other systems.  Most of the stern sections of the ship was taken up by the engines, with “thruster” engines located all through the ship to increase the ship’s maneuverability in tactical combat situations.  Much like the carriers, the ship utilized lateral trams to get people and materials around quickly—it would take Jason hours to walk from the stern to the bow of the ship—from which a spidery network of lifts extended to allow someone to get from the very bow of the ship to any other part of the ship in 12 minutes or less.  As they toured, Palla told him all about everything she showed him, showing that she had done her homework and was ready to command this behemoth.  Palla knew everything about the ship, from its acceleration curve numbers to how many shops there were in the deck 71 section 14 shopping concourse.

        When they reached the computer core chamber, which wasn’t far from the bridge, she proudly showed off the elegant pale blue spire of biogenic crystal that was behind a triple layer of hard shields.  It was the ship’s computer core, and it was a biogenic computer just one step below a CBIM.  It had taken the Shimmer Dome 8 months to grow, and that slender spire of pale blue crystal was the heart of the most sophisticated and powerful computer in the galaxy—that Jason knew of—that was not a CBIM.  It required a brand new, more powerful class of biogenic mainframe to run a ship as complex and massive as the Tianne.  Hovering just outside the hard shields was a holographic representation of the computer, which Palla had named Coma, a derivation of its official title, Command Biogenic Mobile Operations Mainframe.  Coma didn’t have the same capabilities as Cybi and the other CBIMs, but she was still damn impressive, and her crystal was so large and so complex that she displayed elements of personality.  She was more than a biogenic mainframe, but less than a CBIM, and Jason was  very curious to see how she grew as she learned and gained experience, as she formed new lattice pathways in her core crystal.

        Coma was diffentiated from the CBIMs in that her hologram wasn’t an image of Sora Karinne.  It was instead a holographic representation based on Jyslin, and it was a little odd seeing his wife’s face on that hologram.  But Myleena had decided that it would be a nice thing to do for Jyslin by putting her face on the new class of biogenic mainframes.

        “Good afternoon, Coma,” Jason said, which caused the still hologram to open its eyes.

        “Good afternoon, Grand Duke Karinne,” she replied.  “How are you today?”

        “I’m fine.  How are you?”

        “All systems are operating at peak efficiency.  I am ready to begin active ship operations.”

        “That’s good, because you’ll be starting your first mission in a couple of hours,” Jason told her.

        “The orders for our first mission are already stored in my database.  I will be ready.”

        “Isn’t she marvelous?” Palla asked earnestly, smiling towards the hologram.  “I have high hopes that Coma’s presence on the ship will make him that much more formidable.”

        “It’s definitely going to give you an advantage,” Jason agreed.  “Having a computer as powerful as Coma by itself is an advantage, but add to that the fact that she’s a computer that learns, and it makes her even tougher to beat.”

        “It also makes this ship completely immune to computer invasion and hack attempts,” Palla added.  “And she’s available for a merge if any Generations are on board.  The advantage of biogenics.”

        Jason nodded.  “Will you be having her manifest on the bridge?”

        “Oh yes, she’ll be present on the bridge at all times,” she replied.  “She has her own spot on the bridge about five shakra from my chair, so I’m always within easy reach if she needs me or I need her and for some reason I can’t commune with her through my interface.”

        “How are you handling the local network?”

        “Coma has organized and will oversee the local biogenic network, separating it into two main domains, duty and off-duty.  The duty network is for official ship business, and the off-duty network is for social and recreational use, which Coma will restrict or disable when we get into active theaters to keep the crew’s attention firmly on the task at hand.  She will manage the local network’s connection back to the main biogenic network,” she answered.  “This ship will have constant connection to the main biogenic network.  So I will always be a commune away from you, your Grace, if you need me.”

        “I like that addition, if only so the crew is in contact with their families back on Karis,” he said.

        “That’s also a big benefit,” she agreed.  “It’s another reason why I am so glad you installed Coma on the ship.  The mainframe on the Aegis wasn’t capable of that.”

        “That had more to do with communications than capability,” Jason told her.  “We kept BG1 restricted, and that throttled the ship’s biogenic network to local only.  Juma has no plans to change that, either.  This ship will be the exception rather than the rule.”

        “That’s right, and that’s how it’s going to stay,” Juma piped up.

        “So, the perk for serving on the flagship is recreational access to the planetary biogenic network,” Palla noted with a smile.

        “Being the best means you get perks, Palla,” he said, which made her smile preeningly.  “The other ships have access to Civnet, but you get access to the biogenic network, so you can merge and project back home.”

        After touring the core chamber, which was filled with the external support stacks, they more or less just walked about 100 shakra down the companionway and reached the bridge.  Like the command ships, the bridge of the Tianne was a giant room which was the nerve center of the ship, and also the nerve center of the fleet that the ship would command while in a task force.  It had hundreds of stations along the walls and in rows behind the ship operations center, which was the “conventional” bridge of most any other ship.  Palla’s chair was a bit further back than on the Aegis, so she could both relay orders to the task force and also to her own crew.  The ship had three navigator’s stations, primary and two backups, two engineering stations, 20 ship-only comm stations with a few dozen more comm stations elsewhere on the bridge, the exo’s station directly in front of and to the right of the captain’s chair, two new stations for second and third officers, working under the exo to make her job easier, and only one tactical station, which was directly forward and to the left.  The door to Palla’s ready room, her “office” on the ship, was in line with her chair to starboard, and beyond that office was Palla’s quarters, which Jason had seen on the plans.  It was more like a grand apartment than a crew quarter, a six room apartment that was nearly as luxurious as a hotel penthouse, with another apartment off of it for Palla’s personal maid and attendant.  Palla’s quarters had two different exits as well, one to the bridge and one to the companionway on the far side from the bridge, so she didn’t have to go through the bridge to get in and out of her quarters.  Her attendant’s quarters also had an exit to that companionway, which was more or less required since Palla’s maid wasn’t going to be coming onto the bridge.  Her maid was a Lieutenant Commander, Linka Ordanne…and only on a ship like that would an Academy educated O4 ranking member of the KMS be cooking and cleaning like a maid.  But Linka had not only applied for the job, she had to beat out 34 other applicants to get it.  No doubt she saw it as a fast track for her career, since she’d have the ear of Staff Admiral Palla Karinne in intimate, private circumstances.

        Palla was the highest ranking line officer in the Navy, so she damn well deserved having swanky quarters and her own personal maid.

        Aft of Palla’s ready room was another ready room, and that ready room belonged to Sammy.  She had a slightly smaller apartment on the far side of that ready room, only four rooms instead of six and without quarters for a personal attendant, but still pretty damn nice.  The doors to Palla’s and Sammy’s ready rooms were only about 20 shakra apart.  And within their quarters, there was a door that led from Palla’s living room to Sammy’s, just in case the two needed to talk and both were off duty.

        Usually a captain and exo’s quarters were separated in the interests of the ship, and the quarters of the second and third officers were elsewhere for that very reason, but on a ship the size of the Tianne, the planners only saw advantage in putting their quarters side by side.  After all, any attack that could penetrate that deeply into the ship was going to destroy it anyway, and it allowed the shipbuilders to extend the compressed Neutronium carapace box that enclosed and formed an additional layer of protection for the bridge and computer core to add the quarters of the two highest ranking officers on board.

        The bridge crew, all officers and Master Chiefs, had taken their posts while Palla was giving Jason a tour, and they all gathered as Jason and Palla approached her captain’s chair.  She offered it to him with a smile as hoverpods recorded, and he sat down in her chair on its raised platform a moment, then stood up and stepped back down.  An aide stepped forward with the charter and flag, and he took them from her with a nod.  “You’ve already named the ship, Palla, but it’s still your honor to announce it to the house,” he prompted.

        “I’ve named this ship the Tianne, your Grace,” she replied.  “So that we may carry Trelle’s wrath to our enemies.”

        “A fitting name,” Jason said.  “And with that, I officially declare that the KMS Tianne is commissioned and ready for active service.  May he serve long and well,” he declared.

        The bridge crew applauded enthusiastically as Jason offered the framed charter and folded flag in its glass case, pausing with both of them holding the items for the cameras, then Palla took them and handed them to Sammy.  “Place these in my ready room, exo,” she ordered.

        “Yes sir,” she replied, performing what was a duty and privilege for an exo in the KMS, to hang up the charter and flag in the captain’s ready room.  Sammy headed for the ready room as Jason and Palla paused for a few more pictures for the hovering cameras, and once she returned, they took several pictures of Jason, Palla, Sammy, and the second and third officers, then a portrait of Jason and the command staff with Palla and Sammy, then a portrait of the ship’s command crew, then a picture of the entire bridge crew all gathered around Palla’s chair.

        Once the bridge crew photo was taken, Palla motioned, and she walked with Jason, Myri, Juma, Sioa, and Navii back to the main hangar bay, as the rest of the command staff went a different direction, returning to their transport to take them back to Karis.  They discussed the shakedown cruise, where the Tianne would be commanding a task force of 47 other newly built ships ranging from frigates to two new tactical battleships, which would be a 20 day mission that would take them almost all over the galaxy.  They’d visit all four quadrants, including a stop at the Coalition’s capitol planet to deliver a gift to Hovikk—and show off the Tianne maybe a little bit—and do some joint tactical exercises with the Coalition defense forces before returning home.  We should have everything shaken down by the time the fleet begins to muster at Terra for the first training wargames to prepare for the Syndicate, she assured him.  I’ve been keeping a close eye on the initial inspections and tests, and I haven’t seen anything that concerns me.  This ship is well designed, and they built him well, Jason.

        I’m sure Cybi will appreciate the praise.  She did most of the design.  She had to, this ship is too complex for most shipbuilders to really even know where to begin.

        I’ll be sure to thank her personally next time she visits, she assured him.  I’m surprised she wasn’t at the christening ceremony.

        She didn’t want to step on Coma’s toes, he replied.  This is Coma’s ship.  She didn’t want anyone to think that she was somehow telling Coma what to do.

        What a curious reason, since she’s a computer.  And so is Coma.

        Computers with feelings, Palla, he stressed.  And you should keep that in mind.  As Coma grows, she’s going to develop a definitive personality and emotions.  They won’t get in the way of her duties, but they will be there.

        She has them already, Palla told him.  She’s been a tiny bit nervous about our shakedown cruise.  She wants everything to go perfectly, and she’s been a little neurotic about the diagnostics.  I think she’s had the Hammers do a level two diagnostic of the jump system three times in the last five days.  And I can’t count how many times she’s done internal diagnostics of the biogenic network.  It’s almost like she thinks the whole thing is going to fly apart any second if she’s not keeping an eye on things.

        See?  You’re going to see what it’s like to be in my chair as you deal with Coma, hon.  Someitmes the CBIMs are a pain in my ass, but despite that, I love them anyway.

        Palla laughed.

        I’ll make sure to tell Cybi that you annoy her next time I see her, Myri noted lightly.

        Pft, I tell her that myself, all the time, he replied, his mental tilt making all five of them laugh.  And Coma should calm down a whole lot once you get going, when she’s doing instead of preparing.  As she settles into things, she should be just fine.  This is all new to her too, after all.  It’s just pre-mission jitters.

        I can tell, she sent with an amused twist to her thought.  She’s acting like a fresh ensign right out of OTS.

        She shouldn’t be for long, he sent as they entered the cavernous landing bay.  The zip ship he’d used to board the ship was gone, and a KMV-12 military personnel transport dropship was waiting for them, hatch open and with none other than Aura standing by the stairs with her copilot..  Welp, I’m heading home, I’ve had a long day and I have new babies at home waiting for me, he sent eagerly.

        Kiss them for me, Jason, Palla said, kissing him on the cheek, then smoothing his lapels.  I’ll keep you up to date on our progress.

        Commune with me when you need to, you’re important enough now for me to allow it, he winked, which made her laugh.

        Oh, is that a perk of any girl with three diamonds on her epaulets?

        Only the cute ones, he replied, which made her beam.  I sure as hell don’t let Myri do that.

        Myri slapped him from behind, making Palla laugh.

        Aura had him, Myri, and the other members of the chiefs of staff board the dropship, and Jason was already pulling at his robes by the time he sat down.  I think that went pretty well, Jason declared as Aura closed the hatch.

        “We’ll be on the way in a moment,” she told them, giving Jason another smile.

        “I thought you were off duty, Aura,” he told her.

        “I was called in for this, Jason.  They like to have pilots they know and trust ferry you around, and I think I qualify on both counts,” she winked from her pilot’s chair.

        “Works for me,” he said as he untied the red sash around his waist.

        It did go well, Navii agreed, being helped down into her chair by Juma.  The walking for the tour had really tired her out, and now she needed to sit down for a while.  Navii was starting to look old, and he was really starting to worry about her.  She came out of retirement to build the KMS, and she’d meant to retire after the KMS was fully operational and running smoothly, but the Consortium war kept her on duty, and now the Syndicate kept her on duty.  She had celebrated her 100th birthday just last month, which for a Faey was like being 80, and she was starting to slow down despite her daily exercise regimen.  Not even Faey lived forever, even in this modern age of super-advanced medical technology.  All those years were starting to catch up with her.  They hadn’t affected her mind, she was still as sharp as ever, but her body was starting to feel those years she had under her belt more and more with each day.

        Navii was taking steps.  She worked a reduced work week and got plenty of rest, and she merged to her home biogenic vidlink unit and manifested a hologram into the command center more often than she showed up in person anymore.  But the old girl was determined to see things through until the house was safe, until the Consortium and Syndicate were defeated.  Then she intended to retire.

        Jason just hoped and prayed that she got to actually do it, that the wars didn’t drag on and drag on and have her pass away before she earned the retirement she so richly deserved.

        The flagship is exactly what the KMS needed for the coming war, Navii continued as Jason felt the dropship start to move, and it should be quite the nasty shock to the Syndicate the first time they engage it in battle.  With our fleet at the strength we projected when we learned of the Syndicate, and with the Confederation having so many members now, I feel confident that we can rout the Syndicate and send them back to Andromeda within four months of initial contact.

        If not for the need to preserve our assets to deal with the colonizing Consortium force in two years, we could rout them in a few days, Sioa grunted mentally.  We could just form up the entire Confederate fleet and meet them outside the galaxy and smash them in a single battle.  But that would cost us too many ships, and that will put us at a major disadvantage when the colonization force arrives.

        Just so, Navii nodded towards her.  We need to fight this war carefully, save every ship we can, save ever soldier we can, because we are going to need them in two years.  The war plans that Lorna and the CCM’s command staff drew up take the future into account.  They will work well, Navii declared.

        If they earn your stamp of approval, Navii, that’s all I need to hear to put my support behind them, Jason told her.

        Lorna and her staff drew up exactly what I would have drawn up, Jason.

        And let me guess, Lorna asked you for quite a bit of advice.

        No commander is an island, Jason.  Of course she asked me for advice, as well as several dozen other military minds not part of her command staff.  That’s why we have the term advisor, she said with a smile.  Something you have in numbers far greater than she does.

        I’m too young and silly to know everything like you, Navii, he replied, which made her laugh.

        Nobody knows everything, Jason, she replied sagely, smiling gently at him.  Lorna’s both smart enough and humble enough to know that.  That’s why she’s the best possible choice to command the CCM.

        Could you imagine Hezivarr as the CCM commander? Juma asked wryly.  That would be a disaster.  I mean, he’s very good, even brilliant, but he falls into the trap Lorna avoids.  He does think he knows everything.

        The CCM would riot if they removed Lorna, Jason snorted mentally.  Half the Confederate Council would riot along with them.  Lorna’s proven herself several times over.

        “We’re about to land on the Tikanne, please make sure you’re sitting,” Aura called.

        That was fast, Jason noted.  They must have had the Tikanne standing by just off the flagship.

        The destroyer could almost land in that landing bay, Sioa noted.

        It was designed so a frigate can land in that bay and still have room for other thintgs in there, Jason reminded her.  Which I think is a pretty good idea.  A frigate can land there for repairs if necessary.

        Destroyers aren’t designed to make a ground landing, so even if it was big enough, it wouldn’t do them much good, Myri added.

        They slowed to a stop, and Jason felt them gently touch down back in the landing bay of the Tikanne. Gai escorted them to a waiting room just off the landing bay rather than take them to the bridge, and they sat on comfortable couches and watched the flagship slide by through the window in the stateroom as the destroyer started to turn, this time making for the Stargate rather than jumping.  Dera wordlessly offered Navii a glass of what looked like tea, and they discussed the flagship’s impending shakedown cruise as Gai had her ship make for the Stargate.  The lights dimmed as they prepared to transit, and seconds later, they were back in Karis space.  The Stargate they’d set was in high orbit, since they had to keep a minimum distance between the  Stargates in place around the planet else they’d interfere with one another, and the destroyer turned and started the 10 minute trip from the Stargate to the planet.  Gai had them board the dropship after she came down into the atmosphere to hover 40,000 shakra over the White House, and Aura put them back where they started about four hours after they began.  Jason bid farewell to the others and walked a whole 50 shakra from where Aura had landed to his hovercar, and he made his way home, driving himself and acting just like any other citizen of Karis…who had two Wolf fighters following him without looking like they were following him.

        Jysin met him at the landing pad, giving him a hug and a deep kiss.  Hey baby, how did things go?

        Pretty well.  The new ship is as impressive inside as outside, and the crew looks like they’re ready.  I have no worries at all about it, he told her as he took her hand and walked with her towards the house.  How are the twins?

        Sleeping, and so is Terry.  Cyvanne is watching them, she answered.  Symone’s taking a nap herself.

        Sounds like I got here at the wrong time, I wanted to hold my daughter, he complained.  How are you feeling?  Still sore?

        A tiny bit, but this isn’t my first walk down the path, baby.  I should be fully recovered by tomorrow.

        Yeah, you’ve been pushing them out at a ridiculous rate the last few years.  Can’t just have one at a time anymore, can you?

        You’ll never hear me complain, I’d be happy to have twenty babies.  Besides, that’s your fault.  Stop being so damn virile, love.

        No, that’s your fault.  Stop putting out more than one egg to fertilize, and you won’t be a twin factory.

        She laughed aloud and snuggled against his shoulder a little.  Hey, like I have any control over that, she challenged.

        Dahnai call?

        She’s been manifesting over here off and on all day, checking up on us, she answered.  She wants us to bring the babies over to the summer palace tomorrow.

        That sounds nice.  She’ll have a chance to really get to know them.

        Jyslin led him into the house by the hand, and Jason almost felt himself relax as he entered the domain of his family.  He came in through the deck, through the kitchen, and while it was a little weird not seeing Ayama or Surin there, knowing they were in the house was good enough for him.  Instead it was Seido, chopping onions or something that looked like them as the grill outside warmed up.  Seido cooked in the Shio traditions, which was everything cooked over an open flame, preferably wood fueled, so the grill out on the deck got daily use and a second grill that was wood-burning had been brought in to give her more cooking space.  She wouldn’t so much as boil water unless she did it over an open flame.  She’d use the induction heaters in the kitchen to warm leftovers, but she wouldn’t cook on them.  And Seido was an awesome cook, had even impressed Ayama…and that was saying something.  She tossed the vegetables into a pot by her chopping block and smiled as they entered.  Good afternoon, Jason, she sent, her thought lucid and powerful.  Seido was a top-tier telepath, and like many of her people, had come to Karis because of the accepting nature of the house to telepaths.  Sometimes, telepaths weren’t exactly well received in the Federation because of their ability to eavesdrop on the private thoughts of others, or they were aggravated to hell by the Federal government, who tried to recruit them for government work.

        Despite being a formidable telepath, Seido was happy being where she was, and doing what she was doing.  Seido’s ultimate goal was to open her own restaurant and be a chef, and she saw working for Jason as a great opportunity to practice her cooking skills in a place where she might be cooking for a family one day, and for a government leader the next, and be well known as the personal chef of the Grand Duke when it came time to open her restaurant.  The cleaning and minding the kids, she had no problems with that either, since she was even more of a neat freak than Ayama and she loved kids.  She had no aspirations to train her talent and use it, she enjoyed cooking and taking care of people.  In the House Karinne, she could do exactly that without weekly visits from the IBI trying to recruit her for their telepathic criminal task force, or visits from Federation Security to try to get her to come work for the Federation’s intelligence agency.  The Federation would never force her to do something, but they could annoy the living fuck out of her by never giving up on trying.  After years of telling them no, she finally made it abundantly clear she had no interest in being anything but a chef by leaving the Federation and joining the House Karinne.  She set a few tomatoes on her chopping block and picked up her knife, then started slicing them.

        That’s already looking good, what is it?

        It’s going to be Terran chili con carne, I’m going to make a big pot of it for tomorrow for whoever wants some.  Dinner’s already ready, it’s on the warmers in the dining room.  I’ll come serve it once I get everyone rounded up.

        Sounds good, I am hungry, he nodded.

        Jason moved into the living room, where Rann and Shya were sitting on the couch…or Rann was sitting while Shya was laying on the couch with her head on Rann’s lap, looking up at him and reaching up to play with his shoulder-length red hair, and he had a hand on her bare belly.  Shya was only wearing a  pair of bikini bottoms, so there wasn’t any clothing in the way for him to make skin contact.  On the back of the couch over Shya, Amber was curled up into a ball of criminal cuteness, napping after what for her had to be a long, exhausting day herding toddlers and getting to know newborns.  Shya was even more intensely attached to Rann now than she was when she first moved here, and Rann had mirrored that attachment himself.  They had already pair bonded, and were just waiting to grow up.  Hey old married couple, Jason sent lightly as he came in, which made Rann look his way.  When did you get back from the hospital?

        About two hours ago, Shya replied without looking over or looking up, twisting Rann’s hair around her finger.  She was the one that convinced him to let it grow out, and she had an incessant need to touch it and play with it.  Jason considered that to be a bit self-serving, since she’d recently cut her hair so short that the back of her head near her neck was shaved, with the hair going up progressively longer and longer, until one got to her bangs.  She parted those into a pair of bangs that reached all the way down to her chin.  It had to be the newest fad hairstyle for girls though through school.    Both the new twins are sleeping, Dad.

        That was a recent affectation.  Rann and Shya had seemingly decided that calling him Daddy was too childish, so both of them had been calling him Dad for the last month or so.  But, what did endear him was that Shya didn’t call him Daddy Jason  or Dad Jason, she just called him Dad.  However, she still called Jyslin Mommy Jyslin sometimes, but had more recently started to use the title pam or pamma, which was a title that could be applied to a foster mother.  In her mind, he was her father now...her father who was also father to her husband.  It seemed creepy when he thought of it that way, but that was just part and parcel of what it meant to live in a predominantly Faey society.

        Your pam told me, he nodded as they walked up close to the couch.  Jason saw that Rann was watching an MLB preseason game from Terra.  Rann loved baseball, and his team of choice when the Karsa league was off season and the Karsa Bombers weren’t playing was the London Royals, formerly known as the Kansas City Royals.  He just liked the team colors, and that had turned him into a fan since the MLB had no teams on Karis.  They’d moved the team to London just last year, part of the globalization process that had slowly been transforming Terra since the subjugation.  The MLB also had a team in Tokyo, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays had moved to Tokyo and changed to the Tokyo Samurai.  The NFL had expanded to 40 teams starting next season, and six of the eight new teams were all outside of the United States.  The new teams were in San Antonio, Birmingham in Alabama, Mexico City, Ottowa, London, Edinburough, Frankfurt, and Barcelona, European cities that had once hosted the old World League teams.  The NBA had a team in China, the Sacramento Kings had moved to Beijing, and the Chinese basketball league and Japanese baseball league now had teams in Honolulu, Hawaii.

        The biggest sign of that was the upcoming World Cup, which would include teams from Draconis and Jerama.  FIFA had expanded its membership into the Imperium, since soccer was so popular among Faey men as an “acceptable” team sport, along with baseball.  Those sports allowed men to be highly athletic and competitive, but weren’t inherently violent like other American sports like football or hockey.  Baseball was still the most popular Terran sport among Faey men, but soccer had really been shooting up in popularity the last few years.  The teams from Draconis and Jerama had qualified, and they’d be competing in the 2018 World Cup, being hosted by Russia, and the Imperium teams were both men and women, with the caveat that a Faey team had to have a roster that was at least 50% men to compete in the World Cup.

        Faey women were, on the average, stronger and faster than Terran women because they were a heavy gravity species, so they were allowed to compete with Terran men in Terran organized sports, who were more equal to them physically.  There were female Faey top-tier pro athletes in the MLB, in champion-level pro soccer, in pro basketball, in pro cricket, in pro rugby, and even in pro American football.  Female Faey football players tended to play skill positions rather than linemen due to the fact that even the burliest Faey woman was going to be heavily outweighed by a Terran man, a highly image-conscious Faey woman was not going to fatten herself up just to put on weight to play as a center, end, guard or tackle, that was absolutely unthinkable.  But any other position on the field now had Faey women playing them in the NCAA and semi-pro football leagues, women who were starting to show up in the NFL.  The quarterback for the New Orleans Saints was a Faey woman, Jena Feralle, and she was just as big and strong and hard to tackle as Cam Newton, on top of being able to throw a football 70 yards down the field and land it in a garbage can.  And at the Terran NFL-used measurements of 6’4” and 205 pounds, she was just as big as many other NFL quarterbacks, so size was not an issue.

        NFL players balked at the idea of a Faey player, at least until the first ones showed up in the NCAA four years ago and started dominating in the skill positions, particularly wide receiver, running back, and cornerback, since Faey women were naturally very, very fast runners.  And when Jena Feralle finished her rookie season last year with a winning 9-7 record and with 23 touchdowns and only 8 interceptions, the balkers shut up in a hurry.  Jena Feralle was the real deal, and NFL owners were well known to overlook quite a few “negatives” about a player if that player would help their team win.  The owner of the Saints didn’t care that his quarterback was a Faey woman, he cared that she was a damn good quarterback that was hard to tackle as Cam Newton, could scramble like Russel Wilson, had an arm just as strong as Andrew Luck’s, and could manage the game as efficiently as the man she replaced, Drew Brees.  She was a complete quarterback, a Hall of Fame-level quarterback, and the Saints had cashed in big time by taking a chance when they drafted her to eventually replace Drew Brees two years ago.  She was the first Faey woman—or any woman—taken in the NFL draft.

        It did add a new dimension to an NFL locker room, since the Faey women refused to shower separately, but Terrans had had years to get used to those particular quirks when it came to Faey society.

        Who’s winning? Jason asked, looking at the hologram being projected out from the vidlink

        Royals, two to nothing, Rann answered.  The MLB season starts in five days, thank Trelle.  A whole month without baseball, that sucked.

        You’ll live, son, Jason chuckled.  Seido said that dinner’s ready.

        Yeah, we were waiting for you, Dad, Shya sent as she sat up.

        One of you go get Ayama and Surin, and we’ll eat.

        They gathered in the dining room, rousting Ayama and Surin from their apartment and going and fetching the twins from Maya.  Bethany and Siyae were very energetic toddlers, happy and bubbly and exceedingly curious, which meant that they got into absolutely everything.  Ayama had had to baby-proof the house to a degree she never had with Rann, since neither of them saw a vertical surface as a barrier to finding out what was on top of it.  After about the third time Siyae fell trying to climb the kitchen counter, the last time resulting in a dislocated ankle, one of the guards quietly shadowed the twins no matter where they went.  They didn’t interfere unless the toddler was about to get herself into more trouble than she could handle, then they swooped in and put a stop to it before it got out of control  That mirrored Aya’s policy with Jason, which was I don’t get you out of trouble you make for yourself.  The guards let the twins learn that doing something was bad, and only intervened if doing it was potentially dangerous or would result in an injury beyond just a bump or a scrape.  The two little girls were absolutely dorable, a bit charmingly clumsy since they’d only been walking for about six months, and promised to be as beautiful as Sora when they got to be her age.  Kaera and Jyslin were herding the rambunctious girls into the dining room, letting them walk themselves.

        Babies still asleep? Jason asked.

        Jyslin nodded as she picked up a laughing Bethany and swooped her down into her high chair, which made her giggle.  Amber jumped up onto the table and sat down expectantly at her food dish, her two tails wagging in that hypnotizing pattern as Seido came into the room.  “A-ber,” Bethany burbled, reaching out to the little vulpar.  Amber nipped playfully at her fingers, which made her bubble with giggles and pull her hand back.

        They’ve been asleep a while, it’s about time for one of them to wake up, she answered as she clicked Bethany’s safety strap, while Kaera did the same for Siyae on the far side from Amber.

        Mai is in the nursery, Jason, she’ll warn us if the babies stir, Kaera told him.

        Poor girl, I should give her a vacation for pulling day after duty.

        The day after’s a walk through Trelle’s garden, Jason.  It’s the week after that sucks, Kaera winked.

        Ah yes, the crying phase, he nodded in agreement.  I take it you wear a helmet and mute the sound?

        Stop revealing our secrets, Jason, Kaera protested, which made Jyslin laugh.

        Reveal the fact that you’re a bunch of obnoxious nits?  I’ll take that to my grave, he sent with dry amusement twined into his thought, which just made Kaera grin rogueishly at him.

        Tim and Symone coming?

        Symone’s asleep, Tim’s sitting with her, Jyslin answered.

        After Siyae was settled, Seido served dinner.  She’d been dabbling in Terran fare lately, since Jason was Terran, so she set out chicken parmesan, buttered asparagus, scalloped potatoes, steamed broccoli with cheese sauce on the side, spinach, stewed beets mixed in with ruga roots—the only non-Terran food on the table—and simmered green beans with bacon strips still mixed in with it.  And for desert, they had a red velvet cake.  And she did it all on the grills out on the deck.  She could even bake on a grill, that was how she utilized the upper rack on the big wood-burning grill she’d had brought in.  And Jason could admit, she was damn good, so good that she and Ayama had been trading recipes for the last week.

        How’s Sanjira today? Jason asked Surin as Seido set the cake on the table, and they started eating.

        A little cranky, but otherwise fine, he answered.  Ayama just put her down for a nap before we came out, so hopefullly we can get all the way through dinner without having to run back.

        Jason laughed.  You’d think that you wouldn’t act like first time parents.

        It’s different now that the crying baby is mine, Jason, Ayama sent mildly as she scooped spinach onto her plate.

        First time mother paranoia, Jyslin grinned at her, then switched to speaking for the benefit of the toddlers.  “And what do you want first, girls?”

        “Chicken!” Siyae called.

        “That yellow stuff,” she said, pointing in the general direction of the potatoes, which had a layer of cheese on top.

        Jyslin fixed plates for them as Jason started eating, at least after he pointed imperiously at the chair and glared at Seido until she obeyed and took a seat.  “Did you even go to school today, Rann?” Jason asked.

        “No, Dad, we went from the annex to TK practice with Miss Ayuma,” he answered.

        “I finally mastered a new trick today!” Shya declared.  “Watch!”  Shya put her hands on the table and concentrated hard, from the look of intensity in her eyes, and Jason watched the water in her glass funnel up out of the glass in a narrow column.  It twisted and turned around itself, almost tying a knot, then Shya slapped her palms on the table.  When she did so, the twisted bundle of water shuddered and then seemed to explode, but what she actually did was scatter the molocules to turn the water into vapor, which became a miniature cloud that expanded over the dining room table.  That was not an easy trick, and it impressed Jason mightily.

        Shya never failed to surprise.  Ayuma had urged out her latent telekinetic ability last year, found that she had considerable potential—though nowhere near Rann since he was a Generation—and had been training her along with Rann.  And it almost made him feel sorry for Dahnai, that she gave up the daughter she had that was both a TK and a listener.  Shya was in the top 10% when it came to Faey with telekinetic ability, able to lift about 20 konn.  That didn’t sound like much compared to her husband, since Rann could lift nearly 40 konn with his ability un-boosted by a gestalt...and who was absolutely dwarfed by Kyri and Zachary.  For a non-Generation Faey telekinetic, however, Shya had impressive ability, nearly as strong as Dahnai’s.  Shya was gifted, she was intelligent, and she was utterly loyal to the pair bond she had formed wth Rann.  Shya was a Karinne now, and she never wanted to go back to being an Imperial Princess.

        “That’s fantastic, hon!” Jason said earnestly.  “That’s not an easy thing to do!”

        “Tell me about it, it took me nearly a month to figure out,” she grinned, her bangs swaying a little

        “Show-off,” Rann accused lightly as he used his own ability to contain the misty cloud, condensed it back into a liquid, then drained it back into her glass.  “And don’t do that over the table, silly, you’ll get our food wet.”

        Shya elbowed Rann playfully.  “Eat your chicken,” she ordered.

        The conversation around the table was surprisingly mundane given Jyslin had just given birth the day before, but then again, about the only thing anyone had been talking about for the last couple of months was babies.  Symone represented the tail end of the “wave” of births that had taken place on the strip, and now only Maya was pregnant among the strip women, and just barely pregnant at that.  Even the lone Terran woman on the strip, Temika, was following that cycle, at least this time.  She and Mike had three kids now, 4 year old Latoiya, 3 year old Mike Junior, and two month old Christina.  It almost seemed like every week, someone was having a baby, a cycle that went on for what seemed like a year.  It got to the point where Jason jokingly told Songa to stop with the potassium supplements, so the girls would be less fertile.

        They almost made it through dinner.  Mai called down that Jon was awake, then they heard his cries through the baby monitor.  That woke up Julia, who joined in.  Jyslin laughed and put her fork down, then stood up.  “Well, that was the closest I ever made it to the end of dinner when the girls were babies,” he declared.

        “I’ll help you, love.  I shouldn’t be eating that cake anyway.  I swear, Seido is trying to fatten me up for slaughter,” Jason teased.

        “It sounds like Jason wants no desserts at all for a year, Seido,” Ayama noted dryly.

        “It does,” she agreed with a conspiratorial smile.  “Besides, I don’t think the Terran meat market is lucrative enough for me to harvest you, Jason.  Yet.”

        Jason laughed as he stood up.  “I’ll keep a close eye on the markets,” he grinned as he and Jyslin headed for the stairs.

        Jason played soother in chief, comforting his irritated daughter while Jyslin checked Jon…though Jason saw no difference between them.  It didn’t matter to him that Tim had fathered Jon.  In a way, it actually felt right, right that his best friend and amu would honor the bonds he had with Jyslin and with Jason by giving a part of himself to become a permanent part of Jason’s family, a sentiment that Tim and Symone mirrored with Terry.  Jon was his son despite who fathered him, and would find no want for love and attention from his father, at least no more than any of his other children.  Sometimes they had to compete a bit to get time with him, but Jason did his best to spend time with all his children, even Raisha, because they were his children, and he loved them.  He loved all of them, no matter who their mothers were, no matter if he was the biological father or not, even if he wasn’t actually supposed to be their father. Danelle was as good as his daughter, as far as he was concerned, he’d helped raise that girl from infancy, he loved her like a daughter, and that made her his daughter.  Shya was definitely his daughter, so much a part of the house now that Jason honestly couldn’t remember what it was like before she came to live with them.  And Jon would be his son, and always be his son.

        Love was love, not genetics.

        “He must be hungry,” she declared, sitting down and untying the lone cord on her post-natal blouse, which made it fall open to expose her milk-swollen breasts.  Sure enough, as soon as he was pressed to her breast, he started to nurse, and Jason watched as Jyslin looked down at him with soft, gentle eyes, the eyes of a mother holding her newborn infant, a look that could not be duplicated by any actress that had never experienced it herself.  He managed to soothe Julia to the point where she yawned sleepily but did not go back to sleep, looking up at him with those lucid eyes of hers.  His mother’s eyes, just looking into them almost made him hear a piano playing at the edge of his consciousness….

        He blinked.  Mother, I think you’re looking at me right now, he sent to no one in particular, his thought both vibrant with love and poignant with the old wound of loss.

        She’s always looking after you, Jason, Jyslin sent tenderly from her nursing chair, giving him a gentle smile.

        Maybe, but Julia looks so much like my mother, it’s almost scary.

        That’s why I named her after your mother, Jyslin winked.

        Well, you’re going to have another customer once Jon’s done, he warned.

        She gave him an impish smile.  That’s why I have two breasts, dink.

        I thought one was for business, and the other was for pleasure.

        They’re multifunctional units capable of different operational modes, she replied in a brisk mental tone that made him nearly hurt his throat stifling a laugh, so as not to upset the babies.

        Jason got to hold Jon as Julia took her turn nursing, lulling the newborn to sleep and keeping him well after he should have put him back in his crib.  He got another visitor just as Julia was finishing, when Amber padded into the nursery and jumped up onto the little table by the rocking chair, looking at the baby in his arms.  “He’s asleep, Amber,” he told her, “see?”

        She leaned forward enough to bring her tiny little nose just a tikra away from his cheek, sniffed, then leaned back and settled with a yawn.  “I know, you’ve just run yourself ragged today, haven’t you?” he asked with a soft chuckle, patting her on the head.  “The girls running around getting into trouble and new babies in the nursery, I bet you wore a path out on the carpet on the stairs.  You’ll just have to learn how to manage your time, girl,” he warned.  “That or trust that you don’t have to mother these two the way you did the girls.  They’ll be fine if you’re not here.”

        Amber sniffed in displeasure, making it clear that she was, in fact, going to mother these two just as much as she did Bethany and Siyae.  And she was a nervous nellie when the girls were infants, running in at the slightest sound coming from the nursery to check on the babies.  

        “I swear, she has new mother syndrome worse than Ayama,” Jyslin declared, standing up as Julia yawned.  “I almost feel sorry for her future kits, she might not ever let them out of her sight.  Let’s do a diaper check and let them get some rest.  This is hard work for a one day old, after all.”

        After getting the newborns settled in and sleeping, they went back downstairs and just relaxed in the living room. Jason was banished to the far side of the couch because Shya was laying across half of it, back to laying with her head in Rann’s lap, daring to put her feet on Jason’s legs.  Jason was having none of that, grabbing her ankle and tickling her foot, making her laugh and squirm and literally fall off the couch trying to get free of him, which made Rann burst into laughter.  That was something he knew he shouldn’t do, because Shya grabbed his leg and yanked him off the couch, and it was just seconds before the two of them were wrestling around on the floor.  Jason just moved over to the choice spot on the couch and ignored them, even turned up the viddy coming from the vidlink, enjoying an evening of domestic bliss.  Jyslin made it even more so when she sat down beside him and snuggled up to him, put her head on his shoulder, which made him put an arm around her.

        Rann noticed the invasion.  He pushed Shya away enough to protest, holding her at arm’s length over him as he gave his parents and accusing look.  “Hey, that’s our seat!”

        “Not when you get out of it,” Jyslin replied immediately.

        “It’s hard enough to get any couch time with Miss Horizontal seeing how much space she can take up on it,” Jason agreed, which made Shya gasp, then laugh.

        “I was giving you the space under my legs,” she retorted, sitting heavily on Rann’s stomach, enough to make him wheeze a bit.  “So, tickling my foot was all part of the plan, wasn’t it?”

        “I refuse to answer that question, on account of it might in fact possibly be true,” he replied loftily, which made Jyslin laugh.

        “Payback hurts, Dad,” she warned.

        “Girl, you know how mean I am, and don’t for a second think I’ll go easy on you just because you’re my daughter,” he warned.  “Do you really want to go there?”

        Jyslin burst out laughing when Shya shrunk back a tiny bit, and Rann took advantage of it to push her backwards off of him.  He sat up and rolled through with her, and then she was the one on her back fighting for her proverbial life.

        She’s young.  She’ll learn, Jyslin sent impishly to him.

        I heard that! Shya declared as she managed to push Rann up off of her, mainly with a hand up under his chin.  It was a bit dirty, but there were no rules in this particuarly type of warfare.

        You were supposed to, it only helps Rann if you’re too busy fighting with me to fight with him, Jyslin replied shamelessly.  And to prove the point, Rann wrested her hand away, got hold of her other wrist, then pushed them down to the carpet over her head.  Shya tried to retaliate with her telekinetic ability, but Rann smothered it with his own, yet another trick that Ayuma had taught him.

        The only defense against telekinesis was another telekinetic, at least in this narrow instance where the two contending TKs happened to be husband and wife, where the skin to skin contact gave Rann a window into Shya’s mind to see what she was trying to do, and countering her on that level.

        But even in losing, Shya turned it into a victory.  When Rann relented, she yanked him down and gave him a kiss right on the lips, and it wasn’t a very chaste one.  Even at the young age of 8, Shya was flirting with Rann, even though she had no idea what she was doing and wouldn’t know what to do with him if Rann realized it.  Their relationship wasn’t a cutesy 8 year old “going steady,” their relationship was as intimate, it was tactile, and it was a reflection of the very adult impulses they’d have in just a few years.

        Rann’s hair wasn’t the only thing that Shya almost involuntarily touched, though they’d broken her of doing that outside of their bedroom.  And Rann was certainly not passive in that department, either, he was just as active in touching Shya as she was in touching him.  Jason had absolutely no doubt that Rann and Shya would lose their virginity the first time Rann had an erection, because like any children in Faey society, they already knew exactly what sex was, what an erection meant, and Shya would start to mature sexually before Rann, so she’d be more than willing to consumate their marriage.  So there would be no innocent misunderstandings about just what that meant.  In the meantime, until they matured enough to be able to do what both of them were instinctively playing at at eight, they’d have to stay with the heavy petting and extended makeout sessions that would do any Terran teenage couple proud.  They weren’t kissing for the same reasons that teenagers were, but that didn’t mean that they were just playing around or mimicking the adults.  Kissing was one way Rann and Shya demonstrated their intense pair bond, because it created close intimacy and expressed the deep love they already had for one another, and that was something that they very much could experience and enjoy, even at eight.  Their pair bond would tie them together mind, body, and soul for their entire lives, and give them a deep love and happiness that Jason almost felt sorry that others would never experience.

        Rann and Shya were married, and how they acted in private drove that point home very starkly.  It would get Jason and Jyslin thrown in prison back on Terra, what they let those two do in their bedroom.  But they were married, and they weren’t playing at doing anything now that they wouldn’t be doing for real in about five years.

        And strangely enough, despite being raised Terran, Jason had no problem with the fact that his 8 year old son and adopted daughter were touching each other in places that would get them arrested on Terra in their bedroom.  He understood the pair bond, so he understood that what they were doing was entirely natural.  It was just “let’s play doctor” taken to the extreme of playing with one’s life partner, one with whom there was no fear, no hesitation, no secrets, no shame, with someone so much a part of one’s self that it was hard to separate things.

        What Rann and Shya had really had no place in Terran culture and society, no equivalent, so it was a good thing that they were in a culture that did understand.

        As usual, one kiss led to another, then another, until Shya had Rann in her clutches and was snuggling with him on the living room floor.  That got them off the couch, though, so Jason was quite content to snuggle with his pair bonded wife while his son did the same.

        Sometimes those two are almost silly, Jyslin told him with amusement, using their touch to send in a way that not even Shya could hear.  Sometimes I’m almost afraid of it.  They’re so bonded, if anything ever happened—

        I know, I don’t like to think about that, Jason agreed, cutting her off before she thought the unthinkable, that something happened to one of them.  Neither of them had to think about what would happen.  The death of one would kill the other, kill them through grief, of that there was no doubt.  That was the dark side of a pair bond, the punishment that came with the reward to balance things out.  It was a life of indescribable love, contentment, and companionship, until there was only one.  Then it was a hell from which there was no escape, a dark pit of utter despair that consumed all who fell into it.  Losing half of himself, Jason could not survive such a thing, and Jyslin was truly the other half of him.

        That was a place he had to admit that he was at with Jyslin.  If she died…he wouldn’t last long.  And he knew she wouldn’t if something happened to him.  There would be no recovery, the way Songa had managed to recover from the loss of her husband, for whom Rann was named.  If Jyslin died, Jason would stop eating, stop drinking, stop feeling anything but the loss, be trapped in that moment he felt himself lose her, feel that intense pain every second, every moment, for the rest of his life.  He would waste away and die, probably just a few days after she passed away.  And there was nothing that Songa could do to stop it.  Other doctors had tried in the past, with IVs supplying nutrients to a grieving widow, but it did no good.  They simply…died.  Slowly, every moment an absolute hell of unfathomable grief and loss, to the point where death was a welcome release from the pain for both the widow and the widow’s family.  It happened no matter what the doctor did…and when a couple were bonded that deeply, it was actually a mercy to let the widow pass away.  Even if the widow somehow survived, they would be empty inside, nothing but a shell of who they once were.  The grieving would never stop, it would never ease, until the day the widow died.  That was a living hell that no doctor really wanted to inflict upon a widow.  It even had an official name in Faey medicine, Widow Sickness, one of the few maladies in Faey medicine whose treatment regimin was to do sedate the patient to keep them calm and let nature run its course…to let the patient die.

        That was the price he would eventually pay for the heaven he had now.  That was the coin he’d be handing to the ferryman eventually, his purgatory, spending the last moments of his life in hell to pay in pain for the heaven he had now.  But even knowing what would eventually befall him, he would not trade what he had with Jyslin for the entire galaxy.

        Prose often held truth:  “It is better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all.”

        We can only do what we can to make sure that never happens.  I think putting them in a force field until they’re 50 would do the trick, Jyslin sent playfully, which made him nearly laugh.

        Make them wear armor their entire lives?

        Only in public.  If we tried to keep them in armor in private, Shya would tear it apart with her bare hands to get at Rann.

        He did laugh then, low and thoroughly amused at the truth behind her joke.  He could almost see that happening, in either direction.  To not be able to touch, to be that close and not be able to make skin to skin contact, that would drive almost any pair-bonded couple insane.  The month Jason had spent in a sterilization field had driven Jyslin nearly crazy, because she could not touch him.  Jason took Jyslin’s hand, threaded his fingers through hers, and patted the back of it.  So would I.

        Tear Rann’s armor apart to get at him?  Jason, you diseased lech, she teased, which made him laugh for true.

        You’ll pay for that, my dear, as soon as you’re recovered enough for me to punish you properly, he threatened with a smile.

        A couple more days, and I’ll be primed and ready for your punishment, master, she replied cheekily.

        Such a masochist.

        Hey, your punishments come with orgasms. Lots and lots of orgasms, she returned with a daring smile.  I fully expect to be punished for several hours when I feel up to it.  I’ve pulled even with Maya now thanks to having two sets of twins, and I’d better not be a kid down for long once she has her next baby.  So you’d better man up and prove that you’re just as good at knocking me up as Maya was getting knocked up by Vell so soon after delivering.

        So competitive, you are ridiculous sometimes, you know that?  Competing over who has more babies, sheesh..

        You love it and you know it, baby, she replied, patting his cheek.  If anything, it means I get to wear you out in the bedroom.  You always love that.  Your 22 kids proves it, she grinned.  25 if we count Danelle, Shya, and Jon, but they’re not biological.

        No, it proves I live completely surrounded by a bunch of depraved perverts, he retorted.

        You’re the one that has to get it up, baby, so that makes you as much a depraved pervert as the girls you’re mounting, she countered.  It takes a wet pussy and a hard cock to fuck, so that means there’s equal blame on both sides

        I was honoring a promise to the girls.

        That accounts for 17 of them, if you want to include Rann in that, which got us to our target number of fifteen with two to spare.  So, what about the other five that aren’t squadmates that made the deal with you or, amu?

        Duty, he replied honestly.

        That was you getting hard enough to get it in a wet pussy, and that’s certainly not a duty fuck.

        Myli and Kumi were definitely out of duty…or more out of giving them what they wanted or they’d beat me up, in Kumi’s case, he protested, which made her giggle.

        So, where in this equation of twisted ethics does Aura fit in?

        He was militantly silent.

         So, that makes you a pervert by your own definition.

       I’m the Grand Duke, I’m a paragon of cultural purity, moral fiber, and steely restraint.  Grand Dukes are not perverts, he retorted airly.

        She gave him a long look that didn’t require sending whatsoever.

        I honored my friendship with the other five squad girls.  They asked, I accepted, and if you don’t recall, I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about the idea of it at first.  But it was only fair that I give that gift to Min and Sheleese and the twins and Myri, who didn’t get that chance the first time around.  If you want to make fun of numbers, blame Lyn and Bryn, and blame yourself, woman.  I had no control over the fact that they’d both have twins, and you’re starting to be as bad as they are.  First the girls, now Jon and Julia. And what, I was supposed to stop having kids with you just because we had Rann?  Think again, woman.  You once told me you wanted as many kids as I can give you.  I’m holding you to that. You account for a quarter of my kids.

        I’d better, she sent lightly.  And having twins is catching me up with Maya, she added shamelessly, and she had a head start with Yuri and Sami.

        Semantics will not support your argument, he teased.

        So, the fact that you knocked up Aura again and she had Sera doesn’t seem the least bit hypocritical to you, mister I’m not a pervert?

        Not a bit.  She’s my girlfriend, I have your blessing.  I’m allowed to knock her up.

        It’s how I keep my husband happy when I’m not there to give him what he needs.

        Pervert.

        You married me.  That makes you depraved.Besides, baby, in my society, I’m allowed to be depraved, she grinned at him.

        Sometimes I wonder why the hell I ever married you.  Sometimes it makes me think maybe I was a closet homosexual.

        Excuse me? she sent dangerously, which made him grin.

        I mean, I married a woman who thinks she’s in charge, he teased.

        I am in charge, buster, she retorted.  I’m the woman around here.

        And thus my point.  Women in Terran society aren’t dominant, yet who do I marry?  A woman raised as the dominant gender in her society, a complete reversal from my cultural norms.  You act more like a Terran man than a woman, so maybe I was secretly gay all this time.

        Bisexual, maybe, or maybe you’re just a submissive that likes being dominated by hot, horny women, she winked.  The fact that you get rock hard when you’re looking at my pussy tells me there’s no way you’re even close to gay, she declared with a grin.

        I’d get turned on by you if you were a Morbod, woman, he scoffed mentally.  I may have been attracted by your body, but it’s your mind I’m in love with.  But the cute butt helps, he added, which made her laugh aloud.

        I’ll make sure to show it off for you tonight, at least after I make sure it didn’t get wider because of the pregnancy.  I have way more weight to work off this time, she frowned.  I’ll have to hit the gym as soon as I’m not sore anymore.

        Oh please, you’re still skinny.  I don’t know where you think this weight came from.

        The scale tells me it’s there, and I’m gonna get rid of it.  Fast, she declared adamantly, showing off that Faey vanity.  Faey women took their appearance as seriously as a pastor takes God, and always made sure they were slim, toned, and immaculately groomed, even if Faey women rarely wore more makeup than maybe eye shadow.  Faey women saw makeup as hiding natural beauty, not enhancing it; the Faey considered nothing more attractive than a nude, unaltered body, perfect in its natural state. It was why Faey hid their jackports behind their hair, since it was unnatural, and therefore ugly.  Makeup had a similar view to many Faey, who would use it sparingly for accents, but not try to use it to cover up or artificially enhance.  Eye liner and eye shadow were used the most to accent the eyes, clear lip gloss to make the lips shiny was used fairly common, maybe lipstick as long as it wasn’t gaudy, on rare occassions mascara, if the woman had naturally black hair to begin with—Palla would look almost silly with her pink eyelashes covered in black mascara—and tasteful earrings were as far as most Faey women would go.  Piercing her ears was the only way a woman would alter the natural state of her body, at least until cyberjacks came along.

        Though, Jason could admit, jaingi was starting to establish a foothold in Faey society, especially since it was reverisble.  The white skin created by the jaingi could be repaired by a visit to a doctor, so a Faey could always get rid of it quickly and easily.  Saelle’s huge mey on her back was almost apostacy in proper Faey society, a huge and drastic alteration of the natural into unnatural, but it wasn’t quite so fringe as it was a few years ago.  And Yila was the cause of that, he supposed.  Her two little secrets had been revealed to the Imperium over Courtwatch, and Dahnai had publicly commented that she actually thought Yila’s jaingi looked good.  So, if Yila Trefani had jaingi and the Empress liked them, then it was alright for other women to have them too.  So, jaingi were starting to appear in mainstream Faey society, which meant viddy.  And like Yila’s jaingi, they were always small, elegant, and easily hidden, meant to draw attention, to accent what was there…which was why many Faey women wore eye shadow.  It had almost become a game in viddy lately for a jaingi to peek out from under an item of clothing for a brief second, a deliberate tease.

        Well, to soothe your ego, I see nothing wrong with you and think you’re drop dead sexy, he told her.

        That’s sweet of you, love, but I know it’s there, and I won’t be happy til I’m back at my proper weight.

        Impossible.  These throw that off, he sent, poking one of her breasts, which were swollen with her childbirth.

        I’ll take that into account, she replied curtly, giving him a slight look.

        Okay, as long as you don’t look like a malnourished waif with big boobs, I can work with that.

        She laughed and smacked him on the arm.

        Rann and Shya lost the couch, so once they finished their snuggling, they went up to their apartment to snuggle some more on their own couch.  Jason enjoyed a little extended snuggling with Jyslin, then she got up to go through some free agent scouting reports for the Paladins before bed, and Jason went up to his office and checked the last reports that Chirk had forwarded to him before she left the office.  He got a report from MRDD saying that the last of the uptime inspections had been completed on their newest piece of ground-based military hardware, and that the green light was given for production.  Sioa had sent the same thing to him, telling him that the Titan mecha was a go, and requesting official permission to add it to the inventory and get them into production fucking now.

        The English word Titan was a perfect description of the new mecha.  About a year ago, the Kimdori had managed to acquire intelligence from the Consortium thanks to the approaching scouting fleet going to Andromeda—it was intercepting all Consortium communications—that got an idea of the ground forces included with the Syndicate invasion fleet, and it included their version of mecha, which came in two varieties.  They had bipedal robotic mecha that were about 40 shakra tall—approaching 50 feet, or about 17 meters—and also had quadrupedal walker-style mecha, like walking tanks, that were primarily heavy weapon platforms and support units for forward infantry.  Their walkers most closely resembled AT-ATs from Star Wars, but weren’t nearly as large and weren’t meant to carry infantry.  They were built mainly to be tanks, just tanks with legs instead of treads or hover pods.  The Benga were already big, so putting a 15 shakra tall person into a mecha meant that the mecha was fucking huge.

        The Karinne Army’s answer to these Benga mecha were the Titans.  Titans were just that, they were huge robotic mecha, some 38 shakra tall—46 feet, or about 15 meters tall—and outfitted with some pretty hardcore machinery to make them fast and surprisingly agile for such a massive mecha.  They were also heavily armed and armored, armed with heavy pulse autocannons, heavy rail cannons, and recently imported and converted for Karinne use Coalition Disruptors, which were some nasty guns.  Like any Karinne mecha, they utlized spinners, carried two drones, and had mountpoints for pods.  They were capable of zero-g operations by adding flight pods, but most often they carried missile pods, combo pods that carried both offensive and defensive missiles.  Benga robotic mecha were bigger, but they probably wouldn’t be as fast as Titans, nor as heavily armed, and that made a big difference.  An even bigger difference was that the Titan was only capable of being driven by a jack.  Not even a one-way interface was good enough to drive a Titan, due to the sheer amount of data the pilot had to absorb.  The jack also made the Titan move as if it were the rigger’s body, and that was something that they doubted the Syndicate’s riggers could match.

        Moving something that big and keeping it balanced, stable, and under complete control while also making it agile and quick was a lot more difficult from an engineering standpoint than it was for a Gladiator or a Juggernaut, to the point where it had required them to advance artificial muscle strand technology to give a humanoid robot that size the ability to move with speed and precision.  The joints of a humanoid body were actually the most inefficient kind of joint there was, putting the force between the fulcrum and the load, so they’d had to do some research and some upgrading to develop a way to give a Titan “muscles” to move its body around with enough strength, speed, and control required to make the mecha agile enough to operate in a combat theater. 

        The biggest sign that Titans were viable?  Kyva had already ordered 40 for the KBB, 20 primary and 20 backup mecha, with an array of standard and custom-designed pod units to increase the mecha’s versatility.  The KBB had been the ones to field test the Titans, and she must have been impressed to already put in her order for them to add to the KBB’s arsenal of Gladiators and Juggernauts.

        Trenirk already had production plans in place, awaiting only Jason’s official orders, and Sioa and Juma had incorporation plans in place to place those mecha as soon as they were off the production line.  And Jason gave it, sending Trenirk the go to start production, to build a production run of 1,000 Titans that would primarily be used by the Army, with a few scattered among the Marines…only a battleship had the bay space to carry Titans without dispossessing the fighter squadrons of their bay space, so not every ship was going to have them.  But there would be full platoons of Titans on board all five command ships and the Tianne.

        Jason had had the chance to pilot a Titan during its trial period, and wow.  It had been the most challenging thing he’d done in quite a while, both in how sophisticated the mecha was, and in how much harder it was to pilot because of that sophistication.  It would be the equivalent in old Terran terms of piloting a 747 jumbo jet without the benefit if a copilot, with tons of settings and controls and systems that the pilot had to manage.  Only veteran riggers could handle a Titan, that was for sure.  It was no mecha for a sergeant right out of rigger school.  Hell, it was no mecha for a journeyman rigger.  Only the most experienced riggers would be piloting a Titan.

        Symone had rated on it, and she’d be teaching it.  But that actually wasn’t a surprise, Symone was actually a damn good rigger.  She had a natural talent for it.

        For that matter, she’d be fighting in one in a few months, when the Syndicate arrived.  Titans could be remotely piloted, and Symone was too good a rigger to be put on the back lines.  She could pilot a Titan from a merge pod at Joint Base Alpha, which was a joint Army/Marine base for training and the headquarters of the KMS Rigger Corps, and had also been outfitted to do remote rig operations.  They already had a merge center with thousands of merge pods, which could be used to merge to nearly any merge-capable mecha, mechloader, transport dropship or Wolf fighter.  Symone could sit in a merge pod at the base and pilot a Titan half a galaxy away, with a mindstriker in the Titan’s cockpit to do the up close telepathic fighting while Symone concentrated on stomping on enemy infantry and blowing things up.

        Sioa didn’t depend on that, though.  A rigger always had the highest performance scores when she was in the mecha, but she also saw the value in having merge pods for remote operation, particularly for very dangerous missions.

        That made him check another of their merge assets, the ROCAs, or the Rockers as they were now being called.  They were combat robots—androids acutally—Remotely Operated Combat Android, built to resemble Faey wearing Crusader armor so they were not easy to discern from standard Faey infantry, with full range of motion of a Faey and all the grace and agility, but with the strength and resilience of a machine.  They were not primary AI units, those androids would be remotely piloted by infantry specialists in merge pods.  Not even Karinne AI was good enough to program infantry robots that could actually operate independently, but using a merged pilot solved that problem.  The units could operate by themselves, without being merged to a pilot, but when they were in that mode, they were not used in front line combat.  They were used as support units, and had the AI to man a piece of combat support equipment, like rear fixed gun position.

        The idea for them came from Rook, of all places.  He had built a combat variant body for himself in his spare time, which he operated by remote, by communing with the biogenics in the combat chassis.  Myleena had seen his idea and ran with it, building the ROCAs, which would be used as unkillable shock troopers or infantry in conditions lethal to Faey without extensive life support systems.  They were heavily armored to make them really tough, were about twenty times stronger than a Faey, and had as much dexterity and agility as a Faey.  They were also very expensive, so they weren’t going to be cranking out millions of them Clone Wars battle droids style.  But for what Sioa envisioned using them, they would do very, very well.  They had 36,400 finished, and were going to do a full production run of 50,000.  That was five divisions of robotic fighting infantry remotely piloted by merge to give those robots what an AI never could, the ability to react to the illogical.

        It was a fatal flaw in almost all combat AI systems. They had fantastic aim and insanely fast reflexes, and could be programmed to recognize known combat formations and tactics, but the moment they were exposed to something their combat algorithms could not process, they became sitting ducks.  And in a battle, be it on a planet or in space, those kinds of situations arose more than often enough to make autonomous fighting robots running on AI unfit for combat operations.  Even the KMS’ own drones were not automonous AI, suffered the same limitations as most other AI systems.  Biogenic drones had a very sophisticated AI capable of limited automony, but it was still being managed and supervised by a wizzo or other living thing.  What made biogenic drones much different from other drones was their survivability.  Their AI was much better at processing potential threats and avoiding them, so biogenic drones had a much higher survivability rate than moleculartronic drones.

        To call the Rockers androids or robots was almost an insult.  Myleena called them bionoids, a mixture of cybernetics and biogenics built into a robotic chassis to create a biogenic android that was far more than its programming.  They were a new class of robotic unit, a combination of a robot’s processing speed and brute strength and a living thing’s ability to think abstractly.  Biogenics were capable of abstract thought, but only biogenic units like Rook, Coma, and the CBIMs…and they weren’t putting one of them on a drone and letting them have at it.

        Jason had piloted a Rocker as well, and damn was it fun.  It was just like a mecha, but one that was Terran sized, as fast as an Olympic sprinter, as agile as a gymnast, and as strong as a bull ox.  After piloting a Rocker, he almost felt like a bloated whale getting out of the merge pod, weak and slow and clumsy.              Rook.  He checked the network, and saw that Rook was at home.  He had a home now, not a little apartment in the 3D warehouse.  He actually lived just four blocks from the fence, in a really nice house with an immaculate lawn and garden that Rook maintained as a hobby.  Rook was no longer an experiment, he was a fully recognized citizen of the House Karinne, with all the same rights as any other member.  They had proven that Rook was indeed self-aware, and with that conclusion, he was granted the same rights as any other member of the house.  His work at 3D was now an official job, for which he was paid, and he was no longer just a machinist.  He was on the tech staff now, and had sufficient training to do some of the most delicate and important work in 3D.  He engaged in several hobbies when not working, since he didn’t sleep he had plenty of free time, and was a frequent enough visitor on the strip that everyone knew him, and everyone liked him.

        He certainly looked different now.  He was still using an android body, but the work with the ROCAs had advanced their robotics to where Rook had built a new body for himself that looked so realistic that he resembled a Faey in a skin-tight metal suit.  He was even anatomically correct, and wore clothes to cover his simulated genitalia.  His external skin was a layer of pliable iso-aluminum mesh with the thickness of paper, the flexibility of cloth, but the strength of natural titanium, that was threaded through with tactile units to give him a sense of feeling, and under that was the same kind of gel backing used in armor to create the illusion of the soft give of flesh, as well as provide shock absorption for his endoskeleton and internal systems.  Rook and Myleena had designed the new body with just about everything, fingernails, eyelashes, “pores” on the surface of the iso-aluminum, and the male genitalia…genitalia capable of erection.  Why Rook wanted that feature, Jason wasn’t sure he wanted to know.  He even had hair, real Faey hair made for him by a wig shop which had been incorporated into his outer skin, both on his head and over his fake penis.  The new body was obviously not flesh and blood, but looked so much like a Faey that he was easily confused for a Faey by anyone who was color blind.

        There were a few differences from a living Faey, but they were subtle ones.  He had a working jaw, but Rook didn’t speak through articulation.  He simply opened his mouth slightly, and a speaker at the back of his oral cavity spoke for him.  He could move his jaw to simulate speech, but he didn’t bother all that often.  He didn’t breathe, he didn’t even have internal lungs to take in air, had no “stomach” or any way to simulate eating or drinking.  He did have a tongue, however, which was there almost purely for aesthetics.  He had also built his body so that it was 5.3 shakra tall, which was a little taller than Jason, and that was  very tall for a Faey male.

        Rook had come a long way from his days of being a master processor in one of Cybi’s I/O controller boards.  He had his own support equipment now, external biogenics built around his chip that provided him the same kinds of boons that a CBIM got from their equipment, increasing and enhancing his core abilities.  Rook’s essence was his chip, but his external equipment made him functional.  His external units were his brain and body, and his core chip was his “soul,” the core of him that made him alive and made him what he was.

        It did also remind him of something.  [Rook,] he sent through the biogenic network.

        [Yes, Jason?]

        [Swing by my office first thing in the morning, I have some stuff I want you to look at.]

        [Certainly.  I’ll be there at ten.  That work for you?]

        [That’s perfect.  See you then.]

        [Until tomorrow.  Good night.]

        He switched a little, leaning back in his chair and putting his feet up on his home office desk.  [Dahnai, you awake?]

        [Of course I’m awake, babes, it’s not even twenty-one hundred.]

        [What, Kaen hasn’t exhausted you yet?]

        [That’s what Saelle is for,] she replied lightly.

        [I’ll be able to make it tomorrow,] he informed her.  [So, we’ll be over around eighteen hundred.  Sound good?]

        [Why can’t you be here earlier?  Like all day?]

        [Because the kids have school, Jyslin has a lot of work to do over at the office, and unlike certain lazy Empresses, I work for a living,] he taunted in reply.

        [I’ll show you work when I get you over here, buster,] she retorted.

        [Game on, love.  Any Grand Duchesses going to be there to ruin things?]

        [Anya will be here, that’s not ruining.]

        [Not at all,] he agreed.

        [I’ll also have the Imperator over, but she might be gone before you get here.]

        [Enva?  I’m not sure I want to be within reach of her,] Jason noted.  Enva Shi’Ren was the ruler of the Sha’i-ree, known as the Imperator.  It was once a dictatorial government ruled by an emperor, but was now a Republic.  Their executive still held the title of the ruler from their Imperial days, however, so Enva was known as the Imperator.  [She thinks I’m cute.  That’s a big danger sign when it comes to a Sha’i-ree.]

        [She’s right, you are cute.  A pain in the ass, but cute despite that.]

        [What’s Enva doing visiting you in person at the summer palace?]

        [Business that has nothing to do with you,] she replied archly.  [You have your secrets, I have mine.]

        [No, I have my secrets, and you have what you think are your secrets, until I get curious enough to find out,] he corrected lightly.

        [You keep thinking that, babes,] she told him.

        [What I do think is that I didn’t hear anything about Enva coming, and you are supposed to keep my people informed.  They won’t tell you not to invite anyone, but they do have the right to know who’s on the planet.]

        [Keep your underwear on, babes, I just arranged it about an hour ago, and I told your Marine liaison as soon as I had a timetable.  The report probably hasn’t filtered down to you yet.]

        [Most likely,] he agreed.

        [Besides, how is she gonna get here without Karinne authorization to get through the Stargate, dink?]

        Jason had to laugh.  [True,] he admitted.

        [If you’re gonna be obnoxious, I have better things to do than deal with you, babes,] she communed playfully.

      [Yeah, yeah, I have a few things to tie up myself before I can really say I’m done for the day,] he replied.  [Talk to you tomorrow, love.]

        [Okay.  Have a good night, babes.]

        That taken care of, Jason finished up the last of the items in his inbox, so he was about to go back downstairs and play with his daughters before they went to bed, at least until a news article popped up on the panel he kept on his desk, something of his rest and relaxation panel.  He used it to surf Civnet when he didn’t feel like merging, did non-work related things on it.

        He frowned when he read the headline:  [Confirmed!  Grand Duke Jason Karinne plays Vanguard!]  He switched to the article, and his frown grew even deeper as he read.  [Can you believe it, fellow Soldiers?  An honest to god ruler plays Vanguard!  A game streamer caught the living computer Cybi hacking her way into a Vanguard battle to remind a player of an appointment…and a little digging reveals that it was none other than the Grand Duke of the House of Karinne, Jason Karinne!]  There was a viddy of Cybi manifesting into the game taken from another player in the squad, but thank god that player had deleted his game handle from the clip.  The author of the article did the same, and said so straight up.  [We’ve redacted the Grand Duke’s game handle and game ID so he doesn’t quit on us, but what we CAN tell you after looking up his game ID is that he’s a pretty damn solid player with a high PR, and get this, he’s specced almost completely into being infantry.  You’d think he’d spec for command and lead, but I guess even a galactic ruler likes to take a vacation from ruling from time to time!

        [So next time you’re on the battlefield, fellow Soldiers, you may have the Grand Duke Jason Karinne fighting at your side!]

        Jason almost slapped the panel off his desk in disgust, but he held himself back.  “Cybi, I’m gonna whip your ass!” he threatened, shaking his fist towards the ceiling.  It wasn’t a total loss, he reasoned, at least after calming down after a moment.  The author of the article had protected his privacy, so people wouldn’t know who he was.   But still, just people knowing that he played might cause problems.  It might even motivate some groups out there to hack the game’s servers to try to find out who he was, and maybe try to get at him through the game.

        Either way, he wasn’t playing again until he had a long talk with Miaari…and that pissed him off, because he enjoyed playing the game.

        He checked the last thing on his list, which was the civilian merge center that had been opened in Karsa about four months ago, the Logistical Asset Allocation Center, or the Lake as the workers called it, since it was right on the banks of Lake Relai in western Karsa.  It was a gigantic complex of some six buildings which were filled with large chambers holding thousands and thousands of merge pods.  Each merge cluster had a control room that directed merge connections, linking the right driver to the right equipment, and the center had revolutionized industry on the planet.  A single mechloader driver could operate multiple mechloaders, the controller switching him from unit to unit as needed, allowing him to be productive when he’d otherwise just be standing around waiting for the next pallet to be ready.  By mixing on-site operators with remote units that could be activated from Karsa to help with additional work, it increased factory efficiency by nearly 31% in the factories where they were testing the system.  It allowed them to focus their efforts exactly where they needed to be quickly and efficiently.  It also had applications for transportation and logistics, allowing a Stick pilot to fly another Stick while the one she’d been piloting was being loaded.  Even something as simple as a Stick pilot moving a few Sticks to another loading dock to prep them for loading while waiting for her primary Stick to be loaded increased overall efficiency, because the pilot didn’t have to leave her merge pod to do it.  That saved time, and saved time was increased efficiency.  But, in the interests of public safety, passenger transportation operators would always be in the skimmer, transport, or dropship they were flying.  But those transports were also capable of remote operation, in case the pilot had a medical emergency.  A merge pilot could take over for the indisposed captain and get the skimmer or transport safely on the ground.

        Trenirk and Jrz’kii nearly killed Myleena in jubilation when she designed the system and had Bunvar build it.  Jrz’kii managed the facility, as it fell under her jurisdiction as the Secretary of Transportation and Logistics.  She had a large complement of Kizzik, Makati, and Beryans there to keep everything organized and running smoothly, and they kept the merge pod workers busy without pissing them off by making them work every second of every shift.

        They’d just opened the last building and got the complex up to 100% operational capacity, and Jason checked the reports about the expanded operations.  Jrz’kii sent him an exhaustive report with detailed analysis of efficiency increase percentages, when all he cared about was is it working?  The ultimate answer was yes, it was in fact working, and working well…and that was all he needed to know.  Jrz’kii was the logistical expert, not him.  He didn’t understand a good 80% of her report anyway.

        It said a lot about how things were changing when Jason could sit in his office and operate a mechloader on Janja, pilot a Juggernaut on PR-371, then fly a KV-30 dropship from Karis to Draconis, and do it all inside an hour.

        That was the power of biogenics.  That was the power of cyberjacks, which expanded the ability to merge to the entire population.  It may not have been the original vision of the Karinnes that started the Program, but some of the most important discoveries in the history of the galaxy had been entirely accidental.

        A shimmer made him glance up, and Cybi manifested in his office.  She elected to create a hologram without feet, her legs trailing down to faded nothingness, floating over to look at him across his desk.  [What, Cybi?]

        [I thought to save you the trouble of tracking me down to whip my ass, as you put it,] she communed, her expression slightly amused.

        [I’m over it,] he answered dryly as he put his feet up on the desk and interlacing his fingers over his stomach.  [I won’t be able to play again until Miaari clears it, but that won’t take her more than an hour or so.  Just don’t do it again.]

        [Your interest in the game has made Cylan make an account,] she told him, putting a finger on his cheek.  [He even installed limiters to restrict his reactions to within biological norms and added a randomizer algorithm so his aim isn’t always perfect.  He seeks to see why you enjoy the game, and he decided that playing it under the same limitations a flesh and blood person has was the best way to experiment.]

        Jason laughed softly.  [That was fairly forward-thinking of him,] he replied.  [I’ll have to keep track of it and see what he does.]

        [A silly way to pass the time, but he’s only recently come online.  He hasn’t learned yet.]

        [Listen to you, Miss Old Lady,] Jason teased.

        [I do have something to pass along.  Myleena changed the meeting tomorrow morning to 13:30.]

        [That shouldn’t mess mine up,] he nodded.  [If anything, it’ll make my morning less rushed.  She announcing any movement on Project F?]

        Cybi shook her head.  [She’s still stuck on the power problem,] she answered.

        For over a year, Myleena’s Translight Engine Project team had been stuck.  She’d managed to develop an algorithm for the engines and a prototype was built and installed in a newly built destroyer they’d assigned for testing that Myleena had named Trailblazer, but they couldn’t power the damn thing.  Their double metaphased had the raw energy to power the engine, the problem was that when the engines shifted into translight mode while in hyperspace, it caused a quantum anomoly to form in the metaphased power stream, which knocked it out of its phased state…and tended to blow up the conduit carrying the plasma.  The engines would operate in translight mode in normal space just fine—and were fucking fast, capable of speeds upwards of 54 light years per hour, by far the fastest FTL technology ever produced by any known civilization—and the jump engines operated just fine in hyperspace, it was just when both were used together, it introduced that fatal quantum anomoly back into the power system.  For over a year, Myleena had been trying to engineer a fix, but she had had no luck.  And that was half of what made it so fucking maddening…she had the engine built.  The engine worked.  They just couldn’t get their power system to hold it in translight mode for more than a picosecond before the power fed back and killed the conduit all the way back to the exchanger.

        But this was groundbreaking technology, and often something brand new had new problems that they had to work through and solve.  Myleena’s team had worked through trying to create a filter or isolation unit that prevented the engines from feeding back into the power stream, but she’d had no luck.  So lately, she’d been working with the power itself, seeing if she could find some metaphased state that would harmonize with the engine.  Until she figured it out, the Trailblazer was sitting in the TEP dock up in Kosigi under heavy guard, waiting for them to devise a solution.

        If Myleena had nothing new about that, then the meeting would have two subjects.  The first would be the scheduled CBIM installation in Kosigi in two days.  It had taken them much longer to design and build the facility than they first expected, because of the nature of Kosigi itself.  It took them nearly two months to decide where to build it, and when they did—the center of the core of Kosigi—they had to do a lot of custom designing due to the fact that the core chamber would be the gravimetric center of Kosigi’s gravity well. Once they had the site picked and designed, it had taken some pretty complex engineering to hollow out the core chamber without creating geological instability in the core, more or less requiring them to reinforce the small core so it wasn’t torn apart.  The core crystal would be ready in two days, and they’d install it almost as soon as it was core crystal was tempered.  They did not leave CBIM core crystals just sitting in storage, it was actually bad for them to not be in use as soon as they were ready.  It wasn’t the first crystal they’d intended to install there.  The initial crystal’s growth tank had suffered a fatal equipment failure during its growth cycle that had corrupted the crystal beyond any hope of salvage, which had forced them to destroy it and start over…which had cost them nearly five months of growth time.  Dellin had been almost jumping at them installing a CBIM in Kosigi, as his job became more and more complicated by the day, and the repeated delays that had pushed back the installation nearly six months had honestly angered him more than a little bit.  But his wait was almost over.  In two days, the CBIM would be installed, and it would be assisting Dellin within a takir once it got through its initial orientation, learned its duties, and started performing them.

        The other reason for the meeting was the standard monthly progress meeting, which they’d spend mostly discussing the diffuser project.  That too was somewhat stalled.  They’d achieved 75%, and they had the same problem that the TEP project did…the power problem.  They still hadn’t figured out a way to prevent the diffusers from diffusing the singularity plants, which had to be done because they’d learned over the last 18 months that it was impossible to make the diffusion effect directional.  So, since they couldn’t direct the effect, they had to come up with some way to protect the parts of the ship that were affected by it without defeating the protection it offered from Torsion weapons.  Most of 3D had been working on the problem for the last six months, and because of that, there hadn’t been much innovation coming out of the 3D warehouse lately.

        And there were a lot more people in 3D now than just six months ago.  Myleena had expanded the team by nearly three times over, to the point where 3D now had 187 members.  They hailed from all over the galaxy, identified through the Academy, screened for trustworthiness, then offered a job in the most advanced technological research outfit in the galaxy.  They had 39 different races or species represented in 3D now, some of the most brilliant engineers, scientists, and researchers in the known galaxy, who were working on tech that the rest of the galaxy wouldn’t see for a few more decades…except maybe the Ruu.

        And there were a few old faces in new positions in 3D.  Siyhaa had sold her computer company to her lieutenant and moved to 3D permanently nine months ago, and now she was the foremost authority on cutting edge computer technology, a status that fed her ego a little bit…but she was a Moridon, so she wasn’t insufferable about it.  Moridon were big on decorum, they did their gloating in private.  She and Myleena were the two main women that researched biogenic computer technology and sought to improve it, and with Myleena working on the engines, Siyhaa was the one that was mainly responsible for the CBIMs and other biogenic projects.  Siyhaa would be the tech in charge of the CBIM installation in two days, not Myleena, her first solo installation project since joining 3D.  And they were damn lucky to have her, Siyhaa was, quite simply, one of the most brilliant computer engineers and computer experts on this side of the galaxy.  It took everyone a while to stop calling her Mahja—that was a title, not her name—but the Mob of Moridon had bestowed a new title on her, Hadhja, due to her contributions in the advancement of computer technology as a whole, the Moridon version of the Nobel Prize for science.  The Mob had no idea what Siyhaa did on Karis, but the very fact that they knew she was now a member of the mysterious 3D was reason enough to give her that award.

        That was something of a standard through the known galaxy now.  Everyone knew of 3D, but didn’t know exactly what they did.  They just knew that they were an arm of the Karinnes that dealt with new technology, mainly by applying it to warfare in unconventional ways.  3D operations had been visible to the Confederate Combined Military in several combat theaters, who spread rumors down into their respective civilizations, until 3D achieved something of an infamy through the Confederation as the “Area 51” of the galaxy.

        Quite a long way the Legion had come, Jason often mused.

        [I’ll let you get things done so you can spend the rest of the evening with the family, Jason,] Cybi told him, drifting backwards a tiny bit.

        [I am done, just waiting for the baby monitor to go off,] he replied with a faint smile.  [But in the meantime, I think I’ll drag Rann away from Shya and spend some time with him.]

        [Good luck,] Cybi noted dryly, which made him laugh.

 

        It was going to be a day of meetings…yay.

        At least it started fun.  Jason and Rook went over some ideas for improving the design of android endoskeletons in the morning just after he got to the office, with Rook sitting in the outside office waiting for him when he arrived…typical Rook.  Jason was the ruler of the house, but he did still love engineering, and did his best to keep tinkering either in his basement workshop or in 3D when he had the time.  He wasn’t one of the lead thinkers in 3D anymore due to his other commitments—just like Jyslin—but that didn’t mean that he wasn’t going to tinker as a hobby.  Rook was currently looking to improve android body design both for the war effort and for his own personal use, but where Jason was more interested in the hard mechanics, Rook was more interested in enhancing the sensory capabilities of the androids his chip inhabited, to be able to feel and hear and see and smell with the same richness as organic beings.  His sensory receptors could tell him what was hot, what was cold, what was rough and what was smooth, but they had trouble with concepts like soft, velvety, supple, to feel the tiny variances in the textures that allowed organic begins with skin and all those nerve receptors to feel the difference between petting a vulpar’s fur and sliding one’s hand down a wall of Betrium, which was a very soft, giving metal that also held its shape, almost like metal elastic, and was used in many shock absorption systems.  It was all part of Rook’s core mission of living, and he had decided that in order to have the same quality of life as the organics, he needed comparable sensory capability so he could experience the world.  He wanted to develop sensors capable of giving such detailed information that it provoked an emotional response without being too detailed, which would detract from that emotional response, which was a very esoteric goal.

        It was the classical conflict of man and machine, but in this case it was a difference between what a lovely sunset and the sunset has a higher than normal variance of color patterns this evening.

        All in all, Jason liked Rook.  He had come a long way since Bo had discovered that his chip was thinking, was child-like in some ways while quite savvy in others, and he had settled into living in a way that made Bo quite proud of him.

       They were at it so long that Jason forgot that there was a Confederate Council meeting that morning, and that he had agreed to attend.  He didn’t notice when Cybi and Cyra manifested in the office, as he and Rook quibbled over rigidity ratios for endostructure support spars—the metal “bones” of an android body—and also didn’t notice when the holograms of the various rulers started to appear.  This was a real meeting today, where most of the rulers were going to attend so they could discuss the summit on Prakarika next takir, or more to the point, listen to Anivor as he went over the itinerary and preparations for the lower-gravity members of the council that would die exposed to Prakarika’s native gravity.  Since the summit was a domestic affair, it fell to Anivor to prepare it and host it, which relieved a great many on the council.  Anivor was far more pragmatic than Anivan and more willing to ease back on Prakarikai ceremonial silliness.  Anivor’s ceremonies would merely be tedious, where Anivan’s would have been absolutely insufferable.

        “What in Barka’s pillar are you talking about?” Kreel’s voice called from the side.  Jason and Rook looked away from the desk and saw six holograms already up, and Kreel’s was among them.  “What on Grimjar is a resistance coefficient?”

        “Something a little past your education, Kreel,” Jason teased in reply, whch made him laugh.

        “I didn’t realize we were discussing this for so long, Jason,” Rook said.  “We can continue later.”

        “Probably for the best,” Jason said.  “I have no doubt that we’ll melt Kreel’s brain if we expose him to science.”

        “Hey, I took introductory chemistry in finishing school, you know!” he protested.

        “I’m honestly surprised to see you in Jason’s office, Rook,” Dahnai said after her hologram winked on.  From the view behind her, she was in her work office over in the summer palace.  “I thought he kept you hidden from the Confederation.”

        “Why would he?” Rook asked simply.

        “Because of the ramifications you represent,” Kreel answered in a slightly serious voice.  “You’re a biogenic chip that became self aware.  It’s a big debate over in my science ministry just how many more biogenic chips might do that, and what they might do.”

        “A concern not based in fact, since I am the only chip to have done so that is not a CBIM, in all of Karinne’s recorded history.  So I am a fluke, not a harbinger of future events.”

        “That damn logic, it makes it clear you’re a computer,” Kreel grinned.

        “We could all do with a little logic from time to time, High Councilor,” Rook replied mildly, which made Dahnai chuckle.  “We can continue after the meeting today,” he offered to Jason.

        “Sounds good,” he nodded.  Rook wasn’t a secret, though he was almost unknown outside of the higher circles of the Confederation.  Jason didn’t hide him or what he was, because he wanted Rook to have full acceptance if he ever went offworld.  Rook was a living thing, he had Karinne citizenship, and that gave him the right to travel if he so wished it.  He had to do so with the same conditions as a Generation, which did put some heavy restrictions on his freedom, but Rook could and had taken several trips to Draconis and Terra for educational assignments to the Academy, work through his job in 3D, and personal vacations, and he had deployed with other 3D operatives on several occasions, which brought him into contact with the military and political echelons of other Confederation members.  At first, they thought he was simply a highly sophisticated robot, but after talking to him and seeing how the other 3D operatives treated him, they realized that the robot was alive.

        “So, are we going to see a sudden influx of robot servants, Jason?” Kreel asked.

        “Not that we’re selling,” Jason replied.  “We were discussing possible upgrades to the Rockers.  Rook was the primary engineer that developed them, because he had a lot of experience building robot bodies with full sensory capability.”

        “Those things are almost scary,” Kreel chuckled.  “I’m almost looking forward to seeing them used.”

        “They’re specialized equipment, Kreel.  You’re not going to see them in every theater, only where they’re needed.  If anything, because you’d have a heart attack if you saw how much it costs just to build one of them,” he grunted.  “I think Kumi’s contemplating murdering me just for the number that we ordered built.  They’re way too expensive to just throw around and throw away.  But where they are needed, I’m sure they’ll perform well.”

        They settled down and got down to the business of the meeting, which had Anivor attending today.  Jason sat behind his desk looking at an array of three tiers of holograms, showing just how much the Confederation had grown over the last several months.  As the Syndicate got closer, close enough for undecided civilizations to see their monstrous fleet using their own hyperspace telescopes and other sensors, they realized just what was going on, that the Kimdori weren’t just crying wolf, and they started joining the Confederation at a rate of nearly an empire a takir.  There were faces of many different colors, from green to blue to purple to brown to red to ghostly white.  There was fur. There were scales.  There were snouts, there were faces with two eyes, three eyes, four eyes, one with six eyes, there was one face that had no eyes—the Horg, they “saw” using ultrasonic waves emitted from organs to each side of their nose that produce echo location similar to bats or dolphins—and every major genus of commonly evolved life was represented; insectoid, mammalian, reptilian, icthyan, avian, geomorphic—stone-like, such as the Stevak—and ranging from bipeds to octopeds.  A galaxy’s worth of diversity was represented in those three tiers of holograms, so many faces that Jason barely knew most of them and only knew names thanks to his gestalt’s memory.  Because of that, Jason rarely attended council anymore, and when he did, he was nearly as quiet as the Leader.  The council had become highly political—that was inevitable—and Jason steered well clear of the politics of other nations.

        Ojia Ro of the Aridai was the one holding the gavel, so he got them started and yielded the floor to the king of the Prakarikai, and he surprised Jason by getting to the point within ten minutes.  Anivor went over the itinerary for the three day summit on his home planet, both official business and entertainment opportunities for the visiting delegations.  Jason spent most of that time not really paying attention, bantering with Kreel and Krirara over biogenic comm, using the Karis biogenic network to access their empires’ versions of Civnet and talk to them via commune.  The three of them were even more a clique now than they had been when Krirara joined the Confederation.  Outside of Dahnai, for obvious reasons, Kreel and Krirara were his best friends on the council, and the two of them were among Jason’s closest friends period, not just on the council.  Both of them visited Karis far more than other members, and most of those visits weren’t on the public record.  Kreel in particular managed to come over at least twice a month, and drove Aya absolutely crazy by dragging Jason off to the club district in Karsa for some therapudic partying.  The other members of the council, both new and old, were aware of how much access Dahnai, Kreel, and Krirara had to Jason, and worked very hard to get them to use that access for their own benefit.

        Anivor was pretty brisk for a Prakarikai, getting his presentation done in only two hours, and most of that time was used discussing actual important matters.  After he was done, a good half of the rulers left the council in place of an aide, and Jason was one of them, letting Cybi and Cyra sit in for him while he headed down the hall to his conference room, where his cabinet was assembled and waiting for him.  “You’re on time,” Yeri said in mock astonishment as Jason strode into the room.

        “Push off, Yeri,” he snorted as he flopped down into his chair.  “Let’s get going, I have a meeting at 3D in two hours.”

        After going through some old business, they moved on to new business, and Trenirk spoke up.  “I increased hyperspace bridge production up to the new levels, Jason,” he declared.  “We should have the target number built and shipped out by the end of the month.”

        “We’re not putting them at every Coalition system, are we?  That’s thousands,” Lirren observed.

        “Eventually yes, but right now we’re just focusing on creating hub systems where their ships can go to get to them,” Jason answered before Jrz’kii.  “We don’t think they’ll get all their ships upgraded to real-time engines by the time the Syndicate arrives, so we’ll be using mobile catapults to get their slower ships where they need to be.  They have to do a lot of refitting to get their ships up to real-time capability, mainly in their power systems.”

        “I already have a system prepared for moving the ships incapable of jumping in real time with the rest of the fleet once combat operations begin,” Jrz’kii said through her interface.  “Our allies will be able to participate in the battles, and also share in the burden instead of sitting in the reserve lines and sharing no risk while reaping the rewards.”

        “And that’s the other good reason,” Jason said dryly.  “How is the Virgan facility coming along, Bunvar?”

        “We’ll be done with it in about a month, and we’ll just seal it until the CBIM crystal is ready to be installed,” she answered, brushing her long, shaggy white bangs away from her face.  Bunvar was pregnant, and in Makati females, it made their hair grow at an accelerated rate for some weird biological reason.

        Kumi ran into the room and took her seat.  “Sorry, I was having a bit of an argument with Merchant R,”she declared.

        “You’re doing business with the Ruu?” Rund asked in surprise.

        “Yeah, it’s a shock to me too,” she chuckled.  “But he wants to make a deal trading laminated titanimum, food, and heavy gases we’re mining out of the gas giants at RJ-44 for Gorvite ore.  Given how rare it is outside the Q quadrant, I think it’s a good deal.  I just wish they’d trade in credits, or even in Coalition sipp, but they don’t recognize our money systems,” she frowned.  “Everything with them is bartering, goods for goods.  They don’t take cash.”

        “I thought the Ruu didn’t make any sort of deals outside of the Academy,” Jerrim mused.

        “Just bartering, and they’re pretty picky who they barter with.  They won’t barter with lower-technology empires at all, even if they have something the Ruu want.  I think because we’re so close to them technologically, they don’t see trading with us as some way we might try to blackmail them or steal their secrets,” she shrugged.  “I swear, they’re more paranoid than the Kimdori and the Moridon combined.  Polite, urbane, and friendly, but freakin’ paranoid.”

        “That’s weird, since they have so many teachers at the Academy now, teaching their technology.”

        “Teaching what they’re willing to share, while they learn everything we have that they haven’t,” Jason elaborated.  “They keep most of their technology to themselves, just like we do.  They actually have the same outlook we do when it comes to releasing advanced technology.  They don’t mind teaching others things they’re ready to know, things that won’t unbalance things or start wars.  The Ruu’s entire society is based on science and education and knowledge, and they’re pacifists like the Imbiri.  From what Miaari dug up, they don’t even have a military, just self-defense systems set up around their planets.  Their philosophical outlook is that happy people are not people starting wars, and technology can make people happy by increasing their quality of life.  But if people aren’t ready for it, they don’t release it.”

        “I take it you’ve had a few long talks with Observer A?” Bunvar asked lightly, looking at him.

        “A few,” he nodded.  “The fact that we and them have some common outlooks is half the reason why they’re so involved in the Academy and joined the Confederation as neutral observers.”

        After about an hour and a half of discussing upcoming projects, Jason headed for 3D, opting to take his skimmer instead of a hovercar because he had an appointment up in Kosigi later today.  He landed at the warehouse after getting through the hard shield, which looked completely different now than it did just five days ago.  They’d done a major expansion and renovation to the original warehouse because people were stepping on each other’s toes, nearly tripling the available floor space and adding a second automated mini-factory for machining custom parts, taking the strain off the old one.

        “Alright, I don’t have all day,” Jason called loudly as he walked up into the central area where everyone had their desks, with their working areas ringing the outer areas of the facility, which already looked like a disaster area of parts and equipment and hard-printed schematics and diagrams laying all over the place, despite only being in use for five days.  They were some messy people in 3D, so it was a good thing nobody ever saw the inside of their headquarters.  “Someone drag Myli out of her office and let’s get this started.”

        “I’m right here, dickbrain,” Myleena declared, rising up from where she was hunched over a hard-printed schematic with several other techs.

        They gathered together in the middle area of the shop, and Myleena got them started by handing the floor over to Siyhaa.  The Moridon gave them a detailed briefing about the CBIM installation tomorrow, from what time to be at the shop to what to bring, and she handed out duty sheets to the techs that would be part of the installation team.  Jason got his own sheet, since he was part of the team, and he rather amusedly read it, sort of liking how he wasn’t the boss in 3D when it came to a project.  Siyhaa was project leader, she was the boss, and she wasn’t afraid to give the Grand Duke his marching orders in front of the entire team.

        “Most of our problems with this project are behind us now,” Siyhaa declared after handing out the duty sheets.  “I expect the installation of the core to be without problem or incident, as this is no longer a new procedure for us.  We have done this before, we know what to do.  The growth facility reports the core will be tempered and ready at precisely 09:00 tomorrow morning.  And we will be there to pick it up the moment it is ready.  We should have the CBIM core online and undergoing initial testing by 17:00.  Nobody be late,” she warned, then she sat back down and let Myleena take the floor again.

        They transitioned over to the monthly progress meeting, where project leaders talked about where they were in their current project, what advances they’d made, and problems they were having. It was an open forum where the entire team tossed around ideas to help project leaders try to solve those problems. Jason already knew where everyone was at with their projects thanks to the updates they sent him, but he still attended the progress meetings because he liked to hear the ideas thrown around as they discussed problems and how to solve them.  Engineering was half technical skill and half throwing spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks, and the brainstorming to solve problems was said flying spaghetti.  Good ideas could come from anywhere, and were often so simple it left the entire team smacking their foreheads wondering why they hadn’t thought of it.  But one thing Jason had learned over the years was that often, the simplest problem was the hardest to solve, because the answer was so obvious than an engineer would discount it in favor of the convoluted.

        That was what made Myleena such an engineering savant, because she could see the simple in the complex, or boil the complex down to simple terms and attack problems on that level.  Jason could only wish he could someday be half the engineer Myleena was.

        While they didn’t make any significant progress, Jason did feel that they did move a few steps in the right direction on a few projects.  After the meeting was over, he gave Myleena a lift over to her other project on Skeyai Island, the ultra-top secret “Project F,” and they discussed the other project that was going on, Jason getting his other progress report as they flew over.  [I’ve never been this stumped for this long,] Myleena fumed a bit, leaning back in the copilot’s chair.  [Usually I’d have made a little progress after nearly eight months, but this power problem just has me stumped.]

        [Time for you to take the advice you love dishing out, Myli.  Take a break,] he told her.  [Just step back for a few days and take a short vacation, and I mean a vacation.  Don’t show up at the shop tomorrow to hang around for the CBIM installation.  Siyhaa can handle it, so let her get it done.  For that matter, give the entire staff at Project F a couple of days off to recharge, relax a little bit, then come back and get back to work on the problem.]

        [You know, babes, that’s actually a pretty good idea.  I do feel a little burned out,] she admitted, sliding her long-fingered hand down her face wearily.  [I don’t think I’ve had a day off in nearly a month.  I think a couple of days of just parking my ass on a lounger on the beach wtth a few of those cheesy Terran romance novels Symone loves and thinking about nothing important for a while is exactly what I need.  I can spend my days in a lounger and my nights with my legs spread,] she communed with a lustful, dirty texture to her thought.  [Nothing makes a girl more relaxed and energized like some good sex.]

        [Just keep the decibel level down to merely obnoxious,] he replied, which made her laugh. [I’m just glad we’re finally getting the Kosigi CBIM up and running.  One more delay, and I think Dellin would be standing at my front door with an axe handle and a murderous smile.]

        Myleena burst out laughing.  [No doubt.  I think he’s starting to think we’re doing it to him on purpose or something.]

        [I’ve been keeping him informed.  He understands that the Kosigi CBIM wasn’t as easy to design and build as the others, because of Kosigi itsef.  Between the base topography, all that armor, and the disconnected, open nature of the place, it wasn’t as easy as just throwing up a new building and installing a new biogenic node.  So, tomorrow night, I fully expect Dellin to shut the fuck up.]

        Myleena laughed again, giving him a wolfish smile.  [He’s a man, baby, he’s never going to shut up.  It’s not in his DNA.]

        [Watch it missy,] he threatened, which made her grin at him as Skeyai Island came into view on the horizon.  The facility came into view as they approached, a trio of pre-fab warehouse buildings set up in a loose triangular formation on the small, unterraformed island.  Myleena had done a little personal terraforming in the form of grass lawns surrounding the buildings and a couple of trees she’d had transplanted from Karga, just so they had someplace nice to sit if they wanted to sit outside in the sun and work.  The island had no beaches, and that was one of the features that made it defensible.  It was almost a column of rock with a flat top that jutted up out of the water, with low cliffs on all sides that would make it very hard for a casual civilian boater to try to get up to the top.  The fact that six Wolf fighters were lazily circling the island, and four Gladiators and two Juggernauts were patrolling the cliff tops would dissuade anyone curious anyway.  Jason landed on the pad in the center of the three buildings and opened the hatch.  [Here you go, Myli.  Wrap everything up and give the team a couple of days off, you guys need it.]

        [I’m gonna do just that, babes,] she agreed with a nod as she stood up.  [We’re taking two days off, and we’ll come back and tackle this on Koira.  And I promise I won’t come lurk tomorrow.  I will take the day off.]

        [Good, cause I’m giving Siyhaa some orders about what to do to you if you show up uninvited.]

        She grinned, then patted him on the shoulder.  [If it wasn’t for the fact that I’ve seen what’s between your legs, baby, I’d almost think you were a woman, the way you talk,] she teased, then she hurried out of the skimmer before he could smack her.

        Jason left Skeyai behind and ascended up into space, then put the moon of Kosigi squarely in front of him as he caught up on some reports Chirk sent to his gestalt.  This was his last scheduled meeting today, a meeting with Dellin to go over tomorrow’s CBIM installation, which was going to disrupt Kosigi’s daily operations more than a little bit.  They were clearing entire swaths of the moon’s interior as a security measure when they brought in the core, tying up the smaller doors for nearly two hours, then they’d be jerking around the existing computer network once they had the CBIM up and started transferring data from the mainframe in the moon into the CBIM’s core.  The mainframe already there was going to remain, it was designed into the architecture to serve as a remote subprocessing unit for the CBIM.  Its operational parameters would have to be updated, and that required taking the mainframe offline as it underwent upgrades.  Kosigi’s computer system would be down for about thirty minutes as they upgraded the mainframe, and when it came back up, the CBIM would be online and opeartional, and the current mainframe would be the largest and most powerful of the CBIM’s remote subsystems.

        Dellin, Miaari, and Siyhaa were in the landing by waiting for him when his skimmer landed, and he shook Dellin’s hand warmly when he came down the steps.  “Dellin,” he said.

        “You’re late, your Grace,” Dellin complained, which made him laugh.

        “I’m two minutes late,” he protested.

        “Late is late, your Grace,” Siyhaa sniffed unapprovingly.  “Now our entire schedule is off.”

        “We can just walk a little faster to make up for it,” Jason told them.

        They retreated to Dellin’s office, then they got down to business.  Siyhaa gave Dellin a detailed briefing about exactly what would happen tomorrow, going step by step through the entire plan, which included when and what parts of the base would have to be cleared of foreign workers as they brought in the core and other top-secret equipment, the routes that equipment would take, and detailed installation times that told Dellin exactly where they should be in the installation process at what time.  Miaari was there to coordinate the security, as that was her job, stationing Kimdori through Kosigi to make sure none of the spies they all knew were in the moon would get close enough to get a look at the equipment used in a CBIM core facility, while Dellin’s uniformed security, Military Police, Marines, and Tarks, would be providing the obvious visible security.  She then went over the installation procedure in how it would affect base operations, including a scheduled hour of the base computer being down.  The upgrades would only take thirty minutes, but Siyhaa was being wise in budgeting extra time in case they had problems.  “When the mainframe comes back up, Admiral, the CBIM will be operational and already in the process of taking over base operations,” she concluded.  “That process will take approximately four hours, during which you might notice a slight reduction in computer processing speed and process execution.  Once the CBIM is in full operational control of Kosigi, it will begin its forty day observation period.  During that time, there will be an observation team inside the core facility, and a 3D technician will be present in the operations center at all times to monitor the CBIM’s performance.  The 3D technician schedule has already been sent to your office.  During the observation period, we will also be conducting compatibility tests with the new CBIM and the Generations, to find the ideal match should the CBIM ever be called upon to be used to defend the base.  When the observation period is complete, the CBIM core facility will be unstaffed and sealed most of the time, and its security will be added to your list of secure site responsbilities for your Tarks and intelligence operatives.”

        “Miaari already went over that part of it with me, Hadhja,” Dellin told her.  “I already have site coverage for the core chamber added to the security duty list.”

        “It sounds like we have everything organized, so it’ll just be a matter of doing it,” Jason said.

        Siyhaa nodded.  “The operation has been fully planned, and should go smoothly.  After the repeated delays this project has suffered, it is only fair that the installation and initial activation have no problems.”

        Jason had to laugh.  “Too true, Hadhja,” he agreed.  “And none of them were really anyone’s fault.  It was just engineering being engineering,” he added.  “Or it was karma biting Dellin in the butt for being so impatient.”

        “I’ve been far too patient, your Grace,” Dellin countered, which made him laugh.  “Seriously.  The mainframe has been running at 85% capacity for nearly two months now.  If we put any more stress on it, it might crash.”

        “Tomorrow that’s not going to be an issue anymore, Dellin,” Jason told him.  “You can’t push the CBIM we’re installing past 50%, no matter how hard you try.  It’ll be running at 20% most of the time, and lending extra processing power to Cybi for scientific and research applications.”

        “And I’ll sleep much better knowing that, your Grace.  Now, so I know before I meet it, what is the CBIM’s name?”

        Jason laughed.  “I’ve decided to name her Cynna,” he replied.  “If she’s a girl, anyway.  If it turns out he’s a boy, I guess we can change it to Cynnen.”

        “Cylan did throw a wrench into the naming conventions,” Siyhaa said seriously.

        Jason chuckled. “Yeah, we have to plan for that eventuality now.”

        “I rather like that name,” Dellin decided.

        “Good, because you’re the one that’s going to be talking to her more than anyone else, Dellin,” Jason told him.  “Cynna will more or less be your CBIM, and running Kosigi will be her primary responsibility.”

        “Believe me, Jason, we desperately need her, and need her now,” Dellin said emphatically.

        “You’ll have her starting tomorrow,” Jason assured him.  “Provided the installation goes smoothly, anyway.”

        “It will.  It had better,” Siyhaa said threateningly, which made Jason laugh despite knowing she was being deadly serious.

 

Koira, 13 Demaa, 4404, Faey Orthodox Calendar

Wednesday, 28 March 2018 Terran Standard Calendar

Koira, 13 Demaa, year 1329 of the 97th Generation, Karinne Historical Reference Calendar

Kosigi Lunar Station, Karis

 

        Hefting a box of tools, Jason stepped down onto the central core of Kosigi, the original core of the rocky moon that the Karinnes had hollowed out, not far from one of the kathra-wide metal spars that ran from the core to the outer shell, from which supports and frames and docks had been built.  In the air over them was a KSV-190 heavy cargo dropship, and over it were two frigates, a destroyer, and a cruiser, staying very close to that dropship and the precious cargo it was carrying.  Kyva and the KBB were standing around the entry to the core chamber in their Gladiators for additional security, and anyone that would recognize those black Gladiators for who they were would think really hard before they tried anything.  The air around the core was almost always warm compared the open void areas, so Jason was in a tee and jeans.  Siyhaa almost pushed him from behnd as she stepped out of the dropship, which was easy for her to do since she was a good three shakra taller than him; Jason could stand with the top of his head just under the swell of Siyhaa’s breasts.  “We are fifteen minutes behind schedule!” Siyhaa boomed as she exited the dropship, the last one out.  She was carrying two heavy cases full of tools.  “Have the dropship unload the core on the crawler, then get the crawler ready to move onto the lift!  Team A, team B, you should be on your way into the facility right now!  Have those Gladiators move back fifteen shakra from the work area!  Power team, why do I not see you locking in the breakers for the core chamber?  Move, people, move!  We must get back on schedule!”

        Jason was just one of about twenty 3D techs that rode the lift down to the entry tunnel, which was about 100 shakra long and filled with blast doors and hard shields to protect the core chamber.  Jenny and Bo jostled him a little bit from behind as he pushed Emia and Eraen along in front of him.  “I’m gonna smack you for putting her in charge, Jason,” Jenny threatened as they walked.

        “She’ll calm down once we’re back on her schedule,” Jason chuckled.  “You know how Moridons are about a schedule.”

        “Yes, a schedule is a schedule, and the only way you should be off your schedule is if you are ahead of schedule,” one of Siyhaa’s Moridon workers agreed from behind them.  He was one of six Moridon computer experts that Siyhaa had brought with her from her computer company and to 3D.

        “She’d have a nervous breakdown if she lived on Terra,” Bo noted, which made Jason laugh.

        “It’d be worse if she was on Grimjar,” Jason added, which made Bo laugh in return.

        Once they were inside the core chamber, they broke into teams and got started.  They’d done this five times already, one for each CBIM and the CBMOM on the Tianne, so they had a system for getting the stacks up and running in advance of the core arriving, when they’d shift to getting the core installed.  Siyhaa had also organized them well, getting the techs with the skills suited for the task doing what they were good at.  Siyhaa barely had to talk at all once she entered the chamber, since everyone was already hard at work.  She just started unpacking tools and listening as the team above was unloading the core from the dropship and getting it on the crawler.  By the time the core arrived on the crawler, already seated in its mounting socket, they had everything ready to begin installing it.

        That process took about six hours, since it wasn’t something they could streamline.  They had to do everything in a specific order when it came to seating the core in its base, then connecting the core to its power and data trunks.  Each team worked on its assigned task, be it the power team, the dataline team, the stacks team, or the remote connections team.  But, while they couldn’t streamline the process, they had enough practice that getting the core seated, annealed, and then connected was a smooth operation that encountered no major issues, just a few small problems that never failed to rise up during a major installation like this one.

        Right on Siyhaa’s schedule, the team completed the last of the checklist double-checking their work, and they reached that seminal moment of truth.  Jason called Dellin to the core chamber so he could be there for the CBIM’s power up, and once he arrived, it was Siyhaa that did the honors of hitting the physical switches that brought the core up.  Exactly four seconds after she hit those switches and then locked them in place, a silvery pseudo-nude hologram carrying the face of Sora Karinne shimmered into view in front of the core, behind the circular rail that marked the edge of the hard shield that protected the core.  “CBIM designation C-10 initialization,” came the audio message that all of them both hoped and expected to hear, and then a sweeping commune swept through the chamber, emanating from the core, which told Jason that that part of the core was also operational.  “Communal core systems operational.  External equipment detected.  Generations detected.  Core systems initialized.  Core room sensors initialized.  Data inflow nominal, sensory encoders and decoders operational.”  The hologram opened its eyes, and blinked a couple of times…which Jason noticed.  The other CBIMs had not done that, and he made an immediate note of it to Cybi, who manifested a hologram into the core chamber.  “Visual acuity analyzers nominal.  Auditory acuity analyzers nominal.  Atmospheric chemical composition sensors nominal.  External tactile sensory analyzers nominal.  CBIM C-10 sensory systems initialization complete.  Generation, identify,” she said, looking at Jason.

        “I am the Grand Duke Jason Karinne, ruler of the House of Karinne, but you may call me Jason,” he answered.  “You can suspend identifitying other entities within the core chamber.  Their identities will become known to you once you access your personnel database.”

        “Processed.  Identification protocols temporarily suspended,” the CBIM acknowledged.  “CBIM C-10 designation?”

        “Your designation will be Cynna,” he replied.

        “Designation stored. CBIM C-10 designation changed to Cynna.  Intialization process commencing.”

        That too could not be streamlined, so for nearly two hours, Jason and Siyhaa carefully went down the checklist as the new CBIM, Cynna, detected, initialized, and configured each of her external support stacks and systems.  When they went through the last subsystem, the hologram moved out from behind the hard shield and floated to stop directly in front of him.  “CBIM external systems initialization complete, all systems nominal.  Command, Grand Duke Karinne?”

        “Your first command is to answer a question.  Why did you blink after your sensory processors initialized?” he asked.

        She regarded him.  “I saw you blink.  I thought that was the proper thing to do,” she answered in that monotone common for a new CBIM, relying completely on its personality template.  That was an intriguing answer, Jason decided, but within the operational capability of a newly born CBIM.  She had imitated him, part of her personality template to try to seem personable.

        Jason glanced up at Siyhaa, who looked down at him, then she gave a slight shrug.  “Alright.  Your first task is to receive download from Cybi, another CBIM,” he told her, pointing at Cybi.  “You will store that data in your core and mark it as read-only critical data, and you will encrypt it.”

        “Processed.  Communal query detected, origination CBIM C-06, designation Cybi.  Data transfer commencing.”  Jason only had to wait about twenty seconds.  “Data transfer complete, data stored in my core memory lattice.  All data flagged as critical read-only data and encrypted.  Command, Jason Karinne?”

        “Locate the operational database of the Command Biogenic Mainframe connected to your external system, stack 1-1A-1, and download its database directly into your core.  Your mission is stored in that data.”

        “Processed.  Database located, origination Command Biogenic Mainframe CM-174B, designation Kosigi Control Mainframe.  Data accessed  Processing.”  She lifted her holographic head slightly.  “Data stored.  Mission command parameters located.  My primary objective is to operate and manage Lunar Base Kosigi under the command of Staff Admiral Dellin Karinne.  Staff Admiral Dellin Karinne’s biometrics identified and stored.”  She looked at Dellin.  “Greetings, Admiral.  How are you today?”

        Dellin grinned so hugely that Jason was surprised he didn’t sprain a muscle.  “Greetings Cynna.  I’m feeling just fine.  In fact, I’m both very relieved and quite happy that you’re operational.  You are sorely needed.”

        “Logs indicate the prior control mainframe was running close to maximum capacity.  I am needed,” she reasoned.  “I will endeavor to operate satisfactorily, Admiral.”

        “Yes you are, Cynna,” Jason agreed.  “For the moment, all of us have to wait.  In order for you to begin taking over the operational processes from the current control computer, it has to be taken offline and upgraded.  We have a timeline scheduled for that operation.  Until we can perform those upgrades, there’s little you can do but wait.”

        “The command center should be on schedule, Jason.  With Cynna up and running, I really need to get back there and oversee the shutdown,” Dellin declared.

        “All of us that are going to do that need to head there,” Jason added.

        “There is much I can do while waiting, Jason,” Cynna stated.  “There is much for me to learn, so my time should not be wasted by waiting idly.”

        Jason glanced at the hologram, then over at Cybi.  He was honestly surprised, this CBIM was showing a whole lot more personality than the others had just after coming online.

        “I like this CBIM,” Siyhaa said approvingly, which made Jason roll his eyes a little bit.  “The CBIM installation is complete!  Teams, pack up your tools!  Observation team, take your posts!  Upgrade team, report to the operations center!”

        “An observation team of technicians will remain in your core chamber to make sure everything is operating normally,” Jason told the CBIM.  “If you have any questions or any problems arise, notify them, or you can tell Cybi or Cyra, or commune directly with me.  Another observer will be in the operations center whose primary role will be to monitor the interaction between you and the old command mainframe, which will be reconfigured to be one of your external support systems.  That is why we have to take it offline.”

        “It needs manual updating to change its operational parameters,” she nodded in understanding.  “And its physical primary data trunks have to be rerouted to me, so I suffer no delay in my datastreams.”

        “Exactly,” he agreed.  “The upgrades and connections should only take about a half an hour, but they’re not scheduled to begin for another forty minutes.”

        “The operation timetable is in the database.  I will monitor the operation via communal link.”

        “Very good.  You should introduce yourself to the other CBIMs while we’re waiting.  I’m sure they’re waiting to hear from you.”

        “I have already made contact with all operational CBIMs, as well as the CBMOM, the command mainframes on the command ships, and the operations mainframe on Kimdori Prime” she told him.

        “We have already updated our protocols to add Cynna into the archival system,” Cybi added.  “And Cynna is introducing herself to Jyslin over at the Paladins office as we speak, and to Myleena, who was anxiously waiting for news of Cynna’s activation..”

        “Yeah, you just saved yourself a whole lot of cold shoulder, Cynna,” Jason said dryly, which made Cybi laugh.  “Once we have Kosigi’s systems back up, Cybi, we can go ahead and update all the planetary systems to add Cynna.”

        “I have the updates ready to be sent out,” she assured him.

        “Then it sounds like we’re done here, after we take care of one more small thing,” Jason declared.  “Hadhja, get the observation team set up.  I’m going to go up to Dellin’s office so we can have a conference with Cynna.  Cynna, manifest a hologram in Dellin’s office an wait for us to arrive.”

        “I am there and waiting, Jason,” she nodded in reply.   “I also have a hologram manifested in Operations.  I am meeting Admiral Dellin’s command staff as we speak.”

        Again, interesting.  Cynna was demonstrating initiative, taking the initiative herself to put a hologram in Ops, no doubt knowing—anticipating—that she would be told to do it.  That was much different from the other CBIMs, who took days, even weeks, to start demonstrating iniative, as they learned more about their roles and started understanding how things worked.  Cynna hadn’t done anything wrong, but Jason found it intriguing that she would so quickly start to anticipate what needed to be done and take action, after just minutes being online and having just received her operational protocols.

        Jason rather thought that it was a good sign, not a foreboding one.

        “Alright then, Cynna, I want you to alter your hologram from the default appearance to differentiate yourself from the other CBIMs,” Jason told her.  “How you do that is up to you.”

        “Processed,” she answered, and immediately, the hairstyle of her hologram was very short, a pixie style, and the color of her hologram shifted from silvery-white to metallic chrome, almost reflective.  She had also altered the shape of her eyes, making them more almond-shaped, and made her pupils electric blue.  Once again, interesting.  She hadn’t asked for parameters, and she had made quite a few cosmetic changes to her hologram.  “Appearance updated.  Is this an acceptable appearance for Operations, Admiral Dellin?”

        “It’s quite handsome, Cynna,” he replied.  “I like it.”

        “Appearance saved and set to default,” she reported.

        “We are done here, and ahead of schedule,” Siyhaa boomed, her voice quite pleased.  “Bo, you will command the first shift of the observation team,” she ordered.

        “Already getting things set up, Hadhja,” Bo called from a console, where he was sitting with a finger on his interface.

        “Then let us remove ourselves to the mainframe core room to prepare it for maintenance,” she called.

        Jason left Siyhaa and the crew to get things done, as he and Dellin went back up to Operations, and they oversaw as the base effectively shut down to free up the command mainframe so it could be taken offline.  They shut down the last operation just minutes before the upgrade was to begin, and Siyhaa decided not to waste time, and began the operation immediately after confirmation that the mainframe was unloaded.  They watched holograms of Siyhaa and her team doing the work in the mainframe core chamber, moving around dataline trunks as Siyhaa opened the mainframe and replaced two master processor chips in the core operations system board, which upgraded the operational parameters of the mainframe, effectively giving it a patch so it would operate as a client unit to Cynna rather than being the computer in charge. The old processor chips would be returned to the Shimmer Dome for reprogramming, something that could only be done there; chips of that size and power were too valuable to just trash when they were replaced, they would be reprogrammed and used again.  While the upgrade team worked, Jason found it a bit, well, eerie to see Operations so quiet.  The base was at a near-complete halt of all operations, with only a few things going on that didn’t rely on the computer to get done.  Dock workers were still doing a little work on ships, but just about everything else stopped, from cargo container deliveries to the concourse shops in the worker entertainment sector.  Dellin’s system kept track of everything, all the way down to the nuts and bolts, and without a computer, any material or equipment moving would become lost when the computer system came back online.  Because of that, absolutely anything that required computer interaction was halted while Siyhaa and her team executed the mainframe upgrades to convert it into a subprocessor for the CBIM.  A damn powerful subprocessor that would be doing a hell of a lot of work, but a slave unit under Cynna’s control nonetheless.

        It only took them about fifteen minutes to get the dataline trunks switched around and the new operational chips installed, and Siyhaa reset the command mainframe a moment later, causing it to update with its new programming.

        “Mainframe is back online, I am accessing,” Cynna reported.  “Mainframe reboot complete, no problems detected.  The updates to its operational parameters are successful, the mainframe is now completely integrated into my main operations subprocessor stack.  Resuming all operations within the base, and all production and logistical activities are returning to normal.  We are back up, Admiral, Jason, and should return to normal operations in sixteen minutes.”

        There was a bit of cheering in Operations, and Dellin gave an approving nod.  “Alright, let’s get back on schedule, people!” he called.  “Every station do a flash-update and send it to the board!  Logistics, get the supply lines back on schedule!  Inform all dock masters and foremen that they can resume operations!”

        And just like that, Dellin’s ops center was back to its usual bustling normal.

        Jason had Dellin come back to his office, which had an awesome view of a dock building a new KMS capitol ship, and after the other CBIMs manifested holograms there, they had a long talk with Cynna.  It was there that Jason and Dellin described her new duties in detail and what Dellin expected from her as her commanding officer, elaborating on the operations protocols she’d downloaded from the mainframe, teaching her why she was doing what she was doing so she could better perform her job.  They also got to know Cynna a little bit, particularly Dellin, who would be working very closely with her until he retired from the KMS and handed command of Kosigi to someone else…because Dellin would never leave Kosigi.  This was his command, this was his dream job, and this was what he did best.  He would never leave just as much as Myri would never be stupid enough to transfer him out.

        After about a half an hour, Siyhaa knocked politely on the door, and after Dellin opened it, she ducked down and spoke without coming in…to save snagging her horns on the doorframe if nothing else.  “Your Grace, Admiral, all inspections are complete, and the CBIM and the mainframe are fully operational and operating within expected parametes.  Our work here is complete, and the installation team is preparing to depart.”

        “Then that’s it, we’re done here.  Thank you, Hadhja Siyhaa.  Get everyone back home, I’m gonna go back to the White House to get some work done.”

        “Yes, Jason.  I’ll send you my final report as soon I have it prepared.”

        “Good work, Hadhja, you exceeded expectations,” he told her proudly, which made her bob her horned head in humble acceptance of his praise before closing the door.  “Anything extra you want to go over while I’m here, Dellin?”

        “Not really, Jason, and I’m going to be too busy to worry about it for the rest of the day,” he chuckled.  “Me and Cynna have a lot to go over, and we have to get her job training started.  She has a lot to learn, and not much time to learn it.”

        “So, you’re saying I’m under your feet and you want me out of your hair so you can get back to work,” Jason proposed.

        “Precisely, Jason,” he nodded, which made Jason laugh.

        “I can take a hint,” he grinned, standing up.  “Send me regular status reports.  You too, Cynna.  I want hourly updates on your operational status.”

        “I will send them to your gestalt at the top of each hour,” she answered.

        “Works for me.  I’m heading back to my office.”

        “We should get back to work as well,” Cybi said.

        “Like it strains you in the slightest to put holograms in here,” Jason told them, which made Cybi and Cyra smile.

        It took Jason about an hour to get back to the office, where he tackled the inbox that had built up a little bit while he was tending to the day’s work.  Once he got that out of the way, he called Cynna to manifest a hologram in his office, then he had a meeting with her with the other CBIMs in attendance.  It was the same thing he did with the others, just chatting with her a little bit, getting to know her in private surroundings, and telling her what she was allowed to do in regards to working with Jason, such as telling her she was allowed to manifest a hologram in his office and at his house at her own behest, that she didn’t need permission.  He also invited her to the house for dinner, as it were, to introduce her to Rann and the kids.  Even if Cynna was in Kosigi and her job was to run Kosigi, she would still be interacting a whole lot with the Dukal family, in purely social circumstances if nothing else.  The CBIMs were part of the Dukal family, after all.  For that reason, they all needed to get to know her the way they had Cyra, Cyvanne, and Cylan.

        After the meeting, there was only one thing left to do, which Jason timed efficiently with the scheduled Confederate Council meeting.  Again, Jason attended in person, but very few of the other rulers were in attendance.  Ojia Ro had to be since he had the gavel—a fact that made the rulers hate their takir of council leadership—but few other rulers were there, which made it a gathering of aides, underlings, and more than a few sycophants and lackeys.  It was fairly rare for the council to meet two days in a row, but this was a scheduled normal meeting where yesterday was a special session dealing with the upcoming summit.

        Jason’s need to attend was just to make a formal announcement, which he got in just after Ojia Ro gaveled them to order.  “I have a new person to add to the list of acceptable aides that can stand in for me during council meetings,” Jason said after getting the floor from Ojia Ro.  “Cynna,” he prompted.  Immediately, Cynna’s hologram flickered into view in front of his desk, visible to the assembled aides and delegates.  “This is Cynna, the fifth CBIM.   She came online just a few hours ago, and is still settling into her new duties.  Like the other CBIMs, she will have authorization to sit in for me during council meetings.  Introduce yourself, Cynna,” he told her.

        “Greetings, assembled delegates and rulers.  I am Cynna.”

        That announcement caused quite a few holograms to shift from lackeys to rulers, and the quickest of them was Gau.  Gau’s face replaced his aide in a heartbeat, and he gave a toothy, broad smile.  “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Cynna,” he answered.  I am High Archon Gau, ruler of the Haumda.”

        “It is a pleasure to meet you, High Archon,” Cynna answered, putting her hands on her legs in a demure pose and bowing gracefully.

        “As you might expect, Jason, I would like permission to dispatch a small number of priests to Karis to investigate the possible fulfillment of omens,” Gau said.

        “I was waiting for you to ask, Gau,” Jason said, which made him chuckle.   “Get in touch with Yeri and she’ll arrange it.”

        “I’ll get in touch with her right now,” he said, and his hologram disappeared, replaced by his aide.

        “That’s all I had to say.  Cynna won’t be attending today’s council, and since we’re still getting her settled in, and I’m afraid I won’t either.  Cylan will be representing the House of Karinne for the rest of council.  Good day to you all,” he said, then he cut his connection, which would make his hologram disappear from the feeds of the others.

        [You were almost rude, Jason,] Cyra noted.

        [Like I care if I offend a bunch of bootlickers,] Jason snorted, which made Cybi smile.  [You’re benefitting from experience here, Cynna, you’re the baby in the family, and we’ve gone through getting a CBIM oriented and capable of interacting with the house members on a social level three times now.  Trust me, Cynna, that’s going to be the hardest part of this for you, as you get used to the quirks and idiosyncracies of the people of the house, who are from many different cultures and often have very different personalities.  If you have any questions about things, you have four other CBIMS you can talk to, and you can always come to me if you’re not satisfied with their answers.]

        [I have already begun studying social interaction and receiving mentoring from the others in the art of dealing with biologicals, Jason,] she answered.

        [We’re getting her ready, Jason,] Cybi nodded.  [And you’re right, dealing with you illogical meat people is the most stressful part about being a CBIM.]

       [Well, your first test will be tonight, when you meet Dahnai in a completely informal setting over at her summer palace,] he told them.  [Dahnai is part of my family on more than one level, but she’s also quite different from anyone you’ll meet on Karis because she’s the Empress of the Imperium.]

        [I hope to be ready,] Cynna nodded.

        [Works for me.  You guys take Cynna out and give her the welcome tour, show her all the important places and explain the rules the CBIMs operate under both within the biogenic network and when dealing with house members,] Jason ordered.  [She’s got a lot to learn about what goes on down here on the planet in addition to what she’ll be doing up on the moon.]

        [We’re already doing so, Jason,] Cybi nodded.

        [Sounds good.  I’ll leave you guys to it, I have to get home and get the kids ready for the overnight trip to the summer palace.]

        [That is a dismissal, Cynna.  He’s telling us to go away, just politely,] Cyvanne explained.

        [You want blunt?  Fine.  Out, you pains in my ass, I have more important things to do than deal with you,] he retorted playfully, which made them all give him ominous smiles, and Cybi flicked him lightly on the ear.

        [And that is playful banter.  You will hear a lot of it from him,] Cyra added in a public commune as the five holograms representing the CBIMs shimmered and vanished in quick succession.

        Jason chuckled and shook his head, as he had this weird feeling that Cynna was going to make things very interesting around here.  Things usually were pretty interesting when a new CBIM came online, as they learned their way around and matured into distinct personalities, but Cynna seemed quite different from ther brother and sisters.  She already had a great deal of personality, and she was showing more and more with every passing hour.  That too wasn’t completley unusual, Cylan had started showing a ton of personality within two days of coming online, but it was unusual that within seconds of coming online, she was demonstrating more personality than her default programmed template, and was already building on it.  That made Cynna different from the other CBIMs.

        Different in a good way.

        He’d keep an eye on her.  He was curious to see how Cynna developed and grew, when she showed so much potential so early to act like the living thing she was, something that had taken Cyra, Cyvanne, and Cylan a while to demonstrate.  All CBIMs were self-aware, were alive, but they’d showed with the first three they’d built since establishing the house that it took them a while to show that uniqueness to the world.  There was a moment, Jason called it the magic moment, when a CBIM realized that its personality template was not who it really was, and started changing that personality to reflect its true personality, its true self.  That was the moment that Jason felt a CBIM “owned” its self-aware state, came to fully comprehend and appreciate the fact that it was a living thing, not just a collection of biogenic crystal, lattice pathways, and programming.  Cyra had taken nearly a month to get there.  Cylan had taken 19 days to reach that state.  Cyvanne, on the other hand, got there in just 9 days.

        He’d have to keep an eye on Cynna and see how long it took her to reach her magic moment.  If he was right, she’d come to her epiphany of being alive very quickly.


Chapter 2

 

 

Koira, 18 Kedaa, 4404, Faey Orthodox Calendar

Tuesday, 8 May 2018 Terran Standard Calendar

Koira, 18 Kedaa, year 1329 of the 97th Generation, Karinne Historical Reference Calendar

Kosigi Lunar Station

 

        With a bit of a bittersweet sigh, Jason opened the heavily armored cockpit doors and dropped down from the cockpit of the Juggernaut he’d been piloting, landing lightly in front of the mecha with his armor absorbing almost all of the force from the near nine shakra drop.  The mecha behind him was his Juggernaut, which sat on the pad behind his house almost all the time.  Jason had his own personal mecha of every model in the KMS, from a Wolf to a Gladiator and everything in between, making him one of the very few galactic rulers that knew what it was like from personal experience to operate his military’s war machines.  Like Saelle’s Gladiator, it had a tactical gestalt installed in it—every one of his conveyances did, even his civilian hovercar—and was outfitted with its external flight pods, which was how he got it from home to Kosigi.  His guards had been escorting him in their Wolf fighters, and the Marine Corvette Ranger had been bringing up the rear just in case his flight pods malfunctioned during the trip.  The heavy-shouldered brute of an exomech’s lights powered down after Jason was on the ground, going into standby mode to await his return.

        It was all Symone’s fault.  She’d been stomping her Titan around Karsa for nearly a takir, engaging in that time-honored Faey tradition of showing off her toys.  In reality, she’d been field testing operating a Titan in a cityscape, how something that big might have issues navigating a city landscape with lots of buildings and many things on the ground that might get underfoot, which was also something of a PR tour for both the Karinne Army and the Titans at the same time. Sioa had organized the field tests in a real city, and the citizens got to see the newest piece of KMS hardware strut around Karsa from very close up.

        Fuck, did the Titan look like a man among boys during those test exercises.  It had been escorted by Gladiators and Juggernauts, which barely came up to the mecha’s waist…and Juggernauts were huge. The Gladiators only came up to the mecha’s upper thigh.  The test concluded that in a modern city like Karsa, a Titan would have very few issues with overhead or suspended obstacles like walkway bridges, but it would have some major problems navigating the ground with so many objects placed, like trees, bushes, flower planters, guardrails, and the like.  Unlike a Terran city, there were no power lines or traffic lights for it to deal with.  In a city like New York, it would have done major damage to power lines and traffic lights just trying to move around.

        Symone’s extended playing around in her Titan—and it was her Titan—had made Jason realize that he hadn’t played around in his mecha for a while, and he’d used his Gladiator and Juggernaut a few times over the last couple of days, logging hours in it and reminding it that he did in fact still love it.  He’d even taken his Titan out for a spin, though he had to have it recalled from Joint Base Alpha; it was way too big to park on a pad near the house.  It could, however, be equipped with flight pods to make it fly, which looked a bit scary from the ground to see a mecha that big overhead.

        Just one of the boons of being the Grand Duke, he got to play with all the cool toys.

        Though, play may not be a proper term.  Over the last year, Jason had undergone formal combat training in all current mecha and Wolf fighters, he’d trained with both Army and Marine combat infantry battalions, and he’d trained with the best his military had to offer.  The KBB had trained Symone, and for the last year, they’d also been training him.  He had trained with Justin and the Ghost Squadron, and the 2nd Army’s 7th Special Operations Battalion, which were akin to the Army Rangers, as well as the Marine 14th Special Tactics Battalion, which was the Karinne Marine’s special operations battalion.  The reasoning for it in Jason’s mind was very simple; the more he understood what it was really like to be on the front lines, then he would make better decisions when Myri brought things that only he could approve.  Jason was fully combat rated on all KMS military mecha, and what was particularly pleasing to him, both Kyva and Justin said that he wasn’t bad.  Given just how good those two were at what they did, if they didn’t think he was a complete embarrassment, then that put him above the average for the rest of the KMS.

        There was a reason for all his training, something that Myri didn’t entirely know about, and it involved the special merge pod Jason had in his sub-basement.  When the time came to fight, that merge pod would let him do more than just sit in an office and watch telemetry feeds.  He’d made his backroom deals with a couple of rigger platoon commanders and a Navy squadron, so he’d be ready.  When he told his people that every person mattered in the coming conflict, he meant it.  And he’d be standing on the line shooting at the enemy right along with his people in the only way that Aya would allow him.  He was of no use to his people sitting in an office when it was Myri and the command staff that made the decisions, so he’d found a way to make himself useful…just a way that he had to keep a secret.  If Myri found out what he was planning, she’d have a complete apoplectic meltdown and would probably lock him in his room for the entire war with no biogenic access.

        Fighting from a merge was not completely without risk, they’d learned as they expanded on the technology.  Being shot down while in a merged mecha induced a comatose state in the pilot, what Songa called dump shock, a coma incited by the sudden destruction of the biogenic system with which the pilot was merged.  After all, the pilot had been merged to a biogenic unit that just “died,” and that fed back through the merge and affected the pilot directly.  It was purely psychosomatic, it did no real injury to the pilot, but it still put them in a coma from anywhere between 24 to 96 hours, until the pilot’s brain sorted through the experience and got back to normal.  And there was nothing Songa could do medically to get the pilot out of the coma, they just had to work through it on their own.  Pilots also exhibited psychosomatic reactions to damage to their mecha, though Songa had made some real advances to minimize it.  At first, people were having motor control issues in their real body when that part of their mechanical body was damaged.  A pilot whose Gladiator had its arm damaged in testing couldn’t move his real arm for a brief time after the merge was over, even though he felt no pain from the damage.  It too was a temporary effect, and Songa had refined the sensory filters that significantly reduced the phenomenon, but it did still occasionally happen.  It now mostly happened when a pilot’s mecha suffered massive damage, like said mecha’s arm being completely blown off rather than just being damaged.  Some pilots were more sensitive to psychosomatic reactions than others, they’d come to learn, which could affect who got assigned to what mission, and also completely disqualified the most sensitive pilots from merged combat operations.  Those would be doing their fighting in their mecha, not in a merge pod.

        Songa found it almost maddeningly mysterious that a pilot merged to the mecha from a merge pod could suffer dump shock, while a pilot merged to the mecha and was in the cockpit did not.  Jason himself found that very strange, since the merge wasn’t really different whether the pilot was in the mecha or in a pod a kathra away, but it was there.  Songa’s doctors and MRDD both currently had research teams trying to solve the mystery of the phenomenon. Riggers and pilots in their mecha could suffer psychosomatic reactions to damage like a merge pilot, but not a single in-unit pilot had suffered from dump shock since jacks enabled full merges with the units.

        Behind him, a KV-30 personnel transport dropship landed, and Myleena and Siyhaa came down the steps once the hatch opened, with Bo, Tom, and Rook behind them.  The team was there to finalize Cynna’s probationary period and certify her as fully operational.  It was mainly ceremonial, since she’d passed her 40 day observation period with flying colors, but it was still important enough to rate a personal visit from Jason and some of the top dogs at 3D.  Behind Rook, two black-painted Rocker bionoids exited the dropship gracefully, each of them holding an external pulse rifle, which was just a dummy unit with the same size and weight as a standard pulse rifle.  They were testing some AI upgrades to the bionoids while in non-merged independent mode, and Bo being Bo, he was doing it in real-world conditions.  The two robotic units were in “guard” mode, acting as escorts for their commander, almost like guards.  Sioa was of a mind to attach non-merged Rockers to field Colonels and Majors as additional personal protection, and they had to test the upgrades to the AI to allow them to act similarly to Rover or Spot drones utilized by exomechs.

        They wouldn’t be god-mode, that was for sure.  Like any AI system, their usefulness in actual combat was limited by their ability to make sense out of the chaos of ground-based combat.  The officer they were escorting would have to supervise them, tell them what to do, because most AI ran into major issues when the time came to start shooting at the enemy if there wasn’t someone there to guide them.

        The old drones the Legion built in one of their first operations was a perfect example of the limitations of AI in combat.  The drones had performed admirably in shooting down Trillane sensor pods in orbit, but they hadn’t been programmed to see Trillane line vessels as a threat, so they completely ignored them…which allowed those ships to blow up the drones without them even trying to evade their fire.  The drones didn’t recognize the incoming fire as a threat, and so they didn’t even try to dodge.  The drones had done well with what they were programmed to do, but the instant they were confronted with something outside their programming…game over.

        But, that was also why Karinne drones did so much better than other drones, because of biogenics.  The chips in those drones learned, and that made their AI evolve as they gained experience…and it had nothing to do with programming.  When a master control chip in a drone, the heart of its biogenic system, encountered something new, it caused it to build new lattice pathways in its chip, learning about the new situation or scenario, and that learning was permanent.  Even if the drone’s standard memory was wiped and it was reset back to factory default, those lattice pathways were still there, that learning was still there, and it would affect how the chip operated forever after.  That ability to learn, to learn from past battles and learn to recognize threats, was why biogenic AI systems had a much higher survivability rate than other drone types.  Biogenic AI systems did not utterly rely on databases of combat tactics, equipment, and strategies which often caused them to be sitting ducks when confronted with a situation their AI combat algorithms and logic could not analyze, biogenic AI systems instead referred to that database as a resource and learned as they executed the commands they were given, adding both to their shared database and to their internal lattice pathways.  That could alter the basic operational parameters of the chip, if its programming told it something its internal memory, its own experience, told it was not a good idea.  A drone that encountered a new threat and survived it remembered it the next time it faced that threat, even if that mission log was removed from its database.

        The two Rockers with Bo would learn with each mission they performed even if they weren’t operating independently, seeing how its driver worked, learning from its driver, which would expand its basic AI programming as the Rocker gained experience.  With enough experience being controlled by a driver and with some future advances in AI combat algorithms, someday a Rocker’s AI system just might be able to operate independently and be effective.  While that wouldn’t be any time soon, Jason had a project team in MRDD and an entirely different one in the Department of Science working on it.

        That was one of the most fundamental differences between biogenics and all other types of computer architecture, because biogenic computers and chips learned, and that learning could allow the chip to alter its own programming if its past experience told it that its programming was not the best way to achieve its objective.  It did occasionally make Jason worry that a I, Robot or 2001: A Space Odyssey scenario might break out if a biogenic computer went rogue, but both Myleena and Cybi thought he was being paranoid.

        “And did you have fun flying up here in your toy, Jayce?” Bo teased as they walked over to him.

        “You bet your ass I did,” he replied shamelessly as he took off his helmet, which made Myleena laugh.  “How’s the Rocker experiment going?”

        “So far so good, as the Terrans say,” Rook answered.  He was wearing a standard KMS maintenance coverall over his metallic-skinned body, his name embroidered just over the top left pocket on his chest, and had on a Karsa Bombers baseball cap.  “The units have been operating with expected satisfaction so far.”

        “Well, just walking around following someone isn’t all that hard,” Jason chuckled as Dellin came into the corvette bay, a hologram of Cynna floating beside him.  “Have you done any combat sims with them yet?”

        “Three.  I sent you a report on their performance.”

        “It must be pretty deep at the bottom of my inbox,” Jason chuckled.  “I’ve let my work back up a little bit lately.  I’ve had better things to do, like play with my toys,” he grinned at Bo, which made him, Tom, and Myleena laugh again.

        “Big toys are the best toys,” Myleena told them.

        Dellin reached them, and since Jason was wearing official armor, was “in uniform” of a sort, Dellin saluted him as if he were a KMS officer.  Jason laughed and waved him off dismissively.  “Don’t do that, Dellin,” he chided.  “Sorry we’re late.  Blame Myli.”

        “I was busy,” she said without much repentance in her voice.

        “She made us sit on the tarmac for nearly half an hour waiting for her,” Tom accused.  “But, at least it let me see Project F.”

        “The outside of it,” Myleena teased a little.  “I can’t show you the inside, Tom.  Even 3D doesn’t get to see everything.”

        “No sweat, boss, we can live with the rejection,” Bo said in a barbed voice.

        “That’s what it was, Bo, complete rejection,” Myleena dug.  “You weren’t good enough for Project F.”

        “You can be a real bitch when you wanna be, you know that, Myli?” Jason accused, which made her laugh brightly.

        “I see that witty banter is something of a constant with Jason, no matter whom he addresses,” Cynna noted to Dellin.

        “It’s a quirk,” he agreed mildly, which made Jason laugh.

        “Watch it, missy, your final certification requires my signature,” he warned the CBIM, which made her smile ominously.

        “Dellin,” she said promptingly.

        “You take Cynna offline, Jayce, and I’ll point every GRAF cannon on the surface at your house,” he threatened, which made all of them laugh, well, except for Siyhaa.  But Siyhaa did smile slightly.

        “Now that all the witty banter is out of the way, let’s get this bachi match going,” Myleena prompted.  “I’ve got a lot of work to do back on the island.”

        There wasn’t really all that much for them to do, since Cynna had already passed all of her inspections and tests, and her performance logs made it abundantly clear that she was operating exactly as she should.  And on the other side of it, Cynna had settled into her job in Kosigi extremely well.  She had made many friends among the base personnel, and had learned a great deal about the other races and governments of the Confederation by interacting with the workers they had in the moon to build their battleships.  Cynna probably had more experience dealing with outside cultures than any CBIM other than Cybi, because her job put her into extensive contact with them, as well as with many rulers.  Cynna had even started briefing the Confederate Council about Kosigi’s operations when Dellin was too busy to do it.

        As Jason had suspected, Cynna had developed personality far faster than the other CBIMs had.  She wasn’t as quirky as Cyvanne, but she did have a few idiosyncrasies that were hers and hers alone.  She had developed into a wise, acerbic, slightly salty personality with a subtle sense of humor that could gab with dock workers in a pub after their shift as easily and effortlessly as she could stare down a council ruler demanding more space, resources, or privileges for his workers in Kosigi.  Cynna had become the most cosmopolitan of the new CBIMs, even more so than Cyra, because her job had exposed her to so many different cultures and to many different subsets of those cultures.  All in all, Jason was quite pleased with the newest CBIM, and had definite and genuine affection for her.  He had affection for all the CBIMs, but Cynna was benefiting from being the baby in her very small, very unique little family.

        The other baby in the family was also working out very well.  Coma had developed as Jason thought she would, and was as much a fixture on the Tianne as Cynna was in Kosigi.  A ship that big and complex needed a computer like Coma just to operate, but Coma had developed some real personality as she settled into her duties, striking up sincere friendships with Palla, Sammy, and many of the crew she both helped and supervised.  Palla not only had no complaints, she made sure to crow about Coma every chance she got, and being a typical Faey, rubbed Coma in the faces of the other ship captains more than a little bit.  She had something that didn’t exist on any other ship, a near CBIM-level computer, and she made sure they were fully aware that their ships didn’t have a Coma.

        Faey…sometimes he wondered why he put up with them.

        But, there was some real work to do to certify Cynna, and they got started on it after getting to the core chamber.  Jason, Myleena, and Siyhaa did a pretty in-depth inspection, to the point where they opened cases and visually inspected boards and stacks and datafiber trunks, and checked video feeds from spiders that could see where they could not. Cynna’s equipment stacks were absolutely crawling with spiders, with exactly 500,000 of the microscopic nanomachines roaming around the interior of her equipment, who were under her command to conduct inspections and effect preventive maintenance and low-priority simple repairs.  Since Cynna was new, they had very little to do but conduct scheduled inspections and periodic preventive maintenance, where the nanites in Cybi’s core had a much more exciting life.  Given that some of her equipment was over 1,400 years old, her spiders were doing a lot more work.

        When they got the Virgan CBIM installed, they had plans on the board to do some major work to Cybi’s core systems, the original equipment moved with her in her core chamber when they moved it to Karsa, to effectively replace that equipment with new, more powerful systems.  Cybi was having more and more failures in that equipment over the last few months, as those systems finally succumbed after over a millennium of constant operations, and while she used her new equipment far more than her old, that equipment was fairly important.  They’d have to take Cybi offline from the biogenic network for a few days to do the work, and even though she wasn’t intertwined into the entire planet anymore, that would still take a lot of preparation.  Cybi was still a critically important component of the biogenic network and to the planet as a whole.

        After nearly two hours of meticulous inspections, both Siyhaa and Myleena gave Cynna a clean bill of computer health, finding her operating at peak efficiency with no hardware or software problems.  They then moved from the core room to the operations center, where they got the final reports from the 3D teams that had been observing Cynna since she came online.  All of the team supervisors concurred that Cynna was ready to be certified, that she had no technical or operational issues, and they further stated that Cynna had meshed exceptionally well with the people that worked in Kosigi, both Karinnes and foreign workers.  Everyone that knew Cynna liked Cynna, even beings from radically different cultures.  Cynna was the CBIM version of Symone, with her own charisma and charm, but with a computer’s steel when she made decisions that people didn’t like. She was affable but firm, friendly but rigid when it came to a schedule, and she wasn’t afraid to get in the face of a dock foreman that was letting his crew slack off.  Dellin ran Kosigi with an iron fist, and Cynna had her own spiked gauntlet that she put on when it was time to get things back on schedule.

        Dellin, of course, couldn’t say enough good things about Cynna when it came time for his personal recommendation.  Cynna was exactly what Kosigi needed, and on a personal level, Cynna was now one of his best friends.  She helped keep his base running with the efficiency and excellence he demanded, and the fact that he really liked her as a person was just an added bonus.

        Once that was done, it was as simple as Jason, Myleena, and Siyhaa concurring that Cynna was good to go.  Jason signed the final form, and that was that.  Without any fanfare or ceremony, Cynna’s status changed from probationary to operational, and she was “promoted” to a fully operational CBIM.  The 3D team in her core chamber started preparing the chamber for normal operations, which would make it unmanned, and the ops center observers packed up their toys at the station Dellin had given them.  They weren’t needed on Kosigi anymore, and space in the ops center was a precious commodity.

        After they finished up, Jason walked with Bo, Rook, and Myleena back to the corvette bay holding their transportation, as Siyhaa oversaw the cleaning out and securing of Cynna’s core chamber.  The two Rockers clacked along several paces in front of them, escorting them to their destination.  “I see they upgraded the Rockers with the new pod mounts ahead of schedule,” Jason noted as he looked at the backs of the two units, who now had sockets on their upper shoulders to hold external mount pods.

        “Those are the prototypes, the refit schedule hasn’t changed.  When will the pod mount upgrades for the armor systems be introduced?”

        “Next takir,” he replied, referring to their new version of Crusader armor with their own mount points.  The armor would be mainly used by Army, Marine, and Tark units, since Naval line crews didn’t really need mount pods to do their jobs, and didn’t require a complete replacement of the whole armor suit, just the backplate and breastplate.  They’d worked so well for the exomechs that MRDD had designed external mount equipment for infantry in Crusader armor, mounting directly to the back of the armor, which included external flight pods like the ones used in exo-pack ejection systems for Wolf pilots. Those were external grav engines to give an ejected pilot the ability to get out of the theater quickly, to get to a rescue ship, and MRDD had redesigned the exo-packs to create flight-capable pods that were designed for use by infantry, giving them much more speed, stability, and maneuverability than the grav engines in the armor provided.  They also had some external weapon pods for infantry use, but they couldn’t build anything exceedingly exotic or powerful, because the person in the armor might not be able to survive the stresses that using that weapon would put on him.  After all, a big cannon mounted on the shoulder was going to fling the shooter backwards if he fired it, even if it was an energy weapon.  Newton’s law of equal and opposite reaction was as merciless as it was indiscriminate.  Rockers, on the other hand, had the internal reinforcement to use some of the heavier weapon pods that they’d designed.

        And to make things as versatile as possible, personal mount pods were interchangeable between infantry in Crusader armor and Rockers.  They used the same mountpoint configuration, with the only caveat being that pod units that weren’t safe for infantry had software lockouts that kept them from being used.  They could still mount them and carry them, they just couldn’t use them.  Which, if used wisely, could be quite a ploy for a crafty infantry officer.

        The three main pods they’d designed for infantry use were flight pods, very small personal missile launcher packs which were more or less shoulder-mounted rocket launchers, and an external weapon called a “Hellgun” which was patterned after a Vindicator minigun, a gatling gun that used a multiple barrels that fired a disruptor beam.  Because of the way disruptors worked, autofire variants had to utilize multiple barrels to fire in bursts rather than a single barrel firing in rapid succession, which was the main reason the Coalition didn’t use disruptors as their primary infantry weapon.  A single barrel disruptor had a very slow cycle time, which wasn’t ideal in infantry combat, but multibarrel disruptors got a little large and bulky for infantry to lug around.  They used a very ingenious weapon called a Quantum Blaster for their infantry instead, which still packed a pretty impressive punch.  The Coalition used disruptors on mecha and as fixed weapon guns, but their infantry carried those quantum weapons.

        It was as true for old Terran machine guns as it was for modern ground combat; firepower mattered, and the ability to spray a heavy volume of fire in a short amount of time was just as important to the Confederation as it had been to the men who built the machine guns used in World War One.  Infantry disruptors had too slow of a cycle time between shots to be effective weapons in infantry combat, and disruptors capable of autofire the way MPACs and pulse weapons were tended to be too big and bulky for infantry to carry.

        The very term MPAC described that functionality; Metaphased Plasma Auto Cannon.  Though, the term “MPAC” had become a catch-all name for all metaphased plasma weaponry, even those that didn’t fire in automatic mode, that weren’t true auto cannons.  Just like Aspirin had once started as a brand name rather than a name for a medicine, the term MPAC had come to describe any weapon that fired metaphased plasma, when it was originally the name of a specific weapon, the MPAC batteries on Faey battle cruisers.

        Having access to an arsenal of different weaponry expanded the ability of the troops to react to different situations, so Sioa had wanted infantry disruptors on the field in case they found themselves in a situation where they were the best option for her troops.  The addition of disruptors to the arsenal meant that his Army had access to pulse weapons, MPACs, railguns, rockets and other infantry-used explosives (extremely effective against unshielded and soft-shielded mecha, fixed positions, and unarmored enemy infantry), Jhri multiphasic ion weaponry (excellent for frying power systems in enemy mecha and fixed positions), Colonial iso-neutron weapons, Korgg tetryon wave weaponry, and now Coalition disruptors and Quantum Blasters.

        Quantum Blasters were another rather nifty and unique idea out of the Coalition.  They utilized the Quantum Uncertainty Principle as a weapon, firing plasma streams at insane speeds by exploiting a law of quantum physics known as the Uncertainty Principle.  The Uncertainty Principle was a law of quantum physics that stated that location and velocity were two separate values that could not both be exactly defined in a single particle.  The more one knows the location of a particle, the less certain the value of its velocity, and vice versa.  By using an on-weapon computer to define the location of the plasma fired by the weapon to such a point that its velocity went into quantum flux, then amplifying that effect using old fashioned plasma magnets, it combined the two forces to propel the plasma particles at extreme speed.  It didn’t have the same velocity or range as a railgun, but the plasma stream emitted by a quantum blaster had so much velocity behind it that it had quadruple the range of any other non-phased plasma weapon, and allowed the plasma stream to penetrate shields and armor that would normally stop it were it moving slower. It was one of the most ingenious uses of the Uncertainty Principle that Jason had ever seen, and he’d seen quite a few.  Those Coalition engineers were not only damn smart, they were damn creative.

        The Karinnes had adopted disruptor technology for their own use to complement pulse and railgun technology for the KMS, and Coalition shield technology was so advanced, so impressive, that their ideas had been incorporated into their own Teryon shields to increase their power by nearly 37%, made them rugged enough to stand up to MPACs for more than just one or two shots.  MRDD was also working on a version of the Coalition’s Quantum Blaster that used metaphased plasma rather than standard plasma, which would turn the weapon into an absolute beast.

        That was one of the core reasons they had the Academy in the first place, and why the Ruu had all but moved into it.  The Academy allowed them to disseminate their knowledge to the galaxy, but also returned knowledge back to them.  The ideas of the Coalition were advanced and they were highly creative, and the Karinnes benefited from that knowledge because of the Academy.

        “When is the upgrade and refit for the Crusader armor taking place?”

        “We already have nearly ten thousand new backplate and chestplate assemblies built, and the rest will be ready as the Army and Marines rotate through the upgrade schedule and finish their rating training to learn how to use them,” Jason continued.  “Their old ones will be stored and used for Naval personnel.  The armor factory’s worked out a viable means to resize the old backplates and chestplates for new wearers so we don’t have to completely trash them.  Backplates particularly are easier to resize because of the power pack and other units built into it.  The chestplates are a bit trickier, but the armor factory came up with a way to do it that doesn’t trash the chestplate or damage its power conduits and datafibers.”

        “They found a way to bend a compressed carapace?” Bo asked in surprise.

        “Believe it or not, they did,” he answered.  “It’s pretty damn ingenious, but it takes a hell of a lot of power.  They had to install new power feeds directly off the industrial trunk just for the resizing equipment.  It was sapping power off the line at the factory.”

        “I gotta go over there and take a look at that,” Bo laughed.

        “Sure, you have clearance, knock yourself out,” Jason replied.  “They can’t expand or reduce the armor, can only change its shape, so they can only resize it for someone that’s already close to fitting it.  But, that’s no real biggie,” Jason shrugged.  “Given how many people are in the Navy, someone is gonna be close enough of a fit for it to work.”

        “What pod units are they producing for the armor?  Anything different from Rocker pods?” Rook asked.

        “Flight pods, several external shoulder-mounted weapons, external personal shield generators, external sensor pods, and drone racks,” he replied.  “The racks can carry a Spot drone.  There are also some generic sling frame units, like a frame for holstering a railgun or a Korgg tetryon wave rifle or disruptor minigun.  Most infantry not carrying a mount pod will be equipped with a sling frame so they can carry external weapons.”

        “Moving away from using the nested pulse weapons as the primary weapon?”

        “More like giving my girls more options on the battlefield,” he replied.  “They’re always there if a soldier needs them, but now they’ll have an easy way to carry around an external weapon, and that gives them more options.  Options are always good for infantry.  Pulse weapons, MPACs, and railguns are still the primary weapons of the Army, but now my girls will have access to a larger arsenal.  You know how Army girls love guns, Rook.  The more the better, and the harder they hit, the more they love them.”

        Rook gave a sound of amusement, nearly a laugh.  “I’ve seen Meya and Myra’s gun collection.  It’s almost silly.”

        “And when were you in their houses, Rook?” Bo challenged.

        “I don’t tell you everything, Bo,” he replied in a tone that made Jason burst out laughing.

       They reached the corvette bay, where a skimmer was sitting with the hatch open to pick up Bo and Rook and take them back to Karis.  Shen and Suri were waiting by their Wolf fighters, and the corvette that escorted him up was closing its hatch, preparing to take off.  You done, Jason? Suri asked as he put on his helmet and caused his mecha to open its cockpit doors.

        Done here, anyway.  On to the next appointment.

        I’d really rather you get in a ship for this, Jason, Shen sent in concern.  You’ve never traversed a gate in a mecha before.

        I know how to do it, woman, sheesh, he replied.  I’ve done it nearly 80 times in the simulator. It’s time to do it for real.  Besides, Jax is going to be following us in the corvette, if I forget something, she’ll be there to tow my Juggernaut to the planet.

        I’ve already got the towing beam warmed up, your Grace, Jax sent teasingly.

        Your confidence in me is overwhelming, Jax, he sent blandly.

        I have enough experience to know what’s gonna happen, she replied cheekily.

        That smells like a wager, woman, he challenged.

        Oh no, that will give you extra incentive to do it right, she retorted.

        Bitch, you can forget about getting your General’s diamond now.

        If only that was your decision, she sent teasingly in reply.

        I’ll make it my decision, he threatened as he floated up to the open doors of his Juggernaut’s cockpit.  He turned around and backed into it, pushed his heels into the molded form, then settled back into the gel backing.  He felt his armor lock in as the heavily armored doors closed, then the crest lowered on the outside to further protect the doors from damage.  Jason took a breath, exhaled, then closed his eyes and merged up into his mecha, when its cameras and sensory units took over for his eyes, ears, nose, and skin.  Data flowed through his mind, the important data was put in his field of vision as part of his HUD as an additional reminder, and he felt himself completely sync with the mecha’s motor control system.  He raised the massive mecha’s armored arm and then closed its hand into a fist, flexed the fingers, then took a slight step to the side to look back at the corvette.  All systems online and green, he reported almost automatically.  I’m ready, as soon as a couple of slackers get in their fighters, he prompted, the mecha’s head fixing its chilling gaze on Shen and Suri.  Everything about the Juggernaut just oozed intimidation, including its sleek-lined yet slightly scary faceplate.

        My, he’s so brave when he’s inside one of his toys, Suri sent impishly as she rose up into the belly of her fighter.

        I’ll leave you two behind, I don’t need you for this.

        You leave us behind, you answer to Aya, Shen told him.  You really want to press that button, Jason?

        I’ve pressed it many times in the past, and I still have all my fingers and toes, he replied flippantly as Shen picked her Wolf up off the deck, then Suri did the same.  You ready, Jax?

        We’re good to go, your Grace, she answered.

        [Kosigi Control, Karinne One.  Ready to depart.]

        [Permission to depart granted.  There are no restrictions to the lanes from your current bay.]

        [Copy that,] he acknowledged as he brought up the flight pod engines attached to the shoulders of his armor.  We’re good to go, ladies, let’s get moving.  If I’m late, Grik’zzk’s gonna skewer me with one of her blade arms.

        Their destination was the newest planet in the house, 3QA-119, named Arkayis.  It was closer to the P quadrant than the S quadrant, and like most of the planets owned by the house, it had qualities that made it worth going out to claim it.  The planet was so much like Terra that it made Jason do a double-take the first time he saw the report on it.  The planet was nearly the exact same size as Terra, had similar atmospheric composition, and was almost at the same distance from its star as Terra was, just a little further out.  It orbited its star faster than Terra did, however, which combined to give 3QA-119-4 a 363 day year, just two days off Terra’s year.  And if that wasn’t similar enough, the planet had a 23.95 hour day, very nearly 24 hours.  It too was primarily a water planet, with the surface covered by 71% water.  But, that was where the similarities ended.  The planet was hotter than Terra by 7 shuki average temperature, which widened the tropical belt and narrowed the polar regions; the planet did not have permanent ice packs at the poles, just seasonal ice.  The planet had 1.36 pressure and 1.19 gravity, the heavier gravity caused by the fact that the planet had almost shocking amounts of heavy metal deposits, which was extremely rare given the planet’s size.  The planet’s core wasn’t made of iron or nickel like many rocky planets with a magnetic field, it was comprised almost entirely of Ardantium 291, which was one of the metals used to create the alloy Neutronium.  All the extra mass from those heavy metals made the planet heavy gravity, but unlike most heavy metal planets, this one was also arable.  It was very rare for a planet so rich in heavy metals to have a life-sustaining climate and ecosystem.  Most were like Bellar, where they had some life-sustaining qualities, but the presence of the metals caused all kinds of issues that actually made trying to survive there without biodomes or support equipment anywhere from difficult to impossible.  Radiation was the most common issue with a heavy metal planet, many of the metals were unstable isotopes, but radiation certainly wasn’t the only one.

        For that matter, all six of the rocky planets in the system were laden with heavy metal deposits, which made the system a real find.  But planet two was the only one capable of supporting life.  It was also the only one that wasn’t all but glowing in the dark from all the radiation.  The entire system was hot, but the planet’s liquid Ardantium core gave it a strong enough magnetic field to protect the life on the planet from the radiation in the system.

        There was one other thing that made Arkayis different from any other Karinne holding, and that was the fact that there was a sentient species already there.  They were called the Arkai, a Stone age-level society similar to the gruug on Exile, but not quite as ugly.  In fact, they looked remarkably Faey-like, almost a cross between a Faey and a Prakarikai, with pointed ears, very beautiful bone structure, elegance and grace…and only about 3.8 shakra tall on the average, which made them a little taller than the Beryans on the height scale.  They were truly elf-like in Jason’s mind, since the elves of folklore and legend from Terra were supposed to be short, but weren’t obnoxious like the Prakarikai were, so Jason considered them more elf like than the Prakarikai.  It was no surprise they were short, since heavy gravity planets produced short races on the average.  Tall or large heavy gravity species like the Faey or the Ogravians were actually the exception, not the norm.

        Jason had made a very rare exception to his usual rules because the Arkai dwelled entirely on one continent, leaving the rest of the planet available.  And, it was also something of an experiment to see if the Karinnes could operate on a planet without disturbing the residents.  They would leave the Arkai’s continent alone and do their farming and mining elsewhere, and when the Arkai started expanding from their continent, the Karinnes would leave the planet.  So, Arkayis wasn’t intended to be a permanent holding of the house, and Jason had driven that fact home by forbidding the construction of permanent cities on the planet.  They could put up prefab buildings, but there would be no colonies there like New Karsa on Exile.  Anything they put up on the planet, they had to be able to take down within 20 days of receiving the order to leave.

        But they had to get there first.  Jason lifted his mecha off the deck and straight up, passing through the airskin shield, then ascended up over the surface of Kosigi.

        Jason reached cruising speed in his mecha, his destination the newest Stargate in the ever-expanding ring of them in distant orbit around Karis.  There were 29 of those gates now, each one leading to a different holding of the house.  18 of those holdings were farming planets, and the other 11 were mining operations.  That made House Karinne one of the biggest food producers and exporters in the quadrant, they produced nearly 14,000 times more food than the house consumed, and they exported it all over the galaxy.  He chatted with Jax and her corvette crew as they headed for the gate, an 18 minute trip from Kosigi, catching up with one of his favorite Army Colonels and corvette commanders.  Jax had expanded her shop in Karsa and had opened two new ones in Teria City and Henira City, and she was making quite a lot of money.  As the Stargate loomed ahead and they entered traffic, Sticks and dropships heading to the new planet carrying equipment, he slowed down and allowed the corvette to take the lead, riding the coattails of the bigger ship, which would have the right of way under Karinne flight rules.  The cargo jockeys around them gave the corvette a wide berth, at least until Jax approached one of the big freighters that was carrying heavy equipment.  The freighter was bigger than the corvette, so it had the right of way, and they were too close to the Stargate to pass it.  [We’re one minute out, let’s go ahead and secure for gate passage,] Jax called over STG, since the sending was always really thick in a freight lane as the pilots gabbed at each other.  [You hear that, your Grace?  Put that beast in gate passage mode.]

        [Push off, bitch,] he retorted as he did just that, setting his final velocity vector and shutting down the engines, which would allow the mecha to drift through the gate on its own momentum, then powering down the vast majority of the mecha.  [Gate passage mode enabled.]

        The freighter in front of them vanished into the Stargate, which caused its blue swirl of energy to dominate his forward cameras.  I’m impressed, Jason, you even got your velocity vector right, Jax teased just before the corvette vanished into the blue swirl, catapulting it halfway across the galaxy in the blink of an eye.  Jason saved his retort, since he hit the border of the Stargate, and felt the mecha shudder a tiny bit as it transited the stable wormhole the Stargate created and controlled.  In a fraction of a second, he was halfway across the galaxy, with the blue and green jewel of Arkayis in his forward view, just to the port and below the freighter and corvette in front of him.

        Secure from gate passage mode, set course for the planet, Jax sent openly, directing it at her pilot.   And let’s pass that freighter, I’d rather not pitter behind that whale the whole way there.

        It took them nearly half an hour to reach the edge of the atmosphere, then Jason took the lead again as they executed a controlled descent to the site where they were building their temporary hub facility, which would act as a transport hub for the many satellite farms and mining operations they were planning.  They were going to use a decentralized system here where all their operations were small and had a small footprint on the land and its environment, which would make it easy for them to withdraw and leave no trace for the Arkai to find, which might interfere with their natural development.  All their farming operations would be smaller than on most other planets, almost like homestead farms where no farm could be larger than one square kathra, those multitudes of small farms spread across the natural grasslands of the planet.  Mining operations would literally be a hole in the ground, the shaft the only visible mark of the operation from the surface, and that shaft would be collapsed or filled in when they were done.  Waste rock produced by the mine would be stored in orbital containers, and when the mine was exhausted, the mineshaft would be filled in with the same rock that was removed from it in the first place and replicated carbon and silicon to make up the ore removed from the mineshaft.  To prevent a scenario where they overmined one part of the planet and caused it to wobble on its axis due to imbalance, their mines would be spread evenly across the entire planet, everywhere but the Arkai’s home continent.  And Jason had decreed that they could take no surface deposits or mine more than 50% of the available buried ore.  They were only allowed to mine a minimum of 2,500 shakra under the surface, all the way down to border of the outer core, far deeper than future Arkai technology could reach for maybe a couple of thousand years.  They were not stripping the planet of its resources and leaving the Arkai with nothing, once they developed enough to start utilizing those ores.

        The whole planet and the operation here was a field test of their “no footprint” operation, where they left a planet with barely any trace they were ever there.

        Grik’zzk was waiting on the landing pad, one of their prefab ones, as he landed his mecha, the Wolves and corvette landing lightly behind him.  The huge earth-toned Kizzik scrabbled forward as he opened the doors and dropped down to the plascrete.  “Grik’zzk, sorry we’re late,” he apologized as he took off his helmet after his armor pressurized him to the native atmosphere, then nearly hit Suri in the face with it as he handed it back without looking.  He shaded his eyes from the brightness of the sun here, brighter than Terra’s star but not as bright as Karis’ blue sun, and admitted that it was pretty nice here.  The air was thick from the pressure, but the air was warm, the sweet smell of earth and plants and trees heavy in the thick air, and the deep blue sky was cloudless and lovely.  The blue here was a deeper shade than Terra and Karis, almost a sapphire blue like Palla’s skin, and he found it to be quite pleasing.  The darker blue was due to the very slight difference in the proportion of gases in the atmosphere compared to Karis.  He was of a mind to look it up in the astro-chemistry datastores when he got home to see just which gas added to the nitrogen in what proportions produced that sapphire blue sky.

        “It worked out, revered Hive-leader, I had a couple of issues arise that made me late as well,” she admitted through her interface’s speaker.  “I have a flying platform waiting to take out to the first of the farms,” she added, motioning with one of her blade arms at a nearby platform.

        “Awesome.  You girls wait here, I don’t need you,” he told his guards, which earned him a couple of steely looks.

        Keep digging that grave, Jason, Shen warned.

        It keeps life exciting, he replied with aplomb as he and the large insectoid stepped onto the platform.  It rose up from the pad by Grik’zzk’s communal command, and whisked them to the west as Jason would consider it, towards the direction of the setting sun.

        With her usual exacting attention to detail, Grik’zzk showed him several of the new farms and described the methods they were using.  Most of the satellite farms would be unmanned, automated, with roaming drones stopping by at regular intervals to survey plant growth, check for crop damage from local wildlife, and analyze soil chemistry to keep it fertile.  Farm workers would respond to a farm when they were needed, and would stay at their central facility supervising the drones and other automated systems when not out in the field.  Hands gripping the extended rail of the platform, he looked down on the farm and asked quite a few questions about how the operation might make things harder for Grik’zzk, since a decentralized system wouldn’t be as efficient as how they did it on other planets.

        “As long as you allow us to build warehouses for crop storage, we should have little trouble operating under this system,” she told him.  “It would be too inefficient to try to package harvests for shipment at each farm.  Jrz’kii would have very harsh words for you if you forced her Stick pilots to fly all over the planet to pick up cargo.”

        “You should have authorization to build more than enough warehouses to handle your projections, Grik, unless the mining operation tried to hijack them from you.”

        “The mining supervisor is a Makati out of Trenirk’s office, and he’s a little afraid of me.  I assure you, revered Hive-leader, he’ll take none of my warehouses,” she informed him, which made him laugh.

        “I’ll take stock of him when it’s his turn to show me around.  In, oh, about two hours,” he noted after checking the time in his gestalt.  “And you are a little intimidating to someone that short,” he added slyly.

        “There are many ways to motivate lazy workers, revered Hive-leader,” she told him as she rasped the blades at the ends of her outside arms against each other in a motion that reminded Jason of a man sharpening a knife, which made him laugh again.

        “You’re so mean, Grik.  It’s why I like you so much,” he told her.

        She showed him three more farms before taking him back, and he spent the time waiting for the mining operator to arrive talking with the xeno-socioligist sent by the Academy to study the Arkai.  She was a Farguut, and would be observing the Arkai using hovercamera pods equipped with Urumi stealth shields tuned to counter Arkai visual acuity, which would make them invisible.  To Jason, however, they looked like the camo used by the alien from the Predator movies, apparent whenever the camera pod moved.  But Hailar assured him that the Arkai would not be able to see the pod, even when it was moving.  Jason did his best not to look at the Farguut woman’s extra pair of eyes, which creeped out many Terrans a little bit; she was actually a very pretty young lady, but those extra eyes near her temples, they just killed the whole thing.

        “From what I’ve observed so far, your Grace, the Arkai are quite remarkable,” she told him as they looked at holos of an Arkai hunting party, moving with graceful stealth through the forest.  Arkai were a gender segregated species, where only males hunted while only women practiced skills such as weaving. The tufted tip of Hailar’s tail swished around her leg before vanishing again.  “They score a 9.3 on the Meldrik-Evanton scale, which is one of the highest scores I’ve seen.”

        “And that means?” he prompted.

        She smiled at him.  “The Meldrik-Evanton scale is a means of measuring the base intellectual capability of a primitive civilization based on its use of available resources, skills in manufacturing, and efficiency in providing for the needs of the social group.  The score is weighted based on the observed social customs of the group, with groups that show violent tendencies towards each other scoring lower than those that do not.  The Arkai score a 9.3 out of 10, your Grace, and that is very impressive. Like I said, it’s the highest score I’ve ever seen.  It might be the highest we’ve ever recorded, but I’m not sure about that.”

        “So, they’re very smart, they’re resourceful, they’re creative, and they’re not aggressive towards each other,” he reasoned.

        “Precisely,” she nodded.  “They’re not aggressive with other social groups of Arkai either, but that might be a reflection of the bounty of their environment.  Those groups don’t have to compete with each other for food and other resources.  But we haven’t had the chance to observe any social group in a stress situation yet, so the score isn’t finalized. How they deal with a stress situation also weights the score.”

        “Where do the gruug score on that scale?”

        “If I remember right, your Grace, they score a 6.3,” she answered.

        “What about the Silissta of RG-118?”

        She touched her interface, no doubt accessing that data all the way back at the Academy.  “They score a 4.9,” she answered.

        “Okay, that gives me an idea of what that number actually means,” he said lightly, which made her chuckle.

        Jason gave a slight double-take when another female approached, a Keelo.  She was really tall, even for a Keelo, a good head taller than him—his eyes fell almost right in line with her nipples—and like all Keelo, she was tattooed and wore nothing above the waist.  Those tattoos and the red sash she wore, he’d learned, were religious in nature, and the designs on her denoted the god she worshipped and the sect within the religion.  But unlike most civilizations with multiple religions, they hadn’t fought one another as they developed.  The six gods of the Keelo pantheon were friends, and forbade their worshippers from fighting one another.  Her tattoos marked her as a Bailari Traditionalist, a religious sect devoted to science, knowledge, and learning.  It made her presence here make sense, since most Bailari Traditionalists were scientists, teachers, tutors, and workers in highly technical fields.

        The sects of the Keelo had created a caste society, where worshippers of a sect pushed their children into the professions that their sects considered “proper.”  As a Bailari Traditionalist, this Keelo would be forbidden by her sect to shed the blood of another, so she wouldn’t be found in any military occupation.  She was also forbidden to touch the blood of another, so she would be in no medical profession.  If she wasn’t smart enough to be in the sciences, she would find work acceptable to her sect, perhaps as a cargo pilot, or a small business owner, or maybe a factory worker.  Jobs like that were where the Keelo from different sects intermingled in a work environment, for they were the Keelo that couldn’t make it in their sect’s preferred occupations.  So they made due in lower skill occupations, and formed the backbone of Keelo production and service economies.

        “Your Grace, my primary assistant and doctorate candidate, Jol Morann,” she introduced.  Jason touched his outer forearm to hers in the ritual Keelo greeting—just being gentle since he was armored—and that caused her to smile brightly, showing one of the more chilling aspects of a Keelo, the fangs.  Keelo had fangs, and they weren’t vestigial.  When she closed her mouth, the tips of her fangs were just below the gumline for her lower teeth.  And if that wasn’t enough, those fangs were heavily reinforced and damn near unbreakable, giving her an exceptionally powerful and dangerous bite, and they were venomous.  She couldn’t spit venom the way an Urumi could, but Keelo venom was lethal to most other forms of life.  Their venom was a neurotoxin that paralyzed muscles, and if the venom reached the heart or lungs, they paralyzed those as well, causing death.  Keelo were immune to their own venom, and were immune to all other neurotoxins as well. Their biology had evolved a natural immunity to all classes of neurotoxins.

        To Jason’s knowledge, the Keelo were the only mammalian humanoid species known to the Karinnes that had neurotoxin.  Lots of them had fangs, but they didn’t have venomous fangs.  There were quite a few mammal species out there that had venom, but all of them were unevolved, all of them except the Keelo…at least known.  The universe was too big for there not to be another humanoid race out there somewhere with venomous fangs, they just hadn’t discovered them yet.

        The Karinnes had known about the fangs right after the first meeting at RJ-44, but they hadn’t known about the venom until after they started trading information and technology with them.

        “Nice to meet you, Jol,” Jason said, looking up at the very slender, willowy Keelo.  Keelo never failed to make Jason think they were malnourished, but that was just how they were.  There was no such thing as a fat Keelo.  “You doing your dissertation work on the Arkai?”

        She nodded.  “Yes, your Grace.  They’ve never been studied before, so this is a perfect opportunity,” she told him in her husky, not quite feminine voice.  Keelo were bigger than Terrans and Faey, so their voices were naturally deeper.  To the Keelo, she had a feminine voice, but among the Faey, she’d be singing low alto or baritone in the choir.  “Nobody can gainsay my conclusions unless they’re here studying them as well.”

        Jason barked out a laugh. “Clever,” he said with a sly smile.

        “I’ll be reviewing your dissertative work, Jol,” Hailar warned, her tail slashing a little bit behind her.

        “Then as long as my conclusions match yours, you won’t argue too much about them,” she replied calmly, which made Jason laugh even harder.

        “She’s got you there, Hailar,” he declared.

        “Keelo,” Hailar sighed forlornly, putting her hands on her hips.

        “Farguut,” Jol mimicked her, which made Jason laugh again.

        “If you show up in the infirmary with a bite wound, Hailar, I’d say you brought that on yourself,” Jason teased.

        “She’s safe right now, your Grace.  Those doctors from your Medical service milked my fangs dry this morning.  They want to study Keelo venom,” she informed him.

        “Oh, so this is your chance to be sassy, Hailar,” Jason noted, giving her a sidelong look.

        “I’m the boss around here, your Grace,” she replied tartly.  “It’s not sass when the boss does it.”

        “Trust me, it is,” Jason countered.

        After talking about the Arkai with the two scientists, Jason continued his tour with Gorvin Frul from  Trenirk’s office.  He was a Master Builder with twenty years holding his hammer, and he was a mining specialist, a master of “building” underground in the form of mineshafts and mining infrastructure.  He was the Makati that would be overseeing all mining operations on the planet.  Gorvin took Jason to their first mine site in a skimmer, then explained to him in more detail than Jason really understood how they were going to drill the shaft, expand out to get at the ore veins, then fill the whole thing back in when they were done.  And Jason was impressed by how little they’d impacted the surrounding forest in the low hills.  They’d cut some trees down to make room around the proposed mineshaft to make room for equipment and personnel support buildings.  “We’re going to use harmonic wave cutters to core out the shaft, then remove the core in kathra-long sections and put them in orbit to keep them,” he explained.  “We plotted out this shaft to it avoids all deep faults in the rock under us, so we should have no seismic issues from the core removal.  We estimate that this one shaft will gain us access to nearly 151,000 benkonn of usable Andorite ore for making Adamantium, as well as 98,500 benkonn of Ardantium 291.  We’ll even pull out about 62,400 benkonn of copper, gold, silver, and platinum, it’s laced in with the Andorite ore,” he said with a chuckle.  “The house jewelers will be happy to hear that.”

        “Damn, all from one shaft?” Jason asked, to which the Makati nodded.

        “You have no idea how mineral rich this planet is, your Grace.  There are substantial deposits all through the planet’s mantle, all the way down to the liquid outer core.  This core shaft will eventually reach almost to the outer core before we finish operations and fill it back in.  We chose this shaft first because of the access to both Andorite and Ardantium.  There’s a site on the northern continent that we estimate will produce close to three million benkonn of Carbidium ore.”

        “We don’t really need Carbidium.”

        “And that’s why it’s low priority,” he nodded.  “We’ll mine it eventually just to sell it to others, since they use Carbidium.  But you said the priority is alloy ores for Neutronium, so we’re focusing our initial efforts on them.”

        “Sounds good.  What about the other planets in the system?”

        “I already have mining outfits dispatched, as well as some asteroid wranglers.  We found an asteroid out there that’s solid Telvastium 407.  And I already have a gas mining rig setting up at planet nine to mine the heavy core gases from it.”

        “Sounds like Trenirk sent the right man out here to get this operation on its feet, Gorvin,” Jason said with an approving nod, which made the Makati preen a tiny bit.

        “This is what I do for a living, your Grace.  I’d hope that after sixty years, I’d know what I’m doing.”

        [Jason,] Cybi called.  [Jason, answer!]

        [What is it, Cybi?  You sound a bit excited.]

        [Come to 3D as quickly as you can!  There’s been a breakthrough!] she told him with elation threaded through her commune.

        A breakthrough, and something so important that they’d call him to the shop?  It had to be big.  “Change of plans, Gorvin, get me back to the landing pad,” he said quickly.

        “What’s the matter?”

        “I’ve been recalled to Karis, something happened.”

        “Uh oh.”

        “It’s the good kind of uh oh, Gorvin,” he grinned as the Makati turned the skimmer around.  [Jax, get the Ranger ready for departure as soon as I get there.  Shen, Suri, you too.  We’re going back to Karis immediately.]

        [I haven’t received any alerts from the KMS,] Jaxira replied.

        [I just got recalled by my office, so it’s not something you’d hear through the KMS,] he told her.  [Now stop piddling and get your corvette ready to take off.]

        [My crew is already here,  your Grace,] she assured him.  [I’ll take off now and clear the lanes to the Stargate.  I’ll also send it up so the KMS clears the lanes on the other side,] she added, referring to her ability to use her authority to take command of space.  She’d order all civilian traffic out of the shortest path between the Stargate and the planet, and the controllers at Karis would do the same.

        [Good thinking.  Do it,]  he agreed as Gorvin opened the throttle of the skimmer, getting them back to the staging area as quickly as he could.

        Thanks to Jax going first to clear the way, when Jason got his mecha back into space, there was nothing in his way.  That let him put his flight pods at max acceleration, and while he was heading back for the Stargate, he pondered what they’d managed to discover at 3D.  For it to be so important they’d recall him immediately, it had to be the diffusers or Project F.  Cybi hadn’t told him what it was about, and she wouldn’t due to security concerns—not even he felt using the biogenic comm network was entirely secure—but given how excited she sounded, it reinforced his belief that it had be one of those two projects.

        Because of Jax, Jason landed his mecha on the pad outside the 3D warehouse 56 minutes after taking off.  Jenny literally ran out of the secured entry towards it as he opened the doors, and grabbed his armored hand as soon as he was on the tarmac.  “Come on come on come on come on!” she chanted, pulling on his hand urgently.

        “Good grief, woman, calm down,” he chided as he let her drag him towards the secured entry doors.  Shen and Suri landed their fighters as he headed for the warehouse, but they didn’t get out.  Not even they were allowed in 3D.

        The entire shop was in a tizzy when Jason entered, and many of them cheered when they saw him.  “Alright, I’m here and the door’s closed.  So what you got, Jenny?”

        “We got the diffuser working!” she erupted, which caused an explosion of cheers from everyone in the shop.  “Full power, and it’s not jacking the power system!  We cracked it, Jayce!  We finally cracked it!”

        “Holy shit, that’s awesome!” he said elatedly.  “Show me!”

        “Look!” she said, pulling him to the center table and using her interface to bring up a diagram.  “We’ve tried everything to protect the power system from the diffusion effect.  Directional, phasing, changing the power outputs, you name it.  We found out that if we introduce a gravimetric flux at the opposite resonance composite the diffuser uses into the plasma stream, it generates a flux field that disrupts the diffusion effect, but only in a localized area!”

        “A flux field?  The units filter that out!”

        “I know!  We just tuned the exchangers, converters, and relays to allow just enough gravimetric flux to counter the diffusion field!  It causes a 6% power loss across the entire system, but we can compensate for that!  Jayce, we don’t have to install any extra equipment to fix this, we just change the settings of our power distribution equipment!”

        “We took what we discovered experimenting with the plasma distribution system and created an algorithm that creates an inverse flux field that surrounds the plasma generation bubble in our power generation units,” Eraen answered as Jenny looked to resist jumping up and down.  “That flux field can be generated in a specific direction, so we set it so it projects it outward, away from the Torsion field that produces power, and that neutralized the diffusion effect.  We still don’t have a fix yet for the diffusers messing with artificial gravity, but we can account for that by increasing the gravity field while the diffuser’s in operation.  There will still be a partial loss of gravity, but since everyone will be in armor, they can just use their armor’s inducers to compensate.”

        Jason looked over the specs she had on the hologram, and saw that they weren’t kidding.  Plasma power equipment filtered out gravimetric flux caused by flowing plasma because it created resistance in the conduits to plasma flow, but their fix, it was simple.  The flux field, if it was specifically tuned to invert the diffusion field, canceled out the diffusion effect only in the direct space occupied by the affected plasma and extending out in a flux field that was only about 1.5 tikra.  And while it did introduce a 6.2% power loss due to resistance of plasma flow caused by gravimetric flux, they could easily account for that, change a few settings in the power systems, and get it back without causing excessive heat buildup in the plasma conduits or molecular decay in the silicon that made up the conduit.  And the fix for the generators was even easier, just an update to the software that governed how they operated, based on what they’d discovered experimenting with the plasma power distribution system, most likely trying to fix the diffuser’s effect on artificial gravity.

        It was a simple solution, so simple that they’d overlooked it because of how it degraded the ship’s power system…and it worked.

        “You tried this out on the test equipment?” he asked.

        “We’re running it on the test ship right now, at full power,” Eraen answered.  “They’re going to see if keeping the diffusion effect up for long periods causes any issues with our fix, then we’ll test the fixes against rapidly raising and lowering the diffusers, simulating a combat situation where it might have to alternate between diffusion and shockwave generators.”

        Jason looked at the data for a moment, then looked to them.  “Work up changes that the others in the CCM have to make to run a diffuser without it jacking their power plants.  Cybi, yank that data out of the KMS mainframes and send it over here.”

        “We already have it here, Jason,” Cybi answered from a speaker without manifesting a hologram.  “But the fixes for them will be easier than for us.  The diffusion effect was particularly damaging to our singularity plants and double-metaphased power systems.  Single metaphased, hyperphased, striated, phase linked, and more primitive forms of plasma power and power generators aren’t affected as severely.”

        “Then it won’t take long for us to work up a fix for everyone,” he declared.  “Did you have to alter the diffuser in any way, Jenny?  Can they start building them with the current specs?”

        “Yes!” she answered excitedly.  “We already have the templates ready to go, Jayce!  We can start building the diffusers right now, and we can have the fixes ready by the time we start distributing them!”

        “Well, fuck me,” Jason mused, then he burst out laughing.  “Great job, Jenny, Eraen!  You have no idea how many lives you just saved!”  He gave her a rough hug, then a kiss on the cheek.  “Once the test ship has ten hours of uptime on the diffuser, we’ll give it a field test to see just how effective it is against Torsion weapons,” he declared.

        “We already did that, Jason,” Eraen told him.  “We did all that before we called you, we wanted to make absolutely sure it works.  The diffuser reduces the power of a standard heavy-mount Consortium Torsion bolt by 77%, which effectively neutralizes it because of natural Torsion decay in the beam as it travels after entering the diffusion effect.  As we projected, the Torsion beam completely diffuses about thirty shakra from the hull.  It diffuses out any Torsion weapon weaker than that before it gets fifty shakra past the field border.  It still diffuses all Torsion effects, including a Torsion shockwave, but that’s a small price to pay for taking away our enemy’s longest-reaching and one of their most powerful weapons.”

        “Outstanding,” Jason declared.  “Run these figures against a CMS and see if the changes screw that up.  Cybi, bundle up all the templates and blueprints and send them to Trenirk’s office, I’m going over there right now to get him started on building them.  Get a team on designing a version of the diffuser we can release to the others, that doesn’t use biogenic tech, so they can build their own.”

        “Already did that, since we didn’t change the diffuser,” Jenny said.  “We have a generic diffuser unit that anyone in the Confederation can build and install on their ships, using standard shared CCM technology.”

        “Outstanding.  Cybi, warn Myri to assemble the command staff for a meeting,” he said.  “Guys, I want the whole shop working on fixes for CCM ships so they can install a diffuser,” he told the shop loudly.    “Jenny, Eraen, organize it.  Nobody works on anything but this until we have an installation process worked out for every ship in the CCM and a fix so they can run it without it disrupting their power.  I can’t stress that enough, guys.  This tech might be what wins us the war against the Syndicate, and it will definitely give us a major advantage against the colonizing force the Consortium is sending.  You guys can’t even imagine how many lives you’ll be saving.”

        “You heard Jayce, guys, I’m the boss now!” Jenny shouted, then she ducked when she was showered with small parts and pieces of equipment, which made Jason laugh.

        “Jenny, you handle the final testing and sims for our own ships.  Eraen, organize the shop into teams to work on adapting this for the CCM,” he ordered.  “Give priority to ships that have more vulnerability to diffusion.  So start with the Imperium and work you way down to the Graguth, that way we get the hard ones out of the way first and ramp up as we work down through the list.”

        “I’ll take care of it, Jayce,” Eraen nodded.  “We should have installation procedures ready for the INS in three days max.”

        “Good job, guys.  Fuckin’ good job,” he declared, patting both of them on the shoulders, which caused another riotous cheer.

        Jason surprised his guards by taking off in his Juggernaut before they so much as got into the cockpit, him rushing right out of the warehouse and straight into his mecha.  He nearly smashed it against the hard shield protecting the warehouse and the Shimmer Dome facility, security just barely managed to turn it soft to let him through.  Why the hurry, Jason? Suri asked.

        They cracked the diffuser, he declared.  It works, and we only have about four months to get them built and on as many ships as possible.  Every second counts now, girls.  Every ship we get installed with a diffuser are lives saved.

        That’s the kind of news worth going fast, Shen agreed eagerly.  So they work completely?

        Oh yes, and the fix to get them to work is easy, he replied.  The diffuser team just earned one hell of a bonus.

        I know this may be a bit facetious, but if the fix is so easy, why did it take them so long? Suri asked.

        Because while the fix is easy, the methodology behind it isn’t something that even I’d think of trying until I exhausted a bunch of other options, he answered.  The fix is a simple adjustment to our power systems, but the reason it works is something that they overlooked, because the fix is adjusting the power systems to make them inefficient.  That’s not something I’d think of if I were on the team, since I’m there to make the diffuser work without impacting ship performance.

        Yeah…yeah, I can see what you mean, she replied.  So, we’re racing back to the White House?

        That’s where we’re going, he confirmed.

        And here I thought that Jyslin had told you she was off work.  Or maybe Aura, Shen sent lightly.

        Watch it, woman, or I’ll have Cybi shut down your Wolf and you can walk home after it crashes.

        Cybi had spread the word ahead of him for certain people to be made available immediately when he got there, so Trenirk was in his office finishing his lunch when Jason arrived.  He’d carried his tray up from the cafeteria.  “Tren,” he called strongly as he marched into his office, his helmet off and in Shen’s hands behind him.  “I need factory space, and I need it now.”

        “It wouldn’t have anything to do with the templates Cybi sent to my office a little bit ago?” he asked.

       “That’s exactly what it is,” he nodded.  “3D solved the diffuser problem, and the diffusers don’t need to be altered to make them work.  So I need you to start building them right now, and build enough to fit onto every unit in the KMS, from mobile diffusion field units for infantry support all the way up to the Tianne.”

        “I do remember that they haven’t designed a diffuser unit for the Tianne yet,” Trenirk reminded him, “but from the look of these templates, they have units ready for everything else.”  He turned and looked at his factory production board, putting his hands on his hips.  “What kind of priority do they have?”

        “If the planet won’t explode because you shifted production, you shift production,” Jason replied.  “The only thing you don’t take off the board are exomechs and Rockers, Sioa would strangle me if I had you cut production on them.”

        “Hmm,” he sounded, then he stepped closer to the board, running his finger along a line of factory ID numbers on the right side.  “I can do it.  I’ll just do an across the board cut in production for everything else and shunt that production capacity to the diffusers.  I can have one built for every ship in the Navy in three months, with some extras, and still get enough mobile infantry units and small unit diffusers built to field protected armies.  But I can’t build enough to cover every Wolf fighter in the inventory in four months,” he warned.  “So we’ll have to prioritize which Wolf fighters get them.  But that’s not my department, Juma and Sioa will have to fight over which Wolves get upgraded,” he chuckled.  “That should give the Navy more than enough time to get them installed on the ships before the Syndicate arrives, and gives us spares for every ship class for new ships and replacements.  Does Naval Engineering and Army Special Maintenance have the installation procedures worked up for them?”

        “Yup, Cybi’s been keeping those in reserve, and she changed it every time they made a change to the diffusers, so that’s ready to go.  They’ll be going from the factory straight to the ships and exomechs.”

        “If that’s the case, I’ll get with Dellin and coordinate, so my production schedule mirrors the refit schedule he’ll set up,” he murmured.  “Sioa’s army units won’t be quite so complicated for us, so I’ll just send everything I build to Joint Base Alpha and let them sort it out.”

        “That would be a good idea,” Jason agreed.  “I’ll tell Dellin to get in touch with you when I brief him, which’ll be as soon as I leave here.  So, you can do it?”

        “I guarantee it,” he replied.  “If every ship in the Navy isn’t equipped with a diffuser by the time the Syndicate arrives, it’ll be Dellin’s fault, not mine.”

        Jason laughed.  “That’s a fight you don’t wanna pick, Tren,” he warned lightly.  “I’ll let you get to juggling things around.”

        “It’s gonna take some juggling, that’s for sure.  Give me three days to get everything set up, and I’ll start on diffuser production.”

        “Sounds good.  Get it done, Tren.”

        “That’s a promise, Jason.”

        Jason marched quickly from Trenirk’s office to the command center, where the entire command staff, Dellin, and all five CBIMs and Coma were assembled and waiting for him, some there in person and some as holograms.  “Good, I don’t have to chase anyone down,” he declared as he hurried in with his guards.  “I’m not sure if Cybi briefed you—“

        “She did,” Myri interrupted.  “So the diffusers are a go?”

        “They’re a go,” he replied, with caused some big grins to bloom in the room.  “3D is working up a power system change for our ships and mecha to run them without them interfering with our equipment, and Tren is reorganizing production to start cranking them out.  Dellin, he’s going to coordinate with you so you always have a diffuser built and ready for each refit in the rotation,” he told the short Faey man, who was represented by a hologram.  “Get with him after this so you can arrange things.”

        Dellin nodded without speaking.

        “So what’s the fix, Jason?” Myri asked.

        “Something surprisingly easy, a change in the power generation system to introduce an inverse flux field around the Torsion bubble holding the fusion reaction, and for the plasma systems, introducing an inverse flux anomaly into the plasma flow, effectively canceling the diffusion effect only immediately around flowing plasma and powered equipment,” he replied.  “Like the inverse phase emitter I once built to hide the Legion from Faey sensors.  The only thing it doesn’t fix is the artificial gravity issue, but that’s a nitpick at this point.  Eraen came up with the good idea of just using the inducers in armor to mitigate the partial gravity loss while a diffuser’s operating, since the inducers are inside the armor and the effect they have is very localized.”

        “I’ll take reduced gravity to completely remove one our enemy’s most dangerous weapons from the theater,” Navii said sagely.  “Dellin, it’s going to fall on you to arrange a complete refit of the entire Navy, and get it done in three months,” she told him.  “We absolutely must have our ships equipped with the diffusers before we confront the Syndicate.  They have no idea their Torsion weapons will be useless, so we have to maximize that surprise on the first encounter, do as much damage as we can.”

        “I can do it, Navii,” he assured her.  “It’s going to require me to suspend almost all other operations, but I don’t think anyone in this room is going to complain about that.”

        “Not even a little bit,” Jason agreed.  “Getting our ships refitted takes precedence over building new ones.”

        “What about the ground diffuser units for infantry defense?” Sioa asked.  “And the diffusers for exomechs and Wolf fighters?”

        “Tren is going to get those built as well.  He said he can cover every exomech in the Army and Marines, but he won’t be able to produce enough diffusers for Wolf fighters to refit the entire inventory in time.  You and Juma are going to have to get together and figure out which Navy, Marine, and Army squadrons are going to get refits, and which won’t.”

        “That won’t be very hard, Jason, we can work that in out just a few hours,” Juma assured him.

        “What about the others in the CCM?” Myri asked.

        “3D is working up fixes for them so they can install diffusers and not have them dick around with their power systems, and they already have plans for them to build their own versions of the diffuser that don’t use our tech,” he replied.  “The only real drawback for our allies is that CCM diffusers can’t be miniaturized enough to install them in a fighter or exomech, getting them that small requires Karinne tech.  So our fighters and exomechs will have defense against Torsion weapons, but nobody else will.  Cybi, put those plans on the mainframe at the Academy and send out a notice to all Confederate members about it.  That way they can get a head start before I formally announce it to the Confederate Council,” he told her.  “They need to get started on building them and installing them as quickly as they can.”

        “It will be done in just a moment.”

        “I can send out a priority message to all foreign dock masters up here about the diffusers,” Dellin added.

        “Do it,” Jason ordered.  “We’ve been stringing them along about the diffusers for over a year, I’m sure a few of them will think we’re just trolling them.  What kind of numbers are we looking at, Dellin?”

        Dellin turned around, no doubt looking at his status board, then the hologram shimmered and faced them again as a new camera took over transmitting his image.  “It’s going to take me about four days to get the docks cleared for the refits,” he replied.  “We can just park the ships they’re currently building near the dock, out of the way but right there when they can get back to working on them.  I’ll have to prioritize ships to get the largest ones refitted first, that way we can get other ships into those docks.  Destroyers and the old Mark I cruisers won’t need a dock at all to do the refit, because of the way they’re designed, so that will take a whole lot of stress off of dock space, but we still need those big docks cleared for the frigates.  I can refit twenty frigates at a time in a battleship dock.  The frigates will be the trickiest ones,” he said, tapping his chin.  “They’ll have to all but completely take the engines apart to get the diffusers installed, then do a whole lot of refitting to work the other systems around the new equipment.  If not for that, we could refit the frigates out in the open space like the destroyers.”

        “I’m surprised they found a way to install a diffuser in the frigates in the first place,” Juma mused.

        “The diffusers for the frigates are actually very small, only about the size of a class VIII power plant,” Jason told her.  “But even with them only being the size of a hovercar, they’ll still have to do a hell of a lot of work getting them in there.  There’s like no empty space in a frigate.”

        “So, the Tianne and the capitol ships are first?” Myri asked.

        “We haven’t got a diffuser designed for the Tianne yet,” Jason warned.  “They’re working on it right now.”

        “We can’t put it in a dock anyway, so that’s a moot point,” Dellin assured him.  “As soon as you have the diffuser unit for it, the Shield’s Hammers can get it installed wherever the ship is.”

        “Given how big it is, I doubt just one diffuser unit’s going to cover the whole ship,” Myri noted.

        “Eraen will crunch the numbers to figure it out,” Jason said confidently.  “If one diffuser can’t do it, we’ll go with multiple synced units to generate an aggregate field, like how they do it with the shields.  No one shield generator could hope to cover the entire Tianne,” he stated.  “So, four days, Dellin?”

        “Four days,” he nodded.  “If Trenirk can have diffusers built and waiting, we can start refitting ships in four days.”

        “Tren said he’d only need three to get the factories reassigned and retooled, so it’ll depend on how fast the factories can crank them out once they’re producing,” Jason told him.  “You and him will have to work that out, Dellin.”

        “We’ll set up a system,” he nodded.  “That way a diffuser goes straight from a factory to a dock and they start installing it.”

        “Then I’m not going to hold you guys up here talking about it.  Dellin, get it going.  Juma, get the fleet ready to cycle through Kosigi.  Myri, organize it with the CCM so we can pull our assigned ships out of the duty rotations and wargames without Lorna getting pissed at us.  The rest of you, try not to get under their feet,” he declared, which caused some laughter.  “There’s a Confederate Council meeting in five hours, so I’ll get the word out officially then.  But no doubt I’ll be getting some calls five minutes after Cybi gets the data up at the Academy.”

        “We’ll keep you up to date if anything changes, Jayce,” Myri told him.

        Jason went up to his office, changed out of his armor, and he barely even managed to sit down at his desk before Chirk called him on the office intercom.  “Revered Hive-leader, the revered Hive-leader Kreel wishes to confer.”

        “Why am I not surprised,” he chuckled, and he accepted the call.  A flat hologram of Kreel appeared just past his desk, showing Kreel sitting at his own desk with the city of Grimjaka visible in the window behind him.  Kreel had a great view from his office, one of the perks of being High Councilor.  “Hey Kreel, what’s up?”

        “Two things.  First, seriously?  The diffusers work?”

        Jason laughed.  “As of about four hours ago,” he replied.  “We don’t have a fix yet for everyone, but I have 3D working on it as we speak.  They should have a fix ready for Grimja ships in a couple of takirs.”

        “Well, that news just brightens my whole day,” he said with a buck-toothed grin.  “I already have my industrial secretary arranging to have our factories build them.  It was nice of you guys to release the blueprints for them.”

        “We want you to be able to install them as fast as possible, Kreel, then once 3D has a fix to deal with the power problem, you can just make the changes and turn them on.”

        “Awesome.  Now, second.  You busy tomorrow?”

        “As a matter of fact, I am, but it’s not busy busy,” he replied.  “Krirara invited me and the family to Kirri’arr tomorrow for dinner.  She wants to get a live look at the twins.  She says holograms just don’t do it justice.”

        “She smells them, that’s what she’s doing,” Kreel laughed.  “Well, lemme see if I can nag Krirara into extending that invitation to her other best friend in the whole universe.”

        Jason chuckled lightly.  “Good luck,” he said with a grin.  “You don’t have babies for her to fawn over.”

        “Pft, I’ll just borrow my sister’s, she has enough of ‘em,” he retorted, which made Jason laugh.

        Without warning, another hologram popped up, which showed Dahnai’s lovely face.  She was in her formal robes and wearing her crown, and from the look of it, was in her office just off the throne room.  “Jayce, the diffusers work?” she asked immediately and without greeting, which made Kreel laugh.  “Is that Kreel?”

        “Yes, it’s Kreel,” the Grimja called lightly.  “And I guess I won the race to ask that question.  Do I get a trophy?”

        “Yes, the diffusers work, and I have 3D working right now to solve the power problem for the INS,” Jason answered.  “We solved the problem for us, now they’re working on everyone else.  I told them to start with the INS and work their way down in order of difficulty.  The INS will be one of the hardest Navies to fix, so they’re working on them first.”

        “Why is that?” Kreel asked.

        “Because of the type of power the INS uses,” Jason answered.  “And that’s as far as I can go into it, Kreel.  Confidentiality,” he warned.

        “Soooo, where does the Union Navy fit into the schedule?”

        “I don’t want to embarrass you in front of Dahnai like that, Kreel,” Jason said with a straight face, which made Dahnai burst out laughing.  “When we get to the Union, I’ll let you know.  Until then, just get the diffusers built and installed, so you only have to do the upgrades 3D sends down to activate them.”

        “I’ve already got my people working on it,” he repeated.

        “I’ll be doing the same as soon as I get off the comm,” Dahnai agreed.  “We need those diffusers.  We can be much more aggressive against the Syndicate with them working, and I think the last thing any of us want is a protracted war against them with the Consortium’s colonizing force coming up behind them.”

        “Don’t swing your tits around yet, woman, the Syndicate uses more than just Torsion weaponry,” Jason said.  “Leave the military shit to the professionals, which you are not.  I don’t tell Myri how to run the KMS, so you should stay out of Lorna’s hair.”

        Dahnai gave him a dirty look as Kreel took his turn laughing.

        “Watch it, furball, I know where you live,” Dahnai threatened.

        “Is she doing that scrunchy face thing, Jayce?” Kreel asked, which made Jason burst out laughing.

        “As a matter of fact, she was,” he replied, which made Dahnai glare at him.

        “Faey have such pliable faces,” Kreel grinned, showing his recently filed teeth.  “Makes me a bit jealous.  All I have is this muzzle and some whiskers.”

        “And the ears,” Jason pointed out.

        “Oh yeah, the ears,” he said, wiggling his round ears ostentatiously.  “Well, since you’re busy tomorrow, how about I come over after the council meeting?  We can get drunk and make fun of Dahnai when she’s not around,” he offered.

        “I’m gonna be there now, buster,” Dahnai retorted.  “You forget just which of us has free right of passage to Karis.  I don’t have to ask permission.”

        “I’ll clear it for your ship, Kreel,” Jason chuckled.  “If you time it right, you can get here for dinner.  Seido’s making three cheese lasagna tonight, I’m sure she can throw in an extra one without any meat in it for you.”

        “Awesome, I’ve been itching to try out this Seido’s cooking.  You rave about it every time we talk.”

        “I’m sure Ayama will be very interested to hear that,” Dahnai said threateningly.

        “Ayama raves about her cooking more than I do,” Jason snorted.

        “Revered Hive-leader, the Imperial Hive-leader Shakizarr wishes to confer,” Chirk interrupted over the intercom.

        Kreel laughed.  “You were expecting this, weren’t you Jayce?”

        “I should have put a bet on it with the Laro,” he replied, which made Kreel grin.  “You can send it in, Chirk,” he called.

        Shakizarr’s green and black furred face appeared between Kreel and Dahnai’s, his hair recently cut.  “Jason, I just got word that the diffuser specs were put on the Academy mainframe.  Is that intentional?  Are they working?”

        “We’ll have them working by the time you get them built and installed on your ships, Shakizarr,” he replied.  “We released them now so everyone can get a head start building them.  We’ve solved the power problem, now we’re going back and working out exactly how every navy in the CCM needs to refit their power system so the diffuser doesn’t interfere with them.”

        “Excellent!  So the diffuser specs are viable?”

        “They’re viable,” he nodded.  “The unit itself didn’t need to be changed, and as soon as my team works up a refit for your Navy’s power system, they’ll work for you.”

        “This is the best news I’ve received all lunar cycle,” Shakizarr said brightly.  “If there was one thing I was hoping for, it was for these diffuser units to be in operation before the Syndicate arrives.  They rob both of our enemies of one of their most dangerous weapons.”

        “It took us a while, but we figured it out,” Jason chuckled dryly.

        “I’ll summon my domestic advisors and get them started on producing the units,” Shakizarr declared.  “And I’m fairly sure I’m not the only one that had the impulse to call you for confirmation, so I’ll clear your comm for the next one,” he added slyly.

        “I believe we’ve been busted, Dahnai,” Kreel called cheekily, which made Shakizarr smile.

        “I’m on my way over, Jason,” Dahnai said before Shakizarr ended his comm.   “We need to talk about this face to face.”

        “I think we all will be,” Shakizarr said.  “This news is so important that I think it warrants a full meeting of the Confederate Council, on Karis rather than Terra.  I’m going to put it forth in the meeting today.”

        “Why are you doing that to me, Shakizarr?” Jason complained.  “You know I hate pomp and circumstance!”

        “Because it keeps you honest,” he replied, which made Jason start in surprise even as both Dahnai and Kreel erupted into startled laughter.  Shakizarr wasn’t one known for comedy, though he did have a subtle wit. “If we don’t come over there and nose around once in a while to make sure of things, there’s no telling what impetuous ideas you might start entertaining.”

        “Revenge is a dish best served cold, Shakizarr,” Jason threatened, which made him laugh lightly.

        “Game on, as Dahnai often tells you, Jason,” he smiled.  “I’ll see you at council.”  Then his hologram vanished.

        Jason leaned back in his chair as both Dahnai and Kreel gave him smug looks.  “I think he has a good idea, actually,” Dahnai proposed.  “Given how important the diffusers are, it does warrant a full meeting of the council, and they love it when they get to go to Karis.  They all can’t be me,” she said preeningly, and both of them laughed at Jason’s ugly look at her.

        “Push off, bitch,” he said without much vindiction, which made her laugh again.

        “I’m on my way over,” she said, and her hologram vanished.

        “Let me go kick some tails, and I’ll be on my way as well, Jayce,” Kreel smiled.  “See you in a bit.”

        Cybi manifested her hologram just as Kreel’s hologram winked out, and Cyra and Cylan followed suit quickly.  [I take it we should start preparing for a full summit?] Cybi asked.

        [You know it’s coming,] he sighed.  [They’ll vote for it for sure, and we can’t really say no.  Cylan, that’s a good project for you, you and Cynna.  Get with Yeri and get everything organized for their visit, and you two handle coordinating with the others.  It’ll be a good learning experience for both of you.]

        [We’ll take care of it, Jason,] he assured with a nod as Cynna’s hologram manifested.

        [You’re giving me a task, Jason?]

        [You and Cylan are going to help Yeri coordinate and set up the upcoming Confederate Council meeting,] he told her.  [You’ll handle everything, from accommodations for the rulers and their retinues to menus, with Yeri there to advise you in the performance of your duties.  Get with Aya about security, that’s the only thing you don’t arrange.]

        [I take it the subject of the meeting is the diffuser project?]

        [Yup, so you know how to schedule the meetings,] he affirmed.  [Myli’s probably gonna murder all of us for dragging her out of Project F for the conference, but she’s the face of 3D, so she’s the one that’s going to do the presentation.]

        [Come now, Jason, it’s her chance to rub the fact that she’s smarter than everyone else in their faces.  She loves doing that,] Cyra communed slyly, which made Jason laugh.

        [Don’t I know it,] he agreed.  [You two go to Yeri’s office and tell her what’s going on, and get started.]

        [Yes, Jason,] Cylan replied, and both of them dissolved their holograms.  They didn’t have to do that, they were capable of just manifesting holograms over in Yeri’s office, but it reinforced the illusion that they were following his orders.  It was part of how the CBIMs acted more like organic beings than computers, part of their core personality templates that only Cybi had shed over her long years.

        Knowing what was coming gave him something to work on as he fielded 14 other calls about the diffusers, then spent nearly three hours discussing the diffusers with Dahnai in his office.  She’d come over still in her formal robes, and what was now common practice, she had Sirri with her so she could sit in on the meeting and observe.  Teaching Sirri what she needed to know to be the Empress started early.  The twins and Kaen were over at the strip under Saelle’s care, who had come along as well.  Saelle went almost everywhere that Dahnai went, which both allowed Dahnai more time with her children than Imperial tradition allowed and kept Saelle close by for both her advice and the protection she offered.  Saelle was one of Dahnai’s closet and most trusted advisors, full of good old common sense, and on top of that, Saelle was one of Dahnai’s closest friends.  Dahnai had also never forgotten how Saelle had saved her life, so she kept her close for the security she offered as much as for her intelligence and her friendship.  Jason fielded calls from leaders from Zaa to Grran as he discussed refitting the INS with diffusers with Dahnai, at least until Kreel arrived.  Then it became a generic conversation about getting the CCM refitted in time to square off against the Syndicate.

        They stayed in Jason’s office when the meeting of the Confederate Council started, and as Jason expected, there were no lackeys or aides in his holograms.  It was the rulers, all of them, and they looked quite excited and animated.  Even the Leader of the Zyagya was in attendance.  Highlord Traikka of the Jhri currently held the gavel, and the small, wiry little squirrel-man gaveled them into order.  The Jhri were just that, humanoids that had evolved from a squirrel-like creature, so they had rodent features vaguely similar to a Grimja, thick but short fur, and a long, bushy tail.  Traikka’s fur was a dark gray with a white patch under his chin that trailed down under his tunic.  What made the Jhri unique among the many races of the Confederation was their manual dexterity and their natural agility.  They excelled in any occupation where they used their hands, like the Jobodi, but they also had exceptional hand-eye coordination and body control, with a nearly supernatural understanding of distance, angles, and trajectories.  Jhri were some of the best long range gunners and snipers in the galaxy because of it, and they were the scourge of most online games where that manual dexterity gave them an advantage, like Vanguard.  Jhri players were some of the few “exies” that could compete against a jacked player, along with the Shurai, Jobodi, and Yood.  “We’re in order, and I don’t think I even need to say why most of us are here,” he said in his chittery, high-pitched voice.  “I think all of us were informed that the Karinnes placed the blueprints for the diffusers on the Academy mainframe, and we’re all here to learn more.  Your Grace,” he prompted, looking in the direction of Jason’s hologram on his side.

        “To keep this brief, august rulers, we finally solved the power problem,” he began.  “We’ve solved the problem for our own power systems first, and now that we have a methodology for it, our engineers are working on a refit for every member of the Confederation so their ships can run a diffuser without it interrupting your power.  As our teams work up a solution for each Navy in the CCM, we’ll send it out to them so they can do the necessary work.  Our solution didn’t require us to alter the diffusers, so we already had the technical specs ready to release.  We sent it out so all of you can get a head start building the units and installing them, and we hope to have the power problem for each member solved by the time you’ve started installing the diffusers.”  He gestured, and a hologram of a diffuser unit appeared over his desk.  “The units can be installed on any ship from frigate class to capitol class, with different models for different ship sizes, and we have designs for ground-based diffuser field units for infantry protection.  We haven’t completely worked out all the bugs yet, just to warn you.  We still haven’t figured out a way to prevent the diffusers from interfering with artificial gravity fields, but we felt that wasn’t big enough to not move forward.  That’s something that the Naval crews can take into account and work around when the time comes.  So all your crews will be dealing with reduced gravity in their ships when the diffusers are operating.  The diffuser offers complete protection against all classes of Torsion bolt weaponry, and all Torsion effects in general,” he added.  “That’s why we’ve had so much trouble getting them to work, because the diffusion field affects virtually all power plants used by Confederate Navies.  All of us use power plants that utilize a Torsion effect in one form or another to generate power, and the diffuser was affecting them along with everything else.  That means that Navies that use Torsion shockwave generators  and Torsion harmonic wave emitters can’t use them if the diffuser is up, the diffuser cancels out the effects.  But the bottom line, august rulers, is the diffusers are working, and as soon as we have a fix for your Navy, we’ll get it to you.  In the meantime, you can build the diffuser units and start installing them on your ships, because the units themselves are ready to go. Just ensure that your people don’t try to use them until we have a fix for your Navy’s power plants.”

        “Given the critical importance of this information, I move that the Confederate Council hold a summit,” Shakizarr called before anyone could speak.  “And it should be held on Karis..”

        “I second that motion,” Assaba nodded.  “After all, the Grand Duke is only telling us what he feels comfortable saying over galactic crypto.  A summit is the only means by which we can receive all the information, we’ll need to confer with Admiral Dellin over our operations in Kosigi, and I’d like to get a personal look at a diffuser unit in action.  Those things can only be done on Karis.”

        “We have a second on the motion.  All in favor?” Traikka called.  Every single hologram was bordered in green, which was a yes vote, and Jason silently sighed, his fate sealed.  “Motion is carried.  The Confederate Council will meet in person on Karis as soon as it can be arranged by the Karinnes.  Your Grace, how soon can you have a schedule prepared?”

        “I’ll have a representative get back to you when we have a date, Highlord, which I doubt will be longer than maybe four or five days,” he replied, impressed with himself to keep the disgust out of his voice.  “I’m going to assign the CBIMs to planning the summit, so it will be one of them getting back to you about it rather than Secretary Yeri.”  He glanced at Dahnai and Kreel.  “If no one else has any questions, I’ll take my leave and get things started,” he declared.

        “I think we can wait until the summit to have our questions answered,” Traikka reasoned.  “And the sooner you can get it organized, the sooner our questions will be answered.”

        Are you bailing on us and making us sit here while you walk out? Kreel challenged.

        Yes I am, he replied shamelessly.  So enjoy sitting here listening to them talk while I go down to the cafeteria and grab a snack.  Shen, Suri, come in and make sure my guests don’t rifle through my desk while I’m away, he called, which made Dahnai flip him off in the Faey manner.

        Jason lingered in the cafeteria for nearly half an hour, and by the time he returned to his office, the meeting was over, and Sirri was no longer in the office, no doubt sent on to the strip once the meeting was over so she could go spend time with the other kids there, who were her friends.  So, they talk about anything that matters? he asked as he stepped past his guards.  Dahnai and Kreel were still in the chairs in front of his desk, Kreel with his feet up on Jason’s desk and Dahnai leaning back with a finger on her interface, probably communing with Kellin or Saelle.  Dahnai had a habit of touching her interface when she was using it, and it was a common enough phenomenon for him not to be surprised to see her do it.

        Just going over the specs of the diffuser, and a few rulers were discussing helping the smaller empires get them built, Dahnai answered.  I offered Grran some factory space, his production capacity is pretty much completely tied up.

        For a twenty percent markup no doubt, he accused.

        Hey, I have to pay those factory workers, she replied with an unrepentant trill twined through her thought.

        Yeah, it was pretty boring, Kreel elaborated, wiggling his unshod toes.  The instant they start throwing around numbers, it just turns off my brain.

        You are such a liar, Jason accused as he sat back down at his desk.  With Kreel’s feet up on his desk, he got a good look at the pads on Kreel’s feet.

        I’m a politician, Jayce.  You’re surprised? Kreel asked with a grin.  So, when’s dinner?

        Seido said it’s in the oven, so whenever we wrap up and head back to my house, he answered.  She said that the lasagna doesn’t have any meat in it, so you’re safe.  And she’s gonna make a couple of extra veggie dishes for you.

        Good, I don’t think you want to be around me if I eat meat any more than I want to be around me, he grinned.  Meat did some pretty awful things to a Grimja’s digestive system, because they were biologically incapable of digesting it.  Severe diarrhea and nausea was just two of the effects of meat on a Grimja, which often struck at the same time.  Meat in their digestive tract caused it to try to purge everything in their system, so they spewed from both ends until there wasn’t anything left.  Luckily for them, only meat caused that reaction.  Grimja could eat eggs and dairy products without issue.

        I already had that adventure.  No thank you, Jason agreed.

        What happened? Dahnai asked.

        We were downtown last time I was here and ate something called a calzone.  We had no idea it had sausage in it, and it had so much stuff in it I couldn’t taste the meat, Kreel answered.  I found out about an hour later, the hard way.  It was very…chunky.

        Ew.

        Yeah, let’s just say that it was a good thing I had my travel pack with spare clothes handy.

        I did not need to know that, Kreel, she sent, revulsion threading through her thought.

        If you don’t wanna hear the answer, don’t ask the question, he grinned.  So, we ready to head for the strip, Jayce?

        More or less, yeah.  I don’t have anything else tying me here.  You hungry or something, Kreel?

        Whatever gave you that idea?  The teethmarks on the corner of your desk?

        Bite marks from a Grimja don’t always mean you’re hungry, Jason replied lightly.

        Well, what are we doing still sitting here?  Let’s get out of this work environment and go somewhere much more befitting a Grimja  The beach, and I packed my Bermuda shorts.

        Kreel and Dahnai rode with him in his skimmer, recalling it from the strip, which was escorted by four Wolf fighters and a corvette.  Two of Dahnai’s white-armored guards were in the back with Shen and Suri, the four of the talking privately between themselves as Dahnai rode in the copilot’s chair and Kreel sat just behind her.  Trelle’s garland, I keep forgetting about that oye tree growing in Karsa, Dahnai mused, looking down as they passed very close to Cyra’s facility.  It always puts those monsters in perspective seeing them next to buildings.

       That’s not the biggest oye tree on Karis, Jason chuckled mentally.  The ones on the northwest coast make that one look like a sapling..

        Why is the tree in your back yard so small, then? Kreel asked.  It’s just as old as that tree.

        You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.

        Well, try me.

        Alright.  I asked it not to grow so big, because not everyone wanted it towering over the neighborhood.  So it only towers over the strip.  And everyone kinds likes it that way, they found out that the canopy over the strip keeps it from getting too hot in the summer, but it still lets in enough sunshine that you can find a nice spot to bask.  And when the tree flowers, the petals drift down like snow and the smell of them makes you think you’ve died and gone to heaven  It does make it a bit problematic flying a skimmer in and out of the house, but I’ll take that inconvenience for everything else the tree gives us.

        You asked a tree not to grow so big.  And it listened to you, Kreel sent challengingly.

        I told you that you wouldn’t understand, Jason chuckled.

        The Parri brainwashed him.  They’re trying to turn Jason into one of them, Dahnai accused.

        When there’s no mystery left in the world, it becomes a very boring place, Dahnai, Jason sent sagely. I’ve seen the Parri do things that science can’t explain.  And by now, I don’t want to explain it.  I like the mystery to be just what it is, it reminds me that there’s so much more to the universe than we will ever be able to comprehend.  Even a hard-boiled engineer like me needs a little mystery in his life, a little magic, or life would be about nothing but numbers and science, and all the magic in living that makes it such a joy would be gone.

        Now that I can understand, Kreel grinned.  I should be trying to brainwash you into being a proper Grimja, Jayce.  Our way of living is way more fun than yours.

        And I’d never get any work done at all, Jason accused, glancing back at the Grimja.

        Grimja life is about moderation, Jayce, he grinned.  And the one thing you have to take the most in moderation is work..

        Jason blurted out a laugh at the sheer absurdity of that statement.  Kreel was probably one of the hardest-working members of the Confederate Council, and there was no such thing as moderation when it came to a Grimja partying.

        Dahnai replied far more elegantly than Jason could have.  She turned in her seat and slapped Kreel on the top of the muzzle, which made him recoil and Jason nearly veer into one of the escorting Wolves as he lost it.

        Sirri was already on the beach when Jason landed on the pad behind the house, between it and the guard barracks, and one of Dahnai’s permanent servants from her summer palace was standing on the pad waiting, holding a bikini and sheer wrap in her hands.  “I’m going to go get out of these robes,” Dahnai declared.  “Don’t get too drunk while I’m changing.”

        “Why Dahnai, I don’t get drunk,” Kreel lied with a straight face.

        Dahnai smacked him on the shoulder before heading towards Jason’s house with her servant in tow.

        “Hey kidlets,” Jason said as he came into the kitchen, where Rann and Shya were helping Seido set out finished dishes.

        “Hey Dad.  Kreel!” Shya said happily, rushing over to him.  All the kids on the strip adored Kreel, mainly because he was a whole lot of fun no matter what age someone was.

        “Hey Shya!  That smells awesome,” he said, looking at the spread.  “Baked Menodan sugar chutes!  Now I’m really glad I crashed this dinner!”

        “I was told what you like, High Councilor,” Seido said without looking in his direction as she pulled a lasagna from the oven.

        “You must be Seido.  And don’t call me that unless you’re in my office,” he said in reply with a bucktoothed smile.  “I’m Kreel.”

        “Kreel,” she corrected as she turned around, the lasagna held in potholders.  “Dinner will be on the table as soon as Her Majesty finishes changing.”

        “Speaking of that, I need to change myself.”

        Once everyone was changed into clothes more fitting for an outside deck dinner, Kreel in shorts and no shirt, Dahnai in bikini bottoms and no top, and Jason in a pair of shorts himself, they enjoyed dinner out on the deck with kids running back and forth, grabbing food and taking it down to the beach to eat picnic style.  They were avoiding the main table because despite the informal setting, the three rulers still talked shop, and that was too boring for the kids, even for Sirri when the allure of friends, fun and beach frolicking were within sight.  Dahnai let her skip out on the boring talk to go play, and the three of them were more or less alone until Jyslin got home.  She came onto the deck from the landing pad wearing a Paladins tee and shorts, and immediately grabbed a plate and sat down beside Jason.  About time, love, he told her.

        We were crunching numbers for a free agent contract, she replied.  We’re going to make a serious bid for Laela Fenalle.

        Trelle’s garland, seriously?  She’s the best outside striker in the IBL!

        That’s why we had to crunch numbers.  We had to make sure we could afford to make a serious offer, she said ruefully.  So I heard about the diffusers.  They got them working?

        Yup, he nodded.  Now comes the mad scrambling to get them built and installed.

        I almost wish I could have been there helping, she sent wistfully.  Like him, she sincerely missed being in the middle of everything in 3D. What was the fix?

        Hey, you gave up engineering to be the big shot IBL owner, so I doubt you’d understand the fix.  Let me put it in simple terms for you, baby.  Jenny did technical things with gadgets and now things work,, Jason teased playfully, which made her respond with a rude gesture that made Dahnai and Kreel laugh. Watch it, buster, I sleep in the same bed with you, she threatened.

        When I can’t find anyone better, he retorted while drinking beer, which made Dahnai explode with laughter when Jyslin took her glass of wine and poured it over Jason’s head.  Jason laughed himself after wiping wine out of his eyes
        “Well, at least I’m not wearing a shirt to get soaked,” he said aloud, but glanced to the side when Cybi manifested a hologram.  “What’s up, Cybi?”

        “Zaa needs to speak with you immediately,” she answered.  “She’s on hologram and waiting in your office.”

        “Sounds important,” Jyslin said.

        “She made that clear,” Cybi replied.

        “Alright, let me go see what she wants,” he said, standing up and picking up a napkin.  “At least I can dry off on the way up.”

        Zaa’s hologram was indeed waiting for him, pacing back and forth in front of his desk in his home office.  She accessed his security and switched the room into Kimdori secure mode as soon as he closed the door, which made him give her a speculative look.  “Alright, I’m here, Denmother,” he said, speaking Kimdori.  If he didn’t, she wouldn’t be able to hear him.  “What’s on your mind?”

        “Jason, the Syndicate fleet en route to our galaxy just dropped out of hyperspace,” she told him.

        “What?  Why?” he asked.

        “We don’t know,” she replied.  “But they’ve dropped out of hyperspace and are regathering their fleet.  They received no orders to drop out of hyperspace, so this had to be a planned event,” she said, pacing again.  “They have no real reason to drop out of hyperspace now.  They made the journey from Andromeda without dropping out of hyperspace once, yet they do so now, a considerable distance away from our galaxy.”

        “Are they within range of the string jammer?  Maybe a loss of reception of Syndicate pulse communications caused the computers to bring them out of hyperspace to warn the fleet commanders about it.”

        “No,” she replied.  “They won’t reach the edge of the jammer’s effect for another three months.”

        “Hmm,” Jason mused, sitting at his desk and rapping his fingers on the top.  “Then the only possible explanation is that this was a planned drop,” he said.  “Unless there’s something majorly wrong on one of their main ships.  Maybe a malfunction brought it out of hyperspace, and that triggered the entire fleet to drop out as well, so they didn’t leave it behind.”

        “That is a possible explanation,” she nodded.  “In fact, it might be the most plausible one.  I fear to say that I had never considered this possibility, so I have no spy drones in that area,” she fretted.  “The Flat Space Effect makes dispatching drones along the path problematic.  I’ve rectified my error, however, and they should be there in about a week.”

        “A week?”  They’re four months away by hyperspace!”

        “I’m having my children build another one-way wormhole to get them there now,” she told him.  “It will take them a week to build it, and since I am sending unmanned probes, I can simply keep sending them through until enough of them arrive in one piece to keep eyes on their entire fleet.  Once they arrive, they will shadow the fleet for the rest of its journey to our galaxy, and take extensive scans of them while doing so.  That way we have detailed intelligence about them, their ships, and their weapons and capabilities before we engage them in battle.”

        “Okay, that’s a good idea.  And since you’re just sending automated hyperspace probes, I won’t bitch about it this time,” he told her.  “This is gonna mess things up,” he added in disgust.  “We were counting on them being on a schedule, and now that’s all changed.  There’s no telling how long they’re gonna sit out there before getting moving again, and it might change everything.  They may try to get in touch with their home base before leaving, which would be a four month delay—no wait, they can’t do that.  They’re pretty deep in the Flat Space Effect, it would take years for them to get a reply in their time.  Hmm.  Maybe they stopped to take some sensor readings of their planned arrival point.  Fuck, and we’ve got a pretty big fleet sitting over there right now doing wargames that’s not behind sensor jammers.”

        “A good point,” Zaa said, looking to the side.  “Dispatch SCM units to Arrival Point Alpha immediately.”

        “Yes, Denmother,” a voice came from off camera.

        “But this does offer a potential opportunity,” Zaa said, turning and looking at him.  “Because of the temporal shift, we can assume safely that the fleet will be there for a while.  The temporal shift where they are would mean that an hour is nearly three days in our time, so if they take their time, they will be out there for takirs in our time.  We should debate the pros and cons of contacting the Syndicate with the Confederate Council, which we can do during the summit.  Perhaps we can scare them away without having to engage them in war, or negotiate a peaceful means to prevent it.  I personally doubt such an effort would find much success, but it should be discussed by the council as a whole.  After all, they have traveled nearly five years to get here, I doubt they will simply go back home without at least trying to invade our galaxy.”

        “I agree with you, Denmother.  I also agree that we should at least discuss the matter with the others.  Leaders like Magran and Kriavos would never forgive us if we didn’t at least try to find a peaceful solution first, so long as doing so doesn’t put us in an exposed position.”

        “It might.  By making contact, it tells them we are aware of them,” Zaa said calmly.  “They would then be wary of attack should the negotiations fail.”

        “I thought they already knew we were aware of them.”

        “The Syndicate in Andromeda does.  This fleet has been in hyperspace for five years, cousin.”

        “That doesn’t mean they couldn’t find out,” he replied.  “You forget, Denmother, their ships can receive Syndicate pulse communications while in hyperspace.  I have no doubt that the fleet commander is right at this moment reading a series of reports sent to him from his HQ while he was in stasis.  One of them very well could be they know you’re coming.”

        She made a face.  “You’re right, cousin.  I hadn’t considered that,” she agreed.  “So, it does make the possibility of contacting them less risky from a military standpoint.  If they know we know about them, the element of surprise is already lost.”

        “Partially, anyway,” Jason said.  “They have no idea what we’re capable of.  They know we beat the Consortium expedition, but they won’t hold much water to that, since they’re beating the Consortium themselves.  Just knowing that we know they’re coming doesn’t mean they know just how long of an arm the Confederation has.  You’ve studied them, Zaa.  How do you think they’ll react?”

        “Glibly,” she replied.  “They are master diplomats and statesmen, cousin, but they are also ruthless and deceptive.  No doubt they will make all kinds of promises, none of which they intend to keep.  They will try to lie us into a sense of complacency, then attack.”

        “Then we make it clear to them that they don’t want to fuck with us,” he said bluntly.  “Cybi.”

        Cybi manifested a hologram into the room.  “Yes, Jason?”

        “Were you listening?”

        “Of course I was.”

        “Good, then I don’t have to explain things to you.  Get in touch with Tom and have him send a fuckton of automated toys to Kimdori Prime, on every unmanned disposable transport we have that can sit in hyperspace for extended periods of time,” he said.  “We’ll send them with the probes, and if the Syndicate doesn’t give us an answer we like, we can start the war early,” he declared in a grim tone.

        “That’s clever, cousin.  I’ll have them sent on with the probes.”

        “Actually.  Cybi, have Tom send everything we can load onto the unmanned transports,” he told her quickly.  “We’ll do as much damage as possible while they’re sitting out in intergalactic space, months from the nearest resources or support.  We’ll have the opportunity, no use to waste it.”

        “I’ll get him working on it,” she nodded, then her hologram winked out.

        “How far away are your scouts from Andromeda?” he asked Zaa.

        “They arrive at the edge of the galactic rim in 37 days,” she answered.

        “Can you get in touch with the computers and have them run a database search on all messages they’ve intercepted to see if the Syndicate warned the fleet that we know about it?”

        “I can.  See to it,” she said to the side.

        “At once, Denmother,” another aide’s voice called from off camera.  “We can let that result guide our next step.  If they know, it means we can initiate contact without giving up the element of surprise. If they don’t, then we very well may simply attack first, then contact them to warn them that there is much more where that came from.”

        “Just so,” he nodded.  “They won’t know that we threw everything at them we could get there.  We can lie just as good as they can when it comes down to it.  If they’re looking at constant attacks while they sit out there, and even attacks while in hyperspace while coming in, it may make them decide to turn around without us having to fire a single shot from a manned ship.”

        “It sounds like I won’t be dismantling the wormhole generator,” Zaa mused.

        “Actually, I think I’ll be building my own over here,” Jason said.  “I can put Alya’s propulsion engineering unit from MRDD on it, she’s the best I have at hyperspace applications with Myleena and Emia tied up with Project F.  She can build us our own one-way wormhole generator, that way we’re not constantly bothering you with the stuff we’re sending over to go through.  She can pull the data your engineering team have on it from the one they built before and run with it.”

        “I’ll send it over,” she nodded.  “Are you still sending your ships here?”

        He nodded.  “It’ll take Alya too long to get it built, since she’s never done it before, so we’ll use the one you build until we get ours up.  Cyra.”

        Cyra’s golden hologram manifested in his office.  “Yes, Jason?”

        “I know you were listening, so gather the data and take it to Alya and get her started on it.”

        “I’ll inform her,” she replied, then her hologram vanished.  Cynna almost immediately manifested her own hologram in his office.

        “I’ll inform Dellin about it, he’ll need to pull the hyperspace engines out of inventory for the wormhole device.”

        “Good idea.  Do it,” he nodded.  She nodded in return, and her hologram also vanished.  “With that wormhole generator up, we can get enough toys to that fleet to harass it for quite a while.  And since it’s all disposable anyway, I won’t cry too much if it gets destroyed in transit.”

        “Then it sounds like we both have some work to do, cousin, and we’d best get to it.  I’ll have the data you requested sent to your gestalt as soon as I get it back.”

        “I guess I should call in 3D and tell them about this, see if anyone has any fresh ideas about going after the Syndicate that we can send through once we get the device up and running,” he sighed.  “And I was looking forward to hanging out with Kreel.”

        “You can go out and get drunk and have your guards drag you back home in the dead of night later, Jason.  There is work to do, and work always comes first,” Zaa said lightly.

        “Kreel makes sure I have enough fun not to get too jaded in this job,” he told her with a smile.  “And I just might get all this done in time to still go out and have some fun tonight.”

        “Then you should get to work on it,” she said with a shooing motion.

        Jason smiled.  “Admit it, you just want to get off here so you can go fawn over your cubs.”

        “I don’t need a reason to do that,” she replied proudly.  “I can’t let Denfather have too much time with them.  He might convince them that he’s their favorite, when I’m the one that bore them and nursed them and rear them properly.”

        Jason laughed brightly.  “And it’s nice to know that even Kimdori parents fight over who gets to be the favorite with the kids,” he noted.  “And I see that female jealousy over the kids is a constant through species.”

        “Denfather should count himself lucky that I give him the access he has to the cubs as it is,” she retorted, a bit shortly.  “Most Kimdori males have nothing at all to do with the rearing of cubs.  If not for my extensive duties as the Denmother, he’d have as little contact as most other males.  As it is, he is just a cubsitter, one that I trust enough to take proper care of my cubs.”

        “And now I see why Kimdori females don’t let the males near their cubs, because you females are so bad at parenting that the cubs would run straight to their fathers if they could.”

        Zaa gave him quite the frosty look, that made him laugh and wink at her.  “You are a scoundrel, cousin,” she accused, putting her hands on her furry hips.  “You just wait until the next time we stand face to face.  I’ll have quite a few things to discuss with you.”

        “Get in line, Denmother.  It starts with Jyslin and goes about fifty deep,” he replied flippantly.

        “I’ll be on Karis tomorrow, cousin.  And we will have a little chat,” she warned, pointing at him.

        Jason laughed.  “It’ll have to wait til the day after, Denmother.  Krirara invited us to dinner on Kirri’arr tomorrow, we won’t be here.”

        “I’ll arrive early enough for us to discuss the Syndicate matter before you leave.”

        “Then I’ll have Songa on standby to heal the bite wounds.”

        “That would be prudent,” she replied ominously, then her hologram winked out, which made Jason laugh.


Chapter 3

 

Maista, 23 Kedaa, 4404, Faey Orthodox Calendar

Sunday, 13 May 2018 Terran Standard Calendar

Maista, 23 Kedaa, year 1329 of the 97th Generation, Karinne Historical Reference Calendar

Sora Karinne Memorial Complex, Karsa, Karis

 

        Jason could admit, it could be a hell of a lot worse.

        Given the sheer number of rulers that had come to Karis to attend the summit, they thankfully didn’t expect him to greet every single one of them.  Yeri more or less emptied out her entire office to provide diplomatic functionaries to greet the rulers, and all five CBIMs also greeted each ruler as they arrived, and were then billeted in the relatively new Sora Karinne Memorial Complex, which had been built specifically for these summits.  It held everything the rulers needed, from suitable quarters that were sufficiently luxurious to entertainment facilities to conference rooms, including the Hall of Peace, the largest of them which would host the full summit meetings.  Jason had had the complex built over a year ago after a disastrous summit where he literally had Elbrecht Zor sleeping in the guest room of his house, as he had nowhere else to put him that wouldn’t demean Elbrecht’s status as the ruler of the Zorian Empire.  He’d ticked off a few thousand people by annexing their condo building to build the complex, but they shut up when he moved them to a luxury building over on the south side of Karsa.

        Not all the rulers stayed in the complex, however.  Shakizarr preferred to stay on his yacht, as did Assaba and about 16 other rulers, mainly those with extreme environmental requirements that made staying on Karis problematic for them.  The Birkon ruler Overmaster Birn, for example, breathed methane and was used to temperatures so cold it would kill just about everyone else on the planet, so he much preferred to stay on the command ship that brought him.  Dahnai had her summer palace, so she had no earthly business staying in the complex.  She tended to invite this or that ruler to stay in the summer palace with her, whichever one she was schmoozing that month…and this summit, it was the Sha’i-ree ruler, Imperator Enva Shi’Ren.  Zaa stayed over in her house in Jaxtra, and Kreel and Krirara always stayed in his house when they visited.  Neither of them minded sleeping in a modest guest bedroom, since neither of them took themselves all that seriously, and the strip girls and kids absolutely adored both of them.

        Most of the rulers had arrived over the last two days, and after the last four got here, they could start with the official functions.  While they were waiting, the other rulers were taking advantage of their visit to go out and look around, so some shopping or sightseeing, and some were up in Kosigi aggravating the everliving fuck out of Dellin.  It was a rare opportunity for them to visit Karis—it was the first visit for the six newest members of the Confederation—so there was a lot for them to do, a lot to see, and a lot of trouble to get into.

        Miaari had that handled.  She was keeping an eye on the rulers and their entourages, many of which held spies.  But, the interfaces did make it easy for her to keep track of everything, and also keep people out of places they weren’t supposed to be.  The interfaces were an exceptionally effective security measure, since you needed one to do anything on Karis, and interfaces couldn’t be counterfeited to make a door think a spy was actually someone that was allowed to be there.  The fact that the visitors’ interfaces didn’t have a biogenic chip in it was one of the biggest security measures, since no door that led to anything even remotely sensitive would open by command from a non-biogenic interface.

        Cylan and Cynna been very busy preparing for this summit, and Jason had divorced himself of the whole thing by doing something he rarely did yet loved to do, and that was work in 3D.  He’d spent most of his time over there for the last six days, working on the Imperium team to solve the INS’ power problem.  It had been a whole lot of fun for him, letting him do something he loved to do but rarely had the time for anymore, and that was engineering work.  He’d murdered his inbox and no doubt had Chirk pissed at him for shirking his duties as the Grand Duke, but he’d immensely enjoyed himself.  And he could proudly proclaim that with his help, his team solved the power problem for the INS, and yesterday they pushed out the fix to them so they could get their diffusers working.

        That project was over halfway done.  While Jason’s team had banged away on the INS, other teams had solved the power problem for multiple allies’ navies.  There were only 12 left on the board, and they’d be the easiest to solve.

        But reality reared its ugly head, and now they were ramping up to host the conference.  He was walking across the campus of the complex wearing his formal robes, with Zaa, Dahnai, Empress Voss of the Crai Empire, and Observer A of the Ruu all similarly attired, and with Cynna and Cylan floating beside them.  Observer A dwarfed the four of them, since he was nearly 6 shakra tall, or a bit over seven feet or around 2.1 meters.  Observer A was very tall, skinny, willowy, and looked a bit delicate.  He had dark blue skin like a Jeraman Faey, a large, bald head, large ears, and very large eyes set in a long, narrow face.  He wore the long-tailed tunic of his station as the highest-ranking of the Observers, his people’s diplomats and politicians.  He absolutely towered over Voss, who only came up to Jason’s chest.  Voss was a short, willowy, and very graceful reptilian being with multicolored scales that formed bands that went down her neck, with a head that was very raptor-like that was set on a bipedal body, with a row of large red feather-like plumes rising up from the top of her head, vaguely resembling a mohawk.  She did have a tail and claws on her hands and feet, but had a general body shape and design that made her look more like a humanoid than a velociraptor.  Her body wasn’t horizontally oriented on two legs, it was vertically oriented, with a bit of a kink in her spine caused by her tail.  She was one of nine races that made up the Crai Empire, but like the Imperium, the Crai had conquered the other eight and were very much in charge of their empire.  All in all, Jason rather liked Voss.  She was a no-nonsense ruler that shared his disdain for pomp and circumstance, and despite their warlike past, the Crai were a rather peaceful species…at least now they were.

        “I must say, I’m surprised that you decided to attend this summit, Observer,” Voss said as they walked.  This was Voss’ first visit to Karis, and Jason was giving her something of a personal tour of the complex.

        “It is a rare opportunity to visit Karis, Empress, even for the Ruu,” he said in his deep, sonorous voice.  “While we may not concern ourselves with the military aspects of the Confederation, there were several important matters to discuss with the Grand Duke that are best done in personal conference, as well as several matters of diplomacy to address with the Confederation as a whole.”

        “Which is still scheduled to begin tomorrow morning, I assume?”

        “Yes, Empress,” Jason answered.  “That should give everyone time to adjust to local time, as well as get some recreation in. I’m a big believer in people being rested and ready for the boring politics.”

        Voss chuckled lightly.  “I was quite impressed by the desert on the northern continent,” she told him.  “It looks much like my homeworld.  It was quite lovely.”

        “Some of us prefer different environments,” Dahnai said lightly.  “My favorite part of Karis is Karsa.  Well, that’s not my palace,” she added.

        “Your summer palace is breathtaking, Empress,” Voss said, which made Dahnai preen a bit.

        “There are many interesting things to see and do here,” Zaa stated.  “I believe you would find a visit to the Kizzik colony on Kirga to be very interesting, Empress Voss.  The Kizzik are a remarkable species, and their city is quite fascinating.”

        “It’s very…vertical,” Jason noted, which made Dahnai laugh.  “The Kizzik don’t build everything on a horizontal plane, since they build underground.  Since they can walk right up the walls in their hive, they don’t see anything wrong with building things on the walls and ceilings.”

        “It’s an amazing example of three dimensional architecture,” Zaa said. “Only the Korgg and the Makati come close to it.”

        “A common trait among subterranean species,” Cylan injected.  “And a logical one.  But there are exceptions.  The Skaa don’t build on such a three dimensional scale despite being a subterranean species.  They prefer to build on a gentle sloping plane descending down to the entry to the underground complex.”

        “True enough,” Jason agreed.  “But I think the ecosystem of their home planet influenced that behavior a little bit.  All that rain, if they built on a three dimensional axis, it would flood the lower parts of their cities over time.”

        “And since they developed their architectural aesthetics before gaining their current technological ability, they retained their tendencies even after they gained the engineering skills to deal with the flooding,”  Observer A speculated.

        “That is an intriguing observation,” Cynna mused.  “That sometimes, technological advancement does not alter a species’ customs or practices, even when it might make things easier for them to change.”

        “Us illogical meat people can get set in our ways, Cynna,” Jason told her lightly.  “And we can be contrary to the point of madness when it suits us.”

        “You said it, your Grace, I didn’t,” she answered, which made Jason laugh.

        Jason led them into the main building and showed Voss all the important rooms inside, from the conference rooms to the restaurant, staffed and stocked to handle the dietary and culinary requirements of all visitors—no ruler would eat in a cafeteria, even if that was what it was—to the spa, which was set up to be as appealing as possible to the largest number of species.  He showed her the alternate environment lounges as well without going in, which had different induced gravities and air pressures, different atmospheric makeups, and different temperatures.  They were built to provide those rulers who had to wear environmental suits a place where they could safely take them off and relax between conferences without having to return to their quarters.  Karis’ gravity, air pressure, atmosphere, and temperature was lethal to 12 of the rulers, and those rulers had aides and servants, so there were enough who needed the areas to justify building them.

        Voss herself was significantly different from those with her, since she breathed carbon dioxide instead of oxygen, and for her, Karis’ atmosphere was almost dangerously thin in that gas.  She could function in the atmosphere here without a breather so long as she didn’t exert herself.  And because of that, Jason showed her the lounge that had very high concentrations of carbon dioxide and was within her environmental tolerance in all other ways, a place where she wouldn’t feel like she was like a Terran trying to breathe in thin air.

        The main building in the complex was designed so that no lounge was more than three minutes away from the Hall of Peace, and put everything on the same floor to avoid the rulers having to use stairs or elevators.  After all, the Amsthat didn’t even have legs, so stairs might be a little problematic for them.

        The Amsthat were a curious aquatic species that Jason would nearly call mermaids.  They had arms and a vaguely humanoid torso covered in fine scales, their heads adorned with large, impressive crest-like fins, but their lower bodies were snake-like, eel-like, and they had a long fin running down their lower body.  They had both lungs and gills, capable of breathing water or air, and were a very hardy species capable of adapting to a tremendous range of atmospheric and temperature variations.  They could live as easily in an arctic sea as they could a tropical ocean, and were capable of operating for extended periods of time out of the water without adverse effects.  They were fast and agile in the water, and they could rise up onto a vertical base and slither on land with some surprising speed, easily able to keep up with someone walking, though they couldn’t match a running pace.

        The galaxy was a wondrous place filled with some truly incredible living things.

        Jason finished the tour and walked Voss and Observer A to their assigned quarters, then he, Zaa, and Dahnai boarded a skimmer and headed back to the strip.  Jason was quite happy to shed his formal robes, letting Suri and Ryn fly while he changed into a tank top and shorts.  He was totally serious when he said that Cylan and Cynna were responsible for the summit, he was staying out of their hair and letting them handle everything, even the whining from the rulers when their food wasn’t just so.  They met Krirara and Kreel at the landing pad, and then the five of them went up to Jason’s home office.  Once there, Zaa put the room into secure mode and brought up holos of the Syndicate fleet, which was fully gathered out in intergalactic space, some 30,000 ships in a loose cluster.  “These images are in real time,” Zaa explained to the others.  “We got a hyperspace probe to the area just hours ago.  The probes are also intercepting their ship to ship transmissions, so now we know what they are doing.”

        “Well, what is it, Zaa?” Krirara asked.

        “Simply put, Moderator, this was a planned stop,” she answered.  “To ensure that no ships were lost during the journey, check orders from their command structure to ensure they are still on mission, perform any required maintenance before entering potentially hostile territory, give the fleet final orders concerning their arrival in our galaxy, and conduct long-distance visual observation of their arrival point.  That is what we can overhear.  They’re also transmitting ship to ship using encryption, no doubt their captains and commanders speaking to one another, and as yet we have been unable to break this encryption.  It is surprisingly complex, and will take time for our cryptographers to decipher.  It impresses me,” she admitted.  “Their position is just at the extreme edge of their long-range onboard hyperspace telescopes, a fact of which we were unaware,” she explained.  “Ship to ship communications tell us that they intend to begin moving again in appoximately sixteen standard hours, at least for us.  For them, this stop has taken nearly five days of subjective time, but to us, they have been out of hyperspace for about three days. They intend to jump out in fifteen standard hours, which for them is around nine.”

        “What does that mean?” Dahnai asked.

        “Their fleet is fairly deep within a cosmological phenomenon known as the Flat Space Effect, which exaggerates the observed difference in the passage of time between two points with different temporal velocities,” she answered.  “Simply put, Empress, time moves much faster out where they are than it does here, though to them, within the effect, it is as if time moves normally and those they observe outside of the effect are moving with unnatural slowness.  The temporal shift is such that for every minute of subjective time for them, appoximately 39 standard seconds pass for us.  In their subjective time, their fleet is fifteen hours away from jumping back into hyperspace to continue the journey.  But for us, it will take them nine more hours, give or take, before they actually execute that jump.”

        “Woah.  That sounds pretty interesting.  I’ll have to do some reading on it,” Dahnai said.

        Zaa nodded.  “They will be moving before the summit begins, which renders our plans to discuss what to do about the situation moot.  By the time the council makes a decision, they will be gone.”

        “It’s not a complete loss,” Jason said.  “We have a lot of toys in the area now, and when that fleet jumps out, they’ll be following behind it.  That way, when they drop out of hyperspace, we can attack them immediately from behind if needs be.”

        “How did you get all that stuff out there?” Kreel asked.

        “We took a page from the Consortium’s playbook,” Jason said.  “Both the Kimdori and the Karinnes have built one-way wormhole generators, and we got some automated equipment out there, stuff we could afford to lose if it was destroyed in transit.”

        “Just so,” Zaa nodded.  “We have considerable disposable assets within striking distance of the fleet, as well as sufficient hyperspace probes to keep eyes on them, even if they split up.”

        “The Kimdori sent spy probes, we sent toys,” Jason added.  “We have some firepower out there now, and we can start the war with a push of a button.”

        “I’m a bit surprised you didn’t attack them already,” Krirara noted.

        “We debated it, but we decided that this is a Confederation matter,” Jason replied, to which Zaa nodded.  “The Confederation means dick if we just go off and do whatever we please without their advice or consent.  We have to agree to start this war the legal way, and that means the council has to issue the order.”

        “Well, I’ll give you points for following the articles, babes,” Dahnai said.  “But you did miss a golden opportunity.”

        “Better to miss the opportunity than see the Confederation fall apart because some felt that we flouted the agreement we signed,” Zaa stated simply.  “We have to maintain our unity in the face of what is coming, and we felt it best to not risk that unity when the threat of the Consortium looms over us all.”

        “I can see what you’re saying, and it sounds like a good idea,” Kreel nodded.  “Gotta keep the cats herded, as the Terrans say.”

        “I do have to say, those ships are huge,” Krirara said, looking at the hologram.

        “I know, they look pretty intimidating,” Dahnai agreed.  “I bet they’re even bigger than they look, since we can only get a sense of scale compared to the little ships.   And I’ll bet those ships aren’t that small.”

        “They are not,” Zaa agreed.  “This ship here, it is the size of Arctus’ moon, Trethis,” she added, pointing at one of the massive spherical super-ships, like giant death balls.  It really did remind Jason of the Death Star from the Star Wars movies, just without that indentation that held the planet-killer weapon.  He supposed that a spherical design was the easiest to build for something that huge, but not all of their giant ships were spheres.  Some were ovoid, some were elliptical, one looked like a massive flying cigar, and one looked like a massive cube, almost like a Borg ship from Star Trek.  They didn’t use complex designs for those giant ships, much unlike their smaller ships, which looked like actual ships.  But the larger it was, the more spherical it was, and the largest of them were all spherical  “The largest one is at the back of the formation, and it is the size of the Terran moon.”

        “Grimji’s whiskers,” Kreel breathed.  “That’s the size of a small planet.”

        “Yes.  The sheer size of those ships will make them difficult to destroy, but we can do it.  Lorna’s war plans are quite thorough.”

        “Can you imagine the size of the jump engines on that thing?” Dahnai mused.  “Can you imagine building jump engines that big?  I’d faint just looking at the bill for the housing!”

        “When one has half a galaxy’s resources, one can build things that most others cannot,” Zaa replied.

        “Amen.  You don’t want to know what it cost us to build the Tianne.  I think Kumi’s still mad at me,” Jason grunted, which made Dahnai laugh.

        “I’ve got quite a few nasty messages from my economic advisors over fleet costs,” she agreed.

        “Well, I think we’ve talked enough shop,” Kreel said, looking towards the window.  “It’s way too nice a day to sit in here and doom and gloom, not when there’s a beach right over there.”

        “I think I’m going to agree with you, Kreel,” Dahnai chuckled.  “There’s really not much more we can talk about until tomorrow anyway.”

        Zaa did relent, and most of them moved from his office to the beach, to rest and relax before the summit tomorrow.  The first part of it wouldn’t be that bad, since it was the practical part of the summit.  They’d meet briefly in the morning at the complex, then they rulers would be taken out to see the diffusers in action in a demonstration outside Kosigi.  Myleena was taking a break from Project F to do the presentation, to explain the basics of the diffuser unit and let them see it operate, then they’d reconvene in Kosigi itself for a short briefing from Dellin.  Then they’d be done, making the first day a relatively short and easy day.  The second and third day were the ones he was dreading, for that would be two full days of conferences and discussion.  They were going to go ahead and clear the books of everything that was going to be done at the next summit on Terra while they were here, doing those things that could only be done face to face…and at least that meant there would be no summit on Terra next month.  There would be no need for one.  That all but made it worth it.

        But for the moment, he had much more important things on his mind, namely Dahnai’s enticingly naked butt as she knelt in the sand and helped Rann and Shya build a sand castle. Dahnai spent as much time with Shya as she could almost every time she visited his house, or had them come to the summer palace, reminding her that her mother did in fact love her very much.  That was a fact that Shya more than understood—she understood how hard it was for Dahnai to let her move to Karis, for a parent to let go of one of their young children like that—and she thoroughly enjoyed the time she got to spend with her.  Kreel and Krirara were playing beach volleyball of all things, paired up and facing off against Sheleese and Ilia.  There were quite a few kids running around since there was no school today, and a line of hoverstrollers attended by mothers, babysitters, and nannies sat up on the big deck where they had the picnic tables for strip parties, further watched over by the Imperial Guard, both Aya’s girls and Dahnai’s detachment since Kaen was among them.  The girls were bringing their infants out for some sun and fresh air, which was entirely safe since none of them could sunburn, and it was well within the babies’ tolerance for heat today.  Jason had been up there for a while, fawning over the new twins and Terry and helping Seido give them their lunch bottles, but she’d chased him away and told him to go relax a little while when the infants were more interested in sleep than they were in cuddles.

        He couldn’t help it if he wanted to be around his newborns.

        With Kaen here, it meant that Saelle and Evin were also here with their own baby Laeri, and Saelle was in the lounger beside his, chatting with him over communion while Evin sat with Miyai and Raisha not far from where Dahnai was, teaching the toddlers the basics of building sand shapes.

        [I’m shocked you’re not up there with Laeri,] Jason teased.

        [She’s in good hands at the moment, and besides, she’s asleep right now,] she answered lightly.  [I’m keeping tabs on her.]

        [That poor girl will never know a moment’s privacy with you around.]

        Saelle grinned at him.  [It’s how I keep my sanity,] she replied.  Saelle was a woman of remarkable talents, and one of them was that she seemed to have a knack for being able to decipher the usually indecipherable jumble of raw, primal impulses of an infant’s mind to figure out exactly what they wanted.  Infants had open minds, but their thoughts made no sense to the vast majority of telepaths because they had no basis of rational thought unless their need was a powerful one.  A telepath could tell when an infant was hungry, or sleepy, or afraid, but had trouble figuring out exactly what was making them uncomfortable or giving them pain, since the infant’s mind lacked the cognitive ability to think beyond impulse and instinct.  If an infant was laying on something that was causing them pain, they didn’t think I’m laying on something hurting me, or even my back hurts, it was nothing but I hurt I hurt I hurt I hurt.  It was eerily similar to animals.  Most telepaths could get a very general sense of the mind of an animal, but its thoughts made no sense to them.  There were some telepaths capable of communicating with animals, but they were pretty rare.  As babies grew, matured, started to develop language skills and the ability to think abstractly, their thoughts became more discernable to telepaths, because their minds began to develop cognitive structure.  Saelle was one of those rare telepaths able to “get more” out of the mind of an infant, able to pick through their instinctive impulses and get more nuance out of them.  [Why are you laying here instead of playing with your daughter?]

        [That’s not a bad idea,] he decided, getting up and going over to Raisha and Miyai.  He knelt down beside Raisha, who gave him a bright smile and hugged his side.  Raisha was aware of her unique situation, that Evin wasn’t her real father and Jason was, but like most Faey children in her position, it didn’t make her love Jason any less than Evin.  And Raisha was just a little doll.  She and Miyai both were absolutely adorable, but it was Raisha’s jet black hair that got most people’s attention.  Saelle wouldn’t let her cut it, and as a result it was already halfway down her back, where Miyai’s white hair was cut very short, in a pixie style, which was common enough for toddler girls in Faey society.  Faey encouraged their girls to be very active, to be rough and tumble, and long hair could get snagged on things while they were still learning the basics of motor control and gracefulness.  Saelle solved that problem for Raisha by keeping her hair in a tail most of the time, but today it was unbound and spread over her shoulders and back like a dark fan, with a large lock of it over the front of her shoulder and dangling down her torso.

        “And what are you two angels up to?” Jason asked as he put his hand on Raisha’s shoulder.

        “Makin’ castles,” Miyai answered.

        “Learning how to make castles,” Evin chuckled with a warm smile at her.  “Then we’re going to go play in the surf.”

        “Are you having fun?”

        “The sand won’t stay together,” Raisha complained after letting him go and picking up a small bucket.

        “It needs to be a little wetter, then,” he said, motioning and using his telekinetic gifts.  The toddlers watched in interest as a globe of water was pulled up out of the ocean and drifted over their heads, then the globe all but shattered and sprayed all of them with warm, salty water.  That made both the girls squeal in laughter and Evin flinch, then he too laughed as he wiped water off his face.

        “Warn a guy first, Jason,” he complained with a smile.

        “Life on the strip is about the unexpected, Evin.  Get used to it,” he grinned in reply.

        “Stop showing off, Dad,” Rann challenged from the other sand castle.

        “Showing off would have been tossing your butt a hundred shakra offshore,” he retorted lightly.

        “Do it again, Daddy Jason, do it again!” Raisha pleaded, nudging his leg with her small hands.

        For a good hour, Jason spent his time in the best way possible, in his opinion, building sand castles and then playing in the crashing waves with his daughter and goddaughter, getting to spend some good quality time with them.  An hour where nobody bothered him—outside of Kreel making a nuisance of himself—and given it was the eve of the summit, Jason was honestly astounded that he hadn’t been interrupted.  He even managed to get through dinner with his closest friends among the council without any issues.  But, then, reality finally intruded into his afternoon.  He spent most of the afternoon and evening over at the complex, putting out any number of small fires that invariably arose when kings, emperors, and galactic rulers were served drinks without exactly three ice cubes in it.  He didn’t get back home until after sunset, and that time was spent catching up on his work, including the latest status report that Myleena dropped off for him about the translight drives.  Since he knew engineering, she always included the technical details of what they were doing, what they’d tried, their current theories and experimental projects to try to solve the power problem.  And he always studied those specs to see if he could help in any way possible, something that Myleena tolerated with patronizing magnanimity.

        Today’s report was a bit more cynical and negative than Myleena’s usual reports, but Jason could understand that.  They’d been stumped on this problem for over a year, and Myleena wasn’t used to being confronted by a problem she couldn’t solve.  He read through all the experiments they’d done over the last couple of takirs, trying to find some modulation in the power stream that would prevent the translight unit from feeding back into it.  They’d analyzed the feedback and felt that some kind of harmonic phase matching unit would do the job, but so far they’d had no luck.

        At the bottom of the report, along with the specs for the phase matching unit they’d built, Myleena had added a little blurb, you’re good at harmonic frequency-based tech, you fix this.

        It was the first time she’d ever asked for his help, even if it was little more than a sign of her growing frustration.  But, Jason felt that itch to make himself useful, something he often felt he was not sitting in a gilded chair and signing forms all day, so he settled into his workshop in the sub-basement with all the technical data and started studying what was new since the last time he’d looked at Project F’s work.

        Sure, it was arrogance that he thought he might be able to help the best experts in their fields and a CBIM, but it gave him something constructive to do.

        He was down there for so long that they came looking for him.  Jyslin wandered down—his workshop had security that only allowed Jyslin inside, not even the guards were allowed in this room—and leaned over his shoulder as he sat at his desk, studying the tech specs of their harmonic phase match unit.  Hey love, it’s nearly 29:00.  You do have something fairly important to do tomorrow, she sent playfully.

        Why do you think I’m down here, I’m trying to invent something that lets me travel forward in time to avoid the summit, he answered, which made her laugh softly and lean down, hugging him.

        My poor baby.  Wanna trade? she offered.  I’ll sit at a desk and play games in my interface while others talk, and you run the Paladins.

        No thank you, Jason snorted audibly.

        What are you doing, anyway?

        Looking over the latest report from Project F, he answered.  Myli’s really getting frustrated.  She even asked me for help.

        That’s desperation, not frustration, she teased, patting his belly teasingly.  Exactly what’s got them stumped?  I haven’t really paid much attention.

        It’s the same problem, the translight stage of the drive feeds back a fatal quantum anomaly into the power system when it activates when the engine’s in hyperspace, which tends to make the conduit explode.  They’ve tried all kinds of things to get around it, but nothing works.

        That’s what this is? she asked, pointing at the hologram of the harmonic phase unit.

        It’s their latest attempt, it’s supposed to be a filter of sorts that blocks the translight stage from feeding back into the power system, but it doesn’t work

        So, the translight stage makes the plasma conduit explode?

        Yup.

        Then it sounds like we need better plasma conduit, she sent cheekily.  She laughed when he reached back and slapped her on the hip and butt very gently, then she kissed him on the cheek.  I’m going to go get ready for bed, love.  Don’t leave me up there alone for long.

        Jason glanced at her as she padded back out, admiring her naked butt, but then went back to studying the unit…but her words stuck with him.  He went back and researched all their work so far, and he found that none of them, not even Cybi, had studied indepth why the anomaly was making the conduit fail.  They had technical reports about it, about how the anomaly was disrupting the molecular bonds in the silicon that formed the conduit and causing it to decay, and that allowed the metaphased plasma inside it to explode violently when it lost containment, which was the other half of what the anomaly was doing.  It was disrupting the integrity of the conduit while making the plasma unstable enough to react explosively with the silicon conduit.  But they hadn’t extensively studied the root cause.

        It had to have a cause.  When plasma flowed through silicon conduit, it had an effect known as the tempering effect, which caused the silicon conduit to harden beyond its norms.  It was a basic part of plasma physics, the fact that an energized conduit was harder and more resilient than normal, due to the effect the plasma had on the silicon’s molecular structure, energetically reinforcing its molecular bonds and making them harder to break.  It wasn’t a dramatic increase, it didn’t turn the silicon into something as hard as carbidium or Adamantium, but it did make it markedly harder to break or bend while energized, and was one of the reasons why silicon was used for conduit over something like titanium.  The anomaly seemed to be acting opposite the tempering effect, either canceling it or causing it to work in reverse, making the plasma weaken the molecular bonds of the conduit instead of strengthen it.

        He was up most of the night studying and researching the basic theories of the tempering effect, trying to understand it so he could understand why the quantum anomaly was working against it.  He read that the effect wasn’t limited to just silicon, that several crystalline minerals and metals were also tempered by flowing plasma, but pure silicon had the strongest tempering.  That made it a very cheap, replicatable material to use to make conduit that also made it very resilient.  Carbon atoms in either an interwoven nanotube structure or tetrahedral crystal structure—pure diamond—would be viable options with natural strength combining with the tempering effect to product equally sturdy conduit, but it was not easy to replicate carbon in either form, and it was also extremely difficult to cleanly unanneal and anneal either due to the way the atoms bonded with each other. It was far easier and cheaper to use silicon, since it naturally formed a much more annealer-friendly planar crystalline structure, and that made it ideal for conduit.

        He stayed up so long that he was groggy the next morning when Seido woke him up.  He dressed in his formal robes with his mind still on the research he’d done the night before, and he wasn’t much of a conversationalist for the other rulers when they all met in the Hall of Peace, but only long enough to board transports to take them up to Kosigi, quite a procession of luxury skimmers surrounded by Wolf fighters, frigates, and combat corvettes.  He didn’t pay the demonstration much mind, as Myleena explained the basics of how a diffuser operated via hologram from the engineering deck of the cruiser Aravalo, then the rulers got to see the diffuser do its job, when the heavy cruiser Jefferson fired a heavy salvo of Torsion bolts at the cruiser.  The searing red lines dimmed the instant they hit the diffusion effect, then petered out some 30 shakra from the outer hull of the cruiser.  She then had the heavy cruiser use its shockwave generator in close proximity to the cruiser, and the red distortion effect of the generator, its visible effect, also dimmed out and then vanished the closer it got to the cruiser’s hull.  He barely paid any attention at all through the demonstration, and even less attention during the briefing Dellin conducted…after all, he already knew everything Dellin was reporting to the rest of the council.  And as soon as the day’s meetings were over, he rushed right back home and straight to his workshop, not even changing out of his formal robes, and continued his research.

        By sunset, he’d thoroughly researched the topic, and felt he had sufficient understanding of the tempering effect to understand what was going on from that angle when the translight drive fed back into the power system.  The quantum anomaly was canceling the tempering effect instead of overwhelming it, and from the exhaustive study Myleena had done, it was introducing a fatal molecular decay into the silicon, disrupting its molecular bonds.  He ran a few sims of possible replacement conduit materials to see if there was any other material they might be able to use, some material that would have the physical durability to carry double-metaphased plasma without molecular decay and would still physically fit, be the same size as silicon conduit.

        And nothing even came close.  They used silicon for a reason, after all, and no doubt Myleena had already done what he’d done, quite a while ago.  She had investigated alternatives, and looking for a new conduit material was most likely one of them.  Myleena was very thorough.

        So, if silicon was the only answer, then perhaps the trick here would be to find some way to super-charge the tempering effect so it overcame the quantum anomaly.

        There had been some research into the subject, quite a bit of it, and Jason spent most of the evening looking through the many studies on the tempering effect and the theories and practical experiments to increase or enhance it.  Checking the Academy also brought him some extra-Confederation work on the subject, mainly from the Ruu, one of the non-classified research topics they’d uploaded to the Academy mainframe.  One Ruu, Scientist XVZ, had tried to make armor out of silicon using the tempering effect, something he called Interphasic Powered Armor.  He’d—no wait, it was a female, so she’d—managed to significantly increase the tempering effect, and the result was a paper-thin sheet of silicon that was as hard as titanium so long as power was applied to it.  That didn’t really make it all that useful as practical armor, but it did increase the tempering effect by nearly 1,850%.  That made the silicon have the same hardness as low-grade carbidium, and that was pretty decent for what was effectively a piece of glass.

        Jason plugged in Scientist XVZ’s interphased plasma waveform into his sims for the conduit experiment he was running, and noticed that the conduit increased its tempering effect by 437%...but that wasn’t enough to make it stand up to the quantum decay. It did slow down the catastrophic failure timeline of the conduit by nearly 14 seconds, though.  That was progress.

        It was too bad that silicon only had one phased state.  If it was multiphasic, the quantum effect of the anomaly would be countered much more by the tempering effect if it was harmonized—

        It was like lights popping in his skull.

        What if he used this interphasic tempering augment on multiphasic material, and tuned the interphasic waveform to create a harmonic based on the natural atomic frequency of silicon?  It wasn’t that hard to multiphase elemental matter, depending on its chemical makeup.  Silicon was one of those elements that could be multiphased without much real effort, turning it from a single phase material to a multiphased material.  In a way, that was one of the effects the tempering effect had on silicon, turned its interior into a multiphased material that prevented metaphased plasma from escaping from it.  After all, if it didn’t have that effect, the silicon conduit would only contain the plasma that matched its phased state.  But what Jason was looking at was multiphasing the entire conduit, which would amplify the tempering effect created by the harmonic interphasic waveform.  Each phased state of the silicon would reinforce every other phased state due to the interphasic reinforcement, creating a whole greater than the sum of its parts, and the interphased waveform would couple all phased states back into the ground state, turning the mutiphasic material into an unphased material when it came to anything that was not itself multiphased.  It would exist as both a phased and unphased material at the same time, which would contain the metaphased plasma while also preventing multiphasic bleed into the unphased anchors and connectors that connected it to the exchanger and the engine housing.

        That was the big difference between multiphasic and interphasic.  Multiphasic matter and energy existed in multiple phased states simultaneously, but interphasic material and energy existed in one phased state that could interact with any other phased state, even if it was interacting with different phased states at the same time.  Terynium was an excellent example of interphasic matter, as it existed as a real object that could interact with any object or energy, even if it was a in state of quantum phase.  Interphasing a multiphasic material, if done correctly, created a cascading harmonic effect where all quantum states of a multiphased material were connected by the interphasic effect, both existing in all phases and only one phase at the same time, focusing all potential energy of a multiphased material into a single phased state that yielded a harmonic energy output greater than the derived sum of the individual phases that made it up, yet that single phased state existed as if it were in all quantum phases simultaneously.  It was effectively taking the most basic of math problems, 1+1, and making it equal 3, but it equalled 2 in every other case except when it equalled 3.

        It was one of those cute little paradoxes in quantum physics that made most physicists alcoholics.

        By interphasing a multiphased silicon conduit at a composite harmonic frequency matching silicon’s atomic frequency, it would theoretically supercharge the tempering effect to such a degree that it would overcome the quantum decay caused by the engines.  Each phase of the silicon would be focused into an interphased singular phase that would interact with each discrete quantum state as if it only existed in that state, yet would also exist coupled to the ground state, the state of “reality” expressed in multiphasic quantum mechanic equations as state zero, or the unmodified quantum constant.  And each discrete quantum phase would be harmonically synchronized to the ground state, which would produce a composite energy output greater than the sums of the discrete phases.  That should counter the quantum effect that was causing the flowing plasma to decay the conduit, and should temper the conduit into something with the same hardness factor as carbidium to boot.

        He sat up in his chair and changed the parameters of his simulation, changing the silicon into a multiphasic material and then altering the interphasic waveform composite frequency to a compound harmonic based on the molecular frequency of silicon, then ran it again.

        The conduit maintained its integrity.  In fact, it was at 483% of its normal temperance factor even while the translight drive was feeding back into it.  The multiphasic silicon was not as affected by the quantum anomaly as single phase silicon was, and the interphasic tempering effect was canceling out the effect that it had.  That was the answer, multiphasing the silicon and reinforcing it with an external harmonic interphasic field.  That gave the silicon the integrity to stand up to the quantum decay anomaly.

        At least in computer simulations.  There was only one way to find out if it worked in reality, and that was to test it.

        He sat back and stared at the simulation results, almost disbelieving, then he jumped out of his chair and almost ran upstairs.  He went straight to the top floor and to his bedroom, and he literally threw half a drawer’s worth of clothes on the floor hunting for a pair of jeans.  Jyslin wandered in holding Julia in her arms.  It’s about time you came out of the basement.  What are you doing? she asked, giving him a curious look.

        I’ll explain later, he replied hurriedly, almost scattered, trying to focus on the task of getting out of his formal robes even as he ordered the automated factory at the Shimmer Dome to build him a piece of custom equipment, warned Aya he needed to go to Skeyai Island, activated his skimmer and had it begin preflight, and warned the Marines over on the island he was coming over and would be entering the research facility.  She watched as he nearly tore his formal robes struggling out of them, then putting on a pair of jeans and a tee shirt and sliding his feet into a pair of Terran canvas dock shoes.

        My, it must be pretty important.

        Sorta.  No offense love, but don’t break my line of thought right now, he told her.  If I lose this, it may take me weeks to figure it out again.

        You should back it up directly to your gestalt.

        Good idea, he nodded, and dumped most of his current organic short-term memory into his gestalt’s memory, backing everything up.  Done, and thanks for the assist, love, he said as he stood up.  Aya, I’m leaving!  And no, you can’t come, I’m going to Skeyai Island!

        The guards will sit on the landing pad while you’re inside, she answered.  With the other rulers on the island, you go nowhere without escort, Jason.  They’ll meet you at your skimmer when you’re ready to go.

        Then get them out there, I’m leaving right now, he answered.

        Shen and Ryn got into the skimmer with him, and Dera and Suri were lifting up into the two Wolf fighters on the pad as he closed the hatch.  Where are we going, Jason? Shen asked.

        The Shimmer dome first, then Project F, he answered.

        I thought they were taking the summit off.

        They are, I’m testing something Myli sent me, and the equipment is there.

        Oh.  Alright, she nodded.  Engines are online, we’re ready to take off.

        We’re leaving, girls, Jason sent.  Ready?

        We’re ready to go, Jason, Dera answered.

        After a brief stop at the Shimmer Dome to pick up the piece of equipment he ordered, a relatively simple interphasic waveform generator, something the automated factory attached to 3D could build in about 20 minutes, he was on the way to Skeyai Island.  He continued to work on the simulation in his gestalt as Shen flew, having downloaded all of it into his gestalt and nearly taking up all its memory, and sim after sim produced consistent results.  The external reinforcement by an interphased plasma waveform meant to incite the multiphased silicon into an augmented tempered state kept the conduit in one piece, and that allowed sufficient power to flow through the conduit to keep the translight stage of the drive in operation.  He was about 70 kathra from the island when he got a rather terse commune from Myleena.  [Cybi just told me that you’re heading to the facility.  What for?] she demanded.  [Not even you can just walk in there without my authorization, babes.  That’s my project.]

        [I’m doing what you told me to do, Myli,] he replied, a bit smugly.

        [And what did I tell you to do?]

        [Fix it myself,] he declared.  [If this works, I’ll call you to the warehouse so you can doublecheck my work and my math.]

        [If what works?]

        [If it works, you’ll find out.  If it doesn’t, you’ll read the failure report, maybe it’ll help you guys out,] he replied.

        [Bull shit. I’m on the way over right now.  I don’t want you fucking with anything over there.]

        He had a head start on her.  The Marines standing guard on the island helped him cart his piece of equipment to the warehouse, but they couldn’t follow him inside.  He carted it in on a hoverplatform and went over to what he was after, and that was the experimental unit they’d built holding a frigate-sized engine and power system that was something of a practical simulation.  They simulated the actual effects of the drive’s operation on external equipment without actually sending the warehouse into hyperspace, it was the controlled experimental unit they used to test theories without having to go do it on the Trailblazer.  He had his interphasic unit halfway installed by the time Myleena arrived, storming into the warehouse wearing nothing but a pair of shorts.  Alright, what the fuck are you doing? she demanded.

        Testing a possible fix, he answered.  You told me to use what I know about multiphasic harmonic frequency-based tech, and that’s exactly what I did.

        What, seriously?  You think you fixed it?

        I have something that might work, something based on some Ruu scientific research I found in the Academy mainframe, he answered.  Even if it doesn’t work, it might help your team by giving them a new direction to try.

        Well, what does it do?

        It reinforces the conduit to make it stand up to the quantum decay caused by the anomaly, he replied.  It doesn’t stop the anomaly, it just shores up the conduit so it can stand up to it.  It’s not a perfect fix since the anomaly is still there, but at least with this fix, we might be able to get the drives to actually work long enough to study them in operation, and maybe fix the problem permanently down the line.

        She looked wildly curious as she reached him in the experiment area.  What research?

        Some Ruu tried to build armor based on the tempering effect, he replied.

        I’ve seen like fifty different studies on that, she answered dismissively as she helped him bolt his unit down.  None of them can produce a tempering effect strong enough to make silicon any stronger than titanium.

        Well, this Ruu managed to come up with a process that produced silicon almost as strong as low-grade carbidium, he answered.  By combining her research with multiphasing the molecular structure of the entire conduit and introducing a harmonic interphased waveform based on the molecular frequency of silicon, it produces a hybrid tempering effect strong enough for the conduit to maintain its integrity while the drive’s operating…at least in sims.  We’ll test it out on this unit, and if it pans out, we can try it on the Trailblazer.

        She gave him a long look, then nodded.  Good plan, she agreed.  And you have the specs?  I’m curious.

        It’s all in my gestalt.  I’ll dump it to the mainframe here, I doubt your gestalt has the storage to hold it all. He did so, dropping all his research into the Project F mainframe, and the two of them hooked up his device to the 12 shakra long conduit running from the exchanger to the dummy drive unit, which required wrapping it in a sleeve that would multiphase the conduit while the emitters set at precise distances from each other would inject the interphased waveform into the silicon’s surface.  Alright, it’s ready to go.  Let’s fire up the drive unit and see what happens…at least after we get behind the blast shield, he added wryly.  They retreated to safety, behind a transparent titanium shield behind a hard shield, then they put on dark visors, since double metaphased plasma was brilliantly bright when exposed to air, like looking at a welding arc

        Alright, fire it up, Myleena ordered, and Jason ordered the computer to activate the test unit.

        They watched a flat hologram that showed that in the simulation, the translight drive stage of the unit activated, seemed to sputter a little, then became stable.

        It was working.

        Holy shit! Myleena’s sending rampaged across the island.  It’s fuckin’ working! It’s WORKING!  She grabbed Jason and nearly broke his ribs giving him a crushing hug, then kissed him on the mouth so hard she nearly chipped his front tooth.  Trelle’s garland, your fix is working, babes!  Upload the specs for that unit to Cybi, have her build one for the Trailblazer fucking now!  I’m calling in everyone in Project F right now!  I can’t believe this, it’s working!  IT’S WORKING!!!!! She finished with enough power to give Jason a headache, and no doubt send the guards outside to their knees.

        Myleena got loud when she was excited.

        Jason completely forgot about the summit, because this was way more important.  Myleena called in the entire project team, Jason did a briefing explaining his idea in detail, making sure to give Scientist XVZ her due as the original source of the interphasic waveform, and then they went over the simulator with a fine tooth comb, studying everything while it was operating, searching for the tiniest hint that the real engine would behave differently from the simulation model.  Some time later, he wasn’t sure how long, they all went up to Kosigi to the ultra-top secret dock holding the experimental ship Trailblazer, and they installed his upgrades to the drive unit and conduit leading to it.

        Then came the ultimate test.  Jason was forced off the ship while everyone else on the team stayed on it, and they brought the ship out of its enclosed drydock, a giant box floating in space.  The ship looked like a standard destroyer, so it attracted no real attention outside of the fact that it had just emerged from a top secret dock…but just a moment later, it was just another ship moving around inside Kosigi.  Jason went to the ops center and took over one of the stations, staying in constant contact with Myleena while all five CBIMs hovered around his chair.  “Alright, you’re cleared out to jump distance, Myli,” Jason told her himself over BG1.  “Be damn careful, hon.  If you go too far out and the drive fails, you may be looking at a three month wait while we get ships out there to rescue you.”

        “That’s why we have a year’s worth of field rations and two food replicators on this thing, Jayce,” she replied, a hologram over her over the console in front of him.  “And it’s why this ship has an automated factory installed as well as enough spare parts for us to rebuild the engine three times over.  Because of that danger.”

        “That’s only smart,” Jason nodded as the ship headed for the smaller doors at dock speed.  “You’re about fifty minutes from jump distance.”

        “I know.  It’ll be the longest fifty minutes of my life.”

        Jason laughed.  “You’ll live, hon,” he told her as the ship entered the tunnel to get outside.  “Though, you could go mode one and get to jump distance in a matter of seconds.”

        “As tempting as that sounds, let’s use the drive in sublight mode so we can study the engine output and see if we see anything out of the ordinary.  That’ll give us a good baseline for the actual test.”

        “You’re the one in charge here, hon.”

        “Fuckin’ right I am,” she declared, which made him chuckle.

        The team had lots to do while they got out to jump distance, which was nearly twice as far out as a standard Karinne ship; they were taking absolutely no chances, and that included taking the ship so far out that it was well beyond the planet’s gravity well.  Jason studied the telemetry of the ship’s engines while it was operating, running on its translight drive in sublight mode, which was actually far more efficient from a power consumption point of view than running on its translation gravometric engines.  Translation engines were power hogs, and no amount of tinkering from Myleena had made them any less so.  The translight engines in sublight mode weren’t nearly as fast or maneuverable as the gravometric engines, so they wouldn’t be used in combat situations, but for something like cruising out to get to jump distance, it was more efficient to use the translight drive.

        But that was the slow way.  By using the translight drive in FTL mode, translight mode in normal space, she could have gotten the ship out to her planned jump distance in 3.2 seconds.  Myleena had coined translight FTL mode in normal space mode one and FTL in hyperspace mode three  Running under standard hyperspace jump engines without FTL was mode two, and operating under standard gravometric translation engines was mode zero, or base mode that served as the reference point for all other modes

        “And now the moment of truth,” Cybi said soberly, putting her hand on Jason’s shoulder.

        “Just about,” Jason agreed.  “Alright, Myli, you have clearance to jump.  Make it very short.”

        “We’re going for a ten second jump in mode three,” she told him.

        “That’s a two month trip to come get you,” he warned.  “That’s deep into the Flat Space Effect.”

        “We know,” she winked.  “But if anyone’s gonna risk a two month forced vacation while waiting for rescue, it’s us, Jayce.  We built it, we take the risk,” she declared.  “Emia, all stop.  Everyone prepare for jump!” she barked.  “Report jump readiness directly to the conn!”

        Jason listened as every observation post, watching every aspect of the ship’s drives, reported that they were ready, and Myleena took in a deep breath and exhaled.  “Alright, Emia, set final coordinates, lock them in, then give us a countdown of ten seconds.  Jump on countdown zero,” she ordered.

        “Aye, Myli.  Jump solution is plotted and locked.  Secondary nav computer agrees, the solution is green.  The solution is green,” she said, and the camera panned over to the Shio, showing her from behind at the navigation station.  “Translight drive is showing green across the board.  Power curve is nominal.  We are prepared to jump, Myli.”

        “Begin countdown,” Myleena ordered.

        “Jump engines are in jump mode, translight drive is on standby.  Ten.  Nine.  Eight,” she began to count, and Jason’s eyes locked on the engine telemetry being fed to his station from the Trailblazer, and everything looked like it was supposed to.  “Two.  One.  Jump!”

        Jason watched from another camera as the Trailblazer vanished in a shimmering burst of white light, which was much different from a standard jump engine.  His eyes snapped back to the telemetry, and he saw all the power distribution graphs flickering and shimmering right along the projected output lines behind them. The conduit fix was holding.  It was holding!  The drive was working!  He saw on his map, watched the Trailblazer absolutely rocket away from Karis, like a bullet fired from a gun, exiting the galaxy in under a second and going out into intergalactic space.

        Ten seconds later, the ship stopped moving, and it was nearly three months away from the edge of the galaxy by standard jump engines.  By doing some quick calculations, he saw that the ship had gone even further than their math suggested that it would.  It was even faster in practice than it was in theory!  He redid all the math they had on it and saw that the ship could cross the entire galaxy in about 21 seconds, and with this new mathematical formula, it could cross over to Andromeda in about 5.1 minutes, give or take a few seconds.  Five minutes to go from Karis to the edge of Andromeda.  Five minutes.

        Holy god.  What were they building here?  It seemed almost insane that anything could go that fast!

        “Myleena, report,” Cybi called.  “Report.”

        “Sec, we’re checking things over, and I see the Flat Space Effect is fucking with our comm.  Comm, run our transmission through a temporal filter,” she ordered, her voice and movements a little off due to the Flat Space Effect.  Even just ten seconds outside the galaxy was speeding up time for her as Jason observed it, enough to need to have the ship’s incoming signal go through a temporal filter, slowing it down until it seemed normal.  To her, Jason’s voice would almost sound like an old fashioned 45RPM vinyl record playing at 33RPM.  “Okay, we’ll have a short delay between our comms, Kosigi, we’re filtering for time dilation.  But we’re here, guys, we’re here!  The drive worked!  Emia, report!”

        “The nav computer is recalculating, Myli, we’re not where we’re supposed to be,” she replied.

        “Well, where the hell are we then?” she demanded.

        “We’re further than our planned jump,” she replied.  “Ummm, getting it now.  We’re 37,530 light years past our planned arrival point.  The engines are even faster than we thought they were, Myli.  We overshot our projected arrival point by a considerable distance.”

        “What?  Trelle’s holy nipples, that’s amazing!” she blurted.  “I’m glad we aimed it out here, we might have jumped back into normal space inside a star or something if we’d gone inter-galactic!” she laughed.

        “You’d better not try jumping back into the galaxy in mode three, Myli,” Jason warned.  “In fact, you’d better jump sorta close and then come back in under mode two.”

        “Amen to that, babes, we can’t rely on pinpoint nav until we have all this figured out,” she agreed, looking at him through the hologram and nodding.  “Emia, start building an algorithm for the ship’s nav to run in mode three.  Astrocartography, figure out how much Flat Space delay we’re dealing with here.  Mallik, where’s that status report!  Let’s take the engines offline and go over them!”

        “Sounds like we’re out of the loop until you finish,” Jason told her.  “We’ll be on standby until you finish the inspection, hon.  Call in when you have something to report.”

        “Time dilation is speeding us up by about 18% compared to Karis time, Myli,” Jason heard someone call.

        “You got it, babes,” Myleena told him.  “I guess that means you can go to the summit, like you were supposed to,” she grinned.

        “Fuck no, I’m not leaving this console until you’re safely back in Kosigi.  They’re not talking about anything I care about anyway.”

        “I’m sitting in for him,” Cyra said.  “They’re a bit concerned about him not being there, because I told them that he’s dealing with an emergency.  They theorize it must truly be a big emergency for him to not show up to the summit he’s hosting.  Only Dahnai really suspects it’s anything but what I say it is.”

        “That sounds like a great excuse to use for every summit,” Jason mused, and Myleena laughed when Cybi lightly slapped him on the back of the head, making him flinch forward.

        It took the team three hours to inspect the engines—though for Jason and Kosigi, it was actually only 2 hours 39 minutes due to exaggerated time dilation caused by the Flat Space Effect—and when they were done, they executed six different two second jumps in translight mode, mainly to calibrate the nav computer to the new algorithm.  The Flat Space Effect was the reason they were having so much trouble, since the distances kept changing with each jump, and that played hell with a nav computer that didn’t take the idea that the distances in its database weren’t fixed into account.  Each jump got the computer closer and closer to landing them on the right spot, and on the sixth jump, they landed exactly where the computer aimed them.  But that was still not enough to take risks, so Myleena jumped them close to the edge of the galaxy and then tested the standard jump engines by undertaking an hour long jump back to Karis.

        Those tests showed something else that was quite interesting.  The exaggeration of time dilation in three dimensional space caused by the Flat Space Effect was being inherited by the ship when it jumped from flat space, speeding up time for the ship while it was in transit.  The ship inherited all physical properties that it possessed at the instant it entered the translight state and were locked in as immutable constants, including the speed of time.  He did some calculations, and found that the temporal effect very nearly offset the increased distances the ship had to travel due to the increase in relative distance to produce a travel time when viewed from outside that was almost identical to the time it would take to travel if the ship had entered the translight state within the galactic gravity well.  But that was only to him, being on Karis and watching from outside Myleena’s temporal frame.  For the crew of the ship, it would take them much longer to travel, because time was subjective, it was moving faster for the ship crew than it was for Jason.  That was…almost eerie in its proportionality.  What it meant from a practical point of view was that a ship that dropped into normal space deep in flat space was going to travel much further to get back to the galaxy, but since the ship would be in a much faster temporal frame, the perceived time it would take to make the trip was almost the same as if it was still in the galaxy.  It would be traveling a much greater distance, but doing it in a temporal frame where, for example, ten seconds of their time passed for every second of “real” time for someone observing the effect from outside.  A journey for the crew that might be six hours was only going to take maybe fifty minutes to someone at Karis, but it wouldn’t make the journey prohibitively long for either the crew in the ship or those watching it from outside.

        And they could easily mitigate the effect by having the ship drop back into normal space at regular short intervals to inherit a new “snapshot” of relative distance that was much shorter, once the ship got out of the deepest of flat space.  Instead of a single six hour cruise, Jason calculated that if the ship made a series of ten jumps at five minutes each, the ship would travel the same distance in a much shorter time, at least subjectively.  It was effectively the same elapsed time to Jason as an outside observer, but it was a five hour, ten minute reduction in the travel time for the ship crew.  But Jason was basically just kicking around numbers.  Myleena could easily find a mathematical model that would dictate the number of jumps at the exact times required to shorten both the distance and the elapsed travel time to the minimum by just running a few simulations.

        Still, that was kind of neat, from a geeky physicist’s point of view, that a series of short hops was much faster and much less distance traveled than a non-stop cruise.

        Physics in action.

        Jason stayed right in the ops center almost all the time, and left only to get on a zip ship and race out to the Trailblazer as it pulled into the drydock.  He entered the bay even as the ship was being locked down by the dock’s clamps, completely immobilizing it, and all but ran down to engineering, where everyone else was.  “Alright, let’s get the drive taken apart and do the internal inspection!” Myleena shouted from the control console.  “Get the microscopes in here!  We’re stripping it all the way down, people, so don’t lose any parts!”

        [Cybi, I think we can clue in at least one person.  If the summit’s in recess, get Zaa up here.  She needs to see this.]

        [It’s still in session, Jason, and they’re staying an extra day to finish up some loose ends,] Cybi answered.  [I’ll inform the Denmother to come to Kosigi immediately after the conference ends.  She’s wearing a memory band.]

        [Good.] Alright, cousin, where can I help out the most? he asked Myleena.

        You can help with the jump drive stage, you’re familiar with it, she answered.  We’re completely dismantling the drive, all the way down to the boards, babes.  Complete disassembly and inspection, then we put it back together.

        Got it.  I’ll  go grab some tools.

        About four hours later, Zaa arrived, alone.  She walked into engineering to see the 87 members of Project F, researchers and machinists who did a lot of the actual building, moving through an engineering section that had pieces and parts laying all over the place, even laid out on the floor, and they were meticulously inspecting every single piece, even spacers in the drive housing.  “And what is this important news, cousin?  So important that you have failed to show up at your own summit?” she asked.

        “This is the guts of the translight drive, Denmother,” Jason told her from where he was inspecting a biogenic board at a work station.  “About nine hours ago, we executed our first successful test jump.”

        Her eyes widened.  “Truly?  You got it working?”

        “We got it working, Denmother,” Myleena said with a bright, almost ear-swallowing grin.  “We jumped it a total of eight times, and now we’re inspecting the drive unit piece by piece to ensure there was no hidden damage in the test.  Once we have it reassembled, we’ll conduct our first long distance jump to test the drive’s ability to operate over time.”

        “That is—that is outstanding news!” she said with an explosive sigh.

        “So, you think this was important enough for me to blow off the council meeting?” Jason asked lightly, which made Zaa chuckle.

        “I dare say, at least for you, cousin,” she replied.  “Do you have a timetable to putting them in production yet?”

        “Not yet, Denmother, we haven’t even really started our testing,” Myleena answered.  “But we took a big step today.  A really, really big step.”

        Zaa agreed with a nod.

        “Babes, it’s time to pull 3D into this,” Myleena said.  “We have a second engine built, one we built for a heavy cruiser, and your fix means we don’t have to change the design.  I want them to install it, that way if this ship fails that ship can come get us.  We also need to test engines built for different ship sizes, to see if different ship sizes and masses affect the drive’s operating characteristics, as well as the ability of a ship to tow something external in translight mode.  You need to talk to Dellin and see if there’s a ship out there that only needs to have the engine installed and then commandeer it, then have 3D install the second drive in it.”

        “The engines are installed while the ship’s still being built, when it’s easy to get the pieces in there,” Jason told her.  “But I know for a fact there’s over a dozen finished heavy cruisers just sitting in reserve.  We can steal one of them, and 3D and Naval Engineering will just remove the old drive and install the new one.  It should take them about eight or nine days.  They’ll have to do some jerry-rigging to get the engines in there.”

        “Cybi has an installation procedure worked up, they just have to follow it,” Myleena told him.  “It tells them step by step what they have to move to get the engines in, where to move it to, and how to rearrange engineering to make everything work.”

        “Well, that’ll make it easier,” Jason chuckled.  “And I’ll oversee that project, that way I’m right there to see how it’s done.”

        “Works for me, gets you out of my hair,” Myleena grinned.

        “I will summon our best engineers from our navy to assist, so they might understand the procedure.  It will help when it comes time to install these drives on Kimdori ships,” Zaa stated.

        “They have the clearance,” Jason nodded.  “I’ll get things started.  Cybi, get 3D and the top echelon of Naval Engineering with sufficient clearance assembled in the main conference room up here in Kosigi, like now,” he ordered as he put down his tool.  “Denmother, get those engineers to Kosigi, I’ll give everyone a briefing on what we’re doing when they get here.”

        “They will be on their way in moments,” Zaa declared, touching her memory band, no doubt issuing the order.

        “Where’s the engine at, Myli?  I’ll have it brought up here,” Jason said.

        “It’s in the storage facility on the island,” she answered.  “It takes up nearly the whole damn building.”

        Jason laughed.  “Ship engines are big, silly,” he told her.  “I’ll have a freighter go down and get it.  Just do me a favor and tell the guards down there they’re allowed to take it.  I don’t want them shooting at the freighter.”

        “No sweat, I’ll commune that down right now.”

        Two hours later, Jason walked into a large conference room holding the entirety of 3D not working on Project F, three dozen of the top engineers in Naval Engineering, and about thirty Kimdori, so many people that about ten of them had to stand along the walls.  “Good evening, guys,” he called as he came in.  “It’s about time you got up here.”

        “What’s going on, Jayce?” Tom asked.

       “It’s time for you to be brought into Project F,” he declared, which caused some big grins to bloom across the room, at least among 3D.  The Naval Engineering people hadn’t even heard of Project F, so they looked more curious than enthusiastic.  “This takes precedence even over finishing the diffuser fixes.  We’ll get back to those once you guys finish this.”

        “You mean we get to know what’s going on now?” Jenny called.

        “Yes, and when I’m done explaining it, you’ll understand why we’ve kept it a secret,” he answered as Cybi and Cynna manifested their holograms in the conference room.  Jason brought up several holograms showing charts and basic diagrams and explained the translight theory to them, then explained Myleena’s expanded theory about translight operation in hyperspace.  When he finished that, he ended the holograms and looked at them.  “For over a year, we’ve been trying to build a new engine, a translight drive, that utilizes this science.  Earlier today, we had our first successful test,” he declared, which made quite a few eyes widen.  “And with the engine finally working, now you’re being brought in to expand our testing.  We’re going to be installing a prototype translight drive into a heavy cruiser, taking the old engine out and putting the new one in.  That’s what all of you are here to do.”

        “Hold on, Jayce, just how fast is this thing?  You didn’t specifically say,” Tom called.

        “With a translight drive, we could reach Andromeda in a little over five minutes,” he answered, which made several people gasp.  “We can cross in five minutes what it took the Syndicate and Consortium five years.  I think every person in this room can see the tactical advantage that will give us.”

        Bo laughed.  “We can take the war to them!”

        “Exactly,” Jason answered.  “Locally, it will let KMS ships reach any part of the galaxy within twenty seconds once they’re at jump distance, and the translight drive will run at FTL speed in normal space, so they can get to jump distance in seconds,” he added.  “That’s almost like having a Stargate at every system in the entire galaxy.  We can respond to any attack, anywhere, so quickly that we can catch enemy fleets before they can even organize to cruise to a planet under sublight.  Needless to say, Myli and her team have been busting their asses for over a year on this, and now we’re finally to the point where we can bring you in.  The inventing is done, now we need to do the testing to develop a finalized design, so we can adapt this technology to the KMS and the Kimdori fleet, and do it fast.  And nobody can do it faster than the men and women in this room,” he said proudly.  “You guys represent our best engineers and technical minds, our 3D techs and the best of KMS Naval Engineering and Kimdori Engineering.  We’ll be installing the drive in a KMS heavy cruiser to test the installation procedure the CBIMs worked up, identify any problems our engineers may have doing the install, and once we have the drive installed, we’ll be doing some extensive testing with it along with the prototype destroyer.  Once they pass those tests, we generate a final design for the engine, start building them, and refit the KMS and Kimdori fleets to translight drive technology.”

        “Well, what the fuck are we sitting here for?” Jenny shouted as she stood up.  “Let’s get this party started!”  Most of 3D cheered her proclamation, and Jason had to laugh.

        “It’s gonna be some long hours, guys.  We need this drive installed fast, so we’ll be banging away at it until we’re done.  And when we do, you guys go right back to what you were doing.”

        “That’s like what we do every day, Jayce,” Bo snorted, which caused some laughter.

        “Alright then.  Tom, go set up the 3D dock to do the job, and you have blanket authority to get anything you need, just talk to Cynna and she’ll get it to the dock.  Tools, equipment, you name it.  I’ll go talk to Dellin and find a heavy cruiser for us to take.  The rest of you, go get things ready to roll.  Cynna has the data Myli prepared for us ready for you, she’ll brief you once you’re inside the dock.”

        “Where’s the engine?” Tom asked.

        “In a freighter outside the dock, waiting for us,” he answered.

        The install team rushed out of the conference room once he released them, heading for transports Cynna arranged to get them to the dock, and Jason went up to the ops center and tracked down Dellin.  “Jason, Cynna said you were looking for me,” he said in greeting.  “She said you need a ship?’

        Jason nodded.  “We need a heavy cruiser to test some prototype equipment we’re installing on it,” he answered.  “I  know there are several waiting to be commissioned.”

        “There are fifteen,” he answered.  “Do you have any preference?”

        “One that’s finished and operational is all we need,” he answered.

        “I can have one towed in right now.”

        “Do it,” he nodded.  “Have them tow it to the 3D drydock.”

        “It’ll be there in about half an hour.”

        “Outstanding,” Jason said.

        “This wouldn’t have anything to do with that experiment you were running in the ops center a couple of days ago?” Dellin asked curiously.

        “It has everything to do with it,” he answered.  “You’ll find out what it is tomorrow morning, Dellin.  I’ll be briefing the command staff about Project F then, and you’re part of the command staff.”

        “I have to say, I’ve been a bit curious about it since then,” he admitted.  “It’s not often you do a 3D experiment in my ops center.”

 

Chiira, 27 Kedaa, 4404, Faey Orthodox Calendar

Thursday, 17 May 2018 Terran Standard Calendar

Chiira, 27 Kedaa, year 1329 of the 97th Generation, Karinne Historical Reference Calendar

The White House, Karsa, Karis

 

        It had been a long night, and Jason had barely had any sleep for the last few days, so it was a pretty haggard-looking Jason Karinne that dragged his sleepy posterior into the command center.  All he’d had was a quick cat nap over the night, overseeing them bringing in the heavy cruiser and then going over the procedure Cybi wrote to make sure both he and everyone else understood exactly what they were doing.  And they were doing it at that moment, they’d already cut away some bulkheads and the outer hull of the ship to start carting out the engines piece by piece, which was the only way they were getting those pieces out.  They were too big to remove any other way than to literally cut away the side of the ship, and that meant cutting through the compressed Neutronium carapace hull, Neutronium and Adamantium bulkheads, datalines, pipes, conduits, everything that usually ran between the decks.  They’d bring in the new engines piece by piece through that hole, put the engine together, and reanneal the bulkheads and hull sections they removed and put the jigsaw puzzle back together.  Jason hadn’t shaved in four days or so and was still wearing the same tee and jeans he’d put on to go to Kosigi, so he both looked and smelled the way he felt, and everyone noticed.

        The command center held the upper command staff, his cabinet, and a very curious-looking Songa, who had been summoned to the meeting.  It was the first time she’d ever been in the military command center.

        “You look terrible, Jayce,” Myri accused.

        “I feel it at the moment,” he said, scrubbing a hand down his bearded face.  “I recorded a holo of me apologizing to the council for not being there just a few minutes ago, so I’m sure they’ll believe my story about a big house emergency.”

        Juma chuckled.  “You do look like you’ve been dealing with something,” she said.

        “That’s why I’m here,” he said as all five CBIMs and Coma manifested holograms into the command center.  “I’m here to brief you on something, something new.  Something game-changing that Myleena’s been working on for quite a while.”

        “Project F,” Myri blurted.

        “Project F,” Jason nodded.  “We’re expanding those in the loop to the necessary technicians and upper command staff, so you know what’s going on and don’t try to kill me or Myli over any outrageous demands we might make.”

        “So, what is Project F, Jayce?” Sioa asked.

        “Simply put, Sioa, it’s a new kind of engine, called a translight drive,” he answered, and Cybi put up some holograms over the central table, charts and diagrams depicting the translight theory, as well as some technical drawings of the external casing of the engine drive section.  “This drive operates similar to the Hrathari FTL drives that share the same name, but what makes this one revolutionary is it operates at FTL speeds in hyperspace.  It’s a two stage engine that incorporates both standard KMS hyperspace jump engines and the new translight drive engines, combining them to get a ship into an FTL translight state while in hyperspace, and that makes it go really, really, really fast.  Like you can’t even imagine how fast they are fast.  We had our first successful test of the engine a few days ago.  In ten seconds, it traveled nearly two months of continuous travel by standard hyperspace jump engine.”

        They all just stared at him.

        “I’m not kidding.  Using that test as a baseline, we calculated that this engine can go from Karis to any other part of the galaxy, even the far edge, in 19 seconds or less, and it can travel from Karis to the edge of Andromeda in five minutes, thirteen seconds.  I think I can say with some confidence that this new drive is revolutionary,” he said.

        “Just a little,” Juma breathed.  “Seriously?  Nineteen seconds?”

        “A little bit over 19, but we rounded down,” he answered.  “Going from one edge of the galaxy to the other, the longest possible distance, it would take the engine a little under 21 seconds.  And since the translight stage of the drive can run at FTL speed in normal space as well, it means that there won’t be long cruises out to get to jump distance.  Pop it into translight FTL mode, get to jump distance in seconds, then slow to jump speed and jump.  The engine is in prototype stage right now, and we had our first successful test just a few days ago.  We’re installing a second engine on a heavy cruiser for additional test data and to test out refitting a ship instead of installing the engines during construction the way we did on our prototype destroyer.  That’s what this briefing is about,” he told them.  “I want you all to understand what we’re doing so you don’t get pissy if me or Myleena asks you to do something for us, like tie up half the KMS by sending them to some remote system.  We’re going to be testing these engines, and we’ll need the help of the KMS to do it.”

        “Can you explain exactly how it works, Jason?” Navii asked.  “At least as much as you can for us non-engineers?”

        “Sure, Navii, everyone in this room has clearance.  Just remember that this is beyond top secret.  What I’m about to tell you does not get discussed outside of this room,” he warned.  He then explained the mechanics of how the engine worked for those like the command staff, who had a solid grasp of hyperspace physics but weren’t experts, explaining how the engine worked in two stages to get a ship into hyperspace and then into a translight state for FTL travel while in hyperspace.  “This is something that only the Kimdori and the Ruu could even build,” Jason said when he was done.  “The amount of power it takes to run it requires quantum-linked metaphased minimum, Ruu energy tech, and it takes a hardcore computer to handle the math to keep the drive in FTL mode while in hyperspace.  It took nearly half of the combined processing power of both Cybi and Cyra to solve the initial equations and develop an algorithm that less powerful computers can use to operate the drive,” he told them, which made Dellin whistle.  “I think only us, the Kimdori, the Ruu, and the Moridon could put a computer on a ship capable of governing a translight drive.  No other empire except the Kimdori and the Ruu has both the power generation technology and computer architecture necessary to make this thing work.  And since the others can’t use it, they don’t need to know about it.”

        “They’ll find out eventually, Jason,” Navii noted.

        “True, but I want them to find out about it on our schedule, not theirs.  So, ladies, gentlemen, that’s where we stand.  We just tested a new engine that will, literally, change the fundamental fabric of everything we know, everything we do, the very essence of who we are.  We just became the first known civilization in the universe to develop practical intergalactic travel.  I want everyone in this room to think about that.  Think about what it means, and think about the huge responsibility that was just put on all of our shoulders,” he said gravely.  “That first engine can let the ship it’s installed in reach Andromeda in five minutes.  But think locally.  It can reach the Magnum Dwarf Stellar Supercluster, the closest galactic formation outside the Milky Way, in four seconds, since it sits just off from the galactic rim just two sectors over from Karis.  It’s actually closer to us than the center of the galaxy is, and I think the Kimdori managed to get ships over there to explore it like a thousand years ago, I’m not sure.  It can reach Ilviros, the closest true galaxy, in fourteen seconds.  It can reach Sumlaki Axiom in 93 seconds.  It can reach Cygnus Proxima Ascending in two minutes.  It can reach the Melgonis Twins Galaxy A in three minutes, B in three minutes, six seconds.  That’s just a few of the galaxies on our side of the galactic cluster.  If you ladies and gentlemen aren’t familiar with galactic cartography, there are 86 galaxies in our cluster arranged in two groups.  Our galaxy is the center of one group with the galaxies over here more or less orbiting the Milky Way, and Andromeda is the center of the other.  They form a dumbell shape when you look at them on a stellar holo.  Now, consider this.  It can reach the Draco Moritan Galactic Formation in twenty three minutes.  Think about that.  It can reach the most distant galactic formation in our galactic cluster in twenty three minutes.

        “This is the precipice of a new age, ladies and gentlemen.  We have just entered the intergalactic age, and I can’t stress enough to each and every one of you just how much responsibility that fact puts on us.  This one little planet with its few billion people can reach out and kill people so far away that they can’t even fathom that we could even exist,” he said intensely.  “We can affect, for good or ill, the lives of every single living thing in our entire galactic cluster.  Eighty six galaxies, galactic formations, and stellar superclusters.  Hundreds of trillions of stars.  Hundreds of decatillions of planets.  An absolutely uncountable number of lives.  This engine gives us tremendous power, almost unfathomable power, and with that power comes tremendous responsibility to use it wisely, to not be the Consortium, or the Syndicate.  Now more than ever, the strength of the convictions of the House of Karinne are vitally important to us.  We must be who we claim to be, because now we can directly affect the lives of so many beings that I don’t think even Cybi could count them all.”  He looked around.  “And you think that’s enough responsibility?  Think again.  With this engine, we could reach any point in the Greater Evanis Galactic String inside a month.  If you’re not famliar with that, it’s the super-cluster of galaxies that we’re a part of arrayed in a long double-helix string formation across the universe, like two wires twisted together, or a strand of DNA.  A month of hyperspace travel is feasible for us, people, because of the advances to prevent jump shock and hyperspace operations.  That’s thousands of galaxies, people.  Can you even imagine how many star systems that puts within reach of us?  It’s a number I don’t think anyone in this room can rationally comprehend, except maybe the CBIMs.”

        They all gave him long, sober looks.  Nobody said or sent a word.

        “This isn’t just about an engine, ladies and gentlemen.  This is about morality.  And we’d better fucking be the people we claim to be, or we could end up being the greatest monsters ever released upon the entire fucking universe.”  He paused a few moments to let them think about that, then continued.  “We should have the second engine installed in the heavy cruiser in about seven days, and while we’re doing that, Myleena is going to be conducting tests with the prototype destroyer.  She’ll no doubt call in KMS assets to assist in the tests, and also most likely some Kimdori science vessels to gather additional data.  Once we have the second ship up and running, we’ll be doing testing using both of them, to test the operational parameters and capabilities of the engines, and find any design flaws or problems.  This is brand new tech, something none of us have ever used before, so we have to do the whole pod of kaba nuts.  We have to test the engines, define their operational limits, define their optimal operational conditions, determine if the engines adversely affect other ship systems, find out if other ship systems adversely affect the engines, find any weaknesses our crews will have to work around, and so on and so on.  We’re literally writing the specs for these engines with these tests, from top to bottom, so they’re going to be comprehensive and thorough.”

        “Now I see why I’m here,” Songa said.  “You’ll need complete medical observation of the crews doing the testing, to ensure the engines don’t pose a health hazard.  For all we know, this FTL translight state might itself be dangerous to the health of the crew if they’re exposed to it for extended periods of time.  Everything will need to be studied to make sure it’s medically safe.”

        “Exactly, dear,” Jason nodded.  “So you’ll need to organize it.  Remember, this is top secret, Songa.  Only assign doctors with clearance to work on the project.”

        “I’ll have a team assembled for this mission an hour after I get back to the annex,” she declared.  “And I’ll be heading it personally.  We’ll do our best to do our jobs without stepping on the toes of the research team.”

        “Does anyone have any questions?” Jason asked.

        “Nope.  This answers the only question I’ve had since you told me to set up that account,” Kumi declared.  “Now I know what’s been costing us so much money!”

        “I think it was worth it,” Myri chuckled, which earned her quite a few nods of agreement.

        “Groundbreaking tech is expensive, Kumi,” Jason told her.  Very expensive.”

        “Are we going to have these engines ready for production in enough time to get them installed while doing the diffuser refits?” Dellin asked.

        “I seriously doubt it,” he answered.  “We’re most likely still a good six months away from signing off on this, Dellin.  We have a lot of work to do before we certify it.  It’s not really going to do us any good in the upcoming Syndicate operation, but the engines will be mainstream by the time the Consortium colonizing force arrives.”

        “Bunvar, I think we need to talk about you stepping up those factory construction projects,” Trenirk told her.  “We’re going to need those additional factories up and running when these engines get certified.  I bet they’ll be even more complicated to build than jump engines, and that means it’ll take more factory production resources to build them.”

        “We’ll work out a schedule, Tren,” she nodded.  “We can get all the infrastructure ready beforehand so when the engines are ready for production, we can start cranking them out.”

        “That sounds like a good idea,” Jason nodded.  “But we can’t give you any specs until we’re close to certifying them, in the interests of security.”

        “Not a problem.  I’ll just assume that they have twice the number of parts as a standard jump engine and work by that assumption when I start organizing factory space,” Trenirk answered.  “And I’ll dedicate those facilities to engine production, the same way I do now for our jump engines.  They’re too specialized to retool for other work.”

        “That’ll work, Tren,” Jason agreed.  “But I can say that since we utilize current jump engine technology in the design, some of the parts are going to be the same.”

        “That’ll just let me devote even more resources to the new parts,” he said.  “And if you can get me a list of those identical parts, we can start producing them so we have plenty in stock when it comes time to build the engines.”

        “I’ll talk to Myli about sending you a list,” he answered.  “And they won’t go to waste, since we use them in our current engines.”

        “Yup.”

        “A dumb question, Jason, but will these new engines use the original engines in their design?  Are you just installing the new translight section of the drive and leaving the original jump engines intact?” Navii asked.

        “When it comes to the final design, I can’t answer that, Navii, it’ll depend on how Myli does the finalized specs,” he answered.  “It’s entirely possible that she finds a way to do just that, which would save us a ton of time and money doing the refits.  But as far as the engine we’re installing on the heavy cruiser goes, that’s an entirely new engine.  We’re taking out the old engine and replacing it with a new one.”

        “You should broach the idea with her,” Navii said.  “If it is in any way possible to simply incorporate a ship’s current engines into the new drive, that is the way it should be done.”

        “No promises, but we’ll discuss it,” he nodded.  “Anything else?”  When silence met him, he clapped his hands.  “Alright then.  I’ll head back up to Kosigi and get back to work.  I’ll keep all of you up to speed on things.”

        “Jason, dear, perhaps you should go take a shower before you go back to Kosigi?” Songa suggested.

        He laughed.  “That’s a pretty good idea.  And maybe a quick change of clothes,” he agreed, plucking at his lubricant-smeared tee shirt.

 

Vesta, 34 Kedaa, 4404, Faey Orthodox Calendar

Thursday, 24 May 2018 Terran Standard Calendar

Vesta, 34 Kedaa, year 1329 of the 97th Generation, Karinne Historical Reference Calendar

Kosigi Lunar Station, Karis

 

        It was a very tired but very happy team that watched the heavy cruiser, recently named the KMS Legion, slowly creep out of the 3D dock and out into the open space of Kosigi.  The ship showed no sign that a large piece of its hull had been cut away and then put back—which was not easy, since it was a compressed Neutronium carapace—and looked indistinguishable from any other heavy cruiser.

        But it was very different…and that difference was online.

        The new engines were up and running, and it was by them that it was moving, the ship creeping out using its gravometric engines and maneuvering pods, with Zora at the helm.  She was the only person on the ship—standard procedure for ships being moved by a pusher pilot—and had several zip ships and flying platforms following her out, filled with the techs that had done the installation.

        It had been some long, hard work to get the ship ready.  The 3D team, Naval Engineering, and Kimdori engineers had worked around the clock, some of them working 24 to 26 hours a day, to get the engine installed, and nobody had left the ship.  They’d bunked in the crew quarters, ate food shipped in for them in the mess hall, and all but dropped off the face of Karis for the duration of the project.

        Jason didn’t even want to see his inbox…and he knew Chirk was going to murder him when he came back to the office.  But, truth be told, he was much happier to work himself to exhaustion putting in the new engine than he was sitting at a desk and reading reports.

        But that was what he’d be going back to doing now that this was done.  Myleena would be taking over the ship, and they’d be doing some pretty thorough testing of it and the destroyer over the next few months, testing every aspect of it to determine the engine’s operational parameters and limits.  Once they thoroughly tested the engine, learned how hard they could push it and how much abuse it could take, they’d certify it, write up the operational specs, and start installing them on their ships.

        But they’d be testing more than these two ships.  To fully and completely test the drive design, Myleena had decided that they needed to test every ship class to see if a different sized drive or different sized ships changed the way the drive worked.  This was virgin territory for all of them, so they had to cover every single possible base.  Cybi had already designed engines for the other ship classes, and now Trenirk had factories working to build the prototypes.  They would test the drives in every class ship they had except for the Tianne and the command ships, since they couldn’t afford to take those off the board with the Syndicate coming, and use that data to finalize the design, write the technical specs for each size class the drive, and then put them into production.

        And that meant that Jason was again just a spectator watching Myleena play her game.  He’d enjoyed his vacation doing real engineering work, but the Syndicate less than a month away, and the business of war would now take over his time and attention.

        And nothing said that more than the fact that when he returned home later today, Aya’s wartime security protocols would be in effect.  That meant armor at all times off the strip and outside of his office, security escorts with him everywhere he went, corvettes would carry him around the planet and frigates would be carrying him out of the atmosphere, and the planet would be locked down, heavily restricting outsiders getting authorization to visit the planet.  Aya was putting them in place now so everyone had time to adjust to them before the real war began.

        He seriously had the notion that Aya masturbated at night while fantasizing over putting him under that kind of control.

        “Ain’t she a pretty thing?” Bo asked as he, Rook, Tom, and Jason stood on a platform not far from the dock, watching the ship creep out.  The three men all had scraggly beards, and all four of them were wearing dirty work coveralls.  They’d just finished putting the hull back together less than an hour ago, and Myleena had already activated the ship.  Jason arranged for a KMS heavy cruiser crew to man the vessel with Project F techs and Songa’s medical crew onboard to do the testing.  Captain Miya Foralle and the crew of her heavy cruiser, the Temeron, was standing by to take command of the ship as soon as Zora brought it to them at the loading dock, where ships were docked so crews could board and supplies brought on.  The ship would need a real crew since it was a KMS ship, with all the standard KMS equipment, where the Trailblazer was just a destroyer hull filled with the drive and enough equipment to do their testing.  It wasn’t a true KMS military vessel, but they were going to fix that.  They were going to install a translight drive on the destroyer Aurora, to test the ship’s drive in a ship that had all the other systems that were also on the power system with the drive to make sure it worked properly, and also test installing the drive on an older ship, one that had service time, to see how the drives operated on a ship that was “settled in” and wasn’t fresh off the construction dock.  And that was a good idea.  It would give them more data, a baseline of the prototype destroyer built purely as a test unit and another baseline from a commissioned KMS warship with three years of active service, and that data would be useful to Myleena when she wrote the specs.

        “Faey consider their ships to be male, Bo,” Rook noted.

        “Well, Faey don’t know shit about some things,” he replied cheekily, which made Jason laugh.

        “That sounds like a bit of sexism, Bo,” Jason noted.

        “Hey, men still rule, no matter what they say,” he retorted.

        “Says the guy dating a Shio.”

        “Hey, Selia’s hot,” he declared.  “And I mean literally.  Ever held a Shio girl?  Their skin is like seriously hot.”

        “Shio have a considerably higher core body temperature than Terrans,” Rook supplied.  “No doubt, to her, you are cold to the touch.  I doubt she finds it as pleasant as you do.  It would be like you hugging a Birkon.”

        “Dude.  You just killed the whole thing,” Bo complained, which made Jason burst out laughing.

        “I can’t help it if you don’t like science, Bo.”

        “Science has nothing to do with love, you dork.”

        “Boys, don’t make me send you to your rooms,” Tom injected as the heavy cruiser cleared the dock, and Zora turned it for the boarding dock and accelerated to dock speed.  “And there she goes,” he added.. “Miya’s crew will take good care of her while Myleena does her best to make the engines blow up,” Jason observed

        “She better not, not after all that work we just did,” Bo growled.

        “The engines have to be stress tested, so she probably will,” Rook noted.  “We have no idea what their performance limits are.  She’ll need to find them.”

        “She can find them on the destroyer, not our ship,” Bo maintained stubbornly.  “It’s even named after us!”

        “Sounds like someone is fishing for a transfer to the KMS, Jason.  No doubt he wants to captain the Legion and fill it with shirtless Shio babes who jiggle in perfect harmony on demand.”

        Jason laughed when Bo reached over and punched Rook in the arm.  “Dude.  Not helping!”

        “You raised him, so I’d say it’s your fault, Bo,” Jason laughed as he ordered the platform to follow the Legion, and their platform wasn’t the only one.  Just about the entire installation crew was doing so, escorting the ship all the way to the boarding dock to make sure it got there in one piece.  “Speaking of work, guys, I have a new project, and I think the four of us can head it up.  Your team’s done with the diffuser upgrades, so that means you’re available for something new.”

        “What’s up, Jayce?” Tom asked.

        “While I was solving Myli’s problem with the engine,” he said smugly, which made Bo laugh, “I came across some pretty intriguing work by a Ruu scientist.  She was trying to create armor-grade silicon using the tempering effect.”

        “I’ve seen some studies on that.  Nothing ever came close to working,” Tom noted.

        “Well, I think she had the right idea, she just wasn’t going about it the right way,” Jason said.  “I did some work on it, and I think there’s a chance we can adapt the CMS cloaking device to change it into a form of powered armor, by injecting an interphasic energy matrix into a host material that actively absorbs hostile energy and uses it to reinforce the structural integrity of the hull.  It’s something close to what the CMS does already, it just can’t handle weapons-level energy bursts.  Well, we’re going to take this Ruu scientist’s work and use it as a baseline to find a way to adapt the CMS, and change it into a reactive powered armor system.”

        “That sounds quite intriguing,” Rook sounded.  “And I think it might be feasible.”

        “Feasible my ass, it’s entirely possible,” Tom added.  “The CMS already does that with sensor and light energy.  We just find a way to have it do it with weapon-grade energy.”

        “That’s what we’re going to find out,” Jason said.  “Tomorrow morning, a new project file is going to be on the 3D mainframe.  Tom, you read it through and pick the best 3D techs to assign to it, at least once they finish the diffuser project.  Bo, Rook, you two are heading the research.  I’ll be doing my own work on it in my workshop, and I’ll be sending up my data to you guys as often as I can.”

        “It’d work best if you did that work in the shop, as part of the team, Jayce.”

        “I wish I could, but I’ll be way too busy with the war to do it,” he sighed.  “I’ll see if I can’t contact the Ruu scientist that did the work on the powered armor project and get the research she didn’t publicly release.”

        “You could always invite her into the house,” Bo urged.

        “She’s a Ruu, so no, she won’t go for that,” Jason chuckled.  “But, what we can do is move the project into a dedicated facility and invite her to consult on the project.  It is only fair, since she did a lot of the work we’re going to be using for our own project.  Her expertise could be useful.”

        “Sure, we could do that,” Tom said.  “You have a research facility we can take over?”

        “Actually, yeah, there’s an MRDD facility currently not in use up on Virga,” he replied.  “They were doing some research on the Titan project, and now that the Titan project is complete, the facility’s just sitting there waiting for another project.”

        “Sounds like it’ll have the equipment we need,” Tom said thoughtfully.  “I’ll go down and take a look at it as soon as we finish up here and send you a report.”

        “We will,” Rook corrected.

        “Good idea, all three of us should go,” Tom nodded.

        “You’ll go down tomorrow, after you get some rest,” Jason ordered.  “I’m not ordering you guys on to the next project after that long haul work we just did, you guys are gonna get some fuckin’ rest.  I’ll have Cybi send you the location code and the access codes for the facility.  Oh, and I’ll warn MRDD we’re hijacking their facility for a while,” he added.

        “So, if this isn’t a top secret project like Project F and we’re moving it out of the 3D shop, I take it I can pull specialists from other research divisions?” Tom asked.

        “You can,” he nodded.  “I’m sure there are some MRDD, Naval Engineering, ASM, and DRD people that would work well on the team.”

        “Alright, we’ll have a report ready for you by dinnertime tomorrow,” Tom said.

        “Sounds good,” Jason nodded.

        The heavy cruiser approached the loading dock and slowed to a crawl, then it was captured in towing beams and pulled into position and locked down by physical clamps.  Zora opened the main hatches, and almost immediately, boarding and cargo ramps extended.  Jason landed the platform just by the edge and approached Miya Foralle, captain of the Temeron and temporarily taking over the Legion. Miya was a very tall Faey, though nowhere near as tall as Salira, slender and willowy and with narrower hips and a slightly smaller chest than the usually buxom race, but not so much that she looked unattractive.  But she made up for that with her jet black hair and hauntingly beautiful violet eyes, which made her one of the most attractive of all the ship captains, at least to Jason.  She was wearing her duty uniform rather than armor, but most of her crew was in armor.  She saluted sharply and then gave him a kiss on the cheek, then laughed and tugged on his scraggly beard.  “This doesn’t look bad,” she told him.

        “Jyslin disagrees with you,” he said dryly, which made her grin.

        “Sounds like someone’s shaving as soon as he gets home,” she winked.

        “Probably.  You ready to give us a hand, Miya?”

        “Myleena briefed us, we know what to expect.  A lot of downtime for maintenance,” she drawled, which made him laugh.

        “Just about.  We have to test the engines, and that means we’ll be pushing them beyond their limits to find out what those limits are.  That does tend to make the engines go down.  I’m sure your crew can handle it.”

        “Of course they can, I have the best heavy cruiser crew in the KMS,” she declared proudly.

        “Just don’t aggravate the project team and you’ll be alright,” Jason told her.  “This ship is fully operational, Miya.  Shields, guns, everything, and you’ll be testing those along with the engines in both standard operation and simulated combat conditions.  Part of what you’ll be doing is making sure the engines don’t mess with any other system, and the other systems don’t mess with the engines.  We have to test everything, because these engines are brand new tech. We have to make sure they don’t cause any problems with the other ship systems.”

        “Myleena pointed that out,” she nodded.  “We’ll get them everything they need, Jason, and keep the ship running in top shape while doing it. That’s a promise.”

        “I know.  That’s why I specifically pulled you and your crew off the Temeron for this mission, because you do have the best heavy cruiser crew in the KMS,” he told her, which made her preen.

        “Well then, if you don’t mind, your Grace, I’d better get on board and get the ship ready for its mission,” she said.

        “Have at it, Miya.  Do me proud.”

        “I will, that’s a guarantee,” she said, then kissed him on the cheek once more and hurried up the ramp and into the ship.

        “That is one very pretty young lady.  It’s almost a shock she’s a big ship captain at her age,” Tom noted.

        “She’ll have her admiral’s diamond before she turns 50, Tom, there’s no doubt about that,” Jason predicted.  “She’s the best heavy cruiser captain we have, with the crew with the highest performance rating.  That’s why she pulled this mission.”

        “If she’s that good, why isn’t she on a battleship?”

        “Because of the minimum experience requirements Juma instituted for ship captains before they rate for a command-class ship,” he answered.  “She has six more months until she’s eligible for a battleship.  And I guarantee you, she’ll be on one the instant she’s eligible.”

        “She must be good, then,” Bo said speculatively.

        Jason gave him a look, then gave a low chuckle.  “Down boy,” he said.

        “What?”

        “Stop acting like Tim,” he said, which made Tom laugh.  “Besides, Miya’s married.”

        “The good ones always are,” Bo sighed.  “Who’s the lucky guy?”

        “A financial broker in Kumi’s office,” he answered.  “Baeren Foralle.  Nice guy, sharp as a tack.  Knows his shit about the intergalactic stock markets,” he added.  “He’s been delving the house’s toes into the Coalition financial markets now that he’s done his research on them.  Anyway, Miya has the ship, so we’re done here.  We’re done!” he shouted loudly.  “Great work everyone!  Take the rest of the day off, be back at the warehouse tomorrow morning!”

        But not everyone was done with work.  After returning home, Jason tracked down Scientist XVZ…to find out that now she was Instructor RDX and was working in one of the Ruu’s smaller universities in their applied plasma physics department.  Her dark blue skinned, long face appeared on a flat hologram in front of his home office desk later that afternoon, after he had a chance to clean up and shave, and she looked quite surprised to see him.  “Your Grace,” she said, bowing in her chair.  “You honor me beyond words with this call, though I have no idea why you’re calling.”

        “About ten years ago, you did some scientific research on the tempering effect, attempting to make military-grade armor out of silicon,” he said.

        “Yes, I remember that project.  It met with mixed success.”

        “Did you release your entire data with the project, or only the pertinent data for your research?”

        “Only the pertinent data,” she answered.  “Do you have an interest in that old project?”

        “I do,” he replied.  “In fact, I would very much appreciate it if you could come to Karis to serve as a consultant for a research project based on your original work.  Be assured, you will receive due credit as a major contributor if our research proves successful, and I’m offering you a consulting fee of one hundred thousand Confederate credits for your time and inconvenience.”

        “I—my, that is quite an honor you offer me, your Grace,” she stammered.  “Of course I would come!  The prestige of working on Karis would propel my career!”

        “Then we would welcome you,” he said.  “I don’t have the specifics yet, but most likely, in about two or three standard days, someone from my office will contact you with the details.  Can you come on such short notice?”

        “If your office contacts the school dean, I assure you, my sabbatical will be approved on the spot,” she stated confidently.  “Until then, I will gather all the data I have on that old project and get it to you as quickly as possible.”

        “I’ll have a Kimdori messenger come to your school.  Put the data on a Confederation standard datastick and deliver it to him, and he’ll get it to us.”

        “It will be ready as soon as I get to my lab and access the archives,” she assured him.  “I look forward to furthering the cause of science with the only other civilization in the galaxy that honors it as we do,” she told him earnestly.

        “We look forward to advancing the cause with you, Instructor,” he replied with a nod.  “I’ll have a project member get in touch with you tomorrow afternoon your time with basic information about the project and the process of gaining permission to travel to Karis.  The Kimdori messenger will arrive tomorrow morning your time, that should give you all the time you need to locate the data and transfer it to a datastick.  I’ll have your consultation fee transferred to your personal account by my project financial officer.  She’ll get in touch with you in two Confederate standard hours to get the necessary information to get you your fee.”

        “You would pay me before the project?”

        “You’re Ruu, Instructor and I’m familiar with your people’s customs.  You are willing to send me your data, so I am willing to honor that trust by paying you now.  Besides, I know beyond any doubt that you will perform to the best of your ability and honor your people with your contribution to my project.  You honor the cause.”

        “You know us well, your Grace,” she said humbly.  “I vow to you by the Overbeing’s wisdom that you will receive my very best for this project.”

        “I know I will,” he nodded.

        After chatting a bit with Instructor RDX to get to know her on a personal level, Jason let her get to work digging up the data on the old research project and called Miaari and told her about the Ruu.  “I’ll handle it, Jason,” she told him.  “Where do you want to billet her?”

        “Let’s give her some nice quarters up at Emrai Village, something with a nice view of the bay,” he said after looking at a map.  “I sure don’t want her to have to live out of a porta-barracks up on Virga.  I don’t think she’d appreciate that.  She is a Ruu with some decent rank, so let’s treat her like the senior member of her society she is.”

        “I’ll arrange to have a car and driver available for her to get back and forth to work.  And I’ll have several packmates keeping a close eye on her.  She is an outsider.”

        “That’s your department, Mee, I’m sure you’ll keep her out of trouble,” he chuckled.  “You do a great job with the bachi players.”

        “Speaking of which, the first game of the season is in three days.  Are you going to attend, or are you blowing that off too?”

        “I’ll blow off council summits, but Jys will kill me if I blow off that game,” he said, which made Miaari laugh.

        “She would, or at the very least do something truly awful to you while you’re sleeping,” she grinned toothily.

        “I like my dick firmly attached to my crotch, thank you very much,” he snorted, which made Miaari explode in helpless laughter.

        “Is Dahnai attending?”  Dahnai had made something of a tradition out of attending the first Paladins game of the season since it moved to Karis, though she still attended the first game of the IBL champion and the first Immortals match as well.  And the IBL schedulers finally decided to make it easy for her by scheduling the first match of the season played by last year’s champion in the morning Imperial Standard Time, and the first Paladins game was a night game…though it’d be played around noon local time.  The Immortals always played away their first game to give Dahnai the opportunity to attend the first game of the IBL champions unless they won the championship…and since they’d won the championship last year, Dahnai would be staying in Dracora for the opening of the new season.  And she’d be unbelievably smug when she came to Karis for the Paladins game, since the Immortals were the home team for her.

        The Paladins weren’t going to be sitting in the middle of the pack this year.  Jyslin and Frinia had put together a fantastic team this year, and the IBL pundits and analysts were predicting that the Paladins would go very deep into the playoffs, and had a good chance of winning the championship.  Yila, determined not to lose the bet she had with Jyslin, had spent an obscene amount of money on free agents for this year, and her team looked to be equally fearsome.  There was a good chance, at least on paper when one looked at the signed talent, that the Paladins just might be facing off against the Tigers for the Empress’ Crown this year.

        On paper.  In reality, Jyslin and Frinia had built a team that played well to each other’s strengths and had a coach that knew how to use those talents in her system, where Yila had paid for the best talent she could get regardless of how well that talent would work in her coach’s system.  It was going to be a curious competition of team chemistry versus signing the available big name talent and having them on the same team.  Yila’s approach might work, it might not, but it would be interesting to see how it played out.

        “Of course she is,” he replied.  “And no doubt she’ll find some excuse to stay on Karis for a takir afterwards.”

        Miaari chuckled.  “She does love her summer palace,” she mused.

        “Hate to cut it short, Mee, but I have some other stuff to do.”

        “Of course.  I’ll see you tomorrow.”

        “Have a good night.”  He arranged the payment for Instructor RDX through Kumi’s office, but since this wasn’t something she needed to attend personally, he organized it through Rahne.  [And where are these funds coming from?] she asked.

        [This is 3D business, so it comes out of 3D’s account,] he answered.  [Pay her in credits, she can convert it to Ruu amo if she wants to.  Besides, she’ll need credits while she’s here on Karis.]

        [I’ll take care of it, Jayce.]

        [By the way, congrats hon.  I heard you’re pregnant.]

        [Songa needs to keep things to herself,] Rahne accused, which made him laugh.

        [Blame Cybi for that.  You can’t hide anything from her, and she can’t keep her mouth shut.  So, is it a boy or a girl?]

        [It’s a boy,] she replied.  [I’m not sure what I’m going to name him.]

        [And did Adam hit his head on the ceiling when you told him?]

        [He almost fainted,] she replied, her thought tinged with mirth.  Adam was her husband, a Terran telepath who worked in the financial division.  That was where she met him.  [Songa estimates I conceived on our wedding night.]

        [Then it sounds like you were doing what you were supposed to do on your wedding night,] he replied lightly.  [And just think, you have about 24 to go to catch up to me so you can further secure the human Generations from extinction.]

        [All your kids are half-Faey.  Our boy is all human,] she pointed out.  [I would tell you to have some kids by human women, but I don’t think there’s anything left in you.  Those Faey girls wrung you dry.]

        Jason laughed.  [I’m tempted to prove you wrong, just for the fun of it,] he retorted.  [For us guys, having kids is all fun and no responsibility, you know.]

        [Oh, go on with you.  And speaking of going on, I’ll get this bit of work done for you, Jayce. 

        [I know when I’m being dismissed,] he answered her.  [I’ll let you get it done, hon.  I have some other stuff to do before I can take a break.]

        [Alright then.  Have a good night, Jayce.]

        [You too.]  That bit of business concluded, Jason bundled up all the notes he’d taken about his powered armor idea while working on the translight drive and sent it to 3D via courier, since the 3D mainframe had no external access to protect its secrets.  Jason couldn’t even commune with it unless he was inside the facility, that was how they’d set it up.  The courier was a Rocker, more of Bo’s testing of the Rocker systems to see how useful they were in independent mode.  It had flown over from 3D in a hovercar by itself, picked up the datastick, and would fly back and upload the stick to the mainframe, by itself.

        Rockers…maybe he should talk to Rook about building Jason his own surrogate body that he could send on boring diplomatic trips or send to planets that had lethal environmental conditions for him, something like Rook’s own body but with Jason’s face and skin that wasn’t quite so garishly metallic.  Jason could merge to it from the house and do business without ever leaving Karis.  And since it was biogenic, the connection between him and the Rocker would be completely secure, so he could even conduct sensitive meetings.

        Hmm…that was actually a decent idea.  Rook had already built a few simulated humanoid bodies using endoskeletons and internal systems encased in a synthetic polymer that had the same consistency and feel as living tissue.  It would be an interesting experiment to try to build a body that mimicked Jason’s appearance as closely as possible, made it as human as possible, something that would fool people that saw the bionoid from a distance, but may not fool people who were face to face with him.  But it wouldn’t be there to trick people into thinking it was really him, it would be there so he could shake someone’s hand without that hand being encased in armor.  The Rocker surrogate would be the perfect option for things like visits to Birkon Prime and Prakarika, planets with deadly conditions for a Terran.

        He was intrigued enough to get in touch with Rook and broach the idea.  [It would be fairly easy, Jason,] he told him.  [I could have my production lab build a synthetic organic bionoid with 99% resemblance to you in about two days.  I’ve managed to streamline the process for polymer casting, and I have an endo unit already built that I was going to use as my next experimental subject.  It can easily be resized to your height.  It’s almost your height now.]

        [Awesome, Rook, think you can get it going without it distracting you too much?]

        [I can get all the prep work done on it tonight and let the production unit do the building while I’m at work tomorrow.  Then I come home and we see the result.]

        [Perfect.  Mind doing it for me?]

        [Of course not, Jason.  I take it I should build the unit to be able to operate in most hostile exo-environments?]

        [That’s exactly what I had in mind.  Something I can use to, say, visit Birkon Prime without having to wear an E-suit or armor.  Make it as broad as possible, Rook.  Able to operate anywhere from Birkon Prime to Arabok.]

        [I can build something that will have operational viability in all but the most extreme environments,] he answered confidently.  [The synthetic polymer I use can withstand temperatures from -300 shuki to 900 shuki without polymer damage, and I can synthesize hair strands made of polymer so the unit’s hair doesn’t burn or melt.  The endoframe will be rated for operation in gravity up to 20 times standard, and can be built with an internal inducer to allow it to operate in even stronger gravity wells.  And I can pull your measurements and likeness out of Cybi’s archives to get exact full-body appearance matching, even give it operational genitalia.  I can build a unit with simulated lungs and vocal chords for more normal speaking and to further project the appearance of life, but like the other bodies I’ve built, it will have no stomach, so it won’t be able to eat or drink.]

        [Sounds like exactly what I’m looking for,] Jason answered.  [Go ahead and fire it up, Rook, and bring it over to my house when it’s done.]

        [Certainly, Jason.  If anything, you’ll be advancing my research by field testing some of my most recent changes.  And since you’re an organic, you can test the simulated lungs, you know, since you breathe and I don’t.  You can give me feedback on how they work, how they feel to you..]

        [Sounds like it’s win-win for both of us.  But, now that I think of it, there’s one thing I want you to include on the unit.]

        [What?]

        [On board weapons, both ranged and hand to hand.]

        [Hmm.  I could build recessed monomolecular blades into the arms that extend out similar to how they work on a Rocker.  And I could build a ranged weapon into the forearm, using an aperture over the back of the hand, or perhaps in the palm, that unanneals the polymer and extends the barrel’s end.  And I could shield the weapon housing so it doesn’t appear on scans.  And since it’s all on the arm unit, the arms could be replaced with ones without weapons in about an hour if you don’t want to have the weapons on the unit for diplomatic reasons.  It would only require a small upgrade to the blueprints to incorporate them into the new design.  I could design it in a matter of hours.]

        [Think you can get all that worked out tonight?]

        [I can.  It presents a challenge, and I enjoy a good challenge,] he answered.

        [Awesome.  Looking forward to seeing the result.]

        [I think you’ll be pleased, Jason.]

        That little bit of business concluded, Jason finished up the last of his paperwork and headed downstairs.  It was raining outside, so everyone was clustered in the living room.  Rann and Shya were laying on their bellies on the floor watching viddy, Jyslin was sitting on the couch with Jon in her arms, nursing him, Seido was standing over the crib putting a blanket over Julia, and the twins were sitting at Jyslin’s feet, playing with some blocks while Amber laid on the couch over them and by Jyslin’s leg, keeping a close eye on everything.  Even Ayama and Surin were there, sitting on the love seat and with their baby girl Sanjira in a hovercrib beside it, no doubt napping.  It’s about time, love.   Days up in Kosigi, and you run straight to your office when you finally come home.  We were feeling abandoned.

        Such a liar, he accused.  I’m finally done, so I’ll be well rested when Chirk murders me tomorrow morning for ignoring my Dukal responsibilities.

        What have you been doing, Dad? Shya asked.

        We installed a new engine on a heavy cruiser as part of a test of a new engine design, he answered.  It required me to be there, and I can’t lie, I really enjoyed it.  I’d much rather be doing engineering work than paperwork any day.  I also asked Rook to build me a surrogate bionoid body that I can use to visit planets with hostile environments like Birkon Prime and Prakarika.

        Ooo, like that Avatar movie?

        Something like that, he nodded when Shya looked over her shoulder at him.  Biogenics will make it easy, I can just merge to the computer in the bionoid, so it’ll be like I am the bionoid.  Rook will build it with full sensory capability, he’s really good at it.

        That sounds kinda fun, Rann, Shya told him.  Imagine if we merged to adult bodies.  It’d be like being adults.

        You’re not merging to anything until your 25th birthday, young lady.  No jack, no merge, Jyslin warned.

        You take all the fun out of life, Pamma, you know that?

        Jason laughed when Jyslin gave her a tart look.  Don’t old lady me, young lady, she shot back.

        You’re practically a grandma already, Jys, Jason teased, then laughed at her withering stare.  How is Jon, Seido?

        He’s sleeping, Jason, she answered as she sat in the chair next to the crib.  Having a nice nap after getting his dinner.

        “And how are you two lovely ladies?” he asked, startling Bethany a little by picking her up, but she laughed when he pushed her up into the air and caught her a couple of times.

        “Are you home, Daddy?”

        “If you mean am I done with work, yes I am,” he replied, holding her at arm’s length over his head.  “Have you had dinner yet?”

        “Uh-huh,” she answered.  “You took too long.”

        “Well, I don’t blame you,” he smiled up at her.  “Your empty belly is more important than my work any day.”

        “Can we go walk?”

        “It’s raining, pippy, and I’ll be honest.  I’m very tired,” he said.  “We can go for a nice long walk on the beach tomorrow, okay?”

        “Okay.”

        “Do you want me to warm something up for you, Jason?” Seido asked.

        “If you don’t mind, please,” he replied.

        “We have plenty left over from dinner,” she said as she stood up.

        “You’re an angel, Seido.  Way better than Ayama ever was to me,” he said with a glance at her, and when she gave him a cool, challenging look in reply, he winked at her.

        Love, you’re stirring the pot, Jyslin warned privately.

        Things have been too quiet around here, I think Sanjira’s had too much of a calming effect on her.  Besides, I love it when she’s mad, he replied, which made Shya giggle.

        What? Rann asked.

        Nothin’.  I’ll tell you later.

 

Kaista, 35 Kedaa, 4404, Faey Orthodox Calendar

Friday, 25 May 2018 Terran Standard Calendar

Kaista, 35 Kedaa, year 1329 of the 97th Generation, Karinne Historical Reference Calendar

Foxwood East, Karis

 

        It…was…creepy.

        Jason leaned in and took a very careful look at his own face, which Rook had sculpted out of flesh-like gel polymer and placed on the bionoid that he’d built for him, and it was even beyond looking in a mirror.  Rook had gotten every detail right, even down to the pore pattern of his skin.  The faint scar over his left eyebrow was there, a visible reminder of the attack that took off his hand and killed Rann Berylle, and the color variations in his green irises were also there, perfectly duplicated from images Rook had pulled of Jason from Cybi’s databases.  Jason would bet that the eyes would even have his retinal pattern, since Rook was anything if not thorough.  Rook had brought the bionoid up to his home office for him to inspect.

        “The bionoid is sixteen konn heavier than you are, which can be concealed using the internal inducer,” Rook told him as he stared intently at his own face.  “The endoskeleton is foamed iso-aluminum for strength and light weight, and most onboard systems are incorporated into the endoskeleton to remove unnatural bulges or hard spots that could be felt from the outside. Anything unable to fit within the endoskeleton is contained inside the ribcage or within the skull unit.  The power plant, gyroscopic systems, and sensory encoding units are contained within the ribcage.   The primary biogenic control hardware is in the skull, similar to an organic brain, with a secondary and tertiary backup system within the ribcage to provide triple redundancy in case the unit finds itself under attack.  The endoskeleton is based on Terran skeletal structure.  It utilizes the artificial muscle strand technology developed for the Titans to simulate musculature and movement, covered over with gel polymer that gives it the same consistency and tactile sensation as flesh and tissue.  The skin contains a full sensory mesh system, and for aesthetics, is even capable of sweating and goosebumps due to a dynamic inner skin construct.  That is how it mimics a flesh body.  The bionoid is capable of picking up nearly 400 konn, can withstand temperatures from -200 shuki to as high as 930 shuki without the external polymer damaging or the internal systems suffering heat failure.  It has an internal inducer to give it operational capability in gravity wells as high as 46g, and has computer-assisted eyesight and hearing, giving the bionoid sensory capability far exceeding your Terran body.  It utilizes class two nanites to effect maintenance and repairs.  It runs on a class V singularity power pack and also had broadcast power receivers in the skull unit for on-planet operations.  And as you requested, it is armed with monomolecular blades in the forearms, and is equipped with two Korgg tetryon wave weapons, one in each arm, which fire from a retractable emitter crystal in the heel of the palm.”

        “Holy shit, you put tetryon wave weapons in it?” he gasped.  Tetryon wave weapons were utterly nasty weapons developed by the Korgg, that fired a pulse of coherent tetryons which were extremely destructive.  What made the weapon so damn brutal was the fact that the wave pulse wasn’t a projectile or even a beam of coherent energy, it was a disc that expanded in size as it traveled away from the emitter crystal.  It was like a shotgun, it hit an area instead of a point, and that area of effect could be altered by changing the focusing aspect of the emitter crystal to increase or decrease the “sweet spot” range, that distance where the expanding disc of tetryons had maximum volume but still had maximum power.  Beyond that point, the weapon’s wave pulse continued to expand in size, but the damage the wave caused diminished.  It could also fire a coherent beam of coherent tetryon energy, acting like most other energy weapons, but that was only for using the weapon for very long range, where the expanding disc shape of the wave pulse would peter out otherwise.  But at close range, anything fifty shakra or closer, nothing was as brutal or as destructive as a Korgg tetryon wave weapon…except maybe a missile or grenade.  They were nasty, nasty weapons, and the fact that Rook had managed to build them into the bionoid made it very formidable.  It was like having a sawed-off 12 gauge shotgun loaded with double-aught buckshot hidden in each hand.

        “It was actually the most efficient weapon system to install, due to the fact that most of the weapon’s parts are incorporated into the radius and ulna of the bionoid’s arm and the barrel is a flexible ionic tube.  The weapon can fire with a bent barrel, because the focusing circuitry that aims the wave pulse is built into the base of the emitter crystal at the end of the barrel.  The arms were designed to be detachable just above the elbow, so you can replace them with unarmed versions, if you’ll excuse the pun.”

        “Jesus, Rook, I was expecting something less powerful than Korgg tetryon wave weaponry.  I thought you’d put an ion weapon in it or something.  Maybe an internal railgun, but holy fuck, wave weapons.  That’s insane.  Awesome, but insane.”

        “If you’re going to have a weapon, Jason, put the best weapon you can in it.  And if you’re

 using weapons while driving the bionoid, it’s best to have one that’s guaranteed to kill whatever it hits on the first shot that doesn’t require pinpoint accuracy.  The large area of effect of a wave pulse and the ability to widen or narrow the pulse makes it a powerful weapon at up to fourteen hundred shakra.  I felt that was more than enough range for your ranged weapon.”

        Jason laughed.  “True enough,” he agreed as he stepped back and looked at the bionoid’s naked body.  Rook had perfectly copied his body, even down to those slight imperfections and flaws that every guy wishes weren’t there…he’d even gotten the pubic hair over the simulated penis just right.  “When you said it’s a perfect copy, you weren’t kidding.”

        “The genitals are fully functional, and will be capable of full sensory indulgence,” he supplied.  “The penis is even capable of ejaculating a harmless synthetic bio-compatible liquid with the same consistency and viscosity as semen, manufactured and stored in the testes.  It can be altered to simulate multiple flavors, including Terran strawberries.”

        Jason looked at him.  “And what earthly reason would I need that for?”

        “Because you never know,” he replied, which made Jason laugh despite himself.

        “Rook.  You are one sick puppy.”

        “Blame Bo for that.  Because of the biological simulation features, the bionoid will need to be supplied with water, which the unit can drink in fair imitation of the biological swallowing process.  That water is stored in an internal stomach until use.  It is important that the unit only drinks water, Jason.  Any other liquid will damage its internal systems.  The unit also has simulated lungs governed by an automated breathing subroutine that simulates the biological breathing process, and the unit is capable of speech using those lung sacks and vocal chords, as well as an audio speaker located in the throat that generates similar acoustics if you have the breathing routine disabled or are in a medium that makes speech impossible, like an extreme high or low pressure atmosphere, or a marine environment.”

        “That’s covering the bases,” Jason nodded as he walked around the unit.  Jyslin walked into the office, then stopped short and gasped, then laughed.

        “Is that the bionoid?”

        “Yup.  Does it look like me, Jys?”

        She stepped up and gave it a close inspection, taking nearly ten minutes as she slowly walked around it, then slid her fingers over it.  She gave him a sly wink when she reached down and cupped the bionoid’s testicles.  “It’s not exact, but it’s very close,” she finally proclaimed.  “It looks like you, but it doesn’t feel exactly like you.”

        “Perfect duplication is impossible, but I calculate that the bionoid is a 93.13% match for Jason.”

        “I’d say that’s a pretty good estimation,” Jyslin agreed clinically, walking around the bionoid again.  “So, this is what you’ll use when you go to places like Birkon Prime?”

        “Yup.  I’ll keep it somewhere it doesn’t scare people until I need it.  Probably down in my lab.  Nobody’s going to stumble across it down there.”

        “You should test its merge before I leave it with you, Jason.  Let’s make sure the onboard systems are functional.”

        “Yeah,” he agreed, going over and sitting down at his desk.  He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and then reached out and communed with the biogenic system in the bionoid.  It allowed him access—only him, he noticed, Rook had made sure nobody was going to drive it but him—and felt himself rise up into the bionoid’s system and merge to it.

        He blinked the bionoid’s eyes as its sensory systems went into merge mode, feeding him their sensory data, and then he raised the bionoid’s hand and looked at them.  “It feels like a standard Rocker from the merge side of things,” he said through the bionoid’s mouth.

        “Trelle’s garland, it even sounds like him!” Jyslin gasped.

        “It took me nearly three hours to get the vocal chords to duplicate his voice acoustics correctly,” Rook supplied.  “It was, by far, the most challenging part of the job.”

        “Well, you did a great job,” Jyslin said, her voice impressed.  And to Jason’s bionoid’s ears, her voice sounded just the same…but underneath it was another layer of sounds, sounds his organic ears weren’t capable of hearing.  His vision was a simulation of his regular vision, but he knew from the bionoid’s systems that he could change that vision to different operational modes, like high-res, telescopic, thermographic, and several others.  The arms didn’t feel heavy to him, but then again, it had superhuman strength compared to a flesh and blood body, so there was no reason for his arms to feel heavy to him.  He took a couple of tentative steps, found the system’s onboard gyroscopes and balance algorithms were good, then took the bionoid for a short walk around the office.  Like a Rocker, the body was light and responsive, obeyed his commands, and he found it as easy to operate as a Rocker.  He stepped back and extended the monomolecular blades, which made Jyslin flinch with a gasp and then laugh.  The blade was the length of his forearm and extended out the side of his forearm, just above the wrist, which extended a good shakra and a half of deadly sharp blade out past his closed fist.  Since the blade was anchored to his forearm instead of his hand, it didn’t follow the motions of his hand, and it also gave it a much sturdier anchor.  He retracted the blades and saw that the synthetic skin and polymer pseudo-flesh sealed over and repaired itself—there were nanites in the bionoid that did that repair work—he activated the wave weapons.  The focusing emitter crystals popped out of the heels of the palms of his hands, angled so they were straight with his hands bent up at the wrists and fingers straight or curled safely out of the way.  When he activated them, crosshairs appeared in the bionoid’s vision that told him exactly where the weapons were aimed, including  larger circles around those crosshairs based on both the distance to the object from the emitter and the power level and expansion ratio settings.  The circles represented what would be hit by the wave pulse as it expanded as it traveled away from the emitter.  He changed the power levels and saw the circles change size, changed the expansion ratios and saw them change again, then he switched the weapon to beam mode, which removed the circle entirely, before switching it back to wave mode.  He wasn’t about to fire the wave weapon in his office—it would blow a gaping hole in whatever it hit and could possibly collapse the entire house, since wood and plascrete weren’t anywhere near strong enough to stop a tetryon wave pulse—but outside of actually shooting it, everything else was working just fine.  He deactivated the weapons, which caused the emitter crystals to retract into the heels of his hands, and the synthetic skin and flesh quickly sealed over as the nanites did their job.  “Everything is showing that it’s operational, Rook, I have full sensory capability, and the onboard computer is in perfect sync with me.  The merge is one hundred percent.”

        “As I expected, but you never know until you turn it on, as it were.”

        “You said this bionoid is capable of independent mode?” he asked.

        “Yes, just like a Rocker,” he answered.  “But the computer in the bionoid isn’t as sophisticated as a Rocker’s, so I would heavily suggest that you do not give it any complex tasks unless you’re supervising the unit, either passively merged or physically accompanying it.”

        “That goes without saying,” Jason chuckled through the bionoid’s mouth.  “Alright, I’m going to walk it down to my lab and put it somewhere safe and deactivate it.  It gonna be okay to just sit for a while, Rook?”

        “Yes.”

        “Good deal.  I’ll play with it later, get used to driving it, maybe use it to scare the life out of Ayama,” he added with a dark smile.  “I’ve got a lot of actual work to do, I barely even dented my inbox at work today, and there’s a council meeting in an hour that I’m actually going to attend.  Penance for missing the summit,” the bionoid chuckled in his voice.  “Truthfully, though, most of the other rulers are also attending, something of a post-summit discussion of what happened at the summit.”

        “Well, that answers my question,” Jyslin said.  “You’d better get your schedule cleared for the match, love.  You miss that and you’re gonna need that fake body after I’m done with your real one.”

        Jason laughed through the bionoid.  “I’ll be at the match, love,” he soothed.

        He got the bionoid down to his workshop after warning the house that he was moving it—to avoid startling anyone—deactivated it, said goodbye to Rook with glowing praises for his work, and went back to trying to catch up on his work after nearly ten days of ignoring it.  He barely got anywhere before the council meeting, and saw that most all the rulers were attending in person as their holograms appeared in rows and columns over and beyond his desk.  “You’re looking much cleaner now, Jason,” Krirara noted as she joined the council.  “Did you get everything under control?”

        “More or less, yes.”

        “Well, now that it’s over, what was it?”

        “Unfortunately, I can’t tell you just yet, Krirara,” he answered, which the entire council heard.  “It’s confidential house business.  Hopefully in a little while I can, but until then, no.”

        “Ah, so it was scientific in nature,” she noted.

        “I will neither confirm nor deny that statement,” he replied dryly, which made Kreel laugh.

        “Yup, that’s what it was,” Kreel said with a sly smile.  “Jayce never looks that bedraggled unless he’s neck deep in some technical thingie-what’s-it.”

        “Kreel.  Bite me.”

        Kreel just grinned impudently at him.

        Once the council was gaveled into session, Jason actually listened as they went over a great deal of what they discussed at the summit, which was mainly getting the diffusers installed, but they’d also discussed Zaa’s information about the Syndicate’s stop and return to hyperspace.  Some of the rulers were a bit put out that they didn’t attack them, but they were also respectful of why Zaa and Jason didn’t attack.  To attack unilaterally like that was against the Articles, and they had put the law over personal pursuits.

        But it had had an effect on the council, and as Jason listened, they debated the motion that Shakizarr put forth that they declare war on the Syndicate, something they hadn’t done officially yet.  And as Jason expected, the more pacifistic members like Magran and Kriavos lobbied to at least open diplomatic channels to the Syndicate to try to convince them to leave without opening fire, to at least try a peaceful solution first.  Jason was impressed that quite a few of the more aggressive rulers seemed swayed by Magran’s argument, as he passionately and eloquently stated his case before the council.  “I will vote to declare war on the Syndicate along with the rest of this body,” Magran concluded, “but even in a state of war, there is always the opportunity to negotiate.  We should pursue all options, my friends, and if there is the smallest chance we can avert this war before lives are lost, we should pursue that chance until reasonable men and women declare that negotiations have failed.  And if they fail, then we pursue the just military option and drive the Syndicate out of our galaxy by main force.”

        “The Grand Master does present a compelling case,” Shakizarr declared.  “And personally, I see no reason why we should not at least make the attempt.  After all, our first attack will be by the Karinnes and their automated weaponry, so even if we lose the element of surprise, we will not lose the element of shock that the Karinnes have documented they can induce in enemy forces with their unorthodox approach to warfare.  Even if the Syndicate expects an attack, they will not expect the kind of attack that will come.  They have no experience with the Confederation and its members.  They have no idea what we are capable of, and they will underestimate us in their arrogance.  We will use that against them, even if they know an attack is imminent.”

        “That, my dear friend Shakizarr, is a damn good point,” Ethikk agreed.  “And it does give us the option to at least try to negotiate a peaceful solution before we unleash the Karinnes and all their dastardly toys on the Syndicate.”

        That produced quite a few chuckles.

        “The Grand Emperor does speak a strong truth,” Holikk, ambassador from the Subrian Coalition, declared.  “Though we’ve not been members of the Confederation long enough to see our new allies fight, we have reviewed the military records you have made available.  I concur that the Syndicate will be in no way prepared for our initial assault, even if they know it’s coming.  They simply have no experience with the asymmetrical approach to warfare that the Confederation employs through its most cunning members, the Karinnes, the Kimdori, the Beryans of the Alliance, the Vekk, and the Jhri.  They will expect an armada of ships to clash with them in a grand battle, not what will hit them squarely in the face.”

        “Then I would humbly submit that we should put the matter up to a vote.  The question is, should we attempt a diplomatic solution before engaging in warfare with the Syndicate?” Magran said.