Chapter One

~ July 26th, 2288 ~

"Greetings, Admiral Moore," the recorded image of Admiral Carver said from the full-wall monitor in the VIP conference room aboard the battleship Artemis, GSC-BD382. Her look was serious but not stern. "I hope you'll forgive me, but I won't be available to welcome you at Quesann when you and the other members of the Admiralty Board arrive. I'm currently aboard the Ares, and I don't know how long I'll be away, or even if I'll be returning to Quesann. My destination is my estate on Obotymot.

"Regions Two and Three are stable and in moderately good shape. I regret I wasn't able to completely eradicate the Denubbewa threat, but we've left them reeling. And the means to destroy them wherever and whenever you find them is at hand if they refuse to leave our space. The second most important issue is the Uthlaro. I believe they will never accept that their dominion is just a memory. Complete isolation of their solar system— as we've been forced to do with the Tsgardi— may be necessary to contain the threat they present. The final decision is naturally up to the Admiralty Board and the GA Senate, but I recommend it be most seriously contemplated. The indisputable evidence that they've begun building warships in violation of the sanctions leveled against them for attempting to arrogate Region Two is clear evidence of their mindset. That they established their new operations outside Galactic Alliance borders where they believed we'd never find them does not make the Uthlaro any less guilty of violating the terms of surrender they accepted to avoid having their world reduced to rubble.

"If it turns out we never meet again, I want to thank you and the other Board members for the support you've shown me over the years. It's been an honor and a privilege to serve with you, and all the men and women of Space Command and the Space Marine Corps.

"Jenetta Alicia Carver, Admiral, aboard the SC Battleship Ares. End of message."

The Admiralty Board, the Galactic Alliance Senate, and all support personnel were underway to Quesann to occupy their new headquarters in what was intended to become the hub of the Galactic Alliance. Meeting in special session to hear a message received overnight by Admiral Moore, the Admiralty Board members were clearly stunned by Admiral Carver's words. Every member sat up a bit straighter in their chair as Admiral Carver delivered the closing comment. No one in the conference room seemed willing to break the silence as they looked at one another.

"We agreed to suspend all normal business until we reach Quesann," Moore finally said, "and only meet for emergency purposes. When I received that message overnight, I knew such a session was required. A few hours later I received a second message, addressed to the Board." Admiral Moore nodded to his aide and the image of Vice-Admiral Holt filled the monitor.

"Greeting from Quesann," the image said. "I look forward to welcoming all of you when you arrive. An issue has arisen that I consider to be one of the most serious we've faced in a number of years. When you receive this, Admiral Carver will already be underway for Region One aboard the Ares. Upon learning you had nominated her for the rank of Admiral of the Fleet to replace Admiral Moore following his soon-to-be-announced retirement without first discussing it with her, and that the nomination had already been unanimously approved by the GA Senate, she informed me she was resigning her commission effective immediately.

"I recall a time, not that many years ago, when I warned this board that Admiral Carver might resign her commission if you promoted her to a two-star. The highly dangerous situation facing the GA at that time was such that she accepted the promotion and then proceeded to defeat the Milori threat, ending forever their attempts to absorb GA space into their empire. And when you promoted her to admiral, I again felt sure she would resign. The onerous task of bringing the rule of law and order to Region Two, the danger from the THUG pact, and then the threat of the Denubbewa no doubt played a significant role in her continued service.

"But now things have calmed considerably, and with no great threat currently facing the GA, she feels comfortable with submitting her papers."

Admiral Holt paused to allow that thought to permeate through the room before continuing.

"I naturally argued with Admiral Carver and finally convinced her not to resign just yet but rather to take a leave of absence. Before she left Quesann, she wrapped up much of the most important outstanding business for this command. She approved the location and final construction plans for the new Dakinium foundry, with building scheduled to commence before you arrive at Quesann. The foundry will be located around the sixth planet, a gas giant, in the Lorense system. Lorense-Six can provide all the hydrogen fuel we'll need for a hundred thousand years. The new shipbuilding facility will be located in the same system and orbit the third planet. Lorense-Three is similar to Mars in that it has only a very thin atmosphere but is ideally suited for the construction of underground bases. Locating both facilities in the same star system ensures they can both be protected by the same fleet. And the proximity of the Lorense system to the Quesann system means that Supreme Headquarters and the Galactic Alliance Senate share in that protection.

"Admiral Carver also issued orders for a task force of one Destroyer, six Scout-Destroyers, two Ship-Transporter vessels, ten CPS-14s with habitats, and as many engineers as could be spared to proceed with all haste to the secret Uthlaro shipbuilding base discovered by our SCI people. The warships defending the base will either be driven off or destroyed. The enclosed docks will then be towed to Lorense-Three by the CPS-14s, where they will form the foundation for our own shipbuilding operations. The open framework docks will be disassembled and loaded into the Ship-Transporters, along with any hulls which have been laid.

"The matter of Admiral Carver's leave of absence and her possible resignation is now in your hands, ladies and gentlemen. I can't tell you how to proceed, but I most strongly suggest you tread carefully if you hope to have even a small chance of keeping her in the service.

"Brian Devon Holt, Vice-Admiral, Region Two Headquarters, Quesann. End of message."

Again, silence pervaded every square millimeter of the room. It was broken when Admiral Hillaire said, "Well, Admiral Holt did warn us we were pushing her too far. Before the Battle for Stewart with the Milori, we promised Admiral Carver she would return to the rank of captain from her brevetted stars and be given command of a new battleship. Instead we again pushed her up the ladder and saddled her with all the problems of the two new regions that, combined, are now six times larger than Region One."

"And she has performed better than anyone could have imagined," Admiral Moore said. "Instead of the complete, system-wide anarchy we expected, there's actually a semblance of peace. That's why she was entrusted with such a task. She's far too good a military strategist and administrator to be a mere battleship captain, as demanding as that job is. For the same reasons, she was chosen as my replacement."

"It appears we've finally asked too much of her," Admiral Bradlee said.

w w w

"You can't resign your commission," Eliza said.

"Sure I can," Jenetta said nonchalantly. "Once an officer has completed the minimum number of service years required to satisfy the Academy education requirements, he or she can resign their commission at any time. My obligation was fulfilled more than two decades ago."

Jenetta and Eliza were sitting on the deck of the admiral's suite aboard the battleship Ares while Cayla and Tayna laid between them, purring with contentment as the two women combed the short, thick fur of the big cats. Thor was down in a hold but wasn't caged. He was never caged anymore and had the freedom to run around the enormous space to his heart's content. Jenetta was still keeping the sexes separated in a effort to prevent nature from overpowering the verbal instructions she had given all three cats not to engage in sexual activities. She visited Thor several times a day to feed and groom him, and provide a bit of companionship. He had grown to love her and accept that she belonged to him, just as Cayla and Tayna had so many years ago. Any of the three Jumakas would sacrifice themselves in an instant to save Jenetta from harm.

"That's not what I mean, and you know it," Eliza said. "I mean that you, Admiral Jenetta Alicia Carver, can't just resign. You've become the face of Space Command. Few people outside of the service would recognize Admiral Richard Moore, but everyone in Galactic Alliance space knows the face of Admiral Jenetta Carver."

"No one is indispensible."

"Except you."

"No, not me either."

"Name one person who could replace you."

"I'll name two— you and Christa."

"Come on, get serious."

"I am serious. Either one of you could step in for me and no one would know the difference."

"We may have all your knowledge up to the point where you were cloned, but we've led vastly different lives since then. There's no way either of us could step into your shoes— even if we wanted to."

"Ah-ha. See? You wouldn't want the job either."

"No, I wouldn't. And neither would Christa. But you accepted the responsibility for your career long ago, and you can't just run away from it."

"I accepted the responsibility of being a Space Command officer and doing whatever job I was assigned, but I never wanted to be an admiral. I was content being a captain at Stewart SCB, and I looked forward to receiving command of a warship when my five-year tour of duty was up. Then the Milori attacked and the Admiralty Board brevetted me to Rear Admiral (Lower). They never asked if I wanted the rank or responsibility; they just pushed it on me. Then they did it again when they promoted me to Rear Admiral (Upper). They didn't ask if I wanted it; they just went ahead and did it. Then they promoted me directly to full admiral without asking, but this time it was a permanent appointment with the full approval of the GA Senate. Everyone on Earth knew about the promotion before I did. The serious issues facing the GA prompted me to accept the position, and I've done the best job I could."

"You always do."

"But now they've gone ahead and promoted me to Admiral of the Fleet. And again they haven't asked if I even wanted the rank or the job."

"They probably thought you'd refuse it."

"And they would have been absolutely right. I will not spend the rest of my days in Space Command shuttling back and forth between the GA Council chambers and the Admiralty Building on Quesann. Period."

"But when we joined Space Command we gave up our right of self-determination."

"Yes, that was part of the contract. But, when a contract is no longer serving one party or the other, you terminate it in accordance with the provisions in the contract. That's all that happens when you resign your commission. You're terminating your contract with the military and regaining the right of self-determination."

"I don't know what else to say, other than I think you were wrong to resign your commission."

"I haven't."

"But you said you have."

"No, what I said was I informed Admiral Holt I was resigning my commission. Then, without waiting for a full explanation, you tried to talk me out of it."

"Then you haven't resigned your commission?"

"Not yet. Admiral Holt asked me to take a leave of absence. I agreed— for the time being."

"But you are going to resign?"

"If they try to force me to accept the fifth star— yes. I won't spend the rest of my years in the service flying a dirt-side desk."

"So this trip home is just to force them to rescind the appointment?"

Jenetta took a deep breath and released it slowly before answering. "No. It's to give me time to decide what I really want. I know I haven't been truly happy for a very long time. My life has been the embodiment of the old saying about it being lonely at the top. Well, I've been at the very top for a long time, and I can confirm just how lonely it can be. The weekly vidMails I exchange with Hugh are wonderful, and I look forward to them with great anticipation, but they're just not enough. Other than when I've been aboard the Ares, or when you come to visit me at the Governor's mansion, I have no one to hug except my cats. The unquestioning loyalty and love Cayla, Tayna, and Thor show me helps a little, but I also need intimate human companionship when I'm off duty. I've compensated by staying busy all the time, but I want more. I need more— more than just a job I perform because it's necessary, not because I enjoy it. I'm going to see what it's like to be a lady of leisure for a while. Mom's been managing the estate, with the able assistance of Chamberlain Yaghutol. I'll see if there's a role there for me." After a long silence, Jenetta said, "Well? Say something."

"I think you're doing the right thing."

"You do?"

"Yes. A leave of absence is exactly what you need. It will give you a chance to figure out what you really want. If you find you don't spend most of your days worrying about what's happening in your command and you aren't bored out of your mind sitting around as a lady of leisure with nothing more important to do than plan the evening's menu, then maybe it's time to separate from the service."

"I could do with a little boredom."

"Yes, a little boredom can be good. Especially after the hectic pace you've lived for the past couple of decades with its life-and-death struggles and problems that would make a marble statue weep. But if you find yourself climbing the walls after a few weeks, you'll have to decide if that's really what you want to do for the next five thousand years."

"We still don't know we'll live that long, and I prefer to live my life as if we'll have normal lifespans."

"At least until we celebrate our two hundredth birthday and still look like we're twenty-one? At that point we'll have to acknowledge there might be a chance Mikel Arneu was being truthful about the Age Prolongation Process. Have you told Hugh?"

"That I might live to be five thousand years old? No, not yet."

"No, I mean about the LOA."

"I sent off a vidMail this morning. He should receive it in about a week."

"Can he get away to join you on Obotymot?"

"I hope so. He has a lot of leave time saved up. We agreed to accumulate as much as we could just in case we found ourselves in the same region of space. I think he has almost eight months now."

"They can't give him that much time off at once. The XO of a destroyer is too important for the daily operation of a ship and simply can't be gone that long."

"No, not all at once."

"It's been a long time between trysts, hasn't it?"

"Far too long. It's been twelve and half years since our last physical contact. Knowing he was there, waiting, is the only thing that's kept me sane over the past decade. That and our weekly vidMails."

"It's hard to believe it's been that long."

Jenetta smiled sadly. "Not for me. To me it seems like a century."

w w w

"It's my great honor to present the first elected president of the planet Dakistee in almost two hundred centuries," the speaker at the lectern announced to the first assembly of the newly elected Dakistee congress. "Madame President?"

Madu Ptellewqku rose from her chair on the podium and walked to the microphones. "Good morning. It's a great pleasure to address the first meeting of this august body. As your newly elected leader, my overall goal is to return the planet Dakistee to its former glory— and more. The universe has changed immensely since we entered stasis nineteen thousand, four hundred annuals ago, and we have a lot of catching up to do. In the recent general election, voter participation was almost one hundred percent. Only a few citizens— those who haven't properly recovered from their long sleep— were unable to cast ballots. So I know we have the support and backing of our people. Of the hundred eighty thousand Dakistians who entered stasis, a hundred forty-two thousand survived the long sleep. We mourn the loss of the many citizens who died in stasis sleep because power systems supplying energy to their beds were damaged in natural seismic events. In our wildest imaginations, we could not have anticipated the length of time we would sleep. But the sleepers who survived give us a solid base with which to begin rebuilding our civilization. The Galactic Alliance has been most generous to our people, supplying us with ample food, medical supplies, and temporary shelters. But it's now time to begin rebuilding our cities and constructing permanent homes for our people.

"After long discussions with city planners, I and my staff have decided on six locations around the planet for the construction of our major cities. The new locations are close to the former major cities in those districts, but none encroach upon the former city limits. While I am just as nostalgic as any of you towards our former home sites and would love to see them rebuilt exactly where they formerly stood, I understand the reasons. The city planners believe the massive work required to prepare the sites for new construction would be severely compromised by having to first remove the ancient and crumbling foundations of past construction and municipal underground infrastructure at those locations. We don't want to rush the new construction, but neither do we want to get bogged down in delays that could take many decades to resolve before construction could begin. It will be far better if we start on virgin ground— so to speak.

"During the past two and a half annuals, while we've been awakening our people, we have also been searching for the enormous wealth of our planet that had been concealed deep below our planet's crust in vast storage vaults. Once located, small armies of security personnel were assigned to guard those locations. We now have the wealth we need to complete the proposed first step. At the same time, I would like to begin work on our highest priority— finding a cure for the sterility that plagues our entire population. We must have future generations ready to take over when we can no longer serve our people. The Galactic Alliance has already begun efforts to find a cure for the virus but report no success to date. This issue is so important that I don't feel we should rely on them alone. I've been contacted by medical firms on Earth and numerous other planets who wish to be involved, for a fee— in some cases, a very large fee. Almost all require a promise of payment even if they don't find a cure.

"I have received one proposal that doesn't require payment if they fail. But the price of success is astronomical. The question is this— is there any price too high for a cure that will save our people from extinction within a century? My staff has also been discussing the possibility of instituting a new stasis program for half our people which will have a thousand sleepers awakened every fifty annuals. The hope is that a cure will be found during the next millennium. The new stasis plan ensures there will be enough diversity among the survivors to repopulate the planet.

"In the coming weeks, as this new congress forms committees and begins the processes of representative government, these issues and many more will be discussed at length and decisions reached. I will naturally continue to work with the most educated advisors as I guide our government through the difficult days ahead."

w w w

Chairwoman Gladsworth pounded a decorative gravel one time on the equally ornamental sounding-block and said, "Today's meeting will come to order."

Once all council members were seated and the room was silent, she said, "We shall dispense with the reading of the minutes today because our visitor is not authorized to hear Upper Council business. I welcome the acting chairperson of the Lower Council, Neil Soroman. You have the floor, Mr. Chairman."

Soroman stood and looked around the conference room. Eight of the twelve Upper Council members were the most beautiful women on the planet. Each of them appeared to be in her early twenties when, in fact, they had passed the century mark decades ago. Each had taken the Raider DNA Manipulation Formula to change their sex so they could take the Age Restoration Formula, which only worked with female gender. They had, to a man, expected to return to their former sex, but they kept procrastinating whenever it was suggested. Having also taken the Age Prolongation Formula, their young age was firmly reestablished. They now expected to live as much as five thousand years longer before they'd have to become female again and restart the process, but each had discovered he enjoyed his new sex. They had everything a material girl could want— dazzling beauty, power, long life, and almost immeasurable wealth.

The other four Upper Council members were Soroman's former Lower Council associates who had been promoted. Although all were anxious to take advantage of the formulas, they had been ordered to wait while further testing was performed. The four positions they occupied on the Upper Council had previously been filled by four female members, all of whom had died horribly after beginning the Age Restoration Process. The scientists were still trying to determine why it worked on one group from the Upper Council and not the other. That the successful group had once all been men and the failed group were all women was obvious. They just hadn't been able to isolate the specific cause.

"Good morning," Soroman said. "My reason for being here today is to report on the Dakistee situation. Our representative met with the newly elected planetary leader and entered into negotiations regarding a medical solution to their sterility issue. The new president, Madu Ptellewqku, was interested but non-committal. The negotiations ended with her announcement that she would discuss the terms with her advisors. Our negotiator believes we might be asking for too much. She thinks we'd have a better chance of making a deal if we reduce our demands."

"Too much?" Gladsworth said. "We're offering to save her entire race. How can any price be too much?"

"She and her people are extremely grateful to Space Command and the Galactic Alliance for finding them, awakening them, and then supporting their entire population with food, clothing, and shelter. According to our negotiator, the president was upset that we would ask for things the GA has banned or restricted. President Ptellewqku was perfectly willing to discuss a payment of precious metals and gemstones."

"Was she aware she was negotiating with a Raider employee?"

"Uh— doubtful, Madame Chairwoman. Our negotiator's credentials as an employee of one of our pharmaceutical laboratories are impeccable. Ptellewqku just doesn't want to anger the Spaccs and the GA. Her counteroffer of platinum, rhodium, gold, and precious gems was very generous."

"No, this might be our one chance to get all the development studies, manufacturing plans, and operations instructions for the cloning process, plus the chemical formulas and process instructions for manufacturing Dakinium. Nothing else is acceptable. She can keep her pretty rocks and shiny metals. They represent a pittance of the calculated value of the items we require."

"Very well. I'll relay that to our negotiator. I don't feel hopeful though. It's true the Dakistians need help to save their race, but it's not an immediate need, and they may choose to exhaust all other avenues first, only then becoming desperate enough to accept our offer."

"You're the head of the Lower Council. Find a way to make them deal."

"Yes, Madam Chairwoman. We'll find a way."

"You're excused, Mr. Chairman."

After Soroman left the room and the doors had closed behind him, Gladsworth said, "He's no Arthur Strauss."

"That's for sure," Councilwoman Stengel said. "Arthur would have had a plan for forcing them to sign before he came here to report."

"Speaking of which, Councilwoman Overgaard, what's the status of the search for Strauss? We must have him back so he can resume his role as the head of the Lower Council."

"It's as if he's dropped out of the universe, Madam Chairwoman. I have every available security employee in Galactic Alliance space and beyond searching for him. No one has seen him since the day he left here four months ago and disappeared."

"That's unacceptable. We need him back here. Did I put the wrong woman in charge of the search? As I remember, you promised you'd find him."

"We've exhausted tens of thousands of leads without locating him or even believing the leads were ever credible. He obviously doesn't want to be found. Either that or he's dead."

"If he's dead, I want to meet the person who killed him. Is that perfectly clear, Councilwoman Overgaard?"

"Perfectly, Madame Chairwoman. We'll start anew and reexamine every item and article of clothing we collected from his apartment. Then we'll follow up on all leads from the first search while also trying to develop new leads."

"Damn," Gladsworth said. "If we'd gotten the cloning technology when we first went after it back in '70, we could have recorded the physiology and memories of every important employee by now and been able to produce a new Arthur Strauss—or even several Strausses—at will. We'd never have to fear losing one of our best people again. But perhaps it's not too late to possess the cloning process. If Ptellewqku won't accept our offer, there's bound to be someone on Dakistee who will. We only need to find that person and install them as president. It shouldn't be too difficult. It's been millennia on Earth since anyone other than the major powerbrokers have been responsible for putting politicians in office, although the ignorant populace of the different countries still foolishly believe their votes are responsible for electing the politicians who have continued to disappoint them decade after decade. It gives the electorate something to think about and complain about while the puppet-masters pull the strings and line their pockets with the wealth of nations. There's no reason why such a venerable tradition shouldn't also be installed on Dakistee while the politically ignorant still rule the masses."

End of Chapter 1

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