"I should kill you," Strauss growled, each word dripping with unmistakable menace, "slowly and painfully, as a lesson to other fools who would disobey my instructions."
Nicole Ravenau squirmed nervously in her silken blouse and expensive business suit as she stood facing his large desk. She never doubted for a second that Strauss was capable of committing cold-blooded murder. She also knew that not a single trace of her perfect body would ever be found.
The Lower Council Headquarters Building was so secure that Strauss could talk openly, free from worry that anyone outside the room could overhear the conversation. Almost as sure was the fact that if he did commit a crime here in his enormous penthouse office, no witness would ever speak of it. If they did, they would probably not live out the day, and certainly not long enough to testify.
"You knew I wanted to temper Space Command's anger by keeping deaths on Dakistee to an absolute minimum," Strauss continued. "I stressed that repeatedly. Then, not only did you intentionally attempt to kill someone, but you selected one of the Carver women as your target! Just what the hell were you thinking, you dumb bitch?"
"It wasn't me," Ravenau whimpered defensively. The two burly bodyguards standing just behind her would kill her in an instant if Strauss preferred not to perform the deed himself. He would only have to make eye contact and nod slightly. And she was practically defenseless. A lecherous bodyguard at the executive suite entrance had meticulously checked her for weapons, examining her in places where no weapon could have been hidden, before she was allowed to proceed. A broach with a poisoned barb was the only weapon he had missed, but it could not save her life because it was a one-use weapon. At best, she might be able to start one of the bodyguards on a quick march towards death before the other ended her life. "It was that idiot archeologist," she sobbed loudly. "He shot her, not me."
"What were you doing in her bedroom?"
"We'd heard that the ancients on Dakistee possessed some incredible unknown stasis technology. I was hoping to steal Carver's computer, thinking she had probably downloaded the specs into it. But she had already returned from her debriefing session by the time we were finally able to infiltrate the Marine dormitory area unnoticed."
It was a lie, of course. Ravenau had been preparing her excuses ever since being summoned to Strauss's office, but he seemed to be buying into it.
"Even aside from the Carver assassination attempt, I should kill you for not telling us you had been successful in recreating the Age Prolongation and DNA Manipulation formulas, and finally developed an Age Regression formula."
Ravenau was prepared for this accusation as well, and was able to answer without hesitation. "I'm the final test subject, just as I was for the original project. If there are no medical complications, I'm ready to turn over the formulas and procedures to the Raider Central Laboratories group."
Formerly known as Mikel Arneu, Ravenau had once told the Lower Council that the formulas were lost when Jenetta Carver destroyed the Raider-One base, but that was also a lie. He had feared losing the enormous budget and subsequent power that had been his since development efforts had begun and which would be wielded by whoever else was chosen to administer the project in the future if it were taken from him. Arneu's promise to reconstruct the lost work had provided almost unlimited research funds for twenty years and finally enabled him to develop a formula to reverse the aging process— a primary goal since the age prolongation efforts had first begun. Thousands of test subjects had died, some horribly, since the work started some four decades earlier, but once the formulas were proven to be reliably safe, Arneu had been the first in line to undergo the changes. Now, instead of being a sixty-something, middle-aged male, his appearance was that of a shapely twenty-three-year-old female with a face and complexion to die for, or kill for.
The body designed by the geneticists for Arneu rivaled that designed for Jenetta Carver, although facial appearances were vastly different, but Arneu hadn't wished to be female and had continued to press the scientists for a workable formula for his male body. Once they proved that the process was consistently blocked by the presence of abundant male hormones in the body, a sex change was the only avenue to reverse aging. Having finally accepted that becoming female was the only way to restore his youth, he had spent a year in almost constant pain as his body was reshaped from toenails to scalp.
Arneu had planned to undergo the DNA Manipulation process and become male again once his age had been firmly established at twenty-three, but he couldn't bear the thought of another year of excruciating pain. Besides, once he was female, he'd found that he liked it, or rather that she liked it. Where before he had mainly used threats to get people to do what he wanted, she found that she could often accomplish the same things simply by assuming a practiced stance or talking seductively. Lately she had worked on projecting an appearance of weakness to exploit the tendencies of most males to act in a protective capacity. And if that didn't work, she still held enough power to force subordinates to do her bidding.
"So when will we see the final formulas?" Strauss demanded.
"I can send them any time you wish, but I strongly recommend you wait a bit longer before putting them into use. I'm still being closely monitored for possible health risks associated with the changes. My doctors continue to watch for signs of severe complications that would require additional laboratory work and more testing. To date, I'm the only successful test for all three formulas."
"The Central Labs scientists will determine when the formulas can be used. Send them tomorrow, and I'll forget about the Christa Carver incident. You're fortunate she survived." Strauss waved his hand dismissively and said, "That's all." In an angry voice, he added, "Now get out of my sight."
Ravenau didn't hesitate. Strauss's bodyguards followed along and watched every movement closely until the elevator door closed and the car began to sink towards the lobby level. She was well aware that she'd been lucky Carver survived, although she couldn't imagine how. The blood loss from three lattice rounds fired at close range had been incredible. Ravenau had attributed her recovery to the amazing recuperative powers of the DNA manipulation performed on Jenetta.
Every time Ravenau thought of the Carvers, she practically salivated over the power that could have been hers if she'd been able to get her hands on the cloning technology. That was the real motivating factor in going to Loudescott. She'd intended to personally oversee acquisition of new technology. Her altered appearance gave her confidence that she wouldn't be recognized, and in fact Christa hadn't had a clue when they first met. Ravenau had believed that acquiring some incredible new technology would both allow her to get some revenge against the Carvers and avoid retribution from Strauss for violating his directive.
Christa's recovery meant that Ravenau's appearance was no longer the great secret she had hoped to maintain, and surrendering her new identity had yielded nothing of value. She'd been crushed when she discovered that the only secret of the facility was the existence of people who should have died two hundred centuries ago. So now she was considering going through another DNA Manipulation process to get a new face. It wouldn't be nearly as difficult and painful as changing her sex had been, but it certainly wasn't something to look forward to.
As the elevator descended, she thought about the formulas she had just agreed to turn over to the Raider Central Laboratories. She knew that if she complied she would be losing control over the greatest medical discoveries in history. She desperately needed to find a way to stay in the loop while receiving full credit for everything that had been developed thus far. She had named each of the processes after her former identity, and if that held, they would always be attributed to her, but once she turned the formulas and notes over to the lab rats, Strauss might decide that her usefulness to the Raider Corporation was over. He might have already made that decision and was only waiting until the formulas were in his possession before ordering it carried out. He didn't necessarily need to kill her. He might just wipe her mind and send her to the fate she had once planned for Carver. The prospect of spending her extended life in a Raider brothel as a mindless whore held no appeal. Ravenau knew that Strauss would have to go if she was ever to feel safe again, but Strauss was the darling of the Upper Council, so his death must not point back to her or implicate her in any way.
* * *
"General Ardlessel, give us your report," Prime Minister Pemillisa said.
Ardlessel rose to his feet in preparation for addressing the government officials and military officers assembled in the dimly lit War Conference Center. The centerpiece building of the Defense Complex, located in the Ruwalchu capital city of Pierrdoncu, had hosted this same large group every month since Admiral Carver defeated the Uthlaro armada. Senior officials and military officers had seats at the great circular table, while lesser officials and officers occupied available gallery seating or silently lined the walls of the chamber.
"Mr. Prime Minister, honorable members of the Gilesset, and my fellow officers, we continue to prepare for our upcoming fight with the Galactic Alliance. Over the past annual, we have positioned all available ships in the optimal defensive locations along our common border, as approved by this Council. New shipbuilding, previously delayed by budget cutbacks for many annuals, is now moving along at a furious pace, and the Weapons Research section has been promised almost unlimited funding as we prepare to meet the greatest threat to the peace and stability in this part of space that we've ever known. This annual we've inducted some four million men and women into the armed services and increased the size of the classes at the military academies by some seven hundred percent. We're doing now what we should have been doing annuals ago, and would have done if we had viewed Maxxiloth and the Milori Empire at the threat level we view Admiral Carver and the Galactic Alliance. That is all I have to report. I'll answer any questions you might have."
"General," Prime Minister Pemillisa said, "What's the latest word from the Intelligence section? Do they believe the enemy will invade before we're adequately prepared?"
"We're monitoring all broadcasts coming from the Galactic Alliance and to date have heard of no plans to invade our space. But our contacts in the former Uthlaro Dominion tell us that it's only a matter of time before Space Command turns its attention to our borders. And the enemy would hardly broadcast their military objectives openly on public airwaves. It's an immutable fact that we occupy territory that stands between them and the most densely populated areas of the galaxy, areas rich in resources and plunder. In all honesty, we don't know how much time they will spend organizing their new territory before they return to their expansionist goals of controlling the galaxy. If the Great Protector smiles down on us, we'll be ready for them when they come at us."
"From all accounts," Pemillisa said, "their weapons are most formidable and their ships nearly indestructible. You've talked about fantastic weapons being developed by our Weapons Research section. What progress has been made?"
"Thanks to information provided by the Uthlaro, we're primarily concentrating our efforts in three different areas. First and foremost there's the research into the indestructible hull of the Space Command ships. For a price bordering on insane, the Uthlaro have provided a complete laboratory analysis of the material developed by Space Command. They claim to have purchased it from the Raider organization. To date, they've been unable to replicate it, but they're continuing their work on it, and they experiment with newly produced materials each month.
"The agreement between us calls for us to provide a copy of all laboratory efforts if our research yields a proven formula and process before they discover one, at which time they'll return our full purchase price of fifty trillion credits. If they succeed first, our cost to purchase it from them will be an additional one hundred trillion credits."
"One hundred trillion credits?" one of the senior members of the Gilesset uttered aloud.
Glancing at the man, Ardlessel said, "Minister, it would be worth every credit to have indestructible hulls on all our warships." Returning his attention to the Prime Minister, Ardlessel said, "While we work to learn the secret of making the material Space Command calls Dakinium, we're also working on ways to render the material vulnerable to attack."
"I agree with the concentration of funds in this endeavor. What else, General?"
"The second most important project is to learn the secret of their incredible speed. We have offered enormous rewards to anyone who can supply verifiable information on how Space Command ships can travel beyond the former theoretical limits of FTL. And they haven't just broken through those former limits, they've shattered them. Our information is that they can attain speeds of Light-9790."
"Surely that's just propaganda," a minister uttered. "We've been hearing that farce for an annual."
"No, sir," Ardlessel said, "it's almost certainly fact. Admiral Carver was reported earlier this annual as being at her headquarters on Quesann. A few months later, she was seen on a space station near Earth. She couldn't have made that trip in less than five annuals at the top speed of our fastest ship. We must remain open-minded to new information and not allow ourselves to ignore the possibilities that new technologies offer. Our distant ancestors once thought this planet was flat. Where would we be today if we had continued to cling to that notion and not seek new knowledge?"
"And what is the third area where our funds are primarily being expended, General?" Prime Minister Pemillisa asked.
"A weapons-delivery system that can over overcome the effectiveness of the Space Command system they call 'Phalanx.' According to the Uthlaro, Space Command is able to shoot down virtually ninety-nine percent of all torpedoes directed at their warships. We must be able to penetrate a ship's protection umbrella if we're to have a hope of damaging it."
"And have you had any success?"
"We believe so, Mr. Prime Minister. We won't know for sure until we actually have to face one of their ships, but we think we've found a method of overcoming their systems."
"So we must wait until we meet the enemy at our gates before we know if it's effective?"
"Not necessarily, Mr. Prime Minister. Several months ago, using the powers vested in me by this body, I authorized a bold plan to test our new Phalanx Destruction system. I hesitated to mention it earlier lest word leak back to Space Command."
* * *
It had been torture holding their tongues until they were assured of the secure privacy available aboard a Space Command ship, but once Jenetta and Christa were ensconced in Jenetta's VIP quarters aboard the SC battleship Ares, they opened up completely. Admiral Holt had specifically asked Jenetta not to bring Eliza with her to his office, and she understood once he explained the full details of Christa's recovery through the use of Project Springboard. But Eliza, third officer aboard the Ares, was able to join them now since it was second watch. The reunion behind closed doors had been spontaneous and heart-warming as they celebrated Christa's return to good health, then began to catch up on all the news they hadn't been able to share until now.
"You're kidding!" Jenetta said. "Mikel Arneu is a woman now? He's had a sex change?"
Christa was sitting on the carpeted deck pulling a brush through Tayna's thick fur, while Cayla, Jenetta's other Taurentlus-Thur Jumaka, lay on the deck next to Jenetta with her head in Jenetta's lap. Eliza was also on the deck, leaning against a sofa while she enjoyed a large bowl of delicious chocolate ice cream from Jenetta's well-stocked kitchen.
"Yes and no," Christa said. "It wasn't a regular sex change like anyone can have performed over the weekend at any large clinic or hospital. He went through the Raider DNA Manipulation process. He's a real woman now. Or I guess I should say she's a real woman now."
"Complete with uterus and ovaries?"
"Yeah, the works— as far as I know. He, I mean she, told me that she was in pain for a year while her DNA reconfigured her pelvis. I assume that included all the proper plumbing. She said it was excruciating, and she couldn't move without hurting."
"That's the first good thing you've told me," Jenetta said with a smile. "She deserved every second of it."
Between spoonfuls of ice cream, Eliza chimed in with "Yeah, and then some."
"I knew they intended to kill me before they left," Christa said, "so I'm lucky to have survived. I really, really thought I was dead when Kasim shot me."
"Uh, yeah, it was a close one," Jenetta agreed. "We almost lost you. We're lucky the doctor placed you in that stasis chamber when he did and that the Dakistee stasis chambers operate the way they do."
"Yeah, he saved my life. I'll have to thank him when I get back to Dakistee."
"And Kasim really told you he was responsible for drugging Jenetta and creating you and me?" Eliza asked.
"Yup. He said he did it to prove to himself that he understood the process well enough to produce new clones."
"Then he must have been successful in deciphering the Ancient Dakis graphics before we did."
"Yes. We hadn't reached that topic yet, but he'd had months to study the equipment before Jenetta arrived on the planet. For such an intelligent person, and considering his senior position in the labor force, he would have had no trouble sneaking into the facility to study the equipment at night. I can only imagine his frustration in having to play a subservient role to the young scientists there."
"I'm going to recommend you for a commendation for a job well done," Jenetta said. "The stasis technology alone is worth everything you went through. It's going to have far-reaching benefits for the Galactic Alliance. And discovering the sleeping Dakistians will change the face of that planet, and perhaps the Galactic Alliance."
"I'd trade the commendation right now for a ticket back to the Hephaestus."
Jenetta smiled sadly. "I wish I could. But the Admiralty Board wants you on Dakistee for a while. Don't worry, you'll get back to shipboard duty."
"Isn't that what you always told yourself?"
"Yes, but you have a friend who's very highly placed. Do this job and I'll find a way to get you on a ship."
"Okay, sis. I hadn't really considered not doing it."
"I know," Jenetta said with a smile.
"So you'll be heading back to Region Two right away?" Christa asked.
"No. I'm going home to see mom first. And I'm going to talk to the Admiralty Board while I'm on Earth."
"Ooh. See if you can get me freed up from Dakistee," Christa said jokingly.
Jenetta smiled. "The job on Dakistee is an important one. I know it's not what you want, sis, but it'll be excellent experience. When I was the commanding officer at Dixon and then at Stewart, hardly a day passed when I didn't learn something new that would serve me well later in my career. And to paraphrase something Admiral Holt once said to me, 'You need a little rounding out.'"
"Okay, but I still think I'll be bored out of my mind."
"Only if you're lucky," Jenetta said with smile.
The SC battleship Ares departed for Earth a week after dropping Christa off on Dakistee. Jenetta had accompanied Christa down to the surface and thanked the medical staff for the quick action that saved Christa's life and for their efforts in meeting the other medical emergencies following the attack at the archeological dig site. Madu, the pro tem president of the Dakistee people, was performing administrative duties on another part of the planet and so missed the opportunity to meet with Jenetta on this occasion, but Jenetta met with the diplomatic staff charged with handling public relations for the temporary government and toured the new-found facility. She also renewed her association with the Loudescott archeological staff and visited the Space Marine base at North Pendleton.
* * *
The Ares was just hours from Earth when a light chime seemed to sound next to Jenetta's left ear. It was followed by a message that a Priority-One communication had just arrived in her message queue. Already seated behind the desk in her office adjoining the Admiral's bridge, she held up a hand to silence her aide, Lt. Commander Ashraf, in mid-sentence and said, "I have an incoming Priority communication, Lori. Hold your thought for a minute."
Jenetta leaned into the area where the computer could perform a retinal scan for verification of identity and instructed the machine to begin.
When the computer was satisfied with the identity of the recipient, an image of Admiral Augustus Poole filled the screen. His voice could only be heard through Jenetta's CT so that anyone within range couldn't eavesdrop on the Priority-One conversation.
"Hello, Jen," the image of Poole said. "I'm sorry to disturb you while you're on leave, but I felt you should be aware of an incident. Three weeks ago, the Yenisei reported making DeTect contact with three ships and announced an intention to pursue and investigate. That was the last we heard from them. I've declared the ship officially overdue and ordered every other DS ship within two hundred light-years to immediately proceed to the Yenisei's last reported position to begin a search operation. Unfortunately, the Yenisei was operating at the furthest reaches of Region Two, out near the Ruwalchu and Hudeerac border areas, so there were only two ships within range. One is the scout-destroyer Thames, and the other is the DS destroyer Duluth. Both ships should be nearing the area by the time you receive this message."
"Augustus Poole, Rear Admiral, Upper Half, Base Commander, Quesann SCB, message complete."
Jenetta sighed loudly as she sat back in her chair.
Ashraf, seated across the desk from her, could see the sadness in her admiral's eyes. "What is it, Admiral? Anything you can talk about?"
"Since we first entered Region Two to conclude our conflict with the Milori, we've only left twice. The first time, we were only gone a week before the THUG pack began to wage war to arrogate our new territory. We returned and saw an end to that conflict, and since then things have been reasonably quiet. Now we leave the Region again, and suddenly we have an incident reminiscent of the last time. I'm no sooner back in the vicinity of home when someone starts trouble."
"What kind of trouble? Another invasion?"
"The Yenisei is missing after reporting that it was pursuing three ships."
"Missing? For how long?"
"But the Yenisei is Dakinium-sheathed. No three warships should have been able to take him down before he could get a message off."
"That's why I sighed. No three warships should have been able to take him down. So how many warships are out there this time— twenty? fifty? a hundred? a thousand? ten thousand? And what are their full intentions?"
"Perhaps it's only a problem with the Yenisei's drive, like the one the Colorado experienced where everything short-circuited and left you without propulsion and communications."
"I hope so, but it seems like too much of a coincidence. If the Yenisei was chasing after three unknown ships, a double-envelope shouldn't have been needed. Scout-destroyers are capable of speeds up to Light-487 without resorting to their maximum speed capability. No— I fear the worst."
"Then we should get back there as soon as possible."
"All that could be done is already being done. Admiral Poole is very capable of handling the situation. And I've already notified the Admiralty Board that I'm coming to Earth."
"But surely this new problem is far more important than a meeting with the AB."
"Perhaps, but we won't be able to establish that until we know what happened. We'll continue on to Earth. Now, about that issue with the Milori High Council…"